The death of George IV in 1830 precipitated a general election in which the prime minister, the duke of Wellington, retained a parliamentary majority. However, by Christmas he had resigned, making way for Earl Grey’s coalition government. The new government’s extensive reform proposals would soon become its raison d’être and with its defeat over Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the first reform bill, it persuaded William IV to dissolve Parliament. Not since 1806-7 had a Parliament survived for less than a year, and it had been 130 years since two consecutive Parliaments lasted for only about two years (as happened in 1701-2 and 1830-2).
The general election was held during August 1830 with several issues, including taxation and expenditure, being raised on the hustings. The news of the revolution in France probably came too late to influence the returns in most constituencies, but contributed to the general run against the Wellington administration. There were contests in 128 or a third of the constituencies. From Ireland, where the number of contests rose by five to 18 out of 66 constituencies, several Catholics were returned. Henry Brougham achieved a spectacular victory in the Yorkshire contest; he had also been returned for Knaresborough, but had not formally chosen which constituency to represent before he was elevated to the Lords as Grey’s lord chancellor.
Although the treasury secretary Joseph Planta reckoned there were 22 government gains, Brougham’s pamphlet The Result of the General Election estimated that opposition had risen by about the same number; a more realistic count would have the ministry losing about 15 Members overall. According to further lists compiled by Planta and others in September, the ministry had 311 ‘friends’ and 188 ‘foes’, in addition to which there were 37 ‘moderate Ultras’, 37 ‘good doubtfuls’, 24 ‘doubtful doubtfuls’, 23 ‘bad doubtfuls’, 25 ‘violent Ultras’, 11 members of the ‘Huskisson party’ and two vacancies. Rough speaking, after making corrections to these raw figures, the government majority was about 42 (333-291).
With agricultural distress and rural unrest (the ‘Swing’ riots in southern counties) that autumn, pressure mounted on ministers for parliamentary reform. However, Wellington dramatically ruled out any constitutional alterations when speaking in the Lords, 2 Nov. 1830. Brougham put down a motion in the Commons calling for reform, which was widely expected to succeed. When ministers were surprisingly defeated on the civil list division on the 15th (by 233-204), the day before Brougham’s motion was to be debated, Wellington resigned and the king appointed Grey to head an administration made up of Whigs and Huskissonites, whose leader had been killed at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway. The new government at first made heavy weather of it and was nearly swept away by the ineptitude of Lord Althorp’s first budget in February 1831.
A committee of four junior ministers drew up a set of extensive reform proposals, which were presented to the Commons by Lord John Russell on 1 March 1831, so beginning a prolonged political crisis over the future shape of the representative system. After several nights of intense debate, the second reading of the first reform bill was dramatically approved by only one vote (302-301). As the historian Tom Macaulay wrote:
Such a scene as the division of last Tuesday [22 Mar.] I never saw, and never expect to see again. If I should live 50 years the impression of it will be as fresh and sharp in my mind as if it had just taken place. It was like seeing Caesar stabbed in the Senate House, or seeing Oliver [Cromwell] take the mace from the table, a sight to be seen only once and never to be forgotten.
Several Members claimed to be the ‘one’ who had carried the division, including John Calcraft junior, himself the proprietor of a rotten borough (Wareham), who had previously abandoned the Whigs to take office under Wellington but now rejoined his former friends; the criticisms he received tipped him into insanity and later that year he took his own life.
The bill faced considerable opposition, however, not least over the proposed reduction in the proportion of seats for England as compared to Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Ministers lost a crucial amendment to the bill in committee on this issue, 19 Apr. 1831, and decided to appeal to the country.
R. Quinault, ‘The French Revolution of 1830 and Parliamentary Reform’, History, lxxix (1994), 377-94,
E. A. Smith, Reform or Revolution? A Diary of Reform in England, 1830-2 (Stroud, 1992) [the full Macaulay quotation is at pp. 58-59]