British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Franchise Act of 1884 was the third in a series of nineteenth century legislative reforms expanding the control of the people of Great Britain over their government. It extended the vote—already gained by much of the urban male populace—to agricultural and other workers, increasing the total number of British voters by almost 70 percent.

Summary of Event

Great Britain’s Franchise Act of 1884 was passed by Parliament on December 6, 1884. Together with the Redistribution Act of 1885 Redistribution Act of 1885 , the act represented the third legislative reform during the nineteenth century to contribute to converting the British government from an oligarchy of landed interests to a largely democratic system. The Reform Act of 1832 Reform Act of 1832 had given the vote to middle-class householders in the towns; the Reform Act of 1867 Reform Act of 1867 had extended the franchise effectively to all householders in the towns. The rural counties, however, still chose their representatives in Parliament under a system requiring property qualifications. One needed property worth twelve pounds in annual rental fees or freehold ownership of five pounds in order to vote. This meant that in rural counties, agricultural laborers had no vote, and in suburban and industrial county areas, the lower middle classes—particularly factory workers and miners—also had no vote. If a worker moved outside town limits, he would often lose his vote, and town limits mostly remained those established in medieval times. There was also a need to redistribute electoral districts since the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 had not really brought districts into line with population growth. Franchise Act of 1884 Great Britain;political reforms Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and political reform[Political reform] Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] [kw]British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884 (Dec. 6, 1884) [kw]Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884, British (Dec. 6, 1884) [kw]Passes the Franchise Act of 1884, British Parliament (Dec. 6, 1884) [kw]Franchise Act of 1884, British Parliament Passes the (Dec. 6, 1884) [kw]Act of 1884, British Parliament Passes the Franchise (Dec. 6, 1884) Franchise Act of 1884 Great Britain;political reforms Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and political reform[Political reform] Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] [g]Great Britain;Dec. 6, 1884: British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884[5430] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 6, 1884: British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884[5430] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 6, 1884: British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884[5430] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 6, 1884: British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884[5430] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 6, 1884: British Parliament Passes the Franchise Act of 1884[5430] Parnell, Charles Stewart [p]Parnell, Charles Stewart;and political reform[Politicalreform] Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and political reform[Political reform] Trevelyan, George Otto Chamberlain, Joseph [p]Chamberlain, Joseph;and political reform[Political reform] Dilke, SecondBaronet Iddesleigh, first earl of Devonshire, eighth duke of

The movement for further reform was begun in 1874 by a radical member of Parliament, Sir George Otto Trevelyan Trevelyan, George Otto . Each year he introduced a motion to extend the democratic borough franchise to the counties, but each year his motion failed because of opposition from Tory and Whig landlords who preferred to leave their agricultural laborers without a vote. In the election campaign of 1880, the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) did pledge itself to franchise reform. When they took office, however, William Ewart Gladstone, the prime minister, argued to his cabinet that franchise reform would better come when another election was approaching, and his colleagues agreed. In particular, Gladstone was fearful of the effect of franchise reform on Ireland, which was even then in virtual revolt against British landlords and eager to achieve home rule Ireland;home rule Home rule, Irish . Charles Stewart Parnell Parnell, Charles Stewart [p]Parnell, Charles Stewart;and political reform[Political reform] , the leader of the Irish in Parliament, already commanded enough votes to make life difficult for any administration seeking major legislation; Gladstone feared, and Parnell believed, that franchise reform would give the Parnellites an effective lock on any government.

Joseph Chamberlain.

(Library of Congress)

There were others, however, who believed that franchise reform should be high on the government’s agenda. Joseph Chamberlain Chamberlain, Joseph [p]Chamberlain, Joseph;and political reform[Political reform] , president of the Board of Trade Great Britain;Board of Trade in Gladstone’s cabinet and also organizer and leader of the Birmingham Union, a liberal caucus that was the most effective political organization in England at that time, instigated agitation for reform of the franchise in 1883. Chamberlain and his associate, the second Baronet Dilke Dilke, Second Baronet , also a minister in Gladstone’s cabinet, held mass meetings, heavily attended by workingmen who advocated franchise reform. Gladstone continued to hesitate because he feared Irish complications and because the minister of war, the eighth duke of Devonshire Devonshire, eighth duke of , opposed reform.

Finally, in February of 1884, Gladstone decided that the time for franchise reform had arrived; another general election was in any case only a year away. Accordingly, the government introduced a moderate and fairly simple bill into Parliament. The prime minister proposed to extend all the borough voting qualifications of the Reform Act of 1867 to the counties. The proposal, however, did not include any redistribution of seats, nor did it do away with special property, ancient right, or other dual votes.

Fierce battles had marked the passage of the earlier reform bills, but this time little opposition to the government’s proposal developed in Parliament, in the press, or generally throughout the country. The leaders of the opposition—the third marquis of Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and political reform[Political reform] in the House of Lords and the first earl of Iddesleigh Iddesleigh, first earl of in the House of Commons—did not object in principle to the bill. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives had drawn considerable support from the workers after passage of the Reform Act of 1867, and neither party dared to take up undemocratic positions in public.

Arguments arose, however, over the side issues of redistribution of seats, dual votes, and minority representation—issues with which those on the Right who secretly opposed franchise reform hoped to kill the measure. Oddly, in this they had allies on the Left. Radicals sought to end all dual voting privileges enjoyed by those who had university degrees, had special ancient rights, or owned property in both town and county. Gladstone defended these property votes, and no amendments were carried against dual voting. Proportional representation and woman suffrage amendments were also decisively beaten.

There was also strong but unsuccessful opposition to applying English electoral standards in Ireland. An amendment along these lines had the secret sympathy of many Liberals who feared that reform would add to the power of the Irish Nationalists led by Parnell. Gladstone, however, would not alter the principle of his bill despite his dislike of Parnell’s tactics. Parnell Parnell, Charles Stewart [p]Parnell, Charles Stewart;and political reform[Political reform] and the Irish Nationalists favored the bill but stayed quiet, confident that their power would be secure whether the bill passed or not.

The chief objection raised by the Conservatives was the need for an extensive redistribution of seats to accompany the Franchise Bill. It was on this issue of redistribution that Salisbury induced the House of Lords to block the Franchise Bill until a redistribution bill was introduced into the House of Commons. This action by the Lords caused an immediate revival of Radical agitation. Chamberlain openly castigated class privilege, as he and John Morley Morley, John , another Radical leader, saw a chance to destroy the power of the House of Lords. Their agitation against the Lords’ prerogatives almost resulted in a serious constitutional crisis, but neither Gladstone nor Salisbury wanted this to happen. Through the intervention of Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen;and political reform[Political reform] , the two party leaders met and worked out an agreement. Gladstone agreed to introduce a redistribution bill, and Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and political reform[Political reform] agreed to let the Franchise Bill repass the House of Commons and then the Lords. The final passage took place on December 6, 1884. Some radicals were upset by this arrangement, but Chamberlain Chamberlain, Joseph [p]Chamberlain, Joseph;and political reform[Political reform] acquiesced and the agitation against the House of Lords ceased.

Significance

The Redistribution Bill was taken up shortly after passage of the Franchise Act. It was by agreement what the Tories had desired, and it passed as the Redistribution Act in June, 1885. The act was actually more radical and democratic than the Liberals had desired: Although districts were not yet all equal, the Redistribution Act accepted for the first time a population basis in legislative representation. It also abolished dual member constituencies, a practice that had enabled the Liberals to appeal to both radicals and liberals by teaming radical and liberal candidates in a single constituency. All boroughs having fewer than fifteen thousand voters lost their seats, making it possible to shift some 136 seats to more populous areas.

The Franchise Act of 1884 combined with the Redistribution Act of 1885 made Great Britain basically a democracy, at least for men. Women, and men who were not householders, had to wait until the twentieth century to win the vote. The act added 1.7 million voters to the 2.5 million already eligible to vote. It was the largest single enfranchisement in Great Britain during the nineteenth century, and it paved the way for universal adult suffrage in the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, T. A. Gladstone, Whiggery, and the Liberal Party, 1874-1886. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. Explains the complex party issues that affected the 1884 reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Andrew. The Politics of Reform, 1884. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972. The entire book is devoted to the reform of 1884, in voluminous detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthew, H. C. G., ed. The Gladstone Diaries. Vol. 9. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990. Deals with the years 1883 through 1886.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parry, Jonathan. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. The last section is devoted to the 1884 reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Partridge, Michael. Gladstone. New York: Routledge, 2003. A reassessment of Gladstone’s life and political career. Describes how Gladstone tried but failed to resolve his great obsession—the Irish question.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, Richard. Gladstone. Vol 2. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. A comprehensive biography by an expert on Victorian history. The second volume covers Gladstone’s career from 1865 through 1898.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Southgate, Donald. The Passing of the Whigs, 1832-1886. London: Macmillan, 1962. Chronicles the gradual transformation of the Whigs into the Liberal Party.

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