Five elections in seven years: Peterborough, Whalley and the Fitzwilliam interest

With suggestions of election fatigue setting in across Britain, this week’s blog – featuring our MP of the Month, George Hammond Whalley – looks at a constituency which saw five elections held in seven years between 1852 and 1859: the notoriously venal borough of Peterborough. At each election, three of which were held in the space of a year between 1852 and 1853, a delicate cross-party alliance between the borough’s independent Liberals and Conservatives united over a single issue: ending the Fitzwilliam family’s control of the constituency. The Fitzwilliams, prominent Whigs, were an integral aspect of the borough’s identity and the intense electioneering campaigns that ensued pitted fathers against sons, friends against friends and ‘in two or three instances wives against husbands’. Breaking down this aristocratic family’s control of the borough proved increasingly difficult, however, as even after the cross-party alliance appeared to have been successful, the Fitzwilliams used the election petitioning system to ensure the return of their candidate.

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The Fitzwilliam seat, Milton Hall, near Peterborough, from J. P. Neale, Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, i. (1818)

The Fitzwilliam family, or the ‘Milton interest’ as it was referred to locally, had controlled the election of both of Peterborough’s MPs since 1786. Their political authority relied on a combination of patronage, the popularity of the family’s advanced-Whig principles, and the tactic of putting forward one candidate not related to the family, who also enjoyed the support of the borough’s ‘independent Liberals’. However, sixty years of independent Liberal frustration with this arrangement finally boiled over ahead of the 1852 general election, when Earl Fitzwilliam and his agents refused to consider anyone but the moderate Richard Watson, Fitzwilliam’s nephew, to stand alongside the borough’s incumbent MP, George Fitzwilliam, the earl’s third son.

Although they seriously considered doing so, no independent Liberal candidate came forward in 1852. This was primarily due to the borough’s Conservatives, who seized the opportunity to promote a moderate Conservative on an anti-Fitzwilliam ticket. Their candidate was the former Protectionist MP for Lancashire, John Clifton, who toned down his political views and was fairly successful in securing the support of independent Liberals, many of whom were seen during the election ‘sporting the [Conservative] blue colours’. Although Clifton lost out on a seat by 19 votes, it transpired that a few key independent Liberals had abstained, revealing to both parties that a Fitzwilliam candidate might be defeated with a more concerted cross-party alliance.

The opportunity to test out such an alliance came quickly as Richard Watson died a fortnight after the 1852 general election. As planning for a by-election commenced, the Fitzwilliam family again refused to listen to the suggested candidates of the independent Liberals, putting forward Earl Fitzwilliam’s friend, the moderate Whig, George Cornewall Lewis. With the previous Conservative candidate ruling himself out due to a dispute over £1,000 of unpaid election expenses, the independent Liberals finally decided to field their own candidate. They contacted the Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association in London, who suggested the ultra-Liberal but also vehemently anti-Catholic, George Hammond Whalley.

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C. P. Gasquoine, The Story of the Cambrian (1922), 10

Whalley agreed to run on the condition that the borough’s independent Liberals and Conservatives united behind him. He pleased the independent Liberals by offering to support universal suffrage, the ballot, a direct property tax and the abolition of church rates. He courted the Conservative vote by emphasising his anti-Catholicism and his opposition to the Maynooth Grant, and by expressing a willingness to support the Conservative government on an independent basis.

In an innovative move, Whalley also targeted the constituency’s females in the hope they would convince their voting husbands, brothers, fathers and friends to vote for him. He did so by hosting a tea party in the city, which attracted 700 attendees, and where he promised to reduce soap, tea and sugar duties and end ‘Milton domination’. Whalley’s tactics proved successful, leading to his victory in the December 1852 by-election by 21 votes over the Fitzwilliam candidate.

The Fitzwilliams, incensed at losing control, quickly petitioned parliament against the result, accusing Whalley of ‘bribery, intimidation, corruption and treating’, as well as the impersonation of voters. The ensuing parliamentary committee, which was most outraged at Whalley’s tactic of targeting the constituency’s females, decided to unseat him after arriving at the conclusion that a single elector had been bribed £5 for his vote. An outraged Whalley accused Fitzwilliam of using electoral procedure to enforce a system of ‘persecution, tyranny and falsehood’ and vowed to stand at the ensuing by-election, even though his ability to do so was legally unclear.

Sure enough, Whalley stood again at Peterborough’s third election in the space of a year. The Fitzwilliam candidate was a former governor of the Bank of England, Thomson Hankey, who in a bid to wrestle back some independent Liberal support offered to support the ballot. These attempts failed and Whalley was again elected by a similar margin to the by-election held only months earlier. After the election, however, Fitzwilliam, Hankey and his supporters raised another election petition, stating that Whalley had stood illegally on account of having been unseated by an election committee. It also complained of bribery and the drugging and kidnapping of voters. In response, Whalley’s supporters also submitted a petition complaining of the activities of the Fitzwilliam interest, which was presented to Parliament by the leading radical, John Bright.

Both election inquiries found that the activities of the Fitzwilliam interest and Whalley during the elections of 1852-3 had been highly dubious. Nevertheless, Whalley was unseated, as the election committee declared that candidates were unable to stand at by-elections prompted by their own unseating. The separate committee held to consider Hankey’s campaign ruled that, while the Fitzwilliam campaigns of 1852 had probably been illegal, his 1853 campaign had been within the limits of the law. This entitled Hankey to assume Whalley’s seat in parliament without a further by-election. A disgruntled Whalley continued to complain to parliament, submitting a further petition in 1854, which was again rejected.

Whalley stood again at Peterborough at the 1857 election but came third behind the two Fitzwilliam candidates, his defeat owing to a poorly organised, last-minute campaign. He challenged the result but withdrew his petition after receiving assurances from Earl Fitzwilliam that he would no longer seek to control the return of both of the borough’s candidates. When a general election followed in 1859, Whalley was eventually successful, with fireworks and bands celebrating the end of the Fitzwilliam family’s 70-year long control of the borough’s representation, as well as an end to the bitter political fighting between families and friends that had occupied the city for the past seven years.

The full constituency article on Peterborough will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

For more on the Fitzwilliam family members who sat in the Commons, see our earlier blog.

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Call for Papers: conference on ‘Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty’, 3-4 Nov. 2017

Durham University and the History of Parliament are hosting a conference with the People’s History Museum in Manchester, 3-4 Nov. 2017, with support from the Royal Historical Society and Durham University’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. For further details see below or visit the conference website here.

Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British world, 1640-1886 (3-4 November 2017, People’s History Museum, Manchester)

The 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, which made important strides towards the inclusion of working people amongst the electorate, is an occasion for wider reflection on the claims for – and of – parliaments to be truly representative of the people. We wish to facilitate discussion across the traditional boundaries of early modern and modern history and to include the Irish parliament and legislatures of British colonies – as well as those excluded from them – alongside the houses of parliament in Westminster.

We welcome proposals for papers concerning any part of the British world in the period 1640-1886, which might engage with themes such as:

  • Revolutionary, radical, or reform movements championing popular sovereignty or claiming its mandate for their designs;
  • Instruments for the representation of popular sovereignty, whether the electoral franchise, mass mobilisation through petitions and meetings, or the claims of the press;
  • Comparative or imperial histories of popular sovereignty within the British world;
  • Debates over the composition of electorates and candidates for representative institutions, including the use of property or racial qualifications;
  • Contests over political representation, as reflected in demands, bills and Acts for parliamentary reform;
  • The performance of popular sovereignty in petitions, election rituals, and polling;
  • Clashes between representative bodies claiming the authority of – or rejecting the value of – popular sovereignty;
  • The language of popular sovereignty, including its contested meanings and the imagination of “the people”;
  • The intellectual histories of parliamentary and popular sovereignty, including “virtual representation”.

Paper proposals

To propose a paper for the conference, please submit a single document containing a 1-page CV and an abstract of 250 words or fewer to EPeplow@histparl.ac.uk by 25 April 2017.

The conference will take place at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. A conference charge of up to £60 (depending on pending funding applications) will be necessary to cover costs. Accepted paper-givers will be responsible for funding their own transport and accommodation costs.

We particularly welcome paper proposals from female and ethnic minority researchers, who are under-represented on the programmes of many academic conferences.

We are also very keen to welcome postgraduate researchers, perhaps presenting their work for the first time. Thanks to the generosity of the Royal Historical Society, postgraduate students presenting a paper or attending the conference may apply for a Royal Historical Society bursary (to a maximum of £80) towards travel and accommodation costs. Priority will be given to those presenting a paper, and you should apply by explaining your travel and accommodation needs in a statement of 250 words or fewer by 25 April 2017.

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Defying the Whip: ‘rebel’ MP of the month, Swynfen Jervis (1798-1867)

One of the themes being explored by the Victorian Commons project is the decline of ‘independence’ in the 19th-century Commons and the rise of party-based voting by MPs – a development neatly captured in Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous lampoon of 1882 about MPs being forced to ‘leave their brains outside’ and ‘vote just as their leaders tell ‘em to’ (Iolanthe).

MPs continued to assert their independence on a number of major issues throughout the 1832-68 period, as the rebellion of the Tories against Peel on free trade in 1846 or the split in the Liberals over parliamentary reform in 1866 amply demonstrate. Few, however, chose to defy the party leadership quite so publicly or defiantly as Swynfen Jervis, the ‘eccentric’ Liberal MP for Bridport from 1837-41.

An early photo (c. 1850) of Jervis: © NPG

Jervis stands out for all sorts of reasons, not least because of his zealous support for free trade at a time when most landowners continued to defend the corn laws. Unlike many inheritors of large country estates, Jervis was convinced that removing the import duties on foreign corn would benefit agriculture and that free trade itself was the ‘birth-right of every Englishman’. Jervis even promised to compensate all his tenant farmers on his Darlaston Hall estates should they suffer. ‘If any reduction takes place in the price of grain without a proportionate rise in the demand for other agricultural produce’, he announced, ‘I am ready to meet such a change … by a corresponding reduction of rent’.

It was the striking manner in which Jervis rebelled against the Whig-Liberal government on a crucial Irish vote in 1839, however, which brought him to national attention. Rather than simply staying away or quietly voting against the government, Jervis took the highly unusual step of sending the private communication he had received from the government Whip, Edward Stanley, to the newspapers. He then added a full explanation of his reasons for refusing to obey. ‘As an earnest Reformer, I have always voted with ministers’, he declared, ‘but the question which is now about to be raised in the Commons, however it may be glossed and disguised …  had been made a convenient stalking-horse to support their waning popularity’ and ‘appears to me utterly impossible to approve … without indirectly sanctioning their general policy’.

Swynfen Jervis dictating verse, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1852)

The press had a field-day, especially as official party ‘whipping’ was still in its infancy and remained cloaked in controversy. ‘The letter of Swynfen Jervis, an old and staunch Reformer, repelling the official application of the secretary of the treasury for his vote … has excited the universal displeasure and animadversions of minsters’, noted one Tory paper. Commentary in the Liberal press included assertions that ‘the member’s heart is with the Tories’ and mockery of him as a ‘strange eccentric being, who professing out and out democracy, “is everything by turns and nothing long”’. Bridport’s electors, however, were more forgiving. ‘I see nothing but is manly, straightforward and honest in the conduct of Mr. Jervis’, wrote one local observer.

Jervis continued to defy the Whig-Liberal government on a range of issues after 1839. He also earned the opprobrium of the Tories by launching a scathing attack on the Church of England in more private correspondence, this time with a local parson, that found its way into the press. Despite remaining popular with the ‘ultra-Radical clique’ at Bridport, Jervis retired as its MP in 1841. Meeting him around this time, the Tory essayist Thomas Carlyle didn’t mince his words:

A wretched dud called Swinfen Jervis … called one day … a dirty little atheistic radical, living seemingly in a mere element of pretentious twaddle, with Sheridan Knowleses … and all the literary vapidities of his day.

A subsequent associate of the pre-Raphaelites Dante and Christina Rossetti, who were regular visitors to Darlaston Hall,  Jervis is best remembered today for his poems and his Dictionary of the Language of Shakespeare, which appeared posthumously in 1868.

The full biography of Swynfen Jervis will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Further reading:

  • T. A. Jenkins, ‘The Whips in the Early-Victorian House of Commons,’ Parliamentary History, 19 (2000), 259-286.
  • J. Sainty and G. Cox, ‘The Identification of Government Whips in the House of Commons 1830-1905’, Parliamentary History, 16 (1997), 339-358.
  • P. M. Gurowich, ‘The Continuation of War by Other Means: Party and Politics, 1855-1865′, Historical Journal, 27 (1984), 603-631.
  • H. Berrington, ‘Partisanship and Dissidence in the Nineteenth-Century House of Commons’, Parliamentary Affairs, 21 (1967-8), 338-74.
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New publication: ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

An article by our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, on ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’ has just been published in a special issue of Parliamentary History, edited by Robert Saunders, and entitled ‘Shooting Niagara – and after?’ The Second Reform Act and its world. This publication, marking the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, also includes contributions from Colin Barr, Malcolm Chase, Kathryn Gleadle, Alex Middleton, Jonathan Parry and Gareth Stedman Jones. It can be accessed here.

Article summary:

Kathryn Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

This essay considers the role which the issue of bribery and corruption played during the debates on parliamentary reform in 1867-8, a theme previously neglected by historians of the Second Reform Act. It examines the ways in which the 1867 Act itself sought to deal with corruption, analysing the rationale for the disfranchisement of four venal boroughs. It also looks at the attempts made by backbenchers to insert provisions to curtail the growing costs of elections. Above all, it shows how the decision to confine discussion of electoral malpractice largely to the separate 1868 Election Petitions Act facilitated the progress of the main Reform Act. The 1868 Act was of ground-breaking constitutional significance in transferring jurisdiction over election petitions from committees sitting at Westminster to election judges, who tried petitions in the constituencies. Why the Commons – somewhat reluctantly – decided to surrender what had hitherto been a jealously-guarded privilege of the lower House is examined, discussing the failings of the existing tribunal and the role of Disraeli in skilfully guiding through reform. For contemporaries, the 1868 Act was very much part of a wider reform settlement. Reintegrating the question of electoral corruption into historical analysis of the Second Reform Act helps to provide a fuller understanding of the broader concerns underpinning the extension of the franchise in 1867.

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‘The son of one of the best men who ever adorned the country’: William Wilberforce (1798-1879)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell (Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-wilberforce-17591833-37751)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell: Leeds Museums and Galleries http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-wilberforce-17591833-37751

Trading heavily on his family name, William Wilberforce (1798-1879), eldest son and namesake of the noted anti-slave trade campaigner, was elected in 1837 as Conservative MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, which his father had represented from 1780 until 1784. During one election meeting he was overcome with emotion when referring to his father (who had died four years earlier), declaring that he wished to ‘follow his example, and endeavour to diffuse among all nations, light, liberty, and civilization’. On his canvass of the electors, he noted that ‘I find the name of my father, your own townsman, a passport to the hearts of all around me’.

Despite his family background, Wilberforce’s career before entering Parliament had been distinctly unpromising, and he had been a considerable source of anxiety to his parents. In 1816 his father noted his ‘sad qualities’ and ‘selfishness’, and the following year bemoaned that ‘I fear he has no energy of character or solid principle of action’. In 1820 Wilberforce senior described his son as ‘in many respects extremely amiable; & his talents are certainly of a superior order, but he sadly wants diligence’. Wilberforce junior disappointed his parents with his idle habits and extravagant spending as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where his misdemeanours including getting drunk on a Sunday. They consequently removed him from the university.

Although Wilberforce qualified as a barrister in 1825, he quickly decided that the legal profession was not for him. Instead, with financial support from his father, he invested in a dairy farm at St. John’s Wood, which aimed to supply London’s residents with cheap and pure milk. However, this venture failed in 1830 due to an unreliable business partner and a severe drought, running up a debt of £50,000. Bailing out his son proved financially crippling for Wilberforce senior, who rented out his house in order to economise. Wilberforce junior spent time in Switzerland and Italy in order to escape his creditors. Meeting him at Naples in April 1833, John Henry Newman found him ‘certainly graver – I cannot exactly say, wiser’.

Wilberforce’s election in 1837 for his father’s former constituency offered the potential for a new start. Proud to follow in his father’s footsteps, he argued at a celebratory election dinner that his victory showed the importance of the ‘hereditary principle’ in Parliament, in contrast with the ‘reckless change and innovation’ urged by the Liberal party. His father had earlier advised that should he ever enter the Commons, he should choose ‘some specific object, some line of usefulness’. Yet while Wilberforce senior’s election for Hull had marked the beginning of a 45 year career in the Commons – he subsequently sat for Yorkshire, 1784-1812, and Bramber, 1812-25 – his son’s time at Westminster was brief and unremarkable. He managed to make only three speeches in the chamber before he was unseated on petition in March 1838.

The reason for his unseating was that Wilberforce did not possess the property qualification then required of MPs. The election committee agreed that his Yorkshire estates – inherited from his father – were of sufficient value to qualify him. However, rather ironically, given Wilberforce senior’s hopes that his son might follow him into Parliament, the complex terms under which Wilberforce junior was granted these properties by his father’s will – notably that trustees had the power to sell the estates within 21 years of Wilberforce senior’s death – meant that he lacked the ‘absolute and indefeasible interest’ in these properties which the law demanded.

Despite this setback, Wilberforce stood again, seeking election at Taunton at the 1841 general election. He finished third in the poll behind the sitting Liberal MPs, despite resorting to bribery in his efforts to win the seat. His brother Samuel complained that ‘had his hands been clean’, Wilberforce might have been able to petition successfully against his opponents, who had apparently also resorted to corrupt practices.

In September 1841 Wilberforce made his final attempt to enter the Commons, at a by-election at Bradford, where he was proposed as ‘the son of one of the best men who ever adorned the country’. Despite being an outside candidate, while his opponent was a former MP for the borough, Wilberforce came within four votes of victory. He subsequently faded from public view, leading what one obituary described as an ‘unsympathetic, aimless, objectless life’.

Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), depicted in Vanity Fair (1869)

Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), depicted in Vanity Fair (1869)

He spent much time abroad in the late 1850s and early 1860s, residing at St. Germain en Laye, near Paris. An American visitor who met him there in 1857 found him ‘rather dull, with nothing of his father but the name’. In common with his brothers Henry and Robert – both of whom were Anglican clergymen – he converted to Roman Catholicism. Their fourth brother, Samuel, the most prominent of Wilberforce senior’s sons, remained an Anglican, serving as Bishop of Oxford, 1845-69, and Winchester, 1869-73. Nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’, he was involved in a famous debate on evolution with Thomas Huxley and others at Oxford in June 1860. William Wilberforce returned to live in England in the 1870s and died in 1879.

Further reading

  • A. Stott, Wilberforce. Family and friends (2012)
  • W. Hague, William Wilberforce (2008)
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‘Fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling’: Charles Dickens, Eatanswill and the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election

Allen, Harry M., active 1907-1937; Charles Dickens, Aged 27

Charles Dickens, aged 27, by Harry M. Allen (after Daniel Maclise) Image credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Today’s blog marks the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth by exploring the inspiration behind one of the most notable political events in his first novel.

Dickens’s riotous description of the Eatanswill borough election in the Pickwick Papers, first published in July 1836, is one of the most famous literary representations of a British election. Readers are often surprised to find out that it is set in the reformed electoral system after 1832. However, as our research for the House of Commons 1832-68 project is revealing, the electoral traditions famously epitomised by Hogarth’s Humours of an Election and described so vividly in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, endured, evolved and often thrived between the first two Reform Acts.

As well as Dickens’s experiences of electoral practices in the boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, his account of Eatanswill was inspired by his assignment to report on the December 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election for the Morning Chronicle. Interestingly, unlike the already notoriously corrupt boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, Northamptonshire North was a brand new county constituency in the reformed electoral system. Yet the county’s voters and non-voters, who congregated in the nomination town of Kettering for the proceedings, wasted little time in developing their own rowdy and partisan electoral identity. As Dickens found, to his dismay, Northamptonshire North was anything but ‘reformed’.

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‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)

The 1835 by-election prompted by the unexpected death of Northamptonshire North’s Whig MP, Viscount Milton, gave a resurgent Conservative interest in the county the chance to assume complete control of Northamptonshire’s county seats, which four years earlier had been in the hands of the Whigs. By the end of 1835, controversy surrounding the Corn Laws, Whig reforms to the Poor Law, the Melbourne government’s coalition with Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Repealers and the ruthless attention paid by the Conservatives to electoral registration had placed the Whigs on the back foot nationally. These winds of political change, which were particularly relevant to an Anglican, agricultural county, meant that Northamptonshire North’s by-election received extensive attention in the national press.

The two candidates were the Conservative, Thomas Maunsell, and the Whig, William Hanbury. The Conservatives had been buoyed by the recent conversion of some of the division’s former Whigs, who were outraged over their local party’s advocacy of free trade and the Whig government’s ‘disgraceful coalition with O’Connell’. Both parties claimed to be certain of success after their extended canvass, where tit-for-tat partisanship reached new levels, and both sides accused each other, probably correctly, of intimidating voters and pushing the custom of ‘treating’ local residents with drink to the bounds of acceptability.

This intense atmosphere continued at the nomination, which was an unruly affair, thanks largely to Maunsell and his Conservative entourage, who arrived on horseback and muscled their way to the front of the crowd using their horse whips. Following repeated skirmishes in the crowd as the candidates were being proposed, one of Maunsell’s supporters had his loaded double-barrel pistol confiscated, after he threatened opponents with it on three occasions. Charles Dickens, who viewed the event from the reporters’ area in front of the hustings, informed his fiancée that he had never seen ‘anything more sickening and disgusting’, describing the division’s Conservatives as ‘a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains … led by clergymen and magistrates’.

After both candidates had made their speeches and a poll had been demanded, two local Whig and Conservative notables took it in turns to rile up the crowd with inflammatory speeches about the other. Dickens’s colleague at the Standard reported that ‘the scene of confusion and turbulence which ensued was quite indescribable’.

The next day, Dickens regretted that his editor had requested he stay in the division to report on the poll, prophesying that:

we shall have an incessant repetition of the sounds and sights of yesterday ‘till the Election is over – bells ringing, candidates speaking, drums sounding, a band of eight trombone (would you believe it?) blowing – men fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling – all riotously excited, and all disgracing themselves.

Sure enough, on the morning of the poll Dickens complained that ‘the noise and confusion here … is so great that my head is splitting … the voters … are drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is’. The ‘conservative electors’ were ‘such beasts’, he explained, that he and his fellow reporters were forced into hiding in his room at the White Hart hotel.

Days later, Dickens was ‘overjoyed’ when his editor told him that he could leave the county before the result was announced. Much like in one of the comical episodes featuring Samuel Pickwick and his travelling companions in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens then convinced his fellow journalists from The Times, the Morning Advertiser and the Morning Post into hiring and driving their own post-chaise to escape to nearby Northampton. After a two-day journey, which involved a detour to Boughton House and a carriage crash caused by a driver ‘overcome with potations of ale’, Dickens, to his dismay, received confirmation that Maunsell had been returned with a considerable majority.

As he wrote his account of the Eatanswill election over the following months, Dickens delighted in exposing the ‘patriotism’ of the fictional borough’s notables, electors and non-electors, as they revelled in the boisterous and intense atmosphere of the canvass, the nomination and the poll, shamelessly exploited the culture of treating and inflated their own self-importance on a national scale. As he was doing so, it is hard to escape the notion that Dickens had his experiences at Northamptonshire North in mind.

The full constituency article on Northamptonshire North will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

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MP of the Month: From pot boy to parliamentarian – John Lloyd Davies (1801-60)

Of all the ‘self-made’ men who made the mid-nineteenth century House of Commons distinct from earlier periods, few can have begun life in such humble circumstances as John Lloyd Davies, MP for Cardigan Boroughs from 1855-7.

The son of a publican, Davies was born on the premises of the Old Black Lion in Aberystwyth in November 1801, but lost his father when aged about five. Accounts differ as to how he came to be educated. One account said his mother was ‘determined to give him the best possible education’, but another statement, made in the course of a legal dispute over Davies’s legacy in 1879, claimed that until he met his future wife he was illiterate and earned his living as an hotel servant, and that it was she who ‘had him educated’. In any case, Davies was subsequently articled to a solicitor, and by the age of 24 had succeeded to a lucrative practice in Newcastle Emlyn. In June 1825 he married his benefactress, Anne, the only surviving child of the late John Lloyd, a one-time mayor of Carmarthen. The widow of an army officer, she had grown wealthy through inheriting substantial estates at Blaendyffryn and Alltyrodyn from her late husband and from a cousin.

As a proprietor with a life interest in these estates, Davies rose quickly within the local squirearchy. He was appointed to the county bench, made a deputy lieutenant and was an active trustee of the Carmarthenshire turnpike trusts. At the 1837 general election he proposed one of the candidates for Carmarthenshire. Recognised as a ‘very active and talented’ magistrate, he subsequently confronted the Rebecca rioters in the Llandysul district, and in June 1843 helped to repel an attack on Carmarthen workhouse. In 1845 he was appointed high sheriff of Cardiganshire.

Having declined several invitations to stand for Parliament, Davies agreed to offer for a vacancy at Cardigan in February 1855. Being ‘neither Whig nor Tory’, but claiming to be an independent Conservative, he won favour by addressing the electors in his native tongue, ‘much to the delight’ of those unacquainted with English. As a zealous Anglican, he opposed the Maynooth grant. He objected to an extension of the county franchise, but at the same time, he backed Irish land reform and supported the secret ballot. Above all, he was a trenchant critic of the government’s conduct of the war against Russia, accusing ministers of sending ‘54,000 of their countrymen … to starve in the Crimea’.

Davies came into Parliament at a time when the expansion of the provincial press had stimulated a wider public interest in the proceedings of the Commons. He not only attended the House regularly – proving as likely to vote with Lord Palmerston’s ministry as not – but also made frequent, brief interventions in debate on a variety of different topics and took part in the growing practice of questioning ministers. However, despite enhancing his reputation as a popular representative by campaigning to exempt Dissenters from the payment of church rates, and promoting the establishment of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan, he was promptly brought to earth after the dissolution in March 1857. Having issued what his critics described as ‘the most boastful and egotistical’ of election addresses, he found himself opposed by a member of the borough’s most influential family and promptly retired.

His days as an MP over, Davies still remained active in public life, becoming a trustee for a scheme to establish a joint stock ‘Bank of Wales’, and was heavily involved as company chairman in promoting the construction of a railway line between Carmarthen and Cardigan, which was regarded as his greatest achievement.

His wife had died shortly before he entered Parliament, but Davies married another heiress in March 1857, the daughter of a Gloucestershire landowner. His second wife died in February 1860 and Davies passed away three weeks later. Despite leaving a legacy of £10,000 to his two infant sons, along with the Alltyrodyn estates which were not legally his to give, much of his goods and livestock had to be sold off to meet the demands of his creditors, reflecting the provisional nature of the social and political standing of this low-born but capable MP.

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