Active Learning on

Pre-1832 Election Game


This active learning exercise was devised by Geoff Lyon who teaches in Ormskirk. It was developed to fit into a sequence of Key Stage 3 lessons on electoral reform in such a way as to promote coherence across lessons and to target a whole range of targets including the ‘affective’ element of active learning, significance, an investigative approach and links to the present. It’s that ‘affective’ element that’s likely to make the activity successful. Most of us of a certain age have grim memories of being taught about the 1832 Reform Act in a way that made it impossible to believe that anyone had stayed awake during the reform debates of 1830-1832, let alone took part in marches and riots or that Wellington had been convinced that revolution lay round the corner. Why did people care so much? That’s what this activity is about – and helping students to care about past issues by getting them to think from the inside of past situations is a very effective way of helping them learn more and understand more deeply. Moral outrage is more likely than objectivity to lead to learning.

For further background see ‘Reflecting On Rights: Teaching Pupils About Pre-1832 British Politics Using A Realistic Role-Play’ by G.M. Lyon, in Teaching History 103, (2001) pp.28-31.

This article is available on the HA website to members at:

Although the activity was originally designed for KS3 it can also be used by GCSE SHP groups studying Britain 1815-1851 or at A level where the game can be analyzed for accuracy as a way of acquiring knowledge of the political system.

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

Or, a WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

This activity is based on the ’Role play ’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


The activity enables students to develop understanding of:

  • the problems with the British electoral system before 1832 and why many people believed it was unfair
  • how and why the British electoral system changed
  • Which was the real turning point in electoral reform?

Setting Up

1. It cannot be assumed that pupils have knowledge and understanding of relevant political concepts. A ‘pre-test’ of pupils’ understanding through either a listening-in to pupils sharing their knowledge in pairs or groups or a class question-and-answer session can give the teacher the necessary impression of pupils’ understanding at the outset of the topic. The teacher can then give a brief, accurate description of the present electoral system and point out that this system has only come about as a result of changes from 1832 onwards. This leads to the question ‘What was the system before 1832?’ and to the game as one means of finding out.

2. Not every pupil is involved in the game at the same time so a second means of finding out about the pre-1832 electoral system is needed – an investigation of a range of appropriate primary and/or secondary sources. These might be in a suitable standard textbook or on teacher-prepared sheets, but should contain sufficient information to facilitate a successful debriefing at the end of the game.

3. Allocating roles - for the game itself, each pupil is given a role-card [ see list of roles below ] with a brief description of his/her job, character or situation. Some of the role-cards for the voters are neutral in effect, some should work in favour of the Tories, but more should work in favour of the Whigs. This unfairness is deliberate.

The design and allocation of role-cards give scope for some humour in the History classroom. “You are a school-teacher...the priest...a drunkard...the village idiot...the village idiot’s wife” can raise some smiles, but professional judgment and knowledge of one’s pupils are essential to ensure that any such humour is positive in effect.

The Activity

The Game Stage 1 – the campaign

Voters’ objectives

For the voters, the aim of the game is to improve or, at least, avoid worsening their personal circumstances. On this basis they have to decide who to vote for after talking to the candidates and campaign managers.

Candidates and campaign managers

Four of the role-cards refer to the two party candidates (Whig and Tory) and their campaign managers. The candidate and campaign manager for each party work together as a pair. Their task is to canvass the voters to achieve the election of their own party’s candidate at minimal financial cost to themselves and without bankrupting the candidate, as a bankrupt cannot be elected. Their role-cards inform them of how much money they have at their disposal for the campaign. The Whigs have £1,000 and the Tories £500 – again a deliberately unfair allocation. It is important that each party keeps secret how much money their candidate has available. Monopoly money makes a good contribution, enabling money to be passed over and for the candidates and managers to keep track of how much they have spent.

Details of how votes can be gained should be explained to pupils either on a handout sheet or whiteboard as follows:

Rules of the election campaign

Candidates and campaign managers of the two parties can spend money in the following ways:

Bribery’ – straightforward money for votes, amounts negotiable.

Treating’ – giving a great party and accepting an invitation in return for a vote. Cost of giving a party - £100.

Promising trade’– a sort of bribe: a vote in return for trade of a certain value, e.g. £100 worth of carts.

Cooping’ – keeping voters drunk until the poll is over so that they cannot cast their votes the wrong way. Candidates may not coop more than three voters at the cost of £20 each.

Threats and flattery cost nothing!

The two parties have twenty minutes to go round canvassing voters, using promises, persuasion and threats (of eviction or unemployment), in order to secure their votes in the poll at the end of the canvassing. Both the party and the voter write down what, if anything, they agree in terms of giving money and votes.

Candidates should remember that a bankrupt cannot be elected!

The Game Stage 2 – the Election

At the end of the allotted time the candidates and campaign managers sit down and the teacher acts as returning officer for the election. The teacher asks each voter who, if anyone, he or she casts his/her vote for and why. Some players receive some surprises at this stage, as votes which one party believed they had secured are not forthcoming! Votes cast and money spent should be recorded on the board, with running totals.

The winner is the candidate with most votes – unless he has bankrupted himself by spending in excess of his resources. At this point that the teacher must reveal how much money each candidate started with, and it is at this point (if it has not already happened) that the pupils’ emotions are aroused. The emotion is a sense of moral outrage at a ‘loaded’ game and an obvious ‘fix’. Exactly! The perception is increased further when attention is drawn to the ‘weighted’ role cards, with the ‘situations’ of the voters not being shared fairly between the parties. On an emotional level the ‘gut reaction’ of pupils shows that they are learning that the pre-1832 system was in some way ‘just not right’. We expect games – and electoral systems – to be fair. If they are not, we might well feel outraged. Arousing pupils’ emotions in this way is deliberately intended to help them understand that the topic matters.


The calmer, more reasoned progression through the debriefing questions reveals the value of the two complementary activities (source-investigation and game) and builds understanding of the moral and practical deficiencies of the pre-1832 system.

Debriefing Questions

1. Was the game fair? Why or why not?

2. Who won and why?

3. In what ways would the voters enjoy or dislike an election?

4. Which of the characters would really have been able to vote in an election at the start of 1832? Does this surprise you?

5. There were several other ways in which the game was unrealistic and inaccurate as a representation of a pre-1832 election. List and explain briefly as many examples as you can.

6. List what changes needed to be made to make the pre-1832 electoral system fair and democratic.

7. Which of the changes you have suggested in answer to question 6 do you consider to be the most important reform and why?

If the game is tested as an interpretation or representation of a pre-1832 election it is of course inaccurate in many ways. Pupils should be able to suggest several of these, e.g. many elections were uncontested, two MP’s were usually elected, no females should have voted, only one male in twelve should have voted, voting would really have taken place over several days, the game left out other forms of ‘cheating’ like personation. A level students will particularly focus on identifying the differences between the game and the real pre-1832 situation and could be asked to devise a more historically accurate game to cement their knowledge and understanding.

Having established on an emotional and intellectual level the shortcomings of the system, pupils can ‘brainstorm’ suggestions for how things might be put right. They can then put these in order of priority, judging which would be the most important of their suggestions. Would it be allowing all men to vote, allowing women to vote, introducing voting in secret, introducing rules on campaign expenditure, or something else? These priorities can be referred back to in follow-up lessons when considering the significance of later legislation. Was the real turning point 1832, 1872, 1918... or when?

Finally, the current importance of the right to a fair vote, and the exercise of that hard-won right, can be discussed. Do pupils intend to vote in elections – why or why not? And, to encourage appropriate reflection and to raise a controversial issue, is the government justified in insisting that all pupils at KS4 study Citizenship as a National Curriculum subject, but not History?

List of Roles

You are a blacksmith and could do with an order for horse-shoes.

You live in a cottage owned by the Tory candidate.

You are the head stable-hand at the Whig candidate’s stables.

Your wife works in the kitchen of the Whig candidate’s house.

You have a job mucking out the pigs on the Tory candidate’s farm.

You are an unemployed farm worker who needs some work.

You are a barmaid in the local inn, which is owned by the Whigs.

You are a rich merchant.

The Whig candidate helped your mother after your father died. You are grateful to him.

You are the Whig campaign manager. You help the Whig candidate. Together, you have £1,000 to spend on your campaign.

You are the Tory candidate. You work with your campaign manager. Together you have £500 to spend on your campaign.

You are the Tory campaign manager. You help the Tory candidate. Together, you have £500 to spend on your campaign.

You are the Whig candidate. You work with your campaign manager. Together you have £1,000 to spend on your campaign.

You are the village idiot.

You are the village idiot’s wife.

You are a local shop-keeper and own your own house.

You live in a house owned by the Whigs.

You are the village blacksmith and could do with an order for horse-shoes or other items.

Your wife works in the kitchen of the Whig candidate’s house.

Your old mother lives in a cottage owned by the Tory candidate.

You are the local school-teacher.

You are the local doctor.

You are the local priest.

You are a cooper and could do with an order for some barrels.

You are a rich drunkard.

You are a poor drunkard.

You are an unemployed farm-worker.

You are the milk-maid on the Whig candidate’s farm.

You are the ploughman on the Tory candidate’s farm.

You are the ploughman on the Whig candidate’s farm.


  1. When and how will you refer back to this session later in your course? Can you use this activity to relate to 20th century developments such as the struggle for civil rights among by Black Americans and against Apartheid in South Africa?
  2. How did tackling this topic through this role-play activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the issues and detail deeper?
  3. Did this have an impact on the quality of discussion among students? If so, how and why and what can be learned from this?
  4. What impact does this activity have on your planning back across KS3? Does this activity link back to e.g. Magna Carta or 1381 or the Civil War? Do pupils see a thread linking these events?

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

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Setting Up

The Activity