The need for reform

Masthead from The Cause of the People, a Chartist newspaper.  Birmingham Archives and Heritage.

By the 19th century, society had undergone great changes but the parliamentary system had not changed with it.  Laws governing who could vote in parliamentary elections had changed very little between the 15th and 19th centuries.

The growth of industry had led many to move to the towns and cities to seek work in the new factories.  Towns such as Birmingham became heavily populated but they did not have their own MPs, whilst some tiny villages, which had been important in the middle ages, sent two MPs to parliament.

These were known as rotten boroughs as they were easily ‘bought’ by wealthy individuals seeking a seat in the House of Commons.  Others were considered to in the possession of rich landowning families and were passed down through the generations.

Amongst those excluded from the political process, as well amongst a minority of those who were involved, there was a growing awareness of the injustice of the current system, in which less than 1 in 5 men, and no women, were entitled to vote. 

The American and French revolutions also had an effect.  They added to the growth of political consciousness of the middle and working classes and the resulting demand for parliamentary reform.  Initially the French Revolution and its violence led to a repressive attitude to any reform from the ruling elite, but the growing reform movement became increasingly difficult to ignore as the nineteenth century progressed.

Also in this section

Find out more about the history of Parliament.

The Evolution of Parliament

Related information

Find connections, past and present, between Parliament and your town

Parliamentary Archives

Parliamentary Outreach