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Earl Grey

Prime Minister 1830 - 34

Charles Grey was born 13th March 1764. As the son of a respected Northumberland family he took the usual aristocratic educational course, attending Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. Entry to Parliament came in 1786 as MP for Northumberland. While Grey's family leaned towards the Tory party, Grey himself was attracted to the reforming views of Charles James Fox and the Whigs. In 1792 Grey and a few other young followers created the Society of the Freedom of the People. This group was committed to heading off revolution by introducing moderate political reform to make Parliament more representative. Grey's group achieved no success, but served to indicate Grey's direction for the future.


For many years after the demise of his freedom society, Grey bided his time on parliamentary reform. In 1806 he became head of the Admiralty, under Henry Addington. This was followed by long years in opposition as leader of the Whig Party. Various reform bills were proposed during the period 1807 - 1830. Grey and the Whigs generally made it clear that they would not support universal voting rights. Nevertheless Whig philosophy remained committed to parliamentary changes in the interests of heading off a wider revolution. In 1830 the Duke of Wellington made his last stand for the old order. Wellington insisted that as prime minister he would not support reform, and his government fell as a result. Reform was now the major political issue of the day, and in these circumstances the king, William IV, sent for Grey as the natural choice to form a new government.


Thomas Standfield's Cottage in Tolpuddle where the Tolpuddle Martyrs held their meetings

From the outset Grey and his cabinet colleagues were committed to reform. Ironically however, a highly repressive policy towards social unrest was also established. Home secretary Lord Melbourne was given the job of dealing forcibly with widespread rural disorder, triggered by a desperate employment situation in the countryside. Following what became known as the Swing Riots, six hundred people were imprisoned, five hundred were deported, and nineteen were executed. In 1834 the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of Dorset farm workers led by George Loveless, tried to form a union to defend their interests, the first time this had been done. The government backed local Dorset landowners against Loveless and his group. The judge presiding over the case felt compelled to punish George Loveless and his companions as an example to others. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to transportation to Australia. It was only a massive public outcry that compelled Grey's government to reverse the sentences.


All this goes to show that Grey and his government weren't revolutionary idealists. They were essentially cautious, conservative people who were trying to make some changes in the hope that wider revolution would be avoided. On 22nd November 1830 Grey announced that he had royal approval for a Reform Bill. The intention was to reform the electoral system, to remove 'rotten' boroughs with few or no inhabitants, where one or very few men controlled elections. Out of a total of 658 MPs in the House of Commons, 307 were elected by only 154 powerful individuals, who used the "rotten" constituencies as their personal property. The MPs returned for these constituencies were also, in effect, the personal property of the powerful local figure who controlled the area (see Prime Ministers Vol 1 P344). Under the Reform Bill voting systems would be regularised, so that roughly the same number of voters returned the same number of MPs. The bill had to be radical enough to satisfy a reform minded public, and moderate enough to be acceptable to the king, and to Parliament, where the House of Lords was the main source of opposition. An election in June 1831 returned a clear vote for reform, after which Grey had no trouble with the House of Commons. But in October the House of Lords blocked progress. Riots followed in Nottingham and Derby. The Duke of Newcastle's mansion in the grounds of Nottingham Castle was destroyed, and Lord Middleton's huge house, Wollaton Hall, was attacked. Government control in Bristol was lost for three days when rioters effectively took over the city. In the face of this dangerously unstable situation, Grey threatened to resign unless he was given support for reform. This support came from King William IV, who created peers in the House of Lords, sympathetic to the government's cause. This measure finally got the bill through the Lords on 7th June 1832, and the Reform Act of 1832 was passed.



Reform Club

Grey's government did not survive for long after its great achievement. Sadly Grey's ability to reconcile many different views could not be extended to religious divides and to Ireland. He was to resign in 1834 when these divisions became insurmountable. His term in office had been quite short, but it was during his ministry that the Reform Act had been passed, which Sir Robert Peel called the most important act passed by Parliament in more than a hundred years. And yet the great symbolic change of the Reform Act was really only pursued to head off change, to avoid revolution. History often reveals change driven by a desire to keep things the same. This is true of the Reform Act of 1832, a revolution run by members of the establishment. The nature of this genteel revolution is reflected today in the Reform Club in Pall Mall. This famous club was formed in 1836, with membership restricted to those who had pledged their support for the Reform Act. It was a place where the revolutionaries of 1832 could go and sit in comfy chairs, drink good wine and eat fine food. History is so often presented as a movement of progress, an upward course from darkness to light. In many ways history actually has a much more circular character, where change is only brought about to keep things the same. The famous barons who forced the Magna Carta on King John at Runnymede in 1215 were trying to defend their traditional rights, rather than trying to institute any idea of idealistic new government. The same was true of Lord Grey over six hundred years later.