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Document of the Month

by Library on 16 / 10 / 2012

George Howell and the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform

Library and Archives Assistant, Natalie Whistance has selected two of her favourite documents from the Library and Archives Collections.

The Bishopsgate Institute Library and Archives holds a vast collection of material relating to the history of the labour movement and the struggles of various political and social gDemonstration in Hyde Park flyer roups.

The two images seen here come from one of our core labour history collections, that of politician and trade unionist George Howell (1833-1910). Amongst his other roles Howell was secretary to the Reform League which was a body established in 1865 to campaign for working class political reform. 

I was drawn to these records because they represent so much of what our archive and library holdings are about; showing the power that both individuals and groups of ordinary people have to change the world they live in for the better. 

reform demonstration in Hyde Park on 21st July 1884

There were three acts for large scale parliamentary reform passed during the nineteenth century. 

Briefly, the first, often called the Great Reform Act, was passed in 1832 and saw changes to the electoral system of England and Wales and extended the vote to the middle classes. However, there were many who did not believe that this reform went far enough. 

It was a subject that engendered much public feeling and there were many individuals and groups, primarily the Chartists in the late 1830s and 1840s who pushed for further reform. 

In 1866 William Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister, introduced a Reform Bill to extend the vote but this was unsuccessful.  Public disappointment at the failure of the bill to go through parliament resulted in several mass meetings and demonstrations organised by the Reform League; some of these demonstrations turned violent and there were several riots.  

This popular protest preceded the 1867 Reform Act, which for the first time enfranchised some (although not all) of the urban male working class. Working class males in rural areas were still not able to vote in parliamentary election and during the 1880s reform was once again being discussed.  Although the Reform League was dissolved in 1869 George Howell continued to play a part in agitating for parliamentary reform.  As secretary of the Reform Demonstration Committee in 1884 he helped to organise a reform demonstration in Hyde Park on 21st July 1884.

The flyer shown above is a handbill advertising the demonstration in 1884 and shows the various divisions of the planned procession, including the farriers’ society, agricultural labourers, miners and political and working men’s clubs (Howell Ephemera/42/5).

Thousands of people took part in the demonstration and we are lucky enough to have a collection of photographs from the day showing the sheer size and scale of the procession (Howell Collection/14/3). 

The second image shows some of the many banners that were carried by the various divisions.  The one in the foreground says ‘Kent and Sussex.  Will the Lords Defy the Labourers?’.  Each division on the day was accompanied by a brass band and you can just see one of these in front of this banner trying to make their way through the crowd.

Parliament did subsequently extend the franchise with the 1884 Reform Act. This meant that the counties now shared the same franchise rights as the boroughs and around six million voters were added to the total number eligible to vote in parliamentary elections.

The 1832, 1867 and 1884 reform acts provided hard won rights for working people. But even by 1884 around 40% of adult males, and of course all adult women, were still denied the vote in parliamentary elections. The records shown here are a testament to the workers who interested themselves in politics and demanded the right to have their voices heard.

Workers continue to demand to have their voices heard and as part of our Back to the 80's series we will look at the changing climate of industrial relations in Britain in our event Right to Strike?

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