From ‘First Constituency of the Empire’ to ‘Citadel of Reaction’: Westminster, 1800–90

  • Marc Baer


In 1832, the Spectator declared Westminster to be the ‘first constituency of the empire’.1 Long regarded as the most radical of London’s boroughs, Westminster’s 9 parishes were home to almost 250,000 people by the middle of the nineteenth century. The basis of its radical reputation was two-fold. In the first place, it possessed the largest electorate in the country. Until 1832, the right to vote at parliamentary elections in the borough lay with male householders who paid scot and lot (local rates) and had been resident for at least 6 months prior to the election.2 Perhaps 3 out of every 4 male householders possessed the suffrage, and 8000 or 9000 men, including many of plebeian origin, regularly cast their votes at election time.3 The second factor underpinning the borough’s reputation was its tradition of furnishing some of parliament’s most radical members: Charles James Fox and Sir Francis Burdett, for example, both won the suffrages of the Westminster electorate. Both owed much to the work of Westminster ‘Committees’. The first of these organizations, founded in 1780, was originally dominated by town-based aristocrats connected with the Marquis of Rockingham, and, headed by Fox, adopted a six-point programme for parliamentary reform. By the early nineteenth century, however, it had been superseded by a second Westminster Committee dominated by radical shopkeepers and merchants; their ability to appeal directly to the large plebeian elements within the electorate ensured that the Committee played a defining role in Westminster politics.


Political Theatre Parliamentary Election British Library Conservative Party Municipal Election 
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© Marc Baer 2005

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  • Marc Baer

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