Unreformed House of Commons

The unreformed House of Commons is a name given to the House of Commons of Great Britain and (after 1800) the House of Commons of the United Kingdom before it was reformed by the Reform Act 1832.

Until the Act of Union of 1707, which united the Kingdoms of Scotland and England to form Great Britain, Scotland had its own Parliament, and the term can be used to refer to the House of Commons of England (which included representatives from Wales from the 16th century). From 1707 to 1801 the term refers to the House of Commons of Great Britain. Until the Act of Union of 1801 joining the Kingdom of Ireland to Great Britain (to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), Ireland also had its own Parliament. From 1801 to 1832, therefore, the term refers to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.


In medieval political theory it was believed that sovereignty flowed from God, not from the people, and that monarchy was the form of government ordained by God. The King (or Queen) was "the Lord's anointed," and it was the duty of the people to obey the King as God's representative. The King had a corresponding duty to rule for the people's benefit, and from an early date it was accepted that this included the duty to listen to the advice of the people, as expressed by their chosen representatives. To this idea was added the practical consideration that it was easier for the King to collect the taxes he needed if the people consented to pay them.

Composition of the House

The House of Commons consisted entirely of men, mostly of substantial property, and since 1688 entirely of Anglicans, except in Scotland. Women could neither vote nor stand for election. Members of Parliament were not paid, which meant that only men of wealth could serve. Candidates had to be electors, which meant that in most places they had to have substantial property, usually in the form of land.

Virtually all members representing county seats were landed gentry. Many were relatives or dependents of peers, while others were independent squires. These independent country gentlemen were often the only source of opposition to the government of the day, since they had no need to gain government favour through their votes in the House.

Members for borough seats were sometimes also local squires, but were more frequently merchants or urban professionals such as lawyers. A large number of borough members were placed in their seats by the government of the day in order to provide support to the government: these were known as "placemen," and it was a long-standing objective of parliamentary reformers to eliminate placemen in the House of Commons. Some borough members were men of little means, sometimes in debt or insolvent, who agreed to become placemen in return for government funds. All 18th century governments depended on this corrupt element to maintain their majorities. Some boroughs were under the control of particular ministers or government departments. The members representing the Cinque Ports, for example, were traditionally dependants of the Admiralty and spoke for the interests of the Royal Navy.

Although there was no religious restriction on the right to vote, in practice most Catholics were prevented from voting between the reign of Elizabeth I and the Papists Act 1778, because they could not own or inherit land, making them unable to meet the property requirement (although many Catholic families circumvented this prohibition). Even after 1778, eligibility for election to the House of Commons was restricted by the fact that members had to take an Anglican oath to take their seats. This excluded Catholics, non-Anglican Protestants (English Dissenters), Jews and atheists from the House. (This restriction did not apply to Presbyterians in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland was the established church.)

It is a widely held view that the quality of members of the House of Commons declined over the 250 years before its reform in 1832, and this belief was one of the stimulants for reform. Sir John Neale could say of the county members in the reign of Elizabeth I: "It was not sufficient for candidates to belong to the more substantial families...They usually had to show some initiative and will." In the boroughs, he wrote, "competition tended to eliminate the less vigorous, less intelligent and unambitious." This would not be accepted as a description of the situation in the reign of George III, when it was frequently said that the House of full of lazy time-servers, talentless dependants of peers, and corrupt placemen and government agents.

What did not change was the numerical dominance of country gentlemen in the House. In 1584 they comprised 240 members in a House of 460. Two hundred years later this proportion had hardly changed, even though the social composition of Britain had changed radically over that time. But the proportion of independent members had declined. The proportion of these members who were sons or close relatives of peers rose considerably over this period. In 1584 only 24 members were sons of peers: by the end of the 18th century this number had risen to about 130 (in a House of 659, i.e. 19.72%), a fourfold proportional increase.

In the 18th century about 50 members of the House held ministerial or similar government offices. These included a number of officials who today would be career civil servants: the Secretary of the Admiralty, for example. As well, a number of members were given ceremonial Court appointments, usually sinecures, as a means of ensuring their loyalty. These included such archaic posts as eight Clerks of the Green Cloth and a dozen Grooms of the Bedchamber. Many more members held other sinecures of various kinds, mostly clerkships in government departments, posts which usually involved no actual work. This was not necessarily regarded as corrupt – in an age when Members received neither payments nor pensions, a sinecure position was regarded as a legitimate reward for service, but it also served to keep the recipient loyal. More clearly corrupt was the payment of secret pensions to Members by the Treasury. In 1762 sixteen Members were thus secretly in the pay of the government.

Opposition rhetoric at the time, however, tended to exaggerate the corruption of the 18th century House of Commons and the extent to which governments controlled the House by corrupt means. John Brooke's studies of division lists led him to comment: "The majority of Members voting with Government held no office and did so through honest conviction." The lists show, he said "that Members were given office because they voted with Government, not that they voted with Government in order to obtain office." As he points out, at a time when there were no formal political parties and hence no party discipline in the House, governments had to resort to other expedients to secure a majority and allow the continuity of government.

County members

England had been divided into counties (or shires) since Anglo-Saxon times, and these formed the first basis of representation. Two knights of the shire were chosen to represent each county. Before 1536 England had 39 counties (see list below), electing 78 knights of the shire. These "knights" were local landowners who did not hold peerages (in which case they would be members of the House of Lords). When Wales was formally annexed to England in 1536, each of the 12 Welsh counties elected one knight of the shire. Monmouthshire, previously part of the Welsh Marches, became an English county, electing two members, thus making a total of 92 county members.

In order to be either a candidate or an elector for a county seat, a man had to own (not rent) freehold property valued for the land tax at two pounds a year. (Women could neither vote nor be elected.) This was known as the 40 shilling freehold. (There were 20 shillings to the pound). This rule was established by an Act of 1430, and as the value of money gradually declined over subsequent centuries, an increasing number of landowners were admitted to the franchise. By the early 19th century, for example, Yorkshire had more than 20,000 electors, while Kent, Lancashire and Somerset had nearly 10,000 each. By 1831 the English county electorate was estimated at about 190,000.

County members were usually elected without an actual ballot taking place. Only at times of acute party strife did many counties see contested elections. In every county there was a group of landowning families, usually with a peer at their head, and these families would informally agree on who would stand for the county at a given election. They were frequently relatives or allies of the leading peers of the county. Some counties were represented by the same two or three families for centuries (the Lowthers of Westmorland being a good example). Sometimes a county would not see a contest for generations. Nottinghamshire, for example, did not see a contested election between 1722 and 1832. A notable exception was Middlesex, the county which contained much of suburban London, and which had some famously contentious elections.

Borough members

Old Sarum in Wiltshire, an uninhabited hill that elected two Members of Parliament. Painting by John Constable, 1829.

Even in medieval times a significant proportion of the King's revenue came from taxes paid by people living in towns, and thus the House of Commons had representatives of boroughs as well as counties from an early date. A borough was a town which usually, but not always, had a Royal charter giving it the right to elect two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons, some very ancient boroughs were acknowledged as having prescriptive rights. (Five English boroughs elected only one member, while two boroughs – the City of London and the double borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in Dorset – elected four members each.) From the 16th century 12 boroughs in Wales elected one member each.

Mediaeval kings could and did grant and revoke charters at their pleasure, often to create seats in the House for their supporters, and frequently regardless of the size or importance of the town. Thus there were "rotten boroughs" (boroughs with very few voters) from very early times, but they increased in number over the years as many old towns lost population. The two most famous examples were Old Sarum, which by the 18th century had no residents at all, and Dunwich in Suffolk, most of which had fallen into the sea. The number of English boroughs fluctuated over time, until the last new borough charter was issued in 1674. From then on the number was fixed at 203, electing 405 members (see list below).

The franchise for borough seats varied enormously. In some boroughs, virtually all adult homeowners could vote. In others, only a handful of landowners could vote. In still others, no-one could vote and the borough's members were chosen by its corporation (council), which was usually elected by a small group of property-owners.

The types of borough franchise were as follows:

Householder boroughs
These were commonly known as "potwalloper" boroughs, because (it was said) anyone who owned a hearth which could boil a pot could vote. In these boroughs all resident male householders who were not receiving alms or poor relief could vote. There were 12 of these boroughs, including Northampton which had over 1,000 voters even in the 17th century, Preston and other substantial towns, although some were very small, such as St Germans in Cornwall, which had only 20 voters.
While the householder boroughs were in theory the most democratic, they were in practice very corrupt, notorious for bribery of voters by candidates and their patrons, frequently with liquor, which made for riotous and expensive elections. At Aylesbury in 1761, the successful candidate simply paid the electors five pounds each for their votes. Sometimes the voters banded together and openly sold the borough to the highest bidder. This usually meant that only the rich and the corrupt could win these seats.
Freeman boroughs
These were boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to "freemen of the borough." There were 92 of these, the largest single group of boroughs. The property qualifications to be a freeman varied widely from place to place. The City of London had about 7,000 freemen in the 18th century, and about 25 other freeman boroughs had at least 1,000 electors, but about 30 boroughs had fewer than 200 electors, and these boroughs were in practice under the control of the town corporation.
In practice the larger freeman boroughs were the most democratic part of the unreformed political system. They were contested at most elections, and the contests were frequently about political issues rather than just about who had the most money to spend. Some of these boroughs were corrupt, and others were controlled by aristocratic patrons, but many freeman boroughs valued their independence. Bristol, the seat of Edmund Burke, was the most notable of these. Most of the larger county towns such as Chester, Gloucester, Leicester, Norwich, Nottingham, Worcester and York were of this type. But some large freeman boroughs, such as Cambridge, had small and undemocratic electorates because the right to be a freeman was restricted to a small group.
Scot and lot boroughs
These were 37 boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to those paying scot and lot, a form of municipal taxation. These boroughs ranged in size from the most democratic borough of all, Westminster, which had 12,000 famously radical voters in the late 18th century and was held by the Whig leader Charles James Fox, down to a rotten borough such as Gatton in Surrey, which in 1831 had a total of two voters. Some of these boroughs were in practice owned by aristocratic patrons, while others were notoriously corrupt.
Corporation boroughs
These 27 boroughs restricted the right to vote to members of the borough corporation. In none of them was the electorate larger than 60, and in most it was much smaller. Apart from Salisbury and Bath, they were mostly small towns. As a result, these boroughs were rarely contested, since the corporation members usually decided among themselves who would be elected. They were usually known as "pocket boroughs" because they were frequently "in the pocket" of a wealthy patron, although they were not as corrupt as the rotten boroughs.
Burgage boroughs
In these 29 boroughs, the right to vote was attached to ownership of certain properties known as burgages – whoever owned a certain house or field had a vote in the borough. Since burgage properties could be bought and sold, these were the easiest boroughs for wealthy patrons to control. In a small burgage borough, a patron who bought all the burgages had absolute control. At election time he would simply convey the burgages to his relatives and friends, and thereby in effect nominate two members of Parliament. These boroughs included the notorious Old Sarum, which had no resident voters at all. As a result, these boroughs were rarely contested, and even more rarely successfully contested.
Freeholder boroughs
In the remaining six boroughs, the right to vote was held by all freeholders. This was in theory quite democratic, but since they were all small towns none of them had electorates larger than 300 even in 1831.

It is not possible to calculate the size of the borough electorate with any accuracy, since many boroughs were rarely contested, and no records were made of eligible voters unless there was a contest. As well, many people owned property in more than one borough and could thus vote more than once (this was called plural voting). One estimate is that there were 170,000 eligible borough voters in 1831. This would give a total English electorate of about 360,000 at the time of the Reform Act, or about 10% of adult males.

University members

The two ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford elected two members each from 1603. The franchise was restricted to holders of doctoral and master's degrees, which excluded the great bulk of graduates (mostly Anglican clergy) holding bachelor's degrees. Both universities had about 500 electors in the 18th century, rising to 800 by 1832, but at most elections a much smaller number actually voted. After the Act of Union of 1801, Dublin University also elected one member.

Welsh members

The twelve Welsh counties elected one member each, on the same franchise as English counties. Since Wales was much poorer than England, however, the county electorates were much smaller. The Welsh county electorate was about 19,000 in 1800. The twelve Welsh boroughs also elected one member each. Until the late 18th century all of them were very small towns. The franchises for the Welsh boroughs were freemen, scot and lot and corporation but in practice there were under the control of local patrons and contested elections were rare.

Scottish members

The Act of Union of 1707 brought 45 Scottish members to the House of Commons. Of these 30 were elected by the 33 Scottish counties, while 15 were elected from the Scottish boroughs (called burghs in Scotland). The electoral system which had operated in the Scottish Parliament since its creation was preserved for the election of Scotland's representatives at Westminster.

Twenty-seven counties elected one member each (this included Orkney and Shetland, which were strictly speaking not counties but fiefs of the Crown, but were treated as if they were a county). The six smallest counties were grouped together into three groups of two (Buteshire and Caithness, Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire, and Nairnshire and Cromartyshire), with one of each pair electing a member at alternate elections.

The Scottish county franchise was even more restrictive than for the English counties. A voter either had to own land worth the equivalent of two pounds sterling "of old extent" — meaning that the land had to have had that value since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the 14th century — or to hold as a Crown tenant land to the value of 35 pounds sterling. This restricted the franchise to a handful of wealthy landowners, and in most counties there were fewer than 100 voters. In some it was far fewer: in Sutherlandshire the Duke of Sutherland owned almost the entire county, and all the voters were his tenants, while in Orkney and Shetland there were seven voters in 1759. The total Scottish county electorate was fewer than 3,000 in 1800.

The 15 Scottish burghs consisted of the city of Edinburgh, where the 33 members of the city corporation elected a member, and 14 groups of four or five smaller burghs, each group electing one member between them. The franchise in the groups of burghs was held by the corporations of each of the burghs making up the group. Each burgh corporation would choose a delegate, and the delegates would then meet to elect the member. The representation tended to rotate among the burghs in each group. Since most of the burghs were little more than villages, the leading county families could usually bribe the corporation members to get their nominees elected.

For many years the Scottish representation was manipulated by Henry Dundas, the Scottish agent of the Tory party, who spent government funds liberally ensuring that Tories were elected. This was one reason why the Scottish members were unpopular at Westminster, being regarded as corrupt even by the standards of the day, as well as uncouth.

Irish members

The Act of Union of 1801 brought 100 Irish members to the House of Commons. The 32 Irish counties elected two members each, while 33 boroughs elected 35 members (all elected one member except Dublin and Cork, which elected two). The remaining seat was given to Dublin University. The franchise in the counties was the same as for England, and the total Irish county electorate, at about 220,000 in 1801, was actually larger than the English county electorate (Ireland had a larger population relative to England than it has today, and had a larger rural gentry). But the franchise was drastically raised in 1829 when Catholics were allowed to sit in the House of Commons, in order to deprive the mass of Irish Catholics of the vote and minimise the impact of this concession).

Of the Irish boroughs, only Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny, Derry and Waterford had a mass electorate. Belfast’s member was elected by the city corporation and the seat was never contested.

The exclusion of Catholics from the House of Commons was of most consequence in Ireland, where 80 percent of the population were Catholic. At the time of the Act of Union, the Irish were promised that the restriction on Catholics would be lifted but this promise was broken because of the opposition of George III. This meant that except in the Protestant northern counties, most Irish, no matter how wealthy, were excluded from politics until Catholic Emancipation was finally achieved in 1829.

Unrepresented towns

Since the distribution of seats in the House of Commons among the boroughs did not change after the 17th century, no account was taken of the massive demographic changes that took place in the wake of the industrial revolution of the 18th century. While an uninhabited hill such as Old Sarum elected two members of Parliament, great cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Bradford and Huddersfield had no direct representation. Residents of these cities who met the 40 shilling freehold test could vote in their respective counties, and this explains why the county electorate in industrial counties like Yorkshire and Lancashire grew rapidly, but the bulk of the fast-growing urban middle class remained voteless.

In addition, Glasgow, a major industrial and commercial centre, although technically represented in the House of Commons, was part of a district of burghs that meant it was in practice without representation, and since none of its citizens met the county franchise none of them had a direct vote. Some other industrial towns which elected members but with a very narrow franchise were in the same situation: Wigan, for example, had 10,000 people in 1800 but only 100 electors. Residents of the fast-growing London suburbs were also unrepresented unless they met the county franchise to vote in Middlesex, Surrey or Kent.

Movements for reform

Main article: Reform Act 1832

During the English Revolution of the 1640s, the electoral system for the House of Commons was scrapped (and the House of Lords abolished). The revolutionary governments considered various alternative methods of electing a legislature.

At the Putney Debates of 1647, representatives of various factions of the victorious Parliamentary army debated whether to adopt a more democratic franchise. The radicals led by Thomas Rainborough argued for manhood suffrage. The conservatives, led by Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, argued that since the great majority of Englishmen were peasant tenants, if given the vote they would vote as their landlords directed, and this would lead to the restoration of the monarchy.

In the circumstances of the time, this proved a persuasive argument, and proposals for a wider franchise or a redistribution of representation were rejected. But no other acceptable basis could be found for electing the House of Commons, and there was no functioning legislature during most of Cromwell’s regime. The Restoration of 1660 restored the pre-revolutionary system in its entirety.

Following the Restoration there was a long period during which any challenge to the system of representation was equated with republicanism and treason. At the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 there was no attempt to re-open the question. A reform movement began in the mid-18th century. Although the Whig party was ambivalent in its attitude to reform, some Whig leaders like Fox and Earl Grey raised the issue many times, but nothing was achieved in the face of Tory resistance. After 1789 the English reaction against the excesses of the French Revolution stifled all attempts to raise the issue until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. However, some reformist societies were still somewhat active in the late 18th century. The Society of the Friends of the People was an organization started in 1792 with the intention of calling for Parliamentary reform. However, sometime after 1794, the Society disbanded as a result of the English reaction towards reformist movements.

Between 1815 and 1832 pressure for reform mounted steadily. The Napoleonic Wars had greatly strengthened the urban middle classes, and their leaders, mainly Dissenting businessmen and editors from northern England, mounted an increasingly vociferous campaign. There was also a radical working-class campaign which demanded manhood suffrage (or even universal suffrage), annual Parliaments and other radical changes but the other reform leaders did not support these demands.

Unable to challenge the system of representation successfully, reformers had to content themselves with bringing in bills to abolish specific particularly corrupt boroughs. The Tories regularly rejected these bills until 1821, where Lord Liverpool's government surprised the reformers by accepting a bill to disfranchise Grampound in Cornwall, when the borough's patron had been convicted of bribery. The reformers, led by Lord John Russell, wanted to transfer Grampound's two seats to Leeds but Liverpool would not accept this precedent. So the seats were given to Yorkshire, which thus elected four county members from 1826 to 1832. A few years later East Retford was also disfranchised but its seats were transferred to the neighbouring hundred of Bassetlaw rather than to one of the new cities.

The grant of additional seats to Yorkshire was a recognition of the pressure for reform coming from the county landowners in those counties which contained the unrepresented cities, such as Yorkshire, who were increasingly finding themselves outvoted in their own counties by urban voters. By the early 19th century Middlesex was more than 60% urban and a dozen other counties were more than 30% urban.

It is important to recognise that few of those who were pushing for reform of the House of Commons were doing so in order to make the political system more democratic. "Democracy" in 1820s Britain was still a term associated with mob rule and the excesses of the French Revolution. Nearly all political actors accepted that the House of Commons should represent interests (that is to say, property), rather than numbers. One of the leading reformers, Lord John Russell, said in 1831: "Elections carried by money, treating and an appeal to low passions will produce such disorder, and such disgust, that an arbitrary monarchy will sooner or later be the consequence. Our object should rather be to place the power of choice in men of property and intelligence… If you place the franchise too low… you run the risk of creating more evils on the one side than you put down on the other."

By the beginning of the 19th century it was widely felt that the House no longer represented property. It represented only a fragment of property; mostly landed property in the counties. Finance and manufacturing capital, the dominant form of property after the industrial revolution, was not represented. This and not a desire for democracy, was why most Whigs and even some Tories turned against the old system during the 1820s.

End of the Unreformed House

Earl Grey

The issue which finally brought the reform issue to a head was Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which removed barriers to Roman Catholics being elected to the House of Commons. Many Anglican conservatives came to favour a wider franchise, particularly the enfranchisement of the heavily Protestant cities of northern England, Wales and Scotland as a means of reducing Catholic influence and safeguarding British rule in Ireland. This finally led the conservative Whigs to support a moderate reform.

It is a paradox of the old system that when the political class finally decided to accept reform, the electoral system they had denounced for decades as unrepresentative readily allowed them to do so. At the August 1830 election, the Tory administration of the Duke of Wellington lost 40 to 50 seats to the Whigs. On one estimate, of the 250 constituencies in which there was any kind of broad-based electorate, the Tories won in only about eighty. This setback led to Wellington's resignation in November and Earl Grey formed a ministry pledged to reform.

When Grey's reform bill was narrowly defeated, he was granted a dissolution of parliament and sought a fresh mandate in April 1831. At this election the Whigs won a landslide. In 35 of the 40 English counties they won both seats and in the boroughs where electors were able to decide they made an almost clean sweep. Of the 230 seats the Tories held after that election, most were in rotten or "closed" boroughs or else in Scotland, which had almost no broad-based electorates. By one reckoning, the Tories could claim to represent only 50,000 voters, while the four Whig members for Yorkshire alone represented 100,000 voters. Faced with this decisive verdict, the House of Lords and the King eventually gave way and the Great Reform Act was passed.

The Reform Act extended the franchise only slightly (from about 500,000 to about 750,000 voters). It took the first step towards reform: disfranchising the rotten boroughs (56 boroughs were abolished, while another 30 were reduced from two members to one), giving seats to fifty new boroughs and additional seats to the more populous counties, reforming the electoral system in Scotland and introducing a uniform borough franchise. Although the new arrangements were still a far cry from universal suffrage, the Great Reform Act was the decisive step in ending the old system.

List of counties and boroughs of the Unreformed House of Commons at 1800

See List of counties and boroughs of the Unreformed House of Commons at 1800.


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