Introductory Survey, 1820-1832

Published in 2009

The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, edited by D.R. Fisher and published in 2009, is one of the most recent set of History of Parliament volumes to be available from The History of Parliament Online. 

The survey charts in detailed and comprehensive fashion the continuing aristocratic domination of the membership of the House: a slow penetration by the ‘non-elite’ continued, but it did not significantly accelerate, and while about ten per cent of the total membership were bankers, financiers, merchants or industrialists, only about 15 Members were actively involved in the new forms of industrial production.  It shows that the basic two-party polarity in the Commons which had become more marked after 1815 continued into the 1820s, but party discipline remained loose and methods of control makeshift and often ineffectual. While both Tory and Whig parties were internally divided on many issues, and backbench Members frequently exercised their right to take an independent line on specific issues, most Members had a clear preference for one or other set of politicians as governors of the country. A chapter discusses the way the House of Commons operated within the inadequate chamber and its associated facilities in the rambling warren of the old palace of Westminster: the significant role of backbench Members in initiating legislation on public matters, especially social issues; the increase in private bill legislation and attempts to regulate it; the massive increase in petitioning of the Commons (4,900 in 1831) on a wide variety of subjects; and the trend towards inquiry by select committee into matters of public interest and the use of their reports as a preliminary to legislation.

The survey makes some important adjustments to prevailing misconceptions about the scope and detailed provisions of the Reform Act, and points to important aspects of its practical impact after 1832 which remain to be fully explored by historians. These include: the profound differences in detail and principle between the first reform proposals of March 1831 and the final bill and Act: the Act was a highly negotiated settlement involving both Parliament and the localities. Alterations made to the borough redistribution schedules, the continuation of old franchises and the creation of new ones had a significant effect on the electoral system and its evolution after 1832. The suvey highlights the enormously varied impact of Reform on the constituencies varied enormously, with a third of the surviving old boroughs having fewer electors than before.  In the counties, the expansion of electorates was more uniform, but was not as significant as that which had occurred naturally since 1820. Finally, it charts the hitherto neglected role of the boundary commission, whose proceedings became largely detached from parliamentary scrutiny, in creating viable borough constituencies, often markedly different in character from the old ones whose names they bore.