MP of the Month: Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton (1806-81)

Many of our recent ‘MP of the Month’ posts have focused on self-made men from non-élite backgrounds. Their numbers on the back benches and contribution to the practical business of Parliament (especially in committee) grew dramatically during the Victorian era. Traditional landed back-benchers, by contrast, tend to get a bad press in this period. Famously denounced by Peel as ‘those who spend their time hunting and shooting and eating and drinking’, their poor attendance and apparent disdain for political work were increasingly criticised by contemporary observers and frustrated constituents during the Victorian era.

One of those who might have been expected to fit this mould was Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton. With his aristocratic name, inherited title and estates, and large mansion set in acres of rolling Cheshire parkland, Grey-Egerton was, to most observers, every inch the traditional landed back bench MP. He even had an eccentric and distracting pastime, as a pioneering ichthyologist and collector of fossilised fish, many of which ended up in London’s Natural History Museum.

Some of Grey-Egerton’s fish fossils, now in the Natural History Museum.

Significantly, his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concentrates almost entirely on his scientific achievements. These were sufficient for him to have an oriental bird, Actinodura egertoni, named after him. His service as an MP barely warrants four lines.

As a Victorian politician, however, Grey-Egerton was in many ways a remarkable figure. His career is a useful reminder of just how much still remains to be discovered about the activities of back bench MPs in this period, both from élite and non-élite backgrounds.

Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton, photographed in 1855

A Protestant campaigner and staunch Tory, by the time of his death in 1881 Grey-Egerton had clocked up 46 years continuous service in the Commons, and – adding in the year he had sat in the pre-Reform House – had become the second longest serving MP of his era. Despite his privileged background, his route into politics was far from straightforward. First elected for Chester in 1830, his opposition to the Grey ministry’s ‘crude and dangerous’ reform bill cost him his seat in 1831. Standing as a Conservative for the newly created constituency of Cheshire South in 1832, he enlisted the support of the recently established Carlton Club, but was still defeated, despite spending an astonishing £5,000 on his election campaign. Undeterred he helped to establish one of the earliest local Conservative Registration Associations for organising voter enrolment. By the time of the unexpected 1835 election they had secured such an overwhelming majority of Tory electors on the registers that no political opponent came forward, enabling Grey-Egerton to be elected without a contest.

Over the next 46 years Grey-Egerton became a steady presence at Westminster, loyally backing the Conservatives on most issues. He rarely spoke, famously criticising his fellow MPs for their ‘long and tedious speeches, platitudes, and reiterations’, but instead acquired a reputation as ‘one of the hardest workers in committees’. Appointed to the 1835 committee on the British Museum, of which he was a trustee, he became a member of the subsequent royal commission and served regularly on a range of similar inquiries as well as on private railway bills. In the 1860s he emerged as a leading figure in the inquiries into mine safety.

Cheshire Cheese: one of the local industries Grey-Egerton lobbied to protect

Grey-Egerton also looked after the interests of his constituency. When Peel’s tariff reforms threatened to harm Cheshire’s cheese industry in the 1840s, by slashing the duty on American cheese imports, he successfully lobbied the board of trade for an exemption, prompting complaints that he had used unfair ‘private’ influence with ministers such as Gladstone. In 1847 he joined other Cheshire MPs in a campaign on behalf of the region’s salt producers against the salt monopoly of the East India Company. Other issues that inspired him to make a rare appearance in debate included the reform of Cheshire’s constabulary and the devastating impact of the cattle plague on the county’s livestock farmers.

Grey-Egerton’s main bug-bear throughout his career, however, was the threat to the Protestant Church posed by Roman Catholicism and the ‘Jesuitical duplicity’ of Irish MPs like Daniel O’Connell. A lifelong supporter of making people observe the Sabbath, he was deeply committed to maintaining the privileged position of the Established Church, even if this meant keeping Dissenters out of Anglican universities and forcing everyone, whatever their religion, to contribute to church rates. In an extraordinary reminder of the legislative power that independent MPs continued to exercise in this period, in 1840 he managed to pilot a private members’ bill into law enabling new Anglican churches to be built in Cheshire using surplus funds from local tolls, in order to ‘check demoralisation’. The bill passed despite the opposition of the Whig ministry’s chief whip.

It was also religion that prompted him to rebel against the Conservative leadership. In 1845 Peel proposed to make funding of the Irish Catholic seminary at Maynooth permanent. Grey-Egerton opposed the measure and continued to campaign against state funding for training Catholic priests for the rest of his life. In 1846, along with most of his landed colleagues, he voted against Peel’s repeal of the corn laws. Thereafter he always remained something of a back bench rebel, breaking with the Conservatives to support Palmerston’s handling of the Crimean war in 1855 and finding fault with parts of Disraeli’s 1867 reform bill. One of his final acts was to vote against allowing Charles Bradlaugh, the renowned atheist and secularist, to take his seat as an MP without swearing the traditional oath on the Bible.

The full biography of Grey-Egerton (along with almost 1,000 of his fellow MPs) can be viewed for free on our 1832-68 website containing drafts of all our ongoing research. For details of how to view the site please click here.

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Some parallels: the 1832 and 2018 boundary reviews

To celebrate the recent open-access publication of his article ‘‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, our Research Fellow on the 1832-1868 project, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses some parallels between the challenges facing today’s boundary commission and those encountered by the Whig government overseeing the first boundary commission of 1831-32.

The current boundary commissions for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, whose recommendations are scheduled to be implemented in 2018, have faced a number of problems at Westminster and in the localities. One ongoing point of contention has been the requirement, established by the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, that the number of constituencies should be reduced from 650 to 600. In a striking parallel Earl Grey’s Whig government had also proposed to reduce the number of Commons seats from 658 to 596 in its original reform bill of March 1831. By December 1831, however, they had abandoned these plans entirely following accusations that the seats proposed to be disfranchised were mainly Tory constituencies. There were also fears over the increased constitutional power that redistribution might provide Catholic Ireland, and a general suspicion among politicians of single-member (rather than the usual double-member) constituencies.

Mr-Justice-Nicol

Mr Justice (Andrew) Nicol, Deputy Chair of the 2018 Boundary Review

While the latter point is no longer of relevance to Britain’s contemporary single-member system, fears of possible gerrymandering and partisan issues again threaten to undermine plans to reduce the number of MPs. When the current commission’s proposals were first published it was thought that the Labour Party stood to lose the most seats. However, following the results of the 2017 election, the Conservatives now look set to lose more nationally.

As in 1831, the constitutional balance of the four nations also threatens to disrupt the boundary review. As things stand, Wales is set to lose out most in terms of its relative representation. Furthermore, if the 2017 registration data continues the upward trend of 2016, English MPs may also argue they have been under-allocated seats due to the use of registration data from 2015 to calculate seat quotas.

The decision to abolish 50 Commons seats has also proved highly controversial in the constituencies, as it has forced the current boundary commission to merge many pre-existing constituencies. As well as suggestions that individual boundaries might favour particular parties, the commission has been accused of breaking up long-established legal, political and social communities. A notable example is their proposal for a Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency, which cuts across the Cornwall and Devon boundary.

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond, Chair of the 1832 Boundary Commission (c) The University of Edinburgh

Similarly, during 1831, Tories and Radicals warned of Whig gerrymandering, and people from across the political spectrum expressed concern that boundary reform would destroy historic political communities and force together electors with divergent socio-economic interests. To counter this, when establishing the rules for redrawing borough constituencies, the head of the English borough boundary commission, Thomas Drummond, set out innovative, ‘scientific’ criteria to define electoral communities. These aimed to propose boundaries in a uniform manner across the country by evaluating every borough’s geographic, legal, economic and social circumstances. Importantly, this allowed boundary commissioners to ignore the political factions that operated in each constituency.

A similar framework was established for dividing 27 of England’s counties, a significant but often overlooked aspect of the 1832 reform legislation. In a manner comparable to the operation of the current commissions, the head of that commission, John George Shaw Lefevre, evaluated population data, geography, voter information and historic ‘communities of interest’ before dividing each county in as equal a manner as possible.

The application of these ‘disinterested’ rules for establishing borough and county boundaries proved remarkably successful. In contrast to the 1832 Reform Act itself, which occupied 15 months of furious debate at Westminster, the 1832 Boundary Act passed through Parliament with little objection. A major reason for this was that most MPs and constituencies accepted that the boundary commission had reformed the country’s electoral map fairly, and in a genuine spirit of impartiality. The current commission’s ability to push through its proposals will no doubt hinge on its ability to convince parliamentarians and voters that it has also been able to produce proposals from a ‘position of independence and impartiality’.

One other repeated criticism of today’s commission has been its use of the 2015 electoral register to allocate parliamentary seats to each region and design equal constituencies of around 75,000 electors. Critics have suggested that the commission base their modelling on either a prediction of all eligible voters, or a more up-to-date registration dataset, which might include those registered in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum and the June 2017 general election.

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 10.19.06

The 1821 census – the perils of out-of-date data

Prior to the commencement of the 1832 boundary commission, the Grey ministry’s reform proposals faced similar criticisms for using out of date information. In April 1831, just as the 1831 census data was becoming available, ministers were ridiculed for using census data from 1821 to decide which constituencies were to lose the right to elect MPs. As my article reveals, the tireless efforts of the 1832 commission to collect more up-to-date, accurate data proved pivotal to the ultimate success of the 1832 Reform Act. The mass of cartographic and statistical data collected allowed for the publication of an extensive report explaining every constituency proposal in remarkable detail. It also enabled the government to drop their much maligned census-based disfranchisement proposals. By remodelling their plans using up-to-date data, the Whig government was finally able to convince its opponents that the UK’s electoral map had been redesigned in an even-handed manner.

Ironically, the final proposals of the current boundary commission are also expected to be released around the same time as new data – in this case the figures for the 2017 registration. If the 2017 data shows drastic changes in the geographic makeup of the electorate since 2015, there may be similar calls to those experienced by the Whigs during 1831 for a re-evaluation of their constituency and boundary proposals. Whether the current commission will be able to respond with the same degree of success only time will tell.

Further Reading

Electoral Calculus – 2018 Boundary Review

P. Salmon, ‘The English reform legislation, 1831-32’, in The House of Commons, 1820-32, ed. D. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 2009), vol. 1, pp. 374-412

M. Spychal, ‘‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, Historical Research (August, 2017).

Elise Uberoi, ‘Boundary Review: missing voters, missing seats?’, Secondreading.uk

 

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MP of the Month: Edward King Tenison

William Henry Fox Talbot

One of our earliest Victorian Commons blogs looked at the career of William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, who sat briefly as Whig MP for Chippenham, 1832-5. Our MP of the Month is another pioneering photographer, Edward King Tenison (1805-78), who sat for County Leitrim from 1847 to 1852. Drawing on Fox Talbot’s work, he helped to develop the technique of using paper negatives to create detailed photographic images of landscapes and buildings.

Springing from aristocratic stock, Tenison was a grandson of the 1st Earl of Kingston, and a cousin of the 2nd Viscount Lorton, and both his grandfather and father had sat in the Irish Parliament. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the army in 1826 and served as an officer of the 14th Light Dragoons until 1836. In 1830 he had stood for election at Roscommon, and in 1843 succeeded his brother to a large estate in that county. An able administrator, he served as both a magistrate and high sheriff for Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, and was later successively appointed lord lieutenant of the former two counties.

Having established a reputation as a considerate resident landlord, Tenison was returned to Parliament for Leitrim at the 1847 general election. A Liberal, he generally supported Lord John Russell’s Whig ministry, but as an advocate of civil and religious liberty firmly opposed anti-Catholic measures such as the Ecclesiastical Titles Act. Exhausted by parliamentary life, Tenison retired in 1852. Upon returning to politics at the 1857 general election he lost a contest for his former seat and suffered another defeat at Roscommon in 1859. The following year he retired from a by-election for the corrupt borough of Sligo after refusing to offer bribes to the Liberal electors, and after suffering another defeat at Leitrim in 1865, retired from politics altogether.

Throughout this time Tenison had pursued his abiding interest in photography. In 1838 he had married Lady Louisa Anson, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Lichfield, who had travelled in the Holy Land and Egypt and established a reputation as a travel writer and artist with her Sketches in the East (1846). Perhaps influenced by his wife’s work, Tenison took up photography in the 1840s. After experimenting with daguerreotypes he began to use paper negatives, and acquired one of the few licences granted by their originator, the pioneering photographer and one-time MP for Chippenham, William Henry Fox Talbot. He subsequently based his experiments on Baldus’s calotype process, which allowed him to use the larger negatives best suited to the architectural and scenic subjects in which he was most interested.

Lady Louisa Tenison by John Phillip; credit: Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lady-louisa-tennyson-186388

Between 1850 and 1852 he and Lady Tenison spent time in Spain where he became one of the earliest photographers taking calotypes. His bulky equipment and outdoor camera work aroused the suspicion of the authorities while stimulating the curiosity of the local people. An album of this work, which included views of the city of Toledo, Burgos cathedral, and the royal palace at Madrid, was published as Memories of Spain (1854). His wife also made a record of their experiences which, along with around 50 lithographs of her drawings, was published as Castile and Andalucia (1853).

Etude d’arbre [Study of a tree], by Edward King Tenison, c.1850-3

Tenison joined the London Photographic Society in 1853, when he first showed his work at the Irish industrial exhibition, and the following year helped to found the Dublin Photographic Society. After further exhibitions of his work in London in 1854-5, which drew upon photographs he had taken in Spain, Belgium and Normandy using both calotype and waxed paper processes, he visited Algeria and subsequently recorded striking images of buildings and landmarks of his native Ireland. In February 1860 he provided details of his experimental use of paper negatives to the Royal Dublin Society, but by that time he had already confessed to the British Journal of Photography that he had ‘almost given up the science altogether’.

Tenison died at his seat, Kilronan Castle, in June 1878. Lady Tenison survived her husband, dying at Trieste in September 1882. An album containing calotypes and salt prints taken by Tenison in Ireland in 1858 is preserved in the National Photographic Archive in Dublin. More of his work is held in private collections, and one album of his photographs was sold at Christie’s in 1999 for more than $10,000.

Recommended reading:

P. Slattery, ‘Tenison, Edward King’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, ix. 307-8.

R. Taylor & L. J. Schaaf, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives (2007).

S. Rouse, Into The Light. An Illustrated Guide to the Photographic Collections in the National Library of Ireland (1998), 52-3.

http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/E_K__Tenison/A

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Party Affiliation in the Reformed Commons, 1832-68

As the election results were declared in each constituency at this month’s general election, they were swiftly collated by the media to give an assessment of the overall balance of power within the new House of Commons. With each candidate’s party affiliation listed on the ballot paper, there could be little doubt about the number of MPs returned from each of the major political parties.

In the Parliaments of the 1832-1868 period, however, the attachment of party labels to MPs could be a much more complicated affair. MPs themselves were often reluctant to commit themselves firmly to a particular party, priding themselves on their ‘independence’. As we have indicated in several of our previous blogs, party identities could often be rather fluid, not only for MPs, but also for electors, who in double-member constituencies had the opportunity to split their votes to support candidates of differing political hues.

Contemporary parliamentary guides such as Dod’s parliamentary companion sought to classify MPs on the basis of their political opinions – for example,  the 1841 guide pitched ‘Conservatives’ against a collection of ‘Whigs’, ‘Liberals’, ‘Reformers’, ‘Radical Reformers’ and ‘Repealers’, along with those ‘not clearly denominated’. Despite some inaccuracies, they have provided an invaluable resource for historians of this period. However, for the nineteenth-century public, a more immediate indication of the shifting composition of Parliament in the aftermath of a general election was provided in the election results recorded by newspapers and journals. This blog provides an overview of how the party labels assigned to MPs by the press fluctuated in the period between the first two Reform Acts, which can tell us a great deal about the ways in which the idea of party was popularly understood.

The paramount importance of parliamentary reform in the early 1830s led The Times to divide MPs returned at the 1832 general election simply into Reformers and Conservatives. The Spectator elaborated by describing the two parties as ‘Reformers and Ministerialists’ and ‘Conservatives and Anti-Reformers’, while also acknowledging that a binary approach inevitably brought in ‘unconscious errors’. The paper also indicated which Irish Reformers were ‘Repealers’ or ‘Conditional Repealers’, and the Freeman’s Journal further divided them into ‘Repealers’, ‘Tithe Extinguishers’ and ‘Government Supporters’. James Silk Buckingham’s Parliamentary Review adopted for ‘general convenience’ the well-worn terms Conservative and Whig, but also gave the name ‘Liberal’ to MPs whose desire for further reforms went ‘almost as much beyond the Whigs as the Whigs do beyond the Conservatives’.

When Lord Melbourne’s ministry was dismissed in November 1834 The Times adopted Albion’s partisan description of parliamentary candidates as Conservatives and ‘Moderates’, who were prepared to give Sir Robert Peel’s ministry a ‘fair trial’, and ‘Ultras’ or ‘unfair trial’ men who wished to oppose them. The Spectator designated the latter party as ‘Real Reformers’ and ‘Old Whigs’, and labelled Peel’s supporters ‘Anti-Reformers’. A third category of ‘Doubtfuls’ was also introduced containing about 50 ‘wayward’ independents and ‘noted trimmers’, who could not be depended upon to vote either way.

By the time of the 1837 general election, with Melbourne back in power, The Times simply divided MPs into Conservatives and ‘Ministerialists’, but also dubbed the latter the ‘Whig-Radical’ party. The Spectator made a clear distinction between the Liberal and ‘Tory’ parties, but continued to acknowledge a small number of Doubtfuls. With reform of the duties on corn, sugar and timber on the agenda at the 1841 general election the Examiner divided candidates into ‘Monopolists’ and ‘Anti-Monopolists’, while The Times stuck to Conservatives and Whigs, although by now the latter term had become interchangeable with that of Liberal. The Spectator again opted for a clear-cut division between Liberals and Tories, but acknowledged that Dod’s guide had developed into the best source on the precise political affiliations of individual MPs.

After the Conservative party split over Peel’s repeal of the corn laws, The Times divided MPs returned to the 1847 parliament into Liberals, ‘Peelites’ and ‘Protectionists’. The Spectator, however, concluded that it was now impossible to classify MPs satisfactorily and dropped party labels altogether, arguing that the old ‘nicknames’ had lost their significance because Whigs and Tories now represented only ‘very small and unadvanced sections’ of the ‘two great parties’, and the terms Liberal and Conservative could easily be applied ‘to any of the leading politicians’.

When Lord Derby’s minority government faced the electorate in 1852 both the Spectator and The Times simply labelled MPs as ‘Ministerialists’ and ‘Non-Ministerialists’, the former including about 35 ‘supposed neutrals’. The Morning Herald classified Lord Derby’s opponents as ‘Free Traders and Liberals’, but these categorisations largely failed to take into account around 50 Irish Liberals who had mostly withdrawn their support from the Whig opposition because of Lord John Russell’s 1851 ecclesiastical titles bill.

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston’s subsequent elevation to the premiership led the Standard to describe candidates at the 1857 election as Liberal, Conservative and ‘Liberal-Conservative’, a term which had been in vogue since Lord Derby’s effective abandonment of agricultural protection some years earlier. The Times initially grouped MPs into ‘Ministerial’ and ‘Opposition’ camps, according to whether or not they had supported the motion criticising Britain’s treatment of China which had precipitated the election. However, they subsequently adopted the terms Conservative and Liberal – ‘whether Whig, Moderate Liberal, or Radical’.

 

By this time it was widely believed that the parties were in a state of ‘decomposition’ and ‘fusion’, and the Belfast News-letter insisted that, strictly speaking, Lord Palmerston had ‘no party at all’, as his ministerial benches were filled by ‘numerous little coteries … each with its little great man’. Accordingly, the Spectator again declined to employ party labels and concluded that ‘the dislocation of party distinctions, and the many crossings and divergencies’ defied broad demarcation. At the 1859 general election, however, The Times felt able to label all MPs either Liberal or Conservative, although the Spectator still believed that ‘the very vague professions’ of some members on both sides allowed for only ‘an arbitrary guess’ at the relative numbers of each party.

Reports about the demise of parties proved exaggerated, however, and by 1862 some newspapers were observing an exact balance between Conservatives and Liberals. At the 1865 general election even the Spectator was prepared to employ these labels, although it still allowed for the uncertain position taken by a few Irish ‘independents’. Therefore by the time that Gladstone and Disraeli assumed leadership of the two parties of state, popular understanding of party affiliations had become polarised and simple. It would be another twenty years before the schism over Irish home rule again interrupted the development of Britain’s two-party system.

Further reading:

A. Hawkins, Victorian Political Culture: ‘Habits of Heart and Mind’ (2015), esp. 99-102

J. Coohill, Ideas of the Liberal Party: Perceptions, Agendas and Liberal Politics in the House of Commons, 1832-52 (2011), esp. 13-45

J. Coohill, ‘Parliamentary Guides, Political Identity and the Presentation of Modern Politics, 1832-1846’, Parliamentary History, xxii (2003), 263-284

I. Newbould, ‘The emergence of a two-party system in England from 1830 to 1841: roll call and reconsideration’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, v (1985), 25-31

 

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Minority governments and major change: a Victorian view

For most modern commentators the prospects for minority governments, based on the experience of the last half century or so, don’t look particularly good. Nearly all the recent examples currently being revisited by analysts, such as those of the 1970s, have been short-lived and devoid of any major legislative achievements. Go back another century, however, and a rather different picture emerges. During the 19th century, when the UK’s parliamentary system was still evolving and party loyalties were less rigid, minority governments were not only more common but also provided opportunities for important political realignments and even some major constitutional reforms.

Sir Robert Peel’s Tory ministry of 1834-5 was the first to set the agenda for the operation of minority governments in the new era of popular politics that followed the ‘Great’ Reform Act. Formed less than two years after the landslide victory for the Whigs at the 1832 election, which left the Tories with less than 150 MPs, Peel’s ministry owed its existence to the interference of the King, who controversially dismissed the Whigs over their proposals to reform the Irish church and installed a Tory government instead. Peel’s insistence on calling an election – in which he produced his famous ‘Tamworth manifesto’ – and his attempt to adapt his policies to attract disaffected MPs in other parties created an important precedent, in which MPs were morally encouraged to support policies rather than parties, and back ‘measures not men’.

Extract from original Tamworth Manifesto, 1834

Although Peel lost the 1835 election, securing some 291 firm supporters to the Whig-Liberals’ 322, the existence of about 45 undecided MPs, many of whom backed Lord Stanley, a former Whig trying to form his own third party, left everything to play for. Peel lost major Commons votes on the address (i.e. on the King’s speech) and the appointment of a new speaker, and even suffered a humiliating rebellion within his own ranks over the taxes imposed on malt production. However, he did not resign until he was defeated in April 1835 on the Irish church, the issue which had brought him to power. Far from being a lame duck ministry, during the 140 days that this minority government held power it managed to introduce a number of key initiatives, most notably on reforming the outdated finances of the Church of England, but also on other controversial issues like church tithes and civil marriages.

Another Conservative prime minister oversaw not just one but three minority governments. The career of the Earl of Derby, as Lord Stanley became in 1851, provides another example of how Victorian prime ministers were able to govern and even implement major reforms without enjoying a Commons majority. This former Whig turned Protectionist Tory led ministries in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-68. Like Peel, he encouraged a ‘measures not men’ approach to parliamentary behaviour, although he left his leader in the Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, to sort out what this meant in practice. He also fought elections, in 1852 and 1859, in an unsuccessful bid to secure a majority, but like Peel only felt obliged to resign as prime minister after a Commons defeat on a central issue. His legislative achievements included finishing off two highly controversial measures which had been initiated by the Liberals. One completely changed the way India was governed, abolishing the long-entrenched monopoly of the East India Company, and the other, despite being a thorny issue with Protestant Tory hard-liners, allowed Jews to sit in Parliament.

This ability to absorb and adapt policies that would be difficult for other parties to oppose was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the parliamentary shenanigans surrounding one of the most far-reaching measures of the mid-Victorian era: the so-called ‘leap in the dark’ 1867 Reform Act. It seems extraordinary that this major constitutional reform, dramatically extending the vote to a large proportion of working-class men and almost doubling the electorate, should have been passed by the Tories, the party that had done the most to prevent the far less radical ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832. It is even more astonishing that this second instalment of reform, long lobbied for by radicals and Chartists, should have been passed by a Tory minority government some 70 MPs short of their rivals.

Disraeli (the horse) taking Britannia into the unknown, 1867

The story of how the Liberals’ reform bill of 1866 split the Liberal party into warring camps, allowing Derby and Disraeli to seize power and implement a free-for-all approach to policy-making that resulted in the 1867 Reform Act, provides one of the most revealing episodes in ‘parliamentary government’ on record. By accommodating almost every demand that secured majority Commons support, and skilfully exploiting the hopes and fears of his dubious party supporters in both Houses, Disraeli, in particular, turned minority governance into an art form.

Future blogs celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, later this year, will explore the passage and impact of this major achievement in more detail. Whether minority governments in our own era can pull off a similar feat remains to be seen.

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‘The only really important public service I performed’: John Stuart Mill’s women’s suffrage amendment, 20 May 1867

Our MP of the Month is John Stuart Mill (1806-73), who sat as Liberal MP for Westminster, 1865-8.

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, the House of Commons voted for the first time on the question of granting the parliamentary franchise to women. In this landmark division, an amendment to the Conservative ministry’s 1867 reform bill put forward by the Liberal MP for Westminster, John Stuart Mill, 75 MPs backed women’s suffrage. However, 196 MPs, including the Liberal party leader, William Gladstone, entered the opposite lobby.

In his autobiography, Mill, who sat in the Commons from 1865 until his defeat at the 1868 general election, described his amendment of 20 May 1867 as

by far the most important, perhaps the only really important public service I performed in the capacity of a Member of Parliament: a motion to strike out the words which were understood to limit the electoral franchise to males, thereby admitting to the suffrage all women who as householders or otherwise possess the qualification of all male electors.

John Stuart Mill

Women’s suffrage had been part of Mill’s political platform when he stood for election in 1865. During his successful campaign he was supported by female activists including Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies and Bessie Rayner Parkes. The following year, he presented the first mass female suffrage petition to the Commons, with 1,521 signatures.

In 1866 the Liberal ministry brought forward a reform bill, whose main purpose was to extend the franchise in borough constituencies to include a greater proportion of working-class men. This bill was defeated, but when the new Conservative ministry introduced its own reform bill in 1867, Mill took the opportunity to put a women’s suffrage amendment. Several more women’s suffrage petitions had already been presented to the Commons in March and April 1867, including one from Manchester with 3,161 signatures.

Mill made what was generally regarded as an eloquent and able speech when he introduced his amendment on 20 May 1867, which was, coincidentally, his 61st birthday. He began by asking whether there was

any adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the Constitution, though they may fulfil all the conditions legally and constitutionally sufficient in every case but theirs.

Mill went on to point out that women’s exclusion from the franchise went against ‘one of the oldest of our constitutional maxims’, namely that taxation and representation should go hand-in-hand. He cited and then sought to demolish several of the arguments commonly put forward against women’s enfranchisement, and argued forcefully that

the notion of a hard and fast line of separation between women’s occupations and men’s – of forbidding women to take interest in the things which interest men – belongs to a gone-by state of society which is receding further and further into the past.

A break-down of the division list reveals that an interesting cross-section of MPs voted in the minority with Mill. He took particular pride in having secured the support of John Bright, when ‘ten days before, he was decidedly against us’. Bright would, however, subsequently change his mind, voting against women’s suffrage in 1876. However, Bright’s younger brother Jacob, who entered the Commons as Liberal MP for Manchester at a by-election in November 1867, became a prominent advocate of the cause. He was responsible for securing the right for women to vote in municipal elections from 1869, and brought forward the first dedicated women’s suffrage bill in 1870.

Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, via McCord Museum

Like Bright, the majority of MPs who voted with Mill were Liberals. Among them was Viscount Amberley, the eldest son of Lord John Russell, who had been elected for Nottingham at a by-election the previous year. His wife, Katharine, had signed the June 1866 women’s suffrage petition. So too had Clementia Taylor, wife of the Leicester MP Peter Alfred Taylor, who also voted with Mill. Another Liberal supporter of Mill’s amendment whose wife was prominent in the women’s suffrage movement was Henry Fawcett, who had married Millicent Garrett – the future president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – less than a month earlier.

While many of the Liberal MPs who voted with Mill were associated with the ‘advanced’ wing of the party, there were some surprising names in the minority on the division list. The long-serving Glamorgan MP, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, a veteran of the pre-Reform Parliament, had displayed both Whiggish and Protectionist sympathies during his time in the Commons, but voted with Mill for women’s suffrage. Mill also attracted the support of a dozen Conservative MPs, with Russell Gurney, a leading lawyer and MP for Southampton, acting as a minority teller. The future chief Conservative party organiser, John Eldon Gorst, also voted with Mill, as did Benjamin Disraeli’s fellow Conservative MP for Buckinghamshire, Robert Bateson Harvey.

A significant number of the MPs who voted with Mill suffered the same fate as him at the 1868 general election, losing their seats. However, there were 19 MPs who divided for Mill’s amendment who would subsequently vote for Jacob Bright’s women’s suffrage bill in 1870. They included not only Fawcett, but also the Leeds MP Edward Baines, the Oldham MP John Tomlinson Hibbert and the Edinburgh MP Duncan McLaren.

Although it would be more than half a century before women received the parliamentary vote in 1918, and a further ten years before the 1928 Equal Franchise Act gave equal voting rights to men and women, the division of 20 May 1867 marked an important step in establishing women’s suffrage as a parliamentary question.

Minority for the Noes on John Stuart Mill’s women’s suffrage amendment, 20 May 1867

Further reading:

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Local polls and general elections: a Victorian perspective

As barometers of political opinion, local elections have long had a special place in British politics, offering useful (though not necessarily accurate) guides to national trends. The link between local and national polls, however, has always been complicated. As the pundits get to grips with this week’s local polls and what they might tell us about next month’s general election, spare a thought for the original pioneers (voters and parties) of England’s first town council elections.

England’s first municipal polls of 1835 were unbelievably complex by today’s standards. Held in the same year as the fourth(!) hotly contested general election to take place in less than five years, this new set of elections to create town councils quickly became highly politicised. What made 1835 especially unusual was the need to elect entire councils all in one go and then hold yet another poll to replace any councillors nominated as aldermen. With up to 12 council seats needing to be filled (in boroughs without wards), electors could cast a vote for one, two, three or up to a dozen candidates on their ballot papers. Even in multi-ward constituencies they could usually pick six councillors. With both the Conservatives and Liberals putting forward candidates, along with a host of independent and radical contenders, the voting permutations on offer became staggering.

In the six-seat wards of Shrewsbury, for example, council voters could chose one Tory and five Liberals, two Tories and four Liberals, half and half, four Tories and two Liberals, or five Tories and one Liberal. Each voter could also select different Tories and Liberals to make up these combinations, and of course the whole process could then be repeated by those who ‘plumped’ and opted to only use five, four, three etc. of all their six available votes. In theory (at least) Shrewsbury’s electors faced an astonishing 5,664 choices in these first town council elections. In nine-seat wards like those in Stockton, where two candidates vied for each council seat, there were an even more daunting 88,939 voting possibilities.

Fig 1: Printed council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

The way politicians and activists responded to these extraordinary council elections laid the foundations for the type of national party involvement in local polls that remains in place today. Rather than leaving anything to chance, and run the risk that voters might choose opposing parties or make mistakes, local Conservatives and Liberals began to distribute pre-printed ballot papers listing all their own candidates (see Fig. 1). All the elector then had to do was sign his name and hand in the voting paper. For many this provided the easiest route, and England’s first council elections showed a remarkably high-level of party-based voting, with many voters supporting exactly the same party that they had backed in general elections. Not everyone complied with this arrangement, however. As well submitting their own hand-written voting papers, electors often altered the pre-printed party lists by crossing out names and adding their own choices (see Figs. 1 & 2).

Fig 2: Hand written council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

One upshot of all this was that local election results became far more important than they otherwise might have been as potential indicators of national party strength. With so many municipal electors also qualifying for the parliamentary franchise, largely because of similar voting restrictions and registration systems, national party leaders inevitably began to take a keen interest in the outcome of local polls. In 1838, for instance, one agent in Dover confidently informed the Tory leaders that the ‘new mayor’ and ‘other vacancies in the municipal body will … be supplied from the Conservative party, so that there may be reason to expect a corresponding improvement in the Parliamentary franchise’. In a similar vein, the future Tory PM Sir Robert Peel was advised the following year that ‘the municipal election is already ours and this ascendancy will ultimately operate upon the parliamentary return’.

Today’s political leaders will inevitably be scrutinising this week’s local elections for indications of how their parties could perform in the general election. Whether these local polls will be as useful a barometer of national party strength as they were in the early Victorian era, however, remains to be seen.

Further reading:

  • See our earlier blog marking the 180th anniversary of town council elections
  • F. Moret, The End of the Urban Ancient Elite in England (2015)
  • J. A. Phillips, ‘England’s “other” ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (ed), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005), 139-163
  • P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History, xix (2000), 357-376 VIEW
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