Electoral Reform, 1832

In 1832 Parliament passed two laws which would change the electoral system in Britain: the English and Welsh Reform Act and the Scottish Reform Act.

Prior to 1832 there was heavy petitioning within the County of Stirling for reform to the electoral system. So why was change needed? The petitioning was an expression of criticisism of the unfair electoral system. For example, in England, there were very small constituencies that were entitled to elect two MPs to Parliament. Known as ‘rotten boroughs’ these tiny electoral areas were open to gerrymandering and corruption. With very few constituents eligible to vote and the absence of a secret ballot, candidates were easily able to buy votes. In contrast, large towns across the United Kingdom, such as Glasgow, had only one elected MP. Indeed, all the Scottish Burghs petitioned the House of Lords in support of the English reform bill.

The Act also expanded the Scottish electorate from around 4000 in the 1820s to over 65,000 in 1832. There was an expansion in Burgh representation in Parliament with an increase from 15 seats to 22. Some Royal Burghs, such as Perth, received an MP for the first time whilst Glasgow received two. Whilst the Act represented a move in power from the aristocrats to the middle class, there was still unrest over the disenfranchisement of the working class.

In the run up to the 1832 general elections, Parliament received petitions for reform of the Scottish electoral system from the Council, Merchant Guildry, Trade Incorporations, Burgesses and inhabitants of Stirling. Examples of this petitioning can be seen in the records held by the Archives as part the Stirling Burgh collection.

The first is from the Reform Committee of Stirling. The document calls for the ‘honest reform in the representation of the people, in the Commons House of Parliament’. It also sets out the aims of the Committee. They demanded ‘a large extension and more equal distribution of the suffrage, protected by the Ballot, and that an entire Bill for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland should be brought in’. It then proceeds to highlight the injustice of large towns, like Glasgow, being able to elect only a few MPs whilst Arundel, with its 196 voters, receives the same amount. The reformers also called one unified bill of reform, rather than a separate Scottish bill.

As the 1832 general election was nearing, a battle for a place in Parliament was taking place between Liberal candidate Charles Elphinstone Fleeming and Wlliam Forbes, the Tory candidate from Callander.

Charles Elphinstone Fleeming was an Admiral in the Royal Navy and served in the French revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was a reformer and was involved in politics throughout his life. William Forbes was the son William Forbes of Callander, a prominent landowner.

The 1832 election in Stirlingshire seemed to hinge on the reform debate. Fleeming had issued a letter to the electors of Stirling. In this letter he states he was “always an advocate of this great cause” and confidently expresses that he expects to be elected as the MP for Stirlingshire.

Another letter appears in December 1832, just before voting was to take place. Written by an anonymous ‘Staunch Reformer’ to the electors of Stirlingshire, it urges William Forbes to retire from the election and ‘spare himself the disgrace of defeat’. It also claims that Forbes only managed to ‘harangue a crow of wondering boys…having failed of securing an audience of Electors’ at dinners in Kilsyth and Balfron’.

In the end, Fleeming won the Stirlingshire seat in 1832 with a comfortable majority. However, William Forbes, went on to get his revenge. He was elected MP for Stirlingshire in 1835, the Tories holding the seat until 1865.