William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act

Q1: Read the introduction and read sources 2, 3 and 14 and explain why William Gladstone and Queen Victoria were in dispute between 1880-1884.

A1: William Gladstone and Queen Victoria disagreed about the need of parliamentary reform. Victoria attempted to stop Gladstone from making speeches about the subject (source 2). Philip Guedalla (source 3) argues that whereas "Gladstone moved steadily towards the Left in politics, while by a sad mischance his sovereign inclined towards the Right."

Paul Foot (source 14) points out that when Joseph Chamberlain made a speech on the subject it "produced a furious response from Her Majesty the Queen. Queen Victoria was opposed to the extension of the franchise - no one, after all, had elected her - but she was much more concerned that the rising temperature of popular fury would sweep away her beloved House of Lords".

Q2: How many Liberal MPs wanted women to have the same voting rights in 1884? Why did William Gladstone disagree with these MPs?

A2: A total of 79 left-wing members of the Liberal Party urged Gladstone to give women's householders the vote. Gladstone replied that if votes for women was included Parliament would reject the proposed bill. He explained that "I am myself not strongly opposed to every form and degree of the proposal, but I think that if put into the Bill it would give the House of Lords a case for postponing it and I know not how to incur such a risk." (source 9)

Q3: John Eldon Gorst was a Conservative MP who disagreed with the House of Lords blocking the 1884 Reform Act. Read source 4 and explain why he took this position.

A3: Gorst thought it was a mistake for the Conservative Party to be so closely identified with "the Established Church, the House of Lords, and the Crown". It reinforced the idea "its leaders belong solely to one class". The Liberal Party was as a result seen as the main opposition to the ruling class. However, if the Conservative Party was to become "a popular party" it would have to change its image.

Q4: Why did William Gladstone send Queen Victoria his memorandum on the House of Lords in August 1884 (source 11)?

A4: William Gladstone was pointing out that most members of the House of Lords were supporters of the Conservative Party. As a result the "House of Lords has for a long period been the habitual and vigilant enemy of every Liberal Government". In this way the second chamber was resisting the will of the people, as expressed in parliamentary elections. He was willing to preserve the House of Lords but if they continued to block the government's legislation it will have to be abolished. Gladstone goes on to suggest that if the Queen continued to support the Lords against the Commons, the monarchy was also at risk.

Q5: Explain the connections between sources 5, 8, 12 and 15.

A5: Britain experienced an economic recession in the early 1880s (source 5). Some people argued that by increasing the number of working class people who could vote in elections, the House of Commons was much more likely to pass legislation that would protect the interests of the majority of people.

Sources 8 and 12 provide examples of how working-class people demonstrated in favour of parliamentary reform. Source 15 shows farm labourers voting for the first time after the passing of the 1884 Reform Act.

Q6: John Tenniel was an opponent of the 1884 Reform Act. How does source 17 help to explain source 18?

A6: In source 18 Tenniel expresses his fear of socialism. As source 17 points out, he Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was founded in 1881. A large number of people, including Queen Victoria, believed that once the working class had the vote they would support socialist parties such as the SDF.