Reform Act 1867

From Academic Kids

The Reform Act 1867 (also known as the Second Reform Act) was a piece of British legislation that greatly increased the number of men who could vote in elections in the UK. In its final form, the Reform Act 1867 enfranchised all male householders and abolished compounding (the practice of paying rates to a landlord as part of rent). However, there was little redistribution of seats; and what there was had been intended to help the Conservative Party.



Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, it was thought prudent to introduce further electoral reform. Lord John Russell attempted this in 1860, but the then Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was against any further electoral reform. When Palmerston died in 1865, however, the floodgates for reform were opened.

Earl Russell resigned when his proposed reforms were rejected and William Gladstone became leader of the Liberal party in 1866. In 1866, Gladstone's Whig government introduced a Reform Bill. It was a cautious measure, which proposed to enfranchise "respectable" working men, excluding unskilled workers and what was known as the "residuum", that is, the feckless and criminal poor. This was ensured by a 7 householder qualification, which had been calculated to require an income of 26 shillings a week. There were also two "fancy franchises", originating from measures of 1854, a 10 lodger qualification for the boroughs and a 50 savings qualification in the counties. Liberals claimed that 'the middle classes, strengthen'd by the best of the artisans would still have the preponderance of power' (Brand).

When it came to the vote, however, this bill split the Whigs: this was partly engineered by Disraeli, who incited those threatened by the Bill to rise up against it. On one side were the reactionary-conservative Whigs, known as the Adullamites. The other side was the pro-reform Whigs. The Adullamites, though, were supported by Tories and the liberal Whigs were supported by radicals and reformists.

The Bill was thus defeated and the Whig government resigned. The Conservatives therefore formed a ministry on June 26, 1866, of which Lord Derby was Prime Minister and Disraeli Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were faced with the challenge of reviving Conservatism: Palmerston, the powerful Whig leader, was dead and the Liberal Party split and defeated. Thanks to Disraeli's manoeuvring, the Conservatives had this one chance to prove that the were a viable party of government. However, there was still a Liberal majority in the Commons.

A disaffected branch of the Liberal party called the Adullamites led by Robert Lowe were persuaded to ally with the Conservative party. The Adullamites were anti-reform, as were the Conservatives but the Adullamites were not easy to work with and wanted to have too many of their number in the Cabinet. In response Benjamin Disraeli ended the alliance and started his own bill for parliamentary reform. The Conservative Lord Cranborne resigned in disgust.

Disraeli who had a great rivalry with Gladstone proceeded to accept any amendment to the reform bill as long as it wasn't Gladstone that proposed it. Consequently the bill was more far-reaching than anyone had thought possible or really wanted. The purpose of the bill had been to separate the responsible sober skilled working class from the drunken idle and stupid, considered to form the residuum. Instead it franchised most men who lived in urban areas. Disraeli was able to persuade his party to vote for the bill, on the basis that the newly enfranchised electorate would be grateful and vote Conservative at the next election. The Conservatives lost the election of 1867; but when the newly franchised first voted in 1874, Disraeli won.

Disraeli reasoned that if the working class were enfranchised, they would vote Tory out of sheer gratitude. (This, however, turned out not to be the case: the 1868 General Election was disastrous for the Tories.) Moreover, to succeed at this hurdle of reform at which Gladstone had just fallen would be a tremendous political victory, ensuring that Disraeli would succeed Derby as leader of the Conservative Party. There was yet another significant motive: to destroy the popular campaign for reform, led by the Reform League, Reform Union and the radical Bright. Their actions had culminated in a demonstration in Hyde Park on 23 July, 1866 which was led by Robert Appleagarth, the general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners(ASCJ) and other union members of the Reform League. This demonstration had turned to violence because the new conservative Home Secretary and sir Richard Mayne, the commissioner of Police were afraid of rioting in the Park.They banned the meeting.

The climate of the late 1860s, too, was conducive to reform. The increasing "respectability" of large portions of the working class had assuaged middle-class fears, and political views had moved closer to democracy. More people accepted that, eventually, most men should be enfranchised, not as a right but as a well-earned privilege. The question was, therefore, whether the time was right to enfranchise this or that group.

By making the Reform Bill that they introduced more moderate than the Liberals', the Tories had ensured that Adullamites and reactionaries would accept it. The proposals were as follows: a borough franchise for all who paid rates in person (that is, not compounders); and extra votes for graduates, professionals and those with over 50 savings. These last "fancy franchises" were seen by Conservatives as a weapon against a mass electorate. However, Gladstone attacked the Bill and, in a series of sparkling parliamentary debates with Disraeli, made the Bill much more radical. Ironically, having been given his chance by the belief that Gladstone's Bill had gone too far in 1866, Disraeli had now gone further. He lost his alliance with the Adullamites, but managed to get the Bill passed by allying with radicals.

Historians differ over the extent to which Disraeli was displaying a genius for flexibility and opportunism. Certainly, his commitment was not to the Bill itself, still less to the policies it embodied, but to scoring off Gladstone by succeeding where he had failed. It is this attitude which his critics have lambasted as unscrupulousness while his partisans have praised as political genius. In reality, of course, the one embraces the other. Alexander MacDonald would later say "the Conservatives had done more for the working classes in six years than the Liberals had done in fifty." Whether this is entirely cynical becomes a mere matter of judgement.

The act enfranchised 1,500,000 people by giving the vote to all adult male urban householders and male lodgers paying 10 a year for unfurnished rooms. The Conservatives had virtually doubled the British electorate. Several towns that were previously unrepresented were given MPs including Sunderland. Towns with a population of less than 10,000 lost an MP, this freed up 45 seats for redistribution amongst new towns, growing industrial towns, northern counties and 1 to the University of London.

The bill ultimately aided the rise of the radical wing of the Liberal party and helped Disraeli to victory. The Act was tidied up with many further Acts to alter the electoral boundaries.

Reduced representation

Disenfranchised and rotten boroughs

The following electoral Boroughs were completely disfranchised by this Act (Lost all legislative representation):

Other disenfranchisements

Although not part of the Act, these are listed for continuity.

The following were disenfranchised individually for corruption:

Halved representation

The following Boroughs were reduced from electing two MPs to one:


The following Boroughs were enfranchised:

One MP

Two MPs

Salford was given 2 MPs instead of 1. Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester now had 3 MPs instead of 2.

Other changes


  • The 4 Universities now had 2 MPs each.
  • Glasgow now had 3 MPs instead of 2
  • Aberdeen and Dundee 2 MPs each instead of 1.
  • Lanarkshire was divided into 2 districts with 1 MP each.

The representation of Ireland remained unchanged.


  • Scott-Baumann, British History 1815-1914
  • Smith, The Making of the Second Reform Bill
  • McCord, British history 1815-1906
  • Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Major.

Template:Reform Acts

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