Welcome to the Victorian Commons

The Victorian Commons blog provides news and highlights from the History of Parliament’s research project on the House of Commons, 1832-68. For details about the project and how to access our work see our About page. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed here with regular blogs here. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons and our colleagues @HistParl & @GeorgianLords

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From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became…

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Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): the life of a queer MP at the time of the Second Reform Act

Dr Martin Spychal introduces his new series of blogs for the Victorian Commons on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), who was elected as MP for Sutherland in 1867.

Sarony, Gower

N. Sarony, Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (c. 1884) CC NPG

Born into ‘the inner circle of English aristocratic life’, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) is best known as the likely inspiration for the hedonistic aristocrat, Lord Henry Wotton, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and as the sculptor of the Shakespeare Memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is a prominent figure in Britain’s nineteenth-century LGBTQ+ history on account of his connection with Wilde (who spoke at the unveiling of the Shakespeare Memorial), his own output as an artist and author, and his centrality to queer metropolitan society from the 1870s.*

As Joseph Bristow has suggested, despite Gower’s sexual interest in men becoming an increasingly open secret in high society by the end of the nineteenth century, his wealth and social status allowed him to avoid the criminal sentencing that destroyed the lives of less connected queer men (both before and after the 1885 Labouchère Amendment).

Shakespeare Memorial

Prince Hal in Gower’s Shakespeare Memorial (1888), now known as the Gower Monument, Bancroft Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon

This relative freedom allowed him to play an influential role in shaping, and to an extent asserting, queer identities during the late nineteenth century. Whitney Davis has astutely observed that in terms of his artistic practice, by the late 1880s Gower ‘had begun self-consciously to enact the possibility – the aesthetic possibility – of an essentially homosexual life-historical identity’. And John Potvin has suggested that Gower’s remarkable bric-a-brac ‘treasure house’ at Windsor Lodge, which became a meeting point for a generation of young aesthetes from the 1870s, reflected Gower’s ‘unique sense of queer time and place’.

In 1867, at the age of just 21, Gower was returned for the Scottish county of Sutherland. He represented the constituency until 1874. For most of those years he kept a detailed diary, parts of which found their way into his popular two volume autobiographical memoirs, My Reminiscences, published in 1883. After working on the manuscript of Gower’s diary for the History of Parliament’s forthcoming Commons 1832-1868 volumes it has become clear to me that Gower undertook a considerable amount of self-censorship in his memoirs. More importantly it is evident that the document warrants specific attention beyond the scope of the traditional History of Parliament biography format.


Gower (third from the left) on the Metropolitan Railway at Kensington High Street with fellow dignitaries, July 1868, CC NPG

As well as being a significant source for understanding the machinations of parliamentary politics at the time of the second Reform Act, Gower’s unpublished diary offers an amazing opportunity to understand the life of a young, aristocratic queer man as he navigated his way through the homosocial world of Westminster politics, and established himself in London society. It also offers an opportunity to examine Gower’s connection to London’s queer culture during the 1860s, discussed in Charles Upchurch’s excellent Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009).


The first page of Gower’s diary from 1867, SRO D6578/15/21

In a series of blogs over the next few months I’ll use Gower’s diary to consider various aspects of his life in London as an MP during 1867 and 1868, from his reputed nickname as ‘the beautiful boy’ of the House of Commons, to his election at the 1867 by-election, and his experiences as an MP at Westminster. Moving outside Parliament, I’ll consider his busy social life (featuring aristocratic balls, West End nightlife and an intriguing predilection for spectating at major London fires), an apparent summer romance with the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, his close friendship with his cousin and MP for Argyllshire, the Marquess of Lorne, and his developing connections with London’s art world.

* Following the theories pioneered by leading queer theorists since the 1980s (including Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner) I use the term ‘queer’ because, to borrow from Warner, it ‘defin[es] itself against the normal rather than the heterosexual’. Queer allows for a much wider definition of sexuality because it avoids the binary of homosexuality vs heterosexuality.

Further Reading

S. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others (2006)

S. Avery, K. M. Graham, Sex, Time and Place: Queer Histories of London, c.1850 to the Present (2018)

J. Bristow, ‘Oscar Wilde, Ronald Gower, and the Shakespeare Monument’, Études anglaises (2016)

M. Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality 1885-1914 (2003)

H. G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (2003)

W. Davis, Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond (2010)

W. Davis, ‘Lord Ronald Gower and ‘the offending Adam’, in D. Getsy (ed.), Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain (2004)

E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

J. Potvin, Bachelors of a Different Sort (2014)

C. Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009)

P. Ward-Jackson, ‘Lord Ronald Gower, Gustave Doré and the Genesis of the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1987)

P. Ward-Jackson, ‘Gower, Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson- (1845-1916)’, Oxf. DNB

M. Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (1993)


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Sir Robert Peel and the modern Conservative party

Today (5 Feb) marks the birthday of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the 19th century prime minister traditionally credited with founding the modern Conservative party. Peel is also subject of a new BBC ‘Prime Properties’ episode – click here to view – and the latest video from the History of Parliament’s public engagement team.

Perhaps more than any other Victorian leader, Peel’s career was dominated by themes and events that continue to have striking resonances today. These include implementing controversial constitutional reforms that divided his party, heading a short-lived minority Tory government and winning a landslide Conservative election victory using new electoral techniques. The extent of Peel’s role in rebuilding the Conservative party after its catastrophic election defeat in 1832, however, has always been a moot point. Peel was notoriously aloof and awkward as a leader. A new breed of party officials instead exerted considerable control behind the scenes during the years he was in charge. What then should we make of Peel’s personal contribution to modern Conservatism?

It is often forgotten that Peel, though immensely wealthy, was not ‘born to rule’ in the same way that many of his Harrow or Oxford University contemporaries were. His father, a highly successful and socially ambitious Lancashire industrialist, had bought his way into the landed gentry, acquiring a country estate near Tamworth and becoming its Tory MP. Generous donations to the party earned the family a baronetcy, but Peel and his father never completely lost their regional accents or parvenu status.

In 1809 the father bought Peel, aged just 21, a seat in the Commons for a ‘pocket borough’. Within a year Peel was given a junior post by the Tory government, beginning one of the most meteoric ministerial careers on record. His anti-Catholic sympathies earned him the nickname ‘Orange Peel’ during his six year stint as Irish secretary, while the new police force he established as home secretary became known as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’.

Anti-Peel graffiti at an Oxford College

In 1829, however, Peel helped to trigger a major revolt in the Tory party. Already facing criticism for his role in repealing many of the civil restrictions on Dissenters, Peel’s decision to do the same for Catholics, allowing them to hold office and become MPs, left many Protestants aghast. At Oxford University, where he had been an MP since 1817, Peel’s ‘betrayal’ of Britain’s ancient Protestant constitution sparked outrage. Effigies of the ‘traitor’ Peel were burned in protest. In Parliament, incensed Ultra-Protestants quit the Tory party in droves, withdrawing their support for the Tory ministry led by the Duke of Wellington. This split in the Tory party, more than any other event, paved the way for the Whigs to assume power in 1830, ending 25 years of Tory rule. Within a few months the Whig-Reform coalition had brought in their famous reform bill.

Why did ‘Orange’ Peel back Catholic emancipation? Electoral realities explain some of it. By 1829 the electoral power in Ireland of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association had become a major headache for the Tory ministry. By offsetting the effects of emancipation with the disfranchisement of poorer Irish voters – it is often forgotten that the 1829 act also removed 175,000 Irish Catholics from the electoral rolls – Peel and Wellington hoped to reconfigure Irish electoral politics and bring stability to the country.

Cartoon showing Peel (left) and Wellington ‘burking’ (suffocating) the British Constitution


Electoral realities also go some way to explain Peel’s even more controversial U-turn in 1846, over the corn laws. Fearing the electoral power of Richard Cobden’s immensely successful Anti-Corn Law League, which had mobilised an entire army of newly registered freehold voters for the next election, Peel tried to avert disaster by bowing to popular pressure and repealing the corn laws. Unfortunately two-thirds of his MPs disagreed. Their rebellion, still the biggest on record in British political history, ended his government. The resulting split in the party between Peelites and Protectionists helped keep the Conservatives out of office for all but five of the next 28 years. It was not until 1874 that they were again able to win a majority at the polls.

Other explanations for Peel’s policies, stressing his business-like pragmatism, economic theories and high-minded willingness to always put country before party, can be found in the leading works of Norman Gash, Boyd Hilton, Douglas Hurd and Richard Gaunt (see below). Ian Newbould’s provocative article on ‘Peel: a study in failure?’ also remains essential reading, not least because it argues that the Conservatives’ landslide election victory of 1841 owed far more to a resurgence of traditional church-and-field Toryism than support for the new ‘moderate’ Conservatism peddled by Peel in his famous Tamworth manifesto.

The most striking assessment, however, remains that of Disraeli, Peel’s nemesis in debate and successor as Tory leader in the Commons. In his speeches and books Disraeli attacked Peel as a devious unprincipled charlatan, a man totally devoid of political integrity whose entire career revolved around ‘stealing’ other people’s ideas when expediency suited him and ratting on his colleagues. This compulsive ‘political larceny’, as Disraeli termed it, explained not only Peel’s betrayal of the Protestant constitution in 1829, but also his complete volte face in taking up the cause of free trade in 1846.

That Disraeli, a former Radical turned Tory, was no stranger to similar character traits makes his assessment all the more compelling. It was Disraeli, of course, who was later responsible for passing one of the most extraordinary acts of ‘political larceny’ in the 19th century – the 1867 Reform Act. Based almost entirely on adopting the policies of his opponents, in what was widely seen as a cynical ruse to stay in power, this landmark extension of the franchise was deemed a ‘political betrayal’ without ‘parallel’ by the future Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury.

Whether Peel’s motives lay in political expediency or high-minded statesmanship, there can be little doubt about his personal influence and enduring legacy in the development of the modern Conservative party.

Further reading:

Commons speech by Disraeli, 15 May 1846

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1790-1820 volumes

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1820-1832 volumes

B. Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck (1852)

N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel (1961)

N. Gash, Sir Robert Peel (1972)

B. Hilton, ‘Peel: a reappraisal’, Historical Journal (1979), xxii. 585-614

I. Newbould, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review (1983), xcviii. 529-57

D. Hurd, Robert Peel: a biography (2008)

R. Gaunt, Sir Robert Peel: the life and legacy (2010)

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From parliamentary reporter to Member of Parliament: Robert Spankie (1774-1842)


A silhouette believed to be of Robert Spankie, Veitch, ‘Mr Serjeant Spankie’, Transactions … Lancashire and Cheshire, 82 (1930).

January’s MP of the Month takes a look at the unusual pre-parliamentary career of Robert Spankie, who was returned for Finsbury in 1832. A ground-breaking parliamentary reporter during the 1790s, Spankie ascended to the editorship of the Morning Chronicle before re-training as a barrister and serving as a controversial advocate-general of Bengal.

The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Spankie was born in Falkland in 1774 and at 14 was sent to the University of St Andrews. He left for London in 1792 without graduating, after his work at an Edinburgh newspaper brought him to the attention of James Perry, the Scottish editor of London’s leading Whig newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.

Perry invited the ‘tall and rather athletic’ Spankie to work as a parliamentary reporter, a role that entailed recording speeches in the Commons and Lords for daily publication in the newspaper. Over the following decade he established himself as ‘one of the most rapid writers ever known on the press’ due to his shorthand speed and ability to compose a newspaper column in an hour (double the speed of the next quickest correspondents).

Rowlands, House of Commons 1808

The scene of Spankie’s early career as a parliamentary reporter, T. Rowlandson, ‘House of Commons’ (1808)

He was also known for his unwavering commitment to the relay system of parliamentary reporting, where journalists sat in shifts through the early hours to record debates for publication that morning. His reputation in this regard was thanks largely to the Fleet Street legend that once, when faced with a looming deadline and a congested Commons after a late night division, Spankie:

climbed over the balustrade of the stairs which communicated from the old smoking-room with the strangers’-gallery; and, suspending himself by his hands therefrom, dropped into the members’ lobby below (a height of 16 to 18 feet), amidst a crowd of senators. So suddenly was the affair accomplished, and so fleet of foot was the performer, that he escaped caption by any of the myrmidons of the Sergeant-at-Arms, and reached the office [of the Morning Chronicle] in safety and triumph [The Times, 5 Nov. 1842].

By around 1800 Spankie had become an editor and part-proprietor of the Morning Chronicleearning the respect of radicals such as William Cobbett for his ‘excellent articles’ and cultivating a social atmosphere at the newspaper’s offices where ‘port wine and claret flowed freely’.


The Morning Chronicle, 9 Mar. 1801

Discontented with his status as a lowly ‘gentleman of the press’, Spankie began to train as a lawyer at Inner Temple in 1803. He maintained his editorial duties while reading for the bar and developed increasingly close ties with the Whigs, acting as the chief conduit between the Ministry of All the Talents and the Morning Chronicle between 1806 and 1807. His increasing political moderation during this period earned him a lifelong enemy in the previously sympathetic William Cobbett, who was outraged that Spankie had succumbed to ‘the degrading influence of ministerial temptation’.

After selling his shares in the Morning Chronicle in 1807 Spankie was called to the bar and gradually built up a practice on the Home Circuit. He developed a distinctively ‘animated’ courtroom style to detract from common complaints about his ‘most discordant voice and a revoltingly coarse Scottish accent’. His brogue would continue to hinder him for the rest of his life despite sparing ‘no pains or cost to train himself as an orator’, which included elocution lessons from the radical reformer and speech therapist, John Thelwall.

In 1813 Spankie married Euphemia Inglis, the daughter of the East India Company director, John Inglis. Family connections soon secured lucrative legal work for the East India Company, and in July 1817 he was elected advocate-general of Bengal. Arriving in India in January 1818 he enjoyed a generous salary and precedence over all other members of the Calcutta bar. As the official legal representative of the East India Company he became notorious for his role in the suppression of the Calcutta Journal and the expulsion from India of its editor James Silk Buckingham in April 1823. Radical critics at home and abroad did not fail to note the irony of a journalist of former radical leanings enthusiastically working to curtail press freedoms and defend the unpopular East India Company monopoly.


The Spankie Family in Calcutta, G. S. Veitch, ‘Mr Serjeant Spankie’, Transactions … Lancashire and Cheshire, 82 (1930), 42–67

Liver disease forced his return to London later that year, where he settled at 36 Russell Square. Quickly re-establishing himself on the Home Circuit and in the Court of Common Pleas he was appointed a serjeant-at-law in July 1824, granted patents of precedence in January 1831, and appointed King’s serjeant in November 1832. He retained his East India contacts throughout and was appointed standing counsel to the East India Company in July 1831.

Finsbury low res

The newly enfranchised metropolitan borough of Finsbury, S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary (1835)

Having exhibited little traceable political activity since his return from India, Spankie announced his intention to contest the newly enfranchised constituency of Finsbury in July 1832. His candidacy reignited his now long-standing rivalry with William Cobbett, whose Political Register condemned Spankie’s treatment of the press in India and accused him of being complicit in the ‘crowds of vendors of cheap publications, who are in Coldbath Fields Prison’. His campaign was also subject to charges of voter intimidation, when it was alleged that East India Company workers had been pressured by their bosses into voting for him.

While identifying as a lifelong reformer on the hustings he astutely positioned himself as the most moderate candidate in a field of five candidates professing Whig-Liberal sympathies. Despite Spankie’s refusal to accept any party label, the anti-reform Standard observed approvingly that Spankie was neither ‘Whig or Tory’, but ‘essentially Conservative’. Amidst cries of ‘No East India Monopoly’ on Islington Green on 12 December 1832 Spankie was declared an MP for Finsbury. His return in second place was thanks largely to a split vote among his more progressive opponents. It was also one of the rare instances of a parliamentary reporter making it from the strangers’ gallery to the benches of the Commons.


For details about how to access the biographies of Spankie and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.


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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

For eight years now we have been marking the new year with some highlights from the previous 12 months. The events of 2019 certainly focused attention on parliamentary history and the UK’s constitutional practices as never before. Taking our cue from the succession of political crises, we blogged about Political Prorogations, the Speaker and Erskine May and the dilemmas of conscience facing rebel MPs. The relationship between Parliament and ‘the people’ also came in for scrutiny, conjuring up many historical comparisons. The 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre  ­̶  perhaps the most iconic ‘popular’ protest in British history  ­̶  was commemorated with an exhibition and colloquium we helped to organise in Parliament. Alongside related Peterloo blogs, this prompted our first vlog (video blog), co-produced with Royal Holloway.

Peterloo Massacre by Thomas Tegg (1819)

Staying with the ‘Parliament versus the People’ theme, we also explored the Newport Rising of 1839, another milestone in the long history of the struggle for political change. A more regional focus came from a joint conference held with the Devon and Cornwall Record Society. This explored the South West’s relationship with Parliament. Building on his PhD research, Martin Spychal examined how the distinct political cultures of Devon and Cornwall were impacted by franchise reforms and the development of more modern electioneering practices in the years after 1832.

The Chairing by T. Rowlandson

The most popular blog of 2019 was by Kathryn Rix on electoral corruption. Based on her keynote speech at a conference held in January, this set the scene for more election-related posts throughout the year, including one on the use of uncivil speech and an 1832-68 election overview that appeared shortly before we all went to the polls in December.

The scale of ‘treating’ in early 19th century elections was again brought home in a blog about John Fenton MP. Six people died from intoxication at the 1835 election in which he was defeated, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’.

Turning the spotlight on agents, Philip Salmon focused on Thomas Jones Phillips, a pioneering Tory election strategist and ancestor of the comedian Jack Whitehall, whose ruthless manipulation of the new voter registration system was revealed in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. Two guest writers, Gary Hutchison and Nicholas Dixon, also examined election violence and the electoral influence of the Anglican clergy respectively, while Martin Spychal added blogs exploring the enfranchisement of the University of London in 1868 and its charter and offered a tantalising glimpse of his new book with a post about the Whigs’ use of science in politics. Guest blogs were also provided by Ruscombe Foster on the man ‘who might have been PM’, Sidney Herbert; by Amanda Goodrich on a previously unidentified ‘non-white’ MP, Henry Redhead Yorke; and by Jennifer Davey on the political career and influence of Lady Derby.

The core of our work remains the constituency articles and MP biographies, with their capacity to throw up all sorts of unusual perspectives on Victorian political life and challenge traditional assumptions. This year’s MP of the Month series included two impecunious peers whose experience of the Commons gave them important skills as colonial governors, Charles Monck and the Earl of Mulgrave, as well as the pioneering engineer responsible for laying the first Atlantic telegraph cable, Charles Tilston Bright MP. We also found out about from Stephen Ball about Edward Schenley MP, who eloped with a 15 year old Pittsburgh heiress almost 30 years his junior and died a multi-millionaire. His £100 bribes to the electors of Dartmouth, however, prompted his hasty removal from the Commons. Of all the oddities about Victorian MPs uncovered this year, though, it has to be danger to life posed by turnips and large cats that really stands out. Being eaten by a tiger is a such a Victorian way to trigger a by-election.

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

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Beware the turnip! Unusual causes of death among Victorian MPs

Our MP of the Month, Sir William Payne Gallwey, died on this day in 1881 after suffering a rather unusual accident…

On 19 December 1881 the former Conservative MP for Thirsk, Sir William Payne Gallwey, died following an accident while out shooting on his estate at Thirkleby Park, near Thirsk. He was not the only MP to die while pursuing this hobby: James Platt, Liberal MP for Oldham, died after the mayor of Oldham discharged his gun accidentally while they were out with a shooting party on the moors near Saddleworth. Platt was hit in the lower leg and suffered extensive blood loss, expiring just over an hour later.


Sir Ralph Frankland Payne Gallwey, son of Sir William Payne Gallwey. Image credit: NPG

In Gallwey’s case, however, it was not a firearm which caused his demise, but a turnip. As the Northern Echo reported, he ‘was out shooting in the parish of Bagby, and in crossing a turnip field fell with his body on to a turnip, sustaining severe internal injuries’. Although ‘all that medical aid could do was done’, Gallwey, who was 73 years old, was already in failing health and did not recover. He died at his home at Thirkleby Park and was buried in the local parish church three days later.

The manner of Gallwey’s death did not deter his son Ralph, who succeeded him as baronet, from pursuing his own passion for shooting. He even wrote several books on the subject, including The book of duck decoys (1886) and High pheasants in theory and practice (1913).

Gallwey’s death occurred the year after his retirement from Parliament. He had represented Thirsk from March 1851 until he stepped down at the 1880 general election. Prior to 1832 this constituency had been firmly under the control of the Frankland family, who owned 49 of the 50 properties which qualified their occupants to vote under the ‘burgage’ franchise. As a small borough, Thirsk lost one of its two seats in 1832, but Sir Robert Frankland (later Frankland Russell), who had been one of the MPs since 1815, was re-elected for the single seat in 1832, before retiring in 1834. Two other local landowners, Samuel Crompton and John Bell, then served in turn as MP. Although a commission of lunacy declared John Bell to be ‘of unsound mind’ in 1849, he remained as MP until his death in March 1851.

Lawrence, Thomas, 1769-1830; Sir Robert Frankland Russell (1784-1849), 7th Bt

Sir Robert Frankland Russell, by Thomas Lawrence. Image credit: Chequers Court

The ensuing by-election gave Gallwey, a former army officer, an opportunity to enter Parliament. His connection to Thirsk came through his marriage in 1847 to Emily, the third daughter of Sir Robert Frankland Russell. Gallwey’s father-in-law had died in 1849, leaving no sons, and it was therefore his widow, Lady Frankland Russell, who attended to the family’s electoral interests, another example of the female political influence we have blogged about before. She secured the agreement of the Bell family, the other major local landowners who wielded electoral power, to return her nominee at the long-anticipated by-election following Bell’s death. While Sir Robert Frankland had been elected as ‘a moderate Reformer’ in 1832, his political sympathies had shifted after his retirement from the Commons, and Disraeli described him in 1836 as ‘a Whig who has become Conservative’. Gallwey shared these political views, issuing an address ‘on Protectionist, Protestant, and moderate Conservative principles’ before his unopposed return in 1851. He was returned without a contest at every subsequent election until 1868, when he saw off a Liberal challenge, and again with no poll in 1874.

Despite spending almost three decades in Parliament, Gallwey failed to impress with his speaking abilities. The Northern Echo observed scathingly that

‘although he has heard the burning words of Mr Gladstone, the polished satire of Mr Disraeli, the sustained eloquence of John Bright, and the incisive epigrams of Mr Lowe, he has never acquired the art of public speaking’.

He was, however, praised in 1865 by Punch for his efforts – thwarted by the railway interest – to improve railway safety by forcing railway companies to provide some method of communication between passengers and guards.

McGregor, Robert, 1847-1922; The Turnip Field

The Turnip Field, by Robert McGregor (1847–1922). Image credit: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Strange though it may seem, Gallwey is not the only MP whose death involved a turnip. In November 1833 the Whig MP for Huddersfield, Lewis Fenton, elected for his native borough during a riotous contest the previous year, fell from one of the upper windows of his home at Spring Grove. He landed in the courtyard below at around 8:30 a.m., and died later that morning from his injuries. Press reports suggested that there was ‘considerable mystery’ surrounding the circumstances of his death, hinting at suicide, but the ensuing inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. As Fenton’s widow explained to the surgeon who tended him, Fenton had been in the habit of going into the attic to look at ‘a piece of ground where some turnips were growing, to see that none of his cows were trespassing in it’. He had apparently over-balanced while standing on a chair to look out of the window. Other evidence showed that Fenton had been in a cheerful mood the evening before his death, when he had drafted a speech for a forthcoming meeting regarding a testimonial to the anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce.

Having looked at some deaths of MPs involving vegetables, we conclude with a death for which an animal was responsible. The Hon. Henry Handcock, the youngest son of the Irish peer, Lord Castlemaine, had served with distinction in the Crimean War and sat in Parliament as MP for his native Athlone, 1856-7. He was subsequently posted to India as aide-de-camp to the governor of Madras. Like Gallwey, Handcock was out shooting when he suffered the accident which led to his death in December 1858, his quarry being ‘various kinds of wild animals’ in the jungle near Bandipore. When his party came across a tiger, Handcock could not resist the opportunity to shoot it, even though, as press reports observed, ‘it is not considered prudent to attack a tiger at all, unless from the back of a trained elephant, nor even then without the aid of a considerable party’. Handcock’s foolhardiness cost him his life, for when he moved closer to fire further shots at the tiger, which was lying down, apparently mortally injured, it attacked him, causing three large wounds and seven smaller ones. Despite medical assistance, he died three days later, aged just 24.

For details about how to access the biographies of Gallwey and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.

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Elections and electioneering, 1832-1868

As voters across the country head to the polls this month, we thought it was an ideal opportunity to look back at some of the research on 19th century elections we have featured in our blogs over the past few years. These draw on our work for the History of Parliament’s House of Commons, 1832-68 project, which is producing biographical profiles of the 2,591 MPs who sat between the first and second Reform Acts and accounts of the 401 constituencies in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales across the nine general elections which took place during this period. You can find more details about our project here.

The system under which electors cast their votes between 1832 and 1868 was very different in many ways from the modern British electoral system. As our editor, Philip Salmon, explains in this post, before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, voters cast their votes in public rather than in private. With a limited electorate (around one-fifth of the adult male population), a key argument for open voting was that it enabled non-electors to scrutinise the votes of those entrusted with the franchise. 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 voter’s function”.

tynemouth ver 5 alt

The hustings at a Tynemouth election

Before the 1872 Ballot Act, the candidates for each constituency were proposed and seconded at the nomination, which usually took place on a hustings platform erected temporarily for that purpose. Electors and non-electors, both male and female, attended the hustings and other election events such as the declaration of the poll. The participation of women in elections, despite their formal exclusion from the franchise, has featured in several of our blogs. This post on elections at Peterborough – where the voters had to endure five contests in the space of seven years – looked at George Whalley’s tactic of targeting the wives, sisters and daughters of electors who, it was hoped, would persuade their male relatives to vote for him. At Lyme Regis, meanwhile, the Liberal MP, William Pinney, included the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning among his supporters.


‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)

Elections were often lively events, and the vivid descriptions of electioneering in the fictional borough of Eatanswill in the Pickwick Papers were inspired by Charles Dickens’s experiences of reporting on contemporary elections, including the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election. He complained on polling day that:

“the noise and confusion here … is so great that my head is splitting … the voters … are drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is.”

The corruption of the 19th century electoral system has been a recurrent theme in our blogs, with over 400 election petitions alleging bribery, treating and other election misdemeanours heard by election committees in the Commons between 1832 and 1868. Our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, considered the amount of parliamentary time and effort which this problem consumed in this post. The 1865 election at Totnes not only saw one candidate challenge the other to a duel, but also prompted an election inquiry which found that bribes of up to £200 had been offered. Another MP who spent excessively to secure his return was the shipbuilder Charles Mare, elected for Plymouth in 1852, unseated for bribery in 1853 and declared bankrupt – for the first of four times – in 1855. Totnes and Plymouth also featured in this analysis of politics in Devon and Cornwall from our research fellow Martin Spychal.

One of the aspects of the 19th century electoral system which is often overlooked is that, prior to 1885, the majority of constituencies – counties and boroughs – elected two members. With two votes each, voters could choose to support two candidates from the same party (a straight vote), share their votes between candidates from different parties (a split vote) or cast just one vote (a plump). The impact of this on voting behaviour is analysed in this blog on the mathematics of Victorian representation. Another feature of 19th century elections which has now disappeared is the existence of university seats. The rationale for the creation of the University of London seat in 1867 is explored here.

Before voters even got as far as the poll, a show of hands would be taken at the hustings to gauge the level of support for the rival candidates. Non-electors as well electors took part in this ritual, and it was therefore not unusual for the outcome of the poll to differ significantly from the result of the show of hands. More unusual, however, were cases where popular candidates at the show of hands subsequently polled no votes at all, a paradox discussed by our research fellow Stephen Ball. Among the other quirky election cases we have uncovered in our research are the Wakefield election where the victorious MP was unseated because he was technically still the returning officer at the time of his election, and the Huntingdonshire election where two candidates polled exactly the same number of votes. Both were declared elected, but after a scrutiny of the poll, one of them had his name expunged from the parliamentary record.

For more on the theme of 19th century elections, see https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/category/elections/

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