All borough freemen should be well aware of the circumstances leading and resulting in the national Reforms of the 19th century. Struggles of the working classes included the freemen and have determined their position in society today. It would be correct to say that ‘freemen’ are rightly proud of their family legacy and the connections with their hometown or city. However, it may also require better understanding of the atmosphere relating to ‘privilege’ in the latter part of the 19th century when the freemen’s powers were removed.
The corporate powers of the borough freemen had grown over the centuries since their historic establishment throughout the nation and this does not require further discussion. Up until the mid-17th century the people of Britain were in general, an agricultural society. The gentry were reasonably benevolent and farm workers and labouring classes enjoyed relative protection. During the late 17the century there was an unprecedented increase in agricultural production. This heralded or coincided with a ‘modernisation’ that drove both the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolution.
Working class is a broad description that includes the trading craftsmen and their apprentices. If we look back into our borough histories, we will typically find that sickness, bankruptcy, and general unrest affected the families of freemen, and their position could rise or fall accordingly. The value of voting on local matters was always highly valued. Protection against mishaps was slim, involving friendly (insurance) societies and local banking services.
Limited voting powers of the general populace led to a call for universal suffrage, this coincided with demands for the abolishment of slavery and for recognition of Roman Catholicism. In general, the ‘people’ were calling for emancipation. Borough freedom by inheritance was seen by the greater working classes as unfair privilege.
The inheritance of freedom was a safety factor in some respects regarding grazing and trading rights that could supplement income. National political movements did not regard inherited positions with any favour as the struggle for ‘equality’ advanced. A ‘National Union of Working Classes’ developed as business proprietors and wealthy ‘capitalists’ were reluctant to raise wages or lower prices. This reached a hiatus when the working classes revolted. Examples of disobedience such as with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who refused to work for reduced wages and deported, were quickly put down.
Benevolent guilds began losing members to trade unions in settling political demands. Prejudice against legacy, regarded as unfair privilege, drove an anti-freemen (burgesses) movement. Universal Suffrage gained broad appreciation. Politics became further inflamed by journalists the like of Tom Paine pushing for ‘The Rights of Man’ and the objects of the National Union. Paine considered that no description of man in any country possessed the right to control or command how the world should be governed. Every age and generation must be free to act for itself. The general philosophy, viewed from the working class, was that there were producers and parasites – a dangerous division.
William Cobbett considered that whatever the pride of rank, of riches or of scholarship, the resources of a country must ever spring from the labour of its people. Taxation has always been considered unreasonable and heavily out of balance and unfair. Working-class writers in the early 1830s associated agrarian reform with political reform. This led to the Anti-Corn Law League. Manual labour properly directed was considered to be the source of all wealth and of national prosperity. It would not be the mere possession of wealth, but the right distribution of it that was important to a community. Of masters and men, there existed one general feeling, to get work done as cheaply as they can. Competition turned men into more labour power, without rights and without defences.
‘Chartism’ latterly, called for further reform in the way of a ‘Peoples Charter’, requiring a vote for all men over 21 years, secret voting without a property qualification and with MP’s to be paid a salary.
In Conclusion the initial ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832 gave the vote to middle class men in tenanted properties but excluded most working-class people. The Act removed seats from ‘rotten’ boroughs and tiny districts while giving voting rights to larger cities previously unrepresented. Seats were replaced in the House of Commons. The Act disenfranchised 56 boroughs and reduced several from holding two representative MPs to only one. It created 67 new constituencies (in the larger cities) to provide greater democracy. NB. Even though women were not permitted to become MPs.
Municipal Corporations Act 1835, known as the Municipal Reform Act, reorganised the parliamentary constituencies. It established a uniform system of municipal boroughs to be governed by elected town councils elected by ratepayers. The old Corporations were disbanded, and the powers of the Freemen was removed. Freemen were subsequently given the personal rights to their title as freemen; however, the new elected councils took over the responsibilities for the town properties and their administration. Only the personal rights of freemen remained sacrosanct.
For further reading on this subject, please go to my article entitled ‘Reform’