The news of the adverse division in the House of Lords created a passionate sensation all over the country. Great meetings were held in every city and town; in many places the shops were closed and mourning bells were pealed from some of the churches. One of the most popular ideas of the day was the suggested expedient that a run should be made upon the Bank of England for gold, with the view of obstructing the whole movement of commerce, in the hope that thereby the Lords might be brought to their senses; and a run for gold was actually made, which at one time created much alarm. In the streets from Charing Cross to the Houses of Parliament vast crowds assembled every evening, cheering the leaders of the Reform movement, and hissing and cursing the Peers or Commoners who had opposed the Bill. Clamorous proposals for the abolition of the House of Lords became popular on every Radical platform all over the country; serious riots took place at Derby, at Nottingham, and at Bristol; the castles and country houses of Tory noblemen and squires were attacked, seriously damaged, and in some instances set on fire. One instance of this form of riot is worth a special mention, if only because of the curious and touching poetic associations which it brings up with it. The house of Mr. Musters, near Nottingham, was set on fire. Mr. Musters was the husband of the Mary Chaworth, who in the days of our fathers and grandfathers was dear to every sentimental heart, as Lord Byron's first love, about whom he wrote his famous poem, "The Dream." When the house was set on fire, Mrs. Musters, Mary Chaworth, fled in alarm and found refuge for awhile in one of the gardens. The terror and the cold night air proved too much for her, and she caught an attack of illness which ended soon after in her death.
Many of the Reformers were even impatient of Lord Grey and Lord John Russell themselves. An impression got abroad somehow, that the Government might be disposed to tamper with the people by yielding so far to the House of Lords as to consent to a postponement of the Reform Bill. The bare surmise or suspicion was enough for a time to bring a certain amount of unpopularity on the heads of the leading Ministers. In truth, the country was aflame with passion; and a rash act or two, even perhaps a rash word or two, on either side of the political field, might have brought about a tumult, which would have seemed to distant eyes not altogether unlike a popular revolution. It can never be known for certain how near England really did come at that crisis to a genuine revolutionary struggle. Looking back upon that time, with only the experience of more recent days to guide our judgment, it is easy enough to tell ourselves complacently that nothing serious could have occurred, that the English are a steadfast people, little like the French and foreigners generally, and not in the least addicted to revolution; and that everything would have worked out quietly for the best. History tells us that the English people have never shown themselves afraid to risk a revolution when there seemed no other means of removing an intolerable grievance and making it sure that national justice must be done. The more we study the records of that Reform time, the more we shall be inclined to believe that England was brought very near indeed to revolution. How far were the more influential leaders of the Liberal Party aware of the threatening danger, and what thoughts were passing through their minds as to the preparations that would have to be made, in order to encounter it ?
That, of course, we shall never fully know. But it is at least certain that some of those leaders must have found their minds perplexed by the doubt whether the King would yield to, or would resist, the advice of the Ministry and the demands of the country; and if he should decide upon resistance, what was to happen next? Were the Liberal leaders to allow things to drift into mere tumult, or were they not to take some steps which might provide for the guidance of the people and secure the country against the worst? Suppose the King were to set himself doggedly against the advice of his Ministers, and were to declare that he would throw in his own fate, and that of his dynasty, with the action of the House of Lords; what would remain to be done in such a case? The question must have come up to the mind of many a statesman of that time - whether in such a case it would be the duty of the great Liberal nobles of England to side with the King against the House of Commons and the people, or to stand as their forefathers did, with the Parliament - that is, with the real Parliament, and against the revolutionary action of the Crown. The dilemma, says a recent writer, appeared not unlike that which was presented when Charles I. broke away from his Parliament; and he adds, that some at least of the influential English nobles seemed to have been inclined to cast in their lot with the Parliament, and against the Sovereign, in the event of the Sovereign proving faithless to the constitutional principles by virtue of which alone he held his Crown. Such a condition of things appears almost incredible to us now. We have so long been accustomed to the steady and safe working of the political system under a thoroughly constitutional Sovereign, that we find it hard to realise the possibility of a crisis occurring at so recent a date, which would have rendered it necessary for great English noblemen to make up their minds as to which side was that of revolution, and which side was that of the constitution. But it is quite certain that such a question was presented for decision to some of the great Liberal nobles. Suppose the country were to be thrown into actual domestic strife by the possible action of the Sovereign, that action being a breach of the constitution, on which side were the defenders of law and order to take their stand? It came out, during the course of a great political trial some sixteen years afterwards, that a correspondence had been opened, undoubtedly under the sanction of some of the great Reformers, with Sir Charles Napier, the famous soldier, for the purpose of endeavouring to secure beforehand the co-operation of the army, should the worst come to the worst. It is not too much to say, that for some time England was trembling on the very verge of a revolution.