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 role and power of the House of Lords

To mark Parliament Week 2018, our editor Dr Philip Salmon looks at a key element of Parliament which we don’t usually have much opportunity to reflect on in our work on Victorian MPs and constituencies: the House of Lords. Yet, as he explains below, the upper chamber played a vital role in many important 19th century reforms and continued to wield significant influence even after the 1911 Parliament Act.

The pre-1834 Lords (Court of Requests)

The House of Lords remains a rather neglected subject in modern British political history. One recent study has even suggested that ‘for the last half-century and more it has been largely ignored’ (but note the reading list below). Most studies constructed around the traditional theme of democratic development inevitably tend to downplay the significance of the ‘unelected’ chamber. The Lords, however, should not be under-estimated.

Over half the twenty prime ministers of the 19th century, including the two longest serving (Liverpool and Salisbury), formed their governments as peers, while two more (Russell and Disraeli) started out in the Commons but later served as premier in the upper house. For just over half the entire nineteenth century, the government was led by a prime minister sitting in the Lords. At ministerial level the presence of peers was more striking still, even well into the 20th century. Attlee’s first Cabinet of 1945 and Macmillan’s in 1957 contained five members of the Lords, while Churchill’s of 1951 had seven.

Rather than being separate or even rival institutions, as is sometimes assumed, the Victorian Commons and Lords were in fact deeply integrated in terms of their practical business, politics and personnel. Family ties and patronage networks ensured a close working relationship between members of both Houses, with many MPs either succeeding or being promoted to peerages. Many peers also continued to exercise a considerable degree of influence over elections to the Commons. Where conflicts between the two Houses did occur, as for example over the famous 1832 reform bill, they were primarily shaped by the political composition of the Lords rather than any deep-seated institutional jealousies.

The Lords always remained an overwhelmingly Tory chamber. Even by 1880, despite years of Liberal peerage creations aimed at trying to rectify a long-standing imbalance, the number of Liberal Lords had only just passed the 200 mark, or roughly 40%, of the total. This was then decimated by the Liberal party splitting apart over Irish home rule.

One effect of this was that many Whig and Liberal measures that passed the Commons were often defeated or altered out of all recognition by the Lords, sometimes even against the express wishes of the Tory leaders. The Whigs’ original 1835 municipal reform bill, for instance, was completely mangled by the Lords in defiance of the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel’s instructions.

The fact that so many controversial reforms of the 19th century ended up being proposed by Tory or Conservative governments, however, also meant that the number of conflicts between the two Houses was far lower than it otherwise might have been. Hugely contentious issues such as Catholic emancipation (1829), the Maynooth grant (1845), the repeal of the corn laws (1846) and the 1867 Reform Act, all of which would surely have been defeated in the Lords if sent there by a Liberal ministry, were allowed to pass by a Tory-dominated Lords, albeit with varying degrees of dissent.

The Victorian House of Lords, completed in 1847

Steady resistance in the Lords to measures such as the abolition of church rates, the removal of religious tests in universities, and allowing Jews to enter Parliament, put them at odds with the Commons on a regular basis throughout the 1850s and 1860s, but again it was at the behest of leaders, notably Disraeli, that they eventually gave way. In 1868 the Lords threw out Gladstone’s preliminary measures for disestablishing the Anglican church in Ireland. Following that year’s general election, however, which gave the Liberals a substantial majority, the Tory Lords reluctantly consented to pass a compromise measure at the behest of their leader Lord Cairns.

One area where institutional conflicts did occasionally occur, however, was over finance. This was supposed to be the exclusive preserve of the lower House. A problem here, however, was what exactly this financial embargo covered. In 1860, in an important showdown between the chambers, the Lords rejected the Liberal ministry’s proposals to abolish the duties on paper. This formed part of the government’s broad move towards obtaining more revenue from income and property, but was seen by many peers as touching on wider national issues as well. Rather than confront the Lords head on, the ministry passed resolutions in the Commons reasserting its exclusive right to deal with all money matters, and in the following session controversially inserted the proposals into their budget. Despite many objections this was duly passed.

The 1911 Parliament Act, and beyond

This increasing practice of ‘packing’ budgets with other measures lay at the heart of the constitutional crisis of 1909-11. After three years of throwing out a series of Liberal reforms, including an unpopular licensing bill, and earning themselves their reputation as ‘Mr Balfour’s poodle’, the Lords went one step further and rejected the so-called ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. As well as extending inheritance duties on landed estates, this had also tacked on previously rejected licensing and land valuation reforms.

The Liberal ministry called an election, held in January 1910, but their resulting losses made them heavily dependent on the support of the Irish nationalist MPs and Labour, both of whom shared the Liberal party’s growing commitment to a formal reduction of the Lords’ powers. After months of high political drama and abortive negotiations between the two Houses, and yet another general election in December 1910 that solved nothing, the Parliament Act of 1911 was eventually passed under the threat of mass peerage creations by the king.

1911 Parliament Act

Much has been made of the way the 1911 Parliament Act formally ended the Lords’ ability to interfere in money matters (as defined by the Speaker) and its replacement of the Lords’ complete veto over legislation with a delaying power of two years. In reality, however, this was precisely the way in which the Lords had operated for most of the 19th century, rarely intruding into budgetary matters and often postponing rather than preventing the passage of controversial measures (with the obvious exception of Irish home rule).

Not only were the Parliament Act’s provisions limited to bills that originated in the Commons – leaving completely untouched the peers’ powers over bills introduced in the Lords and all secondary or delegated legislation – but also the opportunity for bills to be delayed until after the next election in effect conferred a ‘referendum’ power on the upper house, legitimising its claims to a separate constitutional relationship with the electorate.

Perhaps most significantly, the Parliament Act’s technical requirements – bills delayed by the Lords had to go back through the Commons in the same form three times before becoming law – in practice made it far too cumbersome to be used on a regular basis. Tellingly, during the 20th century it was implemented just six times. In 1914 Welsh church disestablishment and Irish home rule were enacted under its provisions, only for their implementation to be suspended for the duration of the First World War (and in the latter case aborted owing to Irish independence). The 1949 Parliament Act, which further reduced the Lords’ delaying powers to one year, also reached the statute book without the Lords’ consent, as did the 1991 War Crimes Act, the 1999 European Elections Act and the 2000 Sexual Offences Act.

All other legislation that was passed during the 20th century, however, continued to be debated, scrutinised and where necessary amended by the Lords before becoming law, much as it had been during the Victorian era. The only difference was that after the primacy of the Commons had been asserted during the showdown of 1909-11, the Lords became less disposed to be combative in its approach and more inclined to engage in political manoeuvrings behind the scenes. To this extent, it could be argued that the change implemented in the early twentieth century was as much a cultural as a constitutional one.

Further Reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘Parliament’, in The Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History, 1800-2000, ed. D. S. Brown, R. Crowcroft and G. Pentland (Oxford University Press, 2018), 83-102 VIEW
  • C. Ballinger, The House of Lords 1911-2011: A Century of Non-Reform (2012)
  • R. Davis, A Political History of the House of Lords 1811-46 (2008)
  • R. Davis, Leaders in the Lords 1765-1902 (2003)
  • A. Adonis, Making Aristocracy Work. The Peerage and the Political System in Britain 1884-1914 (1993)
  • E. A. Smith, The House of Lords in British Politics and Society 1815-1911 (1992)
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MP of the Month: Peter Rolt (1798-1882), the man who built HMS Warrior

A successful Deptford timber merchant, Peter Rolt rose to eminence as a dockyard contractor and became one of the greatest of London’s shipbuilders. He was elected as Conservative MP for Greenwich in 1852. An ebullient character who was known for his ‘quiet and ready humour’, he later achieved fame as the builder of Britain’s first ironclad warship, HMS Warrior, in 1860.

A ‘Thames man’, Rolt was born at Deptford in 1798. He was descended on his mother’s side from the Elizabethan shipwright, Peter Pett (d. 1589), whose son Phineas (1570-1647), was the first commissioner of Chatham dockyard. His father’s family had maintained a yard on the Thames since the eighteenth century, and his maternal and paternal grandfathers and his father had all worked as dockyard officials.

After setting himself up as a timber merchant Rolt was married in 1820 to Mary Brocklebank, whose father Thomas was managing director of the General Steam Navigation Company. Rolt later set up the firm of Brocklebank & Rolt with his father-in-law. He established his reputation as a government contractor by constructing two important docks for the Admiralty. The first project, commenced at Woolwich in October 1843, was 300 ft. long and 92 ft. wide, and on completion in 1846 was hailed as the finest of its kind in Europe. Then, in 1847 he commenced work on a new basin at Portsmouth for fitting out steam vessels for the navy. The first of its kind to be built in Britain, it was considered a ‘stupendous’ feat of engineering when it was opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in May 1848.

Paul, John Dean, 1775-1852; Greenwich Hospital from the River, London

Greenwich Hospital from the River (1835), by John Dean Paul (C) Museum of London

By this time Rolt had already been considered as a Conservative candidate for Greenwich, and had joined the board of the Surrey Commercial Docks Company. After successfully completing his remaining Admiralty contracts – which would have disqualified him from sitting in the Commons – he accepted an invitation to stand for Greenwich at the 1852 general election. Appealing to the many ‘working mechanics’ of the borough, he championed the principle of ‘Free-trade in the food of the people’, but argued that the ‘hasty alteration’ of the navigation laws had damaged British shipping interests. His advantage as a large-scale employer in the constituency and a ‘home made’ candidate meant he topped the poll ahead of three Liberal candidates after an election which reportedly cost him £20,000.

Distracted by his business interests, Rolt made little mark in the Commons, although he proved a ‘cordial’ and consistent supporter of Lord Derby’s party. Convinced that Protestantism was ‘the glory and bulwark of the British Empire’, he refused to support what he considered to be the ‘propagation’ of Catholicism through the parliamentary grant to Maynooth College in Ireland, and was an opponent of the ballot.

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HMS Warrior (photo credit: A. Rix)

In 1856 Rolt purchased the prestigious shipbuilding works on the Thames at Blackwall which had been established by his recently bankrupted son-in-law, Charles John Mare (1814-98), who had been unseated for bribery at Plymouth in May 1853. Since Rolt intended to take over Mare’s partly executed Admiralty contracts he resigned his seat and formed the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, whose onsite foundry enabled Rolt to overcome a variety of engineering challenges. His shipyard became the largest on the river Thames and its first notable success came in December 1860 with the launch of Britain’s first ironclad warship, HMS Warrior, which he had built at a cost of £254,000 and which effectively secured Britain’s naval pre-eminence for another generation.

Tall, ‘well setup and dignified’, Rolt maintained a high profile in Greenwich, where he was lauded as ‘a capital dinner-giver’ and his menus regarded as ‘models of gustative propriety’. He retained an interest in politics and was an active member of the Conservative Registration Association of the City of London, for which constituency he proposed a candidate at the 1868 general election.

By this time financial difficulties had prompted Rolt to revamp his company by adding graving dock and engineering departments. Further transformations of the business in 1871 and 1875 led to accusations that he and his associates had profited at the expense of their shareholders, but he remained head of the company until the end of his life, the success of Warrior having attracted orders for armour-clad vessels from the great naval powers of the world, including Russia, Turkey, Spain and Germany.

‘Gallant, jaunty, conversational’, Rolt was always ‘scrupulously dressed’ and cut an ‘almost juvenile figure’ up until his death in September 1882. His company continued to enjoy a close relationship with the Admiralty until 1912 when, after completing the dreadnought HMS Thunderer, the Thames Ironworks, which in 1895 had spawned the football club which subsequently became West Ham United, closed its gates for the last time.

Further reading:

  • J. Wells, The Immortal Warrior: Britain’s First and Last Battleship (1987)
  • A. Lambert, Warrior. Restoring the World’s First Ironclad (1987)
  • P. Banbury, Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway (1971)
  • A. J. Arnold, Iron Shipbuilding on the Thames, 1832-1915: An Economic and Business History (2000)
  • J. Marriott, ‘The Industrial History of the Thames Gateway’, in P. Cohen & M. J. Rustin (eds.), London’s Turning. Thames Gateway: Prospects and Legacy (2008)
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An Artist in the Attic: Women and the House of Commons in the Early-Nineteenth Century

In this guest post, Amy Galvin-Elliott from the University of Warwick looks at how women were able to witness debates in the House of Commons from the ‘ventilator’, a space used until the fire of October 1834 destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. Amy is undertaking a PhD as part of an ESRC funded project between the University of Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. She is supervised by Dr Sarah Richardson, Dr Laura Schwartz and Dr Mari Takayanagi. Her thesis is titled ‘From Suffragette to Citizen: female experience of parliamentary spaces in long nineteenth century Britain’. She recently presented her research at the Century of Women MPs conference organised by the Vote 100 project, the History of Parliament Trust and the University of Westminster.

In February 1778 a fateful incident saw women banned from the public galleries of the House of Commons. Prior to this, in spite of their lack of an official or legal role in political life, women could and did engage with the Commons and its political happenings through familial ties. However, on the day in question, the Speaker called for the public galleries to be cleared but a group of female spectators refused, initiating what The Times described as ‘a state of most extraordinary ferment and commotion’ as ‘officers found their duty of turning out the fair intruders no easy work; a violent and determined resistance was offered to them’. The consequence of this was that when the public galleries were reopened, women were no longer admitted.

Undeterred, some women continued to visit the Commons in the disguise of male clothing. However, there was no official space in which women could gather to watch political debates as they had been previously able to do. Indeed the nineteenth century dawned with a renewed focus on the ideology of separate spheres that confined women to the home and reserved the public arena for men. This included excluding women from Parliament as – in the words of The Times – ‘the good sense of the country was opposed to making the ladies of England into political partisans; much better to let them acquire political intelligence through ordinary channels than to bring them to keep bad hours and to witness proceedings that would not always be agreeable to their feelings’.

Nevertheless, women were still intent upon watching political debates, and as a result found the space of the ventilator. In the middle of the medieval House of Commons hung a chandelier, and above this a ventilation shaft ascended into an attic space to carry away the heat, smoke and fetid air of the Chamber. It was around this ventilation shaft that women gathered and peeped through to watch debates; it seemed to physically and ideologically represent their exclusion from public life. The first woman to observe the Commons from the ventilator was Elizabeth Fry; having given evidence on prison reform to a Select Committee in February 1818, she was determined to watch the ensuing debates in the House, and so the Speaker gave permission for her to watch from this attic space. It was hot, uncomfortable, and not at all fit for purpose, but women persisted in their interest in Commons debates and the ventilator was frequently filled with female spectators of the House.

The recent discovery of a watercolour painting found in a family sketch book compiled by Lady Georgiana Chatterton of Baddesley Clinton gives one of only three visual representations of the ventilator that are known. It is believed to have been painted by Georgiana herself. The painting was found alongside a ticket to Westminster Hall dated 11th July 1821; this was the date of the King’s Speech in the House of Lords, and so there would have been a high demand for tickets to Parliament, which had to be obtained through links to MPs. A well connected young girl of fourteen, as Georgiana Chatterton was at the time, would have been very likely to attend with a chaperone. Her painting depicts the women in the ventilator in vivid detail, revealing something of what it was like for women to experience engagement with Parliament through the space of the ventilator.

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Sketch of the ventilator by Lady Georgiana Chatterton (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/ Baddesley Clinton NT

Lady Georgiana paints the women in the ventilator with craning necks and focused faces, showing their clear engagement with the debate in the Chamber below them and challenging the idea that women were unable and indeed ought not to be involved in politics. The women take up a large portion of the painting and are depicted in detail as clear individuals. This contrasts with the idea that women couldn’t participate in Parliament, and the male MPs depicted below them are paradoxically indistinct and restricted to the lower third of the image. In this way the men appear ironically contained and subject to the gaze of their female observers. Lady Georgiana’s focus on the ventilator and her representation of women in a position of relative power within Parliament recreates the ventilator as a female space of political education. It provided the opportunity for women to interact with both politics and one another in an all-female space, at a time when they were otherwise excluded from the political sphere. The early-nineteenth century was broadly a period of female oppression that restricted women to home and hearth, but in the very centre of power, some women were contesting the status quo and engaging with political debates from a small, cramped, and uncomfortable attic.

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Amy in the reconstructed ventilator at Voice and Vote

If you would like to know more about the ventilator and the history of women in Parliament, do visit the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall. It is open until 6th October 2018 and free tickets can be booked here: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

Amy Galvin-Elliott

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MP of the Month: Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843)

Our MP of the Month has a special significance for the History of Parliament Trust, being the great-grandfather (and namesake) of our founder, Josiah Wedgwood MP.

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Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943) (C) NPG

This year the History of Parliament is marking the 75th anniversary of the death of its founder, Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943), with events including a touring exhibition in Staffordshire. Between 1906 and 1942 Wedgwood was a Liberal and then a Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the exhibition began its tour earlier this week.

He was not, however, the first member of his family to enter the Commons. His great-grandfather and namesake, Josiah Wedgwood, is among the 2,590 MPs we are researching as part of the 1832-68 House of Commons project. Like his great-grandson this MP sat for a Staffordshire constituency, representing Stoke-on-Trent from 1832, after failing to get elected for Newcastle-under-Lyme the previous year. However, his parliamentary career was shorter than his great-grandson’s: he only sat in one Parliament before standing down at the 1835 election.

Owen, William, 1769-1825; Josiah Wedgwood II (1769-1843)

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843), by William Owen (Image credit: Wedgwood Museum via artuk.org)

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843) was the second son and namesake of the famous potter and inventor, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95). He followed his father as head of the family’s pottery manufacturing firm, based at Etruria near Stoke-on-Trent. Although he was the second son and had lived as a country gentleman in Dorset before his father’s death, taking little interest in the business, its management fell to him because of his older brother’s ‘chronic incompetence’ and his younger brother’s death.

Wedgwood has been depicted as a ‘plodding’ and unimaginative man, who lacked his father’s genius, but he proved effective at cutting the company’s costs in the face of foreign competition and the loss of European markets during the wars with France. In 1828 he closed the firm’s famous London showroom and – in the words of his great-grandson, Josiah Clement – ‘committed the unpardonable vandalism of selling off the stock, patterns, and moulds there stored’.

Standing as a Reformer at Stoke-on-Trent in 1832, Wedgwood declared his strong support for the ‘immediate abolition of slavery’. He was keen to remove the monopolies held by the East India Company and the Bank of England, and wanted to alter the corn laws. Although he was an Anglican – not sharing the Unitarian faith of his father – Wedgwood advocated reform of the Church of England. He did not, however, support further electoral reform, voicing his opposition to the secret ballot and triennial parliaments. He topped the poll, almost 200 votes ahead of his fellow potter, John Davenport, also a Reformer, who won the second seat.

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Emma Darwin (née Wedgwood) in 1840

While Hansard records more than 12,000 contributions in Parliament from Josiah Clement Wedgwood, his great-grandfather was a silent member. He was, however, a regular presence in the division lobbies, where his votes included support for a low fixed duty on corn, the shortening of slave apprenticeships and the replacement of church rates with an alternative source of funding. His youngest daughter Emma was among the women who witnessed debates in the Commons from the ‘ventilator’ – the space in the attic from where women could peer through holes designed for drawing out foul air into the chamber below. In a letter to a friend in August 1833 she recorded a notable incident, when Daniel O’Connell accused the press of not reporting him fairly or accurately.

Harriet [Gifford] and I went to the Ventilator to hear O’Connell’s quarrel with the Reporters, whom he accuses of reporting his speeches falsely, whereupon they say now they will not report a word more of his; so now he declares they shall not report at all, and he had the gallery cleared of all the strangers and the reporters amongst them yesterday.

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Sketch of the ventilator in St Stephens by Frances Rickman (1834) via http://www.parliament.uk (WOA 26)

Despite his success at the poll in 1832, Wedgwood was told that he was unlikely to retain his seat at the 1835 general election, and retired from politics. In his later years he was affected by a form of ‘palsy’ or Parkinson’s disease. He retired from the family business in 1841, two years before his death. Seven of his children survived him, including Emma, who had married her cousin (and Wedgwood’s nephew), the natural scientist Charles Darwin in 1839. Wedgwood’s second son Francis (Frank), the grandfather of Josiah Clement Wedgwood, continued the management of the family’s pottery firm.

The biography on which this blogpost is based was written by Dr. Henry Miller, and is among those available on our preview site.

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‘So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen’: views from parliament by a Devonshire Tory

Our Victorian MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Devonshire South, Montagu Parker. His correspondence with his mother between 1835 and 1841 provides a fascinating perspective on life at Westminster.

The Tory Beggar's Petition

A Whig handbill mocking Parker from the 1835 by-election (BL Add MS 48,258)

Montagu Edmund Newcombe Parker (1807-1858) is best known as a footnote in Britain’s electoral history for his defeat of the Whig Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, at the 1835 Devonshire South ministerial by-election. In one of the electoral shocks of the nineteenth century, the 28 year-old Parker, a country gentleman who had been the ‘butt of the Devonshire boys’ at Eton, summoned the strength of local Conservatives to turf out a Cabinet minister who only three years earlier had been celebrated nationwide for his role in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

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Montagu Parker’s voting record on our prototype division explorer.

Parker continued to represent Devonshire South until 1841, and, truth be told, left very little formal record of his activities in parliament. He made no recorded speeches, attended around 23% of recorded divisions (where he proved a loyal Conservative), and was appointed to three election committees. His only area of real engagement came over private legislation, where he assisted in the passage of 16 local or private acts relating primarily to Devonshire town or road improvement schemes.

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Parker’s first letter to his mother after entering parliament, 22 May 1835 (BL Add MS 48,258)

Fortunately, Parker left a series of correspondence with his recently widowed mother, Harriet Edmund Parker (1785-1877), who resided at the family’s Whiteway House estate in Devon. The letters, which are held by the British Library (Add. MS. 48,258), provide an intriguing insight into life at Westminster. His mother’s evident interest in Parker’s parliamentary experiences is arguably indicative of one way in which women could engage with politics despite their exclusion from the parliamentary franchise.

Parker found himself a minor celebrity on his arrival in London in May 1835, where he initially remarked that ‘attending to ones duties in the House of Commons and going out to parties … does not give much time for rest out of the 24 hours’. Within days, however, he had caught the ‘House of Commons influenza’, which left him with ‘a most unpleasant sore throat, cold and pain in my joints’.

Parker was almost taunted into breaking his parliamentary silence within days of taking his seat, when reference was made to the Devonshire South by-election during a debate on the ballot. He recorded:

I overheard several persons near me saying “some Devonshire man ought to answer this”, with the view no doubt to get me on my legs, but I was advised, and I think with good judgement not to take any notice of it.

He was instantly suspicious of the loyalties and parliamentary stratagems of the Conservative leader, Robert Peel, expressing bemusement over the latter’s decision to speak against Lord Chandos’ s 1835 motion on agricultural distress and unwillingness to oppose the 1835 municipal corporations bill, remarking that it is ‘evident he [Peel] is playing some game which cannot be devised at present’.

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The temporary House of Commons in 1835

Parker found the summer heat insufferable throughout London, and was disparaging of the acoustics in the temporary Commons (which opened for the 1835 session), as well as the lack of attentiveness with which MPs listened to debate. Following a debate on the 1835 municipal corporations bill he complained:

I was in the lower part of the House, and the noise and interruption that is always going on prevented him [John Yarde Buller, MP for Devonshire South] being heard … In fact there are barely a dozen speakers in the House that are listened to with attention. So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen.

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‘View of Caxton’s house in the Almonry, Westminster’ © London Metropolitan Archives

In fact, the only time that Parker felt the Commons displayed the gravitas it should was on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, when he noted the ‘curious’ effect of a sitting involving ‘500 members in uniforms and court dresses of various kinds, where one had been accustomed to see nothing but plain clothes and some of those never of the cleanest’.

While Parker disliked ‘being made a cats paw of’ by the Conservative whips, he was happy to throw himself into the service of the party at the 1837 Westminster by-election. At 5 a.m. on the day of the poll he was ‘pushed into the service of getting up the slippery voters’, remarking that he was sent ‘into the most disreputable parts of Westminster, and certainly we visited places there for the first and I hope the last time’. His least favourite task in the Commons appears to have been the attendance of week-long afternoon committees on local bills, that were drawn out by the involvement of competing delegations of ‘pompous’ local officials who observed proceedings as ‘if everything depended’ on them.

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Edward Oxford’s attempted assassination of Queen Victoria, June 1840 (© British Museum)

By 1840, Parker had observed a real shift in power towards the Conservatives and a sense of excitement at Westminster, which was accentuated by the June assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. After expressing his delight at the Conservatives mustering 300 votes to defeat the government in a division over the Irish registration bill in May 1840, he observed how Lord John Russell had ‘lost much of his previous reputation’, and stated his belief that a few more by-election successes in ‘boroughs like Ludlow and Cambridge’ would lead to the downfall of the government.

Parker’s instincts were right. Unfortunately he was not provided with an opportunity to record his experiences of the subsequent Peel ministry, as local party machinations forced his retirement ahead of the 1841 election. Parker did not return to parliament, and died in July 1858. His mother, who lived to the age of 91, outlived him by eighteen years.

The full biography of Montagu Parker MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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Imagery and props: Wellington, Disraeli and Gladstone

Our research fellow Dr. Martin Spychal shares some insights from his work on the BBC Radio 4 series, Prime Ministers’ Props…

I’ve recently been working with our former editorial board member, Professor Sir David Cannadine on the second series of his BBC Radio 4 series Prime Ministers’ Props. Each episode examines how a Prime Minister became associated with a certain object or prop in the popular mind, and how that prop came to define the public image of the premier in question. After a twentieth-century focused first series, this time around three of our five episodes focus on nineteenth-century prime ministers: the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.

W. Heath, A wellington boot or the head of the army (1827)

W. Heath, A wellington boot or the head of the army (1827) © British Museum

One of the major means of understanding the public image of these three men is via the satirical cartoons, and early photographs, that accompanied their political careers. Wellington’s political rise and fall at Westminster between 1827 and 1830 was book-ended by two prints that mocked his connection to his famous prop – the Wellington boot.

The Wellington boot had been designed for Wellington and his troops during the Napoleonic Wars, and in post-war Britain became the footwear of choice for the fashionable gentleman. In October 1827 William Heath depicted Wellington, replete with huge cocked hat, appearing out of a Wellington boot. Wellington had recently been re-appointed as commander-in-chief of the British army under Viscount Goderich’s short-lived administration. As well as satirising the fact that Wellington was now at the head and the foot of the army, the smugness of the Duke’s face adverted to the pressing likelihood of his appointment as Prime Minister. Wellington had recently cemented his position as leader of the Protestant right of the Tory party after defeating William Huskisson’s 1827 corn law bill in the Lords, and while Goderich’s political position grew weaker during the autumn of 1827, Wellington embarked on a speaking tour of the north of England where he was feted by his supporters as a leader in waiting.

W. Heath, This ere pair of left off vellingtons to be sold wery cheap (1830)

W. Heath, This ere pair of left off vellingtons to be sold wery cheap (1830) © British Museum

Sure enough, in January 1828 Wellington was appointed Prime Minister. It was not a happy premiership, however. During his first year in office he lost standing with his supporters on the ultra right over his government’s 1828 corn law, and test and corporation legislation, and several key liberal-Tories resigned from his cabinet over parliamentary reform. Catholic emancipation in 1829 saw him lose even more friends on the right, and by the general election of 1830, many of the Tories who had lauded him in 1827 were, along with the radical press, outwardly accusing him of supporting the recently toppled Bourbon monarchy in France and seeking a military dictatorship via the newly formed Metropolitan Police. The final straw for Wellington came in November 1830 when he controversially declared that Britain’s notorious system of rotten boroughs ‘possessed the full and entire confidence of the country’, which helped spark riots in London. Wellington was forced to resign with his political authority in tatters. In response, William Heath likened the Duke and his home secretary, Robert Peel, to an unwanted ‘pair of left off Vellingtons to be sold wery cheap’.

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Vivian Grey “Sent For!!!”, Fun, 7 Mar. 1868 © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Disraeli and his novels are the subject of our second episode. Throughout his career they provided ammunition for satirists and commentators seeking to decode his political ambitions. Disraeli’s first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), which charted the political travails of Vivian Grey and his ruthless pursuit of power, proved easy pickings. When Disraeli first became Prime Minister in 1868, the satirical magazine Fun couldn’t help joking that ‘Vivian Grey’ had been ‘Sent For’.

However, contemporaries dug much deeper than this for hidden meaning in his novels. One example of this is an early Punch cartoon, which followed Disraeli’s 1847 novel Tancred. It offers a disconcerting taste of the anti-Semitic criticism that Disraeli, a practising Anglican of Jewish descent, faced throughout his career.

Punch (London, England), Saturday, April 10, 1847

The House of Commons According to Mr Disraeli’s Views, Punch, 10 Apr. 1847.

As with several of his books, Tancred centres on a protagonist and his quest for moral and religious fulfilment. For his critics, the characters in these novels offered proof of Disraeli’s ‘eastern’ bias and his desire to infect the British constitution with these alleged views. An article that accompanied the cartoon mocked Disraeli as the ‘Jewish Champion’, and warned that Tancred offered confirmation of his desire to turn the House of Commons into a ‘Mosaic parliament, sitting in Rag Fair’, a reference to the market in Houndsditch, London, popular with Jewish traders. The cartoon itself is equally disturbing, depicting Britain’s leading politicians in stereotypical Jewish clothing, with their faces imagined in anti-Semitic caricature.

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W. Currey, William Ewart Gladstone, 6 August 1877 © NPG

Disraeli’s great rival, the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, provides the focus of our third episode. Gladstone’s prop was his axe. A committed axeman since the 1850s, Gladstone actively played on his love of tree-felling to portray himself as Britain’s premier political woodsman, committed to chopping down the roots of corruption in the British constitution. As well as in cartoons and speeches, Gladstone expertly manipulated the new technology of photography to perpetuate an image of him in his leisure time at his Hawarden estate, felling trees as a plain-clothed, masculine labourer.

From the later 1870s cabinet cards and carte-de-visites of Gladstone with his axe at his Hawarden estate adorned the mantelpieces of Liberal supporters, and Gladstone’s cultivation of his woodsman image was so successful that his axe-head became the official emblem of the Liberal party during the 1885 general election.

Daily News, 23 November 1885

Daily News, 23 November 1885

In 1886, however, Gladstone’s axe received perhaps the most bizarre pictorial treatment, when one ‘C. B. Harness’ claimed that his cure-all ‘electropathic battery belt’ was responsible for Gladstone’s continued vitality. As well as providing perhaps the only example of a Prime Minister advertising a toning belt, the unauthorised use of Gladstone’s image in adverts such as this, along with the widespread success of Wellington boots and Disraeli’s novels, are an important reminder of the centrality of politics to nineteenth-century culture.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 Apr. 1886

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 Apr. 1886

You can catch the remaining episodes of this series on BBC Radio 4 at 9:30am Wednesdays. All episodes will be available through BBC iPlayer after their initial broadcast.

Further reading:

  • M. Dent. ‘“There Must Be Design”: The Threat of Unbelief in Disraeli’s Lothair’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 44 (2016), 671–686
  • D. Hamer, ‘Gladstone: The Making of a Political Myth’, Victorian Studies, 22 (1978), 29-50
  • S. Mayer, ‘Portraits of the Artist as Politician, the Politician as Artist: Commemorating the Disraeli Phenomenon’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 21 (2016), 281-300
  • H. Miller, Politics Personified: Portraiture, caricature and visual culture in Britain, c. 1830-80 (2015)
  • R. Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814–1852 (2015)
  • P. Sewter, ‘Gladstone as Woodsman’ in R. Quinault, E. Swift & R. Clayton Windscheffel (eds.), William Gladstone : new studies and perspectives (2012)
  • A. Wohl, ‘“Dizzi-Ben-Dizzi”: Disraeli as Alien’, Journal of British Studies, 34 (1995), 375- 411
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Tackling electoral corruption: how Victorian Britain reformed the trial of election petitions in 1868

As part of our series on the 1867 Reform Act, we are reblogging this piece from Kathryn Rix on an important associated measure, the 1868 Election Petitions Act.

The History of Parliament

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act, an important part of the electoral reforms which had begun with the Second Reform Act of 1867. Dr. Kathryn Rix of our Victorian Commons project explains why and how Benjamin Disraeli’s ministry aimed to tackle the problem of bribery and corruption at mid-Victorian elections.

On 31 July 1868 the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act received royal assent. This measure transformed the way that Parliament investigated allegations of bribery and corruption at elections. Rather than election petitions challenging the result of the contest being considered at Westminster by election committees composed of MPs, they would now be tried in the constituency by an election judge.

Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG

Although it did not pass until 1868, this Act needs to be understood as part of a wider package…

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