Victorian MPs and Colonial Governance

When the Marquess of Normanby recalled his method of dealing with difficult issues as a colonial governor, he revealed that he had always asked himself ‘What would they think upon this question in the House of Commons?’ Before his celebrated career as a governor in Australia and New Zealand, Normanby had sat in the Commons as Liberal Member for Scarborough in the 1840s and 1850s, and it is clear, from his own recollections, that his parliamentary experiences shaped his approach to gubernatorial office.

Charles Poulett Thomson, governor-general of Canada, 1839-41

Charles Poulett Thomson, governor-general of Canada, 1839-41

Between 1828 and 1868, 38 former MPs were appointed to colonial governorships, yet the collective phenomenon of Victorian MPs taking up gubernatorial office in the British empire remains largely unaddressed by the current historiography. This is surprising given that the exportation of the Westminster model was critical to the success of British colonial policy in the mid-nineteenth century. From the 1830s onwards, there was a growing acceptance amongst metropolitan administrators that greater colonial self-government was necessary. Because the belief that British institutions were superior was entrenched into Colonial Office thinking, the ideal solution appeared to be the reproduction of British forms of government – the Westminster model – in the colonies. Concurrently, British policy makers were beginning to realise the benefits of civilian leadership in the empire. Where the military style, quarter-deck manner had once predominated, a new reliance on tact, diplomacy and mediation was becoming evident.

In a recent article for the Britain and the World Journal, I examined the extent to which those Victorian MPs who became colonial governors drew on their experiences of Westminster culture when attempting to introduce greater self-government to their respective colonies. Four MPs were considered: Charles Poulett Thomson, governor-general of Canada, 1839-41; Arthur Hamilton Gordon, lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, 1861-66; Sir Charles Edward Grey, governor of Jamaica, 1847-53, and his successor, Sir Henry Barkly, 1853-56.

The most successful governor was Thomson and it is no coincidence that, of the four MPs examined, he had the greatest parliamentary experience, sitting as a Whig for Dover, 1826-32, and Manchester 1832-39. He also twice served as President of the Board of Trade and, crucially, was a close friend of Lord John Russell, then Colonial Secretary. After pushing through the union of Lower and Upper Canada, Governor Thomson praised his own ‘prodigious … management, in which my House of Commons tactics stood me in good stead’. Certainly, his political skills, particularly the one of being able to shift positions, helped in dealing with the diverging wishes of the two Canadas. He also, through private correspondence, made great use of his close ties with Russell, who put forward Thomson’s case in cabinet. In this context, Thomson combined the two spheres of public negotiation and private practices perfectly.

Sir Henry Barkly, governor of Jamaica, 1853-56

Sir Henry Barkly, governor of Jamaica, 1853-56

Thomson’s achievements in British North America were in stark contrast to Gordon, who after only three years in the Commons as Member for Beverley, had little parliamentary skill to draw upon while lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, particularly the practice of crafting an authoritative public persona. Despite the connections that came from his father, the former Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen, he also had no personal relationship with the Colonial Secretary, the fifth Duke of Newcastle. Sir Charles Grey, after three years as Liberal MP for Tynemouth, also struggled to effectively combine the public and private demands of colonial governance. He shocked the Jamaican Assembly by demanding reforms that were unrealistic, while his tendency to state uncomfortable truths in his official dispatches, rather than in his private correspondence, infuriated the secretary of state, Earl Grey. His successor as governor, Sir Henry Barkly, who, as Conservative MP for Leominster from 1845 to 1849, had shown political savvy by supporting the equalisation of the sugar duties while keeping his West Indian planter friends onside, enjoyed greater success. Realising the necessity of combining a conciliatory public persona with the efficient use of private networks, he appeased the Jamaican Assembly while ensuring, through private correspondence with his old Westminster network, that his views still shaped the home government’s policy.

What emerges from this analysis is that when these former MPs enjoyed a degree of success in managing and bargaining with a colonial assembly, it was because they were able to cultivate an effective public persona while exploiting, through private correspondence, connections with former colleagues at Westminster. This insight reflects one of the wider findings of our research so far on the House of Commons, 1832-1868 project. Members of Parliament elected in the post-1832 era, whose actions were coming under ever greater scrutiny, were becoming increasingly skilled in the arts of public negotiation and private networking.

Biographies of Sir Charles Grey and Sir Henry Barkly are available on our preview site. For details of how to access it, please see here.

Further reading:

J. Owen, ‘Exporting the Westminster model: MPs and Colonial Governance in the Victorian era’, Britain and the World Journal, 7:1 (2014), 28-55.

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‘Politics before democracy: Britain and its world, c. 1830-1914’ conference at UEA

Last week members (past and present) of the House of Commons 1832-68 research team gave presentations at the ‘Politics before democracy’ conference hosted by the School of History at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Aye lobby, House of Commons

Aye lobby, House of Commons

Philip Salmon and Kathryn Rix provided an overview of the 1832-68 project and our progress to date, with well over 950 biographies of MPs and 100 constituency articles completed. Draft versions of these articles can be viewed on our preview site: for details of how to gain access to this, see here. They discussed the ways in which MPs’ biographies are shedding new light on important themes such as the backgrounds and career trajectories of MPs, the role of backbenchers in the day-to-day business of the House of Commons, and the development of political parties during the nineteenth century. Philip discussed the History of Parliament’s current development of a database of 19th century division lists, which will transform our ability to assess the voting behaviour of MPs at both individual and group levels.

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston

Henry Miller, formerly part of the 1832-68 project, and now based at the University of Manchester, spoke on ‘The public face of politics: popular portraiture and politicians, 1830-1880’. His paper, which draws on research for his forthcoming book, highlighted the importance of visual imagery as a central part of 19th century political culture, and considered how politicians such as Disraeli and Palmerston sought to control the use of their portraits and photographs.

Martin Spychal and Rebekah Moore, who are both undertaking PhDs as collaborative doctoral award holders at the Institute of Historical Research/History of Parliament, shared some of the early findings of their PhD research. Martin, who is working on the drawing up of constituency boundaries in 1832, looked at the controversy which surrounded the decision to divide counties such as Norfolk into two constituencies. Rebekah’s research is on the temporary buildings of the House of Commons which were occupied by MPs after the 1834 fire which destroyed large parts of the Palace of Westminster. For almost twenty years MPs were working in what was effectively a building site, and there were considerable pressures on space, particularly because of the growing amount of business being discussed by committees.

Finally, James Owen moved beyond 1868 to talk about his own research project. His paper, on ‘The culture of labour politics in England, 1868-1888’, drew on one of the key themes of his recent book on Labour and the Caucus, exploring the relationship between the embryonic labour movement and the Liberal party. He considered the diversity of labour politics in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and the variety of ways in which labour activists interacted with local organised Liberalism.

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MP of the month: John Tollemache and the ‘thraldom of party’

Tollemache with his grandson

Tollemache with his grandson

Tollemache is best remembered for his pioneering allotment schemes, which originated the phrase ‘three acres and a cow’, later made popular by the land reform campaigns of Jesse Collings MP and Joseph Chamberlain MP. The allotments with three-bedroom cottages he built for tenants on his extensive estates, at a staggering cost of about £280,000, brought him to national attention in old age, when he was fêted by organisations like the Allotments and Small Holding Association.

Portrayed by his son as an eccentric ‘despot’, Tollemache’s widely admired benevolent paternalism was evidently coloured by a highly authoritarian regime at home, where he is said to have fathered at least 25 children. His many foibles included the burning of clothes left lying around his hallways and the wearing of a wig, despite having a full head of hair. At vast expense he built himself a mock-medieval fortress on the Peckforton hills, which became the family seat in 1852. Today it remains the only intact medieval style castle in England.

Peckforton Castle shortly after completion

Peckforton Castle shortly after completion

Tollemache’s 30 year career as a backbench MP for South Cheshire (1841-68) and West Cheshire (1868-72) serves as an important reminder of the different attitude to party that existed among many MPs in the Victorian era. Reference works label him as a Conservative, but he refused to ‘submit to the thraldom of party’, as he put it, and often pursued his own agenda in the lobbies. His votes against Peel over the reduction of the sugar import duties (1844), the permanent funding of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth (1845) and the repeal of the corn laws (1846) have caught the attention of a number of historians. One pioneering study by David Fisher places Tollemache among a hard-core of 16 ‘inveterate malcontents’, including Disraeli and Newdegate, who ‘ranged’ against the premier ‘on almost every major issue’ dividing the Conservative party after 1841. Other studies have noted his association with the ‘Protestant faction’ that ‘seceded’ from the Conservative party and the Carlton Club over Maynooth in June 1845, when Tollemache became a founder member (and trustee) of the ultra-Protestant National Club. Later he again broke ranks with his ‘Conservative’ colleagues by supporting Palmerston on a range of key issues, including the Liberal budget and the ministry’s handling of the Crimean war (1855) and bombardment of Canton (1857). Yet the Conservative leaders considered him ‘in every way fit’ for the peerage he was eventually given by the Disraeli ministry in 1876.

In retirement, Tollemache liked to boast that he had never given a party vote, attended a party meeting or answered a Conservative whip. Putting these sorts of claims of ‘independence’ by MPs to the test, however, is notoriously problematic, not least because it was a routine rhetorical device in most electioneering speeches. Hitherto most studies of how Victorian MPs behaved in the lobbies have been limited to specific issues or certain groups over a short timeframe. A new MP voting database currently being planned by the 1832-68 project, however, will enable researchers to undertake a far more rigorous assessment of MPs’ voting records, across entire careers and in comparison with other members. The extent to which Tollemache was unusual and any ‘thraldom of party’ really existed in this period will hopefully then become far more apparent. Further details of this new resource will follow soon.

To access Tollemache’s 1832-68 biography click here.

Related reading:

D. Beales, ‘Parliamentary Parties and the “Independent” Member, 1810-1860′, in R. Robson (ed.), Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain (1967)

G. Cahill, ‘The Protestant Association and the Anti-Maynooth agitation of 1845’, The Catholic Historical Review (1957)

D. Fisher, ‘Peel and the Conservative party: the sugar crises of 1844 reconsidered’, Historical Journal (1975)

R. Durdley, ‘John Tollemache and his Castle’, Cheshire History (2007-8)

J. Wolffe, The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain, 1829-1869 (1991)

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The Knights of St. Patrick

On the day of Ireland’s patron saint, we look at the highest order of chivalry associated with that country, and consider the careers of some of the Members of Parliament who sat in the Reformed Commons and who were created Knights of St. Patrick between 1845 and 1899.

The insignia of the Knight of St. Patrick

The insignia of a Knight of the Order of St. Patrick

The Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick was founded in 1783 and was used to reward Irish peers who supported the government of the day. It served as the national order of Ireland as the Garter did for England and the Thistle for Scotland. The original royal warrant specified that there were to be no more than fifteen knights of the order at any one time, although by 1833 the number had been increased to twenty-two.

Twenty-two former Members of Parliament who sat in the period between 1832 and 1868 were created knights of the order, and all but five of them sat for Irish seats. Some, like Richard Southwell Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo, contributed significantly to political life, sitting in the Commons from 1847 to 1868, and serving the Conservatives as Irish Chief Secretary in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8, and as Viceroy of India from 1868 until he was assassinated in 1872. Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue sat in the Commons from 1847 to 1874, and was Irish Chief Secretary for the Liberals in 1865-6 and 1868-71. He was created 1st Baron Carlingford in 1874 and sat in the Cabinet during the 1880s.

Other knights had less distinguished political careers but were nonetheless active parliamentarians. Luke White, who became 2nd Baron Annaly in 1873, was the Irish whip for the Liberals before his failure to secure a parliamentary seat ended his Commons career. William Drogo Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester, had served as a private secretary to Benjamin Disraeli during his time as MP for Bewdley, 1848-52, and Huntingdonshire, 1852-5.

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

Some recipients of the honour were better known for their contributions to pursuits other than politics. William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, who as Lord Oxmantown sat for King’s County, 1821-35, was a pioneering astronomer and built what was for many years the world’s largest and most advanced telescope at his home, Birr Castle.

While some recipients of the honour may not have distinguished themselves in the Commons, they subsequently wielded significant political influence in their locality by virtue of their huge estates, and their service as Lords Lieutenant of their counties; George Vane-Tempest, 5th Marquess of Londonderry, George Chichester, 3rd Marquess of Donegall, James Molyneux Caulfeild, 3rd Earl of Charlemont, and Charles Bingham, 4th Earl of Lucan, each fall into this category. Frederick Stewart, 4th Marquess of Londonderry, and Valentine Browne, 4th Earl of Kenmare, received the honour at least partly in recognition of their service to the royal household, while others were rewarded for their efforts in the House of Lords, either as Irish representative peers, or by virtue of United Kingdom peerages.

Only four of the men considered here began life as commoners. Robert Carew, who sat for his native county Wexford, 1812-30 and 1831-4, and as its Lord Lieutenant, 1831-56, proved an invaluable Irish adviser to the Whig ministry at the time of the reform bills, and was created 1st Baron Carew in 1834. (His son, the 2nd Baron, also sat for the seat and received the honour in 1872). Thomas O’Hagan, the only Catholic among the twenty-two members considered here, sat briefly for Tralee in 1863-5, before rising to become Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1868-74 and 1880-1. He was elevated to the peerage as 1st Baron O’Hagan in 1870, and made a Knight of St. Patrick in 1882.

One of the men awarded the honour in this period did not serve as a Member of Parliament, but played an important role in the government of the British empire. Frederick Hamilton Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava enjoyed a distinguished career as an administrator and diplomat and was given the honour in 1864. He subsequently served as Governor-General of Canada from 1872-8, and as Viceroy of India from 1884-8.

In all one hundred and forty-five men became Knights of St. Patrick, and their regular creation lasted until the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The order went into abeyance after the creation of the last knight in 1936, and effectively lapsed with the death of the last surviving recipient in 1974. The draft biographies of some of the MPs discussed in this article are now available on the History of Parliament 1832-1868 website. For details of how to access this site, see here.

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New book: Labour and the Caucus

One of our Research Fellows on the 1832-68 project, Dr. James Owen, has just published his first book, with Liverpool University Press, Labour and the Caucus: working-class radicalism and organised Liberalism in England, 1868-1888. James recently gave a paper on his work to the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the IHR, which you can read about here, and he shares some of his key insights in his blog for us today:

Labour_and_the_CaucusLabour and the Caucus focuses on the tense and troubled relationship between the labour movement and the Liberal Party in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and, in doing so, provides a new pre-history of the British Labour Party.

The relationship between working-class parliamentary candidates and local Liberal associations, which became pejoratively known as the ‘caucus’, is seen as central to explaining the evolution of independent labour politics. This can, in part, be traced back to Labour’s own narrative concerning Keir Hardie’s by-election defeat as an independent labour candidate at Mid-Lanark in April 1888. Hardie had failed to gain the Liberal nomination, and following his defeat he had declared that the result marked ‘a turning point in history’. Hardie’s attempt to mythologise his electoral failure has been largely successful, as the date of April 1888 is indelibly etched into histories of the Labour Party. Yet, there was nothing intrinsically new about the tone of Hardie’s campaign and the rhetoric that followed. Nearly twenty years prior to this by-election, there were self-styled ‘labour’ candidates asserting, through actions and words, their independence from organised Liberalism. Labour and the Caucus therefore examines this critical twenty year period, which has been neglected in the recent historiography of the labour movement.

The third quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a new era of mass politics which created significant opportunities and challenges for the labour movement. The sustained and concerted campaign for working-class parliamentary representation by a range of labour organisations, from the fledging Labour Representation League in the 1870s to the nascent Labour Electoral Association in the late 1880s, prompted the labour movement to continually re-evaluate the nature of its relationship with the Liberal Party.  The existing scholarly orthodoxy stresses the confluence of labour and Liberals during the Victorian era, yet these parliamentary campaigns revealed real and significant tensions between the two groups. Similarly, in the early 1870s, urban and rural working-class activists, such as republicans and agricultural labourers, who were frequently denied their own public ‘space’ for political meetings, carved out an identity that separated themselves from mainstream Liberalism.

The 1870s and 1880s also witnessed important developments that prompted the labour movement to question the future of its relationship with the Liberals. The first was the introduction of more sophisticated forms of electoral machinery to manage an expanded electorate, epitomised by Joseph Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation. It is common knowledge that a perennial concern of labour activists was that those who held the local party’s purse strings would never select a working-class man unable to pay his own way, but what is less well known is that working-class candidates at local and national elections were pragmatic and flexible: they appreciated the importance of effective political machinery and were assertive in their attempts to broker deals with organised Liberalism. Their ability to do so was largely shaped by the local political environment, which underlines the inadvisability of trying to provide a one-size-fits-all picture of the relationship between labour activists and Liberals.

A second important development was the Irish Nationalist movement, which inspired a new generation of labour activists to postulate what a ‘third party’ could achieve in British politics and what a ‘Labour Party’ would look like.  The notion of what constituted a ‘Labour Party’ was highly contested in the 1880s, and revealed fault lines between the Lib-Labs and the wider labour movement that have arguably been glossed over by historians who stress a straightforward progression from Gladstonian Liberalism to the embryonic Labour Party of the early twentieth century.

All these campaigns and developments which had the potential to change the contours of the relationship between the labour movement and the Liberal Party are examined from fresh perspectives in Labour and the Caucus. The book therefore explores important questions that remain about how working-class radicals and Liberals shared and negotiated power, and how this relationship changed over time.

For more information about the book, see here.

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MP of the Month: Joseph Myles McDonnell, thwarted bagpiper

An impecunious Catholic squire from a remote border region between counties Mayo and Sligo, ‘Joe Mór’ McDonnell (big Joe) was one of the most colourful Irish Members of our period, who once attempted to smuggle his bagpipes into the Commons chamber. A spendthrift, gambler, sportsman, politician and bankrupt, he was of ‘colossal stature’, with ‘handsome, jovial features’, and was remembered as ‘the last of the old type of Irish county gentleman’. Although his career in the Commons was short, his engagement with Irish political life was extensive, and he was never far from controversy.

Born in the mid-1790s into the Catholic gentry of county Mayo, McDonnell became a member of the Catholic Association in 1828 and a vice-president of Mayo’s newly-established Liberal Club. A libel suit brought against him by the Earl of Kingston, whose brother had been denounced by McDonnell for betraying the electors of County Sligo, resulted in his being imprisoned for six months. McDonnell subsequently stood unsuccessfully for County Mayo at the 1830 and 1831 general elections as the ‘unbending advocate’ of popular rights.

McDonnell became embroiled in a number of disputes with his neighbouring gentry. These included a fierce quarrel over a racehorse he had sold to George Moore, a future leader of the Independent Irish party, yet although McDonnell was known as ‘the best shot in Connaught’ this ‘affair of honour’ was never satisfactorily concluded. Despite such disagreements, his home at Doo Castle was said to have been ‘a scene of open-door rollicking hospitality’, with McDonnell acting as ‘the very soul of social gatherings, brimful of humour, teeming with anecdote’. He was credited with being the ‘biggest punch-drinker of his time’, and was said to imbibe twenty-one tumblers every night after his dinner, before organising fox hunts by moonlight in order to avoid attracting the attention of local bailiffs.

He returned to politics in November 1840, but complied with Daniel O’Connell’s request to withdraw from the contest for Mayo in favour of another candidate. He did, however, support O’Connell’s revived repeal campaign, and in May 1843 was dismissed from the magistracy for presiding at a public meeting, the government concluding that McDonnell would ‘sooner fling the commission to the winds than give up the cause of repeal’.

McDonnell claimed to have used his place on the bench to protect the common people from ‘landlord tyranny’, and in 1844 he organised a campaign of passive resistance to the payment of poor rates, before characteristically providing the officers who came to seize his goods with a ‘champagne luncheon’. Dubbed ‘an agitator of the first water’, he continued to seek a place in parliament, although it was said that because he was by now pursued by creditors, it was the immunity from prosecution for debt which the position conferred that was its strongest attraction.

Irish bagpipes (Uilleann pipes)

Irish bagpipes (Uilleann pipes)

At a by-election in March 1846 McDonnell overturned the Whig interest in Mayo after a violent struggle against George Moore. He was backed by O’Connell and (rather reluctantly) by Dr. John MacHale, the archbishop of Tuam, who disliked McDonnell’s ‘vile and immoral’ anecdotes. At Westminster he joined efforts to block the progress of Peel’s Irish coercion bill, and voted for the repeal of the corn laws and in favour of factory reform. Although McDonnell was ‘adroit in the art of bamboozling a crowd’ he does not appear to have spoken in the Commons. However, his ‘convivial habits’ did promise to enliven the routine of the House. Known for his skill as a performer on the Irish bagpipes, he was said to have attempted to smuggle his favourite pipes into the chamber, only to be captured at the door by his friends. His behaviour in the division lobby was also unpredictable and in February 1847 he opposed O’Connell by voting against the Irish railways bill, and that June failed to vote for the Irish tenant-right bill.

Despite enjoying the ostensible support of the Repeal Association, McDonnell claimed to have met with ‘nought but treachery and breach of faith’ during his quest for re-election in 1847. Bereft of popular support, he was unable to overcome the landed interest and finished behind his enemy, George Moore. His failure was perhaps attributable to the ‘most outrageous demand’ for election expenses that he had submitted to the Repeal Association after his return in 1846. After agreeing to withdraw from the 1850 by-election at Mayo in favour of a more popular Liberal, McDonnell, who faced insolvency in the late 1850s, took no further part in politics. Regarded to the last as ‘generous, sincere, and amiable’, he died in Dublin in January 1872.

Further reading:

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The mathematics of Victorian representation: part 1

In this new series of posts, we look at the Victorian multi-member constituencies that predated the UK’s current electoral system and highlight the mathematical challenges they pose for historians.

The first-past-the-post system of electing MPs has long been viewed as a defining feature of the British representative system. Rather like the way ‘Australian’ has come to denote a specific type of ballot, ‘Westminster’ has become almost synonymous with one member constituencies and winner-takes-all polls. It therefore often comes as a surprise to many to learn that there was a long-established system of multi-member seats in operation throughout the 19th century. In England, especially, multi-member constituencies dominated. Between 1832 and 1868, for instance, 204 of England’s 258 county and borough constituencies elected two (or more) MPs at every general election. In total, 96% of the English electorate were entitled to vote in multi-member constituencies following the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

OxfordPollcard1868 crop

Oxford polling card for electing 2 MPs

This multi-member system had all sorts of implications for Victorian voting behaviour. For a start it meant that for most electors their only experience of a modern first-past-the-post poll was at a by-election, when a solitary seat was up for grabs. The different behaviour of voters in by-elections (compared with general elections) during the 19th century has already been mentioned in a previous blog.

In general elections, meanwhile, electors in two-member constituencies could cast votes for two candidates from the same party (straights), share their votes between candidates from different parties (splitting), or cast just one of their votes (plumping). If 3 candidates (A, B and C) stood, each elector had 6 available voting options:

Plumps (single votes) Straights and splits (double votes)*
A B C AB AC BC

* Note that there was no difference between voting AB or BA, AC or CA, etc.

If 4 candidates stood, the options increased to 10:

Plumps (single votes) Straights and splits (double votes)
A B C D AB AC AD BC BD CD

One major upshot of these multiple voting options was that the total vote received by each candidate did not necessarily correlate with the amount of party-based support exhibited during the poll. The final results reveal nothing about how each candidate’s tally was made up. Using the results of Victorian elections to gauge party performance, as many 20th century guides have done, can therefore be very misleading.

Suppose there was a contest between two Tories (T1 & T2) and a Liberal (L) and the final result was reported was follows:

T1: 50 votes, T2: 50 votes, L: 35 votes

These results could have been made up as follows:

Plumpers or single votes (where voters cast just one of their two votes)

T1: 0, T2: 0, L: 35

Shared votes (where voters cast both their two votes)

T1 & T2: 50, T1 & L: 0, T2 & L: 0

In this scenario, there are 85 voters, of whom 35 (41%) vote for the solitary Liberal, and 50 (59%) vote for both Tories. The link between the final results and party performance is amazingly clear in this case.

Unfortunately, it is rarely this simple. Supposing the same totals were made up as follows:

Plumpers / single votes: T1: 25, T2: 10, L: 0

Shared votes: T1 & T2: 15, T1 & L: 10, T2 & L: 25

There are still 85 voters, but the party behaviour making up the final results is very different. The combined Tory vote, T1 & T2, was only selected by 15 out of 85 voters, a mere 18% of the electorate. No one plumped for the single Liberal, but split votes across the parties / non-party votes (T1 & L + T2 & L), were adopted by 35 out of 85 voters (41% of the electorate).

Non-partisan plumping (supporting just one candidate when there is also another from the same party) was also taken up by 35 voters (41% of the electorate). Combined together, 82% of the voters in this poll therefore behaved in what might be described as a non-partisan way, either by splitting their votes between the parties or by casting non-partisan plumps.

And yet the reported results would still be 35 votes for the Liberal, and 50 votes for each of the Tories, implying high levels of Tory partisanship.

It is this potential mismatch between the tallies received by candidates and the level of party-based support that makes Victorian multi-member elections so compelling and complex. Using original data, showing splits and plumps, is crucial to understanding the subtle dynamics of voting that occurred across Britain prior to the adoption of single member seats. Surviving poll books are an essential resource here, but it is also possible to calculate poll breakdowns when a small number of the variables are known. This will be the subject of a follow-up post.

Drafts of our 1832-68 constituency articles, dealing with this very different method of electing MPs to Westminster, can be viewed on our preview site. For details of how to obtain access click here.

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