Calls for political reform had grown steadily throughout the first three decades of the 19th century and in 1830 the Whig government of Lord Grey came to office with a mandate to reform the voting system. In 1831 the first Reform Bill was voted down in the Commons, prompting Grey to dissolve parliament and appeal to the country for support. The ensuing 1831 election saw the Whigs returned with an increased majority.
Both Southampton MPs, Abel Dottin and James Barlow Hoy, voted against the Bill, and Hoy spoke against it, although admitting that the general feeling in Southampton was in favour of reform. At the 1831 election Dottin stood down and Hoy was defeated by two pro-reform candidates, Arthur Atherley and John Story Penleaze.
When a second Reform Bill was passed in the Commons but rejected in the House of Lords rioting broke out in some northern and midland towns and cities. Southampton remained tranquil, although there were meetings in support of the Bill and a petition was sent to the King.

On the defeat of this Bill, Lord Grey resigned for a second time and the Duke of Wellington resumed office with plans for a more moderate Reform Bill. This prompted further meetings in Southampton, at which the audiences were urged to stand by the original Bill but commit no outrages. Agitation in other parts of the country was more violent, forcing Wellington to resign. Lord Grey returned to office and in 1832 the First Reform Act was passed, greeted in Southampton with the ringing of church bells, and later a civic banquet.
The Reform Act changed very little locally – the number of voters in Southampton, about 1100, remained almost the same – but it did whet the appetite for more reform. The aristocratic backers of the Act saw it as a one-off concession, but Liberals and radicals saw it as a first step to a more representative political system. In 1835 a branch of the Hampshire Reform Association was established in the town under the leadership of George Atherley. The aims of this organisation were to extend political, civil and religious liberties.
Liberals and radicals continued to agitate for more reform in the 1850s and 1860s, although the movement became more and more divided between the Reform Union, which wanted only limited reform, and the Reform League, which advocated universal manhood suffrage. The Reform League, established in February 1865, was made up of radical working men, ex-Chartists and trade unionists, while the Reform Union was representative of more mainstream, ‘respectable’ Liberal sentiment. In 1865 and 1866 a number of branches of the Reform League were established in the town, one under the leadership of an ex-Chartist named Saunders.

Ironically, it was the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, bidding to outflank his Liberal opponents and win over working men to his party, who introduced the next Reform Bill in 1866. This Bill was ostensibly radical, but had a number of safeguards that were intended to limit its impact. It was denounced in Southampton at two meetings of the Reform League over which the radical Dr. Edwin Hearne presided. The impact of the Act, passed in 1867, was more sweeping than Disraeli had intended, because Liberals MPs were able to strip away his safeguards in the committee stages as the Bill passed through Parliament. The eventual Act doubled the number of voters and enfranchised all male householders in urban areas.

See also

Dottin, Abel Rous
Hoy, James Barlow
Penleaze, John Story

Further reading:
History of Southampton Vol 1, by A. Temple Patterson, p144-159. (HS/h)
History of Southampton Vol 2, by A. Temple Patterson, p170-174. (HS/h)


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