New article on reporting the proceedings of the House of Commons, 1833-50

My article ‘“Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the Reformed Commons, 1833-50’ has been published in the most recent issue of Parliamentary History, 33:3 (2014), pp. 453-74. It looks at the ways in which parliamentary proceedings were opened up to greater public scrutiny in the two decades after the 1832 Reform Act. This was driven in particular by a growing sense of the importance of parliamentary accountability to public opinion. In the wake of parliamentary reform, MPs – particularly on the liberal side of the House – were increasingly conscious of the need to keep constituents informed of their parliamentary activities, whether these took place in the Commons chamber, the committee rooms or the division lobby.

The article examines how these three key aspects of the work of the Commons were communicated to the public, arguing that the 1830s were a key decade of change. It considers developments in the publication of parliamentary debates (Hansard), analysing why MPs rejected proposals for an official parliamentary record in the 1830s. It also discusses two less well-studied but equally important means of publicising the efforts of MPs: the publication of official division lists and the sale to the public of parliamentary papers. The Commons’ approach to publicising its activities was constrained by the fact that until 1971 it remained a breach of parliamentary privilege – although one which went unpunished – to publish reports of debates.

The 1834 fire viewed from the south bank of the Thames, T. Baynes.

The 1834 fire viewed from the south bank of the Thames, T. Baynes.

The physical space which the Commons occupied also exerted a significant influence. The destruction of much of the old Palace of Westminster by fire in October 1834 provided an important opportunity to remodel existing arrangements, notably with the construction of a reporters’ gallery and the addition of a second division lobby, which was first used in February 1836. By the 1840s the public had unprecedented levels of access to information on the activities of their representatives.

This article can be accessed through the Parliamentary History website.

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Catholics in the Commons: part 1

As we celebrate Bonfire Night, it is worth reflecting on the anti-Catholicism still faced by Catholic MPs in the Victorian Commons, over two centuries years after Guy Fawkes’s failed attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605.

It may seem surprising to some that popular anti-Catholic sentiment continued to flourish in the decades after Catholic emancipation (1829). But although this major reform ended 151 years of Catholics being formally excluded from the Commons, it was not conceived out of a mood of religious toleration. Instead, it was primarily a tactical response to events in Ireland, where Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association had created an army of Catholic voters willing to do his bidding. By allowing Irish Catholics to sit as MPs, but at the same time severely restricting the number of Irish voters, the Tory government aimed to avert civil unrest in Ireland, whilst also dismantling O’Connell’s electoral powerbase.

For many staunch Anglicans the influx of a new breed of Irish Catholic MPs was a high price to pay for silencing O’Connell, who in any case soon began a new campaign for Ireland to leave the Union. For Irish Protestants, in particular, the presence of Irish Catholics was complete anathema, threatening both the position of the Irish Established Church and the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ of the Irish landed ruling elite. Furious clashes between these two groups, over virtually every aspect of Irish policy, helped infuse the Victorian Commons with an almost daily dose of sectarian conflict.

The curious position of English Catholics is often lost sight of in all of this, not least because of the way Irish affairs tended to dominate Victorian attitudes to Catholicism. But in many respects the prospect of English Catholic MPs sitting for English constituencies, at the heart of the Protestant nation, was even more of a threat to the Protestant constitution than Irish Catholic MPs representing predominantly Catholic constituencies. Where would the loyalties of such English Catholics lie, with their constituents or their creed?

These kinds of questions were never far away when Catholics stood for election in England, as some of our recently completed biographies have shown.

Stonor 1837

Extract from an Oxfordshire Address, 1837

In 1832 Thomas Stonor of Stonor Park, whose ancestors were some of Oxfordshire’s most prominent recusants, became one of just five Catholic MPs to be returned for an English constituency at the general election. His election for Oxford was, as one commentator suggested, ‘extraordinary’ given the city’s well-known antipathy to Catholic emancipation. Speaking at his victory dinner, Stonor went out of his way to allay fears that he would ‘confederate with the Irish demagogues in their diabolical endeavours to revolutionize the kingdom’. He also looked forward to proving ‘that a Catholic was not necessarily an enemy to the establishment’. Stonor barely had time to take his seat, however, before he was unseated on petition for corrupt practices that were endemic in the city.

Stonor’s short-lived triumph in 1832 was unusual. The kind of reception more commonly encountered by Catholic candidates was amply demonstrated when he decided to stand for the county in 1837. Placards with ‘Will Oxfordshire add another joint to O’Connell’s tail?’, and ‘No farmers’ friend can vote for Stonor, the Papist’, set the tone for what became a highly charged campaign. After he was defeated at the bottom of the poll, the local Tory paper rejoiced that ‘Protestant feelings are triumphant in this county’.

The additional difficulties faced by English Catholic MPs (as opposed to their Irish counterparts) were perhaps nowhere better illustrated than when a sitting Anglican chose to convert. When John Simeon, Liberal MP for the Isle of Wight, adopted the Roman Catholic faith in 1851, he resigned his seat, believing that he had forfeited the electoral mandate given to him ‘whilst he was a member of the Anglican church’. When Edward Hutchins, Liberal MP for Lymington, refused to do the same after ‘embracing Rome’ five years later, he caused a political scandal. ‘Such conduct is an abuse of the representative principle’ since he ‘is no longer the same man’, protested one local paper. ‘That Mr Hutchins was returned to Parliament by Protestants, will scarcely be denied’, remarked another observer. ‘As a Romanist, then, he is in a false position and it behoves the constituency to call upon the recusant to resign’.

Given these kinds of sentiments in the English constituencies, one of the more surprising features to emerge from our ongoing work on the Victorian Commons is the intellectual attraction that Roman Catholicism was still able to exert over an entire generation of English MPs, many of whom, even if they didn’t convert, clearly came pretty close. The reasons for this will be explored in a follow up blog.

To obtain access to our recent articles, including those referred to above, click here.

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MP of the Month: George Palmer, a ‘firm friend of the shipwrecked’

George Palmer, c. 1845

George Palmer, c. 1845

In September 2008 an exceptionally rare Gold Medal produced by the Royal National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was sold at auction for £3,200. The medal, with its unique pendant in the shape of a lifeboat, was awarded in 1853 to George Palmer, who had worked tirelessly for the institution for over a quarter of a century. Palmer’s achievements, especially his design of a lifeboat, have rightly secured his place in the annals of seafaring history, but his parliamentary career remains somewhat overlooked, even though it was his status as an MP that allowed him to produce vital legislation which improved safety at sea.

Palmer was only fourteen years old when he joined the navy of the East India Company. His early, often dangerous, experiences at sea left an indelible mark upon him: a narrow escape from drowning near Macao in 1788 persuaded him that a boat’s equilibrium was paramount to its safety, a conviction that shaped his future thinking on timber vessels. He retired from the navy at the turn of the century due to ill-health and went on to secure a small fortune as an East India merchant, but maritime safety remained his foremost concern.

Gold Medal and Gold Boat, awarded to Palmer in 1853

Gold Medal and Gold Boat, awarded to Palmer in 1853

In 1826 he began working with the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (known as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution after 1854), an organisation he went on to serve as deputy chairman for twenty five years. In 1828 his design of a lifeboat – built as a whale-boat, sharp at both ends, using air-cases for buoyancy – was officially adopted by the institution. By 1844 lifeboats based on his work had been placed at over 30 coastal locations around the British Isles. Significantly, Palmer, as a Member of Parliament, chaired the 1843 select committee on shipwrecks, in which he submitted his own lifeboat design, thus ensuring the widest and most influential audience for his work.

Palmer’s status as an MP undoubtedly helped him to achieve his ambition to improve safety at sea. First elected as a Conservative for Essex South at an 1836 by-election, he made his mark in his first full Parliament through his crusade to address the loss of life caused by shipwrecks. In April 1839 he successfully moved for a select committee to consider the regulation of timber trading ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The report of the inquiry, which he skilfully chaired, recommended that timber-laden vessels between the United States and Britain be barred from carrying deck-loads. After making a compelling case for the legislation in the Commons chamber, it arrived on the statute book as the 1839 Timber Ships, British North America Act. He followed this up with what became his main legislative triumph: the 1845 Timber Ships Act which extended and settled the law prohibiting timber ships from carrying deck cargoes.

Sketch of Palmer's lifeboat, 1843

Sketch of Palmer’s lifeboat, 1843

In many ways Palmer, the former sailor and merchant dedicated to maritime issues, was an unlikely fit for Essex South, an overwhelmingly rural constituency where the key issues were maintenance of agricultural protection and repeal of the much-detested malt tax. Yet Palmer, showing political savvy, reinvented himself as a ‘friend of the plough, the loom and the sail’, and promised his constituents that he would be unwavering in his defence of the corn laws. True to his word, he consistently voted against free trade proposals, and when Peel’s decision to support repeal of the corn laws became public, he pulled no punches in his denunciation of the prime minister, declaring to a packed Commons that Peel ‘stood in the light of Ahab’s prophets of old. He would deceive himself, and bring down destruction upon a devoted people’.

With his health declining, Palmer retired from the Commons at the 1847 dissolution, but continued to devote his energies to the Shipwreck Institution. He was instrumental in securing the services of the Duke of Northumberland as its president and continued to chair meetings until his retirement in February 1853, when he was awarded the gold medal of the institution. He died the following month. In 1854 his model of lifeboat was replaced by the ‘self-righting’ boat, based on an original design by James Beeching.

Palmer’s tenure in the Victorian Commons underlines how a politician could use their parliamentary status to promote humanitarian causes close to their heart. By pulling the levers of power – in his case through the adroit management of select committees – Palmer was able to achieve his legislative goals and leave a lasting legacy for maritime safety.

For details of how to access Palmer’s full History of Parliament biography from our preview site, please see here.

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A Victorian Essex Election

As electors go to the polls in the Clacton by-election, we consider how Essex voters behaved in the mid-nineteenth century, when the expanding seaside resort was still part of the Essex North constituency.

Clacton-on-Sea pier, 1908. Copyright Philip Salmon.

Clacton-on-Sea pier, 1908. Copyright Philip Salmon.

In the fifty years following the 1832 Reform Act, the Conservatives enjoyed almost complete political hegemony in both the county’s northern and southern divisions (although the Liberals had some success in the borough seats of Colchester, Maldon and Harwich). Unlike today, elections in these two double-member county seats were usually uncontested. As was so often the case in the 19th century, however, this seeming acceptance of the status quo belied both a vibrant political culture centred round non-electors (in Essex’s case Braintree silk factory workers who doggedly interrupted candidates’ addresses at the nomination) and intense pre-electoral negotiations and skirmishes between candidates.

The 1859 general election at Essex North was a case in point. Although two Conservative candidates were elected without opposition, in the weeks prior to the nomination there was a sustained attempt within the local party to oust their high-profile MP William Beresford, a former chief whip who had served as secretary for war in the Earl of Derby’s 1852 administration. A highly-strung Irishman with a wicked tongue, Beresford,  throughout his thirteen year tenure as MP for Essex North, remained unpopular with a section of the local party, who were unhappy with the spectre of an ‘outsider’ representing a seat that had traditionally been the preserve of local, resident gentry.

This emphasis on local connections has long been a feature of elections in this area and elsewhere. Throughout the 19th century candidates made stringent efforts to highlight both their local credentials and attack those who lacked them. In 1859 Samuel Ruggles Brise, of Spains Hall, Essex, threatened to stand against Beresford on the grounds that the Irishman was not a ‘proper country gentleman’. His outsider status also went hand-in-hand with a wider political issue of the day. Although a devout Protestant, Beresford, as an Irishman, was viewed with suspicion by a hostile Essex press that was not unknown to publish hysterical warnings about the threat posed by the Roman Catholic Church. Brise eventually gave way (and was later elected for Essex East in 1868), but the affair revealed a schism within local Conservatism that was masked by the unopposed return recorded in the polls.

Had Brise’s intervention taken place at a by-election, there would undoubtedly have been far greater coverage of the affair; one of the well-noted features of by-elections is that one-off local contests are given a national dimension, especially given the widespread media attention. We explored the dynamics of Victorian by-elections in an earlier blog. For today, though, it is worth noting that despite what the official returns may suggest, Victorian Essex witnessed internecine Conservative rivalry and fierce debates generated by the politics of locality.

Our constituency studies of Essex North and South have recently been completed and will soon be available on our preview site. For more details see here.

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Verse and Victorian MPs: National Poetry Day 2014

Poetry played an important role in Victorian political culture. From rhyming election squibs celebrating a prospective candidate, to Members of Parliament reciting classical verse in the Commons, political versifying was prevalent. To celebrate National Poetry Day, we offer a small selection of poetry delivered both inside and outside the walls of the Victorian Commons.

Poetry was an intrinsic part of electioneering and candidate posturing in the nineteenth century, with a range of doggerel taking its place alongside handbills and cockades as campaign ephemera. At a meeting of Liberal supporters in the North Riding at the 1857 general election, for example, the opposition candidate Edward Stillingfleet Cayley, who had gone through various changes of party allegiance, was mocked by Alderman Leeman, who referenced a poem about being:

Nor Whig, nor Tory, nor this, nor that,
Not bird, not beast, but a kind of bat,
A twilight animal, true to neither cause,
With Tory wings, but Whiggish teeth and claws.

Cayley himself was of a literary bent, and in a Commons debate on the repeal of the corn laws in 1846, he turned to verse to denounce free trade, quoting a popular rhyme:

Woodman, spare that tree;
Touch not a single bough;
In youth it shelter’d thee,
Do thou protect it now!

Cayley was far from alone in using the debating chamber as a forum for literary quotations. Charles Du Cane, Conservative Member for Essex North, invoked Shakespeare’s Hamlet when arguing against the 1859 church rate abolition bill, declaring:

It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen.

Du Cane’s poetic posturing came back to haunt him, however, when his motion against Gladstone’s 1860 budget was heavily defeated. The satirical magazine Punch mocked his and Disraeli’s failure:

Diz and Du,
Made motions to
Knock over the ministers’ budget,
The House felt bored,
Pert Diz was floored,
And Du was driven to trudge it.

Happy National Poetry Day!

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John Edward Redmond: The ‘Wexford Railway King’

Earlier this month the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave his backing to a campaign for John Edward Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900 until his death in 1918, to be honoured with a memorial in the Irish parliament building at Leinster House. This has been greeted as a long overdue recognition of that party’s role in Irish political history. Redmond is, however, commemorated elsewhere with a monument in Wexford, where his name appears alongside other members of a remarkable political dynasty. These include his great-uncle and namesake, who features as our MP of the Month.

Memorial plaque from the Redmond monument, Wexford

Memorial plaque from the Redmond monument, Wexford

John Edward Redmond (1806-65) represented his native borough of Wexford from 1859 until shortly before his death in 1865. ‘Old John Redmond’, as he was known, was a pivotal member of Wexford’s greatest political dynasty and was chiefly responsible for the modern development of the town, providing it with its first railway, its harbour works, and many of its public amenities. His election inaugurated the family’s tradition of parliamentary participation, which lasted for almost a century.

Building on the success he had acquired as a banker from the mid-1820s, Redmond became a ship owner, the size of his fleet of steamers reaching 22,000 tons by 1846. The shipping interest in Wexford was further improved when Redmond opened a ship-building yard, extended the quays and constructed a slipway. He also became the largest property owner in Wexford, acquiring around 100 houses in different parts of the town. From 1845 he took a leading role in local railway construction, and became known as the ‘Wexford Railway King’.

Redmond’s political allegiances were erratic in the 1830s and 1840s, and appear to have been influenced more by family bonds and economic interest rather than party politics. In 1835 he backed an unsuccessful attempt by his elder brother, Patrick Walter, to secure a parliamentary seat at Wexford as a ‘Conservative Whig’. Although he subsequently lent a degree of support to the Liberals, he seems to have shared some of his brother’s convictions, which included opposition to the repeal of the union, and an aversion to clerical ‘dictation’ in political affairs. At the 1841 general election he backed James Bourne, a representative of the Liverpool shipping interest, who unsuccessfully contested Wexford for the Conservatives. However, he did not subsequently offer any opposition to the borough’s Liberal interest, which from 1847 lay with another family of Catholic merchants, the Devereuxs.

In 1846 Redmond initiated the first of two successful land reclamation schemes at Wexford harbour, which sparked opposition from the harbour commissioners and certain mercantile interests, most notably the Devereuxs. By the late 1850s this economic rivalry had developed into a political contest, and at the 1859 general election the Liberal MP for Wexford, John Thomas Devereux, was forced to make way for Redmond. Although he now held Liberal opinions on questions of religious equality, the franchise and landlord-tenant relations, Redmond generally supported the Conservatives while in the Commons, being one of around a dozen members of the so-called ‘Roman Catholic party’ which continued to oppose Lord Palmerston’s administration after the break up of the Independent Irish Party. He took little part in the business of the Commons, though, being one of only 30 MPs to sit through the 1859 Parliament without serving on a committee of any kind, and spoke only three times in debate.

Having devoted his fortune and talents to the advancement of his constituency, Redmond was ‘almost worshipped in Wexford, particularly by the working people’. However, his achievements in the borough came at a price, creating both commercial and political enemies. This was made clear at the 1865 general election, when he not only faced opposition from business rivals, but also lost the support of the local Catholic clergy, who backed the National Association candidate, Richard John Devereux, a nephew of the man Redmond had displaced in 1859. He was defeated by the 153 electors who voted for his opponent, and although he was said to have accepted their verdict ‘good-naturedly and resignedly’, he still ‘felt keenly his defeat’.

Redmond died unexpectedly of heart failure the following month. He was buried in the family mausoleum in St. John’s churchyard, Wexford. His funeral was remarkable not only for an attendance of around 10,000 mourners, but because no Catholic priest could be found willing to conduct the service. The funeral rites were reportedly withheld owing to Redmond’s independence in political matters, and his non-observance of religious duties such as confession.

Despite this clerical boycott, a memorial to Redmond was subsequently erected in what is now Redmond Square, Wexford. This was restored in 2007 and also commemorates the lives of Redmond’s nephew, William Archer Redmond (1825-80), a Home Rule MP for Wexford from 1872 until his death, along with his sons, William Hoey Kearney Redmond (1861-1917), MP for County Wexford, 1883-5, South Fermanagh, 1885-92, and County Clare, 1892-1917, and John Edward Redmond (1856-1918), MP for New Ross, 1881-5, North Wexford, 1885-91, and Waterford, 1891-1918.

Further reading: J. McConnel, ‘John Redmond and Irish Catholic Loyalism’, English Historical Review, cxxv (2010), 83-111.

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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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