Constituencies recently added to our preview site (2)

The 1832-68 House of Commons project includes studies of every constituency – more than 400 – in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Between 4,000 to 6,000 words in length, each study provides a detailed but accessible analysis of every parliamentary election in this period, alongside a brief social and economic profile. Borough entries also contain related information about local government. Since 2012 we have made our articles available in draft form on our preview site, where they can be consulted in full (and for free). The articles are uploaded as they are completed, and since our previous update last year, we have recently added a host of new constituency studies, ranging from England’s smallest constituency to a rare triple-member seat. These include:

Thetford, one of the constituency pieces recently uploaded to our preview site

Thetford, one of the constituency pieces recently uploaded to our preview site

Thetford. A double-member borough that straddled the Norfolk and Suffolk border, Thetford was the smallest English constituency in terms of its electorate following the 1832 Reform Act. The representation was controlled by the heads of the Grafton and Baring dynasties, by arrangement with the borough’s leading manufacturing families who dominated the town council. A striking feature of the borough’s post-Reform parliamentary politics was the ambiguous nature of the candidates’ party loyalties. Indeed, party spirit was generally lacking on both sides at the hustings, with candidates eschewing pledges and instead preferring to identify themselves solely with their family.

Suffolk East and Suffolk West. In the early 1840s Suffolk was described as ‘one of the most extensive agricultural districts in the empire’. The East Suffolk Agricultural Society, whose committee contained the leaders of local Conservatism, loomed large in county life and ensured that rural issues, particularly the much-detested malt tax, took centre stage during parliamentary elections. A sustained registration drive by the Conservatives in the five years following the Reform Act, coupled with the strategy of presenting their candidates as moderate and progressive, delivered complete electoral hegemony for the party in both constituencies from 1837 onwards.

Hereford and Herefordshire. The representation of the county town and cathedral city of Hereford was generally monopolised by the Liberals in this period, though the Conservatives, ignoring their own weakness on the register, made a habit of unwisely contesting elections that they had no chance of winning. The borough had a distinct political culture. Local Conservatism had a ‘High Tory’ flavour, a legacy of the influence of cathedral clergymen, known as the ‘Black and Tans’, and the corporation. The Whigs, meanwhile, due to the prevalence of bribery in the division, were early advocates of the ballot. The wider county, universally known for its cider production, was one of only seven English constituencies to elect three MPs after 1832, and the representation was generally shared between the Conservatives and Liberals. The county’s triple-member status also allowed candidates to differentiate themselves from their party colleagues.

Boundary commissioners' map of Elgin, 1832 (Copyright Uni. of Southampton)

Boundary commissioners’ map of Elgin, 1832 (Copyright Uni. of Southampton)

Elgin District. A Scottish constituency, this single-member borough comprised, in descending order of electoral importance, the burghs of Elgin, Banff, Peterhead, Kintore, Invery and Cullen, the later being ‘little more than a street’. The district remained in Liberal hands throughout this period, but this was far from assured, especially in the 1830s and 1840s when the Conservatives posed a serious challenge. The Liberals also suffered from internecine conflict, though, unlike in the larger Scottish towns, these disputes concerned the nature of representation and influence in the burghs, rather than religious divisions over patronage in the Church of Scotland. The most prominent landowner was the extraordinarily popular James Duff (1776-1857), 4th Earl of Fife, locally known as the ‘good earl’. The Duffs were victorious in 1847 and held the seat without opposition for the remainder of the period.

We have now uploaded over 75 constituency studies to the 1832-68 preview site. For details about how to obtain access, please click here.

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‘I am not in a position of life in which our Members usually are’: William Wood (1816-71), MP for Pontefract

The Lib-Lab MPs Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, both miners who were elected to the Commons at the 1874 general election, are generally regarded as the first working men to enter Parliament. As we continue our research for the 1832-68 project, it is becoming clear that while Burt and Macdonald may have been the first ‘labour’ representatives at Westminster, there were MPs before 1868 who had similarly humble roots. These self-made men form a particularly interesting group, and one of them, William Wood, who sat as Liberal MP for Pontefract from 1857 until 1859, is the focus of this month’s blog.

When invited to stand for his native borough in 1857, Wood initially professed reluctance, on the grounds that ‘I am not in a position of life in which our Members usually are’. Having agreed to come forward, his election address emphasised his humble origins, describing himself as ‘a native and resident elector … who can be fairly classed as a working man’. Wood was the son of a small shopkeeper, and, in contrast with the vast number of MPs who attended Oxford or Cambridge universities, he ‘received his mechanical education in a mechanics’ institute’. It was his practical abilities and his genius for invention which enabled Wood’s rise. In 1838 he left Pontefract to become the resident managing partner of the Wilton carpet manufactory, where he began what he described as ‘a mechanical revolution’. He took out numerous patents for improvements in the manufacture of carpets, devoting himself in particular to the problem of how to apply steam power to carpet-weaving. In 1855 he exhibited a version of his loom at the Paris Exhibition, where it won a first class medal. Wood improved his financial position by selling the rights to his inventions to the Halifax carpet manufacturer, John Crossley.

1855 Paris Exhibition

1855 Paris Exhibition

Wood had returned to live in Pontefract in 1851, and was keen to share the fruits of his success with his fellow townspeople. In December 1855 he and his second wife (who had formerly been his servant) distributed sums of 2s. 6d. and 5s. to 900 local families, who returned their thanks by presenting Mrs. Wood with a silver cream jug. Wood had larger plans for benevolence, hoping to set up a ‘model factory’ in Pontefract, with organised homes for workers, which would provide employment for ‘female orphans, the deaf and dumb, and the destitute generally’. This scheme, in which he claimed to have invested £10,000, never bore fruit, and his political opponents alleged that it was ‘a mere bubble affair’, designed to curry favour with Pontefract’s electors, although they offered no evidence for this.

At the 1857 election, Wood agreed to stand for Pontefract on condition that he would ‘be allowed to devote as much time as could properly be spared from national public duties to the local interests of the town’. He described his political views as ‘liberal but not partisan’, declaring in plain terms his support for ‘such measures as are based upon common sense, and the principle of doing unto others as we would they should do unto us’. His sympathies for the working classes were demonstrated when he argued for meritocracy in the civil service and the armed forces, so that ‘every man, rich or poor, shall have a fair field and no favour’. He also advocated reforms of taxation, remarking that ‘I cannot see the justice of taxing the poor man on nearly everything he eats and drinks, and allowing the rich man’s property to go free’. He supported ‘a large extension of the franchise’ and the introduction of the secret ballot. Despite his admitted political inexperience, Wood finished second in the poll, ousting one of the sitting members, Benjamin Oliveira, who was also a Liberal. Oliveira had lost local support, and petitioned against Wood’s election in a fit of pique. However, Wood’s assurances that he had stood ‘wholly and solely on the principles of purity of election’ were accepted by the election petition committee, and he retained his seat, although the defence of it cost him £2,000.

Although Wood had declared that if elected, he would ‘strive to show that the capability of governing was not solely confined to what is considered as the upper class of society’, he failed to make any impact at Westminster, neither speaking in debate nor serving on any select committees. Given his apparent lack of enthusiasm for parliamentary life, and his unpleasant and costly experiences with the election petition in 1857, it was hardly surprising that he retired at the 1859 election, wishing to devote his time to local affairs. Although his model factory scheme floundered, he continued to register patents throughout the 1860s, not only on processes relating to carpet manufacture, but also to the manufacture of Pontefract cakes, the liquorice sweets associated with the town.

Compared with many fellow MPs, Wood died in relatively modest circumstances, leaving effects valued at under £2,000. His properties in Pontefract were subsequently sold for £9,880, but his widow and four children from his second marriage evidently remained in a difficult financial position. In 1872 she was granted a pension from the civil list of £70, in recognition of Wood’s service as an MP and magistrate and the contribution made ‘by his inventive genius to the carpet manufacture of the country’, from which he had ‘reaped little advantage himself’.

For details on how to access our draft biographies, see here.

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MP of the month: Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis (1780-1838) is probably best remembered today for bankrolling the future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s election to Parliament. Lewis’s wife Mary, an aspiring society hostess with an eye for younger men, had taken a shine to Disraeli and adopted him as her ‘political pet’. In 1837 Lewis agreed not only to let Disraeli stand alongside him as a Conservative in the two-member constituency of Maidstone, where he had been one of the MPs since 1835, but also advanced all the money to cover Disraeli’s expenses.

Given Disraeli’s precarious finances and previous election defeats, including two failed candidatures as a ‘radical’, the opportunity to stand for a safe seat and share the political platform with an established Tory was a godsend both practically and politically. Lewis and Disraeli’s jointly published address – still something of an innovation in the 1830s – stressed their support for the ‘Protestant Constitution’ and opposition to the ‘heartless’ New Poor Law with its attack on the ‘English poor’. After spending almost £5,000, much of it on bribing Maidstone’s notoriously venal freemen, Lewis and Disraeli were elected with comfortable majorities.

Mrs Lewis’s marriage to Disraeli following her husband’s death in 1838 has made the name of Wyndham Lewis a familiar one. Lewis himself, however, remains a curiously neglected figure. Indeed, for someone who appears so frequently in the footnotes of Victorian political history, surprisingly little has been written about him.

Wyndham Lewis MP

Wyndham Lewis MP

One immediately striking feature about Lewis was his non-élite background and willingness to chart his own political course. The fourth son of a Welsh clergymen, Lewis had begun his working life in 1798 as a solicitor’s clerk. By 1808 he had progressed to running his own country practice at Pentyrch, near Cardiff. The death of a childless uncle two years later transformed his life, making him and his brother major shareholders in the Dowlais Ironworks, run by Josiah John Guest MP. As well as taking the opportunity to read for the bar, Lewis began to work closely with Guest on finance and contracts, a field in which he evidently excelled. The company prospered, eventually becoming the world’s largest ironworks and earning the partners huge profits. Aided by his new wealth, in 1820 Lewis was elected as an ‘independent’ MP for Cardiff – one of growing band of industrialists and businessmen to secure election to the Commons before the 1832 Reform Act. However, he soon found himself at odds with Cardiff’s leading patron and embroiled in controversy for ‘abusing’ his position as an MP, after securing lucrative contracts for Dowlais and blocking industrial pollution controls.

Despite spending freely at elections in both Camelford and Maidstone in 1826, Lewis was unable to secure another seat until 1827, when he was brought in for Aldeburgh by a leading Tory MP in return for party support. Unwilling to back the Tory ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation in 1829, however, he resigned. Thereafter Lewis concentrated on building up his own personal electoral interest at Maidstone. Standing there as a Conservative in 1832, he lost on account of bribery by the Radicals, as he believed. Determined not to be outgunned again, he continued to lavish money on the constituency and its fledgling Conservative societies and was elected with ease in 1835. By 1837 he was effectively the borough’s patron, able to return himself and whomsoever he pleased.

Lewis’s decision to back Disraeli, his wife’s ‘parliamentary protégé’, illustrates another revealing aspect of his career: the political influence exercised by his wife. Like his business partner Guest, Lewis had married a woman who was politically aware and active, most conspicuously at election time with canvassing and campaigning, but also generally behind the scenes. With Lewis, however, it may have gone further. His estranged son-in-law claimed that Lewis ‘was so completely under petticoat government, that he would not dare to vote on any question in the House of Commons without the sanction of his wife!’ Maidstone’s electors, he asserted, were ‘being represented, de facto, in the British Legislature by a woman!’

The same son-in-law also accused Wyndham of having two illegitimate children (both of whom appear to have been provided for in Lewis’s will) and Mary of ‘flagitious behaviour’ with other men. Mrs. Lewis’s affairs have indeed been the subject of much historical speculation. However, there is no doubting the genuine feeling that existed between the couple, as the affectionate notes and keepsakes of hair collected by Mary following Wyndham’s death in 1838 amply testify. Eighteen months after being widowed Mrs Lewis married Disraeli, twelve years her junior, and began funding his political career. She was rewarded with the rare honour of a peerage in her own right four years before her own death in 1872.

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Victorian MPs on holiday

With the holiday season well and truly upon us, it seems fitting to consider how the protagonists of the Victorian Commons spent their vacations. The reasons why nineteenth-century MPs holidayed were as diverse as the locations they visited, and often provide an insight into how Victorian politicians perceived their parliamentary duties.

Richard Monckton Milnes MP

Richard Monckton Milnes MP

Even though the decade following the 1832 Reform Act witnessed a rise in the scrutiny of MPs’ political activity, many still held rather casual attitudes towards attending the Commons once summer had begun. Robert Heron, Whig MP for Peterborough, felt that the time of the reformed House was ‘eternally wasted in the most futile and idle manner’ and usually retired in early June to his Lincolnshire estates to attend to his menagerie of exotic animals. The existence of a ministry with a secure majority also encouraged MPs to holiday when Parliament was in session. In September 1841 Richard Monckton Milnes, recently re-elected for Pontefract, unashamedly informed the new premier Robert Peel that he would be spending a good deal of time on the Continent, on account ‘of the liberty the security of your political position now gives to your friends’.

Many Victorian MPs used holidays to pursue their favourite recreations and pastimes. Frederick Milbank, Liberal Member for the North Riding, spent much of his vacations shooting in Scotland and Yorkshire, bagging a record 190 grouse in 25 minutes on Wemmergill Moor in August 1872. Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, who sat as a Liberal for Berwick on Tweed, passed his summers at his Scottish estate at Guisachan, where he developed a new breed of dog, the golden retriever, after breeding a golden-coated retriever with one of his Tweed water spaniels.

Frederick Milbank MP

Frederick Milbank MP

The state of a politician’s health and his choice of holiday destination were frequently intertwined. Suffering from gout in the summer of 1856, Disraeli retired to Spa, Belgium, where, in his own words, he could ‘enjoy a little society without mingling in the world of dissipation’. Following his election for Aberdeenshire in August 1854, Lord Haddo, the chronically ill heir of the Prime Minister Aberdeen, took a lengthy holiday in Egypt to recuperate. His father was less than sanguine about his chances of a recovery, writing to Haddo’s brother that ‘it will be nothing less than a miracle if you ever see him again after he leaves England’. Defying his father’s grave expectations, Haddo’s health improved slightly as a result of his Egyptian sojourn. Robert Bateson, MP for County Londonderry, was less fortunate. While holidaying in Jerusalem at Christmas in 1843, he was fatally struck down by an attack of ‘low typhus fever’. He has the distinction of being the first person to be buried in the city’s Protestant cemetery.

Victorian MPs also used their holidays for self-improvement. After a particularly bruising parliamentary session in 1866 which had witnessed the collapse of the Liberal ministry, Gladstone traveled to Rome, devoting himself to the city’s culture. According to one of his visitors, Lord Clarendon, ‘Italian art, archaeology and literature are G’s sole occupations. Every morning at 8 he lectures his wife and daughters upon Dante, and requires them to parse and give the root of every verb. He runs about all day to shops, galleries and persons’. Artistic pursuits abroad could also have unexpected consequences. Whilst on holiday in Italy in October 1833, William Fox Talbot, Whig MP for Chippenham, became frustrated at his inability to sketch a landscape and thus conceived the idea of making the image projected by a camera obscura permanent. This revolutionary idea led to his invention of the photograph.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the growing demands made by government upon MPs gave greater significance to the role of the party whips, who became increasingly less tolerant of non-attendance. The age of MPs whiling away parts of the parliamentary session abroad was slowly passing away. The coterminous rise of the railways, though, provided Victorian MPs with quick getaways to their favourite parts of the British Isles without necessarily jeopardizing their political commitments. In 1872, for example, Gladstone, after paddling in a remote Scottish loch, was able to take charge of a cabinet meeting in London the next afternoon, a transformation that would have been unthinkable to Earl Grey in 1832.

The rise of cheap rail travel also meant that it was not just the political elite who could take short holidays in the British Isles, with the general public now able to travel widely, and enjoy the vicissitudes of the British weather in summertime.

Further Reading

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995)

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MP of the month: Lord Elcho

In the third of our guest blogs, Stephen Lees, one of our leading external contributors and co-editor of the well-known ‘Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament’ volumes, celebrates the career of Lord Elcho, who died one hundred years ago today.

Lord Elcho

Lord Elcho

On 30 June 1914, two days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, a Scottish aristocrat died in his London home aged 95. Francis Charteris, 10th earl of Wemyss and March, known for 30 years as Lord Elcho, had been born in 1818, in the reign of George III, and his life spanned almost the entire period between the Battle of Waterloo and the outbreak of the First World War. The last survivor from Peel’s premiership and the repeal of the corn laws, he became an MP in 1841 and lived for almost another 73 years, a record which has not been equalled since. Apart from a short break in 1846-47, he was an active parliamentarian throughout this period, for the last 30 years of his life in the House of Lords where he spoke regularly until 1910.

Francis Charteris first entered the Commons as a Protectionist MP for East Gloucestershire, where his grandfather the 8th earl possessed land and influence. Following Peel, however, by 1845 he had come to the conclusion that the corn laws should be repealed, putting him at odds with his agricultural constituents. Shortly before the critical votes on the issue in 1846, he resigned his seat. Eighteen months later he returned to the House as the Member for Haddingtonshire (East Lothian), where his family’s principal estates were situated. He continued to represent the seat until 1883, for the last 30 years, during his father’s tenure of the earldom, being known by the courtesy title of Lord Elcho. He served as one of the lords of the treasury in the Aberdeen ministry from 1853, but in 1855 left office with the other leading Peelites in the fallout over the Crimean war.

socialismatstst00londgoog_0006An independent spirit with strongly libertarian views, Elcho was not a natural party man and never held office again, being described as ‘the embodiment of the crossbench mind’. He played a leading part in the notorious ‘Adullamite’ rebellion of 1866-7, which led to the defeat of the Liberal ministry’s reform bill and their resignation. Members of the ‘Adullamite cave’ met at his house to plan their tactics and supporters of reform stoned his windows. Later, he was the prime mover in the foundation of the ‘Liberty and Property Defence League’ (1882), a cross-party pressure group formed in the wake of Gladstone’s domestic and land reforms to oppose state interference and promote laissez-faire individualism.

Elcho also left his mark in other areas. An accomplished sculptor and watercolourist, he was instrumental in preventing the removal of the National Gallery to South Kensington in 1856. He played a key role in the formation of the General Medical Council (1858), and maintained a lifelong interest in homoeopathy, to which he attributed his longevity in old age. In 1859 he supported the foundation of the rifle volunteer movement, taking command of the London Scottish regiment, and the National Rifle Association. A regular contributor to parliamentary debates on military matters, he was deeply critical of successive secretaries of state for war, opposing the army reforms of both Cardwell in the early 1870s and Haldane 35 years later. Reflecting his wide-ranging expertise, he was an active member of no less than four royal commissions of inquiry, into the volunteer corps, the Royal Academy, trade unions, and the sanitary laws. Tributes at his death referred to his zest for life and undiminished vigour right to the end, as well as his charm of manner and sweetness of temper.

Stephen Lees

Further reading:

R. Saunders, Democracy and the vote in British politics, 1848-1867 (2011).

M. Cowling, 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution; the passing of the second Reform Bill (1967).

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‘An organized system of rascality and roguery’: The House of Commons and Derby Day

In 1911 Herbert Samuel contended that the contrast between the House of Commons he knew and that of the previous century was like that between ‘an express train’ and ‘the coach of an earlier age’. To emphasise his point he felt it necessary to remind his fellow MPs that the House had once been allowed a holiday on Derby Day, an occurrence that for one commentator writing in 1952 most clearly illustrated the difference between ‘the Derby-going Victorian member of Parliament with the Whip-ridden member’ of her own day. With the 2014 Derby taking place this Saturday, it seems a fitting moment to reflect on the origins of the Derby Day holiday for Members of the Victorian Commons.

Lord George Bentinck

Lord George Bentinck

For fifty years the adjournment of the House on Derby Day was regularly put to the vote, with the race-goers invariably gaining the upper hand. The practice began in 1847 when Lord George Bentinck, then the dominant figure in British horse-racing, unexpectedly moved the adjournment, claiming that for half a century the event had been recognised as a holiday in the metropolis. His unprecedented motion was carried without opposition, but the following year Members who feared that the House faced discredit for so frivolously suspending public business, opposed the motion and were defeated by just 13 votes. Bentinck’s success in securing the day for the race-goers was, however, bitter-sweet. Having recently parted with his racing stud in order to devote himself more completely to his parliamentary duties, he proved inconsolable, when Surplice, a horse he had formerly owned, won that year’s race, apparently emitting ‘a sort of superb groan’ in front of Disraeli.

Surplice, winner of the 1848 Derby

Surplice, winner of the 1848 Derby

The next year’s division courted public controversy, and caused anger among the nation’s reformers. Whereas there had been 261 Members present when the motion for adjournment was passed, only 91 subsequently divided on the question of triennial parliaments. A mere 27 MPs were present for a later motion to consider improvements to the social condition of the working classes, at which point the House was counted out and the sitting closed. By 1852 it was conceded that the government was unlikely to have ‘a sufficient attendance for getting through any public business’ on Derby Day, and the motion was consequently moved without debate. For the next six years the day of the race was conveniently encompassed by the House’s Whitsun holiday, something that subsequent ministries sought to ensure whenever possible.

In 1860 Lord Palmerston finally took the matter in hand and established that the leader of the House should routinely move the adjournment, provided that it did not inconvenience public business. All went well for those connected with the turf until 1874 when the rise of Nonconformist opposition to gambling led to a resumption of debate. Sir Wilfrid Lawson spoke for the anti-Derby-goers, for whom horse racing was ‘an organized system of rascality and roguery’. He questioned whether it was appropriate for Members to ‘spend a hot summer’s day on a dusty heath, surrounded by fortune-tellers, mountebanks, minstrels, acrobats, blacklegs, betting men, and pickpockets’, and sought to disabuse anyone who imagined that adjourning for the Derby was ‘part of the British Constitution – just as much as Magna Charta’. Although Lawson and his followers were soundly defeated at subsequent divisions, in 1878 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stafford Northcote, recognised that growing opposition to the practice made it advisable for the motion to again become the responsibility of a private member, so that the House could vote ‘on grounds of perfect equality’. With the Irish crisis taking up an ever increasing amount of parliamentary time, Gladstone declined to ‘meddle’ in the ‘miserable annual squabble’ in 1881, but in 1882 he compelled Members to attend on Derby Day by retaining the day for government business.

Sir Wilfrid Lawson

Sir Wilfrid Lawson

Members who believed that their increasingly heavy workload entitled them and the ‘hard-worked officials’ of the House to at least one day of ‘rest and recreation’, ensured that the customary break in business was resumed in 1883, when they secured a majority of 100. However, those who favoured a more business-like approach to parliamentary work – being equally opposed to the partial suspension of business on Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day – persisted in their opposition. As a consequence, the Derby Day motion began to be eagerly anticipated. The debates were now characterised by the ‘light and airy banter’ so beloved by the public, and frequently marked by ‘pawky humour’ and ‘curious personal confessions’. By 1890 the race-goers’ majority had shrunk to only 27, and in 1892 the motion was defeated for the first time, although the chamber remained almost empty for the Derby Day sitting. Forced to adopt a ‘self-denying ordinance’ in order to discuss amendments to the Irish home rule bill in 1893, each of the race-goers’ three subsequent motions for an adjournment were soundly defeated, thus putting an end to the custom.

By the turn of the century it was acknowledged that the Derby Day holiday had been ‘completely abolished by general consent’, although thinly attended Houses were regularly anticipated on the day of the race, and efforts were still made to accommodate the frustrated horse fanciers. In 1901 the Leader of the House, Arthur Balfour, extended the Whitsun holiday in order to accommodate them, and in 1904 he agreed as prime minister to table only ‘non-controversial business’ on day of the race. All the same, when in 1907 Horatio Bottomley suggested that the traditional adjournment might be revived so as to allow members to judge whether the Street Betting Act required ‘amendment or extension’, he was given short shrift by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Asquith.

While Samuel’s comments suggested that the debates on adjourning for Derby Day were merely an amusing relic of the past, the shift in perceptions about whether it was proper for MPs to be granted this customary holiday in fact reflected broader changes in the personnel and practices of the House of Commons. Race-horse owning MPs such as Bentinck who coveted ‘the blue ribbon of the turf’ gave way to those who favoured a rather different approach to the demands of parliamentary business.

Further reading:

A. Dewar, ‘When Parliament Went to the Derby’, History Today, ii, 6 (1952), 412.

B. Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck. A Political Biography (1852), 387.

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MP of the Month: Lord Adolphus Vane-Tempest

Inside the mausoleum of the Church of St. Mary’s, Long Newton, in county Durham, is a small mural commemorating the life of Lord Adolphus Frederick Charles William Stewart Vane-Tempest (1825-1864), our MP of the Month for May. Vane-Tempest was the second and favourite son of Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, Marchioness of Londonderry, who had entirely rebuilt the church in 1856-57. His modest memorial, though, is overshadowed by an elaborate monument to his father, Charles William Stewart, third Marquess of Londonderry, a dominant and divisive figure in Durham Conservatism throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1818

Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1818

A measured assessment of Vane-Tempest’s role in the Victorian Commons, as Conservative Member for Durham City, 1852-53, then Durham North, 1854-64, has been similarly eclipsed, most notably by an all-consuming focus on his fragile mental health and alcohol addiction. Queen Victoria felt that he had ‘a natural tendency to madness’, while an unsympathetic historian has labelled him ‘a syphilitic alcoholic wastrel’. Such descriptions, however, belie a parliamentary career characterised by thoughtful and important contributions to debate, particularly concerning the condition of soldiers serving in the British army.

Vane-Tempest’s political journey was initially beset by interruptions. His election for Durham City in 1852 was subsequently declared void on petition, on the grounds of bribery by his agents. He swiftly secured election for Durham North in April 1854, but in the autumn of that year he took a leave of absence from his parliamentary duties to serve in the Crimea with the Scots Fusilier Guards, which he had joined in 1843. Present at the bloody siege of Sebastopol in November 1854, he wrote his mother a series of letters from the front, giving her ‘deplorable accounts’ of the soldiers’ predicament. He was awarded the Crimean medal and clasp, but the ravages of the war took their toll, and he began to display ‘eccentric behaviour on his return to civilian life’.

The siege of Sebastopol, by Adolphe Yvon, c. 1857

The siege of Sebastopol, by Adolphe Yvon, c. 1857

Despite suffering from bouts of mental instability thereafter, Vane-Tempest became a vocal and authoritative champion in the Commons of soldiers’ welfare, drawing on his experiences in the Crimea. He called for a reform of army pensions, revealing that officers severely wounded in the Crimea could not claim one, which was ‘not a principle on which a great country like this ought to act’. After serving on two select committees on the land transport corps, he lobbied ministers over the case of the corps’ officers, who had not received half-pay following its abolition. Angered by what he felt to be shabby treatment, he then became a dogged questioner of ministers over the arrangements for recruiting troops to serve in India, warning Palmerston’s administration that it had failed to learn the lessons of the Crimean War.

By 1861, however, Vane-Tempest’s mental health had deteriorated. In March that year, after being found ‘in a very excited state and very violent’ in Coventry Street, London, his friends took him to a ‘private lunatic asylum’, with The Times reporting that there was ‘little reason to doubt that his lordship’s mind has become deranged’. His parliamentary seat, though, remained safe. His mother, Lady Londonderry, who was the dominant influence in county Durham’s Conservative politics, believed that he would eventually recover. She was also a friend and confidante of Disraeli, who was sympathetic to Vane-Tempest’s plight, reassuring her that ‘he, who gains time, gains everything. We shall gain time, and the rest depends on Adolphus’.

Evidently in improved health, Vane-Tempest visited the United States in August 1861 and thereafter became an outspoken supporter of the Confederacy, but, compared to his earlier insightful contributions to debates on military matters, his Commons speech on the American Civil War in July 1862, made while ‘excruciatingly drunk’, ended in farce, when he fell ‘over backwards into the row behind him’. In 1863, with attacks of mania becoming more frequent, he was removed from the family home in the interests of ‘his wife’s life and safety’. He died the following year, during a struggle with four attendants.

It is understandable that historians, when mentioning Vane-Tempest, emphasise his struggles with mania and alcoholism. However, as further research on his parliamentary career reveals, this narrow focus obscures a period of significant contributions to debates concerning the state and future of the British army. Such research thus underlines the important role that fresh biographies of backbench Victorian politicians can play in moving our understanding of their careers beyond accepted historiographical stereotypes.

For details of how to access Vane-Tempest’s full History of Parliament biography from our preview site, see here. For a recent History of Parliament blog concerning Victorian MPs who served in the Crimea, see here.

Further reading:

Marchioness of Londonderry, Frances Anne: the life and time of Frances Anne, Marchioness of Londonderry and her husband Charles Third Marquess of Londonderry (1958)

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