Active Learning on

When did they win the vote?
An outline (with a bit of help from the Corn Laws)


The struggle to win the vote is as important a topic as any at KS3 but, like many important topics, it can be difficult to create the level of enthusiasm that we feel it should deserve. It’s natural to develop a depth enquiry, perhaps on the Suffragettes, maybe on Chartism if there’s time within the KS3 scheme of work, but placing that depth study in an outline context can be tricky. It’s a classic KS3 conundrum – we’d like students to take away knowledge of Peterloo, the 1832 Reform Act, Chartism, the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 and why there was such opposition to extending the franchise – plus those other issues such as the importance of the secret ballot - but for many teachers time is against this.

This activity offers an outline of franchise reform which can provide a context for a depth enquiry – that outline can be done quickly but the key to its success is its use of physical representation of how many people could vote. However before we get there I’ve begun with a topic many people are only too happy to ignore – the Corn Laws of 1815. Why? - because they help students understand why people wanted the vote. In the early 1800s fear of hunger and starvation, a fear increased by the Corn Laws, was a prime motivation behind the demand for the vote.
This overview activity can be completed in one, maybe two lessons. Like other activities on this site, it’s not a ‘print and do’ activity which takes away the need for preparation. There’s a detailed description of the activity below but it needs careful thought about how to use it and mental rehearsal to make it effective.

There’s more discussion below on this activity and its links to possible depth enquiries but some final introductory points:

1. Please don’t shy away from significant topics such as parliamentary reform because they seem difficult to teach (that sense of difficulty sometimes comes from experience of teaching a topic to an older age group).

2. We always need to help students care about an issue and in this case, given the prevailing mood of ‘why bother voting?’ this is even more important than usual.


A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

• For a WORD version of this activity [ click here ]

• PowerPoint slides (Note: These slides don’t constitute a single sequence that takes you through every step of the activities – instead they are offered as items you might use at different stages during these activities. The final slide may offer a way into discussing why voting is seen as far more important in some countries than it seems to be in others.) [ click here ]

• A4 price of wheat cards [ click here ]

• Card sort activities for follow-up [ click here ]

• Loaf of brown, uncut bread! (not available to download!)


This activity will help students know and understand that:

a) hunger and fear of starvation were a major reason why people wanted the vote in the early 19th century.

b) the pace of change in franchise reform (who could vote) was extremely slow.

Students may also, depending on the focus of your teaching, understand the pattern of franchise reform i.e. the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918, 1928.

The Activity

Part 1  Why did they want the vote?

This part of the activity requires students to put themselves in the shoes of people in the early 19th century, to think as if inside the situation. This will help hugely with understanding and motivation. Like many activities it takes longer to describe than do – it’s not as complicated as may appear!

a) Choose 2 students to be English farmers. They should stand at the front of the room to one side. Give them the A4 wheat price placards. Everyone else in the class is a British worker.

Explain to the class that many of you (the workers) are worried about whether you can feed your children - you don’t earn a lot of money and you may lose your job at any time (and there’s no unemployment pay).

Explain that bread (made from wheat) is the main part of the workers’ diet – without bread there’s the danger of hunger and even starvation.  [You could flourish a brown uncut loaf while explaining this to focus attention on bread].

b) Ask workers why they would like the cost of wheat to be low? Answer – because bread will be cheap and they will be able to afford plenty of bread to feed their families.

Ask the two farmers whether they want the price of the wheat they grow to be low?

They’ll need help with this but guide them through and draw out that low wheat prices mean that they will have lower income so be poorer. In turn this could mean that farmworkers lose their jobs.

The key points from the above are:

• Workers want wheat prices and resulting bread prices to be low so that they will not go hungry.

• Farmers want higher prices – they’ll make more profits and employ more people.

c) Explain that the­ cost of wheat in 1814 is £3 a quarter in Britain (this is a notional figure). Get the English farmers to hold up the £3 A4 sheet.

Now tell everyone that the cost in France is £1.50 a quarter

(I think we can gloss over shillings but, in case you don’t know, 50 pence equalled 10 shillings. A quarter was 28 pounds – roughly 13 kilos, think bags of sugar or similar)

Ask workers – will British or French wheat make cheaper bread? Answer – French.

Ask - should we import French wheat into Britain to produce cheaper bread?

[hopefully they’ll agree this is a good idea because they’ll be able to buy more bread]

d) Ask the farmers – what do they think of importing cheaper French wheat?

[Steer them to answer – it’ not a good idea – they’ll sell less English wheat or have to lower their own prices. Either way they’ll be worse off. This may mean having to sack workers or lower wages]

e) What is the British government doing?

Take the role of Prime Minister yourself and announce new laws in 1815 – the Corn Laws.  They say that we can’t import wheat from abroad until the price of British wheat reaches £4 a quarter.

Ask farmers – what do you think of this?  Answer – no cheap imports so good for profits. An excellent law!

Ask workers - what do you think of this? Answer – a terrible law – less chance of cheaper bread and more chance of hunger.

As Prime Minister, explain that you are pleased that the farmers like the Corn Laws – because they can vote. The workers do not have a vote.

f) The next harvest is poor – less wheat has been grown.

Ask farmers what they’ll charge for wheat per quarter?

(Will they still charge £3 … or more? People will pay more because there’s not so much to buy. Remind them that foreign wheat can be imported when the price reaches £4 – steer them to deciding on £3.50 or even £3.95)

g) Ask workers – how do you feel about this much higher price?

(they should be very worried - bring out fear of hunger – can they afford to buy much bread?)

Ask them - what can you do about it? How can you change the law?

(steer them to thinking about changing the government – but they can’t do that because they can’t vote – so they have to protest, campaign, march etc)

h) So why was voting so important to people in early 1800s?

This is the headline point – they wanted to vote to reduce the chances of hunger and starvation.

[At some stage you can add other things to this explanation too – to improve working and living conditions, because it was fairer etc but that central point about hunger is important. It will also explain the changes in the pattern of demand for reform over time, hence William Cobbett’s comment that ‘you cannot agitate a man on a full stomach’. It’s obviously up to you when and how you build on this core point about why people wanted the vote – see below for use of sorting cards.]

Stage 2 – how long did it take people to get the vote?  

This is very much a quick overview, using your students physically to demonstrate the pace of change in franchise reform. The idea is simple but visually very strong – you use 20 students to represent the adult population of Britain and at each reform more students stand up in proportion to the number of voters. 20 is by far the easiest number. Using 25 or 30 sometimes means getting half a student to stand up! The table below gives you the numbers. Again this explanation makes it look more complicated than it is!

a) Ask students what percentage of adults they think could vote at the time of the Corn Laws (before 1830). Were they men and women or just men?

Ask 1 student out of 20 to stand up – he is the voter - i.e. 5% of the population.

b) Explain that you are quickly going to summarise how long it took for all 20 – the whole adult population – to get the vote as a result of new laws in Parliament called Reform Acts.

One of these Reform Acts became known as The Great Reform Act – ask class why it might have this name? As you go through this outline choose which Act deserved this name – you could give this task to those students not in the 20 ‘voters’.

c) Explain – the first Reform Act came in 1832 following many protests and riots. For example, in Bristol the army broke up one large protest. Many people – middle class and working class – hoped they would get the vote. What % of people do you think had the vote after this Reform Act (i.e. how many more of the 20 would be standing up)?

Answer – 1 more student to stand up (see table below). The number of voters did not even double. The new voters were all men who were well-off. Ordinary working men still could not vote. Do you think this was The Great Reform Act?

d) The next Reform Act came in 1867 – that’s 35 years later (think in terms of a baby growing to be 35 since 1832 – a long time).

This Act followed many years of protests, collections of signatures and petitions and many working people educating themselves.  What % of people do you think had the vote after this Reform Act (i.e. how many more of the 20 would be standing up)?

Answer – 1 more student to stand up so now 3 out of 20 (see table below). The new voters were all working men in towns – they still had to be quite well-off. Many ordinary working men and all women still could not vote. Do you think this was The Great Reform Act?

e) The next Reform Act came in 1884 – that baby born in 1832 is now 52!
This Act gave the vote to many working men in the countryside – though not all working men.  What % of people do you think had the vote after this Reform Act?

Answer – 3 more students to stand up so now 6 out of 20 (see table below). Over half of working men could vote – but many others and all women still could not vote. Do you think this was The Great Reform Act?

e) The next Reform Act came in 1918 after World War One  – that baby born in 1832 is now 86!

This Act followed many years of campaigns, many peaceful, some violent, by women to gain the vote. Women had taken a full part in war work, working in industry to make weapons and doing many of the jobs left empty by men. Many men who fought and died had not had the vote in 1914 either. Who do you think got the vote?

Answer – all men over 21 and all women over 30 – so now 17 out of 20 can stand up. Only women aged 21 to 30 still could not vote. Do you think this was The Great Reform Act?

f) Explain that 10 years later all women over 21 could vote – ask the remaining three students to stand up.

Date of Reform

% of adult population who could vote

Number of students who should stand up in group of 20

Before reform - 1830




































Other Ideas

Give students cards to hold up with the date they got the vote on – so one 1832, one 1867 etc. If they were colour-coded the pattern would be very easy to see.



Some possible areas for discussion:

• How would you describe the rate of change in the numbers who could vote?

• Which Act do you think deserves to be called The Great Reform Act?  Why do you think the 1832 Act has this name?

[You could use Sorting Cards A to consolidate the questions above – can students match the Acts to the descriptions?]

• Why were so many people desperate to have the vote – and why did some oppose extending the numbers of voters?

[You could use sorting cards B to introduce reasons for and against extending the number of voters – they’re not meant to cover everything but can introduce issues you’d come back to in a depth enquiry.]

• You could look at other reforms that were sought and (mostly) were introduced over time. Sorting Cards C provide the six points of the People’s Charter and the reasons why each point was sought after. You could ask students to match the aims to the problems and then suggest which of the six points were likely to have the highest priority for protesters in the 1800s. They could create a pyramid of importance using the sorting cards.

• You could also extend this discussion to overseas attitudes to voting – see the PowerPoint slide showing the queue to vote in South Africa in 1994

Reflections (for teachers)

1. What enquiry questions do you want to pose for follow-up depth enquiries? 

• We often ask ‘why did they get the vote in xxxx?’ or focus on a single phase such as Why did so many people join the Chartists? or ‘Why did women get the vote in 1918?’  but here are some other possibilities which span a longer period and draw on a variety of movements:

• Why did it take so long to win the vote?

• Why did winning the vote matter so much to so many people?

• Did violence help or hinder winning the vote?

2. What other opportunities are there for using this kind of physical representation at KS3 or later?

3. What other opportunities are there for using this balance of outline and depth?


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page




The Activity