Historians have variously employed the notion of an ‘age of reform’: sometimes including within its scope the build-up of pressure for ‘reform’ from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, sometimes limiting their attention to the years following the ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832. A timescale weighted towards the later period is appropriate if the chief object is to assess reforming achievement: the effects of the restructuring of the representative system, or the fates of the diverse legislative projects laid before the ‘reformed parliament’ in its three and a half decades of life.
In this volume our primary concern lies elsewhere: with reform as aspiration. We survey the kinds of reform aspiration formulated from the 1780s – the decade when ‘reform’ first became a key political slogan – down to the 1830s and 1840s, when the enactment of parliamentary and other reforms began to bring about major changes in the political and cultural landscape. ‘Reform’ remained a key concept in political life for several decades thereafter, but its meaning and significance shifted. These later changes also warrant attention, but that attention is not provided here.
A distinguishing feature of this volume is that we pay closer heed than historians of this period have usually done to contemporary uses of the terminology of ‘reform’. We do not suggest that it is possible to unravel reform projects in all their diversity – to understand all that contemporaries hoped and feared, and how they argued and manoeuvred – simply by focusing on the uses made of one key term.