‘The sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’: MP of the Month, George Ward Hunt (1825-77)

The recent rise of a certain parson’s daughter to the premiership provides a fitting opportunity to consider the unexpected ascent of a parson’s son to one of the great offices of state during the 1860s – George Ward Hunt, Conservative MP for Northamptonshire North between 1857 and his death in 1877, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Disraeli’s 1868 administration.

Hunt’s name has become synonymous with two moments in Westminster’s popular memory. His inability to locate his dispatch box prior to his only budget speech in 1868 is often bandied about on budget day by journalists seeking historical precedent for the custom of the chancellor holding up their red box outside 11 Downing Street. When he later served as First Lord of the Admiralty in Disraeli’s second ministry from 1874, the practical need to accommodate his gargantuan frame – he was 6ft 4 inches tall and weighed between 21 and 25 stone throughout his adult life – has been used to explain a unique semi-circular recess in the Admiralty’s boardroom table, known as ‘Hunt’s Bay’. Both legends – one that paints a picture of ineptitude, the other of extraordinary obesity – have served to distort the otherwise exemplary parliamentary service of one of the rising stars of the Conservative party in the early 1860s.

Hunt’s political career did not start well. After graduating with a MA from Christ Church, Oxford, and being called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1851, he failed twice to get elected as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Northampton in 1852 and 1857. To make matters worse, in 1857 he suffered the ignominy of being on holiday in Egypt throughout the election, a fact that his local Liberal opponents never let him forget, through heckling about crocodiles, pyramids and mummies at future hustings.

NPG D43474; George Ward Hunt ('Statesmen, No. 77.') by Carlo Pellegrini

‘The fat of the land’, George Ward Hunt by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair (11 March 1871)

He was finally elected in December 1857 at a by-election for Northamptonshire North, the county division that contained his family’s Wadenhoe estate. Although Hunt’s family could trace their lineage back to Edward III, his lowly status as the son of ‘a well connected country clergymen’ marked him out from the county’s usual stock of aristocratic representatives, and his election bemused Northamptonshire’s established elite. He quickly allayed these fears by throwing himself into the business of the Commons as an active Tory backbencher during his first short Parliament. He made his maiden speech within days of being sworn in (many MPs thought it courteous to wait at least a year before rising to address the Commons, if at all), contributed frequently to debate thereafter and had introduced his first bill within six months of assuming his seat.

After his re-election in 1859 he ramped up his parliamentary activity, taking a particular interest in the fine details of electoral, legal, Church and financial reform. His commitment to debate, committee work and legislative drafting had brought him to the attention of the Conservative leadership by August 1863. In 1865 he confirmed his ambitions within the party by moving a vote of censure on the Liberal Lord Chancellor, and distancing himself from the hard-line Protestant wing of back-bench Conservatives by voting in favour of introducing a Roman Catholic parliamentary oath – a move that prompted jibes of ‘he’s half a Liberal already’ when he was re-elected at that year’s general election.

His dogged campaign to rouse the Liberal government out of its inactivity over a rinderpest outbreak during the latter months of 1865, which had infected almost 75,000 cattle by the start of the 1866 session, confirmed his worthiness for office during the early months of 1866. His farming experience and close connections with England’s agricultural elite made him steadfast in his commitment to much stricter regulations than those proposed by the Liberal government for the movement, quarantine and slaughter of cattle. Hunt’s demands were eventually adopted as national policy leading to a virtual cessation in new cases of cattle plague by November 1866, down from almost 18,000 a week earlier that year.

His excellent parliamentary record was rewarded in 1866 by his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in Derby’s third Conservative government, where he attended diligently to his official duties in the Commons as well as his daily bureaucratic responsibilities. His command of economic policy and dependable performances in the Commons led many to the realisation that he was the brains behind Disraeli’s third chancellorship, earning his chief’s endorsement as ‘our best man’ by March 1867.

On Disraeli’s ascent to the premiership in 1868, Hunt was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the new prime minister provided the following reference to Queen Victoria ahead of her first meeting with her new chancellor:

he is more than six feet 4 in stature, but does not look so tall from his proportionate breadth – like St Peters, no one is at first aware of his dimensions … he has the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form … simple, straightforward & truthful … & of a very pleasing & amiable expression of countenance. He has gained golden opinions in the execution of his office as Sec[retary] of the Treasury, & is so popular in the House of Commons that the opposition even intimated recently that if a new Speaker were required, they were not disinclined to consider Mr Ward Hunt’s claims.

[Disraeli to Queen Victoria, 26 Feb. 1868: Benjamin Disraeli letters, 1868, ed. M. G. Wiebe et al. (2013), x. 82]

While Victoria remarked on such a ‘strange description’, she jokingly expressed no doubt that Hunt would ‘add weight to our counsels’. Accordingly, she accepted Disraeli’s recommendation, confirming Hunt’s rise from unknown parson’s son to one of the four great offices of state after only a decade in Parliament.

The full biography of Hunt will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further reading:

  • Margaret Main Schoenberg, ‘Hunt, George Ward: A 19th Century Giant’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 5, 4 (1976)
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MP of the Month: Daniel Gaskell (1782-1875)

Our Victorian Commons project is shedding new light on the increasingly important role played in the behind-the-scenes business of the post-1832 House of Commons, particularly in the committee-rooms, by MPs who came from non-elite backgrounds. While a family inheritance enabled our MP of the Month, Daniel Gaskell, to lead a comfortable life as a country gentleman, his Unitarian faith set him apart from the traditional political class. He was enthusiastically supported in his parliamentary career by his wife, and the often under-valued political role of women is another major theme to emerge in our research.

Described by the novelist Mary Shelley as ‘a plain silentious but intelligent looking man’, Gaskell served as MP for Wakefield from 1832 until his defeat in 1837. He was one of around 40 Unitarians who sat in the Commons during the 1832-68 period. His grandfather, a linen draper, and his father, a merchant, had both worshipped at Manchester’s Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. Gaskell was born in Manchester, but moved to Lupset Hall, near Wakefield, following his marriage in 1806. He and his older brother Benjamin were the major beneficiaries under the will of their cousin, James Milnes, and acquired considerable urban and rural property. Lupset Hall ‘received all the embellishment which taste and art could confer upon it’ and became ‘the seat of the most liberal hospitality’. Gaskell was acquainted with prominent figures such as the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, although Mary Shelley considered him and his wife to be ‘country folks in core’.

Wakefield constituency map

Wakefield constituency map

The Radicals in the newly enfranchised borough of Wakefield – which had one MP from 1832 – invited Gaskell to be their candidate. He initially accepted, but subsequently withdrew. He was, however, persuaded to reconsider. In August 1831, his nephew, James Milnes Gaskell, who had begun canvassing Wakefield as a Conservative, recorded that ‘the radicals had so effectually worked upon my uncle’s anxious and sensitive mind that he considered it a point of conscience’ to stand. Milnes Gaskell withdrew in his uncle’s favour in March 1832, finding a safe seat at Wenlock instead. Gaskell was elected unopposed in December 1832, when his political platform included retrenchment in public spending, shorter Parliaments, the secret ballot, the abolition of slavery, revision of the corn laws and reform of the Church.

Alongside local Radical pressure, Gaskell’s formidable wife, Mary, played an important part in encouraging her ‘reluctant spouse’ to stand. As noted in our earlier blogs, although women were debarred from the parliamentary franchise, their political influence in this period should not be overlooked, whether as local voters, petitioners, electoral patrons or, in Mary Gaskell’s case, political wives. ‘Unquestionably a character’, who ‘drew upon herself a great degree of notice from the leading part she took in public matters’, she was described as ‘a sort of zealot in the patronage of ultra-Liberals’. She went to hear sermons from the Unitarian preacher, William Johnson Fox (later Radical MP for Oldham), and ‘was a kind and generous friend’ to the radical journalist and novelist William Godwin and his family, including Mary Shelley, who was his daughter. In April 1831 James Milnes Gaskell told his mother that ‘it is, in fact, my Aunt, that would be member of Parliament’.

Despite his initial reluctance to stand, Gaskell was ‘punctual in his attendance’ at Parliament. Mary Shelley marvelled that

‘he attends the house night after night and dull committees and likes it! – for truly after a country town and country society, the dullest portion of London seems as gay as a masked ball’.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

Despite her comments about Parliament’s dullness, Shelley took advantage of her friendship with Gaskell to make use of his parliamentary franking privileges, encouraging correspondents to send letters to her via Gaskell, who could receive them without payment.

Although he was assiduous in his attendance, Gaskell seldom spoke in debate. One obituary recorded that ‘the atmosphere of publicity’ was not ‘congenial to his tastes and habits’. He was, however, remembered as ‘an excellent committee-man’, highlighting the fact that contributions in the chamber were only one aspect of parliamentary engagement. While Gaskell gave general support to Whig ministers, he expressed concerns that they ‘did not proceed in the path of Reform so rapidly as was generally expected; indeed some of their early measures seemed to indicate a retrograde movement’. Reflecting his claim that ‘I have attached myself to no party’, Gaskell’s votes in the division lobbies displayed considerable independence. He often divided in the minority with Radical and Irish MPs, on issues ranging from the ballot to the introduction of a moderate fixed duty on corn. His radical leanings prompted joint Whig-Conservative efforts to find an opponent to him at the 1835 election. He survived this contest, but was defeated in 1837. His parliamentary service was rewarded with the presentation of ‘two massive pieces of silver plate’ in 1838: a vase from the ‘ladies’ of Wakefield and a soup tureen from 1,700 male subscribers.

After several years’ absence from the Commons, Gaskell reluctantly agreed in December 1845 that he would stand again for Wakefield to support the cause of free trade. With the general election delayed and the corn laws repealed, he withdrew in April 1847 on grounds of his age and health. Widowed the following year, he subsequently dedicated his energies – and up to half his annual income of £4,000 – to charitable works. He was a particularly generous benefactor to the Unitarian church, donating £1,000 in 1856 to assist poorer congregations in the north of England. He also supported educational causes, contributing £3,000 towards new premises for the Wakefield Mechanics’ Institute in 1855. He died in December 1875.

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‘The first humble beginnings of an agitation’: the women’s suffrage petition of 7 June 1866

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the presentation to Parliament of the first mass women’s suffrage petition on 7 June 1866. Signed by around 1,500 women, it was presented to the Commons by John Stuart Mill, who had been returned as Liberal MP for Westminster at the general election of July 1865. Among the most prominent signatories were Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson) and the mathematician and scientist, Mary Somerville. However, thanks to a new resource released by Parliament’s Vote 100 project, it is now possible to search the names of all of the 1,499 women listed in an 1866 pamphlet as having signed the petition. Only two known copies of this rare document survive.

Petitioning was a well-used method of bringing issues to the attention of parliamentarians, having been deployed by anti-slavery campaigners, the Chartists and, as featured in one of our earlier blogs, the Anti-Corn Law League. The Liberal ministry’s introduction of a reform bill in 1866 had brought the question of the franchise to the fore, but its proposals for widening the electorate applied only to men. The women’s petition – couched in cautious terms, and side-stepping the potentially contentious issue of marital status – asked the Commons to ‘consider the expediency of providing for all householders, without distinction of sex, who possess such property or rental qualification as your Honourable House may determine’.

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor

For Mill, the petition provided an important weapon against the argument that ‘the ladies themselves see no hardship’ in their exclusion from the suffrage ‘and do not care enough for the franchise to ask for it’. Writing to Caroline Liddell on 6 May 1866, he encouraged her to draft a petition, urging that ‘a woman who is a taxpayer is the most natural and most suitable advocate of the political enfranchisement of women’. In the event, it was Mill’s stepdaughter, Helen Taylor (who urged Bodichon that they should ‘commence the first humble beginnings of an agitation’), who produced the initial draft of the petition presented by Mill, although Liddell was among the signatories. The signatures, reportedly gathered within a fortnight, were collated at the London home of Clementia Taylor, whose husband Peter – a member of the Courtauld business dynasty – was Liberal MP for Leicester, 1862-84. (His biography is among those already completed for our 1832-68 project.)

With discussions on petitions occupying an increasing amount of the time of the Commons, the Liberal and Conservative front benches had agreed informally in 1835 not to allow debates when petitions were presented. Debates on petitions were formally abolished by a standing order in 1843. This meant that there was no substantive discussion when Mill presented the women’s petition on 7 June 1866.

Mill was, however, able to make some remarks on the petition when he moved on 17 July 1866 for the compilation of a return of the number of freeholders, householders and others who fulfilled ‘the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise’ but were ‘excluded … by reason of their sex’. Informing his fellow MPs that the petition had originated ‘entirely with ladies, without the instigation, and, to the best of my belief, without the participation of any person of the male sex in any stage of the proceedings, except the final one of its presentation to Parliament’, he emphasised ‘the number of signatures obtained in a very short space of time, not to mention the quality of many of those signatures’. Mill himself had been surprised by the petition’s size, having been willing to present a petition containing just 100 signatures. Seeing the ‘large roll’ containing the petition for the first time when he met Davies and Garrett in Westminster Hall, he declared, ‘I can brandish this with effect’.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

Although Mill’s speech was brief – it occupied less than two columns of Hansard – he took the opportunity to note that Benjamin Disraeli, who had since become chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Derby’s newly formed Conservative government, had suggested during the debates on the Liberal ministry’s reform bill that there was ‘no reason why women of independent means should not possess the electoral franchise, in a country where they can preside in manorial courts and fill parish offices’.

Even before the failure of the Liberals’ reform bill had removed the possibility of introducing an amendment on women’s suffrage, Mill, showing his shrewdness as a parliamentary tactician, had decided that it was imprudent to pursue the matter any further that session. He did not wish, as he told a fellow MP, to be accused of ‘taking up the time of the House’; pressing a matter which had no chance of practical success risked being seen as deliberately obstructive. Mill did, however, achieve his aim of laying ‘the foundation of a further movement when advisable’. Outside Parliament, women continued to organise, and further petitions were presented in spring 1867.

Mill’s opportunity for bolder action came when the Conservative ministry introduced its own reform bill in 1867. On 20 May – which was, coincidentally, Mill’s birthday – he moved, in a powerful and eloquent speech, to replace the word ‘man’ in clause 4 of the bill with ‘person’. His amendment for female suffrage was defeated by 196 votes to 73. Petitions continued to be presented to Parliament as part of the women’s suffrage campaign, including a ‘survivors’ petition’ in 1890, signed by 78 of those whose names had been included on the original petition of 1866.

20 May 1867

Mill’s amendment, 20 May 1867

Further reading:

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An ‘upstart from the ranks’: MP of the Month, John Thomas Norris (1808-70)

Norris’s political career illustrates a number of the striking developments being explored in our work on the Victorian Commons, including the ever-expanding number of ‘non-elite’ MPs; the role of town council elections as a stepping stone to Parliament; and the emergence of new types of party activism in even the smallest constituencies. Norris’s experience of getting elected also hints at the ongoing prejudices against many of those who had dared to ‘raise themselves up from the ranks’.

Thomas Norris MPBy the mid-1830s Norris was running a paper mill with his father at Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon. He had also started a London print works in Aldersgate, which in 1837 secured the contract to supply the ‘county printing’ for Middlesex. The firm published a number of trade journals, such as the weekly Railway Times, which Norris helped to finance and eventually owned. In 1854 he leased another paper mill at Sandford in Oxfordshire, by which time about 80 of his London printers were attending his ‘annual treats’ to a dinner in Abingdon’s town hall.

Alongside business, Norris threw himself into local radical politics. In 1835, at the height of the crisis  over the passage of the Whigs’ municipal reform bill, he published a scathing attack on a City of London Tory councillor for opposing the ‘democratic’ changes being made to the way aldermen were appointed. A supporter of the radical parliamentary candidates for the city at the 1837 general election, and a regular target of Tory ‘objections’ in the voter registration courts, he stood as a ‘reforming’ councillor for Aldersgate ward in 1839, only to have his election overturned on petition by the Tories for alleged ‘non-residence’. Standing again, in an ‘extraordinary’ by-election, he comfortably won the seat and went on to become a key figure in London’s campaign to remove the ‘cruel and filthy’ live cattle market from Smithfield.

In Abingdon, a few miles north of his Sutton Courtenay paper mill, Norris served as one of the Thames navigation commissioners and became part of a local group of reforming tradesmen and businessmen intent on breaking the Tories’ stranglehold over the borough. Along with the local coal and wine merchant Gabriel Davis (1809-89), Norris helped organise a series of by-election challenges to the sitting Tory MP, backing the campaign to elect the Liberal army officer James Caulfield, who finally won the seat in 1852. Norris was an obvious replacement when Caulfield died, but was pushed out by the leading Whig Lord Norreys. In a ‘remarkable’ struggle he was then beaten by a ‘more moderate’ Liberal when Norreys succeeded to the Lords in 1854. Mocked on the hustings, Norris was accused by a former ally of being an ‘upstart’:

In too great haste to get to the top of the ladder, he was not content to climb step by step, but wished to vault at once to the top (laughter).

Norris had the last laugh when he was elected without opposition in 1857. (He also easily defeated a Tory in 1859). An active constituency MP, he campaigned steadily against the proposed closure of Abingdon’s gaol and the transfer of its county sessions to Reading, as well as on local police and railway matters. His most significant contribution, however, was in pressing the case for a repeal of the paper duties, which had been part of Gladstone’s 1860 budget but was controversially rejected by the Lords. Insisting that English paper makers were being forced out of business by tax-free imported paper, and that repeal would benefit the working classes as well as producers of literature, he urged the chancellor to ‘abide manfully by his budget’ and for the ministry to back him, which they duly did in 1861. This incident was crucial in clarifying the Commons’ supremacy over the Lords in all money matters.

Norris then turned his attention to the import duties on the ‘foreign rags’ used to make paper, warning in 1864 that many English paper manufacturers were starting to go bankrupt. By then he was clearly speaking from bitter personal experience. With his business in difficulty, he became far less active in Parliament. Standing again for Abingdon in 1865, he was unfairly accused of being an ‘absentee’ and narrowly defeated by another rival Liberal. Later that year, to ‘much astonishment’, he was declared bankrupt, with debts of £89,000 and assets of £40,000. The Sutton Courtenay paper mill failed to sell, however, and he was still running it in 1869, when a boiler exploded, killing a stoker. He was ‘fully insured’.

Norris died childless the following year. His paper mill struggled on until the 1880s and was demolished in the early 20th century. The associated Mill House later achieved fame as one of the country retreats of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. More recently it was bought back by Asquith’s great granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

The full biography of Norris will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further info about Norris can also be found here.

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The Commons and Cricket: Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922)

Being that time of the year when, to use Kipling’s less than charitable terms, the ‘muddied oafs at the goals’ begin to make way for ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’, it seems apt for our MP of the Month to be one of the most accomplished cricketers to take his seat in the reformed Commons.

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922) was a scion of one of Worcestershire’s leading Whig families, the Lytteltons having held land in the Vale of Evesham since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Among his ancestors were scholarly judges, colonial governors, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. The family was, however, was not without its black sheep. The libertine 2nd Baron, Thomas Lyttelton (1744-79), known within the family as ‘Naughty Tom’, was – according to Horace Walpole – a ‘detestable character’ whose ‘ingratitude, profligacy, extravagance, and want of honour and decency’ were aimed at nothing but ‘shocking mankind, and disgracing himself’. On the other hand, Lyttelton’s father, George William Lyttelton (1817-76), was among the most brilliant scholars of Victorian England, and in 1846 served his brother-in-law, William Gladstone, as under-secretary for the colonies. He was one of the chief promoters of the colonisation of New Zealand.

A gilded youth, Charles Lyttelton stood well over six foot with ‘auburn hair and fine dark eyes’. A crack shot and ‘superb games player’, he quickly made his name at Eton as a cricketer. A ‘splendid bat, with a free, commanding style’, he subsequently played first-class cricket for Cambridge University, where he topped the batting averages for two years running, with a highest score of 81 at the Oval in 1864. He was not only an outstanding batsman but also an effective medium pace bowler and a good wicket keeper, and took part in 12 matches for Gentlemen against Players between 1861 and 1866.

Alfred Lyttelton

In fact, the Lytteltons were obsessed with cricket, and all seven of Lyttelton’s brothers played cricket for Eton. Like him, three of them captained the team, his brother Edward going on to represent England at football, while the youngest brother, Alfred, became one of the country’s finest tennis players. At their ancestral home, Hagley Hall, the brothers joined their father and two uncles to form a cricket XI, the highlight of the year being their annual game against Bromsgrove School.

Unlike his siblings, Lyttleton was deeply reserved and ‘had no natural social gifts’. He was nevertheless the only member of his family to sit in Parliament between 1820 and 1895, being elected as a Liberal for East Worcestershire at a by-election in June 1868. He sat until he was defeated at the 1874 general election, during which time he proved a loyal Gladstonian, although much to his uncle’s disgust he would break with the Liberals over the question of Irish Home Rule in 1886. Once in the Lords he served on royal commissions on agriculture and metropolitan traffic, and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

Lyttelton’s achievements as a commissioner for land, 1881-9, and for railways, 1891-1905, and as deputy chairman of the Great Western Railway, 1890-1, were in some ways overshadowed by the more illustrious careers of his brothers. Neville Gerard (1845-1931) became chief of the army general staff; George William Spencer (1847-1913) was a private secretary to Lord Granville, and to Gladstone when prime minister in 1880-5 and 1892-4; Arthur Temple (1852-1903) was Bishop of Southampton; Edward (1855-1942) was headmaster first of Haileybury College, then Eton; while Alfred (1857-1913) was a long-serving MP and secretary of state for the colonies, 1903-5.

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Although Lyttelton’s gifts were ‘of a less shining order’ than those of his brothers, he was well suited to the role of a patrician. After succeeding as 5th Baron Lyttelton following his father’s suicide in 1876, he inherited the title of 8th Viscount Cobham from a distant relative in 1889. As ‘the quietest and most modest of men’, his role as ‘the old-fashioned patriarchal head’ of his family was fulfilled ‘in everything except the desire to exercise authority’. His grandson, the jazz trumpeter and legendary broadcaster, Humphrey Lyttelton, remembered him only as ‘a disembodied head’ from a family portrait in which all the darker tints had turned pitch black.

Further reading:

  • B. Askwith, The Lyttletons. A Family Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (1975)
  • S. Fletcher, Victorian Girls. Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters (2004)

For another cricket-themed blog from us, see https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/mps-at-the-crease-a-victorian-commons-first-eleven/

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A family affair: the Knightleys and Northamptonshire South, 1832-1868

The double-member county division of Northamptonshire South is often associated with the Spencer family, most notably Viscount Althorp (later the third Earl Spencer and older brother of Princess Diana’s great-great-grandfather), who played a key role in the reforming ministry of Lord Grey. However, the Spencers, including Althorp and his nephew, only occupied the representation of the division for a mere three years between 1832 and 1868.

In reality it was the Cartwrights and the Knightleys, who, through two father-and-son combinations, dominated the constituency’s electoral politics. Of the two, Charles and Rainald Knightley were the most successful. They represented one of the division’s seats uninterrupted from 1835, demonstrating that the key to electoral success was reputation, money and a firebrand form of agricultural, independent conservatism.

The Knightleys, whose Daventry estate lay in the west of the county, had returned MPs for Northamptonshire since 1420. Charles, born in 1781, was a celebrity in the county long before he was returned to Westminster. One of the best riders in the county’s famous Pytchley Hunt, he once allegedly leapt 31 feet over a brook near Brixworth Hill on his horse ‘Benvolio’ (the official world record for such a feat is still just over 27 feet). He was also a renowned cattle breeder and spent considerable resources on agricultural improvement on the family’s estates.

He had been an active character in Northamptonshire’s Conservative electoral politics since 1826, and after failing to get elected in 1831 was returned for the new southern division in 1835. His charismatic speaking style, willingness to pay close attention to voter registration and canvassing, as well as his outspoken support for the Protestant Church and the interests of agriculture – he was a fierce advocate of protection – meant he comfortably retained his seat until his retirement in 1852.


‘a fine old Tory’, Rainald Knightley by Spy, Vanity Fair (1881)

Charles’s stranglehold over the county exasperated his local Liberal opponents (who repeatedly criticised his influence over the Tory Northampton Herald) and bewildered some national commentators – The Times mocked him ahead of the 1847 election, calling him ‘a well dried specimen of the old English squire’, who should be ‘ticketed and put in a museum’. Nevertheless, Charles’s critics failed to knock him off his perch, and on his retirement he rubbed salt into their wounds by successfully supporting the candidacy of his son, Rainald, who replaced him as one of the constituency’s two MPs.

Charles’s decision to support his son’s candidacy in 1852 also angered those in the upper echelons of the local Conservative party who preferred an alternative candidate. Importantly, the internal party dispute over Rainald’s candidacy received extensive coverage in the local press and quickly established his reputation in the county as an ‘independent’ Conservative – a status he actively cultivated, with considerable success, throughout his subsequent forty-year career as an MP.

Until at least 1868, Rainald repeatedly described himself to the electors in an ambiguous manner. In 1859, for instance, he stood as a ‘moderate and liberal, but consistent, Conservative’. However, in Parliament he followed in his father’s footsteps, aligning himself with a group of backbench Tory ‘Old believers’ led by ‘Big Ben’ Bentinck, who shared a deep disdain for Disraeli’s attempt to establish a disciplined Conservative party at Westminster.

This distrust of Disraeli was reflected in the division lobbies, and his support for Palmerston over the Chinese War in 1857, as well as his outspoken support for the established Church, helped him to stand out from his Liberal and Conservative rivals at the 1857 and 1859 elections. His independence from Disraeli also allowed him to play a key role in the debates over parliamentary reform between 1866 and 1868. In 1866 he coalesced with the Liberal ‘Adullamites’ to prevent the passage of the Liberal ministry’s reform bill, and in 1867 he was instrumental in forcing Disraeli to underpin his Conservative reform bill with a separate measure dealing with corrupt practices.

Rainald’s good finances were also important, as they helped him to maintain his reputation for independence. This was perhaps best exemplified when his fellow Conservative incumbent Henry Cartwright was forced to retire ahead of the 1868 election, after Rainald refused to stand alongside him on the basis that Cartwright would be beholden to the whims of the local party due to his inability to fund his own election campaign.

The Knightleys’ brand of independent Conservatism proved remarkably popular with electors in Northamptonshire South, and Rainald continued to represent the county until his retirement in 1892, when the centuries-long Knightley link with the representation of Northamptonshire came to an end.

The full biographies of Charles and Rainald Knightley, as well as Northamptonshire South’s other MPs during the 1832-68 period, will soon be available on our preview site.

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From ‘true blue’ Tory to Reformer: Samuel Adlam Bayntun (1804-1833)

While our MP of the Month sat only briefly in the Commons after 1832, his parliamentary career provides valuable insights into two important aspects of nineteenth-century politics: the fluidity of party labels and the influence which money had in the selection of candidates.

A ‘dashing young man’, Samuel Bayntun was the son of a wealthy Wiltshire clergyman. After graduating from Oxford, he joined the army, serving with the 1st Dragoon Guards and then transferring to the 1st Life Guards. While stationed at York in 1827 he was asked to stand for that constituency at a future election as a ‘Protestant Tory’. At the 1830 general election he was elected as a supporter of ‘old true blue’ principles. By the time of the 1831 election, however, Bayntun’s political position had already begun to shift. Although he remained a Tory, he declared his support for the Whig ministry’s reform bill as a measure of constitutional ‘renovation’. Following his unopposed return, he maintained his support for parliamentary reform in the division lobbies.

In October 1832 Bayntun began canvassing at York in anticipation of that December’s general election. Finding his views on parliamentary reform ‘too liberal’, many of his former supporters, including his election committee, transferred their allegiance to another Tory, John Lowther. This left Bayntun reliant on the votes of York’s Reformers and ‘liberal Blues’. Although his election address emphasised his ‘strictly independent’ principles, it also declared his support for numerous ‘liberal’ measures, including reductions in public expenditure and taxation, the removal of sinecures and monopolies, reform of the Church, the abolition of slavery and amendment of the corn laws. On the hustings he even asserted that the ballot might prove necessary to secure purity of election. His opinions led some reports to describe him as a ‘reformer’ or a ‘liberal’. However, Bayntun insisted that he was ‘no less’ a Tory than before, although Wellington’s ‘despotic dicta’ against parliamentary reform had left Bayntun unable to support his ministry. He won the second seat at York, behind the Whig Edward Petre, with whom he shared 741 split votes. In contrast, he shared only 124 votes with Lowther, the Tory candidate.

Reports on the composition of the new Parliament showed continued uncertainty about Bayntun’s party affiliation: the Morning Post classed him as a Conservative, while the Spectator described him as a Ministerialist and Reformer, and the Leeds Mercury considered him a Liberal. However, his votes in the division lobbies soon confirmed that he had abandoned his Conservative views, giving general support to Whig ministers, but also joining the minorities in support of Radical causes. These included the ballot, repeal of the house and window taxes, and the abolition of flogging as a military punishment.

Bootham Bar, York, bef. c. 1840 (c) The Mansion House and Guildhall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Bootham Bar, York, bef. c. 1840
(c) The Mansion House and Guildhall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Although Bayntun’s shifting political position was one reason for the defection of his former backers at York, another important factor was an ongoing dispute over the costs of the 1830 election. Bayntun claimed in September 1832 that he had been told that this earlier contest would cost him no more than £5,000, but, having paid out more than £11,000, he was still being asked for a further £3,000 or £4,000. In December he initiated court proceedings against the treasurer of his election committee, Mr. Cattle, for the return of money provided for the 1830 contest. With little prospect of Bayntun spending large sums in 1832, especially given rumours that he was heavily in debt, his former supporters turned to another candidate who was more likely to foot the heavy election expenditure which York’s freemen expected.

Bayntun’s court case against Cattle ended in humiliation in March 1833. While Bayntun’s counsel claimed that Cattle had embezzled funds, the jury found that Cattle had in fact spent all the money Bayntun had given him, much of it on bribery and corruption, with Bayntun’s knowledge. Bayntun was further embarrassed by another court case that April when he was charged with illegally pawning a looking-glass (valued at £6), which he had rented with other furniture for his London lodgings. Although the case was dismissed, it was indicative of his precarious financial position, with creditors looming. The ‘mental anxiety’ caused by his ‘pecuniary embarrassments’ was felt to have hastened Bayntun’s untimely death from scarlet fever in September 1833, aged just 29. According to an unconfirmed later account, he was buried secretly by torchlight in St. John’s churchyard, Devizes, ‘to prevent the seizure of his corpse by creditors’. In a curious and macabre final twist, one of Bayntun’s brothers, with whom he had quarrelled, exhumed the body and discharged a pistol into its face.

For Bayntun’s parliamentary career before 1832, see our 1820-32 volumes.

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