The Representation of the People Act 1832 (known informally as the 1832 Reform Act, Great Reform Act or First Reform Act to distinguish it from subsequent Reform Acts) was an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom (indexed as 2 & 3 Will. IV c. 45) that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. According to its preamble, the Act was designed to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament". Before the reform, most members nominally represented boroughs. The number of electors in a borough varied widely, from a dozen or so up to 12,000. Frequently the selection of MPs was effectively controlled by one powerful patron: for example Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, controlled eleven boroughs. Criteria for qualification for the franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a pot.
There had been calls for reform long before 1832, but without success. The Act that finally succeeded was proposed by the Whigs, led by Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. It met with significant opposition from the Pittite factions in Parliament, who had long governed the country; opposition was especially pronounced in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, the bill was eventually passed, mainly as a result of public pressure. The Act granted seats in the House of Commons to large cities that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution, and removed seats from the "rotten boroughs": those with very small electorates and usually dominated by a wealthy patron. The Act also increased the electorate from about 500,000 to 800,000, making about one in five adult males allowed to vote.
The full title is An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. Its formal short title and citation is "Representation of the People Act 1832 (2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 45)". The Act applied only in England and Wales; the Irish Reform Act 1832 brought similar changes to Ireland. The separate Scottish Reform Act 1832 was revolutionary, enlarging the electorate by a factor of 1300% from 5000 to 65,000.
After the Acts of Union 1800 became law on 1 January 1801 (the reason they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a single Act of Union 1801), the unreformed House of Commons was composed of 658 members, of whom 513 represented England and Wales. There were two types of constituencies; counties and boroughs. County members were supposed to represent landholders, while borough members were supposed to represent the mercantile and trading interests of the kingdom. Counties were historical national subdivisions established between the 8th and 16th centuries. They were not merely parliamentary constituencies; many components of government (including courts and the militia) were organised along county lines. The members of Parliament chosen by the counties were known as Knights of the Shire. In Wales each county elected one member, while in England each county elected two members until 1826, when Yorkshire's representation was increased to four, following the disenfranchisement of the Cornish borough of Grampound.
Parliamentary boroughs in England ranged widely in size from small hamlets to large cities, partly because they had evolved haphazardly. The earliest boroughs were chosen in the Middle Ages by county sheriffs, and even a village might be deemed a borough. Many of these early boroughs (such as Winchelsea and Dunwich) were substantial settlements at the time of their original enfranchisement, but later went into decline, and by the early 19th century some only had a few electors, but still elected two MPs; they were often known as rotten boroughs. In later centuries the reigning monarch decided which settlements to enfranchise. The monarchs seem mostly to have done so capriciously, often with little regard for the merits of the place they were enfranchising. Of the 70 English boroughs that Tudor monarchs enfranchised, 31 were later disenfranchised. Finally, the parliamentarians of the 17th century compounded the inconsistencies by re-enfranchising 15 boroughs whose representation had lapsed for centuries, seven of which were later disenfranchised by the Reform Act. After Newark was enfranchised in 1661, no additional boroughs were enfranchised, and the unfair system remained unchanged until the Reform Act of 1832. Grampound's disenfranchisement in 1821 was the sole exception. Most English boroughs elected two MPs; but five boroughs elected only one MP: Abingdon, Banbury, Bewdley, Higham Ferrers and Monmouth. The City of London and the joint borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis each elected four members. The Welsh boroughs each returned a single member.
Statutes passed in 1430 and 1432, during the reign of Henry VI, standardised property qualifications for county voters. Under these Acts, all owners of freehold property or land worth at least forty shillings in a particular county were entitled to vote in that county. This requirement, known as the forty shilling freehold, was never adjusted for inflation; thus the amount of land one had to own in order to vote gradually diminished over time. The franchise was restricted to males by custom rather than statute; on rare occasions women had been able to vote in parliamentary elections as a result of property ownership. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people were not entitled to vote; the size of the English county electorate in 1831 has been estimated at only 200,000. Furthermore, the sizes of the individual county constituencies varied significantly. The smallest counties, Rutland and Anglesey, had fewer than 1,000 voters each, while the largest county, Yorkshire, had more than 20,000. Those who owned property in multiple constituencies could vote multiple times; there was usually no need to live in a constituency in order to vote there.
In boroughs the franchise was far more varied. There were broadly six types of parliamentary boroughs, as defined by their franchise: