Peoples Histreh 2 - Reform Riots (1831)

About teh riots

Title: People’s Histreh – Part 2
Sub-title: Reform Riots (1831)

Possible images:

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. This time it’s unlikely that we’ll get to burn down a castle though.


Maybe we could call it ‘ConDem government’ cos it’s a cheap jab, rather than ‘LibCon’ which sounds like libcom (which isn’t an issue at all for anyone other than anarchist geeks, but still kindles a mild preference in me for something else, and ConDem is both a jibe and a genuinely sensible abbreviation of ‘Conservative-Liberal Democratic’). I like the article though – it’s funny how really illegal public disorder which would be decried if it happened today becomes a noble source of establishment pride in our robust British democracy if it happened long enough ago.

(Is it alright to just edit articles with small changes like this, rather than put them in the comments?)


“(Is it alright to just edit articles with small changes like this, rather than put them in the comments?)”

I reckon!


Feel free to edit away.

I was already debating that change and have made it. (I’ve also added a more explicit jibe about Clegg’s class, albeit one nicked off Jeremy Hardy.)

I’ve asked P from the radical history group to have a look at this as he’s been researching the riots. Hopefully he’ll correct any factual errors.


Made a few edits that might be wrong I don’t know. Firstly made a little more explicit the joke about the reform act being similar to the empty promises for change of the new government- was this intended to be the point or am I getting the wrong end of the stick? Secondly took out the class joke – feel free to put it back in again but I thought that it was a bit of a misnomer calling Clegg middle class, as after all he went to a public school that was only /slightly/ less posh than Cameron’s Eton. The idea that Clegg (a right toff by anyone’s standards ( – and LibDems in general – somehow brings down the aristocratic tone of the new cabinet is a myth that they’re trying to perpetrate, and I think that, without more work maybe, that joke could feed into that myth.

Made a few wording/emphasis edits here and there too.

I have the original as a .txt document from doing the layout so if everyone wants it back it’s not lost.