REFORM – Leading to the Municipal Corporations Act, 1835

The Hustings at Eatanswill (Dickens)

During the last two hundred years, the rate of progress in man’s command over nature has been greater than at any previous period. Modern history can be considered as beginning in England from 1780 in a series of dissolving views. With proper roads and greater infrastructure for inter-communications.

In the reign of George III the civilisation of the riding-horse and the packhorse gave way to that of the coach, waggon, and barge. Society was an agrarian one with artisan cottage craftsmen trading most essential goods. The manorial villages (and boroughs) in England were the nursery of the national character. Poverty was to some extent governed by the ‘Corn Laws’. (See my essay on English Society).

Eventually there was opposition to the Corn Laws and Society became less protectional. An Agricultural Revolution brought modernisation to farming. This not only introduced new animal breeding but also new machinery and ways of farming. It also encouraged the ‘enclosure’ of open common lands and a drive by middle classes to increase their land ownings. Threshing machines and other labour-saving equipment revolutionised the farm-workers activities, normally filling the winter months.

Farm labourers began turning away from their tied cottages to seek wages in the newly constructed towns with factory employment. From the beginnings of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, people no longer had the protections of the ‘old life’. Competition for wages created Trade Unions, unlike the old Craft Guilds that upheld protective measures, these had political motives.

The old paternal society was overtaken by economical pressures. A new form of Middle Class was created in great numbers. Growing levels of poverty led to greater unfairness in the greater populace. There were calls for ‘representative government’. In the first 50 years, ending with the Great Reform Bill of 1832, The Industrial Revolution is, in its social consequences, mainly destructive. It removed the forms and practices of the old English way of life that could not be harnessed to the new machinery.

Poverty and civil unrest reared the political opinions of several great philosophical thinkers. Perhaps the foremost of these was Tom Paine. In Government, Pitt’s Attorney General declared it was “High Treason for any man to agitate for ‘representative government’. This was a period exacerbated by the activities in the ‘French Revolution’.

As the towns expanded it is interesting to note that, with the exception of Bristol and possibly Manchester, no provincial towns of Great Britain in 1780 had over 50,000 inhabitants. Cities were still so small that even the town-dweller was almost in the countryside. There was no sharp or great division between the ‘classes’ of employer and the employed. Of course, there existed the division of local voting rights, but this did not cause division or severe political unrest before the 1820s.

Changes occurred between 1831-5. The chartered oligarchy governing the towns had sometimes enjoyed the further privilege of returning two members to Parliament at the dictation of a landed magnate (borough-owner). This (political) corruption came in direct confrontation with seats once occupied by the democratic guilds and municipalities of the medieval boroughs. The system was an abuse as the most powerful social class, the landed aristocracy could corruptly nominate most of the town representatives. London was excluded from the aristocratic system; it maintained a third power in the State alongside the King and Parliament.

In July 1831, the English county members voted by ten to one for the Reform Bill to abolish the ‘rotten boroughs’. While in some shires where two or three great families, together had agreed to divide the spoils of battle, no contests took place at all. The political spirit of the eighteenth century was based not on equality but on the harmony of classes. This was removed from the reactionary ‘Toryism’ which soon afterwards sprang from the combined effect of the Industrial and the French Revolutions. In such a society, the upper class were singularly fortunate in their lot (complete supremacy). Of course, rural England was three-fourths of England.

In 1833, a Bill was passed to abolish slavery and twenty million sterling was paid in compensation to the slave-owners. On the 1st of August, all slaves in the British Empire were to become free. The reforming government of Lord Grey, having carried out reform of the parliamentary constituencies turned to local government. Having found the jurisdiction generally defective, particularly in a small number of corporations, where corrupt powers appeared to be ‘for life’, a royal commission was appointed. Altogether, 285 towns were investigated. The Commission concluded that “ . . . the existing Municipal Corporations of England and Wales neither possesses nor deserve the confidence or respect of Your Majesty’s subjects, before they can become, what we humbly submit to Your Majesty they ought to be, useful and efficient instruments of local government”.

The 1835 Act reformed 178 boroughs, (The Burgh Reform Act, 1833, had already carried similar reforms in Scotland). There removed more than 100 unreformed boroughs that either fell into desuetude or were replaced later under terms of the Act. These were not reformed, or abolished until 1886. (This Act reinstated some limited title to the Freemen of the boroughs).

The new corporations were to have annual elections with a third of the councillors up for election each year. Aldermen were to be elected to serve on councils for six-year terms. Towns would be divided into Wards. The Act was subsequently repealed “Subject to the exceptions and qualifications in this Act mentioned by section 5 of, and Part 1 of the First Schedule to, the Municipal Corporations Act 1882. This Act allowed inhabitant householders of a town to petition the Privy Council seeking a Charter of Incorporation as a Borough.

NOTES on Politics at the time

The attack on privilege became the classical radical case for parliamentary reform. Tom Paine (1737-1809) rebutting Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. Paine argued that government was legitimate only in as far as its actions promoted general happiness – secured by universal suffrage and republicism. William Cobbett (1762-1835) was the first great working-class journalist. He was famous for recording his “Rural Rides”.

Socialistic Trade Unionism, led by Robert Owen (1833-4) with plans to distribute wealth, and the Chartist movement failed to obtain parliamentary franchise (1838-9). However, the ideas were sown, and a wave of Socialist enthusiasm swept ‘Trade Unionism’ giving rise to the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Owen and Marx taught the motion of ‘labour as the source of all wealth’.

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