22: The Reform Acts
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The new life brought an inevitable demand for a share in the
government of the country, and this brought the old order and the new
face to face. The political power was entirely in the hands of the
squires, alienated from the peasants in many cases by a difference of
language, and in most cases by a difference of religion.
The Act of 1535 had, as we have seen, given Wales a representation in
Parliament. Each shire had one member only; except Monmouth, which
had two. Each shire town had one member, except that of Merioneth;
and Haverfordwest was given a member. The county franchise was the
forty shilling freehold; it therefore excluded not only those who had
no connection with the land, but the copyholder—who was really a
landowner, but whose tenure was regarded as base, on account of his
villein origin. This copyholder was undoubtedly the descendant of
the Welsh serf of mediaeval times.
The first Reform Act, that of 1832, was won for the great
manufacturing towns of England, but Wales benefited by it. It
extended the franchise to the copyholder, and to the farmer paying 50
pounds rent, in the counties; it gave the towns a uniform 10 pounds
household franchise. It also brought many of the towns into the
system of representation. It raised the number of members from
twenty-seven to thirty-two; the agricultural districts getting two,
and the mining districts two.
The slight change in representation is a recognition of the growing
industries of the country, especially in the coal and iron districts.
The coal of the great coalfield of South Wales had been worked as far
back as Norman times; but it was in the nineteenth century that the
coal and iron industries of South Wales, and the coal and slate
industries of North Wales became important. Cardiff, Swansea, and
Newport became important ports; and places that few had ever heard of
before—like Ystradyfodwg or Blaenau Ffestiniog—became the centres
of important industries. But, in 1832, Wales was still mainly
pastoral and agricultural; and the Act, though it did much for the
towns, left the representation of the counties in the hands of the
same class. Still, it was the towns that showed disappointment, as
was seen in the Chartism of the wool district of Llanidloes and of
the coal district of Newport.
The second Reform Act, of 1867, gave Merthyr Tydvil two
representatives instead of one, otherwise it left the distribution of
seats as it had been before. But the new extension of the franchise-
-to the borough householder, the borough 10 pounds lodger, and
especially the 12 pounds tenant farmer—gave new classes political
power. It was followed by a fierce struggle between the old landed
gentry and their tenants, a struggle which was moderated to a certain
extent by the Ballot Act of 1870, and by the great migration of the
country population to the slate and coal districts.
The rapid rise of the importance of the industrial districts is seen
in the third Reform Act of 1885. The country districts represented
by the small boroughs of the agricultural counties of Brecon,
Cardigan, Pembroke, and Anglesey, were wholly or partly
disfranchised. But the slate county of Carnarvonshire had an
additional member; and in the coal and iron country, Swansea and
Carmarthenshire and Monmouthshire had one additional member each, and
The third Reform Act enfranchised the agricultural labourer and the
country artisan. In England many doubts were expressed about the
intelligence or the colour of the politics of the new voter; but, in
Wales, most would admit that he was as intelligent as any voter
enfranchised before him; all knew there could be no doubt about his
The character of the representation of Wales has entirely changed.
The squire gave place to the capitalist, and the capitalist to
popular leaders. Wales, whose people blindly followed the gentry in
the Great Civil War, is now the most democratic part of Britain.
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