The Reform Bills were a series of proposals to reform voting in the British parliament. These include the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884. The bills reformed voting by increasing the electorate for the House of Commons and removing certain inequalities in representation. The bill of 1832 disfranchised many boroughs which enjoyed undue representation and increased that of the large towns, at the same time extending the franchise, and was put through by the Whigs. The bill of 1867 was passed by the Conservatives under the urging of the Liberals, while that of 1882 was introduced by the Liberals and passed in 1884. These latter two bills provided for a more democratic representation.
The three acts extended voting rights to previously disenfranchised citizens. Before 1832, one adult male in ten had the vote. Moreover, the franchise varied a great deal. A few boroughs gave the vote to all male householders. But many parliamentary seats were under the control of a small group or sometimes a single rich aristocrat. Reforms had been proposed in the 18th century, both by radicals such as John Wilkes and by more conservative politicians such as William Pitt the Younger. But there was strong opposition to reform, especially after the outbreak of the French Revolution. The cause was continued after 1792 by the London Corresponding Society
1832 Reform Act
The 1832 Reform Act was the most controversial of the electoral reform acts passed by the Parliament. The Act reapportioned Parliament in a way fairer to the cities of the old industrial north, which had experienced tremendous growth. The Act also did away with most of the "rotten" and "pocket" boroughs such as Old Sarum, which with only seven voters (all controlled by the local squire) was still sending two members to Parliament. This act not only re-apportioned representation in Parliament, thus making that body more accurately represent the citizens of the country, but also gave the power of voting to those lower in the social and economic scale, for the act extended the right to vote to any man owning a household worth £10, adding 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000. As many as one man in five (though by some estimates still only one in seven) now had the right to vote.
For many conservatives, this effect of the bill, which allowed the middle classes to share power with the upper classes, was revolutionary. Some historians argue that this transfer of power achieved in England what the French Revolution achieved eventually in France. The agitation preceding and following the first Reform Act (which Dickens observed at first hand as a shorthand Parliamentary reporter) made many people consider fundamental issues of society and politics.
The novel Middlemarch, by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is set in the 1830s and mentions the struggle over the Reform Bills, though not as a major topic. Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical, set in 1832, is a novel explicitly about the Great Reform Act.
1867 Reform Act
This extended the right to vote still further down the class ladder, adding just short of a million voters—including many workingmen—and doubling the electorate, to almost two million in England and Wales. It, too, created major shock waves in contemporary British culture, some of which appear in works such as Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and John Ruskin's The Crown of Wild Olive, as authors debated whether this shift of power would create democracy that would, in turn, destroy high culture.
The opposite case had been argued by the 'Chartists' , who campaigned from 1838 for a wider reform. The movement petered out in the 1850s, but achieved most of its demands in the longer run.
1884 Representation of the People Act
Along with the 1885 Redistribution Act, this tripled the electorate again, giving the vote to most agricultural laborers. Only after 1884 did a majority of adult males have the vote.
By this time, voting was becoming a right rather than the property of the privileged. However, women were not granted voting rights until the Act of 1918, which enfranchised all men over 21 and women over thirty. This last piece of gender discrimination was eliminated 10 years later (in 1928) by the Equal Franchise Act and the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969.