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:

http://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/francis_wemyss-charteris-douglas.htm#.U6wKx7HyRr8

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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Happy 500th birthday to Trinity House

This week sees the 500th anniversary of the presentation of a royal charter (on 20 May 1514) to ‘the Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity and of Saint Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond in the County of Kent’, now usually known by its shorter title as Trinity House. This body has long held responsibilities for lighthouses and also for pilotage.

To mark this anniversary, our blog looks at a nineteenth-century MP who had a strong connection to Trinity House, serving as one of the elder brethren who governed its affairs. Aaron Chapman (1771-1850), described as being of ‘pleasing and unassuming manners and exterior, accompanied with sound sense and judgment’, was elected as the first MP for the newly enfranchised borough of Whitby in 1832. He represented this port as a Conservative until 1847, when he retired from Parliament at the age of 75.

Chapman came from a ‘very opulent family which has flourished in the town of Whitby for more than four centuries’. His father John was one of England’s most extensive shipowners, and Chapman took command of one of his ships at an early age, demonstrating ‘great nautical skill and ability’. He retired from seafaring in the 1790s, after which he managed the London side of his family’s maritime business interests. In 1809 he became one of Trinity House’s elder brethren, and was said to have ‘commanded the esteem and gratitude of the mercantile community’ in this role. He helped to establish the General Shipowners’ Society in 1831, and was a director of the London Assurance Company, the London Docks Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, among others. He was also involved with charitable endeavours for the benefit of seafarers, including the Seamen’s Hospital, the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum and the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives from Shipwreck (later the RNLI).

Although he lived in London, Chapman’s prominence in the shipping industry made him a strong choice to represent his native borough of Whitby, where he easily defeated a Liberal opponent in 1832 despite a ‘nervous’ and ‘agitated’ performance on the election hustings. He never again faced a contest, being unopposed at the general elections of 1835, 1837 and 1841.

Unsurprisingly Chapman’s main contribution in the House of Commons was on shipping questions. It was said that his ‘good sense and close acquaintance with maritime subjects made even party men defer to his opinions’. He served with ‘unwearied diligence’ on innumerable select committees, on matters ranging from pilotage in the Cinque ports to the establishment of a pension fund for merchant seamen. Alongside this, he was a robust opponent of free trade, wishing to retain protective duties (such as the corn laws and the timber duties) for the benefit of both the agricultural and the shipping interests.

LighthouseChapman’s connection with Trinity House led him to take a particular interest in the issue of maritime safety. He sat on and gave evidence to the 1834 select committee on lighthouses, and supported the efforts of the Radical MP Joseph Hume to implement the committee’s recommendations by consolidating all lighthouses under Trinity House’s management, although he was less keen on Hume’s efforts to curb the pensions paid out by Trinity House. He later sat on the committee which assessed the effects of this legislation. He also served on the royal commission on the laws of pilotage, one of whose key recommendations was the extension of Trinity House’s powers and jurisdiction in this area. He supported the principle of a toll on the coal trade to fund improvements to harbours of refuge, and served on committees on the causes of shipwrecks in 1836, 1839 and 1843. In 1845, while serving on the royal commission on tidal harbours, he inspected several harbours in the north-east. In a speech to the Shipowners’ Society in 1846, he described himself as ‘an Englishman and an old sailor’, and he proved a committed advocate of seafarers’ interests throughout his fifteen years in the Commons.

More information about the history of Trinity House can be found on its website and its blog.
Our History of Parliament biography of Aaron Chapman can be consulted on our preview site.

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The mathematics of Victorian representation: part 2

In an earlier blog on Victorian double-member elections, we looked at the differences between the total vote received by candidates and the levels of support for each party. Put simply, owing to splitting (cross-party voting) and other ‘non-party’ forms of behaviour, Victorian election results reveal little about party performance in multi-member contests. Most reference works providing a breakdown of each party’s share of the vote in nineteeth-century general elections, in this respect at least, are rather misleading.

Original pollbooks, of course, offer a complete breakdown of the poll, but unfortunately they do not exist for every contest, although new ones continue to be unearthed, not least due to the interest they hold for genealogists. Even without pollbooks, however, it is still possible to work out the different types of votes that were cast, from a surprisingly limited amount of information. This is especially true of the so-called ‘triangular’ contests, where two candidates from one party faced a solitary opponent from another. With so much data about turnout, plumping (single votes) and splitting (shared votes) now accessible from digitized local newspapers, many of the gaps in our knowledge of Victorian polling can begin to be filled.

Calculating votes in ‘triangular’ contests:

Below is a typical set of data from a Victorian ‘triangular’ poll, in which three candidates A, B and C competed for two seats in a double-member constituency. Note that there was no difference between casting a vote for AB or BA. In both cases the outcome was the same – a vote received by each of the candidates A and B.

Voting The winning candidates here were A and C, whose totals are given as TA and TC in order to avoid confusion. The result for C, who topped the poll, was made up as follows:

  • Single votes for C = 559
  • Votes for A and C = 193
  • Votes for B and C = 89
  • Total votes received by C (TC) = 559+193+89 = 841

In these polls, the total number of people who voted (turnout) is not the same as the total number of votes received by all the candidates. This is because some people cast two votes and some cast one. So the total number of votes (TV) received by all three candidates is: 813 + 575 + 841 = 2,229. But the number of people who actually voted (TN) is: A+B+C+AB+AC+BC = 204 + 70 + 559 + 416 + 193 + 89 = 1,531

The difference between these two figures is the number of people who cast double votes. This is because when adding the results together, the shared votes are counted twice. So from just the results and turnout figures alone, it is possible to tell how many people chose to use single votes (A+B+C) and how many cast double votes (AB+AC+BC). The sums here are: 2,229 – 1,531 = 698 double votes. Therefore 1,531 – 698 double votes = 833 single votes. Alternatively, to find the number of single votes more quickly, multiply the turnout (TN) by two and subtract the total number of votes (TV). Based on the above, it is possible to reconstruct a poll from limited data.

One of the most common scenarios involves knowing the final results and finding reports of the turnout (TN) and of the number of single votes received by either all three or sometimes just two of the candidates, for instance A and B. The remaining single vote C is obviously the total number of single votes (as calculated above) minus A and B, but the distribution of the double votes is less obvious. To work out the three types of double votes (AB, AC and BC) that were cast, subtract the single votes (A, B, C) from each candidate’s result (TA, TB, TC) and calculate AB as follows:equationOnce AB is known, AC is easy to calculate (AC=TA-AB-A) and then BC can also be found (BC=TC-AC-C).

Another frequent discovery in original documents is information about how many votes just one of the candidates shared with another, especially when standing for the same party, as well as the number of single votes that candidate received. Finding data about A and AB, for instance, allows AC to be calculated from the total result for A (TA). Knowing the turnout (TN) then enables the remaining double vote (BC) to be worked out:

BC = (TA+TB+TC) – TN (turnout) – (AB+AC)

Using these and similar methods, it is possible to reconstruct many of the missing polling figures for Victorian multi-member elections. As our project progresses, the snippets of information needed to fill in these gaps are gradually coming to light. These poll breakdowns reveal for the first time the true (rather than estimated) level of party-based support experienced in Victorian elections as well as the incidence of cross-party voting behaviour. This will be particularly revealing for county polls, the largest type of election, where so little electoral analysis has been done.

For further details about the 1832-68 project and how to access our articles online click here.

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MP of the Month: John Cheetham (1802-1886), of Eastwood, Stalybridge

Our MP of the Month for April was, perhaps rather surprisingly, the focus of a recent archaeological dig. John Cheetham (1802-1886), who sat as a Liberal MP for Lancashire South from 1852 until 1859, and for Salford from 1865 until 1868, built himself a house at Eastwood in Stalybridge, the town which was home to his extensive cotton spinning business. After Cheetham’s death in 1886, Eastwood was occupied by another MP, Cheetham’s eldest son, John Frederick Cheetham (1835-1916). He represented North Derbyshire from 1880 until 1885, and then sat for his native Stalybridge from 1905 until 1910. As he had no children, he left Eastwood House, its grounds and contents to the corporation of Stalybridge, for use as a public park. His younger sister Agnes lived at Eastwood until her death in 1931, and the park opened the following year.

Tameside Archaeological Society exhibition at Cheetham Park, Stalybridge

Tameside Archaeological Society exhibition at Cheetham Park, Stalybridge

The house at Eastwood was demolished in around 1950, and it was this site which was excavated during a community dig organised by the Tameside Archaeological Society last month. Alongside the dig, the society displayed an exhibition which included our biography of John Cheetham.

Cheetham, who was praised by John Bright for his ‘useful and honourable’ life, was a shrewd and energetic man, and a diligent representative of the north-west’s manufacturing and commercial interests during his two spells in Parliament. The Cheetham’s family cotton business in Stalybridge had been established by his father George at the turn of the nineteenth century, and Cheetham continued to expand it, employing 1,400 people by 1861. The needs of the cotton industry prompted him to take a leading role in the establishment in 1857 of the Cotton Supply Association, of which he became president. This organisation aimed to remedy the ‘deficient supply of cotton from the United States’ by seeking supplies elsewhere, particularly from India. Cheetham persistently lobbied ministers to undertake public works and encourage investment in India, and was unafraid of criticising the Liberal government’s failings on this question. When the American Civil War dramatically curtailed the supply of cotton from the southern states, Cheetham witnessed the devastating effects of the ‘cotton famine’ in Stalybridge, which saw rioting in 1863 as a result. In March 1863 he had a stone thrown at him as he left a special meeting of the local relief committee.

Although the cotton supply question was his pet topic, both in and out of Parliament, Cheetham also contributed to debate on a range of other issues, notably the grievances of his fellow Nonconformists (he was himself a Congregationalist). He was a keen advocate of parliamentary reform, and saw a more equitable distribution of seats as particularly important. As MP for South Lancashire, Cheetham represented the second most populous constituency in the country (after Middlesex). Yet, as he argued in a speech to a reform meeting at Sheffield in 1854,

‘it is all very well for us to stand up and say that we represent constituencies of wealth, population, and intelligence beyond others; but when we get to the [division] lobby, our aye or no is just put against some man who represents some pocket borough in the south’.

As well as supporting the granting of separate parliamentary representation to his native town of Stalybridge, he also lobbied for Salford, the borough which he represented from February 1865, to be granted a second MP. Unfortunately for Cheetham he was not able to win either of Salford’s seats at the 1868 general election, ending his parliamentary career.

Details of the Tameside Archaeology Society’s dig at Eastwood can be found on its website.

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