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“Bombarding the Barricades, or the Storming of Apsley House”: Wellington had his windows broken by the mob 

The Great Reform Bill of 1832 aroused astonishing passions. This relatively modest extension of the franchise was passed after 18 months of almost continual political crisis, as Britain trembled on the brink of revolution. While the Bill's opponents predicted that a "monster of gigantic strength" would be unleashed by tampering with the constitution, ultimately a majority of the political elite was persuaded to "reform, that you may preserve". 

Its most fervent defenders could scarcely deny that the existing political system was deeply eccentric. While some seats had reasonably large electorates, in the "rotten boroughs" — the most notorious of which, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, comprised a lump of stone and a green field — a handful of voters returned two members to parliament. Depriving the aristocratic patrons who controlled these boroughs of their "property" was seen as "spoliation and robbery". Meanwhile burgeoning industrial towns such as Manchester and Birmingham had no parliamentary representation at all. 

By 1830 industrialisation and population growth had transformed society, without any corresponding adjustments in the system of representation. Hopes that change could be peaceably effected were encouraged by the bloodless toppling of the Bourbon monarchy in France. Britain's somewhat buffoonish new king, William IV, was less implacably against Reform than his late brother George IV, even if hardly progressive and married to a deeply conservative German wife.

It was assumed that the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, was contemplating some gesture towards reform, but when his Whig opponent, the tall and elegant Earl Grey, called for one, Wellington declared the British constitution unimprovable. At once the atmosphere in London became so febrile that theatres closed "for very fear". Shortly afterwards the Tory government fell and was replaced by a Whig ministry headed by Grey and committed to reform.

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