Road to Reform

Road to Reform

Highlighting some of the most radical events in British political history, this exhibition explores the country’s unsettled transition from monarchical to government rule, the growth of democracy and the struggle many have endured in pursuit of representation and the right to vote. These moments have ignited passion and change, shaping the contemporary rights we have today.

Magna Carta

Considered to be the first written constitution in European history, the Magna Carta (or Great Charter), was issued by King John as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215. Thanks to years of unsuccessful foreign policies, brutal injustice and heavy taxation demands, he was an unpopular ruler facing a rebellion by the country’s powerful barons.

The Magna Carta was originally written in Latin on parchment made from dried sheepskin. Many copies were produced and sent around the country, but only four survive today. (copyright: British Library).

Magna Carta is the Bible of the English Constitution

—William Pitt the Elder,

King John agreed to a ‘charter of liberties’ that would place himself and any future kings within a rule of law, restricting the power of the monarchy for the first time and granting rights to English subjects.

Father of Parliament

Simon de Montfort was a French nobleman who inherited the title of Earl of Leicester in the 1230s. He was a close adviser to King Henry III and was married to Henry’s sister. De Montfort disagreed with the amount of authority still bestowed upon the king and led a reform-fuelled rebellion to defend the rights of the lesser aristocracy. He overthrew Henry and declared himself ruler, a bold move that many found fanatical.

De Montfort is fondly credited with summoning the first 'modern' parliament in 1265, which stripped the king of unlimited power and featured elected representative as well as the nobility - a revolutionary idea that influenced modern government.

Simon de Montfort depicted on the Clock Tower in Leicester city centre

Over time parliament became a consistent part of political life. By the 14th century it was split into the House of Commons and the House of Lords and members of parliament were voted into their positions, yet only a select few landowners had the privilege of voting or standing for election.

An illustration showing a Parliament held by King Edward I, c.1327, from the Wriothesley Garter Book of the Parliament of England assembled in 1523. Illustration of the opening of Parliament. (Royal Collection Trust © King Charles III, 2023

The English Civil War

The complex relationship between the monarchy and Parliament reached a boiling point during the reign of Charles I, who strongly believed in the divine right of kings to absolute power. Following countless disagreements on taxation and religion, he dissolved the government and attempted to rule on his own.

Bloody conflicts and twisted political plots erupted between the Parliamentarian Roundheads and the royalist cavaliers, ending with Charles defeated and found guilty of treason in 1649... ...he was the first sitting monarch to be executed in England.

Parliament led without a king for 11 years. However, Charles II was invited to take the throne in 1660 as the government was in shambles. He accepted and a new alliance of monarch and parliament was agreed.

Divine right of kings means the divine right of anyone who can get uppermost.

—Herbert Spencer,
Death warrant for Charles I. Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London. Copyright Parliamentary Archives.

The English bill of rights was passed in December 1689, making it illegal for a king to rule or pass any law without the consent of parliament. It revolutionised the notion of democratic election and encouraged freedom of speech, while the power of the monarchy was permanently restricted. The next big challenge was to reform parliament itself.

King William and Queen Mary accepting the Bill of Rights in 1689. Mary Evans Picture Library

Reform! Reform! Reform!

Further demands for political change were supressed until the early 19th century when industry and urbanisation boomed, transforming the country.

Glaring corruption in the electoral system caused anger to spread among the working class who were denied the vote as they did not own property.

“The Reformers’ Attack on the Old Rotten Tree”, satirical cartoon, published by E King, c1831. ©British Library

Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony

—Monty Python,

Working men passionately rallied for their right to be represented in Parliament with eighteen months of demonstrations, riots and a very real threat of revolution before the government passed the Representation of the People Act, 1832, known as the Reform Act.

Parliamentary seats were redistributed throughout the country, representing new industrial towns and eliminating old constituencies with shrinking populations.

The People's Charter

Chartism was the first mass political campaign driven entirely by the working classes. Following the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to extend the vote, Chartists protested for the rights of all working men regardless of property ownership. They had six key demands outlined in their People’s Charter (see image).

The Six Points of the People’s Charter, lithograph print.

Many petitions were presented to Parliament, with millions of supporting signatures, however all were rejected provoking a period of tension and unrest. Chartism faded around 1858, but its legacy led to further reform acts passed in 1867 and 1884 and to the growth of trade unions, co-operatives and socialist politics.

'Deeds Not Words'

Although calls for reform throughout the 19th century did not formally include women, the idea of women’s suffrage was advocated by reformers of both genders from 1832 onwards.

Women felt they should have the right to vote as they worked and were required to pay taxes and abide by the law, just as men did.

I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves

—Mary Wollstonecraft,
Cat and Mouse Act Poster,

The cause became headline news in 1903 when the women’s social and political union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, began militant actions including demonstrations, arson attacks, assaults, arrests and hunger strikes.

Not all suffragettes approved of this form of violent protest, and upon the outbreak of the First World War the cause was suspended for the interest of national unity.

Representation of the People Act 1918

The First World War had a profound impact upon the entire social and economic structure of the western world, delivering a fatal blow to the class exclusivity of pre-Edwardian Britain.

Millions of men returning from conflict were not entitled to vote because of property qualifications and neither were the millions of women who had contributed to the war effort both at home and on the front.

Further reform of the voting system was deemed necessary. The Representation of the People Act, 1918, abolished almost all property qualifications for men and enfranchised certain women over the age of 30.

This age requirement was meant to prevent women becoming the majority of the electorate following the loss of so many men during the War.


In June 2014, DMU students, aided by academics from the Department of Politics and Public Policy, presented MPs and peers 100 policy ideas that they would like political parties to adopt.

The twentieth century saw further electoral reform, with women finally being given equal voting rights to men in 1928. In 1969, the voting age was lowered to 18. Contemporary debate is considering reducing this to 16.

The road to equal representation for all has been long and hard. Current generations owe much to those who suffered, struggled and even died for reform; from the medieval lords who wished to limit the absolute power of the monarch, to the Chartists and suffragettes who wanted votes for all.

We now enjoy a democratic system of government that continues to endorse and encourage political change from all its citizens; rich or poor, male or female.

In June 2014, DMU students, aided by academics from the Department of Politics and Public Policy, presented MPs and peers 100 policy ideas that they would like political parties to adopt. (Image above)

Leicester's Radicals

Leicester has always been something of a radical city, its citizens eager to campaign for reform. Politically the town had a distinct character, with a reformist party maintaining almost total control over local government and parliamentary representation from 1835 onwards.

In addition, booming local industries led to the kind of poverty and squalor which have become a by-word of the Industrial Revolution, encouraging the rise of Luddites and Chartists in the early 19th century, and later trade unions, co-operatives, socialism and workers’ movements.

Poster for Leicester Socialist League event, 1889. Courtesy of Gorrie Collection, University of Leicester Special Collections Online,

This mini-exhibition continues the Road to Reform theme by considering the careers of some local reformers, from abolitionists and temperance campaigners to suffragettes.

Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations can never effect a reform.

—Susan B. Anthony,

Anti-Slavery Campaigner: Susanna Watts (1768 - 1842)

Susanna Watts was a central figure in campaigning for the abolition of slavery within Britain and its colonies, persuading grocers and individuals to boycott the use of West Indian produce such as sugar.

Watts founded The Humming Bird (1824-25), an anti-slavery periodical, the first of its kind which was also edited entirely by women. She published anti-slavery hymns, poems and songs and helped collect signatures for petitions.

*The Humming Bird song sheet, words by Susanna Watts and music by her good friend and fellow campaigner Elizabeth Heyrick. The song compares the freedom of the hummingbirds and bees to the plight of the slaves. Courtesy of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland*

When fellow campaigner William Wilberforce called women involved in the movement ‘brazen faced’, Susanna countered with a poem saying that ladies had better wear strong armour against the “shafts of manly wit” that would come their way “when a righteous Cause demands/the labour of their hearts & hands”.

The Temperance Movement: Thomas Cook (1808 - 1892)

Thomas Cook is famous for establishing the travel company which bears his name today. A Baptist preacher, Cook was interested in improving the lives of working men through temperance. This meant giving up alcohol which wasted money and caused immoral behaviour.


Drink Map’ of Leicester, Leicestershire and District Temperance Union, 1886. Drink maps highlighted the social problems of alcohol by showing how many places there were within a town where drink could be purchased. Courtesy of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

The first rail excursion Cook organised, in July 1841, was to take people to a temperance meeting. His affordable day-trips gave working people the chance to travel rather than spend time in pubs.

Cook founded a Temperance Hotel on Granby Street, where teetotal travellers could stay free from the temptations of the usual hotel bar. He was also a noted philanthropist, distributing food to the poor and constructing almshouses.

*Poster for a Thomas Cook excursion to the West of England, 1850. Courtesy of Thomas Cook Archives*

Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.


Socialism and Worker’s Rights: Thomas Barclay (1852-1933)

Thomas Barclay was born in poverty to Irish immigrant parents. He did not attend school and from childhood he worked a series of menial jobs in Leicester’s hosiery factories. In the 1870s he began to attend evening classes held by Reverend David Vaughan at the local Working Men’s College.

Portrait photography of Thomas Barclay, from his book “Memoirs and Medleys: the autobiography of a bottle-washer”. Courtesy of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

Education encouraged Barclay to become involved in reform movements. He founded the Leicester branch of the Socialist League in 1885 and set up newspapers The Countryman and the Leicester Pioneer to promote socialism and workers’ rights.

Midland Free Press, 16 September 1893
Poster advertising a meeting in support of miners on strike, featuring Thomas Barclay as a speaker, 1893. Courtesy of Gorrie Collection, University of Leicester Special Collections Online,

Barclay went on to become one of Leicester’s most respected public speakers and political activists, concerned with the struggle of the working classes which he understood first hand.

The Dirty Thirty

The miners' strike of 1984–85 was a passionate industrial demonstration led by the National Union of Mineworkers following a rapid series of pit closures.

Affecting thousands of workers and in some cases entire towns, strikes and protests erupted around the country.

In Leicester a group of thirty pitmen stood in support of the strike in defiance of 2,500 other local miners who carried on working through the bitter dispute.

Photograph of a few members of the Dirty Thirty, Clifford Jeffery, his son Nigel, Dave Douglas, Phil Smith and Mick Richmond
One of the protest badges worn by supporters of the cause

Beginning as an insult, their nickname Dirty Thirty soon became a badge of honour as they spent an entire year without pay, travelling around the UK and Europe to raise awareness and funds for their cause.

‘So here's to Malcolm Pinnegar, or Benny to his friends. Who led the dirty thirty, 'til the strike came to an end.’ Dirty Thirty lyrics by Liverpool folk singer Alun Parry.

Votes for Women: Alice Hawkins (1863-1946)

Alice Hawkins worked in boot and shoe factories from the age of thirteen. She became active in unions to try to improve working conditions and pay for women. This led her to the suffragette movement and in 1907 she joined a march of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The march ended with mounted police charging the women, and Alice was arrested – the first of five arrests over the next seven years.

Alice set up a local branch of the WSPU and became a skilled public speaker, addressing women across Leicestershire despite the threat of heckling and arrest. She became good friends with Sylvia Pankhurst and in 1908 spoke to 250,000 supporters in Hyde Park.

Alice was a life-long campaigner of women’s issues and labour politics. Courtesy of Peter Barratt
Alice selling votes for women. Courtesy of Peter Barratt

Alfred, Alice’s husband, was also a keen reformer and socialist. He supported his wife’s activities and conducted protests of his own. In 1909 he heckled Winston Churchill, calling out “Why don’t they (the Government) secure the vote of the women of the country? How dare you stand on a democratic platform?”

Alice with her husband Alfred, a fellow_supporter of women’s suffrage. Courtesy of Peter Barratt


De Montfort University would like to extend their gratitude to the following organisations for helping to make our exhibition a success:

Leicestershire Museum Service

Parliamentary Archive

Peter Barratt and family

Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland

Thomas Cook Archives

University of Leicester Archives

For further information please contact

Exhibition prepared by Elizabeth Wheelband and Katharine Short.

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