The Reform Bill crisis 1830-2

This is an original research article. Please cite as K. Navickas, ‘The Reform Bill Crisis, 1830-2′,


The revival of reform agitation from 1830 to 1832 was extraordinary, not just because the post-Peterloo repression and economic stability had left the 1820s devoid of direct extra-parliamentary pressure, but moreover because it was the first, and perhaps only, time that the middle and working classes appeared to work in concert for a broadly shared goal of parliamentary representation for unrepresented towns.

Nancy LoPatin-Lummis has narrated the rise and fall of the different political unions in her detailed study of the period.[1] The varied memberships and range of demands will therefore not be repeated in depth here, but the most significant geographical differences highlighted and then this section examines the political spaces of 1830-2. The 1820s had been a time of experimentation in ideas, notably by the free thinking followers of Richard Carlile and the beginnings of Owenite socialism. Radical energies were channelled to defending the freedom of speech, with the ‘war of the unstamped’ and march of intellect. From 1830, the weight of activity, at least publicly, shifted back to parliament and supporting the reform bills.

Reform associations and political unions were revived by the veterans of the 1819-20 period. The leaders were by this period solidly middle class and liberal, seeking moderate reform and representation for their newly confident manufacturing towns as well as free trade. In Leeds and Manchester in particular, this marked the period when the Whig-liberal and predominantly Dissenting merchants and manufacturers, increasingly wealthy and influential because of the growth in the textile industries, could make a much more serious challenge to the power of the Tory-Anglican local elites in a way that they were unable to do in the 1790s or 1810s. The reform crisis enabled them to start this process which, as in Leeds, they completed during the Whig-Liberal reforms of the 1830s.

There were three main waves of agitation: First, the initial formation of political unions to support the introduction of Earl Grey’s first reform bill in March 1831; second, the wave of meetings and petitions following the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill on 8 October 1831, and finally, the tumultuous passage of Lord John Russell’s reform bill from March to the ‘days of May’ in 1832.[2]

Among the petitions and addresses received by Earl Grey in October 1831 were county addresses by Cheshire, Cumberland and Yorkshire (140,000 signatures) but none from Lancashire or Westmorland. Leeds roused 20,000 signatures in two days, and other petitions came from Chester, Bradford, Doncaster, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Halifax, Ashton-under-Lyne, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Carlisle and Liverpool, as well as smaller places like Otley (600 signatures), Cleckheaton (700) and Todmorden (840) in the West Riding.[3] Of course, these petitions hid the extent of division among reformers and were representative of who won the contest to represent the views of the town. The non-appearance of other towns (as Manchester demonstrates) indicated further division rather than apathy.

Older Marxist histories sought a ‘revolutionary moment’ between October 1831 and May 1832, and their attention focused on the Swing riots in southern England and the major outbreak of rioting in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby in response to the Lords’ rejection of the bill in October 1831. At Bristol, a dozen were killed and hundreds wounded or arrested. Later historians have established that though social tensions were heightened, revolution was not possible. A more pertinent question here is rather why the disturbances in northern England were relatively peaceful and caused much less destruction of property than riots elsewhere. John Beckett has shown how the riots in Derby and Bristol spiralled out of control but nonetheless were not completely free for all or spontaneous, as they targeted specific symbols of Tory authority, including the Council House, gaol, customs house and bishop’s palace. In Nottingham, by contrast, the Whig corporation proved less of a recipient of hatred, and the crowd carefully pre-selected a small number of known anti-reformers for property destruction.[4]

Leaving aside the question of whether this conscious targeting constituted a ‘riot’ at all, the controlled violence did not occur in the industrial towns of northern England, with perhaps the exception of Carlisle, even though many of the conditions, political and socio-economic structures, and repertoires of ritualistic crowd targeting of anti-radical symbols was well established. Asa Briggs argued that political activity in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds was coloured by local economic issues (the corn laws in Manchester, and machinery and the factory question in Leeds).[5] Why? Perhaps the memory of Peterloo and its repression still loomed large. Public meetings were very careful to keep order, and dispersed as soon as trouble was on the horizon, or, channeled ritually as in Carlisle?

There were however some more violent incidents that Briggs and other historians did not delineate. The Manchester Chronicle noted that since the Manchester meeting, ‘symptoms of disorder and tumult have been manifested each evening in the vicinity of New Cross, by the assemblage of numerous bodies of men’, and on the Friday evening a crowd ‘demolished the windows of the residence of Hugh Hornby Birley Esq, Mosley Street’ and the cavalry were called to suppress the riot.[6] Birley, the villain of Peterloo, was as we have seen a habitual target, and the working-class district of New Cross … however difficult to separate this disorder from concurrent trade union activity

[1] Nancy Lopatin, Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke, 1999).

[2] Thompson, The Making, pp. 808-9.

[3] The Times, 8 December 1831, list of addresses and resolutions sent to Earl Grey.

[4] John Beckett, ‘The Nottingham Reform Bill Riots of 1831’, Parliamentary History, 24: S1 (2005), 114.

[5] Asa Briggs, ‘The Background of the Parliamentary Reform Movement in Three English Cities, 1830-2’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 10: 3 (1952), 315.

[6] Manchester Chronicle, 15 October 1831.


Political Unions and space

The unions reflected the socio-economic make up of the towns, and were expressive of civic identity. Sheffield was perhaps unusual in the extent of class co-operation, and this was reflected in the meetings and the venues chosen. Ebenezer Elliott, the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ poet wrote celebratory verse on the ‘Eleven poor men of Hallamshire who originated the Sheffield Political Union’, but, formed at a meeting at the town hall and later meeting at the Albion Hotel, the association was a more a product of the predominantly Unitarian middle-class elite. Thomas Asline Ward and Robert Leader, former and current editors of the Sheffield Independent, together with cutler manufacturers and doctors headed the committee.[1] Ward and his colleagues had already practised their political organizational talents in canvassing for the Whig-liberal candidates for Yorkshire, Lord Milton and the Leeds manufacturer John Marshall, in the election of 1826. Paradise Square, as always, was the central place for electoral hustings, as for Henry Brougham’s speeches when contesting Yorkshire in August and October 1830 (Ward introduced Brougham onto the stage at the latter event.[2] (Whig electoral dinners held at the Tontine Inn in 1826 and at the music hall in 1831).

The SPU held mass meetings for reform on Paradise Square on 7 March and 8 October 1831, when thousands flocked to the site with black flags and effigies. Reform meetings were held again on the square on 7 and 21 May 1832, the last being attended by an estimated 14,000 people.[3] Leader claimed that Asline Ward ‘represented the Radical rather than the Whig element’ in the SPU. After the passing of the Reform Act, he was nominated for the election of the new MPs by ‘such revolutionaries as Ebenezer Elliott and Edward Bramley’. The moderate reformers John Parker and an outsider, James Silk Buckingham, carried the poll, and, Leader claimed, it was from this point that the political union disintegrated as Ward and his colleagues resigned. Ward wrote in a letter of 30 September 1832:

‘The real cause of hostility against Un(ions) is their showing the March of Intellect among the operatives, which too many of their superiors dislike … I think we should see how the Reform Bill works before the Unions are dissolved. If all go right, they will be as dull as Pitt or Whig clubs’.[4]

Despite the political union ceasing to meet soon after, ten thousand people contributed to a penny subscription for a breakfast service presented in gratitude for Ward’s efforts in the reform campaign.[5]

The Leeds reform movement was as split by class and radicalism as Manchester. Whig-liberal Dissenting merchants were in the middle of an extended challenge to the dominance of the Tory-Anglican corporation, and the reform agitation provided the ideal opportunity for them to gain power. Edward Baines gathered together his fellow liberals and members of the Mill Hill Unitarian congregation. Although it initially had representation from the working class activists from the East End, the more radical members broke away from Baines’s leadership in November 1831 to form their own radical union.[6] The radical Union Room was situated at the Falstaff Inn at the top of St. Peter’s Square. The radicals, led by James Mann (seller of Cobbett’s works in 1819 and whose house hosted the Hampden club in 1819-20), and John Foster, editor of the Leeds Patriot, held a public meeting there on 29 January 1832. The radicals also met at the Union Inn on Briggate from February 1830, and the pub later became a regular site of meeting for the Ten Hour campaign from 1831 to 1833.

Indeed, the Radical Union sought factory reform as well as universal suffrage and annual parliaments.[7] Baines and the moderate reformers met at the Court House (in opposition to the mayor who refused to countenance their public meetings) on 26 September 1830 and 3 March 1831, adjourning to the Coloured Cloth hall yard for the latter. The Court House, however, was not exclusively Whig-liberal, as the Corporation met there on 15 April 1831 to petition the House of Commons not to pass Grey’s reform bill. The coloured cloth hall, as we have seen, was symbolic of the geographical shift of power in the town away from the old Tory medieval heartland at the top of Briggate. In the heat of the crisis in 1832, master manufacturer John Marshall chaired a reform meeting there on 19 April, and then 30,000 were estimated to have attended a meeting on 14 May which called to withhold supplies until the reform bill was passed. The celebration of the passing of the Reform Act was thus naturally held at the Coloured Cloth Hall yard on 15 June 1832.[8]

The Manchester Political Union, termed by the newspapers as the ‘friends of Hunt’, because of their respectability and influence, were able to meet in the manor court room and the York Hotel on King Street in 1830, and hold public meetings at the town hall in 1831 and during the ‘days of May’ in 1832.[9] They consciously fostered the association with Hunt, even though they did not accede to his plan for a revived Great Northern Union. St. Peter’s Fields was the obvious choice for mass meetings on 3 May and 13 June 1831, and on 14 May 1832, the latter attended by 60,000 people and chaired by Thomas Walker jnr, son of veteran radical Thomas Walker. On the arrival of news of the Lords’ rejection of the third reform bill on 10 May 1832, the Political Union paraded the town with flags and music, conducting a ceremonial ‘digging a hole and interring the Lords and Bishops’ on St. Peter’s Field.[10] The ‘shopocracy’ section of the original MPU also met in various respectable pubs, including the King William IV and the Grapes Inn off Great Ancoats Street, and the White Lion on Hanging Ditch.[11]

As in Leeds and Manchester, the Liverpool Political Union’s social and political composition was shaped by middle-class opposition to a dominant Tory corporation made up of privileged freemen and guilds. Notable members of the political union included the editors of the Liverpool Mercury and several merchants, inheritors of the tradition of the wealthy Dissenting ‘Friends of Peace’ that kept Liverpudlian radicalism ‘respectable’ during and after the Napoleonic Wars. At a meeting at the York Hotel on 24 November 1830, the Liverpool Political union ratified its goals of moderate reform, which were accompanied by the abolition of all commercial monopolies, especially of the East India Company and the Corn laws. As Lopatin points out, this set the Liverpool political union apart with a distinctly mercantile agenda set against Corporation authority, which was indeed challenged by the mayor and magistrates, who attempted to cancel union meetings and demonstrations.[12]

[1] K. Morris and R. Hearne, Ebenezer Elliott, Corn Law Rhymer and Poet of the Poor (2002); Lopatin, Political Unions, p. 57; Sheffield Mercury, 13 November 1830.

[2] Peeps into the Past, being Passages from the Diary of Thomas Asline Ward, ed. Alexander Bell with an introduction and annotations by Robert Eadon Leader (Sheffield, 1909), p. 289.

[3] Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1830; Peeps Into the Past, pp. 294, 297; Sheffield Independent, 5 March 1831, 12 and 16 May 1832.

[4] Peeps into the Past, p. 298.

[5] Peeps into the Past, p. 3.

[6] Lopatin, Political Unions, pp. 60-2; Fraser, History of Modern Leeds, p. 275.

[7] Leeds Mercury, 13 February 1830; Lopatin, Political Unions, p. 167.

[8] Annals of Leeds, p. 385; Annals of York, p. 373; Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 12 March 1831, 19 May 1832; Leeds Mercury, 19 May 1832; Morning Chronicle, 18 June 1832.

[9] Diaries of Absalom Watkin, p. 126; Manchester Archives, M91/M1/33/27, 101, 165, Proceedings of Public Meetings, 1831-2; Manchester and Salford Advertiser, 22 January 1831; Manchester Times, 19 May 1832.

[10] Manchester Guardian, 7 May, 18 June 1831; Poor Man’s Guardian, 19 May 1832; Manchester Archives, M219/1/5; M270/1/7/2, J. Phythian’s Book, ‘Notes on events in Manchester leading to the passage of the Reform Bill’.

[11] TNA, HO 52/13/49/3, HO 52/14/2/93; Bolton Chronicle, 30 April 1831; Manchester Times, 26 October 1830, 7 April 1831.

[12] Lopatin, Political Unions, pp. 48-9; Liverpool Mercury, 29 April, 23 September, 14 October 1831.

 Union rooms

Significantly, the new generation of reformers and radicals re-appropriated and revitalized some of the union rooms of the mass platform era. The West Street rooms in Oldham was last recorded being used for a public meeting to petition parliament to release Hunt from prison in February 1822. It is likely that it continued (and was licenced) as a schoolroom, as it was described as the ‘Union Schoolroom’ when its political uses revived on 14 September 1829 with a public meeting for parliamentary reform. John Knight, the ‘old and tried radical’ schoolmaster was in the chair, and the weaver William Fitton also took part in the plans to set up a political union.[1] Oldham Political Union was especially distinguished in radical history because of this continuation of radical leadership and heritage since the days of the postwar Hampden club. Knight and Fitton brought weavers, hatters and spinners into the union, and the membership (as at Todmorden) also had strong links with the Methodist Unitarian church.[2] The Oldham radicals were forced to hold public meetings outside because of refusal of constables:


May 10th 1830 – last week a requisition signed by about 250 householders of Oldham and its n was addressed to the constables of that town, to convene a meeting to take into consideration the state of the country and petition the leg to repeal the Corn Laws and effect a Radical reform in the commons house of Parliament; as might be expected the authorities declined to call a meeting for such purposes; in consequence of this, the requisitionists have given notice in handbills calling a public meeting for the above purposes on Bent Green in the afternoon of the said day; that venerable advocate for a Radical Reform in the Commons house of Parliament Mr John Knight stands the foremost in the requisition list.[3]


The political union met at the room in July 1830 to organize support for Henry Hunt’s contest of Preston. The commemoration of Peterloo on 16 August, revived after a few years of quiet or secret remembrance, provided the impetus in Oldham and elsewhere for Butterworth reported that ‘the tricolor flag was hoisted on the summit of the room and the glorious French Revolution formed the subject on which they had met to dine’. Importance of radical past and connecting memory with place, as Fitton of Royton ‘gave a sketch of the times of 1794’, while Benjamin Haigh, John Buckley and Mr Holliday gave speeches about Peterloo. The vice-chairman James Mills proposed the formation of a Radical Reform Association.[4] Knight and Fitton led the subsequent meetings at the union rooms throughout 1830 to 1832, often focusing on supporting Hunt and commemorating the anniversary of Peterloo. In January 1832, the political union opened a new room in Yorkshire Street, which John Knight also used as a schoolroom until 1834. On the general fast day, 21 March 1832, the political union held a radical lecture at the rooms to counter-balance the loyalist sermon being given at the parish church.[5]

A branch union was formed in the large room of the Grapes Inn on Yorkshire Street at a meeting attended by 350 on 14 November 1831, headed by Knight and various grocers, hatters and tailors.[6] The venue also held meetings of cotton spinners and of John Doherty’s national union of trades in 1830. The operative ultra-radicals went on to hold their meetings at the pub after the Reform Act had passed, to call for universal suffrage. A public meeting in January 1832 was also held at the Providence Independent Chapel.[7] More ‘respectable’ reform meetings were held by the middle classes at the Free Grammar School during February and March and on 21 September 1831, but it was clear that the more radical and working-class political union led opinion in Oldham and its surrounding neighbourhood.[8] The political union held a reform meeting on 31 January 1831 in the new schoolroom of the Independent Methodists on George Street, but the weight of the 800 people present caused a wall to collapse, and the meeting had to be adjourned to ‘a back place, Jackson’s Pit’ outside. Outdoor meetings were also held on the traditional site of Curzon ground, 13 October 1831, and on Tommy Field at the back of the White Horse Inn on 31 October, which Butterworth claimed was attended by 33,000.[9]

The maintenance of continuity and political heritage was much more evident in the Working Class Political Union’s choice of venues. Led by ‘firebrand Broadhurst’, an ultra-radical veteran of 1819, they held meetings in the large room of the Albion Mills pub on Tib Street near Ancoats, and continued to do so after the passage of the Reform Act, for example in October 1834 to thank Archibald Prentice for this efforts to secure remission of the Derby rising prisoners of 1817 (again constructing their collective memory with reference to the postwar radical heritage), and for the visit of Feargus O’Connor in December 1835, where a branch of his Radical Association was formed (and thereby forming the kernel of Chartism).[10] Importantly, the Albion Mills pub had previously been the Elephant Inn, the site of the meeting of the ‘Thirty Eight’ radicals arrested in 1812, and of the organisers of the march of the Blanketeers in March 1817, as well as the committee of the striking silk weavers in 1829.[11] The pub thus had a long heritage of radical activity, from which the WCPU could draw inspiration (and also a safe haven for their meetings). By the 1830s, the local authorities viewed the working-class pubs in the Ancoats and New Cross districts as problematic and symptomatic of the growth of the slums. The September 1835 brewster sessions noted: ‘the Albion Mills in Tib Street, formerly the Elephant, had been complained of so much, that it had been matter of discussion amongst the magistrates whether they should take the licence away altogether’.[12]

[1] Manchester Times, 12 September 1829; The Standard, 17 September 1829.

[2] Lopatin, Political Unions, p. 83; Manchester Times, 19 November 1831; Winstanley, ‘Oldham Radicalism’, HJ, 36 (1993).

[3] Oldham Local Studies, D-BUT F/1, Butterworth diaries, 1830.

[4] Oldham Local Studies, D-BUT F/1, Butterworth diaries, 1830.

[5] Oldham Local Studies, D-BUT/F/3, 6, Butterworth diaries, 1830-1; Manchester Times, 12 March 1831, 24 March 1832; Vernon, Politics and the People, p. 222.

[6] Oldham Archives, D-BUT F/5, Butterworth diaries, 1831.

[7] Oldham Archives, D-BUT F/3, 4, 5, Butterworth diaries, 1831-2; Kirby and Musson, The Voice of the People, p. 165.

[8] Oldham Archives, D-BUT F/3, Butterworth diaries, 1831.

[9] Oldham Archives, D-BUT F/3, 4, Butterworth diaries, 1831.

[10] Manchester Times, 1 October 1831; 11 October 1834; 19 December 1835.

[11] TNA, HO 40/5/4A/137; Morning Chronicle, 18 May 1829.

[12] Manchester Times, 12 September 1835.

Meetings were held on Sundays, because, they claimed, ‘it has been customary for the Masters of Factorys [sic] to lock up their Bastilles whenever our Public Meetings have taken place’.[1] In rivalry with the MPU’s hegemony over St. Peter’s Fields, the WCPU held their mass meetings at St. George’s Fields, closer to Ancoats and a traditional site for trade union and Irish meetings. Their meeting on Sunday 29 January 1832 was stopped by the magistrates, and the committee had to adjourn to ‘a large room near the bridge, New Islington’.[2]

[1] Briggs, ‘The Background of the Parliamentary Reform Movement’, 307.

[2] Manchester Guardian, 18 February 1832; Poor Man’s Guardian, 4 February 1832.



Ashton-under-Lyne – assembly room in Commercial Inn held celebrations of the French Revolution on 10 September 1830 and the town hall was used for reform meetings in March and April 1831.[1]

Halifax – reform meetings at the Old Assembly Rooms in the Talbot Inn February and March and September and November 1831. Not exclusively reformist – used for most political meetings – e.g. of the Pitt Club in 1828 and the Conservative Association in 1836.[2] The old assembly rooms then became dominated by reform issue meetings – e.g. Ten Hours and then Chartists. Halifax liberals and Whigs met in the Old Cock inn in July 1831, and in December 1831, the ‘Friends of Reform met to form a coalition with the Friends of Lascelles’.[3]  The grand Piece Hall was the venue for the mass meeting on 14 May, attended by up to 30,000 people.[4]

Wakefield – in 1831, the political union met at the court house, where by 1833 there was a ‘union room’. Meeting to petition against rejection of the third reform bill was held at the Court House, the constable in the chair, on Tuesday 8 May 1832.[5]

Blackburn ‘political council’ drew up reform petitions in the Old Assembly Room on 8 November 1830 and 29 September 1831.[6]

York – public meeting for petitioning parliament for reform on 11 November 1830 at the Old Assembly Room. The York tavern was the main venue for the York City and County Reform Association from December 1830, especially when petitioning for the reform bill in September and October 1831. Mass public reform meeting was held at the Guild Hall on 16 May 1832.[7] The association was ‘respectable’, with ‘several gentlemen’ among its membership, and its president was Edward Petre, the Catholic mayor of York and sheriff of Yorkshire, Whig member for Ilchester in 1831 and then ‘comfortably elected’ for York after the passing of the Reform Act in 1832.[8]

Reform politics in Preston was dominated by Henry Hunt’s candidacy for the borough. Processions to greet his arrival were organized and centred around Mr Higginson’s at the top of Lune Street in December 1830 and April 1831. Reformers met at the Black Bull on Friargate in April 1831 and large reform meetings were held at the Corn Exchange in March and September 1831.[9]

Macclesfield – Macclesfield Political Union was dominated by silk weavers, many of whom were employed by J and T Brocklehurst, one of the largest silk manufacturers in the town. They met at the White Lion in Hurdsfield in March 1832 to compose a retort to the Poor Man’s Guardian. The newspaper had alleged that John Brocklehurst jnr had offered himself as an electoral candidate in anticipation of the passing of the reform bill. The weavers contented rather that they had taken the initiative in requesting Brocklehurst’s candidature, because of his ‘long and constant endeavours to defend the silk trade’ and to push for free trade in corn.[10]

Smaller places such as outtownships commonly continued the postwar radical practice of using schoolrooms as venues for their political unions, as at the villages around Oldham: Shaw, Lees, Chadderton and Royton.[11] At Todmorden, the leading manufacturers and landowners the Fieldens, who split from the Manchester Political Union to form their own Todmorden Political Union, held meetings in their own factory schoolroom.[12]

[1] Manchester Times, 18 September 1830, 12 March 1831; Oldham Archives, D-BUT 1/3/1; D-BUT F/4, Butterworth diaries 1831.

[2] Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 12 February, 19 March, 1 October, 12 November 1831; Yorkshire Gazette, 31 May 1828; The Times, 3 November 1836.

[3] Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 24 December 1831.

[4] Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 19 May 1832; WYAS Calderdale, STN 273.

[5] Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 19 March, 30 April 1831; Leeds Mercury, 12 April 1832.

[6] Manchester Guardian, 13 November 1830; Preston Chronicle, 1 October 1831; TNA, HO 52/8/405.

[7] York Courant, 16 November, 28 December 1830; York Herald, 24 September 1831, 18 May 1832; Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 12 March 1831.

[8] York Herald, 9 July 1831; Terry Jenkins, ‘PETRE, Hon. Edward Robert (1794-1848)‘,

[9] Preston Chronicle, 1 January, 9 April, 1 October 1831; Bolton Chronicle, 9 April 1831.

[10] Poor Man’s Guardian, 17 March 1832; PP 1832 Report from the Select Committee on the Silk Trade, p. 784.

[11] Oldham Archives, D-BUT F/3, 4, Butterworth diaries, 1831.

[12] Manchester Times, 12 March 1831; Halifax and Huddersfield Express, 19 March, 1 October 1831.

One thought on “The Reform Bill crisis 1830-2”

  1. Robert Owens appeal at the time of 1832 crisis was
    For differences to be overcome by compromise & hearts
    To come together
    Maybe an appeal our new PM can make in coming months

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