Nick Clegg may have raised a few cynical eyebrows in Parliament with his promise last week of “the biggest shake up of of our democracy since [the Great Reform Act of] 1832.”
Many of the rest of us may have been scratching our heads, unsure exactly what the Great Reform Act was and what it had to do with us. To fill in the gaps, Clegg explains that it “redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes.” And that’s hugely significant for the East End. Because it was the 1832 Act that gave the people of Tower Hamlets (some of them at least) the vote for the first time, as well as giving them their own MPs.
The political system of the early and mid 19th century looks very different to our own. There was no Labour party of course, as ‘labour’ didn’t have the vote. There was a two-party system, with the Tories broadly representing the Crown and the Church of England. The Whigs backed Parliament’s power over the King and the noncomformist religions. In the 1700s the Whigs had primarily been the party of the aristocracy (and were known as the Country Party) while the Tories had been the party of the gentry (and were dubbed the Court Party).
But by the time of Queen Victoria, the Whigs’ policies had earned them the nickname the ‘liberal’ party, and that’s what they would become by the latter 1800s. They supported the abolition of slavery, a constitutional monarchy, free trade and – crucially – extending the vote and reforming Parliament. So it was that Whig prime minister, Earl Grey, as well as delivering another blow to slavery and giving his name to a particularly aromatic blend of tea, was also responsible for ushering in the East End’s first Members of Parliament.
There were two big problems in our parliamentary democracy of the 1820s. Hardly anybody had the vote and the people they voted for were absurdly unrepresentative. The vote had been extended a little over the centuries, but still only 200,000 people in England and Wales, out of a population of 15m or so, got to choose MPs. And those MPs represented constituencies that had scarcely changed in centuries. There were ‘Rotten Boroughs’ such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire which sent two members to parliament, despite having just three houses and seven voters. Dunwich in Suffolk was still exercising its historic right to send two MPs, despite having just 32 voters (most of the town having fallen into the North Sea a century or so previously).
The big industrial cities, meanwhile, had little or no representation: an anomaly of the existing system was that only certain parts of the country were actually covered by constituencies. But from 1832, the new Tower Hamlets constituency changed all that for the people of the East End. Or some of them: we were still nearly a century away from universal suffrage. And you still had to be the owner of land worth £10 or more – there was a limit to how liberal the establishment was going to be when it came to handing power over to the working classes.
The new seat stretched from the City to ‘the eastern border of Middlesex, where it met Essex’ (the River Lea in effect). Taking in Bethnal Green, Bow, Bromley, Hackney, Limehouse, Poplar, St George in the East, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Wapping, Whitechapel, East Smithfield and the Tower it was a huge seat by modern standards.
And it was a confused system, with two MPs for each constituency – William Clay taking his seat alongside Stephen Lushington as Tower Hamlets’ first-ever members. The one sure thing for generations was that the Tower Hamlets MPs would be Whigs, or Liberals as they were now called. The Tories (not yet Conservatives in name) would scarcely get a look in. Unsurprisingly, the establishment was firmly represented. Lushington was a judge, Charles Fox an army general, William Clay a baronet. The first sign of radical thought was the election of George Thompson, a self-made, self-educated Liverpudlian elected to the seat in 1847. Thompson used his platform to campaign against slavery.
Then came solicitor Acton Smee Ayrton, a radical Liberal who campaigned for working class representation in Parliament, and served in Gladstone’s Cabinet. And there were the first signs of the mercantile middle classes exerting political power. Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda was a Jewish businessman from the Isle of Dogs. He had begun in his father’s counting house, then with his brother Jacob became one of the most successful shipbuilders on the Thames. The Samudas’ yard, in Cubitt Town, now lies beneath the Samuda Estate. Samuda was succeeded in turn, in 1880, by historian James Bryce, who would go on to serve as Britain’s ambassador to the US, and be a pivotal figure in the formation of the League of Nations.
Bryce was the last Tower Hamlets MP, his seat dissolved in 1885 to form the seven new constituencies of Stepney and Whitechapel, St George, Poplar, Mile End, Limehouse, and Bow and Bromley. Most of those would disappear in turn, with another major rejigging of constituencies under Clement Attlee’s Labour Government in 1950. By then, Labour MPs were the East End norm, Liberal MPs were a distant memory, and the Conservatives, as ever, barely registered.