The refusal drove him from office; and for the first time after twenty years the Whigs saw themselves again in power under the leadership of Earl Grey. A bill for Parliamentary Reform, which took away the right of representation from fifty-six decayed or rotten boroughs, gave the 143 members it gained to counties or large towns which as yet sent no members to Parliament, established a 10 householder qualification for voters in boroughs, and extended the county franchise to leaseholders and copyholders, was laid before Parliament in 1831. On its defeat the Ministry appealed to the country. The new House of Commons at once passed the bill, and so terrible was the agitation produced by its rejection by the Lords, that on its subsequent reintroduction the Peers who opposed it withdrew and suffered it to become law.
The Reformed Parliament which met in 1833 did much by the violence and inexperience of many of its new members, and especially by the conduct of O'Connell, to produce a feeling of reaction in the country. On the resignation of Lord Grey in 1834 the Ministry was reconstituted under the leadership of Viscount Melbourne; and though this administration was soon dismissed by the King, whose sympathies had now veered round to the Tories, and succeeded for a short time by a Ministry under Sir Robert Peel, a general election again returned a Whig Parliament, and replaced Lord Melbourne in office. Weakened as it was by the growing change of political feeling throughout the country, no Ministry has ever wrought greater and more beneficial changes than the Whig Ministry under Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne during its ten years of ruin. In 1833 the system of slavery which still existed in the British colonies, though the Slave Trade was suppressed, was abolished at a cost of twenty millions; the commercial monopoly of the East India Company was abolished, and the trade to the East thrown open to all merchants.
In 1834 the growing evil of pauperism was checked by the enactment of a New Poor Law. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act restored to the inhabitants of towns those rights of self-government of which they had been deprived since the fourteenth century. 1836 saw the passing of the General Registration Act, while the constant quarrels over tithe were remedied by the Act for Tithe Commutation, and one of the grievances of Dissenters redressed by a measure which allowed civil marriage. A system of national education, begun in 1834 by a small annual grant towards the erection of schools, was developed in 1839 by the creation of a Committee of the Privy Council for educational purposes and by the steady increase of educational grants.
Great however as these measures were, the difficulties of the Whig Ministry grew steadily year by year. Ireland, where O'Connell maintained an incessant agitation for the Repeal of the Union, could only be held down by Coercion Acts. In spite of the impulse given to trade by the system of steam communication which began with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, the country still suffered from distress: and the discontent of the poorer classes gave rise in 1839 to riotous demands for "the People's Charter," including universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, the abolition of all property qualification for members, and payment for their services. In Canada a quarrel between the two districts of Upper and Lower Canada was suffered through mismanagement to grow into a formidable revolt. The vigorous but meddlesome way in which Lord Palmerston, a disciple of Canning, carried out that statesman's foreign policy, supporting Donna Maria as sovereign in Portugal and Isabella as Queen in Spain against claimants of more absolutist tendencies by a Quadruple Alliance with France and the two countries of the Peninsula, and forcing Mehemet Ali, the Pacha of Egypt, to withdraw from an attack on Turkey by the bombardment of Acre in 1840, created general uneasiness; while the public conscience was wounded by a war with China in 1839 on its refusal to allow the smuggling of opium into its dominions.
A more terrible blow was given to the Ministry by events in India; where the occupation of Cabul in 1839 ended two years later in a general revolt of the Affghans and in the loss of a British army in the Khyber Pass. The strength of the Government was restored for a time by the death of William the Fourth in 1837 and the accession of Victoria, the daughter of his brother Edward, Duke of Kent. With the accession of Queen Victoria ended the union of England and Hanover under the same sovereigns, the latter state passing to the next male heir, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland. But the Whig hold on the House of Commons passed steadily away, and a general election in 1841 gave their opponents, who now took the name of Conservatives, a majority of nearly a hundred members. The general confidence in Sir Robert Peel, who was placed at the head of the Ministry which followed that of Lord Melbourne, enabled him to deal vigorously with two of the difficulties which had most hampered his predecessors. The disorder of the public finances was repaired by the repeal of a host of oppressive and useless duties and by the imposition of an Income Tax. In Ireland O'Connell was charged with sedition and convicted, and though subsequently released from prison on appeal to the House of Lords, his influence received a shock from which it never recovered.
Peace was made with China by a treaty which threw open some of its ports to traders of all nations; in India the disaster of Cabul was avenged by an expedition under General Pollock which penetrated victoriously to the capital of that country in 1842, and the province of Scinde was annexed to the British dominions. The shock, however, to the English power brought about fresh struggles for supremacy with the natives, and especially with the Sikhs, who were crushed for the time in three great battles at Moodkee, Ferozeshah, and Sobraon.