Second Reform Act

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Second Reform Act

Great Britain 1867


The Second Reform Act was part of a process of British electoral reform that dated back to the First Reform Act of 1832 and continued into the later part of the nineteenth century. Before 1867 eligibility to vote in the general elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) was based largely upon the value of housing, which prevented low-income people from voting in most areas. Radical groups campaigned throughout the 1860s to extend the franchise to the working class. However, it was rivalry between the main British political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, that eventually resulted in reform. With the passing of the Second Reform Act, the male urban working class became a significant part of the political nation for the first time.


  • 1851: China's T'ai P'ing ("Great Peace") Rebellion begins under the leadership of schoolmaster Hong Xiuquan, who believes himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He mobilizes the peasantry against the Manchu emperors in a civil war that will take 20 to 30 million lives over the next 14 years.
  • 1857: Start of the Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1863: Opening of the world's first subway, in London.
  • 1867: Dual monarchy established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1867: Maximilian surrenders to Mexican forces under Benito Juarez and is executed. Thus ends Napoleon III's dreams for a new French empire in the New World.
  • 1867: Establishment of the Dominion of Canada.
  • 1867: United States purchases Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000.
  • 1867: Meiji Restoration in Japan ends 675 years of rule by the shoguns.
  • 1867: Karl Marx publishes the first volume of Das Kapital.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1877: Great Britain's Queen Victoria is proclaimed the empress of India.

Event and Its Context

The Reform Movement before 1866

The First Reform Act of 1832 had been intended as the final solution to the issue of electoral reform. Many people recognized, however, that the inequities of the old electoral system had not been solved by the legislation. The political establishment was hostile to demands for radical political and social reform. Nevertheless, the wish for further moderate reform remained an undercurrent in the political scene throughout the period leading up to the 1860s. From time to time, MPs proposed moderate reform bills, but none attracted enough support to be passed.

From the 1860s, the vague desire for further reform began to gather momentum. Political events overseas, such as the unification of Italy, provided a focus for the activities of British radicals. In 1864, when the Italian nationalist leader Garibaldi visited London, local labor formed the London Workingmen's Garibaldi Association in his honor. From this emerged the Reform League, which was inaugurated in 1865 and led by Edmond Beales. This was a mainly working-class organization, which at its height comprised over 400 branches and 60,000 members, making it the largest working-class movement in Britain since Chartism. Many of those active in the league were associated with the trade union movement and the First International. Older radicals, including many Chartists, also joined the league.

The Reform League cooperated with the middle-class Reform Union, which had been established in 1864 and was led by the Radical MP John Bright. The aims of the two organizations were different. The Reform League campaigned for manhood suffrage, but the Reform Union wanted household suffrage, which would give the vote to every man in charge of a household. Although earlier generations of working-and middle-class radicals had tended to see their interests as antagonistic, however, in the 1860s they were willing to compromise to achieve agreement on the question of electoral reform. This was a result of the changing nature of working-class radicalism in mid-Victorian Britain. Compared to the heightened tensions and class conflict of earlier decades, this period was characterized by a greater sense of social stability and cohesion. As a result, many middle-class reformers felt that certain sections of the working class demonstrated the values of hard work and respectability that were so important to Victorian middle-class culture. The challenge for parliamentary exponents of reform was to adjust the voting qualifications to enfranchise this part of the working class without giving the vote to the lowest segments of society. This contrast between the deserving respectable working class and the undeserving dangerous poor framed the debate about reform.

The Reform Crisis, 1866-1867

In May 1866 W. E. Gladstone, Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced another reform bill into Parliament. The bill was moderate and would have only increased the amount of people entitled to vote by about 400,000. The efforts of Gladstone and the Prime Minister Lord Russell, however, failed to pass the bill. A group of right-wing Liberals, fearful of the consequences of increased working-class participation in politics, sided with the Conservatives and refused to support the bill. Robert Lowe, one of the leaders of this group, characterized the working class as violent, ignorant, and generally unfit to take part in the politics of the nation. He was convinced that they would use their vote to attack the upper orders of society. The bill was defeated in June and the government resigned, which allowed formation of a minority Conservative government led by Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.

In response, the reform movement exploded into action. In June and July, mass protests occurred in London, culminating in a call for a national demonstration in Hyde Park on 23 July. The meeting was banned, but a large crowd broke down the railings and invaded the park, skirmishing with police. Although many observers were frightened by the Hyde Park riots, clearly there was never any threat to the social order. The aims of the radical leaders centered on parliamentary reform rather than social revolution.

Mass demonstrations occurred throughout the country over the next few months. The Radical MP John Bright embarked upon a national tour, speaking at Reform League rallies all over the country to hundreds of thousands of people. Many working-class people were deeply offended at being described as drunken and violent by the enemies of reform. As a result, the mass rallies emphasized the respectability and discipline of the independent working-class man and his fitness for the franchise. Nationwide agitation carried the message to Parliament that the issue of reform was not going to go away.

Disraeli's Gamble

The legislation that was eventually passed in 1867, however, was the product of party politics in Parliament. Disraeli recognized an opportunity to divide further the Liberal opposition and humiliate Gladstone, who was now the Liberal leader. He therefore proposed reform legislation that was far more radical than anything the Liberals had proposed. For the first time, voting in the borough electorates was to be based upon household suffrage. Adult males who were heads of urban households would be entitled to vote. When the bill was first presented to Parliament in March 1867, however, it included many restrictions. The most significant was that only those men who paid their taxes directly would be eligible to be included on the voting registers. As many poorer people paid their taxes with their rent through their landlords, a practice known as compounding, they would not be included on the register. The restriction would have prevented a large portion of urban working-class men from voting.

Over the next few months, in a remarkable piece of political maneuvering, Disraeli gathered support for the bill. He convinced his Conservative colleagues that the bill was necessary if they were to stay in power, while simultaneously appealing to the radical members who supported reform. Deals that occurred as part of the campaign removed most of the initial restrictions so as to admit the lower sections of society into the political nation for the first time. Crucially, Hodgkinson's amendment outlawed the practice of compounding, meaning that everyone had to pay their taxes in person, making them eligible to vote. This change alone made an extra 500,000 people eligible to vote in England and in Wales.

Some of the Conservative MPs may have supported the bill because they believed that the lowest sections of the working class were more likely to be conservative, as they were more influenced by attitudes of deference to their superiors. Nobody could be sure, however, how the working classes were going to use their vote. It was, as Disraeli said, a leap in the dark. The Conservatives had been shut out of power for most of the past three decades and so had nothing to lose; they were willing to make concessions to stay in power and defeat the liberal leaders. Gladstone, as leader of the Liberal Party, the traditional reform party, was in the humiliating position of having to oppose a Conservative Reform Bill that was more radical than anything he had proposed.

Radical Reform

The Reform Bill that passed into law had been shorn of most of its initial restrictions and was far more radical than anyone could have foreseen. The bill abolished the 10 pound per annum housing qualification so that in the English and Welsh borough electorates, the numbers of voters increased from approximately 500,000 in 1866 to 1.25 million as of the 1868 election. In the counties, where the voting qualification for leaseholders had been lowered from 50 to 12 pounds per annum, the increase was not as marked. The proportion of men who could vote in Britain, not including Ireland, increased from one-fifth to one-third, according to estimates. The bulk of working-class men could then participate in the political life of the nation.

The impact that they could have on the makeup of the British Parliament, however, was limited in many ways. Although debate had focused on voting eligibility, the Reform Act also effected changes to the distribution of Parliament seats throughout the country. These changes were very conservative. The bill created only 19 new seats in the large urban areas that housed most of the new voters, and 25 new seats went to the more conservative counties. Although the numbers of working-class voters increased, they were contained in areas that had proportionally fewer seats than other areas. The continued dominance of smaller, more conservative constituencies helped to mute the influence of working-class voters.

In the long term, the worst fears of those who opposed reform were not realized. It was apparent in the next two elections that the working class did not vote along class lines, largely because there was no political movement to represent the specific interests of the workers. The Reform League faded after 1867 because of problems with funding and organization. The established parties remained firmly in control. In particular, the Liberal Party dominated working-class political activity; the first working-class MPs were Liberal, rather than representatives of an independent working-class party. Without an organized and independent working-class political movement, the radical impact of the enfranchisement of the working class would be limited.

Key Players

Beales, Edmond (1803-1881): Radical barrister and leader of the Reform League. Beales's support for universal manhood suffrage shocked many middle-and upper-class observers. However, Beales was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and wanted peaceful change within the existing social and political framework.

Bright, John (1811-1889): Radical member of Parliament and leader of the middle-class Reform Union, Bright campaigned for moderate reform measures throughout the 1860s. He cooperated with the working-class Reform League, but he did not believe that all working-class men should be granted the vote.

Disraeli, Benjamin (1804-1881): Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer, later to be Conservative leader and prime minister. Disraeli's desire to keep the Conservatives in power by dividing and humiliating the Liberals determined the nature and timing of the Second Reform Act.

Gladstone, William Ewart (1809-1898): Liberal leader and later prime minister. The defeat of the Reform Bill proposed by Gladstone in 1866 resulted in the Liberal government's resignation. The minority Conservative government that came to power eventually passed the Second Reform Act, despite Gladstone's opposition.

See also: Chartist Movement; First International.



Cowling, Maurice. 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution.The Passing of the Second Reform Act. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Finn, Margot C. After Chartism: Class and Nation in English Radical Politics, 1848-1874. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Harrison, Royden. Before the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics, 1861-1881. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Smith, F.B. The Second Reform Bill. London and New York:Melbourne University Press, 1966.

Walton, John K. The Second Reform Act. London: Metheun,1987.

Wright, D.G. Democracy and Reform, 1815-1885. London:Longman, 1970.

Additional Resources


Biagini, Eugenio F. Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform:Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hoppen, K. Theodore. The Mid Victorian Generation,1846-1886. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Tholfsen, Trygve R. Working Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England. London: Croom Helm, 1976.

—Katrina Ford