The 1831 Riots and Electoral Reform

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Election day is looming and it is time to go out and vote! Voting has always been particularly important to the people and city of Bristol and in 1831 we had an important role to play in electoral reform.


In 1831, only men who owned property worth more than 40 shillings were allowed to vote. In Bristol, there were 6,000 property owners but 104,000 adults. That's a voting population of just 5.7% - if they all bothered to turn out!


17,000 people signed a petition calling for reform. They wanted to get rid of ‘rotten boroughs’, places which possessed a royal charter giving them the right to send two elected MPs to the House of Commons but a very small voting population.


Wikipedia says that "it was not unusual for such a borough to change its boundaries as the town developed or contracted over time, and in some places the number of electors became so few that they could be bribed by a single wealthy patron.  As voting was by show of hands in a single polling station at a single time, none dared to vote contrary to the instructions of their patron or contrary to what had been contracted by way of bribes received. Frequently such a borough might only put forward one candidate in an uncontested election, being nominated by the mayor and corporation at the behest of the patron."

However, you may be also familiar with this description of the unreformed election system, presented by a certain E. Blackadder:



A rotten borough, sir, is a constituency where the owner of the land corruptly controls the both the voters and the MP.
Dunny-on-the-Wold is a tuppenny-ha'penny place. Half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens with an empty town hall on it. Population: three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named `Colin', and a small hen in its late forties.

Prince George: So, no people at all, then? apart from Colin...
Blackadder: Colin is a dog, sir.
Prince George: Well, yes, yes, yes...
Blackadder: Only one actual person lives there, and he is the voter.
Prince George: Well, right! So, what's the plan?
Blackadder: We must buy Dunny-on-the-Wold at once and thus control the voter. I shall need a thousand pounds.


Back to London in 1831, where Magistrate and Recorder for Bristol (another name for a Justice of the Peace, or Sheriff), Sir Charles Wetherall completely disregarded the petition signed by the people of Bristol and told Parliament that the city opposed reform and was happy with the current system.


The House of Lords rejected the Reform Bill.


When Sir Charles visited Bristol on 29th October to open the new Assize Courts his carriage was pelted with stones. He threatened to imprison those involved and an angry mob chased him to the Mansion House in Queen Square where the mayor and other officials were besieged.

For three days, the mob ransacked the city, looting and burning civic buildings including the Custom House, Mansion House, Bishop’s Palace, city jails and warehouses. Riots also broke out in Derby, Nottingham, Dorset, Leicestershire and Somerset.

Sir Charles escaped the city dressed as a woman but hundreds of people were injured or died. After the riots, 55 people were put on trial. Five were hung and 43 were sent to Australia.

The voting system was reformed in 1832 with the Representation of the People Act which redefined the boroughs and extended the right to vote.


In 1969 our current electoral system was introduced when the right to vote was extended to everyone aged 18 or over.

At the 2010 general election 65% of Bristol's voting population of 304,224 came forward to elect their representatives.


The people of Bristol fought, died and were imprisoned because they believed they had a right to elect the MPs controlling their constituency and their country. Will you make them proud and vote tomorrow?

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