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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Floods, Plagues and the Second Coming: Charles Augustus Tulk MP

Apocalyptic end days, doomsday scenarios and final judgements were prominent features of many people’s religious beliefs in the 19th century, but a few went further, maintaining that the Second Coming had already taken place. Among them was our MP of the month, Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).

Charles Augustus Tulk MP

Tulk was the first ‘Swedenborgian’ MP to sit in the Commons, where he represented Sudbury from 1820-26 and Poole from 1835-7 with the help of his vast purse. (His family had inherited estates that included London’s Leicester Square). He was a founder member of London’s Swedenborgian Society, established in 1810 to promote the teachings of the self-proclaimed ‘servant of the Lord Jesus Christ’, Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1782).

Swedenborg’s followers believed that the world had already experienced a series of ‘last judgements’, including Noah’s flood and Egypt’s ten plagues. Each cataclysm had ended a a distinct religious age on Earth and been accompanied by a ‘final judgement’ of its dead in the spiritual world. Each judgement had also ushered in a new phase of religion and a new church, including the one which had developed following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the group believed, had already taken place, with Christ speaking directly through Swedenborg. Hence the need to translate and spread Swedenborg’s writings about reforming the Christian faith.

Although this theological movement suffered many internal divisions, its emphasis on humanity’s spiritual development, the supernatural world and mystical interpretations of the New Testament made it popular with several leading early 19th century radicals and romantic poets, not least Tulk’s close friends William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also became linked with early vegetarian practices, which Tulk himself seems to have followed.

But to what extent did it influence Tulk’s politics? There is little doubt that Tulk, inspired by Swedenborg’s example, entered Parliament in order to try to bring about social change. His religious beliefs emphasised that people’s actions towards others, and not faith alone, were what counted when the soul was judged. He was certainly a very independently-minded MP, even by the loose party standards of the time. Sitting alongside the extreme Radicals in the 1820s, as part of the ‘mountain’ of opposition to the Tory government, he steadily backed most of their causes, including their campaigns to abolish hanging and flogging, improve what he called the ‘atrocious’ working conditions in factories, and get rid of colonial slavery. He also had no qualms about supporting parliamentary reform, despite sitting for one of the most notorious ‘rotten boroughs’ in the country. But when it came to Catholic emancipation, almost a watchword of liberal orthodoxy by this time, he was staunchly opposed to any form of concession and instead sided with the die-hard ‘church and state’ Tories. He also refused to engage in any tactical voting against the Tory government on economic issues and any other sordid party ‘devices’.

One of Tulk’s many theological tracts

Tulk’s cross-party stance contributed to him losing his seat at the 1826 election. By then, however, almost all of his time was being taken up with fighting theological disputes arising from his writings, including rebutting charges of ‘heresy’. By the time he resurfaced, Parliament had been reformed by the 1832 Reform Act.

In his last stint as an MP for Poole from 1835-7 Tulk settled down as an ‘extreme liberal’. As well as backing the secret ballot, he supported the removal of bishops from the Lords, the revision of the corn laws, tax reductions, and allowing ladies to be admitted to the public gallery of the Commons.

What really marked out his final years in the Commons, however, was his growing concern for the working poor. His desire to restrict work on Sundays, rather than being motivated by religion, seems to have entirely been driven by the need to provide the ‘humbler classes’ with one free day a week for ‘innocent recreations’. These would include visiting newly established libraries, museums, public walks and parks, all of which Tulk tried (unsuccessfully) to bring in legislation to promote (along with stricter regulations on the sale of alcohol). The plight of the Irish tenant farmers under British rule also increasingly drew his sympathy. However, it was the unfair conviction of the Tolpuddle martyrs, a group of agricultural labourers charged with swearing an ‘unlawful’ oath, that he spoke most about. He became one of the leading supporters of the ultimately successful campaign for their pardon and release from a penal colony.

In retirement Tulk continued his theological writing. His publication in 1846 of Spiritual Christianity, however, prompted an irrevocable rift with the Swedenborgian Society, and he became ‘so noxious’ to them ‘that his death [in 1849] was not even mentioned in their magazine’, the New Church Advocate. He has long since been rehabilitated by the society, which continues to operate today.

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MP of the Month: William Nugent Macnamara (1776-1856)

By the time he retired from the House of Commons in 1852 William Nugent Macnamara, the long-serving MP for County Clare, was in his late seventies and had taken no practical part in parliamentary business for the previous three years. His failing abilities in later life were in stark contrast with the younger days of the man once known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, always ready to settle disputes with a duel.

William Nugent Macnamara (CC via NPG)

A Protestant landowner and militia officer, Macnamara came from a family with deep roots in Ireland. His father Francis had represented County Clare in the Irish Parliament as a supporter of Catholic emancipation and was himself a noted duellist: his meeting with a Mr. Fitzgerald at Highgate in May 1798 resulted in the wounding of both parties. Like his father, Macnamara supported the Catholic cause, having witnessed extreme sectarian violence during his time as a young militia officer in Armagh, which culminated in the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ in September 1795. He became a popular country gentleman, earning a reputation in county Clare as ‘the poor man’s magistrate’, and was said to have been a universal favourite due to his ‘winning cordiality’ and ‘raciness of utterance’.

In January 1815 Macnamara played a leading role in one of the most memorable events in the career of Daniel O’Connell, when he acted as second to O’Connell in his duel with John D’Esterre, who was defending the honour of Dublin corporation, which O’Connell had insulted as ‘beggarly’. D’Esterre had a reputation as a ‘deadly marksman’, but in this encounter he was fatally wounded by O’Connell, who was said to owe his life to Macnamara’s expertise as a duellist. Not only did Macnamara win the toss which gave O’Connell the choice of position, but he also advised O’Connell to remove his white cravat, which prevented D’Esterre from taking advantage of this when regulating his aim. Given his prowess in this field, it was not surprising that O’Connell originally wanted Macnamara to accompany him to Ostend that September when he expected to take part in a duel with Sir Robert Peel.

O’Connell’s duel of January 1815 (Irish Magazine, Mar. 1815)

In contrast with the gentlemanly code of conduct associated with the settlement of matters of honour in a duel, Macnamara demonstrated that there was a coarser side to his nature when he was prosecuted in 1821 for helping his brother, Richard, to violently assault Thomas Wallace in Sackville Street, Dublin. Later a Liberal MP for Carlow, Wallace was the prosecuting counsel in a lawsuit against Richard for breach of promise of marriage. Macnamara was subsequently accused of publishing a letter which libelled Wallace with the intention of provoking a duel.

Macnamara, who had been suggested as a candidate for County Clare at the 1826 general election, made another important contribution to O’Connell’s career when he (and other liberal Protestants) declined to stand for the constituency in April 1828, leaving the way open for O’Connell to secure his famous by-election victory there. At the 1830 general election Macnamara was returned to Parliament for County Clare (O’Connell was elected instead for County Waterford), but only after a violent quarrel with the O’Connells during which he rebuffed a challenge to a duel from O’Connell’s second son, Morgan. Another duel seemed likely in 1831 after Macnamara fell out with his friend The O’Gorman Mahon, one of the other candidates for County Clare, during an election contest which saw ‘unlimited use of the Billingsgate language’ between the contending parties.

Happily, however, the storm blew over. Having topped the poll at Clare in 1830 and 1831, Macnamara repeated this in 1832, one of six contested elections he fought in that most volatile of constituencies. He was personally popular in the county, where he was considered ‘every inch a king’. In contrast with his fiery personality, his appearance was ‘portly, dignified and handsome’, with ‘profusely-powdered and highly-frizzled’ whiskers. With his penchant for ‘the regal fashions’, he was said by his fellow Irish MP Richard Sheil to have made ‘a very fine effigy’ of George IV. However, his reputation as a duellist was not forgotten by one observer at Westminster, who described him passing Sir Robert Peel – a political opponent and no stranger himself to a duel – in the lobbies. After Peel gave him ‘one of his most honeyed smiles’, Macnamara reciprocated ‘as blandly as if he had him at twelve paces on Wimbledon Common, with surgeons for two, and a coffin for one ordered at the adjoining public house’.

Further reading:

  • S. Farrell, ‘Macnamara, William Nugent’, HP Commons, 1820-1832, vi. 291-5.
  • O. MacDonagh, The Hereditary Bondsman. Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (1988), 134-8.
  • R. Sheil, Sketches of the Irish Bar (1854), ii. 266-70.
  • J. Kelly, That Damn’d Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860 (1995).
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From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became…

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Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): the life of a queer MP at the time of the Second Reform Act

Dr Martin Spychal introduces his new series of blogs for the Victorian Commons on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), who was elected as MP for Sutherland in 1867.

Sarony, Gower

N. Sarony, Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (c. 1884) CC NPG

Born into ‘the inner circle of English aristocratic life’, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) is best known as the likely inspiration for the hedonistic aristocrat, Lord Henry Wotton, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and as the sculptor of the Shakespeare Memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is a prominent figure in Britain’s nineteenth-century LGBTQ+ history on account of his connection with Wilde (who spoke at the unveiling of the Shakespeare Memorial), his own output as an artist and author, and his centrality to queer metropolitan society from the 1870s.*

As Joseph Bristow has suggested, despite Gower’s sexual interest in men becoming an increasingly open secret in high society by the end of the nineteenth century, his wealth and social status allowed him to avoid the criminal sentencing that destroyed the lives of less connected queer men (both before and after the 1885 Labouchère Amendment).

Shakespeare Memorial

Prince Hal in Gower’s Shakespeare Memorial (1888), now known as the Gower Monument, Bancroft Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon

This relative freedom allowed him to play an influential role in shaping, and to an extent asserting, queer identities during the late nineteenth century. Whitney Davis has astutely observed that in terms of his artistic practice, by the late 1880s Gower ‘had begun self-consciously to enact the possibility – the aesthetic possibility – of an essentially homosexual life-historical identity’. And John Potvin has suggested that Gower’s remarkable bric-a-brac ‘treasure house’ at Windsor Lodge, which became a meeting point for a generation of young aesthetes from the 1870s, reflected Gower’s ‘unique sense of queer time and place’.

In 1867, at the age of just 21, Gower was returned for the Scottish county of Sutherland. He represented the constituency until 1874. For most of those years he kept a detailed diary, parts of which found their way into his popular two volume autobiographical memoirs, My Reminiscences, published in 1883. After working on the manuscript of Gower’s diary for the History of Parliament’s forthcoming Commons 1832-1868 volumes it has become clear to me that Gower undertook a considerable amount of self-censorship in his memoirs. More importantly it is evident that the document warrants specific attention beyond the scope of the traditional History of Parliament biography format.


Gower (third from the left) on the Metropolitan Railway at Kensington High Street with fellow dignitaries, July 1868, CC NPG

As well as being a significant source for understanding the machinations of parliamentary politics at the time of the second Reform Act, Gower’s unpublished diary offers an amazing opportunity to understand the life of a young, aristocratic queer man as he navigated his way through the homosocial world of Westminster politics, and established himself in London society. It also offers an opportunity to examine Gower’s connection to London’s queer culture during the 1860s, discussed in Charles Upchurch’s excellent Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009).


The first page of Gower’s diary from 1867, SRO D6578/15/21

In a series of blogs over the next few months I’ll use Gower’s diary to consider various aspects of his life in London as an MP during 1867 and 1868, from his reputed nickname as ‘the beautiful boy’ of the House of Commons, to his election at the 1867 by-election, and his experiences as an MP at Westminster. Moving outside Parliament, I’ll consider his busy social life (featuring aristocratic balls, West End nightlife and an intriguing predilection for spectating at major London fires), an apparent summer romance with the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, his close friendship with his cousin and MP for Argyllshire, the Marquess of Lorne, and his developing connections with London’s art world.

* Following the theories pioneered by leading queer theorists since the 1980s (including Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner) I use the term ‘queer’ because, to borrow from Warner, it ‘defin[es] itself against the normal rather than the heterosexual’. Queer allows for a much wider definition of sexuality because it avoids the binary of homosexuality vs heterosexuality.

Further Reading

S. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others (2006)

S. Avery, K. M. Graham, Sex, Time and Place: Queer Histories of London, c.1850 to the Present (2018)

J. Bristow, ‘Oscar Wilde, Ronald Gower, and the Shakespeare Monument’, Études anglaises (2016)

M. Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality 1885-1914 (2003)

H. G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (2003)

W. Davis, Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond (2010)

W. Davis, ‘Lord Ronald Gower and ‘the offending Adam’, in D. Getsy (ed.), Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain (2004)

E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

J. Potvin, Bachelors of a Different Sort (2014)

C. Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009)

P. Ward-Jackson, ‘Lord Ronald Gower, Gustave Doré and the Genesis of the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1987)

P. Ward-Jackson, ‘Gower, Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson- (1845-1916)’, Oxf. DNB

M. Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (1993)


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Sir Robert Peel and the modern Conservative party

Today (5 Feb) marks the birthday of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the 19th century prime minister traditionally credited with founding the modern Conservative party. Peel is also subject of a new BBC ‘Prime Properties’ episode – click here to view – and the latest video from the History of Parliament’s public engagement team.

Perhaps more than any other Victorian leader, Peel’s career was dominated by themes and events that continue to have striking resonances today. These include implementing controversial constitutional reforms that divided his party, heading a short-lived minority Tory government and winning a landslide Conservative election victory using new electoral techniques. The extent of Peel’s role in rebuilding the Conservative party after its catastrophic election defeat in 1832, however, has always been a moot point. Peel was notoriously aloof and awkward as a leader. A new breed of party officials instead exerted considerable control behind the scenes during the years he was in charge. What then should we make of Peel’s personal contribution to modern Conservatism?

It is often forgotten that Peel, though immensely wealthy, was not ‘born to rule’ in the same way that many of his Harrow or Oxford University contemporaries were. His father, a highly successful and socially ambitious Lancashire industrialist, had bought his way into the landed gentry, acquiring a country estate near Tamworth and becoming its Tory MP. Generous donations to the party earned the family a baronetcy, but Peel and his father never completely lost their regional accents or parvenu status.

In 1809 the father bought Peel, aged just 21, a seat in the Commons for a ‘pocket borough’. Within a year Peel was given a junior post by the Tory government, beginning one of the most meteoric ministerial careers on record. His anti-Catholic sympathies earned him the nickname ‘Orange Peel’ during his six year stint as Irish secretary, while the new police force he established as home secretary became known as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’.

Anti-Peel graffiti at an Oxford College

In 1829, however, Peel helped to trigger a major revolt in the Tory party. Already facing criticism for his role in repealing many of the civil restrictions on Dissenters, Peel’s decision to do the same for Catholics, allowing them to hold office and become MPs, left many Protestants aghast. At Oxford University, where he had been an MP since 1817, Peel’s ‘betrayal’ of Britain’s ancient Protestant constitution sparked outrage. Effigies of the ‘traitor’ Peel were burned in protest. In Parliament, incensed Ultra-Protestants quit the Tory party in droves, withdrawing their support for the Tory ministry led by the Duke of Wellington. This split in the Tory party, more than any other event, paved the way for the Whigs to assume power in 1830, ending 25 years of Tory rule. Within a few months the Whig-Reform coalition had brought in their famous reform bill.

Why did ‘Orange’ Peel back Catholic emancipation? Electoral realities explain some of it. By 1829 the electoral power in Ireland of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association had become a major headache for the Tory ministry. By offsetting the effects of emancipation with the disfranchisement of poorer Irish voters – it is often forgotten that the 1829 act also removed 175,000 Irish Catholics from the electoral rolls – Peel and Wellington hoped to reconfigure Irish electoral politics and bring stability to the country.

Cartoon showing Peel (left) and Wellington ‘burking’ (suffocating) the British Constitution


Electoral realities also go some way to explain Peel’s even more controversial U-turn in 1846, over the corn laws. Fearing the electoral power of Richard Cobden’s immensely successful Anti-Corn Law League, which had mobilised an entire army of newly registered freehold voters for the next election, Peel tried to avert disaster by bowing to popular pressure and repealing the corn laws. Unfortunately two-thirds of his MPs disagreed. Their rebellion, still the biggest on record in British political history, ended his government. The resulting split in the party between Peelites and Protectionists helped keep the Conservatives out of office for all but five of the next 28 years. It was not until 1874 that they were again able to win a majority at the polls.

Other explanations for Peel’s policies, stressing his business-like pragmatism, economic theories and high-minded willingness to always put country before party, can be found in the leading works of Norman Gash, Boyd Hilton, Douglas Hurd and Richard Gaunt (see below). Ian Newbould’s provocative article on ‘Peel: a study in failure?’ also remains essential reading, not least because it argues that the Conservatives’ landslide election victory of 1841 owed far more to a resurgence of traditional church-and-field Toryism than support for the new ‘moderate’ Conservatism peddled by Peel in his famous Tamworth manifesto.

The most striking assessment, however, remains that of Disraeli, Peel’s nemesis in debate and successor as Tory leader in the Commons. In his speeches and books Disraeli attacked Peel as a devious unprincipled charlatan, a man totally devoid of political integrity whose entire career revolved around ‘stealing’ other people’s ideas when expediency suited him and ratting on his colleagues. This compulsive ‘political larceny’, as Disraeli termed it, explained not only Peel’s betrayal of the Protestant constitution in 1829, but also his complete volte face in taking up the cause of free trade in 1846.

That Disraeli, a former Radical turned Tory, was no stranger to similar character traits makes his assessment all the more compelling. It was Disraeli, of course, who was later responsible for passing one of the most extraordinary acts of ‘political larceny’ in the 19th century – the 1867 Reform Act. Based almost entirely on adopting the policies of his opponents, in what was widely seen as a cynical ruse to stay in power, this landmark extension of the franchise was deemed a ‘political betrayal’ without ‘parallel’ by the future Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury.

Whether Peel’s motives lay in political expediency or high-minded statesmanship, there can be little doubt about his personal influence and enduring legacy in the development of the modern Conservative party.

Further reading:

Commons speech by Disraeli, 15 May 1846

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1790-1820 volumes

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1820-1832 volumes

B. Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck (1852)

N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel (1961)

N. Gash, Sir Robert Peel (1972)

B. Hilton, ‘Peel: a reappraisal’, Historical Journal (1979), xxii. 585-614

I. Newbould, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review (1983), xcviii. 529-57

D. Hurd, Robert Peel: a biography (2008)

R. Gaunt, Sir Robert Peel: the life and legacy (2010)

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From parliamentary reporter to Member of Parliament: Robert Spankie (1774-1842)


A silhouette believed to be of Robert Spankie, Veitch, ‘Mr Serjeant Spankie’, Transactions … Lancashire and Cheshire, 82 (1930).

January’s MP of the Month takes a look at the unusual pre-parliamentary career of Robert Spankie, who was returned for Finsbury in 1832. A ground-breaking parliamentary reporter during the 1790s, Spankie ascended to the editorship of the Morning Chronicle before re-training as a barrister and serving as a controversial advocate-general of Bengal.

The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Spankie was born in Falkland in 1774 and at 14 was sent to the University of St Andrews. He left for London in 1792 without graduating, after his work at an Edinburgh newspaper brought him to the attention of James Perry, the Scottish editor of London’s leading Whig newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.

Perry invited the ‘tall and rather athletic’ Spankie to work as a parliamentary reporter, a role that entailed recording speeches in the Commons and Lords for daily publication in the newspaper. Over the following decade he established himself as ‘one of the most rapid writers ever known on the press’ due to his shorthand speed and ability to compose a newspaper column in an hour (double the speed of the next quickest correspondents).

Rowlands, House of Commons 1808

The scene of Spankie’s early career as a parliamentary reporter, T. Rowlandson, ‘House of Commons’ (1808)

He was also known for his unwavering commitment to the relay system of parliamentary reporting, where journalists sat in shifts through the early hours to record debates for publication that morning. His reputation in this regard was thanks largely to the Fleet Street legend that once, when faced with a looming deadline and a congested Commons after a late night division, Spankie:

climbed over the balustrade of the stairs which communicated from the old smoking-room with the strangers’-gallery; and, suspending himself by his hands therefrom, dropped into the members’ lobby below (a height of 16 to 18 feet), amidst a crowd of senators. So suddenly was the affair accomplished, and so fleet of foot was the performer, that he escaped caption by any of the myrmidons of the Sergeant-at-Arms, and reached the office [of the Morning Chronicle] in safety and triumph [The Times, 5 Nov. 1842].

By around 1800 Spankie had become an editor and part-proprietor of the Morning Chronicleearning the respect of radicals such as William Cobbett for his ‘excellent articles’ and cultivating a social atmosphere at the newspaper’s offices where ‘port wine and claret flowed freely’.


The Morning Chronicle, 9 Mar. 1801

Discontented with his status as a lowly ‘gentleman of the press’, Spankie began to train as a lawyer at Inner Temple in 1803. He maintained his editorial duties while reading for the bar and developed increasingly close ties with the Whigs, acting as the chief conduit between the Ministry of All the Talents and the Morning Chronicle between 1806 and 1807. His increasing political moderation during this period earned him a lifelong enemy in the previously sympathetic William Cobbett, who was outraged that Spankie had succumbed to ‘the degrading influence of ministerial temptation’.

After selling his shares in the Morning Chronicle in 1807 Spankie was called to the bar and gradually built up a practice on the Home Circuit. He developed a distinctively ‘animated’ courtroom style to detract from common complaints about his ‘most discordant voice and a revoltingly coarse Scottish accent’. His brogue would continue to hinder him for the rest of his life despite sparing ‘no pains or cost to train himself as an orator’, which included elocution lessons from the radical reformer and speech therapist, John Thelwall.

In 1813 Spankie married Euphemia Inglis, the daughter of the East India Company director, John Inglis. Family connections soon secured lucrative legal work for the East India Company, and in July 1817 he was elected advocate-general of Bengal. Arriving in India in January 1818 he enjoyed a generous salary and precedence over all other members of the Calcutta bar. As the official legal representative of the East India Company he became notorious for his role in the suppression of the Calcutta Journal and the expulsion from India of its editor James Silk Buckingham in April 1823. Radical critics at home and abroad did not fail to note the irony of a journalist of former radical leanings enthusiastically working to curtail press freedoms and defend the unpopular East India Company monopoly.


The Spankie Family in Calcutta, G. S. Veitch, ‘Mr Serjeant Spankie’, Transactions … Lancashire and Cheshire, 82 (1930), 42–67

Liver disease forced his return to London later that year, where he settled at 36 Russell Square. Quickly re-establishing himself on the Home Circuit and in the Court of Common Pleas he was appointed a serjeant-at-law in July 1824, granted patents of precedence in January 1831, and appointed King’s serjeant in November 1832. He retained his East India contacts throughout and was appointed standing counsel to the East India Company in July 1831.

Finsbury low res

The newly enfranchised metropolitan borough of Finsbury, S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary (1835)

Having exhibited little traceable political activity since his return from India, Spankie announced his intention to contest the newly enfranchised constituency of Finsbury in July 1832. His candidacy reignited his now long-standing rivalry with William Cobbett, whose Political Register condemned Spankie’s treatment of the press in India and accused him of being complicit in the ‘crowds of vendors of cheap publications, who are in Coldbath Fields Prison’. His campaign was also subject to charges of voter intimidation, when it was alleged that East India Company workers had been pressured by their bosses into voting for him.

While identifying as a lifelong reformer on the hustings he astutely positioned himself as the most moderate candidate in a field of five candidates professing Whig-Liberal sympathies. Despite Spankie’s refusal to accept any party label, the anti-reform Standard observed approvingly that Spankie was neither ‘Whig or Tory’, but ‘essentially Conservative’. Amidst cries of ‘No East India Monopoly’ on Islington Green on 12 December 1832 Spankie was declared an MP for Finsbury. His return in second place was thanks largely to a split vote among his more progressive opponents. It was also one of the rare instances of a parliamentary reporter making it from the strangers’ gallery to the benches of the Commons.


For details about how to access the biographies of Spankie and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.


Posted in Biographies, Elections, Empire, Images of MPs, MP of the Month, Parliamentary life, party labels, Scotland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

For eight years now we have been marking the new year with some highlights from the previous 12 months. The events of 2019 certainly focused attention on parliamentary history and the UK’s constitutional practices as never before. Taking our cue from the succession of political crises, we blogged about Political Prorogations, the Speaker and Erskine May and the dilemmas of conscience facing rebel MPs. The relationship between Parliament and ‘the people’ also came in for scrutiny, conjuring up many historical comparisons. The 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre  ­̶  perhaps the most iconic ‘popular’ protest in British history  ­̶  was commemorated with an exhibition and colloquium we helped to organise in Parliament. Alongside related Peterloo blogs, this prompted our first vlog (video blog), co-produced with Royal Holloway.

Peterloo Massacre by Thomas Tegg (1819)

Staying with the ‘Parliament versus the People’ theme, we also explored the Newport Rising of 1839, another milestone in the long history of the struggle for political change. A more regional focus came from a joint conference held with the Devon and Cornwall Record Society. This explored the South West’s relationship with Parliament. Building on his PhD research, Martin Spychal examined how the distinct political cultures of Devon and Cornwall were impacted by franchise reforms and the development of more modern electioneering practices in the years after 1832.

The Chairing by T. Rowlandson

The most popular blog of 2019 was by Kathryn Rix on electoral corruption. Based on her keynote speech at a conference held in January, this set the scene for more election-related posts throughout the year, including one on the use of uncivil speech and an 1832-68 election overview that appeared shortly before we all went to the polls in December.

The scale of ‘treating’ in early 19th century elections was again brought home in a blog about John Fenton MP. Six people died from intoxication at the 1835 election in which he was defeated, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’.

Turning the spotlight on agents, Philip Salmon focused on Thomas Jones Phillips, a pioneering Tory election strategist and ancestor of the comedian Jack Whitehall, whose ruthless manipulation of the new voter registration system was revealed in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. Two guest writers, Gary Hutchison and Nicholas Dixon, also examined election violence and the electoral influence of the Anglican clergy respectively, while Martin Spychal added blogs exploring the enfranchisement of the University of London in 1868 and its charter and offered a tantalising glimpse of his new book with a post about the Whigs’ use of science in politics. Guest blogs were also provided by Ruscombe Foster on the man ‘who might have been PM’, Sidney Herbert; by Amanda Goodrich on a previously unidentified ‘non-white’ MP, Henry Redhead Yorke; and by Jennifer Davey on the political career and influence of Lady Derby.

The core of our work remains the constituency articles and MP biographies, with their capacity to throw up all sorts of unusual perspectives on Victorian political life and challenge traditional assumptions. This year’s MP of the Month series included two impecunious peers whose experience of the Commons gave them important skills as colonial governors, Charles Monck and the Earl of Mulgrave, as well as the pioneering engineer responsible for laying the first Atlantic telegraph cable, Charles Tilston Bright MP. We also found out about from Stephen Ball about Edward Schenley MP, who eloped with a 15 year old Pittsburgh heiress almost 30 years his junior and died a multi-millionaire. His £100 bribes to the electors of Dartmouth, however, prompted his hasty removal from the Commons. Of all the oddities about Victorian MPs uncovered this year, though, it has to be danger to life posed by turnips and large cats that really stands out. Being eaten by a tiger is a such a Victorian way to trigger a by-election.

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

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