Pre-1832 Franchise

Prior to the Reform Act of 1832, counties sent knights of the shire to Parliament.  Many boroughs had ceased to return members. Numerous new boroughs had been created in the Tudor era to return members at the direction of the Crown.  With the exception of two new boroughs created by Charles I, no new boroughs were created between the death of James I and the Reform Act of 1832.

The 18th and early 19th century have seen enormous changes in the concentrations of populations in England.  Large urban areas had grown up around Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds  and Sheffield.  Leith and Paisley in Scotland had no representation.  London which had grown significantly, had no greater representation than at the start of the 17th century.

10 southern counties with a population of 3.5 million returned 235 members but six northern counties with the same population returned 66.  Lancashire with 1.3 million returned 14, while Cornwall with 300,000 returned 44 members.  At start of 19th century more than half the members of Parliament were nominated by the aristocracy.  Powerful individuals were returned by decayed towns with hardly any voters or villages with a handful of electors, usually obedient to a patron.  245 were nominated by peers.  Several Dukes and Lords nominated several members.

Certain boroughs were saleable assets, allowing the holder to dispose of it to a party in return for cash, position or rank.  Seats were purchased and sold to the highest bidder.   Bribery and corruption were common  as votes and rights to nominate were bought and sold.

In the English counties,  the 40 shilling freeholder had a vote.  However, in many cases the 40 shilling freeholder’s vote was theoretical due to the influence of local magnets.  Copyholders and leaseholders had no vote. In many cases, the state of the register of electors and franchise was chaotic and non-existent.

Even in cases where electors voted, the influence of a local land magnet was such that few dared oppose his will.  In one instance, all persons who had voted for a unfavorite candidate received notices to quit from the Duke of Newcastle in 1829.

Electoral Reform

The Reform Act 1832 swept away borough franchises.  The franchise was confined to the £10 householder.  County franchises was enlarged by allowing in leaseholders, copyholders in England and tenants with yearly value of £50. 56 boroughs represented  by 111 members were entirely disfranchised.  31 lost half their representation for.  46 new boroughs and 61 new county members appeared.

The effect of the Reform Act was to substantially weaken the power of the aristocracy and to increase the power of the middle classes.  Votes  were capable of corrupt purchase and sale, but the possibilities were significantly lessened after the Reform Act. Most members of the House of Commons were elected by 10 pound householders. The 1884 Reform Act assimilated the county and borough franchise covering both the £10 pound occupier of lands and houses and incorporated franchise for £10 pound unfurnished lodger.

The 1885 Redistribution Act sought to equalise electoral areas on the basis of approximately one member for 54,000 people in England and Wales.  By the end of 19th century, a vote came to be regarded less as something to be sold but as a trust to be exercised.

The Ballot Act 1872 provided for secret ballot. The Corrupt Practices 1883 outlawed violence, threats, abductions or devices or coutrivaiice attacking freedom of the vote.  The1895 Act further outlawed certain false defamation regarding the character and conduct of opposing candidate.

Anti-Catholic Laws

In 1700, strong anti-Catholic laws were passed.  Roman Catholics could not inherit or purchase land unless they abjured religion on oath.  They could not send their children abroad to be educated.  The 1700 Act was largely repealed in 1778.  This allowed open practising of the Roman Catholic religion and Roman Catholics were allowed to inherit and purchase real estate.  This applied only in England but not Scotland where reforms did not follow until 1793, after the loss of American colonies, in 1781.

Following legislation of the Irish Parliament in 1790s, wide emancipation for Catholics was opened.  This included ability to buy, sell and inherit land, keeping a horse, joining the bar, marrying a protestant, various disabilities and penalties and incapacities were removed.  The vote was granted, and he could hold civil or military office under the Crown.  He could not however sit in parliament and the highest offices of State were still denied.

After the Act of Union, Catholics enjoyed a higher level of emancipation in Ireland than  in England and Wales.  In England and Wales, there still could not be justice of the peace, vote in parliamentary elections, serve in corporations or go to universities.

Union and Failure to Deliver Emanipation

The Act of Union had been carried with the support of Irish Catholics who had obtained an understanding of the government that there would be complete removal of remaining disability.  However, King George III decided he could not support this measure without violating his coronation oath.  The Prime Minister Pitt resigned in protest.  The Act of Union went through without the promised emancipation.

Several measures passed the House of Commons but not the House of Lords.  In the period 1812 to 1828 Ireland was in a long state of agrarian distress. Animosity between Orangemen and Ribbonmen brought  Ireland to almost perpetual state of insurrection.  Daniel O’Connell won a by-election in Clare over Vesey Fitzgerald, President of the Board of Trade who was a consistent supporter of Catholic relief.  The Relief Act was passed on 13 April 1829.  The remaining penal laws were removed in 1844 and 1846.

In many cases, dissenter had held offices for which we were technical ineligible for but later obtained acts of indemnity.  This was accepted as preferable to allowing RC relief.  An annual Indemnity Act was passed.


In 1827 the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed and replaced with a much lighter declaration against injuring or separating the established church.  The wording still excluded Jews and non-Christians.

Catholic Emancipation

The Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 finally opened membership of the House of Commons and Lords to both Roman Catholics on taking of an oath which was inoffensive to them.  Roman Catholics could also be admitted to all corporate and judicial offices except those involving the ecclesiastical court and all civil and political offices except those of the Regent, Lord Chancellor in England and Ireland and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

In 1828, the Corporation Act 1661 and the Test Act 1673 had been repealed in the relief of dissenters.  The Test Act had been passed in 1673 providing that all holding offices of trust, civil or military should publicly receive the sacrament according to the Church of England, take the oath of supremacy and subscribe a declaration against transubstantiation.  The Parliamentary Test Act 1678 provided that no peer or member of the House of Common should sit or vote without taking the oath of allegiance and supremacy and making a declaration against transubstantiation, adoration of the Virgin and sacrifice of the Mass.

Following the alliance of Anglicans and non-conformists to drive King James II from power, dissenters were rewarded with a Toleration Act, which relieved but did not remove laws of which dissenters complained.

Other Denominations and Non-Christians

In 1833, Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists who rejected the taking an oath in any form were permitted to substitute an affirmation on taking seat in Parliament.

Jews were still subject to substantial disabilities.  Some had been admitted to office under cover of annual Indemnity Act.  No more Indemnity Acts were forthcoming after the 1820s.Jews were permitted to enter corporations and in 1858 by reform of the oath, Jews were permitted to enter Parliament.  The position was not formalised until it 1866.

Parliament still remained open, only to those  who were willing to swear an oath.  Following a series of challenges, the Oaths Act 1888 allowed affirmation to be a substitution for oath in any case.


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