‘Fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling’: Charles Dickens, Eatanswill and the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election

Allen, Harry M., active 1907-1937; Charles Dickens, Aged 27

Charles Dickens, aged 27, by Harry M. Allen (after Daniel Maclise) Image credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Today’s blog marks the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth by exploring the inspiration behind one of the most notable political events in his first novel.

Dickens’s riotous description of the Eatanswill borough election in the Pickwick Papers, first published in July 1836, is one of the most famous literary representations of a British election. Readers are often surprised to find out that it is set in the reformed electoral system after 1832. However, as our research for the House of Commons 1832-68 project is revealing, the electoral traditions famously epitomised by Hogarth’s Humours of an Election and described so vividly in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, endured, evolved and often thrived between the first two Reform Acts.

As well as Dickens’s experiences of electoral practices in the boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, his account of Eatanswill was inspired by his assignment to report on the December 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election for the Morning Chronicle. Interestingly, unlike the already notoriously corrupt boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, Northamptonshire North was a brand new county constituency in the reformed electoral system. Yet the county’s voters and non-voters, who congregated in the nomination town of Kettering for the proceedings, wasted little time in developing their own rowdy and partisan electoral identity. As Dickens found, to his dismay, Northamptonshire North was anything but ‘reformed’.

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

The 1835 by-election prompted by the unexpected death of Northamptonshire North’s Whig MP, Viscount Milton, gave a resurgent Conservative interest in the county the chance to assume complete control of Northamptonshire’s county seats, which four years earlier had been in the hands of the Whigs. By the end of 1835, controversy surrounding the Corn Laws, Whig reforms to the Poor Law, the Melbourne government’s coalition with Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Repealers and the ruthless attention paid by the Conservatives to electoral registration had placed the Whigs on the back foot nationally. These winds of political change, which were particularly relevant to an Anglican, agricultural county, meant that Northamptonshire North’s by-election received extensive attention in the national press.

The two candidates were the Conservative, Thomas Maunsell, and the Whig, William Hanbury. The Conservatives had been buoyed by the recent conversion of some of the division’s former Whigs, who were outraged over their local party’s advocacy of free trade and the Whig government’s ‘disgraceful coalition with O’Connell’. Both parties claimed to be certain of success after their extended canvass, where tit-for-tat partisanship reached new levels, and both sides accused each other, probably correctly, of intimidating voters and pushing the custom of ‘treating’ local residents with drink to the bounds of acceptability.

This intense atmosphere continued at the nomination, which was an unruly affair, thanks largely to Maunsell and his Conservative entourage, who arrived on horseback and muscled their way to the front of the crowd using their horse whips. Following repeated skirmishes in the crowd as the candidates were being proposed, one of Maunsell’s supporters had his loaded double-barrel pistol confiscated, after he threatened opponents with it on three occasions. Charles Dickens, who viewed the event from the reporters’ area in front of the hustings, informed his fiancée that he had never seen ‘anything more sickening and disgusting’, describing the division’s Conservatives as ‘a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains … led by clergymen and magistrates’.

After both candidates had made their speeches and a poll had been demanded, two local Whig and Conservative notables took it in turns to rile up the crowd with inflammatory speeches about the other. Dickens’s colleague at the Standard reported that ‘the scene of confusion and turbulence which ensued was quite indescribable’.

The next day, Dickens regretted that his editor had requested he stay in the division to report on the poll, prophesying that:

we shall have an incessant repetition of the sounds and sights of yesterday ‘till the Election is over – bells ringing, candidates speaking, drums sounding, a band of eight trombone (would you believe it?) blowing – men fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling – all riotously excited, and all disgracing themselves.

Sure enough, on the morning of the poll Dickens complained 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 ‘conservative electors’ were ‘such beasts’, he explained, that he and his fellow reporters were forced into hiding in his room at the White Hart hotel.

Days later, Dickens was ‘overjoyed’ when his editor told him that he could leave the county before the result was announced. Much like in one of the comical episodes featuring Samuel Pickwick and his travelling companions in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens then convinced his fellow journalists from The Times, the Morning Advertiser and the Morning Post into hiring and driving their own post-chaise to escape to nearby Northampton. After a two-day journey, which involved a detour to Boughton House and a carriage crash caused by a driver ‘overcome with potations of ale’, Dickens, to his dismay, received confirmation that Maunsell had been returned with a considerable majority.

As he wrote his account of the Eatanswill election over the following months, Dickens delighted in exposing the ‘patriotism’ of the fictional borough’s notables, electors and non-electors, as they revelled in the boisterous and intense atmosphere of the canvass, the nomination and the poll, shamelessly exploited the culture of treating and inflated their own self-importance on a national scale. As he was doing so, it is hard to escape the notion that Dickens had his experiences at Northamptonshire North in mind.

The full constituency article on Northamptonshire North will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

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MP of the Month: From pot boy to parliamentarian – John Lloyd Davies (1801-60)

Of all the ‘self-made’ men who made the mid-nineteenth century House of Commons distinct from earlier periods, few can have begun life in such humble circumstances as John Lloyd Davies, MP for Cardigan Boroughs from 1855-7.

The son of a publican, Davies was born on the premises of the Old Black Lion in Aberystwyth in November 1801, but lost his father when aged about five. Accounts differ as to how he came to be educated. One account said his mother was ‘determined to give him the best possible education’, but another statement, made in the course of a legal dispute over Davies’s legacy in 1879, claimed that until he met his future wife he was illiterate and earned his living as an hotel servant, and that it was she who ‘had him educated’. In any case, Davies was subsequently articled to a solicitor, and by the age of 24 had succeeded to a lucrative practice in Newcastle Emlyn. In June 1825 he married his benefactress, Anne, the only surviving child of the late John Lloyd, a one-time mayor of Carmarthen. The widow of an army officer, she had grown wealthy through inheriting substantial estates at Blaendyffryn and Alltyrodyn from her late husband and from a cousin.

As a proprietor with a life interest in these estates, Davies rose quickly within the local squirearchy. He was appointed to the county bench, made a deputy lieutenant and was an active trustee of the Carmarthenshire turnpike trusts. At the 1837 general election he proposed one of the candidates for Carmarthenshire. Recognised as a ‘very active and talented’ magistrate, he subsequently confronted the Rebecca rioters in the Llandysul district, and in June 1843 helped to repel an attack on Carmarthen workhouse. In 1845 he was appointed high sheriff of Cardiganshire.

Having declined several invitations to stand for Parliament, Davies agreed to offer for a vacancy at Cardigan in February 1855. Being ‘neither Whig nor Tory’, but claiming to be an independent Conservative, he won favour by addressing the electors in his native tongue, ‘much to the delight’ of those unacquainted with English. As a zealous Anglican, he opposed the Maynooth grant. He objected to an extension of the county franchise, but at the same time, he backed Irish land reform and supported the secret ballot. Above all, he was a trenchant critic of the government’s conduct of the war against Russia, accusing ministers of sending ‘54,000 of their countrymen … to starve in the Crimea’.

Davies came into Parliament at a time when the expansion of the provincial press had stimulated a wider public interest in the proceedings of the Commons. He not only attended the House regularly – proving as likely to vote with Lord Palmerston’s ministry as not – but also made frequent, brief interventions in debate on a variety of different topics and took part in the growing practice of questioning ministers. However, despite enhancing his reputation as a popular representative by campaigning to exempt Dissenters from the payment of church rates, and promoting the establishment of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan, he was promptly brought to earth after the dissolution in March 1857. Having issued what his critics described as ‘the most boastful and egotistical’ of election addresses, he found himself opposed by a member of the borough’s most influential family and promptly retired.

His days as an MP over, Davies still remained active in public life, becoming a trustee for a scheme to establish a joint stock ‘Bank of Wales’, and was heavily involved as company chairman in promoting the construction of a railway line between Carmarthen and Cardigan, which was regarded as his greatest achievement.

His wife had died shortly before he entered Parliament, but Davies married another heiress in March 1857, the daughter of a Gloucestershire landowner. His second wife died in February 1860 and Davies passed away three weeks later. Despite leaving a legacy of £10,000 to his two infant sons, along with the Alltyrodyn estates which were not legally his to give, much of his goods and livestock had to be sold off to meet the demands of his creditors, reflecting the provisional nature of the social and political standing of this low-born but capable MP.

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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2017

We would like to wish all the readers of the Victorian Commons a very Happy New Year for 2017! We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here are some of our blog highlights from 2016.

Looking back over our MP of the Month series, some interesting common themes have emerged. One developing strand in our research is the growing number of MPs from non-élite backgrounds, and the impact that their activities – which were often particularly noticeable in the committee rooms – had on the Commons. Among them are the Abingdon paper manufacturer, John Thomas Norris, described as an ‘upstart from the ranks’; Charles Capper, the Manchester weaver’s son who made his fortune in the shipping industry before serving briefly as MP for Sandwich; and James Barlow Hoy, formerly an assistant surgeon in the army. Another rather unlikely parliamentarian was John Gully, elected in 1832 for Wakefield, but better known as a champion pugilist, professional betting man and racehorse owner. Like Gully, Charles George Lyttelton was an enthusiastic sportsman, but it was his prowess as a cricketer which brought him renown.

Once again we have been delighted to host guest blogs. Caroline Shenton shared her expertise on the building of the new Houses of Parliament with her post on its architect, Charles Barry. Having contributed articles on Buteshire to our project, Matthew McDowell of the University of Edinburgh blogged for us about one of its MPs, James Lamont, better known as an Arctic explorer and scientist than as a parliamentarian.

We were joined this year by a new member of our research team, Martin Spychal, whose first blog for us looked at county politics in Northamptonshire South, where the Knightleys were one of the dominant families. He has also blogged about a Chancellor of the Exchequer described by Disraeli as having ‘the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’, George Ward Hunt. Another office-holder to feature as one of our MPs of the Month was Edward Lucas, who served in the important role of under-secretary for Ireland.

The fluidity of nineteenth-century party labels has been a recurrent theme in our research, and was brought to the fore in our blogs on Rowland Alston (who was also noted for averting a duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel) and on Samuel Bayntun, a ‘true blue’ Tory turned Reformer. We have continued to explore the political influence of women, as shown in our blog on the Unitarian MP Daniel Gaskell, whose wife played a key role in encouraging his parliamentary career. In June we marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill presenting the first mass women’s suffrage petition to the Commons.

The draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be found on our preview site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can sign up to follow our blog via e-mail or WordPress, or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons

We look forward to sharing more of our research with you in 2017. Happy New Year!

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New book: Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910

Our assistant editor, Dr. Kathryn Rix, has just published her first book, with Boydell and Brewer, in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, entitled Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910. She shares some of the key themes of her research in this blog.

bookcoverParties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties were confronted with the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.

My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), it also assesses the impact which this had on political culture.

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via sophialambert.com)

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via this website)

In particular, this book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.

One of the principal questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. This book uses the agents’ perspective to shed new light on these important debates about party identity, arguing that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. While the main focus of the research presented here is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also discussed.

Overall, this book highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.

For further details on this book, see here and here (with a discount offer from the publisher).

Kathryn will be giving a paper on her research to the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 30th May 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

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MP of the Month: Charles Capper (1822-1869)

Continuing with our recent theme of unlikely parliamentarians, our MP of the Month is Charles Capper, the son of a Manchester weaver. Capper made his fortune in the shipping industry, and wrote a notable history of the port of London, before being ruined by the financial panic of 1866. Sadly the panic, which also triggered a rapid decline in Capper’s mental health, occurred only days after he had been elected for Sandwich. His premature death, only three years later, left his family destitute.

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Charles Capper’s Candelabrum (Illustrated London News, 29 Nov. 1856).

Born and educated in Manchester, Capper’s first job was for the haulage company Pickford’s, where he worked as a clerk and gained a reputation as ‘a remarkably swift penman’. In October 1845 he married Mary Jane Dowey at St Philip’s Church, Liverpool. They relocated to East London shortly after, when Capper’s former manager offered him the role of goods manager for the Eastern Counties Railway at the company’s Brick Lane depot. He worked for the company for a decade, quickly earning promotion to superintendent of the line.

During the decade he and Mary had four sons at their residence on The Grove, Stratford. Capper was well-loved by his colleagues, and when he left the Eastern Counties Railway for a position at the newly opened Victoria Docks in 1855, they all pitched in for a silver candelabrum, which was so extravagant that it featured in the Illustrated London News.

Capper devoted the next decade of his life to reforming the organisation of London’s chaotic docks, working from his offices on Mincing Lane (considered by one contemporary to be the ‘centre of the colonial market of the metropolis’). He was an active member of London’s shipping lobby, writing numerous anonymous pamphlets and letters to editors regarding London’s docks. By 1860 he had also started to invest heavily in shipping, particularly through the East India and London Shipping Company.

In 1862 Capper increased his standing in London’s commercial circles with his economic and social history, The Port and Trade of London. His aim for the book was to explain how British commerce had recently expanded ‘with a rapidity and to an extent, utterly unexampled in the history of the world’. In it he criticised ‘modern’ historians for attributing ‘outbreaks of war and … peace to the passions of monarchs, the intrigues of courts … and rival nations’. Instead, he argued that ‘wars and revolutions’ originated primarily from the ‘commercial necessities and interests of peoples’. The book went through several editions, becoming a standard text for Victorian students of commerce.

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C. Capper, The Port and Trade of London, Historical, Statistical, Local and General (1862)

Capper’s greatest achievement, however, arguably came in 1864 with the passage of the London and St Katharine Docks Act. The Act amalgamated several East London dockyards, and it was largely thanks to Capper’s lobbying efforts that it passed through parliament. Capper continued to expand his portfolio, and by 1865 he was a ‘rich man’, serving as a director of 11 shipping, colonial and financial firms. This prompted an engagement in philanthropic activity, and following his death he was remembered as ‘one of the largest promoters of the effort to bring the Eastern Londoners within the means of religion and educational culture’.

Capper’s financial interests also opened up the opportunity of a parliamentary career. His position as director for the Down Docks Company, which was lobbying parliament for the right to build new docks in Deal, brought him into contact with the Sandwich and Deal Conservative Association in 1865. The association agreed to put Capper forward as a candidate for the borough at that year’s general election, but he polled third after his Liberal opponents accused him of trying to buy votes with promises of a new dockyard. Nevertheless, within a year he was returned for the borough at a by-election, beating his Liberal opponent by eight votes.

Unfortunately, within days of having ‘secured the high objects of his ambition’, the financial panic of 1866 placed Capper’s extensive shipping investments, and as a result his mental well-being, under considerable strain. With his portfolio diminishing rapidly, Capper found it difficult to engage fully with life in the Commons, where he acted as a silent supporter of the Conservative administration. When another Conservative announced his intention to stand at Sandwich in 1868, Capper took little convincing to retire from politics.

Capper died suddenly at his home only months later on 21 March 1869, reportedly from exhaustion following a bout of ‘severe diarrhoea’. A friend later explained that his sudden death had been occasioned by ‘anxieties’ and ‘a broken heart’, following his realisation that the panic of 1866 had left him bankrupt. Capper’s estate was entirely absorbed in order to repay his outstanding debts, leaving his wife and four children with little more than his silver candelabrum. Prominent figures in London’s commercial world, including Thomas Baring and Lionel de Rothschild, raised a subscription for Capper’s family, and his sons were offered ‘situations on small salaries’. Within eighteen months of his death, however, Capper’s wife was forced to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for £30 on account of being ‘destitute of all means and … compelled to rely upon the sale of articles of clothing’.

For details about how to access Capper’s biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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MP of the Month: John Gully (1783-1863)

Following on from the History of Parliament’s blog series on ‘Unlikely parliamentarians’ to mark Parliament Week 2016, our MP of the Month is another unlikely parliamentarian. John Gully, ‘an advanced reformer’, served as MP for Pontefract for five years from 1832. In a parliamentary sketch, Charles Dickens described this

quiet gentlemanly-looking man in the blue surtout, grey trousers, white neckerchief, and gloves, whose closely-buttoned coat displays his manly figure and broad chest to great advantage.

Gully’s gentlemanly demeanour in the Commons gave little hint of his extraordinary background. The son of a Gloucestershire innkeeper, he had been in turn a butcher, imprisoned debtor, champion pugilist, pub landlord, professional betting man and racehorse owner, and fathered 24 children (by two wives). Indeed his return to Parliament seemed so incongruous that it was rumoured that he had only sought election to win a bet.

John Gully

John Gully (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gully was born in his father’s pub near Bristol in 1783. When his father opened a butcher’s shop in Bristol, he trained Gully in this trade. Subsequent financial difficulties saw Gully imprisoned for debt in London’s King’s Bench prison. However, he secured his release in 1805 after his debts were paid by prize-fight promoters who had noted his prowess in a brief fight against his Bristol acquaintance, Henry Pearce, a champion prize-fighter, and were keen for the pair to fight a proper match. Six feet tall, with an ‘athletic and prepossessing’ frame, Gully lost their bout at Hailsham, Sussex, at which the future William IV was among the numerous spectators. When Pearce retired later that year, Gully was regarded as his successor as ‘champion of England’, and won notable fights in 1807 and 1808, before quitting to become landlord of a London pub.

Described as ‘second to none’ as a judge of racehorses, Gully became a professional betting man on the Turf, making his own wagers and taking commissions for others. He acquired his own racehorses in 1812, and in 1827 moved to Newmarket to pursue this more seriously. He won (and lost) huge sums through gambling: he and his business partner were said to have made £90,000 when their horse won the 1832 Derby. Although one contemporary claimed that Gully was ‘a regular blackleg’, the general consensus was that, in contrast with most of those involved with betting on the Turf, Gully was notably honourable and straightforward.

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Pontefract constituency map

Continuing his upward social trajectory, Gully bought Ackworth Park, near Pontefract, in 1832, and invested in coal mines in northern England, which brought him ‘immense profits’. (He left a fortune of £70,000 on his death in 1863.) The Reformers of Pontefract invited their new neighbour to stand as their candidate at the general election in December 1832. Visiting the town to decline their invitation, Gully was so angered by comments by their Tory opponents that he changed his mind and decided to stand. He was elected unopposed as one of Pontefract’s two MPs. The diarist Charles Greville, while listing him among the ‘very bad characters’ returned to the first Reformed Commons, conceded that despite being ‘totally without education’, Gully had ‘strong sense, discretion, reserve, and a species of good taste’ and had ‘acquired gentility’. When Gully was presented at court by Lord Morpeth in 1836, another contemporary described this as ‘an instance of the levelling system now established in England’.

Although Gully rarely spoke in the Commons, he was a diligent attender who served on several select committees. He was often found in the minorities voting with Radical and Irish MPs in support of reforms such as the ballot, the removal of bishops from the House of Lords, the abolition of flogging as a punishment in the army and reform of the corn laws. He was re-elected in 1835, but retired in 1837 as the ‘late hours’ sitting in the Commons had damaged his health. He stood again at Pontefract in 1841, when he declared himself ‘the enemy of all monopolies, and the friend of the poor’, but retired early from the poll.

Despite this defeat, Gully remained politically active. Given his humble origins, it was perhaps unsurprising that he was sympathetic to the demands of the Chartists for parliamentary reform, although he disliked their violent tactics. He was also a keen supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League. He continued to enjoy considerable success as a racehorse owner, and the Manchester Times recorded in 1846 that ‘few men are more popular on the English race course, or more approved of by the aristocracy of the land’. The parliamentary career of this sporting celebrity demonstrates the ways in which those from non-elite backgrounds could find their way into the post-1832 House of Commons.

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MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist

Our MP of the Month blog for October comes from Dr Matthew McDowell, of the University of Edinburgh, who has contributed to our 1832-68 project with articles on Buteshire and its MPs. In this guest blog, he explores the career of James Lamont, better known for his exploits outside Parliament than in the Commons.

At only four years old, a frightened James Lamont witnessed the enormous crowds present in Edinburgh to celebrate the passing of the 1832 Reform Act throwing stones at his window: his father, a Tory, had refused to light up his window at night, which was taken as a signal that he did not support Reform. In contrast with his father’s views, Lamont sat as Liberal MP for Buteshire, 1865-8, but his political career was a brief and irregular interlude in his scientific and literary endeavours, and at odds with the more mobile, heroic, robust figure written about in his accounts of sea voyages to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya. He was one of the pre-eminent Arctic explorers and celebrity scientists of his day, and his daughter Augusta, who followed her father into science rather than politics, would later note:

Three years in Parliament! – what a contrast to the roving outdoor life that he had hitherto led! His later ‘gloomy reflections’ suggest that there was regret for time so spent.

Contemporary accounts, however, cast a different light on Lamont’s otherwise unremarkable time as an MP, for his political campaigns themselves revealed much about the fault lines in Scottish society in the immediate run-up to the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867.

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

Lamont was the son of Lt. Col. Alexander Lamont, of Knockdow Estate, in Toward, Argyll. He was educated at Rugby School and the Edinburgh Military Academy. Upon his uncle’s death in 1849, Lamont inherited a fortune which, as Stephen Mullen has noted, was largely based on government compensation for his uncle’s Trinidad slave plantations. He began to attend to his estates in both Scotland and the West Indies, at the same time devoting himself to travelling and exploration. Lamont’s many voyages included trips to Nova Scotia, Labrador, the Mediterranean and South Africa, but it was his trips to the Nordic and Russian Arctic that remain his defining explorations. In 1858 and 1859, Lamont, on board his schooner the Ginerva, sailed up to and explored areas of Svalbard. He was also a keen hunter of seals, walruses, grouse and polar bears. These adventures formed the basis of Lamont’s first book, Seasons with the Sea Horses; or, sporting adventures in the northern seas (1861).

In 1869, 1870 and 1871, upon a newly-constructed yacht, the Diana, Lamont went further: not only did he explore more of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, but he also went on extensive trips which documented Novaya Zemlya. These voyages were documented in his second book, Yachting in the Arctic Seas, or notes of five voyages of sport and discovery in the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya (1876). Both books are bloody reads: the hunting and slaughter of animals dominates Lamont’s stories. A recent article on Lamont by Leah Devlin has focused on his beliefs on the evolution of walruses and polar bears, as discussed in his books, as well as in correspondence with Charles Darwin. Certainly, his political opponents made much of his support for the theory of evolution.

Lamont’s brief political career was sandwiched in between these two major publications. He had been selected by the Liberals to run for the Paisley constituency in 1857, before his first voyage to the Arctic, but did not go to the poll. In 1859, he was selected as Liberal candidate for the island constituency of Buteshire, one of the Conservative Party’s safest Scottish seats, bordering Lamont’s ancestral home, but was defeated by nine votes. ‘The result’, he later recollected in Seasons with the Sea Horses, ‘proved unfortunate for the walrus, although perhaps the cynical reader may be disposed to add, “fortunate for the constituency”, and I was once more at liberty to proceed on my intended voyage’. Here, his political career was treated as an inconvenient footnote. It fared no better in Yachting in the Arctic Seas, where Lamont painted his 1868 retirement from Parliament as a chance to get back to his one true passion:

So completely did these ideas gain possession of me that at the general election of 1868 I abandoned a seat in Parliament … and set to work to build a vessel which should embody all Arctic requirements in a moderate compass.

buteshire_map

Buteshire, from The Imperial gazetteer of Scotland. Vol. I, by Rev. John Marius Wilson

The reality of Lamont’s ‘abandonment’ of his political career was far messier. Standing again for Buteshire at a by-election in 1865, Lamont had launched a scathing attack on his Conservative opponent George Frederick Boyle, the local landlords’ preferred candidate, on account of his religious affiliations. Boyle was both a layman in the Scottish Episcopal Church and a well-known patron of Tractarianism, who famously built an Episcopal training college in Millport. Exploiting the sectarian rivalries between Scotland’s competing faiths, Lamont enlisted the support of local Free Church ministers and sought to portray Boyle as the ultimate nightmare: a Catholic landowner in disguise. ‘When our forefathers rose against the superstitions and mummeries of the Romish Church at the Reformation’, he declared on the hustings, ‘an ancestor of mine, also called James Lamont of Knockdow, pulled down a Roman Catholic Church on Loch Striven side, so that not one stone of it remained upon another’. Although he narrowly lost the by-election, Lamont used his speech at the declaration to charge local landlords with intimating crofter-electors, provoking a riot.

At the 1865 general election six months later Lamont rode the Liberal wave into Parliament. Reporting on his 1865 campaigns, the Tory Edinburgh Courant referred to him as a ‘Darwinite murderer of seals’, whose own graphic exploits, as written about by the man himself, displayed a lust for power. Once elected, however, Lamont failed to make his presence felt in the Commons, rarely speaking at any length in debate and voting infrequently in the division lobbies. After siding with the Conservatives against Gladstone on the question of Irish church disestablishment, to which he was bitterly opposed, Lamont was deselected by Buteshire’s Liberals, forcing his retirement at the 1868 election. That so little space was given to politics either by himself or his daughter in their accounts of his career confirms that unique celebrities of Lamont’s make were not necessarily suited to life at Westminster.

Further reading

  • Augusta Lamont, Records and Recollections of Sir James Lamont of Knockdow (self-published, 1950)
  • A.G.E. Jones, ‘Lamont, Sir James, first baronet (1828-1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [www.oxforddnb.com]
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