Reporting Parliament: a view from the Victorian Commons

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

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

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

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

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 The extra work this involved, however, made it too expensive and out of date by the time it appeared.

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

Charles Dickens as a young reporter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty Conference: Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

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

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

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

Sir John Rolt as attorney-general

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

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

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

Further reading

  • The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Rolt. Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal in Chancery (1939)
  • J. M. Rigg, rev. P. Polden, ‘Rolt, Sir John (1804-1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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MP of the Month: Charles Gilpin (1815-1874)

One of the most illuminating aspects of our work for the Victorian Commons is the discovery of significant, but long-forgotten, parliamentarians. September’s MP of the Month, Charles Gilpin (1815-1874), certainly falls under this description. As the first and only Quaker to hold ministerial office between the first and second Reform Acts, he was a major figure in mid-Victorian radical politics, yet only occasionally surfaces in histories of the period.

After establishing himself as a radical publisher and orator in his hometown of Bristol, Gilpin and his wife Anna moved to London in 1842 to take over the Quaker publishing firm, Edmund Fry and Son. Over the following decade he oversaw the publication of hundreds of radical books and pamphlets as well as the Quaker periodical The Friend, which he edited until 1857. During this time he was active in nearly every radical society in London, campaigning for temperance, parliamentary, economic and land reform as well as the abolition of slavery and capital punishment. In 1850 he even made an abortive attempt to establish, in the words of Britain’s foremost radical, Richard Cobden, an ‘anti-everything’ newspaper. He was also largely responsible for the ‘Kossuth Mania’ that swept the nation in late 1851, on account of his unofficial role as publicist for the Hungarian exile, Lajos Kossuth.

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 17.53.04

As his publicist, Gilpin escorted Lajos Kossuth through the streets of London in November 1851 and helped promote ‘Kossuth Mania’ [Image: Illustrated London News, 8 Nov. 1851].

Gilpin’s first attempts to win a seat in the Commons came during 1852, when he stood unsuccessfully at consecutive by-elections at Perth in February and May. On the hustings he supported radical parliamentary and education reform, opposed all state funding for religious purposes, and denounced Britain’s ‘expensive and cruel’ colonial policy as well as slavery in the United States. He did not stand again until 1857, however, during which time he sold his publishing firm (which left him in a position of considerable financial comfort) and continued his activity in London’s network of radical associations.

Coming forward for Northampton in 1857 on the recommendation of the Administrative Reform Association, Gilpin maintained his radical platform used at Perth. During a successful campaign, he also supported Cobden’s recent censure of the government over the Canton bombardment and condemned the unpopular income tax for Britain’s recent ‘legacy of wars’ in the Crimea and China, which he contended ‘ought never to have been undertaken’.

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 18.04.32

Illustrated London News, 24 July 1858

Gilpin immediately threw himself into parliamentary life, much to the distress of his wife, who reported that he arose at 7.30 a.m., and ate only ‘a bun or a biscuit as he moved from one board or Committee to another’ before returning home to bed at 2 a.m. This prompted some friendly advice from the recently unseated Cobden, who suggested he avoid ‘tilting at Palmerston’s windmills’ and staying at parliament past midnight, ‘unless you are pretty sure there will be a division involving some public principle’. Gilpin ignored such advice, however, citing his irrepressible need to speak up against the ‘consummate bosh’ spoken by members on both sides of the house.

As a diligent attender in his first parliament, he maintained a radical line in the division lobbies and became a regular voice in debates over religious rights, as well as foreign and colonial affairs. Notable for his outspokenness on the latter, he was instrumental in co-ordinating the radical response to the Orsini affair and condemned the British military reaction to the Indian mutiny, stating in May 1858 that when the mutiny’s history was written it would ‘raise a blush of shame on the cheek of every honest man’.

His forthright Commons performances ensured Gilpin topped the poll at Northampton in 1859. However, he shocked his radical friends and supporters when he accepted the position of secretary to the Poor Law Board in Palmerston’s new ministry. Instead of receiving congratulations for becoming the first Quaker government minister, he was criticised for selling out – John Bright reportedly stating, ‘so thou’s got thy snout in the trough, Charles!’

To some extent Gilpin’s critics proved justified, as he quickly fell in line with the government and became increasingly exasperated at his loss of ‘independence of thought and action’. Nevertheless, his assiduous attention to official duties, particularly in response to the Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’ from 1861, allowed him to repel some detractors. Using his position to repeatedly call for benevolence from poor law unions in Lancashire, he was instrumental in passing the 1862 Union Relief Aid Act.


Gilpin resumed his role as an outspoken backbencher in 1865, earning him the moniker ‘Capital Punishment’, Vanity Fair, 18 Jan. 1873

Gilpin resigned from office in February 1865, as soon as he was sure ‘the cloud had passed away from Lancashire’ and that ‘the loom and the shuttle’ had again begun ‘their ready and every-day work’. He was returned at that year’s election, with a reduced share of the vote, but quickly rediscovered his radical voice on the back benches.

During the subsequent parliament he spoke regularly for the total abolition of state funding for religion as well as the parliamentary oath, and offered his support to those lobbying for Governor Edward Eyre to face trial following his infamous 1865 declaration of martial law in Morant Bay, Jamaica. He also provided a radical critique of the Conservative government’s 1867 Reform Act, and emerged as a chief proponent for the complete abolition of capital punishment, leading the radical vanguard against what he considered to be the halfway measure of the 1868 Capital Punishments Act. Gilpin continued to represent Northampton as a radical backbencher until his death in September 1874.

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

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MP of the Month: John Tomlinson Hibbert (1824-1908)

Disraeli (horse) taking Britannia into the unknown with the 1867 Reform Act

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 1867 Reform Act. Introduced by Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Derby’s Conservative government, it added around a million voters to the register, primarily in borough constituencies. This greatly exceeded the numbers who would have been enfranchised by the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill, put forward by William Gladstone and Lord Russell. Disraeli’s willingness to accept Liberal backbench amendments to the Conservative bill in order to secure its passage – and to keep Gladstone on the back foot – meant that the measure which emerged from the debates in the Commons was rather different from that originally proposed, as many of the safeguards which Disraeli had included to limit the effects of household suffrage were removed.

Sir John Tomlinson Hibbert (by unknown artist); photo credit: Lancashire County Council;

Our MP of the Month, John Tomlinson Hibbert, was among those Liberal backbenchers who took a keen interest in the reform debates and played a prominent part in shaping the measure. Returned as MP for his native Oldham at a by-election in May 1862, he was re-elected in 1865 alongside his fellow Liberal, John Platt. As well as their shared political views, Hibbert was connected to the Platts through business: his father had founded Oldham’s largest engineering firm with Platt’s father in 1822, although by 1854 the Platts had bought out the Hibbert interest. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Hibbert qualified as a barrister. Although he did not practise as a lawyer, his legal training proved a valuable asset in his parliamentary career, and John Stuart Mill praised him as ‘rather clever as well as careful in framing amendments’ to legislation. He was also linked to the Platts by marriage: John’s younger brother James, another Liberal MP, who was killed in tragic circumstances in 1857, had married Hibbert’s sister-in-law.

Hibbert made his determination to be an effective constituency MP abundantly clear in his maiden speech, made the day after taking his seat. He highlighted the plight of Lancashire’s workers during the ‘cotton famine’ caused by the greatly reduced supply of raw cotton during the American Civil War. Hibbert also took a particular interest in law and order. He was deeply concerned about the ‘demoralising’ spectacle of public executions, to which spectators travelled on special excursion trains ‘to gratify their depraved appetite’. He made unsuccessful attempts in 1865 and 1866 to legislate for executions to take place privately within gaols. These efforts prompted the Conservative government to take up the question, passing the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act in 1868. Hibbert himself witnessed the first execution held under the Act.

He was also active in select committee work, serving on numerous inquiries. There was, however, much amusement among fellow MPs in June 1866 when Hibbert’s doctor was called to testify before the House that Hibbert would be unable to perform his duties as chairman of the committee on the Helston election petition, having been ‘taken exceedingly ill on his return from the Duke of Devonshire’s party’.

Hibbert played an important role in the debates on the 1867 Reform Act. Although Disraeli described him as ‘a man of extreme and advanced opinions’, he was among those Radicals whose support Disraeli was keen to cultivate in order to pass the bill. Notably, Disraeli tried to persuade the Cabinet to accept Hibbert’s amendment on the complex question of ‘compounding’. The Conservative ministry’s bill stated that those wishing to qualify as voters under the household franchise in boroughs must personally pay their rates, a proviso which would exclude those who ‘compounded’ their rates by paying them to their landlords as part of their rent, for which they received a discount. Hibbert’s amendment aimed to remove this financial disincentive for householders to opt out of compounding in order to be registered as voters by allowing them to continue to pay the reduced amount.

Having failed to convince fellow ministers to accept this amendment, Disraeli not only opposed it, but made the division on the ministry’s alternative proposal a confidence vote. Despite strong support from Gladstone, who gave Hibbert his backing after his own efforts to remove the requirement for personal payment of rates had failed, the amendment was defeated on 9 May. Although unsuccessful, Hibbert’s intervention clearly influenced the Conservative ministry’s actions. With many MPs still dissatisfied, the issue was finally resolved in an extraordinary fashion later that month when Disraeli accepted an amendment from another Liberal backbencher, Grosvenor Hodgkinson, which took the revolutionary step of completely abolishing the practice of compounding.

Hibbert did succeed in making other alterations to the Reform Act. His most significant contribution was to make it illegal for candidates or anyone on their behalf to make payments for transporting voters to the polls in boroughs. Payments for railway tickets or the hiring of carriages and carts to convey voters were often used as a cover for bribery, and had become a major source of expenditure for candidates. Hibbert noted that at the 1865 election, £100,000 of the £800,000 expenditure declared by candidates was spent on the conveyance of voters. Bowing to advice from Gladstone, he agreed that his clause, carried by 166 votes to 101 on 4 July 1867, should apply only to boroughs, not to counties, where the distances which electors had to travel were far greater. He criticised efforts by Irish MPs to exclude certain Irish boroughs from a similar clause in the Irish Reform Act the following year, remarking wryly that he remained to be ‘persuaded that an Irishman could not walk so far as an Englishman’.

Hibbert was re-elected in 1868 for Oldham, whose electorate had been increased five-fold by the 1867 Reform Act. He lost his seat in 1874, but returned to the Commons in 1877. Regarded as ‘one of the most loyal and useful members of the Liberal party’, he held a succession of junior offices in Gladstone’s ministries from 1871. He was ousted from his seat in 1886, but returned to Parliament in 1892, and was knighted the following year. He finally left the Commons following electoral defeat in 1895, having represented his native borough for a total 24 years. He remained active in county politics, serving as chairman of Lancashire County Council until shortly before his death in 1908.

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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 (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.

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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?’,


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