This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Boundary Act. As Martin Spychal of the Commons 1832-68 Section discusses in today’s blog, the oft-neglected story of the Act provides several key insights into Britain’s second Reform Act and, in particular, the intentions of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister in 1868…
It is often forgotten that Benjamin Disraeli intended to mitigate the democratising impact of the 1867 Reform Act’s borough householder franchise through boundary changes and the redistribution of seats. For Disraeli, boundary reform also offered an opportunity to increase Conservative influence over the English electoral system, and the chance to put his increasingly ambitious electoral intelligence network to the test.
The 1868 Boundary Act provided new boundaries to 59 English boroughs as well as 10 Welsh borough districts, and altered the temporary limits that had been assigned to 9 of the 10 new English boroughs by the 1867 Reform Act. It also made additional changes to three of the thirteen counties that had been divided by the 1867 Reform Act and modified the names and nomination towns of several county divisions. Minor amendments to Scotland and Ireland’s boundaries were made via their respective Reform Acts.
The English and Welsh boundary settlement of 1868 had a protracted history. For Disraeli, boundary reform offered a means of settling scores dating back to the Whig reform legislation of 1832. In public Disraeli had repeatedly condemned the 1832 Reform Act as partisan legislation, although in private he appreciated how boundary reform in the counties and small boroughs had actually been beneficial to the Conservative party. By 1859, however, he was deeply concerned that the expansion of urban populations outside of borough boundaries was starting to hamper Conservative electoral fortunes in the counties.
This was in stark contrast to the two-time Liberal Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who had been a pivotal figure in the Whig government that passed the 1832 Reform Act. One of Russell’s major regrets concerning 1832 was that boundary changes had led to a distinct divide between MPs who represented the urban and rural interests in the Commons. For Russell, this divide reached its zenith during the 1840s when the movement for the repeal of the corn laws dominated the political landscape. Russell’s 1852 and 1866 governments introduced reform legislation which intended to address this divide by deliberately leaving borough boundaries unchanged. Urban expansion, Russell hoped, would gradually lead to an increase in the influence of urban (usually Liberal) voters over the Conservative dominated counties.
For Disraeli, the Liberal government’s deliberately lackadaisical approach to boundary reform was one of its chief weaknesses when it introduced its 1866 reform bill. As a result, Disraeli instructed his chief statistician, Dudley Baxter, and the rising electoral agent, Markham Spofforth, to gather masses of electoral data to demonstrate to parliamentarians why wholesale boundary reform was vital.
Throughout the country Conservative agents saw widespread borough boundary extension as doubly advantageous. It would temper the forces of radical Liberalism in the boroughs, which Conservatives generally felt was focused around urban dwellers at the centre of towns, rather than in the newly forming suburbs – an early incarnation of the theories behind ‘Villa Toryism’. Furthermore, by ‘taking a larger number of town voters out of the counties’, Baxter advised Disraeli that the counties would be secured for the Conservatives for a generation. Disraeli and Baxter were also alive to the power of cartography, and Baxter’s presentation in the Commons lobby of a raft of maps showing the extent to which many boroughs had outgrown their bounds by 1866 was retrospectively considered by Baxter’s wife to have been a pivotal moment in the downfall of the 1866 reform bill.
When the Conservatives formed a government in June 1866, Disraeli tried repeatedly to establish a boundary commission prior to the introduction of another reform bill. In doing so he hoped to delay the reform process, ensure the creation of voting requirements that would mitigate the democratising extent of any extension of the suffrage, and allow for boundary reforms that provided a clear party advantage to the Conservatives. He didn’t quite get what he wanted, however, as the then Prime Minister, Lord Derby, rejected his initial proposals for a forestalling commission in September 1866, and the Conservative government’s ‘reform resolutions’, of which a commission formed a major part, received a lukewarm response in the Commons in February 1867.
To Disraeli’s dismay, the question of franchise reform had to be settled via the 1867 Reform Act before a boundary commission could get to work. While the eventual timing of a commission prevented Disraeli from delaying reform and establishing stringent evidence-based franchise requirements, he wasted little time in ensuring its conservative bias. He did so by appointing sympathetic commissioners and providing them with guidance that would create boundaries thought to be favourable to Conservative candidates.
One of the most interesting things about the commission, which visited every English and Welsh constituency during the autumn of 1867, were the public boundary hearings that they held. Most of the working papers and ephemera (maps, local proposals, petitions and records of public meetings about boundaries) gathered at these hearings are held by the National Archives, and provide a rich untapped resource for understanding mid-Victorian constituency politics.
The commissioners, however, were generally dismayed about the tenor of discussion at these public meetings – particularly as they revealed that many men were unenthusiastic about being granted the right to vote. Local rivalries between villages and suburbs on the periphery of a parliamentary borough often proved so strong that voters expressed a desire to remain unenfranchised rather than return a member of parliament with their neighbours. In the new borough of Dewsbury for example, an artisan from nearby Batley, Joshua Taylor, told the commissioners that he
would rather be without the franchise than that Batley should form part of the parliamentary borough of Dewsbury … when parties went to be married some affection ought to exist.
Furthermore, despite telling members of the public that parliamentary boundary changes would have no bearing on local municipal boundaries, voters threatened with inclusion in a parliamentary borough repeatedly complained that parliamentary enfranchisement would lead to them having to pay municipal rates, or losing the right to ‘compound’ their rates by paying them as part of their rent to their landlord.
The commissioners also repeatedly encountered obviously partisan boundary proposals, as political factions in each borough – supported by emerging national party machines – plotted to design boundaries in their favour. When the commission published its proposals in March 1868, it was clear to many that the Conservatives had benefitted most from this highly co-ordinated scheming between local and national election agents. In response Liberal MPs secured a select committee to review the commission’s proposals, which successfully amended fifteen of the commission’s most controversial boundary proposals.
While not ideal, Disraeli still remained upbeat as the majority of the commission’s proposals were passed intact. Following the changes he reported to Queen Victoria that while the boundary bill had been ‘somewhat curtailed of its excellence’, it was still ‘a very good measure’. As a warning note to future psephologists, however, it transpired that the electoral intelligence provided to Disraeli between 1866 and 1868 had been somewhat optimistic. Under Britain’s reformed electoral map at the 1868 election, the Liberals, led by a resurgent Gladstone, swept to power.