Reform and the Birmingham connection

Engraving of the Gathering of the Unions, New Hall Hill, Birmingham, May 1832.  Birmigham Archives and Heritage.

In 1830 the Tories, led by the anti-reform Duke of Wellington, were defeated and the election of November that year brought Earl Grey and the Whigs to power.  Grey had always been committed to the cause of reform since entering Parliament in 1784, even when any suggestion of reform was denounced as inevitable leading to a French-style revolution. 

On 1 March 1831, Lord John Russell introduced a Reform Bill into the House of Commons. It faced considerable opposition from the Tories in both Commons and Lords. During this time the Political Unions kept up the pressure with mass meetings, pamphlets and petitions. On one day, 4 October 1831, 80 petitions favouring reform were presented to the Commons.

At one point the Duke of Wellington approached the King to ask for a Ministry to suppress the Unions, but due to the peaceful, law-abiding nature of their protests, legally it would have been difficult to suppress them.

The first attempt to pass the bill failed, and Grey resigned, forcing a general election which was fought on the question of reform. Outside of the rotten boroughs, in the counties and ‘open’ boroughs, the electorate displayed support for reform, and elected a large Whig majority. Grey returned to office and another Reform Bill was introduced. It went through the Commons and into the Lords. The Birmingham Political Union held a meeting at Newhall Hill in Birmingham on 3 October 1831 to put pressure on the Lords, but despite the presence of 15,000 people, the Lords rejected the Bill on 8 October. Large scale riots ensued throughout the country.

The Commons passed the Bill again in December 1831. It was passed in the Commons with a large majority in March 1832, and was again sent to the Lords. On 7 May the Gathering of the Unions, also known as the Meeting of the Unions, was held on Newhall Hill. This was a giant demonstration involving 200,000 people and 40 Unions. Despite this massive show of popular support for the Bill, it was defeated in the Lords on the same evening. As a result, Grey resigned and the King called upon the Duke of Wellington to form a new government.

What followed was a period of intense political agitation which many believe to have been the closest that Britain came to revolution. The Political Unions threatened a campaign of tax withholding, and encouraged a run on gold from the Bank of England. Tensions were running very high, and many towns were garrisoned. Birmingham was garrisoned by the Scots Greys.

In the end the Duke of Wellington was unable to form a government, and Grey was recalled to office. Grey and his ministers persuaded the King, William IV, to agree to create enough Whig peers to outnumber the Tory majority and so allow the Bill to pass. William IV agreed unwillingly, and without Grey’s knowledge wrote to the peers warning them of the consequences of a further rejection. They allowed the Bill to pass through abstaining, and the Great Reform Act, as it came to be known, was finally passed. It received Royal Assent on 7 June 1832.

For more details, please visit the Living Heritage page about the 1832 Reform Act.