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

For links to some of the main free to access resources we use in our research, see our Resources page: https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/resources/

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From colonial council to Parliament: the career of John Dunn MP

How Victorian Britain exported a Westminster system of politics to its colonies, both in terms of parliamentary structures and personnel, has been a recurrent theme of much recent historical work. Our own project has also helped shed new light on some of these impacts, not least by exploring the formative years of MPs who went on to become colonial governors. By contrast, influences coming the other way, such as reforms trialled in the colonies before being implemented in the UK, get less attention – Australia’s use of the secret ballot being an obvious exception. One interesting find in our ongoing research, however, has been the number of backbench MPs with a political background in colonies. Just as municipal politics after 1835 began to offer a new training ground for aspiring MPs, so too many of the newly emerging colonial legislative councils seem to have provided another type of apprenticeship that could also pave the path to a parliamentary seat. One MP who followed this route was John Dunn (1818-60), Conservative MP for Dartmouth.    

Dunn’s father, the son of a humble Scottish weaver, had emigrated to the convict colony of Tasmania (Van Diemen’s land) in 1821, setting up a successful shop before establishing a lucrative banking operation. Although Dunn, his eldest son, was born in Aberdeen, he was said to have been ‘native reared’ and ‘native educated’ in the colony. Dunn later recalled how ‘at the early age of 15 he was placed in an office’ and ‘from that time … constantly employed in business’.

Legislative Council Building (Parliament House), Hobart

In 1845 he was appointed in lieu of his father to the colony’s legislative council by the controversial governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, a former MP, three of whose sons had married Dunn’s sisters. Despite their personal ties and a similar ‘Tory’ outlook, Dunn opposed Eardley-Wilmot ‘tooth and nail’. Like many colonists, he believed that the British government, rather than the settlers, should bear the costs of running the colony’s probation system for managing convicts.

Dunn emerged as a leading campaigner against transportation, believing it to be a ‘system so palpably fraught with evil’, particularly to the ‘moral welfare’ of the community, that any material benefits from cheap labour were outweighed. He also took issue with the Australasian Anti-Transportation League, of which he was a member, for discouraging settlement in Tasmania because of its alleged ‘immorality’, much of which stemmed from reports about homosexuality among convicts and unfounded allegations about Eardley-Wilmot’s ‘licentious’ sexual behaviour. 

Following the introduction of legislative council elections in 1851, Dunn was elected for Hobart as a ‘bold, uncompromising opponent of transportation’ and a supporter of tax reductions and better education. Hailed as one of a new breed of ‘Young Tasmanians’, he became a key member of the Anti-Transportation League’s South Tasmanian Council, signing a steady stream of protests to the colonial secretary Lord Grey against the continuing influx of convicts. These eventually included threats to ‘sever these colonies, with their newly discovered wealth, from the parent state’. 

The campaign culminated successfully with the end of transportation in 1853. The following year Dunn left for England, becoming a ship-owner and a partner in one of London’s ‘leading commercial houses’ dealing with Australia. In 1857 he was part of a deputation from the General Association for the Australian Colonies who lobbied the colonial secretary Henry Labouchere for a federal assembly for Australia.

Dunn’s political experience in the legislative council and role in ending transportation featured heavily in his UK election campaigns of 1859. Proclaiming himself an ‘independent’, he promised to ‘support liberal measures brought forward on either side’, including the abolition of church rates and an extension of the franchise. However, he doggedly refused to back the secret ballot, which had recently been introduced into South Australia.

The Castle Hotel, where Dunn celebrated his election

Ultimately, however, what seems to have mattered most in getting him elected was his ‘considerable wealth’. After unsuccessfully contesting the notoriously venal borough of Totnes at the  1859 general election, where he made a spectacular entrance by arriving in a fine yacht, Cissy, he stood at a by-election in neighbouring Dartmouth. Again arriving by sea, and clearly willing to spend copiously, he made much of his ability as a ‘ship-owner’ to represent the naval port’s commercial interests. His opponent, coincidentally another Australian merchant who was the former premier of New South Wales, withdrew at the last minute, allowing him to be returned unopposed. The Australian and New Zealand Gazette, in a report widely reproduced in the British press, celebrated his return under the heading ‘Colonists in Parliament’.

Other than a few contributions to debate on naval issues, Dunn rarely spoke as an MP, describing himself as ‘a working man rather than a speaker’ at a Devon Conservative dinner. But he was a regular presence in the voting lobbies, siding with the Conservatives on most issues, including against franchise extension and the removal of church rates, despite everything he had said on the hustings. Other notable votes, perhaps indicative of his religious convictions, included his support for restricting Sunday licensing hours and ending funding for art schools that showed ‘females wholly unclothed’, 15 May 1860.

Dunn’s political career came to an abrupt end in 1860. Travelling back to Tasmania with his new wife, a wealthy heiress, he died from ‘terrific heat’ in the Red Sea on board the unfortunately named Nemesis. His widow promptly returned to England leaving his remains to be interred in a grave at Aden.

For details of how to access the full biographies of MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, including Dunn and Eardley-Wilmot, please click here.

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Colloquium on ‘The British Aristocracy and the Modern World’

Readers of the Victorian Commons may be interested in an online colloquium on 19 November entitled ‘The British Aristocracy and the Modern World’, marking the 30th anniversary of David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Organised by Professor Miles Taylor at Berlin’s Humboldt University, further details of this zoom event can be found here or by clicking on the flyer below.

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‘I shall persist’: Joseph Brotherton (1783-1857) and late hours in the Commons

Joseph Brotherton by Samuel William Reynolds Jr (1836) (C) NPG

In 1832 the borough of Salford elected its first MP, who would represent the constituency for the next quarter-century. Described in 1838 as an ‘ultra Liberal’, Joseph Brotherton was in many ways typical of the industrialists who made up a significant proportion of the representatives of the newly enfranchised textile towns of northern England. He was a second-generation cotton and silk manufacturer who, having made enough money to retire from business in his late thirties, devoted himself to public life, through politics, religion and philanthropy. Like many fellow MPs, he gained experience in local government before embarking on his parliamentary career. He shared the commitment of other Lancashire Liberal MPs to the repeal of the corn laws, and supported a range of other radical causes, including the abolition of slavery, retrenchment in public spending and the removal of capital punishment. He was also a dedicated advocate of reducing factory hours, differing from some of his fellow northern industrialist MPs on this score.

Brotherton stood out from his fellow parliamentarians in other ways, most distinctively through his position as a minister in the Bible Christian church founded by Rev. William Cowherd in Salford. He regularly conducted services when not busy in London with his parliamentary duties. Brotherton and his wife Martha were dedicated practitioners of two key principles followed by Cowherd’s congregation – teetotalism and vegetarianism – and Martha was the anonymous author of the first vegetarian cookbook, originally published in parts in 1812, which went into numerous editions. Vegetable Cookery, as it became known, included an introduction written by Brotherton ‘recommending abstinence from animal food and intoxicating liquors’. He chaired the meeting at which the Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847. Brotherton’s diet prompted consternation at public dinners, but the parliamentary reporter James Grant recorded how the ‘other Reform members and friends with whom he occasionally dines’, including Joseph Hume, ‘take care to provide him with some sort of pudding or vegetable dish’.

Vegetable cookery, with an introduction, recommending abstinence from animal food and intoxicating liquors, by a lady (1833); image credit: Wellcome Collection (public domain)

For Grant, what distinguished Brotherton most at Westminster was not his dietary habits, however, but his perseverance in attempting to reform the sitting hours of the Commons. Brotherton’s main aim was to prevent MPs from continuing to debate after midnight. As explained in this blog by Paul Seaward, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, the House drifted later and later in the time that it began to sit (and therefore also to rise), meaning that proceedings after midnight became increasingly common. Brotherton’s desire to end this practice did not stem from any reluctance to perform his parliamentary duties, quite the opposite. One obituary noted that ‘rarely was the Speaker in the chair and Mr. Brotherton absent’, and in 1852 he claimed to have voted in 3,500 divisions during his twenty years in Parliament. He also undertook a vast amount of work in connection with private bills, and was reportedly responsible for guiding at least three-quarters of the 200 private bills carried annually through their various stages in the House.

‘H.B.’, ‘The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours’ (18 July 1831) Image credit: Philip Salmon

Brotherton outlined several different reasons for wishing to stop business after midnight. The first was his concern that the late hours were adversely affecting the health of MPs. He also felt that it would make the House more efficient, since time after midnight was often wasted in debating when the House would adjourn, and MPs who were ‘sleeping about on the benches’ did not make effective legislators. Seconding one of Brotherton’s motions on this question in 1841, William Ewart observed

Would it not strike a foreigner with astonishment to witness the dormant legislation which was transacted in that House at a late hour? On one bench a Secretary to the Treasury might be seen extended at full length; on another a Secretary to the Admiralty alike recumbent; on another a non-effective army official; and on another a subdued President of the Board of Control. Last Session, when a question was addressed to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, it was found that he was fast asleep. These were unseemly incidents, which could not occur under a different system.

Another concern was that business after midnight was less well reported in the press, as reporters needed to file their copy in time to meet publication deadlines. Brotherton protested that

The public had a right to know what was done in that House; but under the present system it was impossible they could obtain that knowledge. At midnight the reporters were exhausted, and experience proved that they could not pay attention to matters which occurred after that hour. The public remained uninformed upon topics of great importance if they were discussed after twelve o’clock.

Brotherton’s efforts to curtail debate after midnight took two main forms. The first was to move the adjournment of the House once the clock passed that hour, a tactic he deployed on numerous occasions, prompting one fellow MP to dub him ‘the guardian of the night’. Although weary MPs often voted with Brotherton to adjourn, his interventions sometimes provoked pleas to withdraw his motion so that the remaining business could be completed. Brotherton was not immune to yielding to this pressure, particularly if it was a matter of swiftly getting through unopposed business, but on other occasions he insisted that ‘I shall persist’. He faced accusations both in Parliament and the press that he was inconsistent in his efforts, seeking to curb business after midnight when the Conservatives were in office, but relaxing his vigilance when his own party controlled the legislative agenda. This did not tally with the facts, however, and Lord John Russell was among those who rallied to his defence, noting in 1853 that Brotherton had ‘persevered in his efforts, under several different administrations’. Yet Brotherton was not above bending his own rules – Lord Shaftesbury (formerly Lord Ashley) recollected that to aid the passing of the Factory Act, Brotherton would ‘as the hour of 12 approached, have some particular business which called him out of the House, and while he was away 12 o’clock had struck, and some important parts of the Bill had been carried’.

Given that his motion for adjournment was not always successful, relying as it did on catching the eye of the Speaker – which Brotherton found much more difficult under Charles Shaw-Lefevre (Speaker, 1839-57) than his predecessor James Abercromby (Speaker, 1835-9) – and on enough MPs joining him in the division lobby, Brotherton also tried another approach. At the beginning of several sessions, he attempted to pass a resolution setting out the procedure for ending business after midnight. These proposals varied in their wording over the years. In November 1852 he tried to make the process automatic, rather than relying on any specific number of MPs to request the adjournment. However, his motion ‘That in the present Session of Parliament no business shall be proceeded with in that House after midnight; and that at Twelve o’clock at night precisely, Mr. Speaker do adjourn the House without putting any question’ was defeated by 260 votes to 64. His efforts in other years met the same fate.

Fittingly, in what appears to have been his last speech in the Commons in 1856, Brotherton again called for the House to adjourn. He died of a heart attack shortly before the beginning of the 1857 session while travelling on an omnibus from his home in Pendleton into Manchester. Although his efforts to adjourn at midnight were often greeted ‘by a chorus of cheers, groans, hootings, cock-crowings, bellowings, and other discordant cries’, Brotherton remained a popular figure on both sides of the House. While he never succeeded in setting up an alternative mechanism to curtail debate, his persistence ‘had gradually some effect upon the practice of the House’. In 1871 the select committee on public business recommended the adoption of the ‘half past twelve rule’ (that no opposed business could be debated after 12:30 a.m.), embodying what Brotherton had for so long sought to achieve.

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‘Restless, turbulent, and bold’: Radical MPs and the opening of the reformed Parliament in 1833

In this post which first appeared on the main History of Parliament blog, our research fellow Dr. Stephen Ball looks at the inaugural session of the reformed Parliament, a theme also explored in our previous blog on Harriet Grote.

When the reformed Parliament first met on Tuesday 29 January 1833 many people speculated about the way the reconfigured House of Commons would conduct its business. Fear that the Whig government would be unduly influenced by newly elected Reformers and Radicals, who might try to seize the initiative over legislation was widespread in conservative circles in the early weeks of the new parliament.

A contemporary analysis of non-Conservative MPs returned at the 1832 general election identified 145 Reformers, 40 Radicals, 33 Irish Repealers and two Liberals, who saw the Reform Act as a springboard for further constitutional change, and 194 Whigs, who could be counted on to support the 23 members of Lord Grey’s administration. The Parliamentary Review, in turn, identified 96 ‘Liberals’ who on questions of reform would ‘go almost as much beyond the Whigs as the Whigs do beyond the Conservatives’. It was this ‘Movement party’, that disturbed the alarmists who ‘dreaded the ascendancy’ of a faction whose ‘noise and swagger’ might ‘bear down the good sense and staunch principle’ of the Commons.

H.B. ‘March of Reform’ (28 Mar. 1833)
Former Tory MPs Sir Edward Sugden, Sir Charles Wetherell, John Wilson Croker and Horace Twiss look suspiciously at new Radical MPs William Cobbett, John Gully and Joseph Pease.
NPG D41187 © National Portrait Gallery, London

On 29 January nearly 400 MPs assembled in the House, a much greater number than anyone remembered seeing on the first day of any previous parliament. Amidst the bustle and excitement it was observed that the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell, and the veteran reformer, William Cobbett, who had been returned for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, were among the earliest attendants and confidently took their seats on the Treasury bench, close to the leader of the House, Lord Althorp. After briefly attending the Lords on the summons of Black Rod, the first business of the Commons was to elect a speaker. Immediately, the veteran Radical MP for Middlesex, Joseph Hume, seized an opportunity to challenge the authority of the government by questioning its proposal to grant a £4,000 annuity to Charles Manners Sutton, the speaker since 1806. Aware that ministers had disagreed over their candidate for the speakership and had opted to support Sutton, Hume nominated Edward Littleton, MP for South Staffordshire, whose candidacy the government had explicitly rejected, but who, Hume announced, had ‘shown himself a zealous Reformer’. The motion was seconded by another veteran radical, Sir Francis Burdett, MP for Westminster, and was supported by O’Connell. Littleton, however, expressed ‘repugnance’ at being nominated, and the motion was defeated by 32 votes to 242, the minority including Sutton, who had voted for Littleton ‘as a matter of etiquette’.

The House of Commons, 1833 (by Sir George Hayter, 1833-43; NPG 54 © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Two days later Sutton took the chair and a ‘considerable’ number of MPs were sworn in according to the alphabetical order of the counties in which their constituencies were situated. After an unusually long king’s speech was delivered from the throne on 5 February, a ‘quite unprecedented’ four days’ of angry debate ensued, which turned on the condition of Ireland. An attempt by the Repeal MP for Dublin, Edward Ruthven, to adjourn the debate on 7 February was defeated by a majority of 236, and the following day O’Connell called for a committee of the whole House to inquire into the necessity of an Irish coercion bill. He was defeated by 42-430, and a more moderate motion by the Lambeth MP, Charles Tennyson, went down by 60-393. Next it was the turn of Cobbett to move his own amendment to the address after observing that ‘the two factions of Whigs and Tories’ had now clearly ‘united against the people’. He was, however, no more successful than O’Connell, losing the division by 23 to 323.

In spite of these Radical failures, the disordered state of the reformed Commons had, according to the diarist Charles Greville, provided anti-Reformers ‘with a sort of melancholy triumph’ as their ‘worst expectations’ were fulfilled. The government, they believed, had failed to manage a House that Greville regarded as very different to the last, pointing to ‘the number of strange faces’ and ‘the swagger of O’Connell, walking about incessantly, making signs to, or talking with his followers’. The Tories were ‘few and scattered’ and their putative leader, Sir Robert Peel, had been evicted from his usual seat in the House by Cobbett and the Radicals, who although ‘scattered’ and leaderless appeared ‘numerous, restless, turbulent’ and increasingly confident.

Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville, by R.J. Lane, after Alfred, Count D’Orsay (24 May 1840), NPG D46250 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Although the government rallied after Lord Althorp put forward his plan to reform the Irish Church ‘with complete success’ on 13 February, its satisfaction was tempered the following day when Hume moved to abolish military and naval sinecures and pensions. This time he was defeated by a narrower margin of 94, prompting Greville to complain about ‘the presumption, impertinence, and self-sufficiency’ of the new Members, who behaved as if they had taken the Commons ‘by storm’. He was not alone in believing that the government had no power to control them, and so risked ‘a virtual transfer of the executive power to the House of Commons’, which ‘like animals who have once tasted blood’ would ‘never rest till it has acquired all the authority of the Long Parliament’. However, that danger was averted largely due to the influence of Peel, who according to one observer had demonstrated ‘prodigious superiority’ over every other Member of the House during the session and would, it was hoped, persuade his ‘frightened, angry, and sulky’ party to help the ministry to pass its most controversial measure yet, a draconian bill to suppress disorder in Ireland.

With the cabinet divided over the matter, some observers doubted the government’s ability to carry this measure unaltered. Introduced in the Lords by the premier, Lord Grey, on 15 February, the bill was there passed a week later. However, its passage through the Commons was obstructed by O’Connell, who initiated a debate during a supply vote on 18 February. During six nights of debate on the issue, the Cashel MP, James Roe, called for government correspondence on the bill to be produced, and Ruthven twice tried to adjourn the debate but was easily defeated by margins of around 400. O’Connell successfully moved for a call of the House to ensure that the first reading of the bill would be well attended, the turn out reportedly being the largest yet seen in the House, where even the upper side galleries were ‘filled to overflowing’. It did O’Connell little good, however, and the first reading passed by 466-89. The following day Ruthven failed to prevent the government from debating sugar duties, mustering only nine votes, leaving Hume to observe that the first occasion on which the reformed House had met to impose taxes fewer than half the 314 new MPs were present, which ‘did not say much’ for their ‘industry and attention’. The following day Hume’s own intervention prior to the vote on the army estimates was defeated by 23 to 201, and on 11 March the second reading of the Irish coercion bill was endorsed by 363-84. After six more nights of ‘wordy warfare’, the bill passed into law virtually unaltered.

The Radicals’ attempt to alter the course of the government’s programme of legislation had been a signal failure, and it would be some time before they recognised that in the face of a revived Conservative party the best way to pursue progressive reform was to work wherever possible in tandem with the Whig majority.

Further reading:

C. C. F. Greville (ed. H. Reeve), The Greville Memoirs. A Journal of the Reigns of King George IV and King William IV (1874), vol. 2.

S. Walpole, A History of England from the Conclusion of the Great War in 1815 (1890), vol. 3.

Morning Chronicle, 30 Jan. 1833.

Hereford Journal, 6 Feb. 1833.

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Harriet Grote (1792-1878) and the first reformed Parliament, 1833-34: a woman at Westminster

In the third of his blogs on Harriet Grote (1792-1878), our research fellow Dr Martin Spychal looks at Harriet’s introduction to politics at Westminster during the first ‘reformed’ Parliament of 1833-34.

Harriet Grote (1792-1878) was one of the most important British politicians of the 1830s. As I’ve discussed in my previous blogs, she had been a key figure among London’s intellectual radicals during the previous decade, before embracing national politics, alongside her husband, George Grote (1794-1871), during the reform crisis of 1830-32.

In the aftermath of George’s election as MP for London in 1832, Harriet wasted little time establishing herself at Westminster. At a time when women weren’t allowed to vote or sit in Parliament (or for that matter play any formal, public role in political life), Harriet became a highly influential figure behind the scenes at Westminster. One of the first things that she did was to establish herself as the hostess of 34 Parliament Street, which quickly became a political hub for reformers and radicals during the 1833 parliamentary session.

The 1832 election (the first election after the 1832 Reform Act) returned one of the most radical Houses of Commons in UK history. When Parliament convened in January 1833 around a third of Westminster’s 658 MPs described themselves as either Reformers, Radicals or Repealers, as distinct from the governing Whigs or opposition Conservatives.

The 1832 election returned one of the most radical Commons in UK history. Party labels compiled from contemporary sources © Martin Spychal 2021

One of the key political issues that served to unite these radicals and reformers (or the ‘popular party’ as Harriet described them) was their demand for additional electoral reforms beyond those granted by the 1832 Reform Act. Top on their list was the introduction of secret voting or ‘the ballot’, which it was hoped would put an end to illegitimate aristocratic and landlord influence at elections.

In January 1833 Harriet and George hosted discussions among Parliament’s reformers and radicals (including veteran radical MPs Henry Warburton and Joseph Hume) to identify who would spearhead the issue in Parliament. With Harriet ‘joining most cordially in the counsel’ it was agreed that her husband George ‘should be the person to undertake the ballot question in the ensuing session of Parliament’.

George Grote raises an urn with ‘Ballot’ inscribed on it, ‘March of Silenus’, John Doyle, 13 Feb. 1838 CC NPG

As I will discuss in a future blog, Harriet was one of the chief organisers of the popular, though ultimately futile, national campaign for the ballot during the 1830s. In the immediate context of 1833, however, it provided her with an opportunity to announce herself to Parliament and to extend her network of political contacts.

One of the most important physical sites of women’s engagement in the House of Parliament prior to the fire of 1834 was an informal women’s viewing gallery above the Commons, often referred to as the ‘ventilator’. Harriet preferred to call it ‘The Lantern’, observing that it allowed for ‘ten or twelve persons’ to be ‘so placed as to hear, and to a certain extent see, what passed in the body of the House’.

In preparation for George’s impending parliamentary motion on the ballot, in February 1833 Harriet ‘made an experiment’ and attended the ventilator for the first time. ‘Going with Fanny [Frances] Ord’, the wife of the MP for Newport, William Henry Ord, Harriet reported that ‘one hears very well, but seeing is difficult, being distant from the members, and the apertures in the ventilator being small and grated’.

‘one hears very well, but seeing is difficult, being distant from the members, and the apertures in the ventilator being small and grated’. Sketch of the ventilator by Lady Georgiana Chatterton (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/ Baddesley Clinton NT

When the night eventually arrived for George to introduce his first ballot motion, Harriet effectively held court in the ventilator before hosting a soiree at their Parliament Street residence.

After listening intently to George’s hour-long speech, she described how ‘immediately afterwards’ William Molesworth (MP for East Cornwall) ‘joined me upstairs, in the roof of the House’ and ‘poured out his admiration of [George] Grote’s performance’. In what soon became an annual tradition (on account of George’s repeated parliamentary motions for the ballot), ‘the whole corps of Radicals’ then descended on 34 Parliament Street ‘to come and pour out their congratulations’ for their efforts in promoting the cause.

The Grotes’ association with the ballot instantly elevated them to the forefront of British radical politics. This position was cemented over the following year by Harriet’s unceasing efforts to forge alliances with those she identified as the most important ‘respectable Rads’ at Westminster and beyond.

Harriet and George hosted extended weekend political salons at their ‘country residence’ in Dulwich, ‘Metropolitan Borughs’, Atlas, 3 Feb. 1833 © Martin Spychal 2021 

Harriet quickly cultivated an inner circle of leading politicians, thinkers, journalists and lawyers, who she invited to extended weekend political salons at the Grotes’ ‘country residence’ in Dulwich Wood. As well as the aforementioned Henry Warburton and Joseph Hume, senior radical dignitaries such as Francis Place might be found there on a Saturday evening talking political strategy with Harriet and George in the company of rising new MPs such as John Arthur Roebuck, Charles Buller and William Molesworth, the editor of the Spectator, Robert Rintoul, the writer Sarah Austin, or the young utilitarian, John Stuart Mill.  

She was even willing to defy social convention and drive her guests back into London after their stays, offering another opportunity to extend her political influence. In one particularly revealing passage, in 1834 Harriet recalled:

driving my phaeton to London one morning [from Dulwich Wood], with Molesworth by my side, C[harles] Buller and Roebuck in the seat behind. During the whole six miles, these three vied with each other as to who should make the most outrageous Radical motions in the House [of Commons], the two behind standing up and talking, sans intermission, all the way, to Molesworth and myself.

Unfortunately for Harriet her efforts to organise Westminster’s reformers and radicals did not translate into immediate political results. Parliament itself, she lamented, still contained a majority of ‘men so lamentably deficient in patriotism and purity of principle’ that substantive change did not appear immediately likely. These ‘deficient’ men included the Whigs and the Conservatives, who had effectively formed an alliance of the centre to frustrate radical policy, and the ‘coarse and violent’ (in Harriet’s words) leader of the Irish Repealers, Daniel O’Connell, whom she never trusted.

Harriet’s hope that the Whig government of the 2nd Earl Grey might support her radical ambitions was quashed within a single Parliament. It was for this reason that she relished one small political victory in June 1834, when her husband, together with Henry Ward, MP for St. Albans, introduced a crucial vote over the funding of the Irish Church. The vote prompted the resignation of two cabinet ministers. A month later the Grey ministry would resign.

For Harriet ‘The Upsetting of the Reform Coach’ in June 1834 promised a brighter political future, John Doyle, 4 June 1834 CC BM

The ‘rupture of the Cabinet on the Irish Church question, has put us in great spirits’, Harriet informed her sister. What made this moment so positive for Harriet was that in voting against the Whig government, previously subservient MPs appeared to be acting on behalf of the people, rather than aristocratic, ministerial self-interest. The vote ‘was a remarkable proof’, Harriet wrote, of

how powerful the popular party are in that House, for the men who usually support this Government were forced from fear of their constituents to abandon the Ministers.

In my next blog I’ll turn my attention to Harriet’s attempts to guide ‘the popular party’ following the 1835 election…

Further Reading

S. Richardson, ‘A Regular Politician in Breeches: The Life and Work of Harriet Lewin Grote’, in K. Demetrious (ed.), Brill’s Companion to George Grote and the Classical Tradition (2014)

A. Galvin-Elliot, ‘An Artist in the Attic: Women and the House of Commons in the Early-Nineteenth Century‘, Victorian Commons (2018)

Lady Eastlake, Mrs Grote: A Sketch (1880)

J. Hamburger, ‘Grote [née Lewin], Harriet’, Oxf. DNB, www.oxforddnb.com

H. Grote, Collected Papers: In Prose and Verse 1842-1862 (1862)

M. L. Clarke, George Grote: A Biography (1962)

H. Grote (ed.), Posthumous Papers: Comprising Selections from Familiar Correspondence (1874)

Posted in Harriet Grote, Legislation, Parliamentary life, party labels, Uncategorized, women | 1 Comment

‘Counted Out’. Parliamentary tactics in the reformed Commons

Counting the House, that is, establishing that a quorum existed for the conduct of Commons’ business, was described by Henry Lucy in 1886 as ‘perhaps one of the most useful agencies in Parliamentary procedure’. From 1640 a quorum of the House of Commons consisted of 40 members, including the Speaker. This was said to have coincided with the number of counties into which England was divided at that time. However, it was not until 1729 that the House was first ‘counted out’.

The Speaker was responsible for ascertaining whether a quorum was present before he took the chair to open the sitting; if not, he called ‘no House’ and the sitting was adjourned. Once a sitting had begun, however, the Members themselves were responsible for maintaining a quorum, a privilege that was ‘rigidly guarded’. At the same time, it was widely recognised that a great deal of routine business could be accomplished by little more than a dozen MPs, so unless the Speaker’s attention was called to the absence of a quorum, matters proceeded unhindered.

Sir Charles Manners Sutton, Speaker of the Commons, 1817-35; by H. W. Pickersgill; image via NPG under CC licence

Most MPs were keen to avoid the ‘scandal’ of a count out, which could be interpreted as an ‘unmistakeable confession that elected legislators were playing truant’. Originally, it was the practice for the Member requesting a count to approach the Speaker from behind his chair and quietly whisper in his ear, and parliamentary reporters observed the etiquette of not mentioning the name of ‘the often unwelcome interloper’. However, it was later more common for MPs to rise from their seats and openly attract the Speaker’s attention. After the Speaker commanded all strangers to withdraw, a ‘two minute glass’ was turned by the clerk to allow MPs to congregate in the chamber before the Speaker began the count. Members who arrived whilst the count was proceeding were added to the total. If forty or more Members were present, the Speaker resumed his seat and business continued. If fewer than forty were present the House was adjourned. The absence of a quorum was also recognised if the number of MPs voting in a division amounted to fewer than 40.

Counting out was widely recognised as a useful parliamentary tactic, and the signs of a prearranged count were said to be unmistakable. The benches thinned gradually as Members rose ‘listlessly’ from their seats and quietly left the chamber. The request for a count, usually made by a young MP with ‘no reputation to damage’, caused the speaking MP to ‘stop suddenly and drop in his seat as if he was shot’. The protagonists then sat and looked at each other ‘as if they were all at a Quaker’s meeting’, before a ‘noisy influx of smokers and diners’ entered the chamber.

An important change was agreed in 1839 when, at the suggestion of Lord John Russell, a bell was rung to give notice that the House was to be counted, despite Daniel O’Connell’s objection that MPs ought not be summoned to the chamber ‘like domestic servants’. Eventually electric bells rattled throughout the House, although the sound often served as a warning to MPs to keep away rather than to attend. Later standing orders restricted the times when counts could take place, and by 1847 the morning sitting, at which government business was conducted, was exempt.

Division on use of bell to give notice of a count of the House, 19 Aug. 1839

Counting out was justified as a way of preventing ministers from smuggling money votes through a thin House, although its other uses could be regarded as less creditable. Sometimes ministers tried ‘whipping the house out’ in order to stifle discussion of matters of public interest, as when Sir Joshua Walmsley’s 1856 bill to extend the franchise was ‘still-born’ after only 38 MPs appeared to open the sitting. Employing this ‘impudent and reckless “dodge”’ to prevent political embarrassment did not always work, however. In May 1849 the Liberal whip, Henry Tufnell, reportedly induced ‘at least eighty’ members of his own party to leave the Commons chamber, but still failed to avoid a division at which the government was defeated.

The House of Commons in session in the temporary chamber used from 1835

Counting out commonly occurred on Tuesday evenings, which were dedicated to the business of private members. Some observers viewed this as an appropriate means of ending discussions which were of no public interest, or to punish parliamentary ‘bores’, ‘fifth-rate political thinkers’ and ‘amiable monomaniacs’ for thrusting their ‘petty projects’ on the House. However, in 1834 radical MPs like O’Connell and Joseph Hume complained that they were being systematically deprived of opportunities to raise important issues in the Commons. In a similar vein, the Spectator asserted in 1861 that independent motions were ‘remorselessly thugged’ by ‘a strangling count-out’.

Lord Robert Montagu by Camille Silvy; carte de visite 1861; image via NPG under CC licence

On occasion counts could encourage ‘disgraceful conduct’ among MPs. In April 1860 the Conservatives were accused of trying to obstruct the Liberal reform bill by counting the House at dinner time. When around 50 Liberal MPs rushed to the chamber from the dining room, a party of Conservatives led by Lord Robert Montagu forcibly closed the outer door. Members who succeeded in getting inside ‘were assailed in the most offensive manner’, and one member of the government was ‘jammed in the doorway in imminent danger of personal injury’.

Counts of the House were clearly far from a mundane aspect of parliamentary procedure. They could generate considerable excitement, and were a useful tool which both those on the front benches and those on the back benches could try to exploit to their advantage.

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The power of the (silk) purse: electioneering in nineteenth-century Macclesfield

This blog originally appeared on the main History of Parliament blog as part of its Local History series.

One of the most significant aspects of the 1832 Reform Act was its redrawing of the electoral map, taking seats away from ‘rotten boroughs’ such as Dunwich and Old Sarum, and redistributing them to the counties and new boroughs, including many growing industrial centres. The Lancashire cotton towns of Oldham and Blackburn and the Yorkshire woollen town of Halifax, for example, all gained MPs. In the new Cheshire constituency of Macclesfield, it was the production of another textile – silk – which was the major industry. In the 1820s Macclesfield was Britain’s leading centre of silk manufacture, and this trade continued to expand, with the number of silk looms increasing from 3,000 in 1823 to around 10,000 by 1844. Cotton manufacturing, together with the manufacture of hats, nails and buttons, also provided some local employment.

Macclesfield’s proposed constituency boundaries in 1832

Reflecting the significant role of the silk industry within the local economy, one of Macclesfield’s two parliamentary seats was held from 1832 to 1868 by John Brocklehurst, whose firm was the largest silk manufacturer not only in the town but in Britain. A public meeting of silk weavers in March 1832 declared that his ‘long and constant endeavours to defend the silk trade’ made him a fitting representative. These efforts continued that July, when Brocklehurst gave evidence to a Commons select committee on the silk trade, urging the need for ‘better and judicious protection’, as Britain’s silk industry had declined since tariffs on foreign silk were reduced in 1826. Although his own evidence only required two days’ attendance, he spent several months in London hearing the remaining proceedings.

John Brocklehurst (1788-1870) by Henry Joseph Fleuss; Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/john-brocklehurst-17881870-104276

As Macclesfield’s MP, Brocklehurst became ‘an acknowledged authority’ on the silk trade in the Commons. His desire to retain protection for his industry made him more cautious than many fellow Liberals when it came to the wider question of free trade. In June 1842, when he described himself as ‘a practical man rather than a theorist’, he complained that the Anti-Corn Law League had ‘bewildered the public mind’ over free trade, at the risk of sacrificing industries such as silk which needed protection. Although he voted for the repeal of the corn laws, he made several efforts in the 1840s to retain the duties on the importation of foreign silk. Fittingly, his last Commons speech, 2 Mar. 1860, was to plead for ‘fair play’ for British silk manufacturers in the wake of the recent commercial treaty with France. Unfortunately for Macclesfield, this treaty ‘dealt a crippling blow to all but a few specialised branches of the trade’.

Brocklehurst’s position in Macclesfield was so firmly entrenched that he never felt the need to campaign alongside any other Liberal candidate on a ‘joint ticket’, and from 1837 onwards there was only one occasion when he did not top the poll. His first fellow MP was John Ryle, a local banker, followed by Thomas Grimsditch, a local solicitor, from 1837 until 1847. It was the silk trade which brought Macclesfield’s next MP to the borough. John Williams had risen from humble origins in North Wales to become a prosperous linen draper and silk mercer in London’s Oxford Street. It was his business dealings with the local silk industry which prompted him to offer for Macclesfield in 1847. Williams’s political views were far more radical than Brocklehurst’s, and his support for ‘universal suffrage and nearly all the points of the Charter’ earned him the endorsement of the Chartists’ National Central Registration and Election Committee. He ousted Thomas Grimsditch, but was himself defeated in 1852.

It was the fluctuating fortunes of Macclesfield’s industries which prompted an invitation to another Liberal candidate in 1865. David Chadwick, of Manchester, had been born in Macclesfield, and had recently renewed his connection with his native borough by supporting efforts to revive the local cotton industry, which had suffered during the ‘cotton famine’ caused by the American Civil War. The Globe Cotton Spinning and Manufacturing Company, of which Chadwick was a director, planned to provide employment for over 1,000 people by erecting a large cotton-spinning shed in Macclesfield. Chadwick later claimed that in opening this mill, ‘I had no thought of parliamentary ambition or anything of the kind’, but the fact that he laid its foundation stone less than a week before the nomination certainly did not harm his election chances. Brocklehurst, meanwhile, had made his own contribution to the local economy by keeping the family’s silk mills open during the trade slump of 1863-5 at a loss to the firm of £70,000. Although he had been in poor health since a stroke in 1861, and was unable to take part in election proceedings, he was returned for Macclesfield for the ninth time, while Chadwick finished third in the poll. When Brocklehurst finally retired from in 1868, his eldest son William filled his shoes as MP.

The influence wielded in electoral politics by Brocklehurst as a major local employer – or Chadwick as a prospective one – was generally seen as legitimate by their contemporaries. However, there was also evidence of corrupt forces at play in Macclesfield’s elections. A royal commission in 1881 found that it had been the ‘general practice’ at elections from 1832 onwards to issue dinner tickets – sometimes used for beer rather than dinner – valued at six shillings for a split vote and twelve shillings for a plumper. At the 1865 election, alongside cases of bribery and kidnapping of voters – one man was seized by ‘roughs’ as he milked his cow – there were complaints of ‘open and undisguised treating’ with drink on behalf of all three candidates. Chadwick’s bill at the Bull’s Head was said to have totalled hundreds of pounds, although part of this was for accommodation during the contest. His published election accounts claimed that he had spent £820 10s. 2½d. on his election, when the actual total was almost double. In a similar vein, Brocklehurst’s true expenditure of £1,156 19s. 8d. far exceeded the £336 9s. 2d. he declared.

It was, however, at the 1880 election – when William Brocklehurst and David Chadwick were elected for the third time as Liberal MPs – that corruption reached its peak, with an unprecedented amount of direct bribery by both parties. The royal commission listed 2,872 people as guilty of corrupt practices, although the chairman of the Conservative Association believed that as many as 4,000 had received some form of payment. The result was declared void and the writ was suspended. No more elections were held before Macclesfield became one of two boroughs disfranchised for corruption in 1885.

Further reading: G. Malmgreen, Silk town: industry and culture in Macclesfield 1750-1835 (1985)

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Half a century at the table: John Henry Ley and the staff of the House of Commons

Inspired by the #OnePlaceServants blogging prompt from the Society for One Place Studies, we turn our focus away from MPs to looking at the staff who kept the Palace of Westminster running, from the clerks to the caterers…

In Sir George Hayter’s famous painting of the House of Commons in 1833, the majority of the 375 figures depicted are Members of Parliament, together with a small number of leading statesmen from the House of Lords. However, the painting also features a handful of less well-known individuals. Three of them are seated at the clerks’ table – the clerk, John Henry Ley; the clerk assistant, John Rickman; and the second clerk assistant, William Ley (John Henry Ley’s brother) – while two others are standing at the opposite end of the chamber: the serjeant-at-arms, Henry Seymour, and the under doorkeeper, Francis Williams.

The House of Commons, 1833 (by Sir George Hayter, 1833-43; NPG)
John Henry Ley by George Hayter; Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/john-henry-ley-213906

John Henry Ley served the Commons – first as clerk assistant and then from October 1820 as clerk – for almost half a century before his death in August 1850. Shortly after Parliament reassembled for the 1851 session, MPs unanimously passed a resolution recording their ‘just and high sense of the distinguished and exemplary manner in which John Henry Ley, Esq., late Clerk of this House, uniformly discharged the duties of his situation, during his long attendance at the table of this House, for above 49 years’. Moving this resolution, the prime minister, Lord John Russell, paid tribute to Ley’s ‘readiness and courtesy’ in communicating with Members, drawing on ‘a mind stored with information relating to every subject by which the order and procedure of the House were regulated’.

As clerk of the House of Commons – sometimes referred to as the chief clerk – Ley was the most senior of the numerous staff who played a vital role in the day-to-day business of the Commons, some within the visible arena of the chamber, but many more behind the scenes. Handbooks such as Dod’s parliamentary companion listed the different departments within which clerks were required, from committees and election committees to the private bill office and the office of the Commons Journal. Other staff included the Commons librarian and assistant librarian, doorkeepers, messengers, a deputy housekeeper (the serjeant-at-arms being the official housekeeper) and the Speaker’s train-bearer.

A Commons select committee in 1833 reported that while some staff received salaries, others gained their income from fees, allowances and gratuities. It recommended that a general system of fixed salaries be implemented. The committee’s report also revealed that some of the official posts within the Commons were held as sinecures, i.e. those holding them drew the income but did not perform the duties of the office. In the Committee Clerks’ Office, for example, four posts as principal committee clerk were given to retired clerks as a form of pension. The 1833 report recommended that these sinecures be abolished. The position of chief clerk held by John Henry Ley came with an annual salary of £3,500, together with an official residence next to the Commons. Although the 1833 committee was ‘well aware of the importance of this office, and the necessity of its being filled by a person conversant with the constitutional law and practice of Parliament’, it recommended that the salary be reduced to £2,000 plus the official residence, making it more in keeping with ‘the Salaries assigned to other Officers in the State, of equal importance’. Similar cuts in other salaries were also recommended. This inquiry was part of a wider effort during the early 1830s to overhaul procedures in the Commons in a bid to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

Ley’s residence next to the Commons chamber in St. Stephen’s Chapel was among the parts of the Palace of Westminster destroyed by the fire of 16 October 1834. As noted in a previous blog, he – and his brother William – lost their wigs (and many other possessions) in the blaze, meaning that the clerk assistant, John Rickman, had to undertake the necessary duties at the prorogation of Parliament a week later. Rickman was another Commons official who had a residence on the Westminster site in 1834. So too did the deputy housekeeper, John Bellamy, best known as the proprietor of Bellamy’s, the refreshment rooms which catered for MPs and others at the Palace of Westminster.

Ruins of the Houses of Parliament on the morning after the October 1834 fire. Ley’s house is to the left of the ruined Commons in St Stephen’s Chapel.
Image credit: Dr Philip Salmon

John Bellamy’s father and namesake had undertaken the same duties, and Dod’s parliamentary companion for 1835 listed two other members of the family working at Westminster – Edmund Bellamy, who was assistant to John Bellamy as deputy housekeeper, and William Bellamy, the lower doorkeeper. The Ley family, meanwhile, had nine individuals working in the clerks’ department of the Commons between 1768 and 1908. When John Henry Ley died in 1850, the clerk assistant was his brother William and the second clerk assistant was his son Henry. The employment of relatives within the Commons persisted into the twentieth century – as Mari Takayanagi has noted, two of the ‘girl porters’ temporarily employed in the Commons during the First World War, Elsie and Mabel Clark, were the nieces of another Commons porter. As we continue our research on the nineteenth-century Commons, we hope to discover more about the contribution made behind the scenes by servants and staff to the way Parliament and its politicians operated.

Clerks and Officers of the House of Commons, Dod’s parliamentary companion (1835), 182.

Further reading:

  • Select Committee on Establishment of the House of Commons: PP 1833 (648), xii. 179ff.
  • W. McKay, ‘A sycophant of real ability. The career of Thomas Erskine May’, in P. Evans (ed.), Essays on the history of parliamentary procedure (2017), 21-32

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The politics of a coronation: reaction and reform in 1821

This month the UK Parliament will be hosting an online presentation marking the coronation of George IV 200 years ago. To sign up for this free event please click here. In this blog Dr Philip Salmon explores some of the political issues surrounding one of the most extravagant coronations ever staged.

George IV in his coronation robes

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the coronation of George IV, one of the most colourful and dissolute monarchs ever to have sat on the British throne. During the previous year the new king and his Tory government had faced unprecedented public protests against the prosecution of his estranged wife Queen Caroline. Her cause had been widely promoted by leading radicals and reformers, leading to a major political crisis in November 1820. The success of the 1821 coronation just eight months later, one of the most lavish and popular royal events ever staged, was in these circumstances an extraordinary triumph for the King and the Tory government. At face value it represented a remarkable recovery, suggesting some sort of loyalist or patriotic reaction to the radical turmoil and public demonstrations of the previous year. Behind all the pomp and pageantry, however, some significant political changes had also started to take place.

1821 coronation procession at Westminster

The first signs that public support for the Queen may have been declining were apparent even before Parliament reassembled in January 1821. Disappointing turnouts at radical meetings celebrating the collapse of her trial began to be reported in late November and December. Lady Cowper, sister of the future Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne, believed the Queen’s popularity was ‘much on the wane’. ‘The tide of public opinion has changed’, remarked William Fremantle MP. The former prime minister Lord Grenville went further, sensing that there was ‘arising in the country … a royalist spirit and feeling’ similar to that which Pitt had been able ‘to avail himself of’ in the 1790s, and recommending the introduction of new measures by the government.

1821 satirical print showing Caroline and her Italian servant Pergami

The King’s popularity also seemed to be improving. At a much publicised visit to the opera on 6 February 1821 he was delighted to receive a standing ovation, although one man still shouted, ‘Where’s your wife Georgey?’ Earlier that day the Tory government had won a key victory in the Commons, defeating a Whig motion criticising their handling of the Queen Caroline affair by 324 to 178 votes. Further successes followed, aided by growing divisions among opposition MPs over tactics, and the next week a long-running but poorly co-ordinated campaign to restore the Queen’s name to the prayer book was also rejected decisively by 298 votes to 178. The resignation of the Whig leader in the Commons George Tierney early the following month only added to the opposition’s woes. By the middle of March 1821 it was being predicted that the Whigs would ‘split into three or more distinct’ factions.

These Tory successes in Parliament were significant, but they were also accompanied by measures that began to hold out the prospect of concessions to reformers and wider public opinion. The granting of a £50,000 annuity to the Queen (with conditions) reflected well on the ministry, leaving the opposition squabbling about the expense and the Queen appearing less a victim of oppression than an opportunistic gold digger. The unexpected leniency of the sentence against the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett, on trial for seditious libel in King’s Bench in February 1821, also seemed to hint at a new tone of tolerance by the authorities.

More significantly, two key measures which the Whigs and many reformers had long been campaigning for were introduced during the first half of 1821. In March a bill for Catholic emancipation was prepared by William Plunket, later the government’s Irish attorney general, following the first ever successful vote in Parliament on the subject. On 3 April it passed the Commons by 216 votes to 197. Although the bill was later rejected by the Lords, many leading Tories, including the future prime minister George Canning, gave it their firm support.

This apparent willingness to consider altering key components of Britain’s ancient constitution was even more striking on the thorny subject of parliamentary reform. In February Lord John Russell, a leading Whig and future prime minister, reintroduced his bill to disfranchise the ‘rotten borough’ of Grampound and transfer its seats to the industrial town of Leeds. Disagreements about the new franchise scuppered his original plans, but in June 1821 the Tory prime minister Lord Liverpool took up the reins and helped to pass another bill in the Lords transferring the borough’s seats to Yorkshire, England’s most industrialised county, which included Leeds. An important precedent had been established allowing not only for a gradual abolition of the most corrupt constituencies, but also the redistribution of the resulting seats to completely different and more populous areas. The constitution, seen by many as sacrosanct, had begun to be modified. 

Underpinning these political developments at Westminster, the economy began to improve. Unemployment had been steadily falling and the price of wheat plummeted following bumper harvests. The return of the currency to the gold standard in May 1821 prompted further price falls and a series of reductions in government expenditure and tax cuts were introduced by the treasury, leading to predictions that Britain would now begin to move towards free trade. Industrial unrest and protest, in the circumstances, became virtually non-existent outside a small number of struggling or rapidly mechanising trades. Instead it was the agricultural and landowning interest that began to suffer and campaign for relief, with varying degrees of success. 

Coronation celebrations around a wine fountain at Newcastle, by H. Parker © Art UK

By 1821, therefore, the public mood and political landscape had clearly begun to change. Vast numbers of people took part in the nationwide celebrations held to mark the King’s coronation, including at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the scenes around one wine fountain were captured in this famous painting. The refusal to admit the Queen to the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, although widely reported, sparked remarkably little public sympathy. This shift in attitude was attributed by many to a loyalist and religious reaction, helped along by all the salacious revelations about the Queen’s behaviour. But important concessions to popular opinion and more liberal policies had also started to be initiated in Parliament. These measures not only laid the foundations for a new style of ‘Liberal-Tory’ rule in the years ahead, but also helped ultimately to usher in a new era of reform.

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Surveying the UK’s parliamentary boroughs: map-making and the 1831-2 boundary commissions

To coincide with the publication of the initial proposals of the 2023 English boundary commission and the Society for One-Place Studies recent focus on maps, our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, explores the city and town plans created by the 1831-2 boundary commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland…

In 1832 Parliament implemented a wide-ranging set of reforms to the United Kingdom’s electoral systems. A major aspect of the 1832 reform legislation was the redrawing of constituency boundaries. To do this, the government of the 2nd Earl Grey established three boundary commissions – one for England and Wales, one for Scotland and one for Ireland.

The sixth volume of the boundary commission report for England and Wales © Martin Spychal 2021

During the autumn and winter of 1831-2 these boundary commissions completed the first ever official survey of the United Kingdom’s electoral map. Their survey was published gradually, in eleven volumes, between February and June 1832.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the boundary commission’s reports is the constituency maps that were created for every English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish parliamentary borough. Many of these maps were the first ever official state-sanctioned plans for the UK’s towns and cities.

1831-2 Boundary Commission Map and Report with initial proposed boundary for Sheffield © Martin Spychal 2021

Having access to up-to-date, and accurate, maps for every borough constituency was incredibly important for the 1831-2 boundary commissions. This was because every house that formed part of a parliamentary borough’s social and economic community had to be included in its constituency boundary. Significantly, this information was also required to decide which existing constituencies lost the right to send MPs to Parliament.

In addition, the commissioners needed to develop an accurate understanding of current and future building sites in each borough to futureproof their boundaries. Furthermore, in some English boroughs with very few houses the commissioners needed an accurate survey of its surrounding areas to ensure every constituency contained a minimum of 300 potential voters.

When the boundary commissions started their work in August 1831, they did not have ready access to official maps containing this information. The ordnance survey of Britain – which had started in 1791 – was still incomplete and had ground to a halt by 1825. In that year, work began on the ordnance survey of Ireland, which was still underway in 1831.

The first ordnance survey map of Kent, 1801. The Commissioners were required to update these town plans. View a detailed version of this map on MAPCO

In 1831 official trigonometrical surveying remained to be completed on the north of England and Scotland. For areas where surveying had been finished by the ordnance survey, English and Welsh town plans were at best six years out of date. In some cases – such as for constituencies in Kent – the ordnance survey reflected the state of urban development prior to the Napoleonic Wars.

The unavailability of basic official maps was resolved by making use of commercially available maps produced by independent surveyors such as Christopher Greenwood and Andrew Bryant. By 1831 both had completed their own detailed triangulations of the north of England to complement the work of the ordnance survey. Their recent maps of England’s southern counties also contained the most up-to-date basic town plans of most English boroughs.

To ensure that the boundary commissioners could complete their work, each commission set about the task of creating enlarged, up-to-date plans of each borough using official and unofficial maps. These plans were created at a scale of 2 inches to 1 mile in England and Wales, and 6 inches to 1 mile in Scotland and Ireland.

1831-2 Boundary Commission Map and Report with initial proposed boundary for Airdrie © Martin Spychal 2021

In England and Wales this task was undertaken by a team of 70 surveyors, 9 lithographers and 10 colourers. From late August 1831 a central team of surveyors based at Downing Street in London completed at least one enlarged tracing of every constituency for England and Wales.  These tracings were then sent to the boundary commissioners ahead of their arrival in each constituency, where they were also accompanied by at least one or two surveyors. 

While they were in each locality the commissioners and their surveyors refined and updated their basic town plans, documented local legal boundaries (many of which were known only to officials in the localities) and recorded their proposed parliamentary boundary.

The commission’s original ordnance survey tracing with updated town plan of Llantrisant, National Archives, T72/10/16

These tracings were then sent back with the commissioners’ reports to London for approval. Once a parliamentary boundary was approved, the new maps were submitted to one of the nine London-based lithographers used by the commission, who produced copper plates of the maps ahead of the printing of the commission’s final reports. This entire process was developed and overseen by the chair of the English and Welsh boundary commission, Thomas Drummond, and was replicated by the Scottish and Irish commissions.

The labour and resources required to complete the commission’s maps was expensive.  The hourly wages of the surveyors and colourers employed to create the English and Welsh commission’s initial maps cost £4,200 (around £3.6 million in relative labour costs today). Particularly expensive were the services of the York-based surveyor Robert Cooper and Manchester-based surveyors Richard Thornton and William Smith, who worked closely with the commission to provide the first state-sanctioned maps of many towns in the north of England.

A detailed survey of proposed future building sites in the West Derby township of Liverpool completed by the commissioners in conjunction with surveyor Richard Thornton, National Archives, T72/10/10

The subsequent process of engraving, lithographing, printing and colouring 2,000 copies of each map for the English and Welsh commission’s final reports cost a further £8,557. Map-making alone amounted to around 50% of the final costs of the commission.

This large outlay of financial and human resources, combined with diligent management, ensured that the 1831-2 boundary commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were hugely efficient map-making enterprises. In August 1831 no official central repository of constituency maps existed for the United Kingdom. By June 1832 the boundary commissions had surveyed and published up-to-date, detailed official plans for all 357 UK towns and cities involved in sending borough MPs to the reformed Parliament.


Further reading

J. Andrews, A Paper Landscape: the Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-century Ireland (2002)

C. Close, The Early Years of the Ordnance Survey (1969)

R. Hewitt, Map of a Nation (2010)

B. Robson & T. Wyke, ‘Surveying the Surveyors: Richard Thornton and his Publishers’, Northern History (2019)

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 (2017)

Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound Amount, 1270 to present,’ MeasuringWorth, 2021 [www.measuringworth.com]

‘Great Reform Act Plans and Reports, 1832, National Library of Scotland

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Four prorogations and a conflagration: Parliament and its buildings in 1834

Continuing our series on the different buildings occupied by the House of Commons between 1832 and 1868, this blog looks at the makeshift arrangements made for the prorogation in the aftermath of the devastating Westminster fire of October 1834. The first blog, on the pre-1834 Commons chamber, can be found here.

On 15 August 1834 the House of Commons assembled for the last day of the 1834 parliamentary session. Around seventy members were present in the chamber – the former St. Stephen’s Chapel – when the Speaker, Sir Charles Manners Sutton, took the chair that afternoon.

A limited amount of business took place, including the presentation of petitions, questions to ministers and notices of future motions. In a reminder of how long Parliament has been subject to restoration and renewal, Sir Samuel Whalley asked when ongoing repairs to Westminster Hall would be completed and suggested that ‘the painting of the large window of the hall’ should be replaced with ‘some truly national subject’, such as William IV giving his assent to the 1832 Reform Act or the sealing of Magna Carta by King John. He was not the only MP to raise the issue of parliamentary buildings. Joseph Hume, one of the most persistent critics of the inadequacies of the Commons chamber, gave notice that he would move next session ‘for the erection of a new House of Commons’. He could hardly have anticipated the very different surroundings in which that session would take place.

The House of Commons, 1833, by Sir George Hayter. NPG under CC licence. The clerks sitting at the table are (from L to R) John Henry Ley, John Rickman and William Ley.
Sir Charles Manners Sutton by Samuel Cousins, after H. W. Pickersgill (1835). NPG under CC licence.

Proceedings in the Commons were interrupted by ‘the sound of artillery’, signalling the arrival of William IV at the House of Lords to prorogue Parliament. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, Sir Augustus Clifford, entered the Commons chamber and ‘commanded the immediate attendance of the Commons upon his Majesty’. An estimated fifty to eighty MPs accompanied the Speaker to the Lords. They returned to the Commons after about twenty minutes, following which the Speaker read the king’s prorogation speech to the House. ‘This done, he shook hands with many of those present, and thus ended the second session of the Reformed Parliament’, according to the Morning Chronicle.

This was not the final occasion on which the former St. Stephen’s Chapel was used by the Commons. Parliament was prorogued until 25 September 1834, meaning that a further prorogation to extend the recess took place on that date, although with less ceremony than in August. The king delegated his duties to three commissioners – Lord Brougham (the lord chancellor), the Duke of Argyll and Lord Auckland – who took their places on the woolsack in the Lords. In the absence of the Speaker, who was away from London, the second clerk assistant, William Ley, led ‘about twenty Gentlemen’ from the Commons chamber to the Lords to hear the reading of the commission for Parliament’s prorogation until 23 October.

The 1834 fire viewed from the south bank of the Thames, T. Baynes.

These sparsely attended and brief proceedings were the last occasion on which the Commons Journal recorded business being transacted in the former St. Stephen’s Chapel. On 16 October 1834 the Commons chamber was among the parts of the Palace of Westminster destroyed by a serious fire, the largest in London since 1666. The fire was started by the burning of wooden tally sticks – waste material from a system of accounting abolished in 1826 – in the heating furnaces in the basement of the House of Lords. A chimney fire which had smouldered throughout the day was finally noticed just after 6 p.m. Fire engines and hundreds of volunteers fought the fire throughout the night, and were able to save Westminster Hall. Fires continued to break out in the smouldering ruins for the next few days.

St Stephen’s Chapel after the fire of 1834 by John Le Keux; Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Despite the devastation, the Lords and the Commons met at Westminster only a week later to prorogue Parliament for the third time that year. By the time the new Parliament assembled after the 1835 general election, both Houses had been provided with temporary chambers, but for the prorogation proceedings on 23 October 1834, arrangements were rather more makeshift. The House of Commons met in one of the Lords committee rooms near the royal gallery; the gallery itself was ‘too full of furniture’ – presumably rescued from other parts of the Palace during the fire – to allow them to meet there. Provision was made for a table for the clerks, as well as ‘a door at which to knock’: as discussed in this blog, Black Rod knocking at the door of the Commons was a highly symbolic practice, marking the independence of the Commons from the Crown.

The House of Lords, meanwhile, assembled in its library, to which the books rescued during the fire were hastily returned, being ‘placed on the shelves in a most irregular manner’. The library was fitted out to resemble ‘a House of Lords in miniature’, with a small version of the woolsack, several benches, ‘duly covered with scarlet cloth’, and a table. A ‘handsome gilt’ chair was borrowed from St. James’s Palace to stand in for the throne, and ‘a bar was placed across the room, at which the representatives of the Lower House appeared, on being summoned to hear the royal commission’. The Morning Post’s report conveyed the improvised and last-minute nature of the arrangements:

Not more than ten minutes before the arrival of the Commissioners some poles were placed against the wall, and an awning hung upon them, to protect the Lords from the rain in passing from the House to their carriages. The Lord Chancellor experienced some difficulty in finding his way to the woolsack through the ruins. He was assisted in his search by Lee, the high constable.

By the time of the fourth and final prorogation that year, on 18 December 1834, the Lords library had ‘been fitted up in a very convenient manner’ for the purpose.

John Rickman by Miss Turner, after Samuel Lane (1831). NPG under CC licence.

As well as the furnishing of these makeshift chambers, careful attention was paid to other aspects of parliamentary ritual. The wife of the clerk assistant, John Rickman, told her daughter in October 1834 that,

The two Mr. Leys (Clerk and Second Clerk Assistant of the House) … desire your Papa to attend the Prorogation on Saturday, because they have lost their wigs! and Mr. William Ley says, “We shall follow you to the Bar in plain clothes.”

For the prorogation of 23 October, Rickman therefore led the way from the makeshift Commons to the makeshift Lords, accompanied by ‘nearly all the clerks and officers of the House of Commons’, as well as a small number of MPs, including the former minister Sir James Graham and James Alexander Stewart Mackenzie, MP for Ross and Cromarty. The attendance of peers was ‘more numerous than it has been for many years on the occasion of a prorogation’, prompted no doubt by curiosity about the unusual circumstances in which it was taking place. The Speaker’s wife, Lady Manners Sutton, together with Lady Burghesh and ‘several friends of the Speaker’ also witnessed events from below the bar.

Ruins of St. Stephen’s Chapel, Gentleman’s Magazine (1835). Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Once the formal proceedings were over, those present took the opportunity to explore as much of the ruins as possible, although The Times reported that ‘the view is now very limited, owing to the fencing off of most of the places, and the several door and window ways, in consequence of the very dangerous state of the ruins’. The dangers of the site were illustrated by the fact that a fire engine was still at work dealing with a fire in the cellars while the prorogation was taking place.

Ruins of the Houses of Parliament on the morning after the fire.
Image credit: Dr Philip Salmon

Further reading

Caroline Shenton, ‘The Fire of 1834’, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/periods/modern/fire-1834

Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012)

Mary E. Palgrave, ‘A Prorogation under Difficulties’, The Leisure Hour (Feb. 1900), 336-41.

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The shipping and the railway interests: Whitby’s electoral politics, 1832-1868

This post first appeared on the History of Parliament’s blog as part of its local history series on port constituencies.

In July 1832 the ‘blues’ (Liberals) and ‘pinks’ (Conservatives) in the port of Whitby each held lavish celebrations to mark the passing of the Reform Act, which granted the town the right to elect one MP. Whitby had not originally been included in the Grey ministry’s reform bill, but was one of several single member boroughs added in April 1831. Explaining why Whitby deserved its own MP, the Whig chancellor of the exchequer, Viscount Althorp, noted that it was not ‘near any enfranchised place’ and argued that it was desirable to increase the representation of this part of Yorkshire. He also emphasised ‘the amount of its shipping interests’.

Richard Weatherill; Upper Harbour, Abbey and St Mary’s Church; Pannett Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/upper-harbour-abbey-and-st-marys-church-9953

Located on the North Yorkshire coast, at the mouth of the river Esk, Whitby was one of the country’s largest ports in the early nineteenth century, being ranked eighth in terms of the tonnage of vessels registered there in 1828. Its main business was importing timber and other goods from North America and the Baltic, as well as a large ‘coasting’ trade with other British ports. Whitby had been noted for whaling, but this was in decline from the early 1820s and stopped completely after 1837. However, it remained an important fishing port. Shipbuilding was another key industry, together with associated trades such as sail-making and rope-making. Whitby also became known for the manufacture of jet ornaments, boosted by the fashion for mourning jewellery in the later nineteenth century.

Whitby’s first MP, Aaron Chapman, came from a prominent local family involved in banking and shipowning, although Chapman himself lived in London, where he managed his family’s business interests. Reinforcing his connection with the shipping interest, he was an Elder Brother of Trinity House, the body responsible for lighthouses and pilotage. Chapman, a Conservative, was challenged at the borough’s first contest in December 1832 by Richard Moorsom, a local landowner whose family had previously been involved in shipping. The key election issue was free trade: Moorsom defended the move towards free trade embodied in the system of ‘reciprocity’, which involved making agreements with other nations for mutual concessions on tariffs, whereas Chapman criticised reciprocity as ‘impolitic’ and largely responsible for the depressed state of British shipping.

Chapman defeated Moorsom in the poll by 217 votes to 139. The overwhelming support of Whitby’s shipowners was central to Chapman’s success, with one of his supporters having warned voters that ‘if Mr. Moorsom was returned to parliament, to support the Free-trade system, grass would continue to grow in their shipyards, nay grass would grow down to the water’s edge’. However, Chapman’s opponents claimed that corrupt means had also been used, with ‘threats and promises’. Moorsom’s committee had resolved ‘to maintain purity of election, and repress bribery and inordinate expense’, and the Liberals claimed not to have distributed a single shilling’s worth of drink. In contrast – in an example of the central role played by the public house at elections – the Conservatives were alleged to have distributed liquor freely to anyone presenting a pink card, and

numbers were to be seen lying in the gutters in beastly and senseless drunkenness, too shocking for description, men, women and even children of six and seven years of age.

Reflecting Whitby’s maritime traditions, the ceremony of chairing the victorious MP used ‘a boatlike chair’, from which Chapman ‘had hardly alighted when the crowd made a rush, smashed the boat into a thousand pieces’, and took fragments as souvenirs. The 1835 chairing, which took place after Chapman was re-elected unopposed, used a similar chair, described as ‘a beautiful model of a ship, with figure head, quarter badges … lined with pink-coloured satin, with a canopy of the same materials, and christened the “Royal William”’. Chapman was again spared a contest in 1837 and 1841, but announced in July 1845 that he would step down at the next election.

The Whitby and Pickering Railway Drawn by G. Dodgson, engraved by J. Stephenson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whitby’s representation in the 1830s and 1840s had been monopolised by the shipping interest, but after Chapman’s retirement, another influence came to the fore: the railway interest. This stemmed from the possibilities which the railway offered to promote Whitby as a holiday destination. George Hudson, the railway entrepreneur, had inherited property on Whitby’s West Cliff in the 1820s, and in 1843 he founded the Whitby Cliff Building Company to develop the area as a seaside resort. His position in the town was boosted further by the York and North Midland company’s purchase in 1845 of the Whitby and Pickering railway, which it planned to connect to the Stockton and Darlington railway. Hudson was suggested as a possible successor to Chapman, but took the opportunity of a by-election in August 1845 to be returned for Sunderland. Various other names were mooted, including William Gladstone, but at the 1847 election it was Robert Stephenson, the railway engineer, who was elected unopposed as Whitby’s Conservative MP. His father George had been a friend of Hudson’s since they first met at Whitby in 1834.

Francis Grant; George Hudson (1800-1871); Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/george-hudson-18001871-35165

Stephenson’s death shortly after his election for the fourth time as Whitby’s MP in 1859 prompted a by-election at which the Liberal candidate came from the railway interest: Harry Stephen Thompson, chairman of the North Eastern railway (NER). Two candidates appeared on the Conservative side. Aaron Chapman’s nephew, Thomas Chapman, chairman of Lloyd’s shipping register in London, was backed by his family influence and Whitby’s shipping interest, but faced a rival in the form of Hudson, who had recently lost his Sunderland seat. Hudson had fallen from grace after the exposure of his fraudulent railway dealings in 1849 and at the time of the Whitby by-election he had fled abroad to escape his creditors.

Although Chapman was endorsed by George Young of the General Shipowners’ Society, Thompson was keen to avoid the election becoming a struggle between the railway and shipping interests, arguing that the ‘railways brought more to shipping than they carried away’. He highlighted the NER’s investment in dock facilities on the Tyne and branch lines to Northern ports, including Whitby. He also noted that the company had spent £70,000 to free up Hudson’s West Cliff property for development, which would help Whitby to become ‘a first-rate watering-place’. One Liberal election poster declared, ‘Let us have Thompson and Railways for the future Prosperity of Whitby’. Thompson triumphed over Chapman in the poll.

Harry Stephen Thompson, MP for Whitby, 1859-65 NPG under CC licence

This did not mark the end of Hudson’s political connection with Whitby, as he offered again in 1865, when he voiced his hopes that legal proceedings would enable him to regain control of the West Cliff property and tried to gain sympathy due to the ‘persecution’ he had suffered at the hands of the NER. Thompson, meanwhile, had lost some popularity. This was partly because he appeared to be lukewarm on the question of parliamentary reform, but stemmed also from the belief that the railway developments he had overseen as NER chairman had benefitted Scarborough more than Whitby. One election placard urged voters to

Bundle Thompson off to Scarboro’ by train;

That’s where all his cheap trips went, and where brass was spent

And he’ll do the same again.Whitby lads, he’ll cut you again.

However, Hudson’s candidature was prevented by his dramatic arrest just two days before the nomination at the behest of one of his creditors, and his subsequent imprisonment in York Castle, proceedings in which he alleged Thompson had a hand. The Conservatives’ last-minute substitute, Charles Bagnall – a Staffordshire iron-master in business at Whitby since 1861, who was related by marriage to the Chapmans – benefitted from the voters’ desire to ‘avenge Hudson’s wrongs’. He defeated Thompson with a majority of 23 votes. It may have been its shipping interests which prompted Whitby’s enfranchisement in 1832, but the railway interest came to play an increasingly influential role within the electoral politics of this Yorkshire port.

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The queen and the chemist’s son: Matthew Wood MP and the radical defence of Queen Caroline

Matthew Wood (1768-1843) represented London as a radical reformer between 1817 and 1843. From 1832 he was a committed advocate of metropolitan legislation and an active figure in the committee corridors. As a founding member, and landlord, of the short-lived Westminster Club, he also played a significant role in effecting the downfall of the Grey ministry during 1834. This blog, which was previously published on the History of Parliament blog, discusses an earlier episode in Wood’s lengthy political career, when he played a key part in the Queen Caroline affair. A hop merchant and former Lord Mayor, Wood brought Caroline out of exile in June 1820 and housed her at his Mayfair residence at the beginning of the national crisis. As the affair gathered steam Wood became a prime target for loyalist vitriol, a prime example being Theodore Hooke’s malicious pamphlet Solomon Logwood: A Radical Tale. The pamphlet was one of the items featured in the Reform, React, Rebel exhibition at UCL, which was curated by Dr Martin Spychal and Dr Vivienne Larminie.


A.W. Devis, Sir Matthew Wood (1816) CC NPG

From the perspective of the British establishment Matthew Wood came from lowly beginnings. He started his career as an assistant at his father’s chemist shop in Tiverton before moving to London as a travelling druggist during the 1790s. Wood struck gold in 1802 with an investment in a colouring agent for porter beer and soon became one of London’s major hop merchants. At the same time he was appointed to the City of London common council, and in 1809 was elected an alderman of the City and sheriff of Middlesex.

In 1815 Wood served a largely unprecedented two-year term as Lord Mayor of London. His popularity in the City increased during his mayoralty on account of his resistance to the government’s repressive post-Napoleonic legislation. Wood’s outspokenness only created enemies at Westminster, however, and for two years running ministers refused to attend his Lord Mayor’s dinner.

Lord Mayor's Show

Wood’s procession following his election as Lord Mayor of London for the second year running. Ministers did not attend the subsequent banquet (1816) CC British Museum

As his mayoralty drew to a close during 1817, he was elected a radical MP for London. Dogged by a ‘harsh, grating’ voice which sounded ‘the same whenever he speaks, or on whatever subjects he expresses his sentiments’, Wood continued to call out government repression and was a stringent critic of the government’s response to the Peterloo massacre.

When the unpopular Prince Regent succeeded to the throne as George IV in January 1820, Wood began corresponding with the new King’s exiled wife, Caroline of Brunswick. In late May he secured an incredible coup over Caroline’s chief advisor, the Whig MP Henry Brougham, who was trying to negotiate a behind-closed doors settlement. Instead, Wood met Caroline in Calais and convinced her to return from exile, take up residence in his London home and from there claim the right to be crowned Queen of the United Kingdom.


Wood at Caroline’s side with his ‘shield for the innocent’ as she refuses a settlement of £50,000 and returns to Britain to demand ‘Nothing but a Crown’. Brougham turns his back ‘on such dirty work as this’. G. Cruikshank, The Secret Insult (1820) CC British Museum

Wood returned to London in triumph on 6 June 1820, escorting Caroline in an open carriage through thronging crowds in the metropolis to his South Audley Street home in Mayfair. While the multitude massed daily outside Caroline’s temporary residence, and the great and the good of British radicalism paid her court at South Audley Street, Wood became a loud advocate of his new lodger in the Commons.

When the Tory government agreed to introduce a pains and penalties bill in July 1820, which in effect instituted a divorce trial in the House of Lords, Wood did what over a million of his countrywomen and men would do over the coming months, and signed a petition in support of the Queen. Caroline moved to Brandenburgh House in Hammersmith on 3 August, but  Wood remained one of her closest advisors, supporting her throughout her trial in the House of Lords, which ran until November, and leading London’s celebrations in response to the government’s decision to abandon it.


Wood and Caroline look on at their adoring public. Crowds massed daily outside Wood’s Mayfair residence during June and July 1820 to catch a sight of Caroline. Isaac Cruikshank, A Late Arrival at Mother Wood’s (1820) CC British Museum

The ‘vulgarity’ and sheer audacity of Wood, who never missed an opportunity to appear at Caroline’s side, shocked the establishment. Many commentators, both Whig and Tory, opined that he was merely seizing an opportunity to secure future patronage. Brougham, for example, continued to denounce Wood as a ‘Jack Ass’ and ‘jobbing fool’.


Front cover of the fourth edition of Theodore Hooke, Solomon Logwood (1820). Image supplied by UCL Library Services, Special Collections, OGDEN HON NEW

However, for loyalists such as Theodore Hook (1788-1841), the ultra-Tory prankster and writer, Wood personified the threat posed to the state by the popular radical movement. That the son of a Devonshire chemist had become in effect the landlord of and closest advisor to the Queen seemed at first absurd. However, as the popular movement gathered steam, Wood offered a startling vision of how a world turned upside down might appear – with Caroline as Queen and low-bred Radicals such as Wood in charge at Westminster.

Hook took aim at Wood during 1820 in two widely read satirical pamphlets. The first, Tentamen, portrayed Wood as Dick Whittington, and Caroline as his cat. The second was a six-part poem entitled Solomon Logwood: A Radical Tale. Its publication in October 1820, as Caroline’s trial continued in the Lords, took place after a London-wide march to present two addresses to Caroline at her Hammersmith residence from the ‘married ladies and the inhabitant householders’ of Marylebone.

In the poem Wood was derided as Solomon Logwood, which was in keeping with the punning put-downs of early nineteenth-century doggerel. Rhyming loosely with Alderman Wood (which was Wood’s official title) and referencing his career in the brewing industry and apparent assumption of the duties as a King to Caroline, it translates roughly as king of the beer adulterators – Solomon being the tenth century BC King of Israel and logwood being a common adulterant of beer.


Page 1 of Solomon Logwood: A Radical Tale. Image supplied by UCL Library Services, Special Collections

While the invocation of Solomon may be a straightforward biblical allusion (a common nineteenth-century trope), it is likely that for the ultra-Tory Hook the choice of a Jewish king had an added (possibly anti-Semitic) resonance for the overarching theme of his pamphlet, which was to present Wood’s actions as unchristian, unpatriotic and anti-British. In fact, as our previous blog revealed, the pro-Caroline movement was steeped in ‘constitutional language and respect for historic institutions’, a key factor that ensured the movement’s legitimacy.

Hook’s poem tells the story of how Solomon Logwood, at the behest of Satan whispering ‘arise, my son, and earn some fame anew’, brought ‘England’s Queen’ from ‘Italy’s fair clime’ and caused ‘a mighty strife’ from ‘Orkney to Land’s End’. It mocks the ‘good store of rogue and whore’ who had been in South Audley Street ‘each day before the Lady’s door’, and the ‘idle knaves’ and ‘louts’ who since the beginning of Caroline’s trial in August had ‘throng’d all the streets of Westminster and made it like a fair’.

Throughout the poem Wood is chastised for standing ‘o’er her [Caroline’s] ample shoulder’ and ‘blazoning each day the Queen’s approach’ to Westminster during her trial. In the final stanzas he is charged with initiating a mass campaign in favour of Caroline in every ‘market-town’ and ‘each village and high way’ until:

Thus soon they muster’d names enough

of crippled and bed-rid,

brib’d grannies with a pinch of snuff,

and grey-beards with a quid.

Theodore Hook, Solomon Logwood (1820)


Engraving at the front of Solomon Logwood. The signatories of the Marylebone address meet Caroline, with Wood far right holding a Chamberlain’s wand, Image supplied by UCL Library Services, Special Collections

Hook’s satire on the campaign culminated in the presentation of the address to the Queen from the inhabitants of Marylebone, which is the subject of an engraving at the front of the pamphlet. Amidst queueing men and women signatories in the background, Wood stands upright in the far right of the picture, holding a Chamberlain’s wand and wearing a miniature of Caroline around his neck. In the centre Caroline shakes the hand of a ragtag drunkard with a bottle of gin in his pocket, while a man holding an address with the names Samuel Soot, Titus Tripe and Jerry Sneak (a reference to Samuel Foote’s The Mayor Of Garrett), knocks over a woman and causes a crush.

Despite the mockery of critics such as Hook, Caroline continued to receive similar addresses from across the country at her Hammersmith residence, as well as their signatories, while her trial continued in the Lords. Each was accompanied by a festival-like procession, often with tens of thousands in attendance. These events, as well as the huge crowds that continued to gather daily at Westminster, contributed to growing unease in ministerial circles by November and to Lord Liverpool’s eventual decision to drop the bill of pains and penalties.


As Caroline’s trial continued huge crowds continued to greet the presentation of further addresses to Caroline. M. Dubourg, Arrival at Brandeburgh House of the Waterman &c with an address to the Queen on the 3rd October 1820 (1820) CC Gov/Art/Col

In the short term, for radicals such as Wood the ensuing mass celebrations in November and December proved short-lived. Without the rallying cry of an unjust divorce, reformers and radicals found it difficult to channel the energy of the pro-Caroline movement into their wider demands for reform. In fact, by January 1821, it was Hook’s loyalist world view that seemed to be in the ascendant, as Tories and moderate Whigs at Westminster and across the country became increasingly confident in their ability to dismiss Caroline and the wider political demands of those who had adopted her cause.


Matthew Wood has three biographical entries for the History of Parliament. His entries in Commons 1790-1820 and Commons 1820-32 are available on our website. For details about how to access the biographies of Wood and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here. You can follow The Victorian Commons on Twitter and WordPress to keep up to date with their research.

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The radical hostess of Parliament Street: Harriet Grote (1792-1878), the 1832 election and establishing influence as a woman at Westminster

In the second of his blogs on Harriet Grote (1792-1878), our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, explores Harriet’s introduction to electoral politics at the 1832 election and her preparations for the 1833 parliamentary session…

Harriet Grote by Charles Landseer c.1830 CC British Museum

The 1832 election introduced Harriet Grote (1792-1878) to several of the traditional, and not so traditional, avenues through which a politician’s wife could engage in nineteenth-century electoral politics. As I discussed in my previous blog, Harriet had established herself as a central figure among London’s intellectual radicals during the 1820s, before being thrown into the world of Westminster politics during the reform crisis of 1830-32.

At the 1832 election her husband, the radical reformer and banker, George Grote (1794-1871), stood for election for the first time. He came forward for the City of London, which with over 18,000 voters, was the UK’s largest constituency. Due to the size of its electorate, canvassing in London took on a different character to most other constituencies. A huge bureaucratic machine was established, with Harriet and George operating as figureheads overseeing campaign workers.

Harriet described their closest friend and George’s banking partner, William George Prescott, as ‘the life and soul of our committee’, and remarked how at one point ‘seventy clerks’ were ‘at work all day and night’ at the King’s Head Tavern, 25 Poultry, running the campaign. In private, Harriet fulfilled the unpaid and generally unnoticed secretarial roles attached to being a politician’s wife, writing speeches, responding to correspondence and overseeing George’s schedule, or as she termed it the ‘duty of arranging his existence’.

Harriet and George oversaw a massive election campaign in the country’s largest constituency in 1832. An example of a committee room, Illustrated London News, 31 July 1847

During the election Harriet was also asked to fulfil one of the more traditional tasks associated with the politician’s wife: supplying the rosettes for George and his election team. She described how at the declaration thirty of George’s stewards ‘wore my colours in their button-holes, made by myself, a rosette of crimson satin – their especial request’.

The nomination and declaration for the City of London took place at London’s Guildhall. As it was not customary for women to stand on the hustings, Harriet was able to spectate proceedings from a ‘peep-box’ or ‘eyrie’ on one of the upper balconies of the Guildhall. In her journal she recalled: 

London’s Guildhall at the Lord Mayor’s Dinner 1830 CC British Museum

the scene below will never be effaced from my mind. About 4,500 electors studded the hall in dense order. The hustings was occupied by the candidates and their trains, the Sheriffs presiding in full costume. I thought I should have sunk down when I saw my “Potter” [George Grote] step forth to the rostrum when his turn arrived, amid a roar of applause, a waving of hats and shouts of tremendous nature that the vaulted roof rang again.

George was elected at the top of the poll with over 8,000 votes in December 1832, the largest recorded for any candidate at the 1832 election. This made him, in Harriet’s view, the ‘senior member for the capital of the Empire’.

In contrast to later years this was a moment of intense political opportunity and excitement for both Harriet and George, who felt that the political momentum was finally behind their reformist and utilitarian ideals. In her journal she reflected ‘I doubt if ever again I shall experience the intense happiness of those inspiring moments’. She continued: ‘George is in good health, thank God, and never has the ‘dolors’ now – nor glums’. Both dared to dream that the British public were ‘echoing the sentiments which for years we had privately cherished, but which were now first fearlessly avowed’.

With the parliamentary session about to commence Harriet revived her role as the influential Threadneedle Street hostess at the heart of Westminster. In doing so she skilfully co-opted the aristocratic model of the political hostess, traditionally associated with the likes of Lady Holland or the Countess of Derby. Harriet, however, stamped her own radical middle-class identity on the hostess model, one that was fit for the exciting new world of reformed politics.

Advert for 34 Parliament Street, Morning Post, 8 Dec. 1830

In January 1833 she moved into newly rented lodgings with George at 34 Parliament Street, above what was then Oakley’s grocers and is now the Houses of Parliament Gift Shop and Boots. She wrote to her sister ahead of the opening of Parliament, revealing her plan to turn their flat into one of Westminster’s parliamentary and intellectual hubs:

We have got some excellent apartments in Westminster, the corner of Parliament Street and Bridge Street, handsome drawing-room, anteroom and dining room communicating, good bedroom, another bedroom for George – using it as his dressing-room or to sleep in if I am not well, rooms for maids and men over that, nice people below and everything we could wish as a lodging – only £8 a week for six months, and we are lucky to get it. Here we shall be most of the session save Saturdays and Sundays – coteries of friends, political and other, and as much intellectual society as the world affords.

Street view of 34 Parliament Street c.1838 and street view c. 2021. Tallis’s London Street Views (1838-1840) Tufts University Digital Library & Google Maps

Her mother visited their new residence during the opening weeks of the parliamentary session. She confirmed that Harriet’s plans were coming to fruition: ‘while I was there I met many members flocking in with all the news’.

One of Harriet’s first ‘soirees’ took place on 13 February 1833, which was a night of light business in the House. Harriet assured her sister, who she was trying to convince to visit Parliament, that it was a far from male-dominated affair: ‘the Waddingtons in full force … E[liza] Shireff came with girls; also Mrs. [Sarah] Austin, Mrs. [Mary] Gaskell of Yorkshire, and a bevy of MPs, and John [Stuart] Mill to top up with’.

The author and translator Sarah Austin was an integral member of the Grote’s radical set, 1834 CC NPG

Harriet’s choice to live with George at Westminster, rather than remain at their residence in Dulwich, led to mutterings that she was encroaching on the bounds of acceptable behaviour for an MP’s wife. It was usual practice for male MPs without London property to live alone at their clubs or hotels during the parliamentary week.

The election agent Joseph Parkes warned Harriet that some suspected her of ‘conceit’ at seeking to exert influence over radical politics as the hostess of 34 Parliament Street. While these accusations were probably close to reality, Harriet couldn’t admit as much in polite society. Accordingly, she brushed off Parkes’s concerns by playing the dutiful wife card, assuring him that:

My chief object in taking a lodging in Parliament Street is to be enabled to look after my man … I shall “minister” to G[eorge] and when not wanted, shall tend my flowers and lead my rational course at D[ulwich] wood. My conceit, however monstrous it may sound, is not what is understood by conceit. I live with one so much my master, that the true feeling of “conceit” is effectually stopped out. I am made sensible of my inferiority most days in the week.

As we will see in my next blog, Harriet proved herself more than equal to her husband and his parliamentary colleagues. She also spared little thought for fulfilling the role of subservient parliamentary spouse…

Further Reading

S. Richardson, ‘A Regular Politician in Breeches: The Life and Work of Harriet Lewin Grote’, in K. Demetrious (ed.), Brill’s Companion to George Grote and the Classical Tradition (2014)

K. Rix, MP of the Month: Daniel Gaskell (1782-1875), Victorian Commons

J. Davey, Mary, Countess of Derby, and the Politics of Victorian Britain (2019)

J. Hamburger, ‘Grote [née Lewin], Harriet’, Oxf. DNB, www.oxforddnb.com

Lady Eastlake, Mrs Grote: A Sketch (1880)

H. Grote, Collected Papers: In Prose and Verse 1842-1862 (1862)

H. Grote (ed.), Posthumous Papers: Comprising Selections from Familiar Correspondence (1874)

M. L. Clarke, George Grote: A Biography (1962)

Posted in Elections, Harriet Grote, women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MPs and religious affiliation, 1832-68: a research guide

One of the aims of our Victorian Commons blog is to act as a guide to resources for research on 19th century British history. Although our focus is on Parliament and electoral politics, the material which we have listed on our Resources page – most of which is freely available online – will also be of interest to researchers on a range of subjects. It includes biographical dictionaries, Hansard, Acts of Parliament, army lists, trade directories, newspapers, maps and much more.

Having been asked by other researchers what information we have about the religious affiliation of MPs in the nineteenth century Commons, we thought it would be helpful to provide a guide to the resources available on this theme. It was a question in which contemporaries took a keen interest, with the press gathering information and publishing lists, particularly in the wake of general elections.

Report in Manchester Times, 7 Aug. 1852, reproducing information from The Nonconformist

The majority of MPs who sat between 1832 and 1868 were Anglicans, but the following articles, books and resources provide information on those who came from other religious backgrounds.



D. W. Bebbington, Congregational members of parliament in the nineteenth century (2007)


Alderman John Biggs (1801-1871), Mayor of Leicester (1840, 1847 & 1855), possibly by William Scott; Leicester Town Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/alderman-john-biggs-18011871-mayor-of-leicester-1840-1847-1855-81243;
Biggs, a Unitarian, was MP for Leicester, 1856-62


  • John. A. Stack, ‘Catholic Members of Parliament who represented British constituencies, 1829-1885: a prosopographical analysis’, Recusant History, 24 (1999).
  • On English Catholic MPs, see also our earlier blog.


  • E. Isichei, Victorian Quakers (1970) includes a discussion of Quaker Members of Parliament.
  • Our list in progress of Quakers who sat between 1832 and 1868 is as follows: William Aldam; John Bright; John Ellis; Charles Gilpin; Samuel Gurney; Edward Aldam Leatham; Joseph Pease; Henry Pease; Joseph Whitwell Pease; Jonathan Pim.
Commons Journal, 21 Aug. 1841: William Aldam, MP for Leeds, becomes the second Quaker to take his seat

Other Nonconformists

  • M. Watts, The dissenters, Vol. 2: the expansion of evangelical nonconformity 1791-1859 (1995), contains a significant amount of information on Nonconformist MPs.
  • As part of our House of Commons, 1832-68 project we are compiling lists of MPs of other denominations who sat in Parliament during this period, including Presbyterians and Methodists. So far we have also researched one Swedenborgian (Charles Augustus Tulk, who featured as one of our MPs of the Month) and one Moravian (Charles Hindley).


  • M. Clark, ‘Jewish identity in British politics: the case of the first Jewish MPs, 1858-87’, Jewish Social Studies, 13:2 (2007), 93-126.
  • M. C. N. Salbstein, The emancipation of the Jews in Britain. The question of the admission of the Jews to Parliament, 1828-1860 (1982).
  • The admission of Jews to the House of Commons was one of the themes featured in the ‘Rebel, React, Reform’ exhibition at University College, London, of which our research fellow Dr. Martin Spychal was a co-curator. Find out more in the exhibition catalogue (pp. 38-43).
Lionel Nathan de Rothschild introduced in the House of Commons on 26 July 1858,
by Henry Barraud (1872). Rothschild was the first Jewish MP to take his seat.

In addition to the material given in our MP biographies on their religious affiliation, our constituency profiles provide information on the different places of worship within each locality, as well as assessing the impact which religious loyalties and religious questions had on the outcome of elections.

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‘Like partridges in February’: parliamentary pairing in the reformed Commons

In 1832 parliamentary reformers fondly hoped that the need to satisfy the demands of a larger electorate might spur MPs to attend more closely to their parliamentary duties. However, one way of avoiding long hours in the Commons was for MPs to ‘pair’ with Members from the opposite side of the House and absent themselves from divisions without disadvantage to either party. The practice was thought to have begun in the time of Cromwell, although it was never recognised by the House and remained an informal verbal contract either made privately or, more commonly, through the office of the party whips.

As attendance at divisions generally declined in the decade after the Reform Act objections were raised to pairing. Even when the opening of a parliamentary session required parties to rally their strength to present an imposing front as many as one third of the Members might be absent. The situation could be worse by mid-session. For example, in June 1840 MPs voted by 208 to 197 against postponing the second reading of the politically controversial Irish registration bill, yet 222 MPs were reported to have paired, and well before that session ended the Spectator complained that in effect the Commons was already ‘self-prorogued’. Divisions on unresolved questions such as the ballot saw the number of MPs who paired almost outweigh those who voted. Lax attenders like the Montgomery MP, John Edwards, argued that pairing on such questions ‘had precisely the same effect’ as voting, although critics countered that before recording an opinion MPs ought to be present to hear the arguments on which it was formed.

By 1843, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper commented, pairing had become as common as ‘the noise of a train upon a railroad’, the Spectator adding that the ‘pairing-time’ of the country’s MPs was as certain as that of ‘the linnet and thrush’. However, defenders of the practice insisted that it was essential for MPs to maintain contact with the outside world while the House was sitting. Pairing most commonly took place towards the end of the week or for a few hours at dinner time, when the lobby looked ‘more like a betting-ring’ than a legislative chamber, as MPs crowded around the party whips with their pairing books. In practice MPs usually applied to the opposition whip to find them a pair and it was said that as many as a hundred could be accommodated within a half hour, thus allowing these ‘enviable fellows’ to seek ‘pleasure or repose’ while their colleagues suffered the infliction of the ‘nightly talk’.

Pairing in the Commons, Penny Illustrated Paper, 27 Feb. 1864

As well as pairing on particular questions, or simply as a precaution against an unexpected division, Members were allowed to pair for weeks or even months at a time. Ill health could be one reason for seeking a pair, but it sometimes stemmed from happier circumstances. The Wexford Independent reported in 1836 that Wexford’s ‘patriotic and honourable representative’, Charles Walker, had paired off ‘for a short period’ in order to go on honeymoon. The discomfort of crossing the Irish Sea in January led some Irish Members to pair for the early weeks of the session, while MPs eager to leave London in the heat of summer tended to pair off ‘like partridges in February’. Pairing for extended periods was particularly disliked in Liberal constituencies, where it was assumed that Conservative MPs would never miss an important party division if it could be avoided. Therefore in 1837 the Morning Chronicle warned ‘hale but indolent Reformers’ against pairing off with ‘bed-ridden Tories’, and in 1840 a Dublin newspaper suggested that the constituencies should insist on pairing ‘not being exercised – except in extreme circumstances – at all’. Consequently when two Irish Liberals left Westminster without pairs prior to a crucial vote on the registration bill that April, Daniel O’Connell publicly challenged each of them to explain their absence to their constituents.

Morning Chronicle, 8 Mar. 1834, report of the pairs on a division regarding the use of press gangs for naval recruitment

Although pairing was informal, Hansard recorded the names of pairs in some of the early divisions of the reformed Commons, and while they never appeared in the official division lists, published from March 1836, they were often printed in newspapers following important divisions, the information presumably coming from the whips’ pairing books. Because the practice was founded on trust, and could only be rescinded by mutual consent, it was rare, at least by the 1860s, for MPs to break their pairs even by accident, and never ‘by design’. Therefore, while he was aware of ‘old legends of tricks being played by the whips’, Sir Edward Knatchbull Hugessen recalled in 1866 that only two such misunderstandings had occurred during his six years as a Liberal whip. There were, however, sometimes discussions between the rival whips about the parameters of pairing. After 25 Conservative MPs who had paired for the night of the 21 March 1887 voted the following morning, it was subsequently agreed that ‘a pair for the night meant a pair for the whole sitting’, clarifying the terms of a long-standing parliamentary practice that continues in a modified form to this day.

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Pubs and drink in Victorian elections

Most of us probably think of pubs as informal spaces for leisure and socialising. In the period we research for the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, however, things were rather different. Public houses played a central role in many of the formal routines of public life, providing meeting places and temporary offices for a range of civic and commercial activities. These more formal functions were especially apparent when it came to the business of organising and running election campaigns. The idea of the pub as a suitable venue for electioneering might seem rather alien to us today, but our research shows that they continued to play a significant part in British political life well beyond the 1832 Reform Act.

Unused ‘refreshment’ ticket, 1841

The traditional view of the pub in early Victorian elections, of course, is as providers of drink. Vast quantities of alcohol were often given away in the days leading up to and during the poll, not just to voters but also to the entire community, including women. Paid for by election agents acting on behalf of candidates, drink (and free meals) could be one of the largest single costs in an election. At Cheltenham in 1841, for instance, the publicans’ bills charged to the successful candidate came to £876, over twice the £342 spent on canvassing.

Detail from typical election scene

Drunkenness, as our constituency articles amply testify, was a routine feature of many elections. At Bodmin it became ‘notorious that many electors were brought to the poll in a state of beastly intoxication’. During the 1835 contest even ‘respectable females … were seen lying about the streets inebriated and some of them almost in a state of nudity’ (Cornish Guardian, 23 Jan. 1835). Describing similar ‘debauched’ scenes at Derby, a local paper reported how one voter had ‘retired to the privy to relieve his stomach, but being unable to keep his equilibrium he pitched forth head first into the disgusting receptacle, where he stuck fast by the shoulders in the seat and remained … for several hours’. (He was unable to poll.) Candidates often tried to stop this sort of ‘treating’. But as Lord Mahon, Tory MP for Hertford, complained to Lord Salisbury in 1835, the bills came in regardless, even though ‘I had strictly forbidden and I thought effectively prevented any treating at public houses’.

The ‘George Inn’, the Tory HQ at Bedford, 1835

The problem faced by Mahon and so many other candidates was that pubs and inns provided a lot more than just drink and free meals during a campaign. Along with local hotels they were also used as formal committee rooms and temporary headquarters for the local party agents and their canvassers and willing volunteers. Members of the committee often stayed there for the duration of a campaign. The entire establishment would be booked out. Sometimes even a printing press for squibs and broadsides was installed if no alternative was available nearby. Pre-nomination speeches would be delivered from an upstairs window or balcony, like the one depicted here at the ‘George Inn’ at Bedford. The building would be plastered with ribbons, flags and cockades in the candidate’s colours. If unrest or an election riot broke out, it would be the pub windows that usually suffered first.

Securing ‘inns’ in a good location before a campaign therefore became critical. Retainers were often used and pre-election scrambles by local agents to book the best inns were not uncommon. Because of the supply chains involved, pubs also wielded influence more broadly. Once booked, they would only buy from local suppliers who promised to vote for their man, in what amounted to a collective form of ‘exclusive dealing’.

The decline of the role of the pub (and drink) in Victorian elections is usually associated with the increasing restrictions on ‘treating’ and bribery that came into force during the second half of the 19th century, along with the rise of the temperance movement and its huge influence on politics. But there was also another factor that helped to sideline the pub, which is often overlooked.

As well as the provision of drink, pubs performed another important function at elections. Before the railways were completed, many pubs and coaching inns supplied horses, carriages, stabling and all the other amenities associated with local transport. By booking these inns on behalf of the candidates, local party supporters helped to secure the means of fetching and transporting voters to the poll. ‘Conveyance’, as it was called, could involve anything from bringing in large numbers of electors from distant corners of a county to just sending flys around to collect infirm or elderly voters in a borough. In county elections it could prove decisive. As a Lincolnshire election agent noted in 1837, ‘very few indeed of the smaller voters would go any great distance to give their votes without being conveyed’. With the development of the railways from the 1840s onwards, however, candidates and their committees in many constituencies were able to bring in voters by train, usually far more quickly and cheaply, beginning to break the traditional stranglehold that pubs had exercised over election logistics.

Given the central role of the pub in elections, it is hardly surprising that the efforts made by Parliament to tackle ‘treating’ and bribery in the latter part of the nineteenth century included specific regulations directed at curbing its influence. The 1883 Corrupt Practices Act banned the use of pubs as committee rooms for candidates, although this disappointed the temperance lobby, which had wanted to see pubs closed altogether during elections. It would not be until 1914 and the outbreak of war that licensing laws were introduced to limit the opening hours of pubs more generally.

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Vaccination and the Vote: a Victorian dilemma

With mass vaccinations underway across the nation, spare a thought for the Victorian pioneers of the UK’s first major vaccination programme, against smallpox. As well as battling against all sorts of safety fears and logistical problems, they unwittingly found themselves facing legal issues arising from the small-print of the 1832 Reform Act. In what has to be one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of our representative system, electors who got themselves or family members vaccinated risked losing their voting rights. For a short period, electors actually had to chose between being vaccinated or keeping the franchise.

The history of vaccination against smallpox in the UK – from the experiments of Dr Edward Jenner to the introduction of compulsory vaccination in 1853 – is well documented. The many objections to vaccination, which eventually spawned a Victorian anti-vaccination movement, have also received plenty of attention from historians. Alongside fears about the ‘moral’ and ‘unnatural’ effects of injecting animal matter (cowpox) into humans, including speculation that it triggered the growth of ‘cow hairs’, supporters of vaccination also had to contend with the ongoing popularity of a rival procedure: traditional ‘inoculation’ or ‘variolation’. Practised since ancient times in Asia, this involved scratching the skin open and inserting a small amount of the actual smallpox virus, in the hope of stimulating a limited response that would then protect against the full-scale disease. Unfortunately, the high infection and mortality rates associated with ‘variolation’, when compared with vaccination, made it clear that it needed to be stopped and replaced with vaccination. The question was how best to achieve this. 

Significantly, it was not the government but individual politicians who took the initiative, reflecting the continuing role of private MPs (and individual peers) in initiating legislation during the Victorian period, even on major issues. Two slightly different measures were introduced around the same time in 1840. A bill introduced into the Lords by the Tory peer Lord Ellenborough proposed to set up a free vaccination programme administered by the poor law unions or parish vestries responsible for overseeing local poor relief. It eventually received support from the Whig government. Another bill banning ‘variolation’ and giving medical officers more freedom to oversee vaccination was introduced into the Commons by the radical surgeon (and founder of The Lancet) Thomas Wakley MP. After considerable debate, Wakley’s ban on ‘variolation’ was incorporated into Ellenborough’s bill. The revised measure setting up vaccination by local poor law officials then passed into law as the Vaccination Extension Act, 23 July 1840 (3 & 4 Vict., c. 29).

It was the use of the poor law system to administer vaccinations that created the conundrum for voters. Under section 36 of the 1832 Reform Act, any borough elector who received poor relief or any ‘other alms’ became disqualified from voting for the next year. Since vaccinations were funded directly out of poor law finances, having a jab effectively amounted to receipt of poor relief. The press was quick to seize on this anomaly. ‘Strong doubts appear to exist, whether the parent of a child whose vaccination has been provided for from funds levied under the poor relief act does not thereby become pauperised and consequently disqualified from voting in elections’, warned the Limerick Reporter, 16 October 1840. ‘Because vaccination is performed gratuitously … it pauperizes the parties who resort to it’, observed another paper.

Union vaccination poster: Devon Record Office

At Stamford, the local board of guardians warned voters considering vaccination that it would ‘disqualify them from voting’. Worcester’s poor law officials were similarly convinced that ‘vaccination at the expense of poor law unions … disqualified its recipients from exercising the electoral franchise’ and wrote to the poor law commission for clarification. The commission’s response that it was contrary to the ‘spirit’ of the Act ‘to deprive recipients of vaccination … of their parliamentary franchise’ was considered far from satisfactory by local lawyers. A year later, in their Seventh Annual Report of 1841, the Poor Law Commissioners reported that up to fifty poor law unions had delayed giving vaccinations, believing it would ‘operate to disfranchise any party’ whose family members had been vaccinated.

A poor law union vaccinator at work

How many people actually ending up losing their voting rights because of vaccination is unclear. What is known is that at the highly contested registration revision of October 1840 an unusually large number of electors were ‘objected to’ and disfranchised in the registration courts for having received ‘parochial relief’. The surviving records of local registration agents suggest that the Tories were particularly active in using ‘relief’ (along with other ruses) to remove their political opponents from the electoral rolls, as part of a highly effective registration drive. It was on the basis of this crucial 1840 registration, of course, that the Conservatives went on to secure their sweeping victory at the general election in 1841, bringing Sir Robert Peel to power.

Significantly, one of the final acts of the outgoing Whig government in 1841 was to pass an ‘amending’ law trying to clear up the confusion surrounding the 1840 Vaccination Act, including the vexed question of whether vaccination could ‘deprive any person’ of ‘any right or privilege’ (4 & 5 Vict., c. 32). As with so much legislation of this period, however, the wording left just enough of a legal loophole for unscrupulous registration agents and election attorneys to continue their activities against some ‘beneficiaries’ of free vaccination, though on a far more limited scale. The ongoing link between vaccination and the vote was only completely severed with the introduction of compulsory vaccination (for all children) in 1853. But that, of course, created a whole new raft of political controversies, the legacies of which continue to reverberate today.

Further reading:

Debate on the 1840 vaccination bill: click here.

S. Williamson, The Vaccination Controversy: the rise, reign and fall of compulsory vaccination for smallpox (2007).

‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Thomas Jones Phillips (1790-1843): pioneering Tory election agent

‘Register, register, register!’: political activity in October

P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work: local politics and national parties, 1832-1841, (Royal Historical Society, 2011)

P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW


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From typhus to trains: the tragic deaths of 19th century MPs

The biographical format we follow when writing about the 2,591 MPs covered by our 1832-68 project means that we usually have one obvious finishing point: the MP’s death. As we have noted before in our blog on political longevity, many of our MPs lived to a ripe old age. The most striking example of this was undoubtedly Charles Pelham Villiers (1802-1898), who was still sitting as MP for Wolverhampton when he died in 1898, shortly after his 96th birthday. The ‘Father of the House’, he was the last remaining MP to have served in the Commons during the reign of William IV. His record-breaking 62 years of continuous parliamentary service remains unsurpassed.

James Platt (1823-57), MP for Oldham

In contrast with Villiers, however, a considerable number of our biographies end with tragic and untimely deaths. We have already blogged about the case of James Platt (1823-1857), accidentally shot dead in August 1857 by his close friend and relative, Josiah Radcliffe, the mayor of Oldham, who only five months earlier had presided over Platt’s election as the borough’s MP. Platt was mourned as ‘a rising star’ who had been expected to ‘distinguish himself greatly’ at Westminster. Among the more unusual accidental deaths of MPs was that of Henry Handcock (1834-1858), briefly MP for his native borough of Athlone, 1856-7, who died in India in 1858 aged just 24 after being attacked by a tiger, which he had been foolhardy enough to shoot.

Another MP whose death was, like Platt’s, reported as ‘a public calamity’ because of his perceived political promise was Viscount Milton (1812-1835), the heir to Earl Fitzwilliam, who died at the family’s Yorkshire seat at Wentworth Woodhouse, on 8 November 1835, aged only 23. Milton (then known as the Hon. Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam) had been the youngest member of the Commons when he was first elected in 1832 as MP for the family’s pocket borough of Malton, despite having not yet reached the age of 21. He had, however, passed that milestone – on 18 January 1833 – before the new Parliament assembled. He did not represent Malton for long, replacing his father – who succeeded to the peerage as Earl Fitzwilliam in February 1833 – as MP for Northamptonshire North. He was re-elected there at the 1835 general election.

Milton rarely spoke in the Commons chamber and his public oratory outside Parliament was usually noted for its brevity. He was, however, more active in presenting petitions and in the committee rooms at Westminster, and there were growing indications that this youthful MP was finding his feet in public life. His campaigning in support of Lord Morpeth at the 1835 by-election in the West Riding of Yorkshire won him considerable plaudits. The Sheffield Independent reported that his hustings speech proposing Morpeth displayed ‘perfect self-possession’ and was delivered in a ‘very strong and agreeable’ voice. It suggested him as a possible future candidate for the constituency, since voters had been made aware of ‘the manly excellencies of his character, his abilities, and his strong attachment to liberal politics. He has gained golden opinions from all sorts of men’.

Sadly Milton, who was ‘naturally of a delicate constitution’, had his political career cut short by his death from typhus in November 1835. The disease also left three of his siblings dangerously ill, but they all recovered. He was buried in the new family vault at Wentworth church, alongside his only son, who had died shortly after birth in November 1834. Poignantly his widow Selina was pregnant with their second child at the time of Milton’s death. When a daughter was born in January 1836, Milton’s younger brother William Thomas Spencer Wentworth Fitzwilliam (1815-1902) assumed the title of Viscount Milton, and succeeded to the earldom in 1857.

Statue of Henry, 7th Baron Farnham, in Cavan
[By Deadstar – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2129770%5D

The unfortunate death of William Huskisson (1770-1830), MP for Liverpool, after he was struck by the train being pulled by Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway on 15 September 1830, was the first recorded passenger fatality on Britain’s railways. Huskisson was not, however, the only MP to be the victim of a railway accident. On 20 August 1868, in the worst railway disaster in Britain at that date, 33 people died near Abergele in north Wales when the Irish Mail train, en route to Holyhead, crashed into some runaway goods wagons, whose load included 50 barrels of paraffin oil. Those killed included the former MP for County Cavan, 1824-38, Henry Maxwell (1799-1868), who had become 7th Baron Farnham in 1838. His wife Anna and four of their servants also died, and the couple had to be identified by their belongings, which included ‘a watch with Lord Farnham’s crest and coronet’. As they had no children, Farnham’s title was inherited by his younger brother, the Hon. Somerset Richard Maxwell (1803-1884), also a former Cavan MP.

In contrast, two other parliamentarians had a lucky escape from the disaster: Viscount Castlerosse (1825-1905), MP for County Kerry, and the Marquess of Hamilton (1838-1913), MP for County Donegal. The latter’s eyewitness account of ‘the suddenness of the conflagration’ which engulfed three of the passenger carriages makes for grim reading, but he also paid tribute to the kindness of the local people who assisted the survivors. They were not the only MPs affected by the tragedy. Among those who attended the inquest was Henry Edwards, MP for Beverley, whose brother and nephew died, which meant that Edwards inherited his brother’s property near Halifax.

Memorial to victims of the 1868 Abergele rail disaster
[By Stephen Elwyn RODDICK, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11634543%5D

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Small borough politics in County Cork, 1832-1868: Bandon, Kinsale, Mallow and Youghal

This post from our research fellow Dr. Stephen Ball was originally published on the History of Parliament blog as part of a Local History series on electoral politics in Ireland.

Ireland in 1832, from Thomas Starling, Geographical Annual of Family Cabinet Atlas (1834)

The county of Cork was widely referred to as ‘the Yorkshire of Ireland’, due to its extent, wealth and resources. However, under the Irish Reform Act of 1832, Ireland’s largest county returned just eight MPs, compared to Yorkshire’s 37, although the latter was barely twice as populous. Half of Cork’s parliamentary representatives were elected by the four single-member boroughs of Youghal, Bandon, Kinsale and Mallow. The principle that the reformed House of Commons was designed to represent specific and distinctive ‘interests’, rather than numbers, is amply demonstrated by the fact that whereas in 1831 the population of the two-member County Cork constituency was 700,366, and that of the city of Cork, which also returned two MPs, was 107,000, the population of Youghal was only 9,820, that of Bandon, 9,608, Mallow, 7,100 and Kinsale, 6,897. While the county boasted 13,351 electors in 1851, Kinsale had only 139, and Youghal, the largest of the one-member boroughs, 261. However, defenders of the reformed system argued that the continued enfranchisement of such boroughs was justified because they each represented distinct social, economic and political interests, and allowed a diverse mixture of oligarchic and popular influences to decide their own representation in Parliament.

The constituency of Youghal in 1832

Regarded as the county’s second town, Youghal was a busy seaport on the estuary of the river Blackwater. The pre-reform constituency had been controlled by the corporation and freemen under the influence of the town’s main landowner, the Duke of Devonshire. The Irish Reform Act expanded the electorate and consequently increased the influence of the town’s merchants, shopkeepers, artisans and publicans, making the constituency a hotbed of local politics. The curbing of the duke’s Whig influence after 1832 created opportunities for the Irish popular interest, but also raised the possibility of electoral success for organised popular Conservatism. Consequently, sectarian rivalry, intimidation and corruption were features of the borough’s seven contested elections. Daniel O’Connell’s son, John, defeated the Conservatives on the Repeal interest at the 1832 and 1835 elections, during which the town was, according to the future Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, frequently in ‘a state of siege’. His father’s compact with the Whigs meant that O’Connell stood aside in 1837 and at the next two general elections the duke’s nominee held off Conservative challengers before suffering defeat at the hands of another Repealer in 1847. The collapse of the repeal campaign and a loss of confidence in the Whig ministry allowed Isaac Butt to win the seat for the Conservatives in 1852. Despite moving away from orthodox Conservatism as he became increasingly critical of Ireland’s fate under the Union, Butt held Youghal until 1865, when he was easily beaten by a wealthy Liberal banker, who in 1868 was defeated by an ‘heroically corrupt’ London merchant.

Isaac Butt, MP for Youghal (by J.B. Yeats, CC via NPG)

Known as the ‘Derry of the South’, Bandon was Cork’s next largest borough. A handsome market town founded by the first Earl of Cork as a plantation settlement in 1610, it had served as a rallying point for Williamite forces in 1689. Its once thriving linen industry had declined by the 1820s, but the town still contained leather works, flour mills and distilleries. A ‘rotten borough’, it had been controlled by a close corporation under the Earl of Bandon before the Irish Reform Act increased its electorate from 13 to 266. Of these 70 were resident freemen who propped up the Conservative interest. Despite being only one third of the population by the 1860s, Protestants, including a substantial number of Orangemen, made up almost three-quarters of the electorate. They were efficiently organised, and the Whig influence of the absentee Duke of Devonshire could not compete with that of the staunchly Protestant and constantly resident Earl of Bandon, whose family dominated the representation until 1868. The Liberals contested six often disorderly and violent elections but could make no headway against the Bandon interest, whose agents were was not above plying Devonshire’s tenants with drink to secure their votes, as some of them were polled with the fumes of the previous night’s ‘debauch still thick upon them’.

Clock House, Mallow (with clock from Old Mallow Castle)
[NLI via Flickr Commons]

The most politically stable of Cork’s boroughs, Mallow was a once fashionable spa town, which was said to be ‘much superior in comfort, wealth, and respectability’ to most other towns in the south of Ireland. Unusually for a town of its size, it had never had a corporation, and as principal landowners and lords of the manor, the Jephson family of Mallow Castle dominated the representation. The Protestant party was reluctant to upset the Liberal interest in case the sitting member, Sir Charles Jephson, moved too far in the direction of reform, and despite being defeated by the Repeal party in 1832, Jephson was re-seated on petition in 1833. Maintaining his proprietorial control over an electorate which shrank from 458 in 1832 to a mere 143 in 1851, he exerted his influence to see off three further challenges until in 1859 the Conservatives united with anti-Whig Catholics to oust him. The seat was, however, won back by another Liberal in 1865.

The smallest of the boroughs, Kinsale was an ancient port and the most important fishing station in Ireland. Its economy suffered by the removal of its royal dockyard to Cork after 1815, and until 1832 its corporation and representation were controlled by the major local landowner, Lord de Clifford. The 1832 Irish Reform Act broke this monopoly and coincided with the death of the heirless de Clifford, allowing the emergence of genuinely popular local politics. The substantial presence of a well-organised cadre of freemen and Protestants within its tiny electorate allowed the Conservatives to challenge the Whig interest at elections in which the candidates were generally influential outsiders, some of whom were English. As the borough’s politics was dominated by local issues, and a wavering balance of voters was open to bribery, the representation changed hands several times before the independent landowner, John Isaac Heard, took the seat in 1852. From 1859 it was held by two wealthy Liberals: Sir John Arnott handed the seat over to Sir George Colthurst in 1863. Both secured their elections by promising to personally finance improvements to the town’s infrastructure.

A brief survey of the four boroughs demonstrates that despite their limited size and small electorates, a variety of political interests were able to vie with one another and elect representatives from a wide political spectrum. Forty-two parliamentary elections were held in the four boroughs between 1832 and 1865, of which 27 (64%) were contested, a large proportion for the time. The Whig interest triumphed on three occasions, the Repeal party on four, and Reformers or Liberals on 15. Conservatives of various shades were successful at 17 elections and one independent candidate was returned three times. Party competition encouraged a vibrant political culture, but also prompted sectarianism, bribery, violence and coercion. As the populations and electorates of Irish boroughs shrank after 1845, an abortive attempt to extend the borough franchise (which had already occurred in the counties in 1850) was made by the Whig ministry in 1852. The 1868 Irish Reform Act increased the size of the four electorates by between 17 and 28 per cent, making 953 electors in all, which in 1874 helped the Irish Home Rule party to win the seats at Kinsale, Mallow and Youghal. However, in 1885 this eventful era of local borough politics was brought to an end when the four boroughs were disenfranchised and their electorates absorbed into the new county divisions of Cork.

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‘Like herrings in a barrel’: the chamber of the House of Commons prior to 1834

In this new series of blogs on the Palace of Westminster, we look at the three different debating chambers occupied by the MPs who sat in Parliament between 1832 and 1868, beginning with the Commons chamber in use until the fire of 16 October 1834.

‘I shall not soon forget the disappointment which I experienced on the first sight of the interior of the House of Commons’. This was how the parliamentary reporter James Grant opened his ‘random recollections’ of life at Westminster between 1830 and 1835. Despite being warned that the chamber ‘ill accorded with the dignity’ which might be expected for ‘the first assembly of gentlemen in the world’, Grant was still surprised to find a space which he described as

dark, gloomy and badly ventilated, and so small that not more than four hundred out of the six hundred and fifty-eight members could be accommodated in it with any measure of comfort.

The House of Commons, 1833 (by Sir George Hayter, 1833-43; NPG)

During major debates, the members ‘were literally crammed together’, with matters made worse by ‘the heat of the House’. Grant’s assessment was echoed by the Radical MP Joseph Hume, who complained in 1833 that in some parts of the chamber, MPs were ‘wedged in, almost like herrings in a barrel’. Hume suggested that only 294 MPs could be seated comfortably, less than half the total membership, or 348 MPs ‘inconveniently crowded together’. In addition to the benches on the floor of the chamber, MPs could sit in the galleries on the left and right of the chamber, although it was generally accepted that those who did so would not be able to contribute to the debate. Alongside the lack of space, the chamber’s variable acoustics and its adverse effects on MPs’ health were further causes of complaint. The issue became more acute as greater numbers of MPs wished to participate in the business of the House during the highly contentious debates of the late 1820s and the early 1830s, and – in the aftermath of Reform in particular – to be seen by their constituents as effective representatives.

Cross section of St Stephen’s chapel as in 1834 (E. W. Bayley & J. Britton, The history of the ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (1836); Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

These problems stemmed primarily from the fact the building occupied by the Commons had not been designed for that purpose. It was housed in the former St. Stephen’s Chapel, close to the river Thames. This four storey building ran perpendicular to the House of Lords, ‘among the rambling assortment of offices, law courts, kitchens, printer’s shops, store rooms, official residences, inns and general housing that comprised the Palace of Westminster’. The debating chamber, which measured around 15 metres by 10 metres in area and was 10 metres high, was two storeys high, with galleries fixed to three of its walls. It had been extensively remodelled by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Survey drawing by Sir John Soane, May 1826, General plan of the rooms & c adjoining, and belonging to the House of Commons (C) Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. The Commons is to the left of the coloured areas at the top of the plan.

There were further changes at the beginning of the 19th century by James Wyatt, who reduced the thickness of the chamber’s walls to enable the provision of extra seating to help accommodate the 100 Irish MPs who would be sitting at Westminster following the Union in 1801. Extra doors and stairs were added to the galleries in 1818 to make it quicker for MPs to leave for divisions. Until the creation of a second division lobby in 1836, those voting on one side of the question were counted in the chamber, while the opposite side gathered in the single lobby which adjoined the entrance to the Commons. Grant recorded that with many MPs not even able to get standing room in the Commons when it was busy, they ‘were obliged to lounge in the refreshment apartments adjoining St. Stephen’s until the division, when they rushed to the voting room in as much haste as if the place they had quitted had been on fire’.

St. Stephen’s chapel (on the left) from the river (A. Picken, c. 1835, after J. Shury; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection). The spires on the towers were removed c. 1826.

Members of Parliament were not the only occupants of the Commons chamber. Male visitors were able to watch debates from the strangers’ gallery, situated opposite the speaker’s chair, on payment of a fee to the doorkeeper or by obtaining a written ‘order’ from an MP. There was no separate press gallery at this date, which meant that around one-third of the 120 places in the strangers’ gallery were occupied by newspaper reporters, whose proprietors paid a fee each session. They had their own door giving access to their seats at the back of the gallery, with a small rest room nearby. Visitors and reporters were cleared from the galleries and the lobby during divisions, which sometimes made life difficult for reporters when it came to recording the start of the ensuing debate.

One area which was not cleared during divisions was, however, the space in the attic from which a small number of women were able to listen to – and catch a glimpse of – debates from the ‘ventilator’ which sat above the chandelier in the middle of the chamber. First used in 1818 by Elizabeth Fry, this space was described by Maria Edgeworth in 1822 as

what seemed like a sentry box of deal boards and old chairs placed around it: on these we got and stood and peeped over the top of the boards. Saw the large chandelier with lights blazing, immediately below: a grating of iron across veiled the light so that we could look down and beyond it: we saw half the table with the mace lying on it and papers, and by peeping hard two figures of clerks at the further end, but no eye could see the Speaker or his chair – only his feet; his voice and terrible ‘ORDER’ was soon heard. We could see part of the treasury bench and opposition in their places,– the tops of their heads, profiles and gestures perfectly.

Sketch of the ventilator by Lady Georgiana Chatterton (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/ Baddesley Clinton NT
Interior of St. Stephen’s chapel after the 1834 fire (E. W. Bayley & J. Britton, The history of the ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (1836); Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

The ‘inadequate’ and ‘unwholesome’ nature of the accommodation provided for MPs in the Commons chamber prompted select committees in 1831 and 1833 which investigated the possibilities for change. In October 1831 the first of these committees reported that it ‘could not contemplate any other alternative than to recommend the Construction of a New House of Commons’. However, given the significance and expense of such a decision, it hesitated to do so without consulting the opinion of the Commons. The second committee, reporting in May 1833, had no qualms about making a clear recommendation that a new House should be built. Despite this, efforts by Joseph Hume to put these proposals into action failed to win sufficient support from fellow MPs. However, the catastrophic fire of 16 October 1834 – which prompted one onlooker to remark that ‘Mr. Hume’s motion for a new House is carried without a division’ – meant that building a new chamber could no longer be avoided.

Further reading

  • M. Escott, ‘The fabric of the House’, in D. R. Fisher (ed.), The House of Commons, 1820-32 (2009), vii. [https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/survey/vii-procedure-and-business-house]
  • J. Grant, Random recollections of the House of Commons (1836)
  • M. H. Port, The Palace of Westminster surveyed on the eve of the conflagration, 1834 (2011)
  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911‘, in C. Jones (ed.), A short history of Parliament (2009)
  • P. Seaward, ‘“A sense of crowd and urgency”? Atmosphere and inconvenience in the chamber of the Old House of Commons’, Parliamentary History, 2019, 38:1 (2019), 103-18
  • C. Shenton, The day Parliament burned down (2012)
  • C. Wilkinson, ‘Politics and topography in the Old House of Commons, 1783-1834’, Parliamentary History, 21:1 (2002), 141-65
  • The Virtual St Stephen’s Project’s website has a wide range of resources relating to the history of St Stephen’s Chapel: https://www.virtualststephens.org.uk/

Posted in Parliamentary buildings | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Professor Angus Hawkins (1953-2020)

We were deeply saddened to learn of the sudden death of Professor Angus Hawkins shortly before Christmas. His publications will be familiar to anyone working on 19th century politics, an area of study that he helped to refine and reshape over almost four decades. His arguments about ‘Parliamentary government’ and the formation of coalitions in the mid-Victorian era, his seminal two volume rehabilitation of Lord Derby, ‘the forgotten prime minister‘, and his magisterial Victorian Political Culture (2015) are just some of the many outstanding contributions to scholarship he leaves behind.

On a more personal note, Angus was an avid supporter of our 1832-68 House of Commons project – a resource he not only used and publicly praised but also contributed to as an external writer. His assessment of Derby (or Lord Stanley as he was then styled) as a politician in the reformed Commons, rather than as a PM, was completed for our 1832-68 volumes only a few months ago. With retirement looming, and his latest book projects out of the way, Angus was typically keen to carry out more work for us on the ‘Derby Dilly’ MPs, something that reflected his abiding fascination with the shifting (or ‘fissile’ and ‘mutable’ as he put it) nature of party affiliations in the post-reform era.

Professor Angus Hawkins

Alongside his prodigious written output, Angus was a popular and engaging presence at many conferences and seminars, particularly at UEA and the University of Oxford, where he ran the Research Centre in Victorian Political Culture based at Keble College. He was especially magnanimous in encouraging younger generations of scholars, many of whose dissertations he agreed to examine. Three of our 1832-68 section’s doctorates – my own and those of our PhD students Seth Thévoz and Martin Spychal – were among scores on 19th century history that benefitted from his diligence and expertise in a viva. A large number of subsequent monographs on Victorian politics, in a similar vein, also profited greatly from his wisdom and support. Our subject owes him a great debt.

Angus will be deeply missed as an outstanding historian, entertaining and generous friend and enthusiastic supporter of all things Victorian. A list of his major publications can be found here. There is also a tribute from Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education here.

Dr Philip Salmon

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‘Had she been a man, she would have been the leader of a party’: Harriet Grote (1792-1878), radicalism and Parliament, 1820-41

In the first of his blogs on Harriet Grote (1792-1878), our research fellow Dr Martin Spychal, explores Harriet’s early life, her emergence as a central figure among London’s intellectual radicals during the 1820s and her arrival on the Westminster political scene during the reform crisis of 1830-32…

‘The Empress’ Harriet, aged 14, with two of her younger siblings (ed.), The Lewin Letters (1909)

Harriet Grote, née Lewin, grew up in the comfortable surrounds of Ridgeway Castle near Southampton, which her father, Thomas Lewin (1753-1843), built with his earnings as a merchant for the East India Company. A tall and commanding presence in the Lewin household, Harriet was known from an early age as ‘The Empress’ or ‘Empress of the world’ by her parents, siblings and family friends.

Her height set her apart from her peers. Harriet recalled how at eleven ‘I grew tall of my age, and naturally stooped a little, as most growing girls do’. Her parents tried to ‘counteract’ her slouching by requiring her to wear an elaborate back brace. ‘This accursed instrument’, Harriet recalled, was ‘one of the bitterest grievances of my youth’. She later blamed the brace for her ‘bad headaches’ (migraines) that she suffered throughout adulthood.

Harriet was educated by a string of governesses, one of the longest serving being the ‘brutal’ and ‘tyrannical’ Miss Beetham, who Harriet nicknamed ‘The Beetham’. From an early age her teachers struggled to match her intellect, forcing Harriet to seek her early mentorship in politics, literature and music from her father, aunts and family friends.

Harriet’s childhood home ‘Ridgeway Castle’ c.1800 © Bitterne Local History Society

Her governesses also struggled to keep up with what Harriet referred to as her ‘energetic disposition’ and love for ‘any bodily exercise requiring skill and even personal danger’. Miss Beetham was particularly alarmed by this ‘active, ardent … [and] unfeminine’ character trait, taking it upon herself to ‘cure’ Harriet of such ‘propensities “unbecoming a young lady”’. Thankfully, Miss Beetham failed and Harriet’s unwillingness to conform to gender stereotypes in dress, speech, character, hobbies and intellectual pursuits remained one of her most commonly remarked upon characteristics throughout her life.

By 1815 Harriet and her family had moved to Bexley in Kent, which was where she met the banker, self-trained scholar and future MP, George Grote (1794-1871). During a five-year courtship George took it upon himself to educate Harriet in the ‘classic texts of political economy and philosophy’. Harriet was easily George’s intellectual match and together they cultivated a shared radical, utilitarian and atheist outlook. They eloped against both of their parents’ wishes in 1820.

Harriet’s close friend, Jeremy Bentham, who she addressed as ‘Father Hermit’. CC British Museum

After their marriage Harriet and George lived between their central London residence, 62 Threadneedle Street, and a string of suburban North London homes, eventually settling in Green Lanes, Stoke Newington. It was at Threadneedle Street, or ‘Threddle’ as she referred to it, where Harriet established herself as a key figure among London’s radical intellectuals of the 1820s.

The Grotes became close friends with the leading utilitarian thinkers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836), who they hosted at their twice-weekly reading group and evening salons at Threadneedle Street. The reading group, which at various points included figures such as John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, John Ramsay McCulloch, John and Sarah Austin, and John Arthur Roebuck, ‘met every Wednesday and Saturday … at the dreary hour of 8:30 am, and broke their fast upon the latest emanation of the [James] Mill brain’.

Harriet rescheduling a salon with John Arthur Roebuck due to the ‘horrid weather’ and because George was ‘plagued in a cold’, 25 Jan. 1827. Image supplied by UCL Library Services, Special Collections, MS MISC/2/G

In contrast to her reclusive husband, Harriet was outgoing, charming and sociable. One contemporary remarked ‘I like him [George], he is so ladylike, and I like her, she’s such a perfect gentleman’. As an active hostess and contributor to discussions, it was Harriet rather than George who turned ‘Threddle’ into an intellectual hub for London’s utilitarians and political economists. Importantly, her role as the Threadneedle Street hostess set her on the path to becoming a prolific ‘woman of letters’, placing her at the centre of an expansive national, and international, network of political and intellectual correspondents over the following decades.

Having previously remained aloof from Westminster politics, the Grotes were thrown into a decade of parliamentary and political activism during the reform crisis of 1830-32. With the blessing of James Mill, George ran the reform campaign for the City of London at the 1831 general election and Harriet recalled how at times, particularly during the ‘Days of May’, politics became ‘so intensely exciting’ that ‘we scarce did anything but listen for news, and run about from one house to another’.

In the 1832 Reform Act, and for a brief period of time during the Grey ministry, Harriet and George saw a path to real, radical political change. As I’ll explore in subsequent blogs, Harriet spent the next decade pushing the boundaries of political convention in an attempt to effect this change…


Harriet Grote’s letter to John Arthur Roebuck is currently on display as part of the Reform, React, Rebel exhibition at UCL, which was curated by Martin and Dr Vivienne Larminie. The exhibition catalogue and a video introducing the exhibition can be viewed online. UCL is currently closed, but the exhibition will be extended following re-opening.

Further Reading

S. Richardson, ‘A Regular Politician in Breeches: The Life and Work of Harriet Lewin Grote’, in K. Demetrious (ed.), Brill’s Companion to George Grote and the Classical Tradition (2014)

J. Hamburger, ‘Grote [née Lewin], Harriet’, Oxf. DNB, www.oxforddnb.com

Lady Eastlake, Mrs Grote: A Sketch (1880)

H. Grote, Collected Papers: In Prose and Verse 1842-1862 (1862)

H. Grote (ed.), Posthumous Papers: Comprising Selections from Familiar Correspondence (1874)

M. L. Clarke, George Grote: A Biography (1962)

Posted in Biographies, Harriet Grote, women | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

We’re marking the start of 2021 with some highlights from our blogging over the past twelve months. During the year we have joined our colleagues across the History of Parliament’s different projects for a series of blogs focusing on local history. Our tour of the constituencies began with York, looking at the key features of our constituency articles. Moving around the country, we then shared our research on elections in Northumberland, Glamorgan, Abingdon and Exeter. Our most recent MP of the Month blog also had an electioneering theme, discussing the demands which voters in the corrupt borough of Great Yarmouth made on their candidates.

A handbill for the unsuccessful pro-reform candidate at Exeter at the 1831 general election, Edward Divett. © Devon Heritage Centre

With politicians having to adapt parliamentary procedure this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we explored the origins of a key feature of Westminster politics – the division lobbies – looking at the creation of a second division lobby in the temporary House of Commons in 1836. We also uncovered the surprising story of the fifteen year old girl from Rochdale who laid the foundation stone of the Clock Tower for the new Palace of Westminster in 1843.

The ‘Aye’ division lobby

Before lockdown restricted physical access to archives and libraries, our research fellow Dr Martin Spychal made a trip to Staffordshire Archives to consult the diary of Lord Ronald Gower, a prominent figure in Britain’s nineteenth-century LGBTQ+ history, who was the likely inspiration for the character of Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first blog in his series on Gower was our most viewed new post of 2020. Our second most popular new post came from our editor Dr Philip Salmon, who assessed Sir Robert Peel’s contribution to the development of the modern Conservative party, and in third place, our assistant editor Dr Kathryn Rix looked at the MP who created and gave his name to a town, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood.

North Euston Hotel and Baths, Fleetwood (credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0)

In subsequent posts on Gower, Martin has used his diary to explore his Commons nickname, the ‘beautiful boy’; his social life during the 1867 parliamentary session; and his experiences of canvassing in his Scottish constituency. Although Gower’s sexuality was commented upon by his contemporaries, he did not suffer the fate of the former MP for Dorset, William Bankes, who fled the country in 1841 to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences. Away from Parliament, Bankes made a notable contribution to the emerging study of Egyptology. Another MP whose most significant endeavours came not at Westminster but elsewhere was Nicholas Vigors, an expert ornithologist whose prominent involvement in the Zoological Society of London was discussed by our research fellow Dr Stephen Ball.

1865 Albumen print of Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) by by Camille Silvy. CC NPG

As ever, our MP of the Month slot has featured an eclectic mix of individuals. Charles Augustus Tulk was the first Swedenborgian to sit in the Commons, where his religious views influenced his commitment to social reform. Sir Henry Bulwer, a colourful career diplomat, interspersed his parliamentary service with overseas postings, as a guest blog from Dr Laurence Guymer explained. One of the more unusual careers before becoming an MP was that of Robert Spankie, who was in succession a parliamentary reporter, newspaper editor, barrister and advocate-general of Bengal prior to his election for Finsbury in 1832. The most notable event in the life of William Nugent Macnamara, known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, came long before he entered the Commons, when he acted as the second to Daniel O’Connell in a fatal duel in 1815.

O’Connell’s duel of 1815 (Irish Magazine, Mar. 1815)

Our MP of the Month blogs have considered some rather brief parliamentary careers, as well as several longer ones. Alfred Rhodes Bristow spent only three years as MP for Kidderminster before obligingly resigning his seat to make way for a government whip. Sir John Key, often caricatured as ‘Sir Don Key’, had to resign his seat as MP for London after just eight months when it emerged that he was disqualified by holding a government contract. Unlike Bristow and Key, Thomas Greene was a long-serving and well-regarded MP, who made an unshowy but significant contribution to parliamentary business, including as chairman of ways and means. Stephen Lushington and Thomas Barrett Lennard both campaigned for the abolition of slavery and of capital punishment, and took up a variety of other causes, with Lushington being a prominent advocate of religious reform, and Lennard trying to revive an ancient franchise based on marriage to a freeman’s daughter.

J. Phillips, ‘The great dictator and his mighty councillor, the donkey mare’ (13 Nov. 1830) CC British Museum

We look forward to sharing more of our research over the coming year, and wish our readers all the best for 2021.

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Elected without his consent: William Wilshere (1804-67) and the venal electors of Great Yarmouth

The huge financial cost of Victorian elections, especially in venal constituencies, has been a recurrent theme in some of our more recent blogs. It’s tempting to think of the MPs associated with bribery, treating and other forms of electoral corruption as guilty parties in this system, but William Wilshere’s career provides a useful insight into how little control the candidate sometimes had over the management of an election. Wilshere not only had to endure a process of being ‘traded’ by central election managers, in secret deals about disputed elections, but also found himself elected without his knowledge. Charged as a result with breaking an agreement, he narrowly escaped having to fight a duel.

These days MPs tend to seek constituencies, but in the 19th century it was often the other way round. Venal boroughs, in particular, actively canvassed for suitably wealthy candidates, who could then be milked for as much as possible, especially at election time. Boroughs in which freemen still had the parliamentary franchise tended to be the most demanding and Great Yarmouth was one of the most notorious. In 1837 Wilshere was invited to stand there in a coalition with a former Whig MP, who was running low on funds. Wilshere’s vast wealth – he had inherited the bulk of his uncle’s £140,000 fortune in 1824 along with a large Hertfordshire estate – made him a prime catch and he quickly ‘won the hearts’ of the freemen with what the local paper termed his ‘affability’. He was elected as a Liberal in second place, after what was termed a particularly ‘keen’ contest. However, his defeated Tory opponent Thomas Baring promptly charged Wilshere’s supporters with bribery and challenged the result on petition.

William Wilshere in 1860

What occurred next was deemed ‘remarkable in the history of elections’. The committee randomly selected to investigate the petition was dominated by Tory MPs. Rather than risk the whole election being invalidated, Wilshere was urged by the Liberal party’s central election managers to retire as part of a compromise deal, and allow Baring to come in unopposed in a by-election. This would avoid risking his Whig colleague’s seat. He initially refused to co-operate, believing the Tories were equally culpable of bribery. Realising this would not be investigated under the terms of the petition, however, he agreed to step down, but only at the end of the 1837-8 session. He also promised not to interfere in the ensuing by-election.

Wilshere duly took the Chiltern Hundreds in August 1838 and promptly left for the Continent. Meeting a friend ‘accidentally’ in the streets of Paris a few weeks later, however, he discovered that a group of dissident freemen in Great Yarmouth had refused to accept the compromise deal agreed in London and, ‘without his sanction, approbation or permission’, had successfully nominated and elected him in his absence. He was now an MP again. Baring, meanwhile, was seething. Rumours quickly spread that he would  ‘make his appeal to pistols’ if Wilshere refused to vacate the seat.

Wild press speculation about a duel was cut short by the appointment of two arbitrators, the Whig Marquis of Tavistock and the Conservative Charles Greville. They jointly ruled that Wilshere was ‘bound to resign’, even though he had clearly ‘not been party’ to his controversial re-election. Feeling vindicated, but fearing further trouble and expense at another by-election, Baring decided not to insist that Wilshere formally step down, contenting himself with more public remarks about his ‘ungentlemanly conduct’.

Resuming his seat, for which he was re-elected again in 1841, Wilshere went on to become a diligent MP, rarely speaking but giving staunch support to the Liberals in the division lobbies and presenting a steady stream of constituency petitions on local matters.

In 1847, however, he took everyone by surprise by announcing his retirement, aged just 42. He initially cited ‘family engagements’ and other ‘private motives’. Repeatedly ‘pressed’ to change his mind by Great Yarmouth’s freemen, he continued to decline politely but eventually let his real reasons be known. Protesting that he had already spent over £10,000 ‘among them’, which included bills charged for the 1838 by-election held without his consent, he declared that he could no longer afford the seat, fearing that a ‘very considerable sum’ would be required from him again. He found it ‘prudent to close his purses before they are entirely emptied’, quipped one local paper.

Wilshere is not known to have sought re-election again but he did remain an active supporter of his local Liberal party in Hertfordshire. A benefactor of ‘every worthy cause or institution’, it was later said that he ‘had a large heart and gave like a prince’. Paralysed for the last two years of his life, he died at the Hotel Windsor, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, in November 1867, leaving an estate valued at £35,000.

Further reading:

P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work (2002), pp. 101-16.

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, Images of MPs, MP of the Month | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Highland canvass in a ‘pocket county’: Ronald Gower (1845-1916) and the 1867 Sutherland by-election

In the fourth blog of his series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal, uses Gower’s diaries to provide some rare insights into mid-Victorian electioneering in the ‘pocket county’ of Sutherland. This blog was also posted as part of the History of Parliament’s local history series.

If there was a History of Parliament award for ‘constituency most under the thumb of an aristocratic patron’, the Highland county of Sutherland would be a top contender. Following the Act of Union in 1707 a succession of earls, ladies, dukes and duchesses of Sutherland effectively controlled who would represent the county at Westminster.

G. Burnett & W. Scott, Map of the County of Sutherland (1853 Revision), CC NLS

The 1832 Reform Act, which extended Sutherland’s electorate from 20 life-rent tenants to a mere 104 voters (or around 2% of adult males) did little to challenge this influence. Most of the county’s electorate lived on land owned by the Sutherlands (the family owned 80% of the county), leaving one commentator to dismiss the constituency in 1838 as a ‘pocket county’ containing nothing but ‘serf voters’.

1860s carte-de-visite of Sutherland’s patron, the Duchess of Sutherland (1806-1868) CC NPG

Little had changed by February 1867, when Sutherland’s incumbent MP, David Dundas (1799-1877), advised his patrons, the Duchess of Sutherland (1806-1868), and her son, the 3rd duke of Sutherland (1828-1892), that he wanted to retire from Parliament. Over family discussions at the dinner tables of two of London’s most exclusive residences, Stafford House (now Lancaster House) and Chiswick House, the family settled on a new nominee – the duchess’s fourth son, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916).

While Gower’s return for Sutherland was all but guaranteed, it was still felt necessary that he embark on a full canvass of the county. Gower’s diary, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, offers a rare glimpse into electioneering in a constituency usually dismissed for its political inactivity. His account offers intriguing insights into how the Sutherland family maintained a network of relationships with the county’s voters and non-voters, the transformative role that the railways had on increasing connectivity between Westminster and the furthest reaches of the United Kingdom, and Sutherland’s breathtaking landscape.

1865 Albumen print of Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) by by Camille Silvy. CC NPG

After being informed by his brother on 13 May 1867 that he was to stand as the family’s nominee for Sutherland, Gower had to make hasty plans to complete the 600-mile trip to his family’s estate in Dunrobin.

I shall start for Dunrobin [from London] by Limited Mail tomorrow. I have written to all of the principal tenants to let them know what has and what will take place; and an address (by Sir D[avid Dundas]) will probably be published in some of the northern papers in a few hours.

London to Inverness train timetable June 1867. Gower took the 8.40 p.m. limited mail from London to Inverness. Elgin Courier, 7 June 1867

Gower left London Euston by train at 8.40 p.m. on Tuesday 14 May and arrived at Bonar Bridge at 6 p.m. the following evening, taking an ‘intensely cold’ ride on the top of a coach for the final leg of the trip to Dunrobin Castle. Over dinner Gower ‘had a chat about plans for the canvassing’ with his election agents, Joseph Peacock, the factor of the Dunrobin estate, and Donald Gray, a banker in nearby Golspie.

Over the following ten days Gower met Sutherland’s electors and non-electors in towns and villages across the south-east of the county before travelling north to meet electors around Tongue.

The Sutherland family seat, Dunrobin Castle CC Wikimedia

The first visit of his canvass on Thursday 16 May was to ‘old Mrs Houston’ of Kintradwell, likely the mother of William Houston of Kintradwell (1819-1898), who had started a preliminary canvass of the county when a vacancy appeared in 1861. Gower recorded that Mrs Houston ‘was highly delighted at seeing me and was a very amiable poor old lady. She is 88 and has still a marvellous memory’. Later in the day he visited Crakaig, before meeting ‘about 20’ voters at Helmsdale where ‘old Dr [Thomas] Rutherford was of great use’ as ‘he knew where all the electors lived and all about them’.

G. Reid, Dornoch (1877) CC Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

On Friday 17 May he canvassed in Dornoch and Little Ferry, and on Saturday endured ‘one very long day’s work from 10 a.m. till near 10 p.m’, visiting Lairg, Skibo, Achany and Bonar, when ‘it poured all the afternoon, and the east wind was bad’. Gower noted in his diary that it was ‘quite a relief waking on Sunday to remember that it was a no canvassing day’.

Resuming his canvass on Monday 20 May, Gower visited the Reid family at their Gordonbush estate, where he ‘fished at the top of the Brora and Blackwater but it was too cold for any sport’, and on the following day he returned to Little Ferry, before calling ‘on the electors at Golspie’. With a trip to the north of the county beckoning later in the week, he spent Wednesday 22 May meeting ‘about half a dozen electors’ at Brora, before ‘fishing again but not with the same success’. As he was leaving Brora he finally met William Houston, who Gower was disgruntled to find had caught ‘2 fine trout, rather aggravating’.

Gower tried his hand at fishing in Loch Brora and river Black Water, likely near Balnacoil where Black Water meets the Brora CC Andrew Tyron (2017)

Gower spent most of Thursday 23 May travelling the 40-mile journey via horse-drawn carriage from Dunrobin to Altnaharra, stopping on the way to meet voters at Lairg and Pittentrail. He arrived at Altnaharra Inn at 7 p.m. where he enjoyed ‘a very pleasant evening tete a tete … full of anecdotes and talk’ with Sutherland’s sheriff and returning officer, George Dingwall Fordyce (1809-1875). During dinner Gower was able to revel in:

the view of Clebrig [Ben Klibreck] from our sitting room window [which was] very fine and during sunset became of a deep purple; a cuckoo close to the house made it sound very spring like.

On the following morning [Friday 24 May] Gower travelled to Tongue, recording that the first leg of the journey ‘along Loch Loyal’ took in the ‘splendid view of Ben Loyal’ which ‘was almost covered with snow’. His guide at Tongue was John Crawford, of Tongue House, a long-serving factor for the Sutherland family estates. Gower travelled with Crawford to an auction at a farm in Borgie where he was ‘able to see many of the voters belonging to this Western part of the county, without having the time lost by going from one to the other’. He returned to the Altnaharra Inn that night.

Google Maps view of snow covered Ben Loyal on road from Altnaharra to Tongue in May 2015 Google Maps

Gower departed for Dunrobin the following morning [Saturday 25 May] at 9:30 a.m. stopping on the way at Lairg for a ‘lunch (of whisky)’ with the former MP for Ashburton, Thomas Matheson (1798-1873), of Achany House, before arriving home at Dunrobin Castle at 7 p.m. He enjoyed a leisurely Sunday – ‘there was no Kirk till 5’ – before preparing his election speech for the nomination, which had been arranged for the next day.  

As had always been expected, on Monday 27 May Gower was returned unopposed as MP for Sutherlandshire. He was elected at a brief, rain-soaked nomination outside Dornoch County Buildings, walking through the crowd to the hustings at 12:15 p.m., counting ‘fifty people or so formed [in] a semi-circle below’ who ‘looked imposing owing to the number of umbrellas’.

The 1867 nomination took place outside the Dornoch County Buildings and Court House, Highland Historic Environment Record

The nomination had concluded by 12:25 p.m., before the returning officer completed the legal formalities at Dornoch Court House. Gower then enjoyed a ‘large luncheon’ at Dornoch Inn with many of the electors he had met over the past ten days, before departing at 2 p.m. for Bonar Bridge to catch the 4 p.m. train to Inverness. Gower left Inverness at 10.18 a.m. the following morning, reaching London at 4.27 a.m. on Wednesday 29 May. He took his seat in the Commons the following day.


Further Reading

For details on how to access Sutherland’s draft constituency article for the History of Parliament’s Commons 1832-1868 see here.

For more on Ronald Gower see Martin’s blog series, ‘Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): the life of a queer MP at the time of the Second Reform Act’Victorian Commons (2020)

For a history of the constituency of Sutherland between 1707 and 1832 see:

D. Hayton, ‘Sutherland’ HP Commons 1690-1715

E. Cruikshanks, ‘Sutherland’HP Commons 1715-1754

J. Cannon, ‘Sutherland’HP Commons 1754-1790

D. Fisher, ‘Sutherland’HP Commons 1790-1820

T. Jenkins, ‘Sutherland’HP Commons 1820-1832

Posted in Constituencies, Elections, Parliamentary life, Queer Parliamentary Life, Ronald Gower Series, Scotland, women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MP of the Month: Alfred Rhodes Bristow (1818-1875)

By the 1850s a seat in Parliament was proving a useful career path for men of relatively humble means to achieve substantial professional advancement. A prime example was our MP of Month, Alfred Rhodes Bristow. The son of a Greenwich tradesman, he honed his legal and political skills in municipal politics and election agency before securing a parliamentary seat, which he then readily traded for a lucrative government position.

Bristow was born in Greenwich in 1818, the youngest son of a draper and government contractor. Educated at King’s College, London, he qualified as a solicitor in 1841, and the following year married the daughter of a local calico printer. He subsequently established a successful conveyancing practice and in 1851 began acting as the election agent for an independent Liberal barrister named Montague Chambers. Chambers held moderately radical views and despite losing to a government candidate at the Greenwich by-election of February 1852, he later won the seat with Bristow’s help at the 1852 general election.

John Dean Paul, Greenwich Hospital from the River, London (1835); Museum of London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/greenwich-hospital-from-the-river-london-50795

Alongside parliamentary elections, Bristow became involved in municipal affairs. In December 1855 he was elected to the new metropolitan board of works as a representative for Greenwich, Deptford and Hatcham. An active committee man, he demonstrated his political flexibility in February 1857 by bringing forward a government nominee, General William Codrington, for another by-election at Greenwich. Codrington, a former commander of the British army in the Crimea, easily defeated the Radical candidate. By the time of the 1857 general election, Bristow – who was described as rather ‘beyond middle-height’, well-proportioned but ‘inclined to bulk’, with features which beamed ‘with intellect and intelligence’ – was said to have the representation of Greenwich ‘in his pocket’. Although in 1857 he was unable to save Chambers from defeat by a more advanced Radical, Bristow had astutely formed a joint committee which secured Codrington’s return at the top of the poll.

When Chambers abandoned his candidature for Kidderminster at the 1859 general election for another unsuccessful attempt on Greenwich, Bristow agreed to take his place at the venal carpet-making borough. Although he stood under the motto of ‘Bristow and the working classes’, he adopted a conciliatory stance towards his Conservative opponent, whose party nevertheless branded him ‘an out-and-out Republican’. Elected with a small majority, he was accused of unduly influencing the electors. A petition against his return, however, was dropped after reportedly being ‘paired’ with a Liberal petition at Pontefract, on the condition that Bristow paid £700 towards his opponent’s election costs.

Brinton’s carpet factory, Kidderminster

Bristow was well suited to life at Westminster, where he paid unwearied attention to matters of business. He had a ‘rich, pleasing, and harmonious’ voice, and developed a reputation as a candid and straightforward public speaker. His genial nature and talent for putting people at their ease made him ‘a universal favourite’ in the House. Although he advocated a thorough programme of reform, he insisted that it could be achieved ‘without a particle of revolution or rebellion’, and attracted popular support in Kidderminster. At Westminster he helped to restructure the municipal administration of London by assisting William Tite with a bill to amend the Metropolis Local Act of 1855. At the same time he was always ready to provide ‘bustling support’ for Lord Palmerston’s ministry whenever ‘his vote was of consequence’.

He made himself particularly useful to the Palmerston ministry by resigning his parliamentary seat in 1862 in order to create a vacancy for Luke White, the government’s ‘Irish whip’. He was rewarded with the post of solicitor to the admiralty, with a ‘comfortable’ salary of £2,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, the medical grounds he cited as his reason for retirement from the Commons were derided by the Conservative press, which reported the House’s ‘unbounded amusement’ that after only three parliamentary sessions this ‘stout, muscular individual’ could no longer ‘without risk to his life, remain out of bed after midnight!’

Bristow discharged his duties at the admiralty with ‘tact, ability, and energy’. Still keen to advance his legal career, he was called to the bar in November 1868, and continued to maintain substantial business interests, which included a directorship of the East London Bank. Not done with politics, he answered a call from the Kidderminster branch of the Reform League to offer himself at the 1868 general election, but subsequently withdrew from the contest. In 1874 he seconded the nomination of his former client, General Sir William Codrington, as a candidate for the Westminster constituency. Active to the end, Bristow spent a particularly busy day in the capital on 5 April 1875, when he collapsed and died at the feet of his wife and niece outside the Crystal Palace Hotel, Norwood.

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The ‘beautiful boy’ of the Commons: Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) and sexual identity in Parliament at the time of the Second Reform Act

The Leeds Mercury report of Gower’s nickname was reprinted in several papers, Orkney Herald, 9 June 1868

In the third of his blog series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal explores Gower’s parliamentary reputation as the ‘beautiful boy’ of the Commons, and his increasing disaffection with conventional aristocratic society during the 1868 parliamentary session.

In May 1868 the twenty-two-year-old MP for Sutherlandshire, Ronald Gower (1845-1916), made his maiden parliamentary speech. When reporting on the speech the Leeds Mercury shared some unexpected Westminster gossip. The paper informed its readers that Gower had

the reputation of being the handsomest man in the House of Commons, and when he first entered it a year ago he obtained the name of ‘the beautiful boy’, which has clung to him ever since.

Leeds Mercury, 30 May 1868.

MPs were regularly given nicknames by their colleagues, but in our research for the History of Parliament’s forthcoming Commons 1832-1868 volumes, Gower’s designation as ‘the beautiful boy’ stands alone as an example of the objectification and sexualisation of a young MP by his older colleagues.

Gower was not the only MP to be labelled as ‘the handsomest man in the House of Commons’. Seeking re-election for Hull in 1868, Charles Norwood was commended to the electors with the observation that ‘the ladies, so many of whom now grace us with their presence, say that he is the handsomest man in the House of Commons’. However, the use of the nickname the ‘beautiful boy’ for Gower carried rather different connotations. A Commons full of classically trained MPs could surely not have failed to note the association of such a moniker with notions of the ‘beautiful boy’ (or erômenos) of ancient Greek culture, a figure synonymous with sexual desire between an older man and a younger male.

Unattributed pencil drawing of Gower likely late 1860s, reprinted in Williamson, The Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower: A Memorial Tribute (1916)

At first glance, then, the existence of such a nickname suggests a level of openness in attitudes towards same-sex desire in the homosocial private club culture of the nineteenth-century Commons. This would be surprising, however, given Ben Griffin’s insightful research into masculine identity at Westminster during the period. As Griffin astutely notes, mid-Victorian MPs ‘could not abandon heterosexuality, domestic responsibilities, domestic authority, independence or self control without abandoning one’s claim to be a “real” man’.

What seems more likely is that in calling Gower ‘the beautiful boy’ MPs were referencing, and adding to, Westminster gossip and innuendo surrounding his sexuality. Following his arrival in the Commons in May 1867 it is conceivable that MPs came up with the nickname to marginalise a colleague who they perceived as unmanly or effete. Certainly, reports in the Elgin Courant suggest some perception of what would now be termed Gower’s camp aesthetic. In reporting on his parliamentary nickname, the paper couldn’t resist the play on words of calling Gower ‘his Grace’s graceful brother’, ‘his grace’ being Gower’s brother and fellow parliamentarian, the 3rd duke of Sutherland (1828-1892).

As his first year in Parliament wore on, though, it is highly plausible that MPs started to link Gower’s nickname to rumours about his sexuality. As discussed in my previous blog, Gower’s private diaries indicate that he spent most of the 1867 parliamentary session mixing London’s conventional aristocratic social calendar with London’s queer West End nightlife. Covent Garden’s theatres and drinking establishments were a stone’s throw from Parliament and were very public spaces. It is not hard to conceive that reports of Gower’s regular attendance in the area, and apparent relationships with other men, got back to his colleagues.

By calling Gower ‘the beautiful boy’, then, MPs may at best have been offering a coded warning to Gower to ensure that his extra-parliamentary activities were in keeping with the expected norms for a figure in public life. Alternatively the nickname was simply deployed as a form of bullying.

A distinct change in Gower’s social habits during the 1868 parliamentary session suggests that he was more than aware that questions were being raised about his extra-parliamentary nightlife. His diary for 1868 indicates that he stopped his regular trips to Covent Garden’s theatres and Evans’s Supper Rooms of the previous year. In their place were visits to the more respectable, and private, Mayfair gentleman’s ‘night clubs’ (as Gower called them) of Pratt’s Club House, 14 Park Place, and Egerton’s, 87 St James’s St.

Gower complained of the ‘feeling of loneliness’ in the Commons prior to the election of his nephew and friend the marquess of Lorne. Lorne took his seat on the day Disraeli addressed the Commons for the first time as Prime Minister, ILN, 14 Mar. 1868

As 1868 progressed, Gower’s diary also suggests his increasing disaffection with parliamentary life and the social expectations of conventional aristocratic society. In March 1868, Gower’s nephew and close friend, John ‘Ian’ Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914), was returned to Parliament. Lorne’s constant presence in London over the following months came as a great relief to Gower:

What a difference his being in the House [of Commons] makes to me I cannot say, it only wanted such a company to take away the feeling of loneliness that I formerly felt among so many older people than myself; and our walks or drives to and from the House are charming.

SRO, D6578/15/22, 5 Mar. 1868

Although his friendship with Lorne provided some respite from the ‘loneliness’ of the Commons, by the summer of 1868 Gower complained increasingly in his diary of the ‘pain and boresomeness’ of much of London society. In doing so he began pining for a more selective social set that shared his love of art and literature.

In July 1868 he was inspired by a visit to the Holland Park residence of the artist, Frederic Leighton (1830-1896):

If only I could see more and live more with the people (and society in general of those) with whom Ian and I breakfasted this morning (Thursday 2nd) life would be intensely more enjoyable and interesting. We broke fast nearly at 12 with F. Leighton and a far greater brother artist [George] Watts; with these was also young [Valentine] Prinsep, a rising artist and I do not think I have ever spent two pleasanter hours.

SRO, D6578/15/22, 2 July 1868
By 1868 Gower had tired of the Prince and Princess of Wales and their annual visits to Dunrobin. The ceremonial surrounding the Wales’s 1866 visit was detailed in ILN 13 Oct. 1866

His disdain for conventional aristocratic society was compounded that autumn after enduring a fortnight at his family’s estate in Dunrobin in the company of the future Edward VII, the Prince of Wales. He complained that ‘I do not enjoy the society (if it can be called such) which the Wales’s bring’. Regretting that ‘the more I am here [Dunrobin] the greater I feel the change from old times’, he went on to imagine an alternative future life in an idealised ‘Spanish Castle’ in Kilmarnock:

My “Spanish Castle” is a wee house at Kilmarnock. It’s large enough for me or two friends where I can feel and be perfectly free; with my books and myself. All this may sound and perhaps is selfish. If so I cannot help it; surely, we all may follow unnatural tendencies (if right and honourable) and mine is to be utterly independent and not obliged to live at all with a set of people utterly and wholly uncongenial and unsympathetic to myself.

SRO, D6578/15/22, 4 Oct. 1868

As well as foreseeing his future bric-a-brac ‘treasure house’ at Windsor Lodge (which as John Potvin has demonstrated became a meeting point for a generation of young aesthetes from the 1870s), Gower’s statement presents as a remarkably frank admission of his sexuality and disillusionment with the conventions of aristocratic society.

Definition of ‘unnatural offences’ according to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act

As with the multiple meanings inherent in his parliamentary nickname of the ‘beautiful boy’, it is hard to escape the notion that in privately admitting his ‘unnatural tendencies’ Gower was coming to terms with his sexuality. ‘Unnatural’ was nineteenth-century shorthand for same-sex desire and ‘unnatural offences’ was the principal legal term used to categorise an array of criminal sexual offences enacted by men such as ‘sodomy’, ‘indecent assault’ or ‘carnal knowledge’.  

Within eighteen months of entering public life as a member of Parliament, Gower had clearly come to realise that a career at Westminster was not for him. While he would be returned again to Parliament at the November 1868 general election, his position of immense privilege as a member of one of Britain’s leading aristocratic families allowed him to devote the next few years of his life to forging an alternative career as a sculptor and writer…


Further Reading

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

K. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (first published 1978, most recent edition 2016)

B. Griffin, The politics of gender in Victorian Britain: masculinity, political culture and the struggle for women’s rights (2012)

J. Potvin, Bachelors of a Different Sort: Queer Aesthetics, Material Culture and the Modern Interior in Britain (2014)

R. Scruton, Beauty (2009)

S. Sontag, Notes on “Camp” (first published 1964, most recent edition 2018)

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

Posted in LGBT+ History Month, Parliamentary life, Queer Parliamentary Life, Ronald Gower Series | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A ‘pocket’ borough or a borough needing deep pockets? Abingdon’s elections in the nineteenth century

In this blog, originally posted on the main History of Parliament site, Dr Philip Salmon examines the parliamentary representation of Abingdon in the 19th century.

Abingdon was widely regarded as an easily managed ‘pocket’ or ‘nomination’ borough during the 19th century. For a while it certainly had all the appearance of being one. During the decade and a half either side of the 1832 Reform Act its politics were completely dominated by two influential MPs. From 1818 until 1832 John Maberly MP, a wealthy cloth manufacturer and banker – the epitome of a self-made entrepreneur – effectively bought the borough. His generous gifts of coal to the poor and distribution of one guinea ‘treating’ and dining tickets to every elector ensured his return as a Whig at five successive elections before 1832, in four of which he faced no opposition. His connection with Abingdon’s principal trade, the manufacture of cloth and carpets, also secured him support, though his own business interests were based in Scotland and often viewed as rival operations.

Abingdon’s oddities as a constituency also shored up Maberly’s position. Before 1832, Abingdon was one of just five English boroughs that elected one MP rather than two. The lack of a second seat greatly reduced the number of candidates willing to risk the expense and trouble of a contest. Abingdon’s franchise was another factor. Before 1832, all residents who paid local taxes were eligible to vote, as a part of a ‘scot and lot’ franchise. Around 300 inhabitants fell into this category, but doubts about who qualified after long periods of uncontested elections meant that the result of any poll would almost certainly be challenged on petition, at considerable expense. Regular changes to the local rate assessments used to determine this type of franchise further muddied the waters.

Abingdon Boundary Map, 1832

One striking consequence of Abingdon’s ‘scot and lot’ franchise was that the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832 made almost no difference to the size of its electorate. Most people who qualified for the new £10 household franchise were already ‘scot and lot’ voters. The Reform Act also made no changes to the borough’s boundaries. Maberly’s dominance therefore looked set to continue after 1832. In the event, however, the dramatic collapse of his finances in 1832 and his ensuing bankruptcy forced him to abandon politics and flee to the Continent.

His replacement as Abingdon’s MP was Thomas Duffield of Marcham Park, a local Tory squire, who easily saw off a challenge by Maberly’s son William Leader Maberly at the 1832 election. Duffield’s immense wealth – he had married an heiress to the fortune of John Elwes MP – gave him the same sort of hold over Abingdon that Maberly had enjoyed. The fact that he was a Tory, albeit of an ‘independent’ and moderate kind, seemed to matter less than his ability to continue Maberly’s patronage and philanthropy, including coals for the poor. Re-elected without opposition in 1835, 1837 and 1841, Duffield eventually became so secure in his berth that he was able to act as the borough’s patron. In 1844 he resigned to provide a safe seat for the Conservative solicitor general Frederick Thesiger, who was duly elected unopposed.

Any resemblance Abingdon had to a pocket borough, however, was completely destroyed the following year. Emboldened by their recent gains in the town’s council elections, a group of reforming tradesmen and businessmen organised an opposition to Thesiger at the 1845 by-election, triggered by his appointment as Conservative attorney general. Led by John Thomas Norris, a London paper manufacturer with local paper mills at Sutton Courtenay and Sandford-on-Thames, and Gabriel Davis, an Abingdon wine and grain merchant, the group brought forward the wealthy nabob General James Caulfeild as their candidate. Although he was narrowly defeated after a notoriously venal contest, at the 1847 election they tried again. This time they came within three votes of success. In 1852 Thesiger decided he had had enough and transferred to the safer (and cheaper) seat of Stamford. A series of Tory hopefuls then attempted to muster support but all quit, leaving the Liberal Caulfeild to be elected without opposition.

Caulfeild’s unexpected death shortly after his election set in train a different series of challenges to the status quo in Abingdon. Although Caulfeild had been invited to stand by Abingdon’s tradesmen, he had also been acceptable to the local Whig squires and gentry who traditionally dominated county politics. The suggestion that the paper manufacturer Norris now replace him, however, was firmly resisted by the local aristocracy. They instead settled on the former Conservative MP for Oxfordshire Lord Norreys, who had recently become a ‘Liberal-Conservative’. Norris reluctantly agreed to stand aside and support Norreys, but only on the understanding that he would be next in line for any vacancy. When Norreys succeeded to his family’s peerage just two years later, however, a more ‘moderate’ Liberal candidate, the young aristocratic army officer Joseph Reed, was introduced by the Whig squires with the support of an ‘influential’ section of Abingdon’s reformers. Norris, it was asserted, was too much of an ‘upstart’ and in ‘too great haste to get to the top of the ladder’.

With Norris refusing to give way a second time the 1854 by-election became a contest between two different types of Liberal candidate: one a nominee of the area’s traditional ruling elite, the other a self-made businessman and local employer backed by local tradesmen. Although Reed won, his tenure was short. Plagued by debt and fearing more election expenditure, he stepped down at the 1857 election and sought re-election elsewhere, before landing in debtor’s prison. The Whigs and Liberals were left with little option but to rally around Norris. The ‘pretentious upstart’, by now a director of the Eastern Counties Railway, was duly elected unopposed. A supporter of many radical causes in the Commons, he successfully saw off a Conservative challenge at the 1859 election. Like many businessman MPs, however, he found that Parliament interfered with the running of his company. Accused of neglecting his parliamentary duties, at the 1865 election he lost his seat to another well-connected ‘Liberal Conservative’. Within a year he was declared bankrupt.

Colonel Charles Lindsay MP

The aristocratic credentials of Norris’s successor were impeccable. A younger son of the Earl of Crawford, who had served with the Grenadier Guards in the Crimean war, including at Balaklava, Colonel Charles Lindsay sat until his defeat in 1874. At that year’s election the pendulum swung back again in favour of a businessman MP, the Liberal John Creemer Clarke, who as well as being Abingdon’s former mayor and chairman of the local railway, was appropriately enough another clothing manufacturer. He sat until the borough’s abolition in 1885.

Abingdon was just one of many small English boroughs in which local political activity during the Victorian era revolved around rival party attachments, interest groups and preconceptions about who was fit to be an MP. Underpinning these tensions the distribution of money, either in the form of bribery or patronage of local institutions, ensured that representation remained an extremely costly business, placing a serious strain on any MP’s purse. It remains to be seen how typical Abingdon was in this respect, but for 25 of the 67 years covered in this brief survey Abingdon was represented by an MP who subsequently went bankrupt. Abingdon may not have been a pocket borough in the traditional sense, but it certainly needed deep pockets.

Useful links:

Abingdon Area Archaeological and Historical Society

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‘Highly respected in Parliamentary circles’: Thomas Greene (1794-1872)

Our MP of the Month Thomas Greene (1794-1872) represented his Lancaster constituency for more than three decades. As a well-respected back bench MP, he made an important contribution to parliamentary business behind the scenes, and served as chairman of ways and means from 1841 until 1847.

The name of Thomas Greene may be obscure today, but at the time of his death in 1872, The Times recorded that he had been ‘widely known and highly respected in Parliamentary circles’. He provides a good example of those diligent back bench MPs who made an unshowy, but significant, contribution to the smooth functioning of the Victorian Commons. His parliamentary career also illustrates another feature of nineteenth-century politics which we have explored in previous blogs: the fluidity of party allegiances, particularly in the 1830s.

Thomas Greene (1794-1872) by James Lonsdale; Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/thomas-greene-214028

Greene entered the Commons in 1824 following a by-election victory at Lancaster, which lay close to the family estates he had inherited in 1810. He represented the borough – with one brief hiatus – until his retirement in 1857, and was unopposed at his first six elections. Although he was elected as a supporter of Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry, Greene asserted that he was ‘not devoted to party and would always vote conscientiously’. During his early years in the Commons, he ‘tacked between the Tories and Whigs to retain the local support by which he made his seat his own’. He opposed Catholic emancipation, but voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, hoping to prevent a more sweeping reform. In 1831 he was elected as a ‘moderate reformer’ and again took a pro-reform stance on the hustings in 1832, although he was keen to go to Parliament ‘unshackled’ by pledges and preserve his ‘independence of character’.

Greene’s votes in the first Reformed Parliament confirmed his unwillingness to follow a strict party line. At the 1835 election he again advocated a policy of moderate reform, but this time stood as a supporter of Sir Robert Peel and his Tamworth manifesto. He duly backed Peel’s short-lived ministry on key issues in the division lobbies and was listed by the Parliamentary Test Book (1835) as a Conservative. While other parliamentary guides were slower to recognise his change of allegiance, it was evident from his subsequent votes against the Melbourne ministry that his loyalties had shifted.

Extract from the Parliamentary Test Book (1835)

When the Conservatives returned to office in 1841, Peel, on Lord Stanley’s recommendation, appointed Greene to the important position of chairman of the committee of ways and means. In addition to the committee’s handling of matters relating to the public revenue, the chairman of ways and means had recently been given responsibility for overseeing unopposed private bills in the Commons. Peel cited Greene’s experience in ‘the private business of the House’ as a key reason for his selection. Although he had not been a regular speaker in the chamber, he had taken a particular interest in procedural matters, and had been a diligent member in the committee-rooms. In the 1837-41 Parliament he had served on several select committees dealing with procedural issues, including the select committees on private business and the revision of the standing orders. Alongside this experience, Greene could draw upon his training as a lawyer. He had been called to the bar in 1819, although he did not pursue a legal career.

Greene’s appointment as chairman of ways and means prompted a marked increase in his attendance at Westminster, voting in at least half of divisions in every session except 1843. He spoke much more regularly, although his interventions were mostly brief procedural points when chairing debates. He was keen to make improvements in the procedure followed by committees on railway bills, which were occupying an increasing amount of the House’s time, as well as on private bills, and again sat on several select committees on procedural matters. He remained loyal to Peel over the Maynooth grant, despite this giving ‘mortal offence to his ultra-Tory supporters’ at Lancaster, and also backed him over the repeal of the corn laws. While his moderate views had previously been a source of strength, he recognised on the hustings in 1847 that this was no longer the case, since ‘I do not go far enough for either party, and so I have doubtless lost many votes’. He was, however, re-elected in second place, assisted by the ‘personal regard’ of many voters for him.

Greene was replaced as chairman of ways and means by a Liberal in 1847, but continued to give the Commons the benefit of his procedural expertise. In 1848 he was appointed as one of three commissioners who would superintend the completion of the new Palace of Westminster, which had been subject to delay and increased expense. This prompted several contributions to debate as he and the other commissioners attempted to resolve problems such as the acrimonious dispute between Charles Barry and David Boswell Reid over the ventilation of the Commons chamber. Greene displayed his frustration with Barry, complaining in April 1851 that his ‘very unsightly’ interior decoration was at odds with the wish of the Commons that ‘the new chamber should be as unadorned as possible’.

The Commons chamber, ILN, 7 Feb. 1852.

The new Conservative ministry of 1852 led by the Earl of Derby (who as Lord Stanley had recommended Greene to Peel in 1841) saw Greene as ‘the natural person to bring forward’ as chairman of ways and means, but expectations that he would resume his former role were scuppered by his defeat at that year’s general election. Derby instead chose John Wilson Patten, hoping he might accept the position ‘temporarily … with an understanding that he would resign it if Greene should regain his seat’. Greene did not, however, displace Patten when re-entered the Commons at a by-election in April 1853. He rarely spoke in debate in his final Parliament, but remained active in the committee-rooms, serving on the select committees on the business of the House and on standing orders, as well as inquiries into the ventilation of the Commons, Peterborough’s elections, the Thames marshes, compensation claims against the Portuguese government, the public health bill and the nuisances removal amendment bill. He also played another important part in managing the business of the House as one of the chairmen of the general committee on railway and canal bills and regularly chaired the committee of selection, which oversaw the appointment of committees on private bills. While Greene’s name was not associated with any landmark piece of legislation or a campaign on any particular issue, his diligent activity at Westminster was essential to the functioning of parliamentary business.

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

In the second of his blog series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal explores Gower’s London social life during his first year in Parliament, including a brief summer romance with the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Albumen print of Ronald Gower by Camille Silvy (1865) CC NPG

One of the most privileged men in nineteenth-century Britain, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), was returned to Parliament in May 1867, aged 21, for his family’s pocket county of Sutherland. As discussed in my first blog of this series, historians and literary critics have shown how Gower played an influential role in shaping British queer identities, utilising his position of privilege to navigate life as a queer man in late nineteenth-century Britain.

My research into the first two years of his parliamentary career for the History of Parliament’s Commons 1832-1868 project has revealed new insights into Gower’s life as a young queer MP. This blog focuses on Gower’s social life during his first year in Parliament, which mixed London’s more conventional aristocratic social calendar with London’s queer nightlife.

Gower’s detailed private diary reveals that he maintained a very busy social life after taking his seat in Parliament in May 1867. As well as attending aristocratic dinners and balls and the major cultural events of that year’s London Season, he was a devoted attendee of London’s art galleries, West End theatres and Covent Garden nightspots. He was usually accompanied on these frequent, and elongated, nights out by one or more of his close school or university friends: Robert ‘Jorcy’ Jocelyn (1846-1880), John ‘Ian’ Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914), Lord Archibald Campbell (1846-1913), or his brother Albert Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1843-1874).

One of Gower’s favourite London theatres, the Adelphi: ILN, 18 Dec. 1858

During 1867 Gower was a regular presence in London’s West End theatres: the Strand, the Adelphi, Drury Lane Theatre, Haymarket, St James’s, the Royal Italian Opera House and the Royal Alhambra Palace. The acerbic witticisms that litter his diary suggest that he fancied himself as something of a theatrical critic, and he was more than happy to prioritise attending a new play over important debates in the Commons.

On 28 June 1867, for instance, he missed a close vote over the Conservative ministry’s reform bill to attend the St James’s Theatre to watch his favourite play of the season for the second time, Les Idées De Madame Aubray by Alexandre Dumas fils. The crowd, he reported, were ‘cheering [Monsieur] Ravel and [Mademoiselle] Deschamps being the principal performers but the whole company is excellent’.

After attending the theatre (or escaping from what he invariably found to be ‘very slow’ aristocratic dinners or balls) Gower would usually move on to his favourite late-night Covent Garden drinking haunt, the notorious Evans’s Supper-room, 43 King Street.

Evans’s Supper Room, 43 King Street, ILN, 26 Jan. 1856

Evans’s was a male-only late night dining room and music hall (with women only admitted to view proceedings from behind a screen and on presentation of their address). Known for its heavy drinking culture and ‘madrigal glees’ sung by ‘well known boys’, it was derided by temperance reformers during the 1860s for ‘vice and profligacy’ and for attracting disreputable gentlemen ‘who had not paid a tailor’s bill for the last seven years’.

As a number of historians have shown, the theatres, pubs and clubs of London’s West End were some of the most significant queer spaces in nineteenth-century London.

One contemporary recalled how from the 1850s ‘the Adelphi Theatre, the Italian Opera, and the open parks at night became his fields of adventure’. That Evans’s Supper-room may also have been regarded by contemporaries as one of London’s queer spaces is suggested by its mention in Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park’s sodomy trial of 1870. During their trial a witness reported that waiting staff at Evans’s refused to remove the cross-dressed Park and Boulton from the establishment, as well as the latter’s partner, the former MP for Newark, Lord Arthur Clinton (1840-1870).

Advert to ‘sup’ after theatre at Evans’s Supper Rooms, Sun, 5 July 1867

Several remarkably open entries in his diary suggest that these queer spaces allowed Gower to pursue a brief relationship during July and August 1867 with the ‘quite beautiful’ and ‘Spanishy’ William John Mayne (1846-1902), the son of the first commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Richard Mayne (1796-1868). The relationship embraced the complete array of Gower’s social haunts, evolving from a meeting at a conventional aristocratic ball, to a series of nights out in Gower’s favourite Covent Garden nightspots.

Gower’s diary entry for 27 July 1867 where he describes the ‘quite beautiful’ and ‘Spanishy’ Richard Mayne, SRO, D6578/15/21

It appears that Gower and Mayne either met at a ball at Stafford House on 15 July 1867, or at the India Office Ball held later that week to celebrate the London visit of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz, which Gower described as ‘probably the finest ball ever given in London’. A week later Gower took Mayne for lunch and then to the Royal Academy of Arts:

27 July 1867

On Saturday 27th [July] to town after lunch (a new friend) W. Mayne (Sir Richard’s last son and youngest) came with me to the [Royal] Academy; he is 22 and quite beautiful; Spanishy; lived a good deal in Paris and has the most charming manners.

Gower’s diary suggests he met with Mayne on four further occasions over the following few weeks. In addition to the places already discussed above, Gower’s diary entries listed below mention Chiswick House, where Gower lived during 1867 with his mother the 2nd duchess of Sutherland; St. James’s Club, Gower’s gentleman’s club then situated at Grafton Street; and 80 Chester Square, Mayne’s home address:

28 July 1867

Mayne came [to Chiswick House] in the afternoon and was (in Archie’s [word illegible]) booted … I drove Mayne back to [80] Chester Square at 7.

3 Aug. 1867

Later out with Will. Mayne (who I am exceptionally fond of).

5 Aug. 1867

Dined with W. Mayne at my Club (St. James’s), and we went to the Adelphi to see Kate Terry in ‘The Lady of Lyon’, much disappointed; also to Evans’s.

15 Aug. 1867

I went to town on the 15th and stopped the night, dining with W. Mayne and going with him to a concert at Covent Garden and also to Evans’s.

Carte de visite of Kate Terry (1844-1924) in her farewell performance at the Adelphi as Juliet, 31 Aug. 1867. Gower ‘found it impossible to get a place’ but saw her earlier that month with Mayne and witnessed her ‘charming’ penultimate performance on 30 Aug. as Beatrice in As You Like It.

Gower’s diary contains no further mentions of Mayne, suggesting that the relationship ended abruptly. It may have been that Mayne spurned Gower’s advances, that either one grew tired of each other, or that they were spotted. Both were high profile figures – the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and a member of Parliament – and if the affair had become public knowledge it would have been a society scandal.  Little is known about Mayne following this, aside from that he died, aged 56, unmarried and ‘without profession’ in Ostend, in August 1902.

Either way, for Gower the moment appears to have been a watershed. As my next blog will discuss, it was not long before rumours surrounding Gower’s sexuality surfaced in Parliament, leading him to change his social habits and to long for an alternative mode of life.


Further Reading

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

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

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

S. Joyce, ‘Two Women Walk into a Theatre Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative’, Victorian Review (2018), 83-98

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

C. Upchurch, ‘Forgetting the Unthinkable: Cross-Dressers and British Society in the Case of the Queen vs. Boulton and Others’, Gender and History (2000), 127-57

Posted in Biographies, LGBT+ History Month, Parliamentary life, Queer Parliamentary Life, Ronald Gower Series | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Representing Glamorgan, 1832-85: Mr. Talbot and his colleagues

This post originally appeared on the History of Parliament’s blog as part of a Local History series on Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. The earlier posts in the series looked at elections in the 1640s and the 18th century. In the 19th century, it was the long-serving Liberal MP Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot who exerted the strongest influence in Glamorgan, but he sat alongside several different colleagues during his sixty years in the Commons.

Described in 1841 as ‘the Lancashire of Wales’, Glamorgan was Wales’s wealthiest and most industrialised county. Coal mining employed almost one fifth of its male workforce in 1851, compared with one seventh in agriculture. Iron working was another key industry, centred on Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, and copper smelting, using ore from Cornwall and overseas, was expanding at Swansea. The county was also home to the world’s largest tin-plate factory at Ystalyfera.

Dowlais Iron Works by George Childs (1840) (C) National Museum of Wales

In contrast with this rapid industrial development, Glamorgan’s political representation during this period had one unchanging feature. For almost sixty years, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot was the local MP. First elected in 1830, he sat until his death in 1890, by when he was ‘Father of the House’. From 1885, when Glamorgan was divided into five constituencies, he held the Mid Glamorgan seat. Only one nineteenth-century MP, Charles Villiers, surpassed Talbot’s record for continuous Commons service.

As Glamorgan’s largest landowner and a descendant of the Mansel family, which had long provided county MPs, Talbot appears at first glance to be a traditional representative of the landed elite. However, he also had significant industrial and commercial interests, which included the development of Port Talbot and investments in the railways worth an estimated £3 million by 1890, contributing to his reputed position as the wealthiest commoner in Britain. Although he spoke only once in debate during six decades in the Commons, Talbot’s strong local position entrenched him in his Glamorgan seat. Even his divergence from the majority of the Liberal party on two key issues – repeal of the corn laws in the 1840s and Irish Home Rule in the 1880s – did not threaten his electoral prospects.

C.R.M. Talbot

Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803-1890)

With Talbot secure, Glamorgan’s elections became a battle for the second seat which the county had been given by the 1832 Reform Act. As with other constituencies, the low number of contests – between 1832 and 1868 Glamorgan’s electors only went to the polls twice – did not necessarily indicate a lack of political interest. The 1832 election was a case in point. Although Talbot was returned without opposition alongside his fellow Whig Lewis Weston Dillwyn, at least ten other individuals had been mentioned as possible candidates. Talbot and Dillwyn’s election was aided by the fact that the influential Marquess of Bute decided not to field a Conservative opponent. Although he was a lifelong Liberal, who had voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, Talbot assured Bute privately that he held ‘conservative’ views. The lack of opposition did not, however, mean a cheap election, as the returning officer charged the candidates for various expenses of dubious legality, including £20 for silver coins thrown to the crowd and £210 for tavern bills.

The political alliance between Talbot and Dillwyn was cemented by the marriage of Dillwyn’s eldest son to Talbot’s sister in 1833, and they were re-elected without opposition in 1835. Despite the offer of a baronetcy from the Melbourne ministry, Dillwyn could not, however, be persuaded to stand again in 1837, when there was a major shift in the county’s representation. For the first time, a Conservative candidate was nominated: Viscount Adare, heir to the Irish earldom of Dunraven and, through his mother, to extensive estates in the Vale of Glamorgan. His maternal grandfather had been a long-serving MP for the county and Adare’s supporters emphasised these family connections during the contest, while his opponents mocked his youth – he was 25 years old – and lack of political experience.

Sir Josiah John Guest (C) National Library of Wales

The third candidate in 1837 was the Liberal industrialist (Josiah) John Guest, whose iron company at Dowlais was the world’s largest producer of iron. He was also standing again for Merthyr Tydfil, where he had been MP since 1832, but declared that he would sit for Glamorgan if elected there. The diaries of his wife, Lady Charlotte, provide a colourful account of the contest. She recorded that when Adare went to canvass in his opponent’s heartland at Dowlais, he was met by 700 of Guest’s workmen, chanting ‘Guest for ever’, whereupon ‘the Little Lord was so frightened that he did not canvass a single vote, and got the Constables to escort him safely back again’. She was equally scathing about Adare’s performance on the hustings, where he ‘read the whole of his speech … chiefly about his grandfather’. Her low opinion was echoed by the Morning Chronicle, which reported that Adare’s poor showing ‘was pitied by all – his ignorance on political matters is frightful’.

Lady Charlotte Guest (C) National Library of Wales

This did not, however, prevent Adare from topping the poll, aided by the influence exercised by Dunraven and Bute. Lady Charlotte claimed that ‘the Tory landlords brought their Tenants up themselves like flocks of sheep, and made them break their pledge-words. They absolutely dragged them to the Poll, threatening to turn them out of their farms unless they voted plumpers for Lord Adare’. Talbot, who had been unenthusiastic about Guest’s candidature, preferring to share the representation without a contest, kept his seat, with Guest in third place. Guest remained in Parliament, however, having easily seen off a Conservative opponent at Merthyr.

Talbot and Adare – who both opposed the repeal of the corn laws – were re-elected in 1841 and 1847, but by 1850 Adare’s support was dwindling and he spent most of the parliamentary session at Lucerne. As an Irish peer, he could have stayed in the Commons after succeeding in August 1850 as the third Earl of Dunraven, but he took the Chiltern Hundreds in December to devote more time to his newly inherited responsibilities. Keeping their powder dry for the next general election, the Liberals did not put forward a candidate at the ensuing by-election in February 1851, leaving the Conservative Sir George Tyler, a naval officer and local landowner who was committed to agricultural protection, to be returned in Adare’s place. The proposed Liberal candidate, Henry Hussey Vivian, a Swansea copper smelter, did not stand after all at the 1852 general election, as analysis of the electoral register suggested that his chances were poor. There was also concern that Liberal opposition to Tyler in the county might prompt Conservative opposition to Guest at Merthyr. A Peelite supporter of free trade, John Nicholl, offered at the last minute after losing his seat at Cardiff, but withdrew as the show of hands was being taken at the nomination. Having previously promised Tyler that he would not oppose him, he felt it would be dishonourable to continue his candidature.

After having two Whig MPs from 1832 until 1837, and shared representation from 1837 onwards, Glamorgan’s electoral politics entered a third phase in 1857 when Vivian finally decided to offer. With agricultural protection having receded as a political issue, Talbot joined forces with him, and together they saw off opposition from a new Conservative candidate, Nash Vaughan Edwards Vaughan, who polled almost 1,000 votes behind Vivian. Talbot and Vivian represented Glamorgan together until the constituency was divided in 1885, and only faced a Conservative opponent in 1874.

For details on how to access Glamorgan and other draft constituency articles through our preview site, see here.

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‘A strenuous and able Reformer’: Dr Stephen Lushington (1782-1873)

Stephen Lushington, after William John Newton, mezzotint (1834)
Stephen Lushington, after William John Newton, mezzotint (1834) CC NPG

This month we take a look at Dr Stephen Lushington (1782-1873). One of six anti-slavery campaigners whose names are inscribed on the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London, Lushington famously served as Queen Caroline’s legal counsel in 1820. As MP for Tower Hamlets from 1832, he was influential in determining the final details of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act and was an outspoken, although often frustrated, advocate of religious and legal reforms and the abolition of capital punishment.

The son of an East India Company chairman, Lushington was educated at Eton and Oxford where he specialised in civil law. He first entered parliament in 1806, at the age of 24, but was forced to resign after his opposition to the slave trade and support for Catholic emancipation offended his electoral patron. Swapping Parliament for a legal career in Doctors’ Commons, Lushington practised diligently as a civilian in the admiralty and ecclesiastical courts, enjoying some distinction in 1816 by acting with Henry Brougham in Lady Byron’s separation case. Aided by Brougham’s influence, Lushington was returned to Parliament in 1820 and rose to national prominence that year as counsel to Queen Caroline.

Lushington (far right) as counsel to Queen Caroline, J. Fairburn, ‘All a Bottle of Smoke!! or John Bull and the Secret Committee’ (1820), CC NPG

A committed advanced Whig throughout the 1820s, Lushington lost his seat at the 1830 election. He returned to Parliament at a by-election in April 1831 at the beginning of the parliamentary struggle over the Whigs’ reform legislation. As a prominent member of the Anti-Slavery Society and close ally of several cabinet ministers, Lushington acted as a middle-man between the government and the anti-slavery lobby during May 1832, fearing that the efforts of the latter might derail the reform bill.

Lushington was returned for the newly created London borough of Tower Hamlets at the 1832 general election. He represented the constituency until his appointment as a judge of the admiralty court required his retirement in 1841. As a reformer he offered consistent support to the ballot and shorter parliaments (but not household suffrage), the abolition of slavery (but supported the government’s compensation scheme), the improvement of conditions for army and naval officers, corn law reform, Jewish emancipation and the abolition of capital punishment.

Lushington (far right) skulks off after narrowly avoiding a duel with Robert Peel, J. Doyle, ‘A Nice Distinction or a Hume-iliating Rejoinder to a Warlike Ap-Peel!’ (1835) CC NPG. Also see An Illustrative Key to the Sketches of H. B.

Known for their clarity of argument, Lushington’s speeches never failed to attract the attention of his fellow MPs on account of his inability to pronounce the sound r (probably the speech impediment, rhotacism) and his ‘clear and shrill’ tone, as well as his habit of baring his teeth and fixing a piercing gaze on fellow members as he spoke. His public speeches also had an uncanny knack of provoking the Conservative press. During the 1835 election he came remarkably close to a duel with the new prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. This followed reports that he had labelled Peel and the Duke of Wellington ‘convicted swindlers’ on account of their recent conversion to reform.

Lushington’s is one of six anti-slavery campaigners whose names are inscribed on the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London © Martin Spychal 2020

Lushington’s major policy legacy after 1832 stemmed from his involvement in the anti-slavery movement. In 1824 he was one of the first anti-slavery leaders to advocate immediate, rather than gradual abolition, the movement as a whole only resolving in favour of complete abolition in 1832

In 1832 Lushington and his fellow campaigner, Thomas Fowell Buxton, drafted an anti-slavery bill for the government. However, this was rejected in favour of the eventual 1833 legislation that proposed an immediate and much more extensive system of compensation for slave owners. Lushington came to accept compensation for slave owners as the only means of getting Parliament to accept abolition, and did not vote against it in the Commons.  Along with Buxton he convinced the national anti-slavery lobby to accept the compensation scheme with concessions, one of which was a reduction in the duration of the slave apprenticeships that followed abolition, from twelve years to seven.

Lushington remained active as a parliamentary representative of the anti-slavery movement thereafter. In 1836 he called on the government to delay its recognition of the newly formed Republic of Texas until it agreed to ‘desist altogether’ in the slave trade, lobbied for the immediate cessation of slave apprenticeships, sat on the 1839 select committee that investigated Portugal’s involvement in the Brazilian slave trade and used his expertise in maritime law to support ministers in drafting the 1839 Slave Trade Suppression Act. In his final year in Parliament, Lushington also started to apply pressure to the board of control to address slavery in India.

As well as his attention to slavery Lushington was a leading Anglican advocate of the removal of Jewish disabilities, the reform of the parliamentary oath and Dissenters’ rights. In 1839, after years of frustration with the extent of religious reforms, he made a particularly impassioned speech in which he urged his fellow Conservative and Whig MPs to take religious grievances seriously:

first, for the sake of justice; secondly, for the sake of their own character; and, lastly, for the sake of that which every well-regulated Government should have nearest and dearest to their hearts – the appeasement of the bitterness of that religious dissension, which day after day disgraced and debased the discussions of Parliament (Hansard, 25 Apr. 1839)

With his allies, Lushington brought in the 1841 Punishment of Death Act which removed capital punishment for rape, embezzlement, forgery and the demolition of church property (4 & 5 Vict. c.56)

Lushington’s commitment to the removal of religious grievances was reflective of his wider attempts to effect the wholesale reform of the civil and ecclesiastical courts. However, as with religious grievances he was left frustrated by the ease with which parliamentarians, particularly peers, could block reform. In 1839, for instance, he lambasted the House of Lords for sitting on one of his proposals to reform the ecclesiastical courts ‘for upwards of ten weeks’.

He did achieve some small victories, however, one of which came in his final year in Parliament. As a vocal advocate on the issue since 1813, Lushington had argued that capital punishment had no utility as a preventative measure, as it caused reluctance among victims of crime, juries and judges to prosecute offences and led to irreversible errors in sentencing. He also believed that public executions ‘did debase, and lower, and brutalise the public morals, and the public mind’.

After several failed attempts, Lushington and his allies secured the passage of the 1841 Punishment of Death Act, which removed capital punishment for rape, embezzlement, forgery and the demolition of church property. It would take another 132 years before capital punishment was totally abolished in the United Kingdom.

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

Further Reading

S. Waddams, Law, Politics and the Church of England: the career of Stephen Lushington 1782-1873 (1992)

D. Eltis, ‘Dr Stephen Lushington and the Campaign to Abolish Slavery in the British Empire’, Journal of Caribbean History, 1 (1970), 43-8.

L. M. Bethell, ‘Britain, Portugal and the Suppression of the Brazilian Slave Trade: The Origins of Lord Palmerston’s Act of 1839’, EHR, 80 (1965), 761-784

A. H. Manchester, ‘The Reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts’, American Journal of Legal History, 10 (1966), 51-75.

R. G. Thorne, ‘Lushington, Stephen (1782-1873)‘, HP Commons 1790-1820

T. Jenkins, ‘Lushington, Stephen (1782-1873)’, HP Commons 1820-1832

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MP of the Month: Thomas Barrett Lennard (1788-1856)

Thomas Barrett Lennard‘s career neatly captures some of the oddities and contradictions of early Victorian politics, especially the survival of older attitudes and beliefs alongside the emergence of more ‘modern’ progressive ideas. Lennard’s campaign to abolish the death penalty for theft and to remove various forms of corporal punishment was way ahead of its time. But he attracted ridicule for repeatedly trying to revive the ancient ‘freeman-by-marriage’ franchise, whereby men acquired their voting rights by marrying the daughters of freemen (see below). He also campaigned steadily against slavery, while at the same time owning slaves on a Jamaican estate inherited by his wife.

Original ‘wife’ based freeman voter enrolments: Maldon 1826

Lennard had been groomed for a political career by his ambitious father Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard (1762-1857), the illegitimate son and heir of the extremely wealthy Essex landowner Lord Dacre. First returned for Ipswich in 1820, and then the venal borough of Maldon from 1826-37 and 1847-52, Lennard had quickly established himself as a highly respected backbench radical, backing Dissenters’ rights, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. However, his attempt in 1831 to prevent the Whig ministry from abolishing the ‘freeman-by-marriage’ voting qualification, in order to protect the ‘privileges’ of the ‘fair sex’ in his own constituency of Maldon, was widely ridiculed. When he applied to Lord Grey, the premier, for a peerage for his father later that year, he was fobbed off. Despite being over 70, Lennard’s father then decided to also enter the Commons. In 1832 he was elected as a Whig for Essex South, joining Lennard, who had been re-elected for Maldon.

Father and son MPs were not unusual at this time. But having a very elderly father join a veteran political son reversed the normal relationship and sparked inevitable criticism and jibes. Launching a stinging harangue against a local Whig peer, who had refused to back the campaign of his elderly father, Lennard declared:

Thank God the days of aristocratic influence are over! Thank God my father does not come forward the creature of the aristocracy … I care not for my Lord Petre, nor for the aristocracy … I look only to the people because I know it is only among the people that real public virtue and intelligence, and feeling, are to be found [Loud cheering].

Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard MP

Perhaps because of his father’s moderating influence, Lennard kept a lower profile for the next few years, curbing his radicalism and loyally backing the Whig government on most key issues. In 1835, however, he couldn’t resist another shot at reviving the marriage  franchise, during the debates on the municipal reform bill. Insisting that it was ‘one of the most valued rights of the daughters of the freemen of Maldon’, he proposed to restore the freeman franchise to anyone ‘who shall espouse the daughter of any freeman of any borough’. His speech, recorded the reporters, was ‘rendered wholly inaudible by the general confusion and noise’ that ensued. His motion was thrown out, 163-50. Lennard’s subsequent claim at the 1837 election to have ‘toiled night and day in the house of commons for the benefit of the freemen’ and their ‘wives and daughters’ cut little ice. He lost his seat. When he was re-elected in 1847, however, he again targeted his campaign at the ‘ladies’ of Maldon, believing they could influence the freemen.

Lennard had declared himself the ‘most decided enemy of slavery in every shape or form’ at the 1832 election. His actions in the Commons seemed to bear this out. He presented at least 14 anti-slavery petitions the next year and steadily supported the Whig government’s plans to abolish colonial slavery in the division lobbies. At the 1835 election he went even further, accusing his Tory opponents of being the ‘bigoted advocates of slavery’. Yet later that year he was himself a beneficiary of the government’s scheme to compensate slave owners. He received £1,252 for manumitted slaves in Jamaica. The plantation involved was the Stewart Castle estate owned by the Sheddon family, with 288 slaves, part of which had been inherited by his wife Mary Bridger Sheddon.

Lennard later declared that ‘of all the things’ he was ‘most proud’, it was ‘having been a party to removing much of the barbarous system of capital punishments, which not long ago made the fronts of our gaols little better than human slaughter houses’. Although none of his own proposals ever became law, the vast bulk of his Commons speeches were in support of measures limiting the use of capital and corporal punishment. He was particularly active in the ultimately successful campaign to remove the death penalty for theft, believing that many criminals were ‘often urged to the deeper crime of murder to avoid the conviction of the lesser crime’. He also spoke regularly about the tragedy ‘of a man unjustly convicted of murder, and afterwards executed’. Both in this and his vehement denunciation of flogging, whipping and beating, Lennard was way ahead of most of his contemporaries.

Lennard maintained a much more traditional approach when it came to elections and was never shy of opening his purse at election time. Defeated in 1852, after a notoriously corrupt contest that almost led to Maldon being disfranchised, he vowed to stand again at the next opportunity but died in 1856. His 94 year old father was by then the country’s oldest living baronet.

To access the full biographies of Thomas Barrett Lennard and his father or any other articles being prepared for the 1832-68 volumes please click here.

Related blogs:

MP of the month: Thomas Neville Abdy (1810-77) and electoral misconduct

A Victorian Essex Election

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From duelling to sharing the representation: Northumberland’s electoral politics in the nineteenth century

This post first appeared on the History of Parliament blog as part of a local history series on Northumberland’s politics. You can read the other posts in the series here and here.

Northumberland poll book (1826)

In 1826 Northumberland experienced its first contested election since 1774, with four candidates vying for the county’s two seats. For the previous fifty years, electors had not had the opportunity to cast their votes, as the representation had been decided by negotiations between the major local landowners, who included the Percy family (Dukes of Northumberland), of Alnwick Castle; the Bennet family (Earls of Tankerville), of Chillingham Castle; and the Greys, of Howick. The breakdown of this compromise prompted an expensive contest in 1826, said to have cost the candidates £250,000 between them. This bitterly fought election saw an argument on the hustings between Thomas Wentworth Beaumont (one of the candidates) and John Lambton (son-in-law of the future Whig prime minister Earl Grey) spill over into a duel at Bamburgh Sands. In the event, this was bloodless, but memories of 1826 helped to shape the county’s electoral politics thereafter, with the major local interests keen to avoid a repeat of this vitriolic and costly campaign.

Bamburgh Castle by Peter de Wint. Image credit: Lincoln College, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/bamburgh-castle-222240

Henry Grey, 3rd Earl Grey (formerly Viscount Howick), MP for Northumberland North, 1832-41 Image (C) NPG

Northumberland was split into two double-member constituencies in 1832. The election town for the new, largely agricultural Northumberland North division was Alnwick. For Northumberland South, which contained most of the county’s coal mines and was more economically mixed, Hexham was where the hustings took place. The representation of both constituencies continued to be dominated by the county’s major landowners, who succeeded in their aim of avoiding election contests as far as possible. In the northern division, Earl Grey’s heir, Viscount Howick, who had sat for the constituency as a Whig since 1831, successfully quashed the possibility of a contest in 1832 by refusing to join forces with another candidate, the prominent local radical Matthew Culley. Howick feared that such a coalition might prompt his opponents to bring out a second candidate, and preferred instead to share the representation with the Conservative Lord Ossulston, heir to the Earl of Tankerville.

General Lord Henry Hugh Manvers Percy, VC, MP for Northumberland North, 1865-8

It was not until 1841 that Northumberland North had its first election contest, when Sir Matthew White Ridley, of Blagdon, oversaw Conservative efforts to win both seats. This succeeded in ousting Howick, but his cousin Sir George Grey topped the poll to regain a seat for the Liberals in 1847. The defeated Conservative candidate on that occasion, Algernon George Percy, Lord Lovaine, had been disadvantaged by being relatively late in the field. However, he defeated Grey in 1852, when he was elected alongside Ossulston. This marked the beginning of a new era in the constituency’s politics, with the Conservatives unopposed at the 1857, 1859 and 1865 elections. Ossulston succeeded to the peerage in 1859, when Ridley stepped into his shoes as MP, while Lovaine retired in 1865, when his father’s succession as 5th duke of Northumberland brought him new responsibilities. He was seamlessly replaced by his younger brother, Lord Henry Percy, an army officer who had won acclaim for his brave conduct during the Crimean War, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

With most English constituencies electing two members until 1885, it was not unusual for the rival parties to take the decision to share the representation. While Northumberland North moved from shared representation in the 1830s to a battle over the representation in the 1840s, before settling into a period of Conservative hegemony from the 1850s, Northumberland South always returned one member from each side. Like the northern division, it was its major landowners – some of whom also had industrial interests through their collieries – who dominated the representation, and contested elections were rare: only in 1832 and 1852 did the electors go to the poll.

Matthew Bell, MP for Northumberland South 1832-52 Image (C) NPG

In contrast with Howick’s aversion to a coalition in the northern division in 1832, in Northumberland South the wealthy Whig landowner Thomas Wentworth Beaumont, who had been one of the county’s MPs since 1830, joined forces with the more politically advanced William Ord, who had previously sat for Morpeth, now reduced to single-member status. This sparked a bitterly fought campaign, in which Beaumont topped the poll and Ord finished in third place behind the Conservative Matthew Bell, who had been the county’s MP from 1826 to 1831. Bell continued to represent Northumberland South without a contest for the next twenty years, sharing the representation with Beaumont again in 1835 and with Christopher Blackett in 1837. The latter election was particularly uneventful, since Blackett was suffering from influenza and did not appear at the nomination. Still in poor health, he did not seek re-election in 1841, when Saville Ogle, a London-based barrister who had family connections to Northumberland, was the successful Liberal candidate.

Henry George Liddell, MP for Northumberland South, 1852-78 Image (C) NPG

After being re-elected without opposition in 1847, Bell and Ogle both stepped down on health grounds in 1852. They were replaced as candidates by two local landowners: Henry George Liddell on the Conservative side and Beaumont’s son, Wentworth Blackett Beaumont, aged just 23, for the Liberals. Rather embarrassingly for Sir Matthew White Ridley, who masterminded Conservative electioneering in the southern as well as the northern division, a contest was provoked by the decision of his brother George to stand as a Radical. He later noted that ‘George, very improperly, stood on the Radical interest for the Southern Division. … He did not consult me at all’. He worked hard to rally support from the local landed gentry for Liddell, who won the second seat for the Conservatives with a majority of 99 votes over George Ridley. As in the northern division, the 1852 contest was the constituency’s last for more than a quarter of a century. Liddell remained as Conservative MP until 1878, when he succeeded to the Lords, while Beaumont represented the seat for the Liberals until 1885.

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York: exploring the local history of a Victorian constituency

This blog, which explains some of the key features of our constituency articles, and how they might be of use to those interested in the history of a particular locality, originally appeared on the main History of Parliament’s blog. To explore more of the work of our colleagues on different constituencies, from the medieval period to the modern, visit https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/


York’s parliamentary boundaries in 1832

Like most English boroughs in our period, York elected two MPs. Our constituency articles begin by setting out some of the key statistics relating to a constituency: the size of its electorate; its population; its boundaries; its area; the qualification required for the franchise; and what form its local government took. York had long been a parliamentary borough and its electorate after 1832 therefore included not only the £10 householders, who had been given the franchise by the 1832 Reform Act, but also a significant number of ‘ancient rights’ voters who retained the franchise, provided that they continued to live within seven miles of the polling place. In York’s case, these ‘ancient rights’ voters were the freemen, who significantly outnumbered the new £10 householders: in 1832 there were 531 £10 householders and 2,342 freemen in the electorate. Even as late as 1862, freemen made up 56% of York’s electors. This helps to explain why it was among the constituencies with the highest proportion of working-class voters: more than a third in 1865-6. Freemen were often blamed for the corruption which was prevalent in York’s elections in the 1830s, but an 1835 inquiry found that the new £10 householders were far from immune to bribery.

British (English) School; Bootham Bar, York

British (English) School; Bootham Bar, York (c. 1840) Image credit: The Mansion House and Guildhall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/bootham-bar-york-10039

All our constituency articles provide an overview of the economic and social make-up of the constituency. Although York’s population continued to expand, the commissioners who advised on its future parliamentary boundaries in 1831-2 noted that, with neighbouring towns growing rapidly due to the textile industry, it was ‘no longer a northern metropolis’. There was, however, some manufacturing, including of linen, iron, chemicals, glass, combs, carpets, gloves and lace, as well as a product for which York became renowned: confectionery. There were three major firms in existence during this period, two of which remain familiar names today: Joseph Terry and Co., Rowntree’s, and M. A. Craven and Son. A small proportion of York’s population was employed in agriculture and market gardening, including 400 people in chicory farming in 1851.

York remained significant as a market town and administrative centre, being the home to Yorkshire’s general assizes (although assize business for the West Riding was transferred to Leeds in 1864). It also had a focal position in England’s railway network, being at the junction of the York and North Midland railway and the Great North of England railway. The so-called ‘railway king’, George Hudson, played a prominent part in York’s municipal and parliamentary politics on the Conservative side, although he was himself MP for Sunderland, 1845-59. Our articles also give details about the different religious groups within each constituency. In York’s case, the 1851 religious census showed that Anglicans made up 43.7% of adult attendances at church or chapel, with Nonconformists slightly less (42.5%) and Catholics comprising 9.2%. Our economic and social profiles conclude by listing the newspapers published in each constituency: their reports are a key source for our research.

After looking at what might be termed the ‘anatomy’ of the constituency, our articles then examine its electoral history, looking at the nine general elections which took place during our period, as well as any by-elections. In York’s case, there were two by-elections, both caused by the death of an MP: Samuel Adlam Bayntun died of scarlet fever in 1833 after less than a year in the Commons, while Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke, one of the small number of non-white MPs in our period, committed suicide in 1848.


Henry Vincent (by George Dawe, 1842) Image credit: NPG

York’s election results indicate how closely balanced the parties were, with one Liberal and one Conservative being elected for the borough at every general election from 1835 onwards. Such ‘shared representation’ was not unusual in the double-member seats which made up the bulk of England’s constituencies during this period. The Conservatives – whose MPs were drawn from Yorkshire’s landed gentry – were generally happy with this state of affairs, only putting forward a second candidate on two occasions. On the Liberal side, however, it prompted divisions between those willing to share the representation and those who thought the party should try to win both seats. This also reflected a fault-line within the local Liberal party between Whiggish or ‘moderate’ Liberals and the ‘advanced’ or Radical wing. The latter were keener to challenge the Conservatives for the second seat, but performed less strongly at the polls. A key source of disagreement between these two sections was parliamentary reform, and a Chartist candidate, Henry Vincent, stood in 1848 and 1852, polling almost 900 votes on each occasion. Not until 1859 did the Liberals put aside their differences to field two candidates standing together in coalition, but they still failed to win the second seat. Like the Conservatives, their candidates mainly came from outside York. In our period, it was not until 1865 that York elected one of its own townsmen, George Leeman, as an MP. Our constituency articles explore in detail the factors which influenced the choice of candidates and the outcome of each election, and end with a brief summary of the constituency’s history after 1868.

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‘The House divided’: the creation of a second division lobby for the Commons in 1836

With the creation of a second division lobby in 1836 having been mentioned during yesterday’s Commons debate on Restoration and Renewal, it seemed a good opportunity to share this post from our assistant editor Dr Kathryn Rix which originally appeared on the main History of Parliament blog. It traces the history of the transition from one division lobby to two.


Commons Journal, 22 Feb. 1836

On 22 February 1836 an historic vote took place in the House of Commons, when the second reading of the London and Brighton Railway Bill was defeated by 281 votes to 75. What made this division so significant was not the legislation involved, but the manner in which the vote took place. As the Commons Journal recorded, ‘The House divided: The Yeas to the old Lobby; The Noes to the new Lobby’. That new lobby, used for the first time in this division, had only recently been built. Before 1836, when a vote was taken, the presumed minority had gone out into the lobby, while the presumed majority had remained in the chamber to be counted. It was only from 1836 that the Commons used the system of two division lobbies which we know today.

What caused this major change in procedure? One key factor was the desire to publish an official record giving the names of MPs who had voted in each division. The official Votes and Proceedings, published by the Commons on a daily basis, did not provide full division lists. Before 1836, the publication of detailed division lists outlining how each MP had voted was due to the efforts of individual MPs, who collected this information and supplied it to the press. Radicals such as Joseph Hume were among those who took the time to gather such information but, despite their efforts, the lists published in newspapers such as The Times were often inaccurate. Key divisions, where MPs were particularly keen that their constituents should know how they had voted, were often followed by a flurry of letters from MPs to the press, correcting the record. But as The Times pointed out in March 1835,

‘we are not responsible for the accuracy of these lists. We shall be very glad when the house has discovered some plan for furnishing exact lists.’

The Commons was already considering the matter, which had been raised by Radical MPs soon after Parliament assembled for the first time after the 1832 Reform Act. Moving that the Commons should publish an official record of each division, ‘giving the name of each Member in the Majority and Minority’, the Radical Daniel Whittle Harvey declared that

‘In a Reformed Parliament he believed, that all hon. Members would be desirous that their constituents should know how they voted, and the part they took upon every occasion.’

This was particularly important for radical MPs keen to show their constituents that they were diligent representatives who were redeeming their election pledges by voting for reforms such as the ballot and reductions in taxation. It was also part of a wider move to give greater publicity to the activities of the Commons. Other MPs, however, raised concerns that it would be impossible to produce accurate division lists without causing ‘great delay’ to Commons business. Harvey’s motion was defeated, but the following year the Commons agreed to the suggestion of another Radical MP, Henry Ward, to appoint a select committee on the issue.

This committee’s preferred option was to use separate lobbies for the Ayes and the Noes, but it had to bear in mind the limited space within which the Commons operated. It therefore suggested instead that the usual tellers in divisions should be accompanied by two clerks – one would call aloud MPs’ names while the tellers counted them, and the other would write the names down. The presumed majority who stayed in the House would be dealt with first, bench by bench, and those who went out into the lobby would be recorded as they returned into the chamber. Despite some opposition – including from the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel – in July 1834 the Commons voted by 76 to 32 to implement the committee’s recommendations that session.

The system was swiftly abandoned after a discouraging first attempt at taking three divisions using the new procedure on 17 July 1834. Some Members appear to have resisted the change, behaving in an ‘offensive’ manner towards Joseph Hume when he tried to record their names. In addition, although the largest of these divisions involved only 105 MPs, the new system failed to produce a completely accurate division list – the name of one MP who voted on the first division was omitted. It was agreed the following day to abandon the experiment. Hume himself argued that reform in this area was impossible without changes to the fabric of the House.

The destruction of much of the old Palace of Westminster during the devastating fire of October 1834 gave MPs the opportunity to make such changes. The Commons moved into the chamber previously used by the House of Lords (the former Court of Requests), and in March 1835 a fresh select committee was appointed to consider the question. Its report in May unanimously endorsed the two lobby system, and the building committee overseeing the temporary accommodation of the Commons agreed that there should be two lobbies. The architect, Sir Robert Smirke, estimated that an additional lobby could be constructed within a fortnight at a cost of £600.

The building of this second lobby took place during the parliamentary recess. In October 1835 the Morning Post reported that ‘surveyors are daily employed measuring the grounds and preparing their plans for the intended new buildings’, which included ‘the square boarded temporary erections, intended to communicate with the House of Commons, and form a division lobby’. This work appears to have been completed before the Commons reassembled on 4 February 1836. Two weeks later, MPs adopted the resolutions needed to implement the new arrangements. Peel complained that the extra clerks required would cause expense, but had ‘no objection to try the experiment’, which could always be reversed. Fittingly, Henry Ward and Joseph Hume, who had been such keen advocates of the second lobby, were the tellers for the Noes in the first division under the new system. An attempt in March 1836 by the Conservative MP James Barlow Hoy to reverse this reform gained no support. A second division lobby became integral to the Commons, and was one of the areas of Charles Barry’s new Palace which MPs inspected carefully when they tested their new chamber for the first time in May 1850.


The ‘Aye’ division lobby in the new Palace of Westminster

Further reading:

  • K. Rix, ‘“Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the reformed Commons, 1833-50’, Parliamentary History, 33:3 (2014), 453-74.
Posted in Parliamentary buildings, Voting and Divisions | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

MP of the Month: Nicholas Aylward Vigors (1785-1840), soldier, scientist and politician

Like many of our MPs, Nicholas Vigors had a varied career, as a soldier, landowner, politician and eminent zoologist. Although best known as a founder and secretary of the Zoological Society of London, Vigors also enjoyed a lively career as a Radical MP who participated in several tight contests for the Irish county and borough of Carlow.


The House of Commons, 1833, by Sir George Hayter. Vigors is among the MPs included. Image credit: NPG

Vigors was born in 1785 at Old Leighlin, county Carlow, a descendant of a Devonshire clergyman who had settled in Ireland in the early seventeenth century. He was the eldest surviving son of an army officer and deputy governor of Carlow. He became a student at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1803, and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1806. He left Oxford without taking a degree in 1809, but demonstrated his mastery of classical and literary studies by publishing An Enquiry into the Nature and Extent of Poetic Licence (1810).

Vigors next served as an ensign in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsula campaign and was seriously wounded in the action at Barrosa in March 1811. After retiring from the army he resumed his studies at Oxford and graduated in 1817 at the age of 32. Awarded his MA the following year, he devoted himself to the study of birds and insects and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1819. Critical of the society’s emphasis on botany, he formed his own extensive collection of specimens and helped to establish the less socially restrictive Zoological Club in 1822. As secretary and later chairman, he demonstrated his talent as an administrator and pioneer of new methodologies – a leading ‘quinarian’, he argued for a geometric ordering of species in sets of five. He wrote some forty scientific papers, mostly on ornithological subjects, and in 1825 published an important study of the natural affinities between families of birds. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in February 1826, and that April became the first secretary of the Zoological Society of London. A year later he was appointed principal editor of the Zoological Journal, and in July 1832 he was created an honorary DCL by Oxford University.

Quinarian system

The quinarian system of zoological classification

Vigors was the mentor of the ornithologist John Gould (1804-81) and wrote the text for his A Century of Birds Hitherto Unfigured from the Himalayan Mountains (1830-2). He also oversaw the publication of The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated (1830-1). In May 1833 he founded what became the Royal Entomological Society. He donated his collections of preserved fauna and birds to the Zoological Society, and with the assistance of collaborators such as Sir Stamford Raffles, the renowned founder of Singapore, he supplied its zoological gardens at Regent’s Park with many exotic specimens from abroad. As the driving force behind the organisation, he employed a bureaucratic and domineering style of management and frequently clashed with the aristocrats who dominated the board of the society’s zoo.

Vigors had succeeded to his family estate in County Carlow in 1828, and despite having lived principally in London for almost twenty years he served on the county’s grand jury. He began his parliamentary career when he was returned for Carlow borough at the 1832 general election as a Reformer. Despite clashing with the Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell, who Vigors believed had adopted a dictatorial attitude towards his fellow Irish Liberals, he backed O’Connell’s motion in favour of the repeal of the Union in April 1834. He was defeated at Carlow borough in the 1835 general election, but six months later was elected for County Carlow in a double by-election, only to be unseated on petition a few months later. Vigors was subsequently embroiled in a political controversy when it emerged that he had arranged for his fellow candidate Alexander Raphael to make a £2,000 payment to Daniel O’Connell in return for O’Connell’s support for Raphael’s candidature. These revelations did not, however, prevent Vigors being successful at another County Carlow by-election in February 1837. Despite two further attempts to unseat him, he remained in the Commons until his death. He rarely spoke in debate, but was an assiduous attender who voted almost invariably with the Radicals, and was regarded as a diligent and efficient member of parliamentary committees.

Vigors's Carlow petition - Wellcome Collection

Catching a Tartar by H.B. (John Doyle), 1836. This cartoon, with Daniel O’Connell as the central figure, refers to the 1835 Carlow election petition. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Vigors had resigned as secretary of the Zoological Society upon taking his seat in Parliament in 1833, and he stood down as editor of the Zoological Journal in 1835. He remained concerned about the lack of scientifically trained gentlemen among the aristocratic trustees of learned societies, and in March 1836 advised a parliamentary inquiry into the management of the British Museum that specialists should be included on the board of trustees, and called for the natural history department to be taken out of the museum. That year he assisted Sir William Jardine and Prideaux John Selby with their Illustrations of Ornithology (1836-43), and he later wrote the section describing the birds of the American north-west for The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage (1839).

Toucan_by_Nicholas_Aylward_Vigors_1831 - Wikipedia

A toucan, by N. A. Vigors, 1831

Vigors was unmarried and died at his house in Chester Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, on 26 October 1840. He was buried in the nave of St. Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, county Carlow, and was survived by an only son, Ferdinand, who was said to have inherited much of his father’s talent.

Further reading:

  • A. Desmond, ‘Vigors, Nicholas Aylward’, Oxf. DNB, lvi.
  • P. Long, ‘Vigors, Nicholas Aylward’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, ix. 667-8.
Posted in Biographies, Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The Donkey and his young asses’: stationery, corruption and the short-lived parliamentary career of Sir John Key (1794-1858)

M. Pearson, 'The Right Honorable Sir John Key, Bart.' (1832)

Portrait of Sir John Key in his mayoral robes, with his right hand on a petition for the reform bill, February 1832, M. Pearson (1832) CC British Museum

This month our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, takes a look at the humiliating demise of Sir John Key, or ‘Sir Don Key’ as he was widely mocked at Westminster. As Lord Mayor of London and one of Britain’s most prominent wholesale stationers, Key was returned for London at the 1832 general election. He was forced to resign eight months later, however, after being exposed for accepting a government contract and lying to the Prime Minister to secure a job for his son…

Key was born in London in 1794 and by the early 1820s was a partner in his family’s wholesale stationery firm, Key, Brothers and Son. Based at 30 Abchurch Lane, London, the company was regarded as one of the ‘most opulent’ stationers in the country thanks to its extensive contracts with the book and printing trade, as well as the ‘commercial world at large’.

Key’s family had maintained close connections with the City of London Corporation since the mid-eighteenth century, and in 1823 Key was elected to the City’s Court of Aldermen. Quickly developing a reputation as a devout and outspoken Dissenter, Key confirmed his political aspirations at the 1826 election when he stood briefly as an anti-ministerial candidate at Chippenham.

The great dictator and his mighty councillor, the donkey mare

The Donkey Mare advising Wellington, the ‘Great Dictator’, J. Phillips, ‘The great dictator and his mighty councillor, the donkey mare’ (13 Nov. 1830) CC British Museum

In November 1830, aged 36, Key entered the national consciousness, when as Lord Mayor of London his advice to the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, led to the cancellation of William IV’s planned attendance of the annual Lord Mayor’s procession. City-wide unrest over the recently established Metropolitan Police, discontent with the government’s unwillingness to introduce parliamentary reform and the recent July Revolution, led Key to warn Wellington that ‘a set of desperate and abandoned characters’ intended to attack the Prime Minister during the procession.

The subsequent cancellation of the appearance of the King and his ministers was quickly condemned as an act of cowardly self-preservation by Wellington. That ‘John Key’ and ‘Mayor’ rhymed with ‘Donkey’ and ‘Mare’ proved too much to resist for the nation’s satirists, who immediately took to depicting the Prime Minister taking counsel and running scared from a grotesque long-eared equine beast. As Bell’s Life in London mocked:

…he who triumph’d o’er each foe,

And laid the great Napoleon low,

Was frighten’d by a Don-Key.

Bell’s Life in London, 21 Nov. 1830

W. Heath, The city don-key or raw head and bloody bones

Don-Key the stationer Mayor with his ‘Fools-cap’ scares Wellington and his Home Secretary, Robert Peel: W. Heath, ‘The city don-key or raw head and bloody bones’ (Nov. 1830) CC British Museum

Within days, Wellington’s government had been replaced by the reforming Whig ministry of the 2nd Earl Grey. Key proved a vocal supporter of the Whig government and their reform legislation, and in August 1831 was rewarded with a baronetcy. In a controversial move that owed much to his support for the Grey ministry, Key was re-elected Lord Mayor for a second term in November 1831 – which was this time accompanied by the customary ceremonial of a full procession and a ministerial-attended banquet.

H. Heath, Jack Ketch executing sentence on a culprit (1832)

Key in his mayoral robes in 1832, standing between the pro-reform MPs for London, Alderman Wood and Alderman Waithman, as a hangman decapitates a bust of Wellington in the Guildhall Chamber: H. Heath, Jack Ketch executing sentence on a culprit (1832) CC British Museum

Capitalising on his status as Lord Mayor, Key was returned to Parliament for the City of London at the 1832 general election. As a reformer, he campaigned for the repeal of the corn laws and the abolition of slavery, and claimed leadership of the metropolitan campaign to abolish the unpopular house and window taxes. Ironically, given future events, he professed his support for ‘every practicable measure of economy and retrenchment’, including the ‘abolition of needless and sinecure places’ and a reduction in ‘the remuneration of the public servants’.

Key took his seat in the Commons in January 1833 but by July that year rumours began to circulate that he had been granted a government contract to supply paper to the Stationery Office. To make matters worse, it then emerged that his son, Kingsmill Grove Key (1815-1899), had been employed by the Stationery Office, despite being under-age.

The Stationers' Company, which Key had been master of in 1830 went to great lengths to prove Key's son

Members of The Stationers’ Company, of which Key had been master in 1830, obtained and published Key’s marriage certificate to prove his son was under 21: John Bull, 4 Aug. 1830

These allegations came to a head on Friday 2 August 1833, when the Tory MP for Launceston, Henry Hardinge, announced his intention to present a petition from ‘certain stationers and paper-manufacturers’ calling for Key’s election to be declared void on the grounds that it was illegal for MPs to be in receipt of government contracts. As the weekend wore on, and with a breach of privilege hearing looming, Key attempted to avoid prosecution by applying for the Chiltern Hundreds (the mechanism by which MPs resigned from the Commons).

On Monday 5 August the government granted Key’s request, just hours before Hardinge was due to introduce his petition. This prompted the leader of the Tory opposition, Robert Peel, and the leader of the Repealers, Daniel O’Connell, to accuse the government of a cover-up.

A select committee was immediately convened to investigate the allegations. They discovered that Key’s firm held a contract to supply paper to the Stationery Office in 1831 and 1832, and that after his return as an MP the same contract was awarded nominally to his brother, Jonathan Muckleston Key, who lived in Gloucestershire. The committee discovered that despite sitting as an MP, Sir John Key continued to supply paper to the Stationery Office ‘delivered by his carts and servants’ while making all ‘communications from and to the [Stationery] Office’ in ‘his brother’s name’.

The committee’s findings over Key’s son proved equally embarrassing. It emerged that in July 1833 Key had written to the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, to ask for his son to be appointed as Storekeeper to the Stationery Office, which had a minimum age of 21. Key admitted to the select committee that he had deceived the secretary to the treasury, Charles Wood, by informing him that his eighteen-year old son, Kingsmill, was ‘about 22 years of age’.

The Don-Key Drive From the Stationary Office, Bell's New Weekly Messenger, 11 Aug. 1833

Key and his young ass escape their petitioners. Grey and Brougham (left) turn their backs on Key, while Peel and Wellington (right) revel in Key’s downfall: ‘The Don-Key Drive From the Stationary Office’, Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, 11 Aug. 1833

The government were further embarrassed by revelations that they had been aware of Key’s contract to supply paper to the Stationery Office, that Key had destroyed several pieces of correspondence with Wood and Grey ‘the day after the petitions against him were presented to the House of Commons’, and that Kingsmill had been required to inspect paper supplied to the Stationery Office by his father’s firm.

Key escaped prosecution for breach of privilege as he was no longer an MP, as did Kingsmill as he had resigned his position. Somehow Key defied further calls for his resignation as an alderman, and the Grey ministry resisted pressure to annul Key’s baronetcy. However, the episode proved incredibly damaging to the reputation of the government, whose radical and reformist supporters had hoped that the 1832 Reform Act would bring an end to such flagrant corruption. As the radical Poor Man’s Guardian opined, ‘the Donkey and his young asses’ had ‘combin[ed] with Grey to break the law and commit a robbery upon the state’.


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

Posted in Corruption, MP of the Month | 1 Comment

From Rochdale to Westminster: Emily Kelsall and the new Houses of Parliament

This post from our assistant editor Dr Kathryn Rix was first published on the Parliamentary Archives: Inside the Act Room blog, which has many more articles to read on parliamentary history, from the medieval to the modern.

One of the more unusual items in the Parliamentary Archives is a silver trowel, used to lay the first stone of the Clock Tower in Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament on 28 September 1843. Now formally known as the Elizabeth Tower, but commonly referred to as Big Ben (after its Great Bell), the tower was completed in 1859.


Silver trowel used to lay the first stone of the Clock Tower, Parliamentary Archives, OOW/50

The trowel’s inscription states that the stone was laid by ‘Emily, second daughter of Henry Kelsall, Esqr. of Rochdale’. At a time when female access to Parliament was limited – women who wished to listen to debates were confined to the ‘ventilator’ before 1834 or the ladies’ gallery (nicknamed ‘the cage’) in later years – this is a fascinating souvenir of a woman who did not come from the aristocracy or the monarchy performing a ceremonial role at Westminster. Why was a woman from Rochdale, then a growing industrial town 170 miles from London, chosen for this task?


Sketch of the ventilator in St Stephens by Frances Rickman (1834), via http://www.parliament.uk/art (WOA 26)

Existing histories reveal little more than that Emily Kelsall was the sister-in-law of Samuel Morton Peto, whose name also features on the trowel as one of the builders, alongside those of his business partner Thomas Grissell, and Charles Barry as architect. The stone-laying apparently went unreported in the press, making it difficult to discover more about Emily’s role. However, from local and family histories, newspapers, census returns and other records, it has been possible to build up a picture of her life, revealing her to have been a formidable woman. One of her daughters wrote proudly that ‘the present Feminist movement has had its foundations well and truly laid in many parts of the country by such women as my mother’.


New Palace of Westminster 1858, via http://www.parliament.uk/art (WOA 1656)

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that Emily was only 15 years old when she laid the Clock Tower’s first stone. She was born on 10 March 1828 at her parents’ home, Butts House, in the centre of Rochdale. Her father Henry Kelsall (1793-1869) originally came from Mottram in Longdendale, on the Derbyshire/Cheshire border, but was apprenticed to a relative in Rochdale, Jesse Ainsworth, a woollen manufacturer. With two of his brothers, Kelsall began his own business as a woollen manufacturer in Rochdale with ‘six pair of hand-looms and four [spinning] jennies’. He married Ainsworth’s daughter Lydia (1792-1875) in 1819, and they moved to Butts House around 1825. Kelsall and his brother-in-law William Bartlemore established their own mills, the first in 1835 and a second in the 1840s. By 1851 the firm, which specialised in flannel manufacture, was one of Rochdale’s major employers, with 798 workers. This enabled the family to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. The Ainsworths and the Kelsalls were Baptists, and Kelsall was a generous benefactor to his faith.


Emily’s sister, Sarah Ainsworth (née Kelsall), Lady Peto (C) NPG

Emily was the third of five children. At the time of the 1841 census, aged 13, she was living in Rochdale with her parents, older brother and two younger sisters. The garden of Butts House went down to the river Roch and Emily recalled that they ‘had boats and used to catch fish’. Part of her education took place in London at Mrs. Broadbelt’s school for ‘daughters of gentlemen’ in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. In December 1842, while walking nearby, she and her older sister Sarah Ainsworth Kelsall (1821-92) had a chance encounter with Samuel Morton Peto (1809-89). Having sought her father’s permission to see her again, Peto subsequently asked Sarah to marry him. She was Peto’s second wife – he had been widowed in 1842 – and their wedding took place in Rochdale on 12 July 1843.

Emily laid the Clock Tower’s first stone just over two months later. This low-key ceremony echoed a similarly modest event on 27 April 1840, when Sarah Barry, the architect’s wife, laid the new Palace of Westminster’s very first stone, contrary to rumours that Queen Victoria would perform this task. Caroline Shenton has suggested that ‘worry about public opinion and personal reputations’ given the spiralling costs of the groundworks at Westminster may have been the reason why ‘no politician or official’ wanted to undertake this role. Such concerns applied equally in 1843, which probably explains why Peto’s young sister-in-law rather than a more prominent individual was given the honour.


Sir Samuel Morton Peto (C) NPG

Emily’s life entered a new phase on 2 August 1848, when she married George Tawke Kemp (1810-77), a Spitalfields silk manufacturer, who originally came from Essex. Like the Kelsalls, Kemp was ‘an earnest and conscious’ Baptist. He was a founding member of Bloomsbury Baptist Church, opened in December 1848, which was constructed and funded by Peto (by then a Liberal MP), who had joined the Baptists after marrying Emily’s sister.

When the 1851 census was taken on 30 March, Emily, listed as a ‘lady’, was again at her parents’ Rochdale home, where Peto and her sister were also staying. Her husband was at 43 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, where Emily gave birth that August to their first child, Emily Jessie (1851-1900). Four more daughters followed: Ellen Constance (1852-1922), Susannah Florence (1856-1916), Lydia Peto (1858-1918) and Emily Georgiana (1860-1939). The youngest three were born in Rochdale, the family’s main residence from 1856, when George became a partner in his father-in-law’s business, known thereafter as Kelsall & Kemp. He was also a partner in the silk manufacturing firm of Kemp, Stone & Company, based nearby at Middleton.

The family built ‘a beautiful residence’, Beechwood, on Manchester Road, Rochdale, moving there in 1860. Emily and George’s last child, George, was born in 1866. Remembering their upbringing, one of their daughters noted that ‘our parents were both anxious that we should be good linguists, so we all learned French from a very early age, then German and Italian, but, I regret to say it, not Latin – it being still considered unnecessary for girls’. In 1871 the family’s seven servants at Beechwood included a Swiss governess. Emily gave her children Bible lessons on Sundays, and they also studied music, painting and dancing, although ‘the greatest attention was devoted to history’.


John Bright & Richard Cobden c. 1860 (C) NPG

The Kelsalls and Kemps took a keen interest in politics and numbered the leading Radicals John Bright and Richard Cobden among their ‘intimate friends’. George Kemp was one of the representatives of Lancashire’s silk and woollen industries who visited Paris to assist Cobden’s negotiations of the Anglo-French commercial treaty of 1860, and the family hosted Cobden at Beechwood on his final visit to his Rochdale constituency in November 1864. Emily’s father and husband were both magistrates, and Henry Kelsall was at one point mooted as a parliamentary candidate. George Kemp, ‘a good public speaker’, was briefly a member of Rochdale’s town council. The Kemps were well-travelled, visiting Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Corsica, Italy and Algeria. Emily went abroad every year for over 40 years.

In 1877 she accompanied her husband to Egypt, where he hoped the climate would improve his health, but he died there that March. He left an estate valued at £160,000 (equivalent to around £10 million today). Following his death, and that of his managing partner, Joshua Heap, in 1886, Emily and her nephew took over the management of the business, even though she was by then profoundly deaf. She was described as ‘a woman of the keenest business judgment’.

She was also remembered for her ‘fine character and quietly dispensed philanthropy’, particularly to Rochdale’s poor. Alongside her support for Baptist organisations, she was responsible for several other local projects, including mothers’ meetings, a lads’ club and a nurse for the poor. In 1879 she rented a property in Rochdale to provide ‘respectable lodgings’ for women who would otherwise be homeless. She also funded the building of the Three Cups Coffee Tavern in Sudden, a temperance establishment. One local history urged parents to ‘bid their daughters look, and take from her examples of their future life’.


Emily Georgiana Kemp, self-portrait from The Face of China (1909)

Her own daughters certainly took inspiration from her. Two of them, Emily Jessie and Susannah Florence, became Baptist missionaries, working mainly in China. In July 1900 Emily Jessie, her husband Thomas Wellesley Pigott and their son were among 44 missionaries and their families publicly beheaded during the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer rebellion. Emily’s youngest daughter, Emily Georgiana, was one of the first generation of students at Somerville College, Oxford, and also attended the Slade School of Fine Art. Like her parents, she was well-travelled, publishing accounts of her visits to China, Korea and Central Asia. She funded the construction of Somerville College chapel, opened in 1935.

Emily’s son George (1866-1945) was elected in 1895 as Liberal Unionist MP for Heywood. He was re-elected in his absence in 1900, while serving in South Africa during the Boer War. His sisters Ellen and Lydia addressed meetings in his support during the contest. His commitment to free trade prompted him to join the Liberals in 1904, when he became prospective candidate for Middleton. However, the demands of business meant that he did not stand there in 1906.


George Kemp in July 1899 (C) NPG

In January 1910 he won North-West Manchester as a Liberal, and was re-elected that December, defeating the future Conservative prime minister Andrew Bonar Law. Declaring that he ‘loathed politics’, in August 1912 he resigned his seat over the Liberal ministry’s home rule bill and re-entered the Conservative fold. He was knighted in 1909 and created Baron Rochdale in 1913. Among the causes he promoted in Parliament was women’s suffrage, arguing when he moved the second reading of the women’s enfranchisement bill, 5 May 1911, that ‘the nation suffers a loss by the exclusion of capable women from the power to select Members of Parliament’.

Emily did not live to see her son advocate the rights of ‘capable women’. She died aged 72 at the Lord Warden Hotel, Dover, on 2 December 1904, from acute bronchitis and asthma. She had been taken ill en route to Bordighera, Italy, where she had spent every winter for the last few years of her life. She left an estate valued at £27,399 11s. 5d., from which she bequeathed £500 each to the Baptist Missionary Society and its Ladies’ Association. She was buried at Rochdale cemetery, with her coffin being transported on a lorry from Kelsall & Kemp’s factory, fittingly draped in white flannel.

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‘The power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’: parliamentary reform and its impact on Exeter, 1820-1868

This week Dr Martin Spychal, research fellow for the Commons 1832-68, uses polling and voter registration data to explore the 1832 Reform Act’s impact on elections in Exeter. This blog was originally published on the History of Parliament blog as part of our Local and Community History Month focus on the historic constituency of Exeter.


A handbill for the unsuccessful pro-reform candidate at the 1831 general election, Edward Divett. Exeter’s Whigs, Reformers and Liberals looked to parliamentary reform as the only way to eradicate ‘church and chamber’ influence. © Devon Heritage Centre

Exeter Cathedral and the city’s long history of loyalty to the crown loomed large over its politics during the 1820s. To be returned for one of Exeter’s two seats in the Commons, whether as a Whig or as a Tory, candidates had to secure the confidence of the Anglican-controlled council chamber, the cathedral and the parish clergy. The political influence of ‘church and chamber’, as it was known locally, was apparent even to the most casual of onlookers. At the 1820 election, for instance, the mayor of Exeter ran the Tory candidate’s campaign and in 1830 the incumbent liberal-Tory was forced to retire after his vote for Catholic emancipation incensed the dean and chapter of Exeter Cathedral.

This state of affairs was not to everyone’s liking, particularly Exeter’s smaller tradesmen and shopkeepers who predominated in the city’s Baptist, Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian and Catholic chapels, as well as its synagogue. Their collective efforts during the 1820s to return a MP for the city proved fruitless, meaning that as the decade wore on parliamentary reform was seen as the only means of shifting power in the city. As the Liberal Western Times, and its outspoken editor, Thomas Latimer, protested in 1831, church and chamber used their joint influence in Exeter ‘as much as is exercised in a rotten borough’.


Election results for the double-member seat of Exeter, 1832-1868, McCalmont’s Parliamentary Poll Book

It therefore came as little surprise that the anti-Church and council faction of Whigs, Liberals and Reformers celebrated the 1832 Reform Act as the dawning of a new era. This optimism appeared to be confirmed when two Whig-Liberal candidates were returned at the 1832 election, prompting the Western Times to declare that ‘the power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’.

This Liberal confidence proved short-lived. In 1835 Exeter’s Conservatives regained one of the borough’s two seats. From then on it was the Conservatives, rather than the Liberals that came closest to assuming complete control of the borough. Exeter’s Liberal MP narrowly avoided losing his seat at the 1841 and 1852 elections, and a second Liberal candidate was roundly trounced at two by-elections in the 1840s. And for a brief period, following the 1864 by-election, the Conservatives returned both of Exeter’s members. The retirement of an incumbent Conservative ahead of the 1865 election led to the unopposed return of a Liberal and Conservative in 1865.

Western Times, 17 Jan. 1835

Polling results detailing plumps, straights and splits at the 1835 Exeter general election. The Conservative candidate topped the poll, and the incumbent Whig-Liberal, Edward Divett, was returned in second place. Western Times, 17 Jan. 1835

Due to the complex changes to voting rights and extensive boundary reforms that took place in Exeter in 1832, the constituency provides an excellent case study of the unintended consequences of the 1832 Reform Act. As well as revealing the continuation of ‘ancient’ freeman and freeholder voting rights in the reformed electoral system, the constituency offers some stark examples of how, in the long run, the finer details of the 1832 Reform Act actually proved favourable to Conservative candidates.

The rules surrounding who could vote in Exeter after 1832 were some of the most complex in the country. The borough’s ancient freeman qualification continued to enfranchise freemen of the borough who lived within seven miles of Exeter Guildhall, and had been entitled to vote on 1 March 1831 or had become freemen ‘by birth or servitude’ since then. As Exeter had the administrative status of a county, all men who owned a 40s. freehold within its newly extended parliamentary limits also qualified to vote, so long as the freeholder’s primary residence was within seven miles of Exeter’s new boundaries. In addition, all men who occupied a house with an annual rental value of £10, and who were not in arrears on their parish rates for the previous twelve months, were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act.

To make matters more complicated Exeter’s list of registered voters was pored over each year by party lawyers who sought to disfranchise their opponents’ supporters for all manner of technical reasons in the annual registration court. As with many other constituencies across England, in Exeter it was the Conservative lawyers and election agents who proved most adept and ruthless at removing their opponents from the rolls.

Registered electors

Exeter’s ancient rights freeman and freeholder franchises comprised a significant portion of Exeter’s voters after 1832, while the freeholder voters continued to grow in number after the 1867 Reform Act © Martin Spychal

One of the technicalities raised consistently in Exeter’s registration court related to the annual 1s. voter registration fee introduced by the 1832 Reform Act. While it was clear that all £10 householders had to pay this fee, ancient rights freemen and freeholders successfully challenged parish officials and revising barristers throughout the 1830s to secure an exemption from the annual charge.

The lack of a 1s. registration fee for this group meant that the freeholder franchise, in particular, continued to grow in popularity after the 1832 Reform Act, and even continued to do so following the 1867 Reform Act. In 1835 833 voters were registered under Exeter’s freeholder qualification, by 1865 that figure had increased to 1013, and by 1881 it had risen to 1181.

By contrast, Exeter’s ancient freemen declined in number from 586 in 1832 to 224 in 1865. At every election during this period, polling data revealed that at least 70% of freemen supported Conservative candidates. This led to constant complaints from Liberals that Exeter’s freemen were propping up ‘church and council’ influence in the borough, as they had done before 1832.

Picture 1

Conservative candidates were able to secure support from over 50% of Exeter’s 40s. freeholders and £10 householders at each contested general election in Exeter between 1835 and 1852. The Conservative candidate at the 1864 by-election required the support of freeman voters to secure his election © Martin Spychal

In reality, however, the votes of freemen on their own only swayed one election to the Conservatives between 1832 and 1868 – the 1864 by-election. Exeter’s polling data actually reveals that Conservative candidates enjoyed consistently high levels of support among the more popular freeholder and £10 householder franchises, a majority of whom voted for Conservative candidates at the three-way contests of 1835, 1841 and 1852, whether by splitting with the Liberal candidate or casting a partisan plump or straight votes.

As well as franchise changes, in 1832 Exeter’s boundaries were extended to include the parishes of St Leonard, St Thomas and Heavitree. At the time, these changes were welcomed by Whigs, Reformers and Liberals, and opposed by the forces of Exeter Conservatism, who unsuccessfully petitioned the House of Lords against the ‘great injustice’ of the boundary commissioners’ proposals.


The expansion of Exeter’s boundaries in 1832 proved beneficial to Conservative candidates at every election from 1835. PP 1831-2 (141), xxxviii. 1

However, polling data for each of the contested elections between 1832 and 1868 reveals that these initial Conservative fears were misplaced. While around 60% of voters in St Thomas supported Liberal candidates throughout the period, voters in Heavitree and St Leonards proved consistently pro-Conservative from 1835. This meant that if Exeter’s boundaries had remained unchanged in 1832 as the Conservatives had wanted, Liberal candidates would have performed better – topping the poll at the 1852 election and winning the 1864 by-election.

The next major change to Exeter’s electoral conditions came with the 1867 Reform Act, when the franchise was extended to include all male householders. As in 1832, Exeter’s Liberals again looked to reform as the best means of finally toppling the influence of ‘church and chamber’. As in 1832, Liberal candidates secured both seats at the 1868 election. However, the Liberal’s triumph again proved short-lived. At the 1874 election the enduring popularity of Conservatism among Exeter’s electors ensured the return of two Conservative candidates at the first general election after the introduction of the secret ballot.


Further Reading

T. Jenkins, ‘Exeter’, Commons 1820-32 (2009)

Robert Newton, Eighteenth-Century Exeter (1984)

Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work Local Politics and National Parties 1832-1841 (2002)

Philip Salmon, ‘‘Register, register, register!’: political activity in October’, Victorian Commons (2012)

Philip Salmon, ‘The mathematics of Victorian representation’ Part 1 & Part 2, Victorian Commons (2014)

Martin Spychal, ‘The representation of Devon and Cornwall after reform, 1832-68’, Victorian Commons (2019)

David Thackeray, ‘Democracy in Devon: exhibition at the Devon Heritage Centre’, Victorian Commons (2013)

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‘Unpopular only with people who made no allowance for eccentricity’: Henry Bulwer (1801-72), the diplomat MP

Our MP of the Month is Sir Henry Bulwer, best known as a controversial and colourful career diplomat. In this guest post, Dr Laurence Guymer, who has published extensively on Bulwer’s diplomatic career, explores how this intersected with his time in Parliament.

Born in 1801, Bulwer attended Harrow before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He was not at Trinity for long; finding it too academic, he moved to Downing. In the 1820s, Bulwer squandered the fortune he had inherited from his grandmother. He gambled at White’s and Almack’s and surrounded himself with actresses, dancers and estranged wives of rich men. After spending time in Greece during the War of Independence, he realised that he needed to take up some regular profession, and became an officer in the First Life Guards. He soon discovered, however, that his habits were not suited to the punctuality and discipline of a soldier. In 1826, and by now an aspiring writer, Bulwer published a collection of letters he had written in Greece. One particular admirer was the future Prime Minister, William Lamb (later Viscount Melbourne). Lamb endorsed Bulwer as a candidate for Hertford at that year’s general election, a contest he lost, despite support from the Cecil family at Hatfield House.

In 1830, Bulwer made an arrangement with the Earl of Pembroke for a seat in Parliament for the pocket borough of Wilton. Bulwer ‘like[d]’ being an MP ‘very much’, finding it ‘a regular & very amusing occupation.’ His role models were the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, and the Lord Privy Seal, the Earl of Durham, who were appropriately radical, and who had political and personal affinity with former Canningites like Viscounts Palmerston and Melbourne. Brougham had launched The Edinburgh Review, a Whig party organ that attacked aristocratic government, to which Bulwer contributed articles.

Bulwer did not, however, identify with any one political grouping inside Parliament. He enjoyed spending time socially with the Cecils and the Walpoles, but considered the Tory party ‘extreme and prejudiced on almost all questions’. He felt the ‘greatest admiration for Sir Robert Peel’s superior abilities’, but could not sit with his supporters. He was often at Holland House, the centre of Foxite Whiggery, but saw the Whigs as ‘not only a purely aristocratic party, but a purely aristocratic clique, which never admitted anyone within its circle without dislike or disgust’. By spring 1830 he was a dining companion of the young novelist and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. During the 1830s a sort of Norfolk-Hertfordshire Radical-Tory axis was formed between Bulwer; his younger brother, the novelist, Edward Bulwer Lytton; the second Marquess of Salisbury (a connection by marriage); Disraeli; and the Earl of Orford (brother of Disraeli’s mistress).

Bulwer tried to establish a reputation as a radical. He voted for the total abolition of the corn laws and also pressed for a Jewish disabilities bill and a representative assembly in New South Wales. He considered political reform necessary because it was

‘absurd that the great towns of Manchester and Birmingham should not elect members to sit in parliament, while some ruined old castle or dilapidated village did so’.

Yet Bulwer’s advocacy of reform was based more on common sense (that it would act as a safety valve for the country) than on radical principles. Like many of his contemporaries, he feared that the 1832 Reform Act might lead to further, more dangerous, reform.

Bulwer combined his career in Parliament with diplomatic missions. He spent time at the Legation in Berlin, and then in Vienna and the Hague, where he gained attention for his reports on the Belgian revolt. In 1831, he was elected for Coventry as an advanced Reformer. His victory was largely the result of the Whig party manager hiring a gang of ruffians to keep Tory voters away from the hustings. The following year, Bulwer was appointed attaché at Paris. Palmerston softened the ambassador’s objections by arguing that Bulwer would ‘annoy you but little’. The Foreign Secretary had been impressed with Bulwer’s speeches in the Commons, ‘put together’, he believed, ‘with great industry & some cleverness’.


Henry Bulwer in the 1830s

Bulwer had been re-elected for Coventry in 1832, but his alienation from the two main parties led to him standing instead at Marylebone in 1835 as an independent candidate. Despite his distaste for the Whigs, Bulwer accepted the need for a compromise between them and the Radicals in order to present a united front against the Conservatives. To help achieve this union, Bulwer wrote a pamphlet during Peel’s short-lived ministry and supported fully the Lichfield House Compact.

But he largely played at being a politician, choosing to do as little work as possible, and getting by with his likeability in society. He did not dash from committee room to committee room and often missed important divisions. He had even missed the vote on the second reading of the Reform Bill. Bulwer’s attachment to Disraeli did little to improve his worsening reputation. During the Taunton by-election in 1835, Disraeli’s Whig opponents attempted to sabotage his campaign by revealing that he was a member of the radical Westminster Reform Club who had been nominated by Bulwer. Disraeli and Bulwer were seen as turncoats. However, this did not affect Bulwer’s diplomatic prospects, for he still had the support of Melbourne and Palmerston on the Whig side, and Peel and the Earl of Aberdeen on the Conservative.


Henry Bulwer as ambassador at Constantinople in the 1860s

On his return to Britain in 1837, Bulwer committed himself to his parliamentary duties, but chose not to contest Marylebone at that year’s general election. He later claimed that this was because neither party shared his opinions on the corn laws or the Irish Church. It is more likely, however, that it was because of differences with an influential portion of the electors of Marylebone. Furthermore, Bulwer had finally decided to dedicate himself fully to diplomacy. Palmerston sent him to Constantinople to assist the ambassador with a commercial treaty. Twenty years later, Bulwer finally reached the height of his career when, having served in Spain, Italy and America, the Earl of Malmesbury appointed him ambassador to the Sublime Porte.

After being recalled from Constantinople in 1865, Bulwer re-entered British politics. In 1868, he was elected as Liberal MP for Peel’s old seat, Tamworth. His health was failing, his name was synonymous with intrigue and corruption, and he was bitter against the Foreign Office. Almost his last speech in the Commons was on the disestablishment of the Irish church, which he endorsed. His friends considered it one of the best speeches on the question, but owing to Bulwer’s weak voice, barely anyone in the chamber could hear it.

Bulwer was raised to the peerage as Baron Dalling and Bulwer in 1871. It was reported that he had been elevated to the Lords because he was about to give a pro-French speech just before the Franco-Prussian War. The Prime Minister (Gladstone) wished to remain on good terms with Bismarck, so offered Bulwer a peerage to hold his tongue. Bulwer kept quiet, but did not have long to enjoy his status as a peer. He died suddenly in Naples in May 1872. Bulwer’s good friend, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, wrote of him: There is no doubt that he was a most remarkable man … unpopular only with people who made no allowance for eccentricity’.

Dr Laurence Guymer

Further reading

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Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Open University: The Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850

We are pleased to announce that the History of Parliament Trust is participating in a doctoral studentship project in partnership with the Open University. Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award, for entry in 2020-21. The deadline for application to the Open University is 15 June 2020.

The proposed PhD research will examine ‘The Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850’. It will be supervised by Dr Amanda Goodrich (Open University) and Dr Robin Eagles (History of Parliament Trust). For further details on the project, see https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/black-and-mixed-ethnicity-presence-british-politics-1750-1850

The full text of the Open University’s advertisement for this post is reproduced below. Please note that enquiries and applications should be directed to the Open University, as outlined in the section on ‘How to apply’.


Jan or Dyani Tzatzoe (Tshatshu), Andries Stoffles, James Read Sr, James Read Jr and John Philip giving evidence to a Commons committee (by Richard Woodman, 1844) (C) NPG

Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Collaborative Doctoral Award

Open University-History of Parliament Trust /AHRC PhD Studentship

The Open University has available an AHRC funded PhD studentship through the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP consortium to start 2020/1.  It is a collaborative award with the History of Parliament Trust on ‘The black and mixed ethnicity presence in British politics, 1750-1850.’

There is today a move to restore Black and mixed ethnicity (BME) people to their rightful place in British history, yet few BME individuals have been identified in formal or extra-parliamentary British politics in the period.  This doctoral thesis will aim to identify, quantify and analyse the BME presence in British politics and political culture more broadly. We aim to provide a broad mandate to the candidate, so that s/he can have scope for exploring avenues of research that interest her/him in relation to the project.

Awards for UK residents cover all tuition fees and provide a maintenance grant at the standard RCUK rate (£15,009 p.a. in 2019/20). Non-UK citizens may be eligible to apply and should check on the OOC DTP CDA page at https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/eligibility.

The Open University is internationally recognized for innovative research across the Arts and Humanities. We host a number of major AHRC- and ESRC-funded research projects.  We have a strong commitment to cross-disciplinary work, to national and international public engagement, and to creative partnerships with a range of non-university partners. We also have a track record of supporting a wide range of diverse communities in different modes of flexible learning.

The History of Parliament Trust specialises in researching and publishing reference works on the history of the Westminster-based Parliament. It has an international reputation for the value and quality of its research and its resources, online and published on the British parliament, are unparalleled. The Trust will bring considerable experience to the research and supervision of this doctoral studentship.

We invite candidates from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and particularly, although not exclusively, BME candidates. The successful applicant would be expected to begin her/his studies in October 2020, although a February 2021 would also be possible.

How to apply

Closing date: noon 15th June 2020

Equal opportunity is University Policy.

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The MP who founded a town: Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (1801-66)

Over the past few years, we have highlighted several MPs who, quite apart from their involvement in parliamentary debates and legislation, had a significant personal role in the development of the infrastructure of Victorian Britain. Previous MPs of the Month have included the leading railway engineer Joseph Locke, the pioneering telegraph engineer Charles Tilston Bright and John Treeby, who helped to build London’s first underground railway.


Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood by William Charles Ross (1826) (C) Victoria & Albert Museum

This month we focus on the career of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (1801-66), MP for Preston, 1832-47, who developed not only a railway, but an entire town: the seaport and resort of Fleetwood on the Lancashire coast. Having toyed with calling it New Liverpool or Wyreton, he instead gave it his own family name. Born Peter Hesketh in 1801, he had added the surname Fleetwood to his own in 1831 to mark his descent from that family, whose estates he inherited on his father’s death in 1824. Hesketh-Fleetwood’s great-grandfather Roger Hesketh had married Margaret Fleetwood in 1733, uniting two long-established Lancashire families and their extensive landed properties. These included an estate at Rossall, where the Fleetwoods had lived since the seventeenth century.

DecimusBurtonNPG (2)

Decimus Burton (image credit: NPG)

Realising the potential of railway transport, and inspired by a stay at St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, where he befriended the architect Decimus Burton, Hesketh-Fleetwood decided in the early 1830s to create his own seaside resort for Lancashire’s working classes. He chose a site on his Rossall estate at the mouth of the river Wyre, formerly home only to a rabbit warren. He also wanted the new town of Fleetwood, one of the first towns to be planned around a railway, to provide year-round employment as a port. He chaired a meeting at Preston in October 1834 at which the Preston and Wyre railway, whose costs were estimated at £120,000, was initiated. Construction of Fleetwood’s buildings, designed by Burton, began in 1836, when Hesketh-Fleetwood laid the first stone, and the railway opened in July 1840.


Preston constituency 1832

Hesketh-Fleetwood had, meanwhile, been elected as MP for the nearby borough of Preston, 17 miles from his home at Rossall Hall, and took advantage of his position in Parliament to promote the railway bills needed for Fleetwood’s development.  He provides another good example of a phenomenon we have explored before in our blogs: the fluid and shifting political loyalties of MPs, who often played up their ‘independence’ from party. Standing for the first time in 1832, he insisted that he was ‘unconnected with any political party’, and although his victory in the poll owed much to moderate Tory support, he also won a considerable number of Liberal votes as a popular local landowner. At Westminster he was ‘never considered a very warm Tory’ and was happy to enter the division lobbies to vote alongside Radical MPs on matters such as replacing the corn laws with a fixed duty on corn and shortening the length of parliaments.

Despite this, it was clear at the time of the 1835 election that Hesketh-Fleetwood’s loyalties lay with the new Conservative ministry headed by Sir Robert Peel. He even offered Peel the assistance of his private secretary, Charles Dod, best known as the compiler of Dod’s parliamentary companion, whose knowledge of candidates might be useful for election purposes. (Peel politely declined the offer.) Although he supported the Peel ministry in important divisions on the speakership and the address in February 1835, Hesketh-Fleetwood was absent from the critical vote on the Irish church which brought the ministry down that April. His subsequent votes in the Commons reflected his growing distance from the Conservative party.

When he sought re-election for Preston at the 1837 election, he emphasised his ‘independent support’ for the Melbourne ministry’s ‘liberal measures and principles’. Having cemented his new political loyalties with his votes in the 1838 session, he was rewarded with a baronetcy in June 1838 and presented at court by Melbourne the following month. In June 1839, in his most significant parliamentary speech, he moved to enlarge the electorate by extending the £10 household franchise given to borough constituencies in 1832 to county seats as well, but was defeated by 207 votes to 81. At the next general election, in 1841, he openly declared his support for Liberalism and stood for the first time on a joint ticket with another Liberal candidate, Sir George Strickland. Both men secured an endorsement from Preston’s Chartists.

It was not, however, his shifting party allegiance which had the greatest influence on Hesketh-Fleetwood’s political career, but the spiralling costs of developing Fleetwood. These drained his financial resources and ultimately prompted his retirement from Parliament. He was responsible for all the expense of building the town – said to be over £100,000 – and half the costs of the railway, which totalled almost £200,000 more than originally projected. His position was made worse by having entrusted much of the management of his affairs at Fleetwood to an unreliable agent. Another blow came with the opening of a new rail route to Scotland, which undermined Fleetwood’s prospects as a port.


North Euston Hotel and Baths, Fleetwood (credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0)


Statue of Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (image credit: Wyre council)

During the 1840s Hesketh-Fleetwood therefore gradually sold off ‘first one ancestral estate and then another’ to shore up his financial position. In 1844 he gave up his residence at Rossall Hall and leased it to the Northern Church of England School, which eventually bought the property. Although he claimed that his finances were on a firmer footing by 1847, he decided not to undergo the expense of a contest at that year’s general election. He continued to sell off various properties, including the North Euston Hotel at Fleetwood, during the 1850s. He spent some time living in Spain, where his Spanish second wife secured a small allowance from the king. Although he was briefly in the field as a prospective Liberal candidate for Preston in 1861-2, he abandoned this due to ill health. He died in 1866, having lost most of the family fortune. His contemporaries marked his role in Fleetwood’s development by building schools there in his honour; more recently his contribution has been recognised by a statue, unveiled in 2018.

Further reading

  • H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Fleetwood, Sir Peter Hesketh-’, Oxf. DNB [www.oxforddnb.com]
  • B. Curtis, The golden dream. The biography of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, Bart., and the founding of the town of Fleetwood in Lancashire (1994)
  • R. Fleetwood-Hesketh, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, baronet (1801-1866). Founder of the town and port of Fleetwood (1951, reprinted 1966)
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Floods, Plagues and the Second Coming: Charles Augustus Tulk MP

Apocalyptic end days, doomsday scenarios and final judgements were prominent features of many people’s religious beliefs in the 19th century, but a few went further, maintaining that the Second Coming had already taken place. Among them was our MP of the month, Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).

Charles Augustus Tulk MP

Tulk was the first ‘Swedenborgian’ MP to sit in the Commons, where he represented Sudbury from 1820-26 and Poole from 1835-7 with the help of his vast purse. (His family had inherited estates that included London’s Leicester Square). He was a founder member of London’s Swedenborgian Society, established in 1810 to promote the teachings of the self-proclaimed ‘servant of the Lord Jesus Christ’, Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1782).

Swedenborg’s followers believed that the world had already experienced a series of ‘last judgements’, including Noah’s flood and Egypt’s ten plagues. Each cataclysm had ended a a distinct religious age on Earth and been accompanied by a ‘final judgement’ of its dead in the spiritual world. Each judgement had also ushered in a new phase of religion and a new church, including the one which had developed following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the group believed, had already taken place, with Christ speaking directly through Swedenborg. Hence the need to translate and spread Swedenborg’s writings about reforming the Christian faith.

Although this theological movement suffered many internal divisions, its emphasis on humanity’s spiritual development, the supernatural world and mystical interpretations of the New Testament made it popular with several leading early 19th century radicals and romantic poets, not least Tulk’s close friends William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also became linked with early vegetarian practices, which Tulk himself seems to have followed.

But to what extent did it influence Tulk’s politics? There is little doubt that Tulk, inspired by Swedenborg’s example, entered Parliament in order to try to bring about social change. His religious beliefs emphasised that people’s actions towards others, and not faith alone, were what counted when the soul was judged. He was certainly a very independently-minded MP, even by the loose party standards of the time. Sitting alongside the extreme Radicals in the 1820s, as part of the ‘mountain’ of opposition to the Tory government, he steadily backed most of their causes, including their campaigns to abolish hanging and flogging, improve what he called the ‘atrocious’ working conditions in factories, and get rid of colonial slavery. He also had no qualms about supporting parliamentary reform, despite sitting for one of the most notorious ‘rotten boroughs’ in the country. But when it came to Catholic emancipation, almost a watchword of liberal orthodoxy by this time, he was staunchly opposed to any form of concession and instead sided with the die-hard ‘church and state’ Tories. He also refused to engage in any tactical voting against the Tory government on economic issues and any other sordid party ‘devices’.

One of Tulk’s many theological tracts

Tulk’s cross-party stance contributed to him losing his seat at the 1826 election. By then, however, almost all of his time was being taken up with fighting theological disputes arising from his writings, including rebutting charges of ‘heresy’. By the time he resurfaced, Parliament had been reformed by the 1832 Reform Act.

In his last stint as an MP for Poole from 1835-7 Tulk settled down as an ‘extreme liberal’. As well as backing the secret ballot, he supported the removal of bishops from the Lords, the revision of the corn laws, tax reductions, and allowing ladies to be admitted to the public gallery of the Commons.

What really marked out his final years in the Commons, however, was his growing concern for the working poor. His desire to restrict work on Sundays, rather than being motivated by religion, seems to have entirely been driven by the need to provide the ‘humbler classes’ with one free day a week for ‘innocent recreations’. These would include visiting newly established libraries, museums, public walks and parks, all of which Tulk tried (unsuccessfully) to bring in legislation to promote (along with stricter regulations on the sale of alcohol). The plight of the Irish tenant farmers under British rule also increasingly drew his sympathy. However, it was the unfair conviction of the Tolpuddle martyrs, a group of agricultural labourers charged with swearing an ‘unlawful’ oath, that he spoke most about. He became one of the leading supporters of the ultimately successful campaign for their pardon and release from a penal colony.

In retirement Tulk continued his theological writing. His publication in 1846 of Spiritual Christianity, however, prompted an irrevocable rift with the Swedenborgian Society, and he became ‘so noxious’ to them ‘that his death [in 1849] was not even mentioned in their magazine’, the New Church Advocate. He has long since been rehabilitated by the society, which continues to operate today.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month, religion | 2 Comments

MP of the Month: William Nugent Macnamara (1776-1856)

By the time he retired from the House of Commons in 1852 William Nugent Macnamara, the long-serving MP for County Clare, was in his late seventies and had taken no practical part in parliamentary business for the previous three years. His failing abilities in later life were in stark contrast with the younger days of the man once known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, always ready to settle disputes with a duel.

William Nugent Macnamara (CC via NPG)

A Protestant landowner and militia officer, Macnamara came from a family with deep roots in Ireland. His father Francis had represented County Clare in the Irish Parliament as a supporter of Catholic emancipation and was himself a noted duellist: his meeting with a Mr. Fitzgerald at Highgate in May 1798 resulted in the wounding of both parties. Like his father, Macnamara supported the Catholic cause, having witnessed extreme sectarian violence during his time as a young militia officer in Armagh, which culminated in the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ in September 1795. He became a popular country gentleman, earning a reputation in county Clare as ‘the poor man’s magistrate’, and was said to have been a universal favourite due to his ‘winning cordiality’ and ‘raciness of utterance’.

In January 1815 Macnamara played a leading role in one of the most memorable events in the career of Daniel O’Connell, when he acted as second to O’Connell in his duel with John D’Esterre, who was defending the honour of Dublin corporation, which O’Connell had insulted as ‘beggarly’. D’Esterre had a reputation as a ‘deadly marksman’, but in this encounter he was fatally wounded by O’Connell, who was said to owe his life to Macnamara’s expertise as a duellist. Not only did Macnamara win the toss which gave O’Connell the choice of position, but he also advised O’Connell to remove his white cravat, which prevented D’Esterre from taking advantage of this when regulating his aim. Given his prowess in this field, it was not surprising that O’Connell originally wanted Macnamara to accompany him to Ostend that September when he expected to take part in a duel with Sir Robert Peel.

O’Connell’s duel of January 1815 (Irish Magazine, Mar. 1815)

In contrast with the gentlemanly code of conduct associated with the settlement of matters of honour in a duel, Macnamara demonstrated that there was a coarser side to his nature when he was prosecuted in 1821 for helping his brother, Richard, to violently assault Thomas Wallace in Sackville Street, Dublin. Later a Liberal MP for Carlow, Wallace was the prosecuting counsel in a lawsuit against Richard for breach of promise of marriage. Macnamara was subsequently accused of publishing a letter which libelled Wallace with the intention of provoking a duel.

Macnamara, who had been suggested as a candidate for County Clare at the 1826 general election, made another important contribution to O’Connell’s career when he (and other liberal Protestants) declined to stand for the constituency in April 1828, leaving the way open for O’Connell to secure his famous by-election victory there. At the 1830 general election Macnamara was returned to Parliament for County Clare (O’Connell was elected instead for County Waterford), but only after a violent quarrel with the O’Connells during which he rebuffed a challenge to a duel from O’Connell’s second son, Morgan. Another duel seemed likely in 1831 after Macnamara fell out with his friend The O’Gorman Mahon, one of the other candidates for County Clare, during an election contest which saw ‘unlimited use of the Billingsgate language’ between the contending parties.

Happily, however, the storm blew over. Having topped the poll at Clare in 1830 and 1831, Macnamara repeated this in 1832, one of six contested elections he fought in that most volatile of constituencies. He was personally popular in the county, where he was considered ‘every inch a king’. In contrast with his fiery personality, his appearance was ‘portly, dignified and handsome’, with ‘profusely-powdered and highly-frizzled’ whiskers. With his penchant for ‘the regal fashions’, he was said by his fellow Irish MP Richard Sheil to have made ‘a very fine effigy’ of George IV. However, his reputation as a duellist was not forgotten by one observer at Westminster, who described him passing Sir Robert Peel – a political opponent and no stranger himself to a duel – in the lobbies. After Peel gave him ‘one of his most honeyed smiles’, Macnamara reciprocated ‘as blandly as if he had him at twelve paces on Wimbledon Common, with surgeons for two, and a coffin for one ordered at the adjoining public house’.

Further reading:

  • S. Farrell, ‘Macnamara, William Nugent’, HP Commons, 1820-1832, vi. 291-5.
  • O. MacDonagh, The Hereditary Bondsman. Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (1988), 134-8.
  • R. Sheil, Sketches of the Irish Bar (1854), ii. 266-70.
  • J. Kelly, That Damn’d Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860 (1995).
Posted in Biographies, Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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)


Posted in Biographies, LGBT+ History Month, Queer Parliamentary Life, Ronald Gower Series, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

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)

Posted in Biographies, Prime Ministers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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