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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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.

MS

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.

HenryRedheadYorkeBM

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.

EP VI 165.1

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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The Speaker and the same question: a view from the Victorian Commons

Our editor Philip Salmon wrote this for the History of Parliament on Erskine May, parliamentary procedure and the 19th century Commons.

The History of Parliament

In today’s blog Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the 1832-1945 House of Commons project, explores some of the historical background behind recent Parliamentary rulings relating to Brexit.

The rules governing UK parliamentary procedure, not surprisingly, don’t often get much public attention. However, some of the recent decisions by Speaker Bercow serve as an important reminder that the practices of the past can have an important bearing on modern politics. In the absence of a written constitution, political history continues on occasion to have a special relevance in British public life.

One striking example of this is the convention that the same question cannot be put again and again within a parliamentary session. The origin of this might seem obscure, stemming as it does from the early 17th century power struggles between the Crown and the Commons. By the Victorian era, however, it had evolved into an underlying principle…

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The Anglican clergy and English elections, 1832-37

This week we hear from Nicholas Dixon, of Pembroke College, Cambridge, on clerical influence in the reformed electoral system. It is one of the themes addressed in his PhD, which examines the Church of England’s influence on English politics and society during the early nineteenth century.

Following the 1832 election the Duke of Wellington asserted that there had been a ‘revolution’ resulting in a mass transferal of power from gentlemen ‘professing the faith of the Church of England’ to ‘the shopkeepers, being dissenters from the Church, many of them Socinians, others atheists’. Many historians have readily accepted Wellington’s verdict, seeing the 1832 Reform Act as the culmination of a ‘constitutional revolution’ in which Anglican political interests were irreversibly displaced.

'The Church in Danger' (c.1830), published by Thomas McLean

Perceived threats to the established Church fuelled a rise in clerical electoral activity, ‘The Church in Danger’ (c.1830), published by Thomas McLean. CC British Museum

Yet, for other contemporaries, the Reform Act led to a strikingly incongruous phenomenon: the intensification of clerical influence over elections. In addition to local and personal factors, this process (which was already evident in the 1820s) was driven by a desire to respond to perceived threats to the Church that clergymen generally saw manifested in radical agitation, the Queen Caroline affair, Catholic emancipation, the reform crisis and dissenters’ campaigns.

Clerical politicisation took many different forms. At its most basic level, it involved the clergy voting en masse for Conservative candidates. In the English county elections of 1832 the proportion of clerical votes for Conservatives proved consistently high: 78% in Durham North, around 80% in Nottinghamshire North and 84% in Sussex East. In 1835, 89% of clerical votes in Lincolnshire North were cast for the Conservative candidates. Voting was more split in boroughs, but overall, the picture was one of Conservative dominance with pockets of Whig support.

C. J. Grant, 'Canvassing', McLean's Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, 36 (1832)

After 1832 the clergy played an increasingly active role in constituency canvassing, C. J. Grant, ‘Canvassing’, McLean’s Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, 36 (1832), © British Library

Clerical canvassing had been a common activity since the eighteenth century, but in the 1830s it reached new heights of force and assertiveness. In Berkshire in 1832, a clergyman informed a freeholder that should the Conservative candidate not be elected, ‘we cannot expect the blessing of God upon our public measures.’ And in 1837, a Cheshire rector Joshua King denounced the local Whig candidate George Wilbraham as a ‘radical revolutionist’ and ‘inhuman monster’. During the same election at Maldon, a flag in Conservative blue was flown from the tower of the parish church, and in Surrey in 1835 a Whig supporter had his ‘reform colours’ trampled by a local clergyman. In several constituencies the clergy openly boycotted tradesmen with whom they had political differences. In every case, those involved appeared to be unconcerned by the publicity which their public statements and actions invited.

The expanding newspaper press offered further outlets for clerical electioneering. Following the 1832 election, an anonymous curate wrote to the Staffordshire Advertiser that he had ‘been told that I have completely blasted all hopes of preferment in my profession by supporting a Tory’ but that he ‘would rather live and die a poor curate’ than support the Whigs. Clergymen of the opposite persuasion also used the press to promote partisan views. In an address printed in the Northampton Mercury in 1835, Henry Rolls, a rector, argued that Lord Melbourne’s alliance with Daniel O’Connell did not threaten the established church.

Anon, 'The Man Wot's Got the Election' (c.1833)

Clergymen even took to the hustings to propose candidates. Might a clergyman have proposed this fictional ‘church and state’ Tory? Anon, ‘The Man Wot’s Got the Election’ (c.1833), CC British Museum

Clergymen were also leading participants in the formal proceedings of an election. At the nomination, it was very common for the clergy to propose candidates and make speeches. In some cases, clerical electioneering persisted during the polling. At Bridlington in 1837, it was complained that the local clergy had ‘stood all day long in the open street, accosting every voter as he proceeded to the booth, and using every description of threat, misrepresentation, and undue influence, in order to secure his vote.’

Furthermore, the clergy took a prominent part in the celebrations that followed the victory of their favoured candidates. Most were not as exuberant as the curate who, according to one newspaper, celebrated the victory of Francis Burdett in North Wiltshire in 1837 by ‘chairing him per substitute, through [Ashton Keynes]’ and waving a flag inscribed ‘Burdett and Liberty’.  Victory speeches by clergymen were also a feature of poll declarations and dinners given in honour of successful candidates.

'The Exeter Cat and Plymouth Mouse'

In this 1834 cartoon, Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, is depicted as a cat pursuing the Whig MP Lord John Russell. Phillpotts was a fierce critic of the Whig government and believed that ‘[i]t is in the House of Commons that the battle for the Church must be fought’. John Doyle, ‘The Exeter Cat and Plymouth Mouse’ (1834). CC British Museum

There was a clear consensus at all ends of the political spectrum, not only that the clergy changed the course of elections, but that their influence increased during this period. Following his victory at Essex South in 1837, the Conservative Thomas Bramston fulsomely acknowledged ‘the assistance we have received from the clergy of this district.’ Concurrently, the Whig periodical the Spectator stated that ‘[s]uch has been the temporary success … of the clerical tactics, and so general the triumph of the Church party in England, that there is little hope of stopping the parsons in their unchristian career.’

By strenuous activity, the clergy demonstrated that parliamentary reform did not, as Wellington had predicted in 1832, spell the end of Anglican electoral influence. If anything, this influence was now augmented by the newly emergent Conservative associations, in which clergymen played a prominent role. Conservative clergy adapted well to the post-1832 requirement for an annual registration of those eligible to vote, closely supervising this process to ensure that Conservative voters were extensively registered. Accordingly, the Whigs’ losses in the general election of 1837 were principally attributed by one of their supporters to ‘the violence and activity of the Clergy’. The clerical factor in English politics had conspicuously assumed a permanent and effectual form.

ND

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Corruption at elections in Britain in the 19th century

Following on from Martin Spychal’s blog about the paper he gave at last month’s ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption?’ conference, organised jointly by Oxford Brookes and Newman Universities, we hear from our assistant editor Kathryn Rix. She gave the conference keynote, looking at parliamentary efforts to tackle the problem of electoral corruption in the nineteenth century.

Riponmedalreverse

Election medal, Ripon, 1832. Image (c) K. Rix

In December 1832 voters in the Yorkshire borough of Ripon went to the poll for the first time in more than a century. The victory of the Reformers Thomas Staveley and Joshua Crompton over their two Conservative rivals was commemorated with a medal, depicting ‘The genius of patriotism driving corruption from the constitution’ and bearing the inscription ‘Purity and independence triumphant!’ In other constituencies, too, hopes were expressed that the 1832 Reform Act would mark the beginning of a new era of electoral probity.

By disfranchising notorious rotten boroughs such as Dunwich, Gatton, Old Sarum and around 50 more, the 1832 Act had done much to clean up the electoral system. The redistribution of seats, in combination with the extension of the franchise, helped to put paid to the trade of the boroughmonger. The Act also made practical changes which diminished the corruption and expense of elections, most notably by limiting the duration of the polling to two days. This was cut further to one day in boroughs from 1835 and in counties from 1853. The Radical MP for Wigan, Richard Potter, praised this subsequent reform for its potential to curb bribery, since ‘the mischief under the old system was generally done in the night’. A shorter poll also reduced the opportunities for treating – the provision of food and drink – and for intimidation of voters.

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How to get made an MP (1830), W. Heath. Image (C) British Museum

However, the electoral system after 1832 was far from pure. In 1836 the London and Westminster Review bemoaned the fact that while the Reform Act was still in its cradle, ‘already … has the envious goddess of Corruption sent two most deadly serpents, Bribery and Intimidation, to strangle the baby-giant’, with the result that ‘the representative system is utterly defeated’.

Electoral corruption persisted throughout the period covered by our 1832-68 project. At the 1865 election, an astounding 64% of Lancaster’s voters either took or gave a bribe, while at Totnes, bribes of up to £200 were offered for a single vote. Both these constituencies, together with Great Yarmouth and Reigate, were stripped of their representation by a special clause in the 1867 Reform Act. The remedy of disfranchisement had previously been applied to the venal boroughs of Sudbury (in 1844) and St Albans (in 1852).

The disfranchisement of some of the worst constituencies was just one of the ways that Parliament attempted to tackle the problem of electoral corruption. Alongside major pieces of legislation such as the 1854 and 1883 Corrupt Practices Prevention Acts, the 1868 Election Petitions Act and the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, there were a number of lesser measures, and efforts were made to pass several more.

Speaking in the House of Lords in 1847, Lord Lansdowne – a political veteran who had held office under every monarch since George III – observed that

year after year, Parliament after Parliament, during the last century attempts had been made to repress by statute those abominable practices. Some of those Acts had been adopted, others had been rejected; but all of them had afforded convincing proof in their progress that of all the subjects for legislation this was most difficult to handle.

My conference paper explored some of the reasons why Parliament found the issue of electoral corruption so hard to deal with, and began by considering the large amount of parliamentary time and effort which this problem consumed. Between 1832 and 1868 well over 700 election petitions appealing against election results on the grounds of bribery, treating and other electoral misdemeanours were presented to the House of Commons, and more than 400 of these were subsequently heard by an election committee composed of MPs. Eleven MPs served on each election committee up until 1839; seven MPs between 1839 and 1844; and five MPs from 1844 until 1868, when the Commons handed over this task to election judges sitting not at Westminster, but in the constituency under investigation.

Attempts to legislate also proved time-consuming, given the complexities of electoral law and the great interest MPs took in a question which affected them so directly. One Liberal backbencher declared that the prolonged debates on the 1854 Corrupt Practices Act had shown that ‘a bribery Bill was almost sufficient for a Session in itself’. Sir Rainald Knightley successfully used the issue as a blocking tactic to scupper the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill, with his instruction that it must include ‘provision for the better prevention of bribery and corruption’. This was intended to fatally overload the measure. The most comprehensive reform on this subject, the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, had already been discussed in the 1881 and 1882 sessions before it was finally passed. It spent 23 nights in committee in 1883, and took up the equivalent of ‘one third of the full time allotted to the Government in the course of an average session’.

The difficulties of reform were compounded by several other factors, including the wide range of potential remedies which could be applied, ranging from disfranchisement to reforming the system of trying election petitions. For many voters – and indeed non-voters – elections were seen as an opportunity to make some money, or at the very least, to eat, drink and be transported to the poll at the candidate’s expense. There was therefore very little outside pressure for reform. For MPs too, some of this expenditure – paying the expenses of poor voters to come to the poll, or providing refreshment for those who had travelled some distance to vote, for example – seemed little more than innocent hospitality.

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Punch (1847)

The debates on the 1854 Corrupt Practices Act give a clear sense of MPs grappling with whether it was possible to draw some kind of dividing line between election expenditure which was legitimate and unobjectionable, and election expenditure which, while not necessarily corrupt in itself, could open the door to corruption and should therefore be prohibited. As election costs spiralled with a growing number of election contests and the extension of the franchise in 1868, MPs became increasingly willing not only to take decisive action against the problem of electoral corruption, but also to protect their own pockets by tackling the related issue of election expenditure. This combined attack on corruption and expenditure was central to the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, the most significant nineteenth-century legislation on this issue, which had far-reaching consequences for electioneering and party organisation.

Further reading

  • K. Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’, Parliamentary History, 36:1 (2017), 64-81
  • K. Rix, ‘“The elimination of corrupt practices in British elections”? Reassessing the impact of the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act’, English Historical Review, CXXIII (2008), 65-97
  • K. Rix, Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 (2016)
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