1832 Reform Act and Associated Agitation in Perth

“Between 1770 and 1830, the Tories were the dominant force in the House of Commons. The Tories were strongly opposed to increasing the number of people who could vote. However, in November, 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister. Grey explained to William IV that he wanted to introduce proposals that would get rid of some of the rotten boroughs. Grey also planned to give Britain’s fast growing industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds, representation in the House of Commons. In April 1831 Grey asked William IV to dissolve Parliament so that the Whigs could secure a larger majority in the House of Commons. Grey explained this would help his government to carry their proposals for parliamentary reform. William agreed to Grey’s request and after making his speech in the House of Lords, walked back through cheering crowds to Buckingham Palace. After Lord Grey’s election victory, he tried again to introduce parliamentary reform. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill. However, the Tories still dominated the House of Lords, and after a long debate the bill was defeated. When people heard the news, Reform Riots took place in several British towns; the most serious of these being in Bristol in October 1831. On 7th May 1832, Grey and Henry Brougham met the king and asked him to create a large number of Whig peers in order to get the Reform Bill passed in the House of Lords. William was now having doubts about the wisdom of parliamentary reform and refused. Lord Grey’s government resigned and William IV now asked the leader of the Tories, the Duke of Wellington, to form a new government. Wellington tried to do this but some Tories, including Sir Robert Peel, were unwilling to join a cabinet that was in opposition to the views of the vast majority of the people in Britain. Peel argued that if the king and Wellington went ahead with their plan there was a strong danger of a civil war in Britain. When the Duke of Wellington failed to recruit other significant figures into his cabinet, William was forced to ask Grey to return to office. In his attempts to frustrate the will of the electorate, William IV lost the popularity he had enjoyed during the first part of his reign. Once again Lord Grey asked the king to create a large number of new Whig peers. William agreed that he would do this and when the Lords heard the news, they agreed to pass the Reform Act. Many people were disappointed with the 1832 Reform Bill. Voting in the boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10. There were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. As a result, only one in seven adult males had the vote. Nor were the constituencies of equal size. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.”

Perth witnessed some activity in relation to parliamentary reform. In 1831 nearly 7,000 people congregated in the short length of Perth’s St John Street; ordered and well-disciplined demonstrators. They walked arm in arm, six abreast, encompassing all ages and comprising mainly of the Perth working class involved in manufacture. In the front of the march was a blue banner supporting the Reform Bill. Such a site put the wind up the local aristocracy and bourgeoisie who feared revolution and sedition was in the air; their response was an attempt through the Liberal Party to direct protestors into more passive and very gradual political activity for reform. In May of 1832 at the Reform Bill rally on the South Inch, the Rector of Perth Academy, Adam Anderson, used the platform to argue this slow ponderous and conservative approach. However, the fact that such loyalists to the state and status quo such as he, were now calling for reform was indicative of the power of the movement begun from below by the British working class. When the Reform Act was passed in the summer of 1832 a celebration took place in Perth which included a hydraulic exhibition – four dolphins sprouting jets of water which set wheels in motion all embellished with reform slogans. Bizarrely enough, when Queen Victoria visited Perth in 1842 the dolphins were put on display again – this time without the slogans.