Welcome to the Victorian Commons

The Victorian Commons blog provides news and highlights from the History of Parliament’s research project on the House of Commons, 1832-68. For details about the project and how to access our work see our About page. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed here with regular blogs here. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons and our colleagues @HistParl & @GeorgianLords

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Political protest in the age of Peterloo

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog from the editor of our House of Commons 1832-68 section, Dr Philip Salmon, is the first of many pieces in which we will discuss the Peterloo Massacre that took place in St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16th August 1819. He outlines the political climate within which this infamous episode occurred and provides context for the blogs that are to follow in the series.

This year’s bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester serves as an important reminder of the crucial role played by disaffected citizens and radical protest in reshaping Britain’s political system – a historic tradition that of course still continues today. Peterloo also marked a significant turning point in the way public protest was both organised and handled, though it took a while for this to become clear. Within a decade though, many of the pillars underpinning Britain’s ancient Protestant constitution – including discrimination against…

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MP of the Month: Edward Wyndham Harrington Schenley (1799-1878), Waterloo veteran and millionaire

Today we mark the anniversary of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo by recalling the eventful life of the Dartmouth MP, Edward Schenley (1799-1878), who as a boy was severely wounded in that campaign, yet through his elopement with a Pittsburgh heiress ended his life as a millionaire.

Members of the Rifle Brigade at Waterloo

Schenley came from an old Devonshire family and appears to have been born in Woolwich in 1799. The younger son of an artillery officer who died at Cadiz in 1813, he served as a volunteer in the Peninsular War before joining the Rifle Brigade as a 15-year-old lieutenant in 1814. He was severely wounded in the Waterloo campaign, and afterwards became a friend of Lord Byron. In 1822 he attended the cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley at Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy and was present when the poet’s ashes were buried in Rome. In 1823 he eloped with Catherine Inglis and was married at Livorno. The couple subsequently lived in Edinburgh but within three years both his wife and son were dead.

Edward Schenley (C) NPG

In July 1825 Schenley was appointed vice-consul at Guatemala and was presented to William IV in March 1828. That June he became the British consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and by the end of that year was promoting the Swan River settlement in western Australia, for which the government granted half a million acres of land. After further consular service at Haiti and Panama he travelled in Europe and in 1833 eloped with a cousin of the earl of Fife. His new father-in-law, Sir William Pole, was a Devonshire baronet and in 1835 Schenley took an active part in Lord John Russell’s election campaigns in Devon. The following year he was appointed as arbitrator to the mixed British and Spanish commission for the repression of the slave trade in Havana, where his wife died in April 1837.

Mary Schenley (née Croghan)

Schenley was next appointed as commissioner of arbitration to the British and Dutch court of commission at Surinam, where he took office in July 1841. He was, however, soon travelling in America where he was taken ill and offered accommodation by his sister-in-law, a Mrs. Macleod, who ran a fashionable girls’ boarding school on Staten Island, New York. Here the 43-year-old foreign office official embarked on his third elopement by taking off with Mary Elizabeth Croghan, the 15-year-old heiress of Pittsburgh’s largest land holder. Despite her father’s efforts to prevent a marriage the couple were wed in New York before moving on to England. This union proved to be a lasting one and produced eleven children.

Schenley soon returned to Surinam but became embroiled in controversy with the Dutch planters for supporting compensation claims made by liberated slaves who had been forced to work on the plantations. Frustrated by the government’s indifference and feeling that his family was now in danger, he returned to England on leave of absence in June 1845. In August 1847 his actions were finally vindicated by Lord Palmerston, and he retained his post until it was abolished in 1849.

Their poor financial circumstances prompted the Schenleys to visit Pittsburgh for a reconciliation with Mary’s father, who relented and bought them a house at 14 Prince’s Gate, Hyde Park, later the official residence of ambassadors of the United States. On his death in September 1850 Mary came into her inheritance and derived a sufficiently large income from her American estate to allow the family to flourish in England. Schenley’s daughter by his first marriage was presented at court in 1853, the scandal surrounding his elopement with Mary Croghan having died away by that time.

Schenley had also established himself as ‘an old and respected liberal’ in Devon and persuaded the party’s candidate for the venal borough of Dartmouth to retire in his favour at the 1859 general election. Arriving in the town with a letter of introduction from Lord John Russell, he promised to restore trade to the port and reportedly offered an advance of ‘at least £3,000’ to complete the Dartmouth and Torbay railway. As a major shareholder in the Electric Telegraph Company he was also eager to promote transatlantic telegraphic communication. He assured the electors that he would seek to extend the franchise to ‘the industrial classes’.

Returned after a contest with a Conservative, Schenley took his seat at Westminster, where he backed the Liberal government on the queen’s speech and twice voted in favour of the abolition of church rates. However, his parliamentary career was cut short when he was unseated because of bribery on 26 July 1859, after an election committee found that his agents had paid as much as £100 for a single vote. With his political ambitions thwarted,  Schenley pursued his interest in sailing by becoming a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and the family cemented its place in London society by placing their Pittsburgh residence at the disposal of the Prince of Wales during his visit to the United States.

When Schenley died in London in January 1878 he was said to possess a personal fortune of between £1,400,000 and £2,000,000. He was survived by his widow, who subsequently proved to be a generous benefactor to her native city, and at the time of her death in 1903 was thought to be worth more than £12,000,000. Two of Schenley’s daughters married into the aristocracy: Elizabeth Pole Schenley, his daughter by his second marriage, married a son of the 3rd Baron Suffield in 1865, while in 1906 Hermione Schenley became Lady Ellenborough.

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MP of the Month: John Fenton (1791-1863)

JohnFenton (C) PMSA

John Fenton, bust by Edgar Papworth in Rochdale town hall (C) PMSA

In 1832 John Fenton, a Nonconformist Whig from a local banking and textile manufacturing family, was elected as the first MP for his native Rochdale, which had been given a parliamentary seat by the 1832 Reform Act. He lost to a Conservative in 1835, a defeat which he blamed on his opponent using beer as ‘the great canvasser’ and undertaking extensive ‘treating’ of voters. Six men were said to have died from the effects of intoxication during this contest, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’. Yet drunkenness and venality alone did not explain the result. Fenton’s parliamentary support for the new poor law had proved unpopular, and the Conservatives had put significant effort into improving their position on the electoral register.

With the Liberals having renewed their organisational efforts, Fenton returned to Parliament at a by-election in April 1837 and was re-elected at that year’s general election, before retiring in 1841. During this time he crossed paths with two well-known Liberal politicians associated with Rochdale. His fellow townsman John Bright seconded his nomination on the hustings at the 1837 by-election, when he described Fenton as a man who took a ‘common-sense view of things’ and commended his support for the ballot and the extension of the franchise. Fenton did not, however, impress Richard Cobden, who first met him at a dinner in London in June 1837 in company with a group of other northern MPs, whom Cobden dismissed as ‘a sad lot of soulless louts’. Despite this, it was Fenton who chaired the meeting on education that December at which Cobden – later the borough’s MP – made his first public speech at Rochdale.

The columns of Hansard do not record any contributions from Fenton, who made little impact at Westminster, although The Times reported that he did speak briefly when he presented a petition from Rochdale on the Irish Church in 1833. He admitted himself that he was ‘not gifted with eloquence’. He proved more useful in the committee rooms, serving on the select committees on the sale of beer (1833) and the problem of drunkenness among the ‘labouring classes’ (1834), as well as the inquiries into the Caernarvon and Carlow election petitions. By 1839 he had decided that he would not stand again for Rochdale and his parliamentary attendance dwindled. He voted in just 29 out of the 365 divisions taken in the 1840 and 1841 sessions.

Fenton’s decision to retire at the 1841 election was due partly to ‘infirm health’ and partly to his ‘love for private life and domestic enjoyment’. His family was growing rapidly, with ten children born to his second wife between 1831 and 1845, to add to the seven children from his first marriage. He does not appear to have been politically active after he left Parliament, although he did make donations to the Anti-Corn Law League and signed a Lancashire millowners’ memorial against the Ten Hours Bill in 1847.

Instead, Fenton, ‘a fine hale-looking man’, retired happily into private life. Character sketches published in nineteenth-century local histories provide a detailed picture of his somewhat quirky domestic habits. Despite his substantial wealth – he and his brother had shared a £400,000 fortune when their father died in 1840 – he was ‘homely in his habits’, digging the fields with his workmen and trimming the hedges at his residence at Crimble Hall. He was ‘ingenious at needlework’, which he undertook with a favourite canary perched on his shoulder. He also ‘had a habit of carrying gingerbread in his pocket, which he munched frequently at odd times’. He died in 1863, and was commemorated with a bust in Rochdale town hall, presented by his widow in 1872.

Two of Fenton’s sons made unsuccessful attempts to follow him into politics. His son William seconded Cobden’s nomination as Liberal candidate for Rochdale in 1859, and was considered as a potential successor to Cobden after the latter’s death in 1865. He spent nearly £3,000 unsuccessfully contesting Chester in 1865, and was also defeated at North-East Lancashire in 1868.

Roger_Fenton_self

Roger Fenton

Another son, Roger (1819-69), canvassed Rochdale in 1850 in anticipation of a by-election, but his political ambitions were thwarted when the sitting MP’s health improved. The following year he took up a career in photography, becoming one of the most notable photographers of the mid-nineteenth century, renowned particularly for his depictions of the Crimean War. He also photographed the Houses of Parliament – not the buildings his father would have known when he first became an MP, which were destroyed by fire in 1834, nor the temporary accommodation in which Fenton spent most of his parliamentary career, but the new Palace designed by Charles Barry.

HoPRogerFenton1857 (C) The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Houses of Parliament from Lambeth Palace (1857) by Roger Fenton © The Royal Photographic Society Collection

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The representation of Devon and Cornwall after reform, 1832-68

Last week the History of Parliament and the Devon and Cornwall Record Society hosted a conference at Exeter on ‘The South West and Parliament’. Dr Martin Spychal of the Victorian Commons spoke at the event, and today provides an overview of the electoral system and political affiliation in both counties between 1832 and 1868.

England’s southernmost counties, Devon and Cornwall, suffered an inauspicious start to the post-reform era. Prior to 1832 Cornwall had been the home of many rotten boroughs and so it saw its representation slashed from 42 to 14 MPs by the 1832 Reform Act. This was the highest rate of disfranchisement among English counties by some margin. Devon, which also fared badly, saw its representation reduced from 32 to 22 MPs.

The Grey Ministry wield their axe at the rotten borough system (including, Saltash, Bere Alston, Bossiney, Callington, East Looe…) Charles Jameson Grant, 1832

The Grey Ministry chop down the rotten borough system, including Saltash, Bere Alston, Bossiney, Callington, and East Looe… Charles Jameson Grant, 1832. CC British Museum

Electoral politics played out in both counties from 1832 in a remarkably complex constituency system that saw the introduction of a new system of voter registration. Every borough except Tiverton underwent boundary changes in 1832, in addition to the introduction of the new £10 voter, who was enfranchised alongside those already qualified under permitted ancient franchises. Both counties were divided into two brand new double-member electoral districts and saw new occupier and leaseholder voting qualifications added to the traditional 40 shilling freeholder franchise.

The persistence of ancient franchise voters, variations in property valuation and levels of local politicisation meant enfranchisement rates, as elsewhere in the country, varied wildly across each constituency within the region. However, as a whole enfranchisement rates in Devon and Cornwall were well below the English and Welsh average. Across Cornwall, adult male enfranchisement rates jumped from 9% to 15% between 1831 and 1832, and to 17% by 1867. In Devon these figures were 11.5%, 18% and 19% respectively. This compared poorly with the average adult male enfranchisement rates for England and Wales, which increased from 16% in 1831 to 22.5% in 1832 and by 1867 had reduced to 20%.

Enfranchisement

Rates of adult male enfranchisement in Cornwall, Devon and England and Wales. Compiled from electoral returns and census data © Martin Spychal

The rise in enfranchisement rates in 1835 on the graph above was caused by the registration drive that followed that year’s general election. The general decrease in adult male registration over the following 30 years was prompted by the expiration of ancient franchise qualifications, a tapering off of enthusiasm for registration and a slight increase in the percentage of adult males in the total population. The big spike in 1868 reflects the introduction of the borough householder franchise at the 1868 election.

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Reformed electoral practices? G. Cruikshank, George Cruickshank’s Omnibus (1842), CC British Museum

In keeping with the rest of the UK, both counties retained a vibrant electoral culture after 1832, which provided opportunities for female and male non-electors to participate in constituency politics. Traditional canvassing practices continued after 1832 under the guidance of local party officials, who were on constant alert between elections on account of the annual registration courts. Landlord influence also persisted in a handful of boroughs such as Launceston and Ashburton. The treating of electors with food or drink remained commonplace, and the shady practice of bribery continued to play a role in many constituencies. As previous blogs have shown, when allegations could be proved Parliament often punished cases of bribery, either via the unseating of MPs (such as Charles John Mare at Plymouth), or via disfranchisement (a fate that befell Totnes in 1867).

As in previous periods, the boisterous and noisy nomination continued to precede the election of a member or the announcement of a poll. The length of a poll, however, was reduced to two days in 1832 (this was reduced to a single day in the boroughs in 1835, and the counties in 1853). After the declaration, successful candidates were then chaired in a procession throughout the town or city that hosted the constituency’s election, as was the case at the 1849 Devonshire South by-election in Exeter pictured below. Newly elected MPs were then deposited at the local pub for an election dinner that usually went on into the early hours.

Chairing-Totnes-South-Devon

‘Procession of the Chairing of Sir Ralph Lopes, Bart, The Newly elected MP for South Devon’ in Exeter, 1849, Illustrated London News, 17 Feb. 1849

At each election between 1832 and 1865 both counties tended to return a higher percentage of MPs willing to support Whig-Liberal governments than the English average. Devon was well ahead of the English average until 1852, and always returned a majority of Whigs, Liberals, Reformers and Radicals (and in 1847 and 1852 Liberal Conservatives) combined. A remarkable 95% of Devon’s MPs fell into this category in 1832. However, by 1841 the superior organisation of the Conservatives and a tiring Whig reform agenda combined to drive Whig-Liberal support down to their lowest levels in both counties.

Election Results

Whig-Liberal Support in Devon, Cornwall and England at general elections, 1832-1865. Compiled from Charles Dod, Parliamentary Companion, 1832-67 © Martin Spychal

From 1852 Devon as a whole followed national swings quite closely. Cornwall, however, saw a huge surge in Whig-Liberalism after 1857. As Professor Edwin Jaggard has argued, this can be accounted for by the strength of Dissent in the county (70% of religious worshippers were Nonconformists); the increasing acceptance among larger portions of the electorate of a new type of ‘modern’ politics in the boroughs; and a Liberal party that was outsmarting the Conservatives in terms of organisation by the latter 1850s.

These electoral swings were reflected quite closely in the voting patterns of Cornish and Devon MPs at Parliament. As part of the work for my forthcoming book, I’ve been developing the History of Parliament’s new database of parliamentary votes between 1836 and 1910 to chart the behaviour of groupings of MPs in the division lobbies at Westminster. The graph below provides a brief taster of this work. It details the incidence of Whig-Liberal support among Devon and Cornish MPs in major confidence votes between 1838 and 1868, in comparison with the UK average. The percentages on the chart only account for those present at votes, not those absent, and in future blogs I’ll consider the different ways that ‘voting support’ for particular issues might be presented.

Trend1-Major

Whig/Liberal support in major confidence votes, 1838-1868 in Cornwall, Devon and the UK. Compiled using a modified version of the History of Parliament’s Parliamentary Votes, 1836-1910 dataset. © Martin Spychal

Nevertheless, this data suggests that both county’s MPs stuck quite closely to their electioneering party labels in major votes throughout the period. Devon’s MPs were consistently more Liberal than Cornish MPs until 1852, following which Cornish representatives swung heavily towards a Palmerston-led Whig-Liberal administration. This was in contrast to Devon, whose MPs proved remarkably lukewarm over the MP for Tiverton’s premiership. By the end of the period Cornwall’s Liberal ascendancy in the Commons was confirmed as it remained strongly pro-Gladstone. Apart from the period between 1852 and 1858, when Russell, Aberdeen and Palmerston were splitting Whig-Liberal loyalties, Cornwall and Devon’s MPs were consistently more Liberal in major divisions and confidence votes than the UK average.

For details of how to access the MP biographies and constituency articles for Devon and Cornwall already completed by the 1832-68 project please click here.

Further Reading:

Philip Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW

Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work. Local Politics and National Parties 1832-1841 (2002)

Edwin Jaggard, Cornwall Politics in the Age of Reform (1999)

My book Mapping the state: representation, geography and the 1832 Reform Act is forthcoming with the Royal Historical Society. You can find out more about the boundary changes in 1832 in my earlier article, “One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, Historical Research, 90, 249 (2017).

Posted in Biographies, Conferences and seminars, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, Parliamentary life, party labels, Uncategorized, Voting and Divisions, women, Working-class politics | Leave a comment

The Disruption, Parliament and Conservative division: Alexander Campbell (1811-1869)

In May 1843 a schism in the Church of Scotland, better known as the Disruption, led to the creation of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland. It was the culmination of a decade-long conflict over the ability of parishioners to appoint their minister, and reflected wider concerns over state interference with the Scottish Church. April’s MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Argyllshire, Alexander Campbell, who was one of the founding elders of the Free Church. His ruthless electioneering in Argyllshire from 1836, eventual election in 1841, and failed legislative attempts to prevent the breakup of the Church placed the looming controversy at the centre of parliamentary politics. It also revealed irreconcilable differences between the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel and one of his few Scottish backbenchers.

Meeting-of-first-free-church-assembly,-ILN,-3-June-1843

Thomas Chalmers addressing the Disruption Assembly, Tanfield Hall in Canonmills, 18 May 1843: ILN, 3 June 1843

Alexander Campbell entered Scottish Conservative politics after a brief military career, which had seen him garrisoned in Quebec between 1830 and 1832. He returned to Scotland in 1832 following the death of his father, who had sat in the Commons as a loyal ministerialist during the Napoleonic wars. On succeeding to the family estates in Perthshire and Argyllshire, which included Monzie Castle, Campbell threw himself into Conservative politics in both counties.

In December 1835 Campbell took the unusual step of commencing a canvass in Argyllshire, despite there being no imminent suggestion of an election. His constant state of electioneering throughout 1836 was provoked by the Whig government’s Irish church legislation, which he saw as an existential threat to the established Church, not just in Ireland, but in Scotland. Campbell, who was considered by one observer to be ‘more of the itinerant preacher than the parliamentary candidate’, warned that proposals to appropriate funds from the Irish Church, the continuation of the Maynooth grant and government support for Irish repealers such as Daniel O’Connell, were foreboding signs that the Whigs intended to attack the Scottish Church next.

Monzie Castle, Scottish Depicta (1804)

Campbell’s family seat, Monzie Castle, Scottish Depicta (1804), CC National Library of Scotland

By July 1836, Campbell’s campaign had brought him into contact with the leading Scottish Evangelical, Thomas Chalmers. Earlier that month, Argyllshire’s Whig MP had somewhat foolishly claimed in a letter to his constituents that Chalmers supported the Whig ministry. This provoked a war of letters between Campbell and his opponent, which received widespread publication in the English, Irish and Scottish press. The letters resulted in Chalmers’s denunciation of the appropriation of Irish Church revenues as ‘an act of violence against the Episcopalian Protestant establishment in Ireland’, and a sign that ‘the Presbyterian establishment of Scotland’ was ‘not safe’ in Whig hands. Significantly, the episode also led to the forging of a close friendship between Campbell and Chalmers.

As expected, Campbell contested the 1837 election at Argyllshire, in what the Morning Post described as a contest between ‘Protestanism or Popery’. However, he was defeated on account of the electoral strength of the county’s Whig proprietor, the 6th Duke of Argyll. In the aftermath of his defeat Campbell maintained his close links with the leadership of the Scottish Evangelicals. He was elected as an elder of the General Assembly in 1838, and emerged as a prominent figure in ongoing non-intrusionist calls to allow parishioners to appoint their ministers.

1842 Scottish Church patronage bill

Campbell’s 1842 Scottish Church patronage bill, PP 1842 (175), i. 421

Campbell’s electoral prospects increased dramatically in December 1839 with the succession of the Conservative 7th Duke of Argyll, which meant that his return for the county at the next election was now considered a certainty. With Parliament a realistic prospect, Campbell turned his attention to legislation that he hoped would solve the brewing schism over state interference in the Scottish Church. In 1840 he began to promote proposals to establish the precedence of the Church courts over the civil courts in cases where ministers proved unacceptable to their parishioners. The policy was the cornerstone of his campaign in Argyllshire during the 1841 general election, where he was returned unopposed thanks to the influence of the Duke of Argyll and the popularity of his non-intrusionist stance.

As he had promised on the hustings, Campbell’s main goal in Parliament was to introduce legislation to prevent the breakup of the Scottish Church. However, he was frustrated at Westminster by the inability of the Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Peel, to realise the gravity of the situation, as well as the government’s unwillingness to support what he felt was a deeply Conservative cause.  The government failed to support his efforts for a select committee on the Scottish Church in March 1842, and in April he introduced the Scottish Church patronage bill, which would have given congregations the right to reject ministers. Crucially, the government’s refusal to support the bill on a technicality led to its withdrawal in June 1842.

The Procession on the 18th of May

The Procession on the 18th of May, Annals of the Disruption (1893)

Despite the government’s assurances that they would legislate on the issue in the next session, Campbell was dismayed when ministers refused to back a motion on the Scottish Church in March 1843. For Campbell this was the final straw, and with the reality of a breakup of the Scottish Church imminent he returned to Monzie Castle to build a wooden church, which he would later present to the Free Church congregation there.

In May, Campbell made one last attempt to prevent a schism, pleading with the Prime Minister to ‘avert the breaking up of the Church, by instantaneous and satisfactory legislative interposition’. Peel ignored his plea, and on 18 May 1843, Campbell was one of the 73 elders who attended the Disruption Assembly, walking side by side with Thomas Chalmers from St. Andrew’s Church to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills, where the Disruption Assembly was held. On the same day he confirmed his intention to resign his parliamentary seat in order to promote the interests of the Free Church.

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To see how to access the full biography of Campbell and other MPs in our 1832-68 project please click here.

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Ethnic minorities in Parliament: a new addition to the Victorian Commons

In our research on the membership of the House of Commons between 1832 and 1868, we previously identified two non-white MPs: John Stewart, MP for Lymington, 1832-47, the illegitimate son of a West Indian plantation owner, who was probably of mixed ethnicity; and David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, MP for Sudbury, 1841-2, who was of mixed European and Indian descent. However, in her new book, Dr. Amanda Goodrich of the Open University has uncovered fresh information about the father of one of our MPs which means that we have a third name to add to our list, as she explains in this guest post.

GoodrichbookThere is much focus today on restoring forgotten black and mixed ethnicity (BME) people to their rightful place in British history.  No BME Members of Parliament have been identified by the History of Parliament in the Georgian period and only two – as noted above – in the 1832-68 period. This is partly because those writing the original volumes on the eighteenth century would not have focused on BME ethnicities and such details were often omitted from autobiographical material. But, as my recently published book on Henry Redhead Yorke illustrates, that does not mean there were not more BME individuals involved in British politics. They may well be difficult or impossible to identify due to the conventional hierarchical archive structures or the lack of primary sources, but that does not mean that they did not exist.

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Henry Redhead Yorke (1772-1813) (C) British Museum, used under a Creative Commons licence

Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke (1802-1848), who represented York from 1841 until 1848, is one such previously unidentified MP of BME heritage. Until my research proved otherwise it was assumed that he was English. In fact his father, Henry Redhead Yorke (1772-1813), was a West Indian creole of African/British descent, whose mother was a manumitted slave from Barbuda and whose father was an Antiguan plantation owner and plantation manager of the Codrington family’s estates in Antigua. It was also previously assumed that Henry Redhead Yorke was white, but the evidence indicates that he was a man of colour.

Henry Redhead Yorke was born in 1772 and brought up in a slave society on the island of Barbuda. He was taken to England as a small boy to be educated as a gentleman. Such a move was common for wealthy plantation families who sent their sons ‘home’ to be educated, and desired to retire ‘home’ to England even if in fact they were born in the West Indies. When they did immigrate to England they often brought an entourage with them including legitimate and illegitimate children, wives and slave mistresses and their children. Such flagrant flaunting of sexual impropriety between planters and slaves shocked the indigenous English population. Yet such West Indian planters were often extremely wealthy, and this gave them implicit privileges not shared by other BME people in England at the time.  Indeed, the English élite were keen to marry their younger sons and daughters to the children of wealthy West Indians to boost the family coffers.

Henry Redhead Yorke followed the educational route for a role in formal politics or the law, studying at Cambridge University and then undertaking legal training at Inner Temple. He joined the Whig Club in 1790. However, he then performed a political volte face to become an extra-parliamentary radical revolutionary. He visited Paris, experienced the French Revolution at first hand, and adopted revolutionary ideology. On returning to England in 1793 Yorke became a radical activist preaching revolutionary ideas to ordinary people around Britain. He was arrested for his radicalism and imprisoned in Dorchester Gaol in 1795. On his release in 1798 he expeditiously changed his politics again, becoming a loyalist patriot and conservative journalist and writer. He retained his gentlemanly status throughout his turbulent political life and married the daughter of the wealthy keeper of Dorchester Gaol. They had four children, one of whom was Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke. Yorke brought his sons up as gentlemen, educating them at public schools and Cambridge University.

Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke carried on the tradition, marrying well, to the Hon. Elizabeth Cecelia Crosbie, daughter of William Crosbie, 4th Baron Brandon (an Irish title), and granddaughter of Lady Cecilia Latouche, daughter of the first Earl of Milltown. He served as Liberal MP for York from 1841 until 1848. He lived in Eaton Square and was a member of the Reform Club. Thus, his assimilation into English society appeared complete. However, his parliamentary career ended in tragedy, as he committed suicide in 1848 very publicly in Regent’s Park by taking prussic acid. The jury at his inquest returned a verdict of insanity.

By unearthing one BME Georgian in the archives, it has been possible to shed new light on the background of one Victorian MP. Both were well hidden due to lack of archival evidence and historians’ assumptions about their ethnicity. Of course, it was not easy for BME individuals to rise to the social and political ranks required of MPs. Yet, wealthy West Indian planters were something of a unique group, who through their wealth and by marrying their children to members of the elite gained access to Parliament. Nathaniel Wells, of African British descent, became deputy lieutenant of Monmouthshire. Richard Beckford, an illegitimate child of William Beckford and a slave in Jamaica, stood for Parliament in Hindon, Wiltshire in 1774. The Lascelles, from Barbados, found their way into both houses of Parliament. One historian has noted that men from planter families ‘were everywhere as mayors, aldermen and councillors’.

This raises the question of how many more MPs and political activists from the past may have been of black or mixed ethnicity?  It is important we explore this question to ensure we represent British history accurately, incorporating all those who have played a part in our past with equal attention.  We must restore forgotten BME individuals to their place in British history.  As the Royal Historical Society has recently argued, changing our approach to BME histories ‘is imperative to enhance public understandings of the past in Britain’ and ‘to reflect the full diversity of human histories’.

AG

Further reading

  • Amanda Goodrich, Henry Redhead Yorke, Colonial Radical: Politics and identity in the Atlantic world, 1772-1813 (2019) – for further details, including a 20% discount, see here
  • Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807 (2011)
  • Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (2nd edition, 1994)
  • Royal Historical Society Report on ‘Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History’ (2018)
  • ‘Ethnic minorities in Politics and Public life’, House of Commons Library, Research briefing (2017)
Posted in Biographies, Guest blog | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Conscience versus constituency: the dilemma facing Henry Sturt MP

The Victorian Commons, as some of our recent blogs have shown, was an important testing ground for many of the practices and parliamentary procedures that remain in place today. It also provides early examples of MPs having to grapple with many of the dilemmas that still face modern representatives. With the two party system becoming far more entrenched and new constituency pressures emerging after 1832, MPs increasingly found themselves having to make difficult choices between conscience and party, or conscience and constituency. Even low-profile backbenchers, who desperately tried to keep out of the spotlight, were unable to escape these uncomfortable ‘crossing the Rubicon’ moments.

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Henry Charles Sturt; mezzotint by J.R. Jackson. Image credit: National Galleries of Scotland

One MP who very publicly found himself caught up in a crisis of conscience versus constituency was Henry Charles Sturt (1795-1866). A friend of the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel, whom he had fagged for at Harrow, Sturt had been parachuted into the unreformed Commons by his aristocratic family aged just 21 in 1817, sitting for their pocket borough of Bridport. He quit in 1820, to pursue his growing passions for science, archaeology and agriculture, but in 1830 served another short spell as an MP for Dorset.

In 1835 Sturt was re-elected for Dorset as a replacement for William Bankes, who had been implicated in a homosexual scandal. Sturt stood as a supporter of Peel’s short-lived Conservative ministry. More importantly, as a leading member of the county’s agricultural societies and a pioneer of ‘model cottages’ for his tenants, he went to Parliament with the backing of the county’s farmers. He had no problem getting elected again in 1837 and 1841, when he claimed to have ‘been elected by an agricultural constituency on a full understanding that he would support the corn laws’.

This didn’t stop him controversially backing Peel’s modification of the corn laws in 1842, widely seen as a first step towards the removal of the protective tariffs enjoyed by farmers. When Peel proposed to completely repeal the corn laws in 1846, however, Sturt found himself in a quandary. He initially promised ‘to stand by the present protection to agriculture’ and was listed as a firm supporter of the corn laws. Privately convinced by Peel’s arguments in support of free trade, however, he was forced to admit that he had ‘changed his opinion’ and could no longer in conscience support such a law. The Protectionist press demanded that he stand by his constituents and election promises. Finding his position untenable, Sturt resigned.

Accused of lacking the moral courage to stand up to Peel, and of ‘leaving his constituents in the lurch’, Sturt found himself the object of widespread derision. One critic warned him to sell his Dorsetshire estates and flee to France. He even ended up in a popular song about those who remained loyal to their constituents:

The Somerset squires may at Acland throw dirt,

And Dorsetshire farmers may grumble at Sturt,

But I never rat and I ought to be prized,

For a vote, though it’s silent, should ne’er be despised

Later, writing to Peel, who had desperately tried to persuade him not to resign, Sturt offered a mild but ‘telling’ reproach to his leader and friend. ‘My only criticism of your present measure’, he told the prime minister, ‘shall be very gentle – whether it might not have been managed without stranding others and myself’.

To see how to access the full biography of Sturt and other MPs in our 1832-68 project please click here.

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