KS3 > Political Reform

In this topic, we explore the political changes that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that helped turn Britain from a country with few people had the right to vote to one which was much closer to the democracy we have today.

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a period of great change in Britain. This was especially the case for Parliament. At the start only a few, very rich people had any say in politics. By the end, many more people – although not everyone – could choose their Member of Parliament.

The changes were driven by the Industrial Revolution and events abroad, such as the American and French Revolutions.

In what historians call the ‘Industrial Revolution’, new technologies were introduced into manufacturing. This meant that goods could be made in larger numbers and much more cheaply. It led to many major social changes. Many people moved from the countryside to new towns to work in the new factories. New ‘classes’ of people emerged – the wealthier middle classes, such as those who owned or managed the new factories, and the working classes who mostly worked in them.  Generally, the people in these groups could not vote, and many felt that their interests were not represented in Parliament.

New Steam Engine, 1857 (from The Book of the Baltic)

For many in the working classes, lives were very hard. Some trades that had been well-paid were replaced by machines. The people who had worked in these trades either lost their jobs or had to accept much lower wages. In the countryside, machines replaced many jobs, leading to unemployment and low wages. If trade was bad, many employers cut their workers’ jobs or wages. For those in the new towns, conditions were often dirty and overcrowded. Many died from diseases such as cholera, and working conditions could be dangerous.

There was little support for ordinary people if they lost their jobs or were injured: no welfare state to support them. When working people faced economic problems, pressure for political reform grew. They felt that if they had a say in politics, they would be able to improve their lives.

At around the same time, the American and French Revolutions introduced new radical political ideas. Some people started to think that more people had the right to have a say in how they were governed. Why should the landowners speak for everyone?
The following materials explore how Britain changed over the nineteenth century:

- In the Parliaments section, you will find articles on the Reform Acts that changed the system of elections
- In MPs you can learn a little more about the men in Parliament who supported or opposed reform
- In Constituencies, you can find out about what happened outside Parliament, what ordinary people did to try and change the system.

Teachers can find resources and lesson plans in For Teachers, and there are some more Reference resources available too, such as a Chronology and Glossary.










The History of Parliament runs annual competitions in the spring and summer for 11-14 and 16-18 year olds. For information this year’s competition, and how you can enter,
please click here.

Who was the MP for Durham, Manchester and Birmingham?

a) Edmund Burke

b) John Stuart Mill

c) John Bright