MP of the Month: George Donisthorpe Thompson (1804-1878)

December’s MP of the Month blog charts the path into Parliament of George Thompson, a self-educated book-seller’s son. As one of Britain’s foremost platform orators he was a major figure in the abolition of slavery in the West Indies and the United States, as well as an early campaigner for Indian independence. 

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George Thompson by Charles Turner (1842) (C) NPG

Born in 1804, George Thompson was educated by his father, a Lambeth book-seller and ‘man of refined manners, and extensive reading’. Working at a City counting house from the age of twelve, he immersed himself in London’s self-improvement culture of the 1820s, distinguishing himself as a public speaker at the London Mechanics’ Institute from 1823.

He got his big break in 1831, when he was recommended by the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, for the role of travelling speaker for the London Anti-Slavery Society. With ‘his voice pealing like a trumpet’, ‘perspiration dripping from his head’ and his imposing frame ‘throbbing with emotion’, Thompson’s speeches for the society drew increasingly large crowds. His status as a national celebrity was established in 1833, when he distinguished himself in a series of week-long debates in towns across Britain with the slavery advocate and future MP for Evesham, Peter Borthwick.

Front cover 1836After the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, Thompson turned his attention to worldwide abolition. In 1834 he was invited on a lecture tour of the United States by the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. During an infamous 15-month tour his ‘vitriolic harangues’ against slavery and rumours surrounding his questionable financial dealings attracted widespread coverage, eventually leading to his denunciation by President Jackson, forcing him to flee the United States in November 1835.

On his return to Britain he supported the radical Quaker, Joseph Sturge, in his campaign to abolish slave apprenticeships, before taking up the cause of slavery in India. In 1839 he helped establish the British India Society, whose aim was to make ‘known the wrongs’ of the ‘80,000,000 of people’ in India and to expand ‘Indian cotton sails in order to undersell slave-grown Cotton from the United States’.

Firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost political agitators, Thompson lent his services to the Anti-Corn Law League as part of an agreement with the British India Society in 1841, organising a ‘national convocation’ of ministers from all Christian denominations in order that the League could ‘gain access to their chapels & associations & sanction the public co-operation of the women’. At the convocation, Thompson called for a female petition to the Queen (which secured a quarter of a million signatures), and asked ministers from across the country to arrange meetings of women at which he could lecture. Speaking in support of ‘universal emancipation’ at these meetings, his ‘impassioned language and thrilling accents … secured him great favour from female audiences’.

After two years of campaigning for the League, Thompson made his first attempt on Parliament, accepting an invitation to stand at the 1842 Southampton by-election. Coming forward on ‘liberal principles’, he promised to support the Chartist cause and ‘the total annihilation of the corn laws’, but was defeated by two Conservatives. Later that year, he travelled to Calcutta under the patronage of an Indian merchant, Dwarkanauth Tagore. Occupying an entire floor of Tagore’s townhouse in the centre of Kolkata, where he became known as ‘Hindoo Thompson’, he immersed himself in Indian law, offered counsel to the locals, and started campaigning for Indian land reform through the Bengal British India Society.

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In 1846, the freed slave Frederick Douglass stayed at Thompson’s home at Whiteheads Grove, SW3.

Back in England by February 1844, he resumed campaigning for the Anti-Corn Law League. After the successful repeal of the corn laws he renewed his crusade to abolish slavery in the US, establishing the Anti-Slavery League in August 1846 with William Garrison and the freed slave, Frederick Douglass, who had been using Thompson’s home as his London residence. Although this new organisation failed to capture momentum in Britain, Thompson maintained a life-long commitment to the abolition of slavery in the US and was reportedly the ‘only foreigner’ in attendance on 14 April 1865, when the Stars and Stripes were raised at Fort Sumter.

In 1847 Thompson’s national status prompted invitations to stand at that year’s general election at Leicester, Westminster, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. He eventually came forward for Tower Hamlets, which contained Britain’s largest registered borough electorate of almost 19,000 voters.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The hustings at Tower Hamlets in 1852 where Thompson had topped the poll five years earlier, ILN, 10 July 1852.

At a series of huge public hustings he called for a further extension of free trade and religious rights, extensive parliamentary reform, retrenchment, disestablishment and secular education.  In one of the most notable results of that year’s election, Thompson defeated both of the borough’s moderate Liberal incumbents by 2,500 votes, prompting election officials to report with amazement at how ‘whole pages of votes’ were ‘filled entirely’ with ‘plumpers for Mr George Thompson’.

You can find out how Thompson’s parliamentary career progressed in his full biography, which will be published shortly 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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The ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’: quantifying parliamentary debate in 1833

The influx of new members into the House of Commons following the 1832 Reform Act prompted considerable disquiet within established political circles about the effects which this would have on the day-to-day business of Parliament. The Times reported fears that ‘the ascendancy of the mouvement faction’ of MPs drawn chiefly from the newly-enfranchised constituencies would result in ‘noise and swagger’ overwhelming ‘the good sense’ and sound principles of the Commons.

Commons 1834 a

The Chamber of the House of Commons before the fire of October 1834

In order to combat complaints that the House’s time would be consumed by ‘unprofitable talking’, and that ‘low bred mob orators’ would obstruct parliamentary business, the Spectator decided to analyse all the spoken contributions, excluding mere matters of form, made in the Commons and recorded by the Mirror of Parliament, then the most full record of parliamentary proceedings, as discussed in one of our earlier blogs. Paying particular attention to the utterances of the 51 new Members who could be fairly assumed to owe their return to the changes effected by the Reform Act, the paper hoped to silence the ‘unfair and carping attacks of the Anti-Reformers’.

When the paper’s first analysis appeared at the end of March 1833 it concluded that ‘the old stagers’ were, after all, the most prolific talkers. However, the new reform MPs, who comprised less than 8% of the House, were also reckoned to have made 320 (or 18%) of the 1,776 contributions to debate recorded up to that time. Their speeches had filled 185 of the Mirror’s 1,057 columns, each of which contained about 1,000 words. Significantly, the paper argued that it was not these new MPs who were responsible for the delay which had taken place in the conduct of public business. Instead the ‘everlasting harangues’ over Irish policy were identified as the main obstacle to progress.

By the time the Spectator produced its analysis of the 11,709 speeches made in the 1833 session that December, it had abandoned separately classifying speeches made by the new reform MPs. Understandably, the most frequent speaker by some margin was Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer and leader in the House of Commons. Other leading orators included the Irish chief secretary, Edward Stanley, and the secretary to the treasury, Thomas Spring Rice. Senior Conservatives such as Sir Robert Peel, Sir Frederick Shaw and Sir Robert Inglis also weighed in substantially by logging more than 500 speeches between them.

(c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, the paper’s ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’ revealed that the new reform MPs continued to make a disproportionate contribution to proceedings. The 51 MPs analysed in March had made a total of 1,594 speeches, occupying 815 (or 16%) of the 5,094 columns recorded in the Mirror. The most prolific MP was the veteran radical William Cobbett, who sat for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, and made no less than 261 contributions to debate. The Irish radical MP for Drogheda, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, spoke 111 times – more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. Indeed, when one adds to these speeches the huge contribution to debate made by more seasoned radicals such as Daniel O’Connell, who spoke the greatest number of words in the session (his 647 speeches covered 338 columns), and Joseph Hume (601 speeches in 253 columns), not to mention other reformers such as Henry Warburton (143 speeches), Colonel De Lacy Evans (111 speeches), and Edward Southwell Ruthven, the repeal MP for Dublin (98 speeches), it was clear that radical views were given a very full airing in the newly reformed House of Commons.

Despite all their efforts to exonerate new MPs from the charge of  ‘noise and swagger’, the Spectator could not resist agreeing with other critics of post-reform debates, when it noted that ‘out of the eleven thousand and odd speeches delivered … at least ten thousand were not worth delivering or hearing’.

Sources: The Times, 11 Feb. 1833; Spectator, 30 Mar., 28 Dec. 1833.

Further reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW
  • J. Meisel, Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the age of Gladstone (2001)
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MP of the Month: Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor (1825-1899)

Continuing our celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, November’s MP of the Month focuses on one of the most enigmatic figures in the reform crisis of 1866-67, the property-owning magnate and multi-millionaire Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, later the 1st Duke of Westminster.

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor MP

Grosvenor is probably best known today as Britain’s richest Victorian, with a fortune of about £7 million. Far more fond of horse racing than politics, Grosvenor sat as Whig MP for the family seat of Chester from 1847 until 1869, when he succeeded his father as 3rd Marquess of Westminster. A rare presence in the Commons, and frequently abroad, when he turned up he usually backed the Whig-Liberal leadership in the voting lobbies, but hardly ever spoke before 1865.

His sudden appearance on the national political stage in 1866, as one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Adullamites’, and his pivotal role in bringing down the Liberal government over their reform bill, proposed by his friend and neighbour William Gladstone, were therefore unexpected, to say the least. Even more surprising was his willingness to help keep the Conservatives in office the following year, while they passed a measure of reform that was even more far-reaching in terms of the democratic tendencies that Grosvenor seemed to so vehemently oppose.

This apparently ‘contradictory behaviour’ – helping to defeat Gladstone’s Liberal reform bill because of its radical leanings, but then backing a Conservative ministry’s more extensive measure of reform the following year – has understandably been difficult to explain. A number of studies have concluded that in the highly complex negotiations surrounding both proposals, Grosvenor was simply out of his depth. He became an unwitting dupe for his more experienced parliamentary colleagues, lured first into the Adullamite ‘cave’ by their Whiggish rhetoric before being expertly strung along by the Conservatives. One historian (J. Winter) has even suggested that Grosvenor’s ‘naiveté’ was ‘one of Disraeli’s most valuable assets’ in securing the passage of the 1867 Reform Act.

Victorian Chester

Researching Grosvenor’s background as a constituency MP, however, has unearthed a rather more complex picture. His father’s politics as an MP had always been ambiguous, being ‘neither Whig nor Tory; reformer nor anti-reformer’, and when Grosvenor first stood for his father’s old seat at Chester in 1847, he made a point of refusing to state any political opinions or make any pledges. He ‘seems desirous of devoting his best attention to what may be called the social and moral questions of the day apart from party politics’ and ‘his politics will never be … identified with mere party Whiggism’, noted one observer.

Grosvenor’s constituency speeches over the course of the next four general elections revealed not only his genuine attachment to a ‘great extension of the franchise’ but also his horror at the growing influence of the Radicals on setting the reform agenda. In particular he believed that the radical focus on the representation of numbers, rather than ‘interests’, posed a genuine threat to the stability of the British constitution. As he explained in 1859:

If you go at once for manhood suffrage, you go by numbers and population only, by which means you take into the constituency numbers of men of the lowest orders, without property or money … who would follow any demagogue … I hold that the whole of the classes in the country should be represented, property, land, intelligence, wealth and numbers, and not numbers alone … And labour too … There is a large class of wage receiving working men who ought to be admitted to the franchise  … I shall be prepared to see the franchise extended in counties and boroughs … and a fair redistribution of seats, without which any reform bill would be imperfect. (Cheshire Observer, 23 Apr. 1859)

This statement neatly captured Grosvenor’s increasing reservations about a scheme of reform that was not based upon a balanced representation of ‘interests’ and accompanied by a redistribution of seats. By 1865 he was also warning that the ‘advanced Liberals’ regarded any lowering of the franchise as a ‘first instalment’ on the road to universal suffrage. Urging the need for some form of ‘final settlement’ to prevent years of future agitation, he called for a cross-party solution and proposed the appointment of a cross-party committee to bring in a moderate measure of reform that would ‘conciliate all interests’.

It was these long-held beliefs, expressed on the hustings and at constituency meetings, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, which propelled Grosvenor to act as he did in 1866 and help bring about the defeat of the Liberal reform bill. Gladstone’s proposals were objectionable on three grounds. Firstly, they appeared to take their cue from leading Radicals like John Bright, making a cross-party approach impossible. Secondly, his new franchises based on rental value were not ‘final’ and could easily be lowered; and thirdly, there was initially no accompanying plan of redistribution.

Significantly, when the Conservatives took office following the resignation of the Liberal ministry, they set about formulating an approach to reform that would attempt to address all three of these issues.

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

Further reading:

  • D. Sheppard, ‘The Cave of Adullam, Household Suffrage, and the Passage of the Second Reform Act’, Parliamentary History (1995), xiv. 149-72.
  • G. Huxley, Victorian Duke: The Life of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster (1967).
  • J. Winter, ‘The Cave of Adullam and Parliamentary Reform’, English Historical Review (1966), lxxxi. 38-55.

 

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‘A woman actually voted!’: Lily Maxwell and the Manchester by-election of November 1867

Lily Maxwell; image credit: Manchester City Council

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the casting of a parliamentary vote by Lily Maxwell, a Manchester shopkeeper, more than half a century before the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918. On 26 November 1867, at a by-election in Manchester, she became the first woman known to have voted at a parliamentary contest since the 1832 Reform Act had specifically limited the franchise to ‘male persons’.

Fittingly, the Liberal candidate to whom Maxwell gave her support, Jacob Bright, was a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage, who had endorsed the enfranchisement of female householders during his campaign. Maxwell’s inclusion as No. 12326 on the electoral register for the Chorlton-upon-Medlock township of Manchester was the result of a clerical error, the overseers who compiled the lists apparently not having realised that ‘Lily Maxwell’, sometimes recorded as ‘Lilly Maxwell’, was a woman. The shop and house which she rented at 25 Ludlow Street were of sufficient value to qualify their occupier under the pre-1867 borough franchise (the £10 household franchise). Although the Second Reform Act had received the royal assent on 15 August 1867, it specified that any by-elections held before 1 January 1869 would take place under the old conditions.

Jacob Bright MP

Originally from Scotland, Maxwell, a widow in her late sixties, had worked in domestic service before setting up a small shop selling crockery. Her accidental presence on the register – of which she had been unaware – was discovered by supporters canvassing for Bright, who was making his second attempt to win a seat at Manchester, having lost at the 1865 general election. Alongside his wife, Ursula Mellor Bright, he was an early supporter of the Manchester branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, founded in January 1867. Bright’s election committee alerted Lydia Becker, the society’s secretary, to Maxwell’s unusual position, and she sought to make the most of this opportunity to demonstrate that women were capable of exercising the franchise.

Lydia Becker, by Susan Isabel Dacre (Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lydia-becker-204800)

Becker and another woman accompanied Maxwell to cast her vote – which had to be given openly, the secret ballot having yet to be introduced – at Chorlton Town Hall. They were escorted from one of Bright’s committee rooms to the town hall by ‘a large number of persons, including members of the All Saints’ ward committee, and were much cheered as they passed to and from the poll’.  The event was widely recorded in the press, with the Yorkshire Post reporting that ‘a woman actually voted!’ Taking a hostile view, it suggested that the polling clerk should have ignored Maxwell’s claim when she appeared to vote, ‘as he would have ignored that of a child 10 years old’.

However, irrespective of her gender, Maxwell’s inclusion on the register – even in error – entitled her to vote, and could not be questioned at this stage. It could have been inquired into had the defeated party decided to petition for a scrutiny of the poll, but with Bright securing a majority of over 1,700 votes, this was never likely. Bright made a special mention of Maxwell’s vote in a victory speech, applauding her as ‘a hardworking honest person, who pays her rates as you do’.

Just five months earlier, the Commons had rejected – by 196 votes to 75 – John Stuart Mill’s proposal to extend the franchise to women by substituting the word ‘person’ for man in the 1867 Reform Act. During the course of this debate, George Denman, a Liberal MP and leading barrister, had raised the possibility that in using the word ‘man’ rather than ‘male persons’, the 1867 Act did in fact confer the franchise on women. This was because under an act of 1850 (sometimes referred to as Romilly’s Act), any reference to ‘man’ was also deemed to include women, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Spurred on by Maxwell’s vote, which ‘removed women’s suffrage from the region of theoretical possibilities to that of actual occurrences’, Lydia Becker co-ordinated a campaign to encourage women who possessed the required property qualification to get their names on the electoral register in 1868. In Chorlton-upon-Medlock, 1,100 female householders joined Lily Maxwell in claiming their right to vote; across Manchester as a whole, 5,750 women lodged claims, supported by the Manchester Liberal Association in the registration courts that September. Their claims were, however, rejected by the revising barrister, as were most female claims across the country. In November 1868, judges in the Chorlton v. Lings case ruled that the 1867 Reform Act did not apply to women. This did not prevent a small number of them who had not been removed from the register from voting at the general election later that month – including nine women in Manchester – but it struck a decisive blow against future claims.

After Mill’s defeat at the 1868 general election, Bright, who had retained his Manchester seat, took over the parliamentary leadership of the women’s suffrage cause. He was responsible for securing the extension of the municipal franchise to women in 1869, and in 1870 introduced the first of several women’s suffrage bills, which passed its second reading by 124 votes to 91, but was subsequently defeated.

Lily Maxwell died in poverty in October 1876, having been admitted to the workhouse a few months earlier. On the 150th anniversary of her pioneering vote, it seems fitting to conclude with the toast which Punch proposed to her in 1867:

To the fair Lily Maxwell a bumper,

Who in petticoats rushed to the poll,

And for Jacob Bright entered her plumper,

Mill’s first ‘person’, singular, sole!

Further reading:

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Reporting Parliament: a view from the Victorian Commons

Today we take it for granted that parliamentary debates are recorded in Hansard. In the Victorian era, however, there was no ‘official’ record. In this blog to end Parliament Week, Dr Philip Salmon shows how, before the advent of modern democracy, public interest in Parliament was sufficient for reports of debates to be produced and sold commercially. As democracy advanced, however, the public’s appetite began to change …

During the early 19th century the way debates and other goings-on in Parliament were reported and broadcast to the public underwent fundamental change. It was during this period that Hansard, the famous record of parliamentary speeches and proceedings, first became established, while daily accounts of discussions in both Houses began to occupy a prominent place in many leading newspapers.

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

Amazingly, this coverage of parliamentary debates not only occurred in contravention of the ‘official’ orders of the Commons, banning strangers and reporting, but also operated as a commercial venture. Aided by the huge public interest in issues such as the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, what went on in Parliament became big business. By the early 1830s an estimated 2 million people were reading parliamentary reports in the press, while Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates, launched in 1803 and taken over by Thomas Curson Hansard in 1812, sold sufficient copies to turn a reasonable profit, at least until the 1850s.

Not every attempt to cash in on the public interest in Parliament succeeded. Hansard reckoned that by 1829 he had already seen off ‘the greater part’ of 18 rival publications, ‘some promising to give a more condensed and some a more elongated account of the proceedings in Parliament’. The ill-fated Parliamentary Review, for example, rearranged all the debates by topic, providing background information and ‘critical essays’ analysing all the ‘measures discussed’ and arguments ‘on both sides of the question’. The extra work this involved, however, made it too expensive and out of date by the time it appeared.

Hansard’s approach, on the other hand, kept costs to a minimum. Rather than paying for his own reporters, Hansard concocted his account of the debates from the daily newspapers and with notes he sometimes received from MPs. His compilations, for that was what they really were, appeared in regular instalments which could later be bound together, rather than at the end of each session. His heavy reliance on the accuracy and selection criteria of the press reporters, however, was far from ideal. Debates on local or minor matters were often omitted, leading many MPs to complain, not least because of their growing need to satisfy constituency opinion. Worse still, speeches delivered late at night, after the reporters had left to file their copy, failed to get covered.

Charles Dickens as a young reporter

Sensing a gap in the market, in 1828 Charles Dickens’ uncle, John Henry Barrow (1796-1858), a former lawyer turned journalist, launched the Mirror of Parliament. Unlike Hansard, Barrow not only employed his own dedicated team of reporters, but also paid them a ‘most liberal remuneration’ for each ‘turn’ in the press gallery. The debates that were later covered by his talented teenage nephew Charles Dickens, in particular, were singled out for praise by leading politicians.

By 1831, at the height of the reform crisis, the Mirror had become ‘the highest extant authority’ of proceedings in Parliament. It wasn’t just that Barrow’s accounts of debates were much longer and closer to the original in terms of language and sentiment. Barrow also managed to cover far more speeches and include a broader range of MPs. The radical Henry Hunt’s brief Commons career is a case in point. Where Hansard printed 660 of his ‘speeches’, the Mirror recorded over 1,000.

By now, however, the Mirror was also in financial trouble. The main investor Henry Winchester MP pulled out after haemorrhaging ‘a considerable portion’ of £7,000 and although Frederick Gye, the famous owner of the pleasure grounds at Vauxhall Gardens, stepped in, within a few years he had also ‘lost a good deal of money’.

In 1834 the Mirror appealed to Parliament for financial assistance. The editor of The Times, however, was unimpressed. ‘That an individual who had embarked in the business of reporting for his own profit should throw the losses caused by his own unsuccessful management … upon the country… to the detriment of all other journalists [was] barefaced … impudence’, he declared.

The Commons agreed. A motion to support publication of an ‘authentic report of the debates arising in the House’ was defeated by 117 votes to 99. Although the Mirror managed to soldier on, reducing its reporters’ salaries and switching to a cheaper folio size, the writing was clearly on the wall. In 1841 it ceased operation.

Ironically, around the time that the Mirror of Parliament folded, the newspaper reports upon which Hansard relied so heavily for its commercial survival started to be replaced by a new form of coverage. By the late 1840s satirical and descriptive ‘sketches’ of parliamentary proceedings had begun to emerge as a staple of the rapidly expanding Victorian popular press.

This created an obvious problem for Hansard. With many newspapers eventually adopting some version of the ‘parliamentary sketch’, the number and range of press reports that Hansard was able to use to compile debates shrank. In 1862 the Morning Chronicle, which had continued to produce extensive daily coverage of debates, was forced to cease publication, leaving its arch-rival The Times as the pre-eminent source.

In this changing public atmosphere, and with its subscriptions falling, it was now Hansard that turned to Parliament for support. In 1855 the government agreed to purchase 100 copies for the various departments of state, providing a guaranteed annual income. In the late 1870s ministers agreed to subsidise coverage of the debates that the press usually ignored, and for the first time Hansard started to use its own reporters, rather than relying solely on newspaper reports.

Even this was not enough, however, and in 1888 Thomas Hansard junior (1813-91), who had been running the business since 1833,  retired and sold the entire operation to a new company, which reckoned it could produce an ‘authorised report’ without subsidy.

Over the next twenty years this venture and six successor operations, including one run by Reuters, all tried to succeed where Hansard had failed, and make a commercial success out of producing parliamentary debates. None of them succeeded. One even went bankrupt. In 1909 Parliament finally assumed responsibility for recording debates itself, employing its own staff of reporters and creating the department that continues to operate today.

Further Reading:

J. Vice & S. Farrell, The History of Hansard (2017) VIEW

K. Rix, ‘ “Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the Reformed Commons, 1833-1850’, Parliamentary History (2014), xxxiii. 453-74

http://www.carolineshenton.co.uk/dickens-and-parliament/

https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/the-story-of-parliament-parliament-and-the-press/

P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW

A. Sparrow, Obscure Scribblers. A History of Parliamentary Journalism (2003)

M. H. Port, ‘The Official Record’, Parliamentary History (1990), ix. 175-83.

E. Brown, ‘John Henry Barrow and the Mirror of Parliament‘, Parliamentary Affairs (1956), lx. 311-23

H. Jordan, ‘The Reports of Parliamentary Debates, 1803-1908’, Economica (1931), xxxiv. 437-49

The earlier blogs in the History of Parliament’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017 can be found here.

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Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty Conference: Manchester

Last week two members of the Victorian Commons project gave papers in Manchester, at a conference held at the People’s History Museum, home to what must surely be one of the UK’s finest collections of political memorabilia associated with mass movements.

Conference panel, with (left to right) Philip Salmon, Martin Spychal, Mark Bennett & Amanda Goodrich (chair)

Philip Salmon spoke about the role played by non-electors, including women, in many pre-democratic Victorian elections, showing how open public voting, the possession of multiple votes, and popular ideas about delegated or ‘virtual representation’ enabled those without the franchise to both participate in and influence elections. As one candidate put it in 1841:

‘The vote is public property, the elector is only a trustee, and you the non-electors have the right to scrutinise and to direct the exercise of the voters’ function’

Rather than being mere spectators, non-electors used well-established forms of legitimate social and moral influence, as well as ‘illegitimate’ and ‘unconstitutional’ methods, to pressurise and persuade those listed on the new electoral rolls introduced in 1832 to behave in a certain way at the poll and ‘represent’ their views. This was made easier by many electors being able to cast more than one vote. ‘I always gave one vote for principle, and the other for interest’, observed one veteran voter.

These activities not only help to explain the striking presence of non-electors in most visual depictions of elections in this period, but also suggest how Victorian polls could be far more participatory and popular than traditional models of democratisation would have us believe.

Martin Spychal took a fresh look at debates about the electoral system after 1815, demonstrating how Britain’s increasingly factional post-Napoleonic domestic climate and discussion about the reform of corrupt boroughs contributed to a break-down in the eighteenth-century defence of Britain’s unreformed electoral system by 1830.

Drawing from a text-mining analysis of parliamentary debates between 1774 and 1868, Martin demonstrated how terms such as the ‘agricultural interest’, the ‘manufacturing interest’ and the ‘shipping interest’ had entered the vocabulary of parliamentarians by the 1820s, on account of the economic policy of successive Tory governments and repeated episodes of rural and urban distress between 1815 and 1830 (see below).

agricultural-landed1

Rise of the terms ‘agricultural interest’ and ‘landed interest’ 1774-1868, (c) Martin Spychal

This was significant for parliamentary reform as during the eighteenth century, politicians had defended Britain’s ancient electoral system by arguing that it provided for a balanced representation of interests – the commercial interest, the landed interest, the monied interest and the professional interest.

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Peel and Wellington trying to repair the commercial. agricultural and manufacturing interests in the state kettle: John Philips, The Jolly State Tinkers, 1830 (c) British Museum

Martin showed how this new language of interests quickly seeped into debates about the unreformed electoral system as cases of corruption during the 1818, 1820 and 1826 elections forced parliamentarians to confront the issue of redistributing the seats of individual rotten boroughs. One by one, parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, who had previously viewed the electoral system as perfect, came round to the notion that Britain’s electoral system was no longer fit for the times.  Some saw the enfranchisement of towns such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds as a means of providing representation to Britain’s newly emergent manufacturing and commercial interests. While others, mainly country gentlemen nervous about alterations to the corn laws, became increasingly militant about ensuring an increased representation for the landed and agricultural interests.

All of this spelled disaster for the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, when on 2 November 1830 he infamously declared that Britain’s

system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country

Within a fortnight Wellington had resigned. He was replaced by the second Earl Grey, who took charge of a new government committed to one issue: the need to re-balance Britain’s electoral map so that it better represented the nation’s newly complex interests.

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From draper’s apprentice to attorney-general: Sir John Rolt and the 1867 Reform Act

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

With this year marking the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Second Reform Act, our MP of the Month is one of the lesser known architects of this measure, the attorney-general, Sir John Rolt, who, as one contemporary noted, undertook much of ‘the drudgery’ connected with the bill’s passage.

Rolt’s path to the attorney-generalship had been an unlikely one, and had largely depended on his tremendous capacity for hard work. Born in Calcutta in 1804, he was the son of a provisions merchant, James Rolt. He was brought to England about 1810, but after the deaths of his bankrupt father in September 1812 and his mother in May 1814, he became a dependant of his maternal grandparents, yeoman farmers at Fairfield, Gloucestershire. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of woollen drapers in Oxford Street, London. He next found employment in the warehouse of a Manchester-based firm in Newgate Street. In 1827 he became a clerk in a proctor’s office in the courts of Doctors’ Commons at St. Paul’s, and six years later began his legal training at the Inner Temple. Supporting himself with employment as secretary to a school for orphans and a Dissenters’ grammar school, he was admitted to the bar in June 1837. He subsequently practised in the court of chancery, where he rapidly acquired an extensive practice, and became a queen’s counsel in 1846.

Harbouring parliamentary ambitions, Rolt unsuccessfully contested Stamford for the Conservatives at the 1847 general election, and was again defeated at Bridport in 1852. Undeterred, he secured a seat for West Gloucestershire at the 1857 general election. Although he ‘made no great figure’ in the Commons, he was far from the ‘silent Conservative’ that has been portrayed, and as a back-bencher he made more than 90 contributions to debate. While he largely confined himself to the affairs of chancery and the bankruptcy court, he was also one of the main speakers on the second reading of the Liberal reform bill of 1860, and as an opponent of household suffrage declared that he ‘stood by the constitution of 1832’. His most important parliamentary achievement came in 1862, when he carried through a measure that became known as Rolt’s Act, which was a significant step towards the fusion of law and equity.

Sir John Rolt as attorney-general

Having been considered for the post of lord chief justice for Ireland, Rolt was appointed attorney-general in October 1866 and was knighted. He was involved closely in the progress of the Conservatives’ reform bill and played a significant role in the government’s handling of the demonstration mounted by the Reform League at Hyde Park in May 1867. After furnishing his opinion on the legality of the proposed assembly, he attended the Cabinet meeting which considered issuing a royal proclamation that Rolt had drafted, which declared that public use of the royal parks did not extend to the holding of political meetings. However, the government’s subsequent vacillation on the issue resulted in the demonstration taking place and precipitated the resignation of the home secretary, Spencer Walpole.

During the 1867 Reform Act’s passage through the Commons, Rolt was at Disraeli’s side ‘during the first few hours of almost every night’. An unenthusiastic reformer, Rolt soon became convinced that once the Conservative Cabinet had decided to carry a measure of parliamentary reform they did not ‘much care’ what it would be. He subsequently complained that he and other members of the government were routinely ‘kept in ignorance’ about Disraeli’s intentions, and claimed that whenever he ‘asked any question, or made any suggestion … in advance of the precise question of the moment’, no answer could ever be got from Disraeli ‘beyond “We shall see”, “Wait”, or something to that effect’. While the bill was being considered by MPs, Rolt would terminate his daily business in the law courts and resort to ‘the miserable dens’ that had been allotted to the law officers near the House and spend ‘all night long, constantly at work in some way or other on the subject’ . Understandably, Rolt’s health suffered as a result and he began to experience an alarming ‘pressure on the brain’.

Shortly after the bill passed its third reading in the Commons in July 1867, Rolt was appointed lord justice of appeal in chancery. While he had never been ranked among the greatest lawyers of his day, his performance on the bench was generally commended. However, he suffered a mild paralytic stroke in January 1868 and was compelled to resign the following month. He subsequently lived in seclusion at his seat, Ozleworth, in Gloucestershire, and wrote his memoirs, in which he confessed that the momentous events of 1867 ‘made very little impression on me’, and that he had not treated them with ‘the importance and attention I now think they deserved’. He died in June 1871.

Further reading

  • The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Rolt. Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal in Chancery (1939)
  • J. M. Rigg, rev. P. Polden, ‘Rolt, Sir John (1804-1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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