Reform Riots (1831)

[Taken from the second issue of Notts Indypendent.]

New deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has described the ConDem government’s plans to reform politics as “The biggest shakeup of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy.”

The choice of the Reform Act as a model is interesting. The Reform Act was a bill that fobbed off the masses of disenfranchised people who had been calling – with petitions, demonstrations and riots – for the vote to be extended to all people and not just the rich. Whilst the Reform Act did extend the vote to better-off middle class men (about 7% of the adult population), it left less well-off working class men – and all women – without a vote. The rest of us would have to wait until the 20th century.

The Reform Act was the third attempt at an Act to extend voting to be considered by Parliament. The Second Reform Bill had been defeated in the House of Lords in the year previous. As the news of the bill’s faliure spread across Britain, there were riots in several towns and cities, including London, Derby, Bristol, Worcester and Bath.

Nottingham had vehemently supported Parliamentary reform since the 1780s. In March 1831, following a public meeting in the town, more than 9,000 people signed a petition in favour of reform. When news of the voting bill’s defeat in the House of Lords reached the city, there was disbelief and anger.

Rioters attacked a number of buildings owned by the rich including Colwick Hall and a silk mill in Beeston. Infamously, Nottingham Castle, owned by the hated Duke of Newcastle, was invaded and burned to the ground. Crowds attempted to do the same with Wollaton Hall the next day, but were repulsed with cavalry charges and gunfire.

Three people would later be hanged for the burning of the silk mill, other prisoners jailed and deported. The message of the riots, both here and elsewhere, was not lost on the powers that be. The Third Reform Bill was passed into law the next summer with minimal parliamentary opposition.

It is however an entry in the Duke of Newcastle’s diary that sums up the the 1832 Reform Act, a history which is – in part – about to repeat itself. He wrote of the “greatly insensed” middle classes “who gained nothing” by the Reform Bill and of a worker who told him that “both parties were alike” (“both” meaning Liberals and Tories at the time). Newcastle wrote deeply concerned that ’They Say now that nothing but revolution can Set them right.’ This was true for the disenfranchised 170 years ago, and is true now.

As it happened with the 1832 reform, however the ConDem plans for reform will turn out, people’s hopes for democratic change will be in vain now as they were then, and the government will act in favour of the rich and against the poor. But this time it’s unlikely that we’ll get to burn down a castle!

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