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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Organise! Organise! Organise! Collective Action, Associational Culture and the Politics of Organisation in the British Isles, c.1790-1914

Durham University in collaboration with the History of Parliament, and supported by the Leverhulme Trust, are hosting a conference in Durham, Thursday-Friday 20-21 July 2023. The Call for Papers will close on 31 January 2023. The conference forms part of Dr Naomi Lloyd-Jones’s Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, during which she is investigating the development of modern party organisation. For further details of the event see below or visit the conference website here.

A black and white image showing a large crowd at a meeting in a large open area. The crowd have their backs towards the photographer and are looking at the speakers. There are buildings in the distance.
Chartist meeting on Kennington Commons, 1848, PD via Wikimedia Commons

This conference will explore why, how, to what ends, and with what effects people in Britain and Ireland organised and were organised for political purposes during the long nineteenth century, one that has been seen as an age of association. Political networks were established, maintained, supported, and opposed in a plethora of incarnations and circumstances, and organisational ideas and practices played important roles in shaping and navigating a rapidly changing political world. Organised, collective political action had diverse impacts, actual and perceived, on political culture, the political system, and the body politic, and on public and private life. Contemporaries debated, encouraged and feared its potential power to politicise and mobilise, to make demands and disseminate information, or to suppress. Associational culture both encompassed and challenged a range of behaviours, belongings, communications, and sites. It made claims to include and represent, but also to exclude, on the basis of, for example, class, religion, gender, or race. Participation in and marginalisation from political activism could be encountered emotionally, materially, physically, spatially, and sonically. The politics of organisation was intimately linked to how people thought, felt, spoke, and heard about, and did and experienced, politics.

The conference aims at deepening our understanding of the complex extra-parliamentary and popular politics of organisation. It seeks to drive forward debate about the meanings, modes, extents, and locations of participatory and representational political culture and of formal and informal politics. The conference will foster discussion of these dynamics both outside and during elections, the latter having dominated the scholarship. It hopes to move beyond the parameters of the influential but now decades-old New Political History and to bring together fresh approaches to histories of politics in the long nineteenth century that encompass research on, for example, histories of emotions, material culture, gender, race, and space. The study of grassroots collective action and associational culture offers an opportunity for innovative interpretations that cut across traditional subfield boundaries and help us think about ‘the political’ and ‘political history’ in new ways. The keynote address will be given by Professor Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire), historian of protest, collective action, and contested spaces in Britain. Proposals of c.250-300 words for 20-minute papers should be sent to naomi.lloyd-jones@durham.ac.uk by Tuesday 31 January 2023. Topics and themes related to the history of political organising in England, Ireland, Scotland, and/or Wales could include but are not limited to:

  • Party-political organisations, single-issue campaigns, protest movements, pressure groups
  • Urban, rural, local, regional, national, transnational connections and contexts
  • Structures, strategies, theories, motivations, practices
  • Aims, demands, audiences, outcomes, contributions
  • Participation, representation, and exclusion based on gender, race, religion, class, work, home, education, age, health
  • Sites, spaces, places
  • Sights, sounds, smells
  • Material, print, visual cultures
  • Emotions, experiences, performances
  • Cultures, rituals, memories, languages
  • Identity, sociability, community, the self, agency
  • Tradition, generations, expertise, knowledge
  • Power, authority, government, the law

We hope to publish a selection of papers as a special issue of Parliamentary History for 2026 (for submission in February 2025). Depending on pending funding applications, we hope to make some bursaries available to postgraduate and ECR presenters.

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The 1872 Secret Ballot and Multiple Member Seats

Following on from our recent events and blogs marking the 150th anniversary of the introduction of  the secret ballot, Dr Philip Salmon explores some of the Act’s lesser known and unintended consequences.

The Ballot Act of 1872 sits alongside the three major Reform Acts of the 19th century (and various Corrupt Practices Acts) in helping to transform British elections into their recognisably modern form. As some of our earlier blogs have shown, it ended a system of open voting and public nominations that had become increasingly associated with bribery, the intimidation of voters and disorderly behaviour, often fuelled by drink.

A Public Election in Kilkenny

The calmness and order of Britain’s new secret elections, by contrast, was striking. At the first by-elections to be held in Pontefract, Preston, Tiverton and Richmond, it was widely reported that there was none of the usual ‘horse play’ and ‘excitement’. Some commentators even complained that the secret ballot had ‘taken all the life out of elections’, making them ‘dull’. They have become ‘the most monotonous of monotonies’, commented the South Wales Daily News, wistfully recalling the agitation and passion of ‘olden times’.

Voting after the Secret Ballot (Glasgow)

These and many similar press reports clearly support the idea of a remarkably smooth transition to secret voting, despite some initial hitches in places like Pontefract, which had just 4 weeks to prepare for the new system. However, a number of longer-term issues did begin to emerge in later polls, which have received less attention. At the municipal level, in particular, problems began to occur in places where multiple councillors were being chosen in each ward. Reports of electors inadvertently crossing the wrong combinations of boxes, because the official ballot papers listed the candidates differently to the leaflets they had received, or of electors being confused about how many crosses they could use, or even writing their names on the ballot as they had done previously in municipal elections, began to fill the local newspapers.

Illiterate voters appear to have had a particularly difficult time. Great fun, in a typically cruel Victorian fashion, was made out of one ‘gaily attired’ female voter at Sheffield’s first council elections held using the secret ballot, who after declaring ‘in the loudest of tones’ that she ‘could not read’, had to be physically restrained by the returning officer from shouting out her votes. She was promptly taken aside and ‘amidst the laughter of those in the room’ made to whisper her choices, before being given a lecture about ‘learning to read’.

The biggest problem, however, which was to become a significant issue in the 1874 general election, was the question of how to cast a good old fashioned ‘plumper’ in those constituencies that continued to elect two (or more) MPs. It is often forgotten that unlike today with our first-past-the-post system, before 1885 the vast bulk of England’s parliamentary seats were multi-member. This created a much more complex voting system in which electors could either divide their support between different candidates or use just one of their multiple votes to support a single candidate, by casting a ‘plumper’. Shortly before the 1874 general election the Reading Mercury, 31 Jan. 1874, published this extraordinary but by no means uncommon advice:

If the voter intends to vote … all he has to do is put a cross (X) against the names of the candidates … Of course if the voter intends to give a “plumper” two crosses must be written opposite the name of the candidate thus favoured.

Reports soon filled the press of voters up and down the country either intending to or actually casting multiple votes for one candidate, all of which, as agents and their candidates frantically tried to point out, invalidated their ballot papers. Many newspapers, especially the London-based journals, blamed this confusion about plumping on the cumulative voting introduced alongside the secret ballot for London’s School Board elections in 1870. Under this system voters could, and often did, cast multiple votes for a single candidate.

Secret Ballot Instructions (Newcastle)

The plumping problem, however, was not just confined to London’s constituencies. In Brighton one horrified Conservative candidate reported receiving multiple letters of support from voters saying ‘I shall give my two votes for you’. Fearing the worst, on the eve of the poll he issued a special address, warning that ‘if my voters shall commit that error, hundreds, if not thousands of votes would be lost’. In Sunderland one draper, questioned by a candidate, ‘said he meant to give him his two votes’. Things got so bad in Glasgow that special notices had to be issued telling electors that ‘you cannot give more than one vote to any one candidate or mark more than one X after the name of such candidate’.

Plumping was just one of the traditional forms of voting in multi-member seats that clearly did not translate smoothly on to the modern ballot paper. Unaided by the public conversations with clerks and agents that used to take place before electors orally declared their votes at the poll, many electors also struggled with selecting the appropriate combinations of candidates, especially in the absence of party labels on the ballot papers.

One upshot of all this, with long-term consequences, was the stimulus given to local party organisations in the constituencies to produce better guidance and campaign literature and develop new types of electioneering. Aided by their efforts, a deluge of additional information and advice about how best to support either the local Conservative party or the Liberals soon became available. But where did this leave the non-party voters, the backbone of the old public voting system, whose votes it must be remembered accounted for around one-fifth of all those cast between 1832 and 1868?

The data currently available indicates that non-party voting – either supporting candidates from different parties (in what amounted to a cross-party vote) or casting a non-partisan plump (voting for only one candidate from a particular party even when others were standing) – declined significantly in the 1874 and 1880 elections, for the first time dropping below 8%. The move to secrecy, it seems, made the whole business of casting non-party votes in multiple member constituencies more complex and liable to confusion, requiring a greater political awareness and level of knowledge on the part of the voter.

It would not be long of course before this whole system of multiple votes and being able to make non-party choices would be almost completely eradicated, making the use of the new secret ballot papers much more straightforward. After just one more general election in 1880, and yet another dramatic expansion of the franchise in 1884, most of the UK shifted to winner-takes-all single member seats in 1885 – a system that for better or worse, continues to define our modern party politics today.

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‘A place of business’: the temporary chamber of the House of Commons, 1835-1851

In the next of our series on parliamentary buildings, this blog looks at the temporary accommodation used by the House of Commons from 1835 until 1851, after its previous chamber was destroyed by fire in October 1834.

The devastating fire at the Palace of Westminster on 16 October 1834 made the House of Commons chamber in the former St. Stephen’s Chapel unusable. The need to prorogue Parliament a week later – amid the still smouldering ruins – prompted makeshift arrangements for both the Commons and the Lords. The small number of MPs who attended gathered in one of the surviving Lords committee rooms, before going to meet the peers in what had been the House of Lords library. A further prorogation in the Lords library took place on 18 December 1834.

View of St Stephen’s Chapel as it appeared after the Fire in October 1834; print by Frederick Mackenzie (1843); public domain; Yale Center for British Art

By the time Parliament reassembled in February 1835, the Commons and the Lords had both been provided with far more adequate temporary accommodation, which in the case of the Commons would be in use for the next 17 years. This was rather longer than anticipated, due to the delays which beset the building of the new Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. Some of these delays were exacerbated by the difficulties of constructing new buildings on a site still being occupied by MPs and peers in their temporary accommodation.

In the wake of the 1834 fire, the possibility of moving MPs and peers elsewhere was discussed, and several alternative locations were mooted, including St. James’s Palace, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, or Exeter Hall, a large public meeting venue on the Strand. William IV offered the recently renovated Buckingham Palace, which he apparently disliked and never moved into, as a possible solution. There were, however, strong objections to this. Its location was considered a major disadvantage: one London newspaper described it as ‘quite out of the way of all business – inconvenient of access’. In addition, it would require a substantial amount of internal remodelling to suit the requirements of parliamentarians, a process which would mean undoing much of the work recently completed at significant public expense. The government tactfully resisted the king’s attempt to foist Buckingham Palace on them.

Buckingham Palace engraved by J. Woods after Hablot Browne and R. Garland (published 1837); public domain; via Wikipedia
Robert Smirke, by William Daniell, after George Dance (1809), under CC licence from NPG

Instead, plans to rehome MPs and peers at Westminster were rapidly drawn up by Sir Robert Smirke, an architect connected with the Office of Woods and Forests, who had been overseeing repairs to Westminster Hall when the fire took place. The House of Commons would use the building previously occupied by the House of Lords as its chamber, while the upper House was displaced into the Painted Chamber. These rooms had both been damaged by the fire and required considerable renovation work, but this began swiftly. Scaffolding was in place on the interior and exterior walls of the former House of Lords less than two weeks after the fire, in preparation for its conversion into temporary accommodation for MPs. By early November, between 300 and 400 workmen were on site roofing the two temporary chambers.

On 19 February 1835, when Parliament assembled at Westminster after a change of government – Viscount Melbourne’s Whig ministry had been replaced by Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative administration – and a general election, the temporary accommodation was ready. This speedy construction was aided by working at night, the use of prefabricated timber and iron girders, and short-cuts such as papier mâché for the ornamental mouldings. The Times gave ‘the highest credit’ to Smirke, who within the limited space allocated had provided ‘accommodation to a much greater extent than could … have been anticipated’.

The temporary Commons chamber now included the space which had been behind the throne for the king’s robing room when this building had been the House of Lords. At the opposite end of the House, space was taken out for the lobby, which was made considerably larger than that formerly used by the Lords. The strangers’ gallery was erected above this lobby, roughly where the gallery of the Lords had been, and ‘spacious galleries’ for members were erected on the two long sides of the building. One ‘most important’ feature, according to The Times, which it had not been possible to incorporate within the confined space of the pre-1834 Commons chamber, was a dedicated reporters’ gallery above the Speaker’s chair, with its own separate entrance. In the old chamber, reporters had been allocated the back row of the strangers’ gallery, but often found themselves jostling with members of the public for seats. The significance of this innovation will be discussed in a future blog.

R. W. Billings/William Taylor, The House of Commons as fitted up in 1835, published in Brayley and Britton’s The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (1836); public domain; via Yale Center for British Art

Initial reactions to the temporary Commons chamber were, like that of The Times, generally positive. The Sun described it as ‘perhaps one of the most elegant specimens of taste’, noting the oak seats covered with green Spanish leather, and the ‘simple but most graceful elegance’ of the galleries. While its plainness led some later observers to compare it to ‘a railway station’, ‘a Primitive Methodist chapel’, ‘a hideous barn’ or ‘a wooden shanty’, its ‘conspicuously neat and simple’ style was widely regarded as an advantage. As one guide to London observed, the lack of ornamentation and draperies showed that this was ‘a place of business’.

The temporary chamber also had the major benefit of being able to accommodate a greater number of MPs than their previous one. According to a statement in the Commons in May 1850, it had room for 456 MPs (including in the galleries), in contrast with the 387 who could find a seat in the old chamber. John Cam Hobhouse, who as First Commissioner of Woods and Forests in the Melbourne ministry had been involved with planning the temporary accommodation, recorded in his diary on the opening day of the 1835 Parliament that he ‘was much pleased with what I had some right to call my new temporary House of Commons’. The MP for Bath, John Arthur Roebuck, declared that ‘compared with the old, ugly place, it is a beautiful and commodious room’. The diarist Charles Greville felt that MPs had got the better side of the bargain when it came to their temporary accommodation, contrasting their ‘very spacious and convenient’ chamber with the ‘wretched dog-hole’ provided for the Lords. The temporary Commons was not without its flaws, however, and there were alterations in subsequent years to improve its acoustics, ventilation and lighting.

Henry Melville, House of Commons. The Speaker reprimanding a person at the bar. This shows the temporary accommodation after alterations had been made (including to the roof) to improve the acoustics, ventilation and lighting; public domain; via Yale Center for British Art

In addition, questions were raised about the costs of the temporary accommodation. In June 1835, the Commons was asked to approve expenditure of £30,000 for the temporary buildings and £14,000 for ‘furniture and other necessary articles’. The latter was deemed ‘scandalously extravagant’ by one MP, who protested that ‘the country was called upon to pay upwards of 10,000l. for nothing but a parcel of deal tables and a few rusty old chairs’. The ‘utter absurdity’ of money being ‘squandered’ on temporarily patching up parts of the old Palace, on a site which would need to be built on as work on the new Palace progressed, was highlighted in the press. One Warwickshire newspaper drew an unfavourable comparison between the £28,000 cost of Birmingham’s new town hall, a building large enough to hold the members of both Houses, and the expenditure at Westminster. Allegations that this was ‘a job’ by Smirke were given added fuel by the fact that one of the two main contractors for the temporary accommodation, Messrs. Samuel Baker & Son, were related to Smirke by marriage.

As the temporary accommodation – not only the Commons chamber, but other facilities such as the committee rooms – continued to evolve and to require repair and maintenance over the next 17 years, the costs grew. In 1848, a select committee reported that £185,248 had so far been spent on temporary accommodation for the Lords and the Commons, ‘of which very little will be available for future service’. It argued that this ongoing expenditure was one reason to accelerate the completion of the new Palace. It would be another three years, however, before preparations were finally made in August 1851 to demolish the temporary Commons chamber.

The demolition of the temporary House of Commons is shown in the centre of this illustration from the Lady’s Own Paper, 18 Oct. 1851; public domain; via BNA

Further reading:

C. Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012)

J. Mordaunt Crook & M. H. Port, The History of the King’s Works. Volume VI 1782-1851 (1973)

See also these blogs by Rebekah Moore on the History of Parliament blog.

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‘The ballot without jokes has no meaning for members’: Henry Berkeley and the parliamentary campaign for secret voting, 1848-66

Following the Voting reform 150 years on from the 1872 Ballot Act: A symposium at the IHR in honour of Valerie Cromwell event earlier this month, our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses Francis Henry Berkeley and his stewardship of the national campaign for the ballot between 1848 and 1866.

In 1872 secret voting – or ‘the ballot’ as it was known to contemporaries – was introduced at UK parliamentary elections. Until then voting at general or by-elections had been a public act. This meant that if you were fortunate enough to be able to vote, your neighbours, employers and landlords could view your vote in readily published poll books.

Radicals and reformers had been demanding an end to open voting since the late eighteenth century. While the details of their arguments differed, their primary hope was that secrecy at poll booths would end electoral corruption and aristocratic dominance over the political system.

Open voting at the 1837 Buckinghamshire election, ‘The Tin Kettle or “Bucks” in 1837! (1837), CC BM

In the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act secret voting was one of the major issues debated, and voted on, in Parliament. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, the ballot campaign of the 1830s was orchestrated by George and Harriet Grote, and culminated in 1839 when 221 MPs supported George’s annual ballot motion. In the decade that followed, the ballot formed one of the six points of the Charter, but as a single issue fell off the radar of most parliamentarians at Westminster.

In 1848 the introduction of secret voting at parliamentary elections was revived as a topic of annual parliamentary debate by the Liberal MP for Bristol, Francis Henry Fitzhardinge-Berkeley (1794-1870), more commonly known as Henry Berkeley. He became the parliamentary and public figurehead of the ballot campaign for the next two decades, earning him the nickname at Westminster and in the national press of ‘Ballot Berkeley’.

Francis Henry Fitzhardinge-Berkeley (1794-1870) (1839), CC BM

Berkeley was the illegitimate son of the ‘gambler and libertine’, the 5th earl of Berkeley. In his teenage years he was an eager amateur boxer, and after dropping out of Oxford University spent his twenties travelling around Europe. He joined his equally fast-living brothers in Parliament in 1837, when he was returned as MP for Bristol. He continued to represent the constituency as a Liberal until his death in 1870.

Berkeley introduced a ballot motion to the Commons (when the topic was debated and voted on) every year between 1848 and 1866. These motions passed on three occasions in thin houses (1848, 1851, 1862). They were usually held towards the end of a parliamentary session and attracted varying numbers of MPs. At least one motion per Parliament attracted around 400 MPs to the division lobbies. With pairs included, Berkeley’s 1858 motion saw 540 MPs record their opinion: 318 opposed secret voting, 222 supported it. This was 20 fewer than the 560 MPs that voted or paired on Grote’s 1839 motion on the issue.

The Whig Prime Minister Lord John Russell being mocked as ‘Jack in the (Ballot) Box’ after Berkeley’s surprise victory in his 1848 ballot motion in a thin house, Punch (1848)

Although he continued to be able to rally a sizeable number of MPs to support secret voting into the 1860s, Berkeley’s annual ballot motions developed a reputation for being ‘choice parliamentary entertainment’ rather than serious attempts at legislation.

One characteristic of his annual debate was Berkeley’s ceremonial crossing of the floor of the House in order to propose his motion. By doing so he distanced himself from the Whig-Liberal Prime Ministers or leaders of the Commons – Lord John Russell and Viscount Palmerston – who consistently opposed secret voting. Berkeley made his annual speech standing in front of the Conservative leader of the Commons opposition – often waking a slumbering Disraeli – with his ‘collection of note-books’ detailing instances of electoral corruption scattered in front of him on the table.

He rarely offered new theoretical arguments in favour of the ballot, and always acknowledged and often quoted directly from George Grote’s speeches of the 1830s. His speeches always cited contemporary examples of successful instances of the ballot’s introduction. At various times between 1848 and 1866 he lauded the implementation of secret voting in some American states, in Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, France, and Australia, where he believed it had brought ‘peace, order, and freedom of election’, as well as in several British institutions and political clubs.

For contemporaries, the most entertaining aspect of his annual speeches were his anecdotes of corrupt practices at elections. At various points he regaled the Commons with stories of the ‘golden reservoirs’ of ‘bowls full of sovereigns’ at Great Yarmouth, the ‘ladies of rank’ and ‘lofty dames’ intimidating voters in their homes at Westminster, landlords coercing their tenants and the 49 peers that controlled 62 small boroughs.  He recounted scenes of ‘slaughter and intimidation’ and men in ‘dying state[s], quite unconscious’ with ‘gaping wound[s]’ on ‘fractured skull[s]’ at Cork. There were also ‘three Roman Catholic priests’ getting beaten up by ‘a crowd of women’ at New Ross, and voters being kept in pens ‘like sheep’ at Devonport.

Advert for the Ballot Society, Bristol Daily Post, 3 May 1860, BNA

Outside Parliament, Berkeley sought to rally support for secret voting as chairman of the Ballot Society, which he formed on the advice of Richard Cobden in 1853. The society aimed to replicate the success of the Anti-Corn Law League of the 1840s. Both Cobden and Berkeley reasoned that without external pressure, Parliament, and more importantly, Russell or Palmerston, would never act to make the ballot a reality.

The society was beset by problems, however, and never achieved the popularity it needed. As the historian Bruce Kinzer has demonstrated, the society triggered jealousy among reformers, provoked disagreement as to whether the ballot should be considered a single-issue policy and suffered from increasing indifference on the issue by the late 1850s. 

Significantly, Berkeley was regularly advised by his fellow Liberal and radical politicians that the ballot on its own could never generate mass support while suffrage remained limited. The radical MP Joseph Hume, advised him, perhaps rightly, that the unenfranchised ‘lower orders’ would see the Ballot Society as a ‘middle class movement’ to ensure secrecy in the voting process and exclude non-electors from participating in, and influencing, elections.

In addition, by the mid-1850s, previous supporters of secret voting like John Stuart Mill were arguing that open voting was the best means of ensuring the morality of voters to act for the public good. And by the 1860s the ballot seemed a little old-fashioned in comparison to new Liberal movements associated with temperance, disestablishment, secular education, pacifism and land reform.

Portrait of Berkeley, Graphic, 26 March 1870

Berkeley was also a problem. By the 1860s his health was faltering, his speeches seemed to be tired or lacking in humour, and they attracted increasingly thin numbers in the House. Rumours (which were unfounded) even spread that he no longer supported the ballot.

In 1863 the usually neutral Illustrated London News opined that ‘the ballot without jokes has no meaning for members’, and in 1865 the Conservative Punch happily mocked the ‘farce called the ballot motion’. By 1865 even the Ballot Society had concluded that the cause was suffering from Berkeley’s leadership. Berkeley’s jokes had turned the ballot into a joke! As a result, the Ballot Union, which Berkeley was still chairman of, asked him to stop introducing his annual motions. He refused, resigned from the society, and introduced his final motion in 1866.

This marked the end of Berkeley’s ballot campaign. And, when the Liberal leadership failed to back secret voting during the 1866 and 1867-8 reform debates, all hope appeared lost. There was little indication that secret voting in parliamentary elections was just around the corner…

Further Reading:

B. Kinzer, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics (1982)

M. Crook & T. Crook, ‘The Advent of the Secret Ballot in Britain and France, 1789–1914: From Public Assembly to Private Compartment’, History (2007)

Victorian Commons articles on the ballot

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Voting reform 150 years on from the 1872 Ballot Act: A symposium at the IHR in honour of Valerie Cromwell

This event taking place at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 13th September may be of interest to some readers of our Victorian Commons blog. Three of our 1832-68 team, Dr Philip Salmon, Dr Kathryn Rix and Dr Martin Spychal, will be among the speakers. This event is free to attend, but booking in advance is required, via the IHR events page. Booking closes on Friday 9th September.

2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 1872 Ballot Act which introduced the requirement for a secret ballot in British parliamentary and local elections. Our symposium will take this as the starting point for a broader examination of the history of voting reform. It will consider the culture and conduct of Victorian elections and the circumstances that led to the passing of the Act; it will deal with the debates around the secret ballot, the impact of the Act at home (especially in Ireland), its influence abroad, and the subsequent history of electoral administration, relating some of these issues to currently debated questions of electoral fraud and voter identity.

The symposium seeks to bring together historians, political scientists and representatives from organisations such as the Electoral Commission and the UK Boundary Commissions. It is being held in honour of Valerie Cromwell who was Reader in History at the University of Sussex and Director of the History of Parliament Trust between 1991 and 2001. It is being jointly organised by History & Policy at the IHR and the History of Parliament, and has been made possible thanks to a generous donation by Lady Valerie’s husband, Sir John Kingman.

The provisional programme can be accessed via the IHR events page.

Voting by secret ballot at Taunton, 1873
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Sir Robert Peel’s smile rehabilitated

It’s not unusual for quotations in politics to assume a life of their own. The late Simon Hoggart amusingly recorded how one particular phrase attributed to him about Lord Mandelson, of which he had no memory, appeared first in one book of quotations, ‘then in another, then another and another since … all of them simply copied from the rest’.

Sir Robert Peel
© National Trust for Scotland: Haddo House

One striking example of this sort of misquotation from the 1832-68 period concerns Sir Robert Peel, Conservative prime minister from 1834-35 and 1841-46. Peel has long been described as having a smile, as the fifth edition of Oxford Essential Quotations relates, ‘like the silver plate on a coffin’. This phrase has been adapted in various ways. In one version, Peel’s smile has even been compared to ‘the gleam of wintry sunshine on the brass handles of a coffin’.

The problem with this quotation is that it was never said about Sir Robert Peel, but was, in fact, directed at his contemporary Lord Stanley, who would later, as Lord Derby, serve three times as Conservative prime minister (1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8). The Oxford Essential Quotations correctly states that the phrase was adapted by the Irish leader, Daniel O’Connell, from a remark made by the Irish jurist John Philpot Curran (1750-1817). O’Connell spoke these words during a Commons debate on 26 February 1835 mocking the so-called ‘Derby Dilly’, an effort by Lord Stanley and other dissident Whig MPs such as Sir James Graham to form a centre party to stand between Peel’s Conservative ministry and Lord Melbourne’s Whig-Liberal opposition. As chief secretary of Ireland, Stanley had often antagonised O’Connell, who scorned the new faction’s attempt to establish itself as a credible political force by imagining how ‘delightful it would be to see it walking in St. James’s-street tomorrow – to see the noble Lord strutting proudly, with his sequents behind him, and with a smile passing over his countenance – something like, as Curran said, “a silver plate on a coffin”’.

The 14th Earl of Derby (formerly Lord Stanley)

Clearly, O’Connell was referring to Stanley and not Peel. Nor was Curran’s original remark made about Peel, it being recorded in 1855 that the old judge had directed it at a grave and solemn friend of his named Hoare whose rare attempts to smile were, he said, ‘like tin clasps on an oaken coffin’. The quotation, however, lived long in the parliamentary lexicon, the last reference to it being made in December 1969, when Roy Jenkins observed that Edward Heath’s reaction to news of an improvement in Britain’s trading position reminded him of O’Connell’s now famous jibe.

Although the 1835 debate on the Derby Dilly has been revisited by at least one historian in recent times the nature of Peel’s countenance has yet to be reconsidered. Now, perhaps, it is time to restore the reputation of Sir Robert’s smile once and for all.

Further reading:

S. Radcliffe (ed.), Oxford Essential Quotations (5th edn., 2017).

Hansard, 25 Feb. 1835, vol. 26, c. 397; 17 Dec. 1969, vol. 793, c. 1476.

W. H. Curran, The Life of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran. Late Master of the Rolls in Ireland (1855), 528.

The Peel Web: http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/politics/dilly.htm

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‘Damn the secret ballot’: the UK’s public voting system before 1872

This online event was recorded and can be viewed here.

As we approach next week’s online event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the act which introduced the secret ballot for municipal and parliamentary elections, it’s perhaps worth looking again at how the public voting system that served Britain for so many centuries worked. We’ve touched on public voting in earlier posts, but our ongoing research on Victorian politics continues to throw up new discoveries.

An election chairing scene

Public or ‘open’ voting is often associated with the most glaring iniquities of Victorian elections, including the consumption of vast amounts of alcohol, violence and the harassment of electors at the poll, as well as bribery and the intimidation of voters by employers and landlords. In parliamentary elections voters declared their choices orally, stating how they wished to vote in front of election officials and assembled spectators, so that everyone knew immediately what their choices were. Running tallies of how well candidates were doing provided a live form of race-like entertainment, while also allowing agents to bring up or hold back ‘tallies’ of electors, along with all sorts of other nefarious tactics, such as kidnapping voters.

Other types of election, however, such as those held for town council polls after 1835, simply required the elector to sign and hand in a voting paper. These ballots have a modern appearance but the fact that they still exist, of course, illustrates the key difference with today’s practice: they were not kept secret. In some types of parish election it was even possible for single propertied women to vote, as surviving records of some local polls show. Lists showing the way individuals voted often appeared in local newspapers. They also formed the basis of special pollbooks produced by enterprising local publishers. The fact that these books were sold for a profit illustrates just how much public interest there was in the way people had voted – especially neighbours, relatives, shopkeepers, employees and tenants.

The idea that this system only produced negative results – with tenants being threatened with eviction if they didn’t vote as their landlords directed, or electors selling their votes to the highest bidder – overlooks the many positive features associated with public voting at the time. Chief among these was accountability – the idea that the vote was a public trust or duty that should be exercised ‘in the full glare of publicity’, in order to ensure it was done honestly. As the prime minister Lord Palmerston, expressing the view of most mid-Victorian leaders, explained:

An individual is invested with the power of voting, not for his own personal advantage or interest, but for the interest and advantage of the nation … to be exercised in perfect day, and be open to the criticism of our friends and neighbours and the public at large. (Click here for the full speech)

Most early Victorian MPs agreed. Asked for his views at the 1859 election, for instance, the Berkshire MP Captain Leicester Vernon declared:

Damn the secret ballot … Give me the bold-faced Englishman who, with his hat on one side, swaggers up to the polling booth, and when the clerk says, ‘For whom do you vote?’, answers manfully and IN THE FACE OF HIS NEIGHBOURS.

Crowds of women photographed during the 1865 Hastings election

Openness was considered especially important at a time when only a limited number of people could vote. Rather than being completely excluded from the electoral process, non-electors could see and judge how everyone had polled. As a result, they were often able to play a part in trying to influence how voters behaved. Women, in particular, feature frequently in surviving canvassing books and electioneering papers, with comments like ‘wife says he will vote’ or ‘sister promised’ testifying to their role. As one MP noted during an 1867 Commons debate about giving women the vote, ‘Every one acquainted with elections was aware of the influence which was already exercised by women’. Disraeli, no stranger to electoral shenanigans, noted in his book The Election, ‘If the men have the vote, the women have the influence’.

Women, of course, were not the only type of non-elector. Working men, including all those disfranchised by the new voting restrictions of the 1832 Reform Act, also played a significant role in Victorian elections as non-electors, setting up meetings and pressure groups to influence voters and even threatening to boycott certain shopkeepers or traders, in a practice known as ‘exclusive dealing’. This was not considered as inappropriate or ‘unconstitutional’ as it might seem today. As one MP reminded a crowd of non-electors  during an 1841 campaign:

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

As well as being considered ‘unmanly’, ‘unEnglish’ and unfair on anyone without a vote, secret voting also suffered a series of presentation problems in the early Victorian period. Those most in favour in Parliament – including a significant group of Radical MPs elected after the 1832 Reform Act – found themselves arguing for secrecy in elections, but at the same time pressing for the votes cast by MPs in the Commons to be made more public. The official publication of MPs’ votes from 1836 and calls for greater accountability in public life sat uncomfortably with demands for complete secrecy at the polling booth.

The leadership of the secret ballot campaign in the four decades after 1832 also didn’t help. The cause was first led by the Radical MP George Grote, whose eccentric plans for ‘secret ballot’ voting machines were a gift to satirists. His successor was the unconventional ‘political opportunist’ Francis Berkeley MP, one of three notorious brothers sitting in the Commons renowned for their family feuds, violence and bizarre political behaviour. Motions in support of the secret ballot only ever passed in ‘thin’ Houses, when most MPs were absent, and before 1868 never exceeded the number achieved on 18 June 1839, when 216 MPs voted in its support, but 333 against.

Victorian cartoon mocking a failed [secret] ballot bill

What ultimately led to secret voting being implemented in 1872 was not the success of any popular outdoors campaign in its support. Secret voting never attracted the sort of backing that the anti-corn law movement, for instance, achieved. Instead, for the sake of unity within his Liberal cabinet, Gladstone agreed to carry out a trial of the ballot, on the basis that the 1867 Reform Act, by creating so many more voters, had undermined the idea of voting as a ‘public trust’ exercised on behalf of the unenfranchised. Drawing on experiences of secret voting in Australia and recent London school board elections, the cabinet forced a temporary measure through a very reluctant Parliament. It was only the success of this experiment that eventually led to its permanent adoption.

To hear more about all this, please join our online event on 18 July 2022.

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Online event marking the 150th anniversary of the Ballot Act

Join the History of Parliament Trust and the Parliamentary Archives on 18 July 2022 in an online event marking the passing of the 1872 Ballot Act, 150 years ago.

UPDATE: This event was recorded and can now be viewed here.

On 18 July 1872 the Ballot Act received Royal Assent, requiring all parliamentary elections to be carried out by secret ballot. Join the History of Parliament, the Parliamentary Archives and guest speakers as we explore the build up to this Act and the influence that it had on electoral politics.

Featuring an introduction from the History of Parliament’s House of Commons 1832-68 editor Dr Philip Salmon, we will hear from Dr Benjamin Jones (Central Queensland University) on Australia’s earlier adoption of the secret ballot, Dr Kathryn Rix (History of Parliament) on the first by-election to utilise the new election system, and Dr Gary Hutchinson (Durham University) on the impact of the Act on the country’s electoral culture.

The event will finish with an audience Q&A.

This event will take place at 6 p.m. on Monday 18 July 2022. Tickets are free and can be booked through the link on this page.

Voting by ballot at the 1873 Taunton by-election (Illustrated London News, 25 Oct. 1873)
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190th Anniversary of the 1832 Reform Act

This month marks the 190th anniversary of the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, one of the iconic milestones in modern British political history. ‘Was the 1832 Reform Act “Great”?’ may not be the standard exam question it once was, but ongoing research about the Act’s broader legacy and impact on political culture, based on new resources and analytical techniques, continues to reshape our understanding of its place in modern British political development.

Much attention used to be focussed on the number of voters enfranchised by the Act. The extent to which the overall increase of around 314,000 electors in the UK (from around 11 to 18% of adult males) amounted to some form of democratic advance, however, has always been complicated by the Act’s limitations as an enfranchising measure, especially given the huge expectations aroused by the popular outdoors campaign in its support. Not only were most working class voters excluded from the Act’s new occupier franchises, helping to inspire the important Chartist movement, but also many working class electors were actually deprived of their former voting rights.

‘The Reformers attack the Rotten Borough Tree’, 1832: © The Trustees of the British Museum

In Maldon, for example, the number of electors dropped from over 3,000 in 1831 to just 716 in 1832. This was owing to the Act’s new restrictions on non-resident voters, honorary freemen and freemen created by marriage. Abolishing the votes obtained by marrying a freeman’s daughter was an aspect of the Reform Act which evidently caused all sorts of problems in some boroughs. Similar reductions occurred in Lancaster (72%), Ludlow (64%), Bridgnorth (50%) and Sudbury (49%), as the History of Parliament‘s detailed constituency articles reveal.

Add to this all the bureaucracy involved in the new yearly voter registration system – form filling, paying up arrears of rates, one shilling registration fees – and it is easy to see why so many people failed to benefit as expected from 1832. ‘Many doggedly refused to register’, noted one paper. ‘To the poor man’, complained another, ‘a shilling is a serious amount’. Taken as a whole, for every three new borough electors enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act, at least one pre-1832 voter was deprived of their voting rights. Another restriction with lasting cultural connotations was the Act’s formal limitation of the franchise, for the first time, exclusively to ‘male persons‘.

County voters faced fewer new restrictions, both in terms of continuing to exercise their old franchise (the 40 shilling freehold) even if they were non-resident, or claiming one of the new occupier (tenant, copyholder and leaseholder) franchises. But this did not make the impact of 1832 any more democratic. One of the most strikingly resilient interpretations of county politics, put forward by the American sociologist D. C. Moore, has been the idea of ‘deference voting’. Vast numbers of newly enfranchised tenant farmers, Moore argued, overwhelmingly polled the same way as their landlords – willingly or otherwise – as part of ‘deference communities’, effectively bolstering the power of the aristocratic landed elite in Britain’s political system and the influence of traditional landed interests. The tensions between agriculture and industry that underpinned so many 19th century political developments at Westminster, including of course the famous repeal of the corn laws in 1846, have often been linked back to this reconfiguration of British politics in 1832.

Another boost to the ‘county interest’, which is sometimes overlooked, resulted from the Reform Act’s redistribution clauses. As well abolishing the infamous ‘rotten’ boroughs and allocating new MPs to unrepresented towns and cities, almost the same number of extra MPs were given to the English counties. This was done by turning 26 existing county constituencies into 52 double member seats and allocating a third MP to seven counties. The impact on the House of Commons of increasing the number of English county MPs in this way, from 82 in 1831 to 144 in 1832, was arguably just as profound as the Act’s allocation of 63 new MPs to rapidly industrialising English towns, where most attention has traditionally been focussed.

New research carried out by Dr Martin Spychal, whose book drawing on his PhD will appear shortly, will help to show just how important this reconfiguration of ‘interests’ and the complex boundary changes of the 1832 Reform Act were in reshaping Britain’s political landscape after 1832. Other pioneering research, carried out by Dr James Smith in his recent PhD, has explored the Act’s broader impact on the evolving relationship between the four different nations of the UK and on Parliament’s use of UK-wide legislation in the early Victorian era.

In our own ongoing research on MPs and constituency politics for the 1832-68 project, it has been the cultural impact of reform that has really stood out. The way MPs behaved and the way their constituents expected them to behave clearly shifted as a result of reform, with many MPs – particularly those elected as radicals – becoming far more active and accountable and publicising their activities in the press and through constituency meetings as never before. The growing ‘rage for speaking’ in debate, the introduction of a new press gallery, new public access (including a ladies’ gallery), new voting lobbies and the formal publishing of votes of MPs were just some of the ways in which parliamentary politics began to become more open and ‘representative’ after 1832, just as many anti-reformers had feared. All this, however, was complicated by the parallel survival of many older traditions, especially in the pre-reform constituencies. Here almost tribal patterns of non-party voting, the cult of ‘independent’ MPs, the survival of many ‘pocket’ boroughs and above all the widespread use of bribery, drink and corruption at election time all helped to limit the pace of change after 1832.

Ultimately it would take many other reforms to Britain’s representative system, including the abolition of public voting in 1872, to really bring about more fundamental change. We shall be celebrating the 150th anniversary of this major event – the introduction of the secret ballot – next month with a series of special events and talks. Follow our blog or our Twitter account (@TheVictCommons) for further details about these next month.

For a 20 minute talk about the Reform Act by Dr Philip Salmon please click here.

Further Reading:

The English reform legislation, 1831-32’, in The House of Commons, 1820-32, ed. D. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 2009), i. 374-412  VIEW

‘Nineteenth-century electoral reform’, Modern History Review, xviii (2015), 8-12 VIEW

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

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Queen Victoria and parliamentary ceremony

As Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee is celebrated this weekend, we look at the relationship which another long-serving queen, Victoria, had with Parliament, sharing a post which first appeared on the History of Parliament’s blog.

On 17 July 1837, less than a month after becoming Britain’s first reigning queen in over a century, Queen Victoria visited Westminster to prorogue Parliament. She had been persuaded by the Whig ministry to perform this duty in person, rather than delegating it to commissioners. The presence of the youthful new monarch generated widespread interest, with an unprecedented number of applications for tickets to view the ceremony. The St. James’s Chronicle recorded that ‘at an early hour all the avenues leading to the galleries of the House of Lords were crowded with ladies, anxiously awaiting the hour for admission’. In contrast with the limited facilities usually provided for women to access parliamentary proceedings, this was an occasion on which there was a strong female presence; indeed the number of peeresses within the Lords chamber was such that ‘it was not without difficulty that many of their lordships procured seats’.

Queen Victoria opening Parliament in the temporary Lords chamber in 1837, print by Henry Melville (via Yale Centre for British Art, PD)

This chamber had undergone some hasty renovations ahead of the prorogation. Since the catastrophic fire of October 1834, which destroyed much of the old Palace of Westminster, the peers had been using the Painted Chamber, having surrendered their previous chamber for the temporary accommodation of the House of Commons. The diarist Charles Greville considered the temporary home of the Lords a ‘wretched dog-hole’ in comparison with the ‘very spacious and convenient’ temporary chamber occupied by MPs. The changes made in preparation for Victoria’s visit included fitting ‘a new door under the archway’ in place of ‘the old wooden planks that hitherto blocked up the entrance’, raising the level of the floor between this entrance and the throne, and replacing the previous temporary throne with ‘a splendid new one, with the words “Victoria Regina” in gold letters, surmounted with the Royal arms, also in gold’. However, the canopy behind the throne, bearing the initials ‘W.R.’, was unaltered.

As Victoria had not yet been crowned, the imperial crown was ‘borne at her side, on a cushion’, by the Duke of Somerset, while she wore ‘a circlet, or open crown, of diamonds’. She read the prorogation speech in ‘a clear and musical voice, that was heard distinctly in the parts of the house most remote from the throne’. Victoria recorded that she had ‘felt somewhat (but very little) nervous before I read my speech, but it did very well, and I was happy to hear people were satisfied’. One press report noted that ‘her spirits were evidently improved’ as she left the House, ‘and there was an elasticity in her manner that showed the removal of a heavy anxiety’.

Among the subjects referred to in her speech – drafted for her by the prime minister Viscount Melbourne in discussion with his Cabinet, but subject to the queen’s approval – were recent amendments to the criminal code, notably the removal of the death penalty for a number of offences. In expressing ‘peculiar interest’ in these reforms as ‘an auspicious commencement of my reign’, Victoria identified herself with the qualities of justice and mercy with which female rulers were often popularly associated.

Parliament was dissolved on the same day as the prorogation, and a general election took place that summer, returning Melbourne’s Whig ministry to power. Victoria appeared at Westminster for the second time that year for the state opening of Parliament on 20 November 1837. Whereas the ladies present had still been in mourning dress for the prorogation, for the state opening they wore ‘silks and velvets, of all hues of the rainbow’. The parliamentary reporter James Grant recorded that the demand for seats was so great that some of them ‘took forcible possession of the front seat in the gallery’, usually reserved for ‘the gentlemen of the press’, with the result that only three reporters were able to find seats.

George Hayter, Queen Victoria Opening Parliament, 1837: Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/queen-victoria-opening-parliament-1837-213907

It was not only the peeresses who were keen to witness proceedings. When MPs were summoned to attend by Black Rod, there was a great rush along the narrow corridors from the temporary Commons chamber into their allotted space in the Lords, and ‘two or three Members … were thrown down and trampled’. The jostling for position, during which MPs ‘squeezed each other, jammed each other’ and ‘trod on each other’s gouty toes’, according to Grant, was so rough that one of the members for Sheffield, Henry Ward, dislocated his shoulder ‘in the violent competition to be first at the bar’. In contrast with this fracas, there was ‘the most perfect stillness’ in the chamber while Victoria read her speech.

Henry George Ward MP, via NPG under CC licence

Victoria continued to open and prorogue Parliament in person throughout the late 1830s and 1840s, being absent on only a handful of occasions, mostly when she was pregnant. There were, however, various changes to the setting of these ceremonies during this period. After an initial dispute about Prince Albert’s role in proceedings following their marriage in 1840, he rode in the carriage alongside her to Westminster and had his own chair in the temporary Lords chamber and its successor. From 1842 a seat was also provided for the infant Prince of Wales.

Alexander Blaikley, HM Queen Victoria Opening Parliament, 4 February 1845: Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hm-queen-victoria-opening-parliament-4-february-1845-213707

On 14 April 1847, Victoria and Albert were given a tour of the new House of Lords chamber by its architect Charles Barry. This was used for the first time by the peers the following day. The queen’s verdict was that ‘the building is indeed magnificent … very elaborate & gorgeous. Perhaps there is a little too much brass & gold in the decorations, but the whole effect is very dignified & fine’. The lavish throne designed by Barry in collaboration with Augustus Pugin was the key feature of the new chamber, and was far grander than its predecessors in the old Palace or the temporary Lords.

Joseph Nash, The State Opening of Parliament in the Rebuilt House of Lords (1847)
(via National Gallery of Art under CC0)

The queen opened Parliament in the new Lords chamber for the first time on 23 July 1847, but it was not until February 1852 that she was able to use the full processional route designed by Barry with the aim of putting royal ceremonial centre stage within the new Palace of Westminster. Entering through the covered entrance under the Victoria Tower (named in her honour), the queen then ascended the Royal Staircase to the Norman Porch. From there she went to the Robing Room, and then walked in procession through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords.

In 1854 Victoria prorogued Parliament in person for the last time, apparently because she disliked sitting through the Speaker’s end of session summary, which she felt was like ‘receiving instructions in public’. However, she continued to perform her duties at the state opening until 1861, missing it only four times between her accession and Albert’s death that year. Her husband’s demise prompted a shift in her involvement with parliamentary ceremonial. She did not attend again for several years, explaining to Lord Russell in 1864 that she ‘was always terribly nervous on all public occasions, but especially at the opening of Parliament, which … she dreaded for days before’, but had at least previously had ‘the support of her dear husband’.

Queen Victoria at the opening of Parliament, 1866, with the Lord Chancellor reading the royal speech (via Wellcome Collection, Public Domain Mark)

However, in 1866 an impending parliamentary vote on a £30,000 dowry for her daughter Princess Helena helped to persuade Victoria out of her seclusion. In contrast with the diamonds and bright ceremonial robes she had worn at Westminster at the beginning of her reign, she opened Parliament in 1866 dressed in black, with a widow’s cap and a long veil, and delegated the duty of reading the queen’s speech to the lord chancellor. The new Palace of Westminster, which put the monarchy to the fore in its layout, its decoration and its symbolism, only hosted the queen for the state opening on six further occasions during the rest of her reign: 1867, 1871, 1876 – when the ‘throng’ of MPs from the Commons to the Lords to see the queen was ‘so tumultuous, and so violent’ that the prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was nearly trampled on while trying to keep the Speaker safe, – 1877, 1880 and, finally, in 1886.

Further reading:

W. Arnstein, ‘Queen Victoria opens Parliament: the disinvention of tradition’, Historical Research, 63 (1990), 178-94

J. Grant, Random recollections of the Lords and Commons (2 vols., 1838), i. 9-26

H. C. G. Matthew & K. D. Reynolds, ‘Victoria (1819-1901), queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

C. Riding & J. Riding (eds.), The Houses of Parliament. History, Art, Architecture (2000)

C. Shenton, Mr Barry’s War (2016)

M. Taylor, ‘The bicentenary of Queen Victoria’, Journal of British Studies, 59 (2020), 121-35

A. Wedgwood, ‘The throne in the House of Lords and its setting’, Architectural History, 27 (1984), 59-73

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Ballot boxes, bills and unions: Harriet Grote (1792-1878) and the public campaign for the ballot, 1832-9

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1872 Ballot Act, which introduced secret voting at general elections in the UK. In this extended blog, our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, explores the role of Harriet Grote (1792-1878) in the popular and parliamentary campaign for the ballot during the 1830s.

Before 1872 voting at general elections in the UK was a public act. If you were fortunate enough to be enfranchised (the UK had a limited and locally variable male suffrage), your vote at the polling booth was public knowledge. It was available for your neighbours, landlords and employers to view in perpetuity, often via easily available published pollbooks.

A record of votes in the published poll book for the Northamptonshire North 1832 election

British radical politicians had been calling for the introduction of secret voting at general elections – or ‘the ballot’ as it was generally referred to at the time – since the 1790s.  While their theories varied, most radicals reasoned that secret voting would shift the balance of power in the electoral system from the corrupt aristocracy to the people, by ending voter intimidation and electoral bribery, and reducing exorbitant election costs.

In the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act, the ballot became a central demand of radicals and reformers both inside and outside Parliament. It was one of the major issues on the hustings at the 1832, 1835 and 1837 elections, and from 1833 MPs voted almost annually on whether to implement the measure. The 1830s represented a high point for the ballot as a popular political cause, and by 1839 221 MPs were willing to support its introduction.

During the 1830s the public leader of the ballot campaign was the MP for London, George Grote (1794-1871). Behind the scenes, however, it was his wife, Harriet (1792-1878), who organised much of the campaign. In my previous blogs I’ve discussed how Harriet rallied support among MPs at Westminster for George’s annual ballot motions, her attempts to establish a radical party at Westminster after the 1835 election, and her increasing exasperation with radical parliamentary tactics by 1836.

Harriet Grote (1792-1878) and her husband, George (1794-1871) CC NPG

As the 1837 parliamentary session approached, Harriet and George sought to galvanise radical forces at Westminster and in the country by trying to turn talk and theory about the ballot into a realistic prospect. While MPs had voted on parliamentary motions for the ballot in 1833, 1835 and 1836, the fine detail of what they had been voting for had been unclear. If MPs approved of the ballot, what would a Ballot Act look like, and how would secret voting work in practice?

Harriet took to solving both issues and publicising their solutions ahead of a planned parliamentary debate and vote on the ballot in February 1837. The first issue at hand was the creation of draft legislation. To do this she enlisted her friend, the barrister and reformer, Sutton Sharpe (1797-1843). In February he mocked up a draft ballot bill with Harriet, which she published in the Spectator.

An excerpt from the draft 1837 ballot bill, published in the Spectator, 18 Feb. 1837. Click here for full text

The response to the bill was mixed. She wrote to Sharpe exclaiming:

I am almost as fagged as George himself, with helping him in his many tasks. I have sundry letters to reply to from new correspondents who have let fly at him since the apparition of “the [Ballot] bill” in last Sunday’s Spectator.

One of the key discussion points was: what would an actual ballot box look like and how would it work? The easy option – and Sharpe’s preferred solution – was a box that voters slipped voting cards into – similar to that in use in the UK today. For Harriet though and many others (including the ballot’s opponents) a simple box left too much room for fraud from election officials and voters.

As a result, Harriet advocated a more complex machine that required voters to punch holes in preloaded cards, and that allowed for illiterate and blind electors to vote with the verbal support of an election officer in a different room – but also for that election officer to monitor the process of the voting card entering the ballot box.

A week after the publication of their ballot bill, Harriet published plans in the Spectator of their proposed ballot box, which she and George had developed with a Hertford carpenter, William Thomas.

Harriet and George’s designs for the proposed ballot box printed in the Spectator, 25 Feb. 1837. For full page click here

Once a physical model was built, Harriet then sought endorsements from high profile public figures, including her close friend, the mathematician, inventor and ‘father of the computer’, Charles Babbage (1791-1871). She wrote to Babbage in April 1837:

I have been desirous of sending to your house the model of the balloting frame which we have adopted … You can show it to your friends who take an interest in the subject. It has been exhibited at the Reform Club.

Babbage was evidently enamoured with the model, forcing Harriet to wrest it from his possession in June, when she wrote to him ‘permit me to ask for the balloting case, per chariot herewith’.

With their models and bill in hand, parliamentary support for the ballot increased to 160 MPs in February 1837. The Grotes’ campaign was then given further impetus by the 1837 general election, which was prompted by the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria. The results were dispiriting for radicals and reformers as Conservative candidates won over 300 Commons seats. Harriet and many radicals across the country blamed the rise in Conservative fortunes on ‘venality and corruption in the old boroughs, and intimidation in the counties’. These were symptoms that Harriet and George were sure the ballot would cure.

To ensure that MPs continued to feel public pressure to support the ballot, Harriet and George paid for around 40 of their model ballot boxes, which they distributed to leading radicals and reformers across the country by November 1837. Their hope was that the boxes would be displayed at public meetings, which would then petition Parliament in favour of the ballot.

Demand for the model ballot boxes quickly caught on. Harriet wrote to her ally, the veteran radical, Francis Place, asking:

Could you let me have that ballot box again now you have shewn it to most of your people? I really can’t get them back from country towns, fast enough to circulate, and are hard up for one to go to Worcester by special request from the radical mayor of that town Mr. [George] Allies and his co-rads.

Advert for the London Ballot Union, Hampshire Chronicle, 23 Dec. 1837. As Harriet was a woman she was unable to appear on the ‘committee’ list For full advert click here

Requests for ballot boxes, and levels of incoming correspondence, were so high by December 1837 that the Grotes set up a ‘London Ballot Union’ to co-ordinate their public campaign. In doing so they sought to replicate the strategies of the parliamentary reform and anti-slavery movements of the early 1830s.

Harriet wasn’t the only woman helping to co-ordinate the campaign either. In December 1837 she wrote to Mary Gaskell, the ‘formidable’ wife of the former MP for Wakefield, Daniel Gaskell:

If you will return Mr Oldham’s model (as he seems ravenous for it), you can have one for yourself now, by writing to the secretary to our new Ballot Union … We have now ceased to be the issuers of models, being, to tell you the truth, somewhat weary of furnishing them to so many applications gratis. We have fixed it upon Mr. [William] Thomas, who supplies them at the cost price, 24s. …. We have had shoals of letters expressive of delight with, and approbation of, the contrivance; and many who wished for secrecy yet mistrusted its being attained, have become hearty balloteers since “the box” was exhibited to them.

The campaigning worked and Parliament received 365 petitions signed by 181,506 persons from across the country during the 1837-8 session. It even inspired Cleave’s Penny Gazette to publish an illustrated depiction of a ballot box in operation (see below). Despite a decline in the number of radical and reformer MPs since the 1837 election (many of whom were beginning to call themselves ‘Liberals’), the number of MPs willing to support Grote’s annual ballot motion in February 1838 increased to 203 (from 160 the previous year).

A depiction of the ballot in operation ahead of the 1838 ballot motion, Cleave’s Penny Gazette of Variety, 17 Feb. 1838

Constituency pressure on non-Conservative MPs then became so much that by the following year the Whig Melbourne government was forced to declare the ballot an open issue. This meant that when Grote held his annual ballot vote in June 1839, 221 MPs supported his motion, 18 of whom were either in the Whig cabinet or in lesser government positions.

However, while on paper the June 1839 vote appears to be a high point in the ballot campaign, in private Harriet and George had accepted it had come to an end. While the ballot had been the popular issue in town meetings across the country in the winter of 1837-8, it was no match for the more visceral and emotive demands of the People’s Charter (1838), the Anti-Corn Law League (est. 1838), and the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (est. 1839).

Breakdown of Commons votes (by party label) over Grote’s ballot motions in 1833, 1837 and 1839

All was not well among Parliament’s dwindling band of radicals either, who had irreparably split over how to respond to the rebellions of 1837-1838 in Canada and the government’s proposed suspension of the Jamaican constitution in 1839. George confessed in private to only introducing the June 1839 ballot motion in order that members could ‘satisfy their constituents’. And Harriet was dismayed at the response at Westminster:

the flatness of debate itself was incontestable, insomuch that scarcely a soul called to say a word to me respecting it; a melancholy contrast with previous occasions, when the whole corps of Radicals were wont to come and pour out their congratulations.

For Harriet and George, the 1839 ballot motion marked the beginning of the end of their parliamentary aspirations. It was also the end, at least temporarily, for the prospects of the ballot. It would be another two decades before Parliament exhibited such high levels of support for allowing electors to vote in secret.


To read Martin’s earlier blogs on Harriet Grote click here

We will be marking the 150th anniversary of the Ballot Act with further blogs and events later this year. Follow our blog or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons to receive future updates on those.

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)

B. Kinzer, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics (1982)

J. Hamburger, ‘Grote [née Lewin], Harriet (1792-1878)’, 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)

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‘Rotatory Parliaments’: The 1848 campaign for parliamentary sessions in Ireland

This post from our research fellow Dr. Stephen Ball looks at a proposal in 1848 to hold sittings of Parliament away from Westminster.

The year 1848 witnessed revolutions in Europe and the climax of the Chartist agitation in England. Ireland remained in the throes of famine, and a campaign was launched to make Parliament more accountable to the Irish people and more amenable to the country’s needs. Although it was unsuccessful, it did generate debate about the nature of the mid-nineteenth century political system.

The idea was that each year Parliament would meet in Dublin for a session devoted entirely to Irish business. This had been suggested in June 1835 by the Leominster MP Thomas Bish, who moved to address the king on the subject, although his initiative attracted so little interest that the Commons was counted out before it could proceed further. By mid-1848, however, Ireland had suffered an unprecedented famine and witnessed an abortive rising by the Young Ireland movement. In the wake of these events ways were sought to make Parliament more responsive to Ireland’s plight.

Samuel Wensley Blackall, MP for Longford

In February 1848 it was suggested at a meeting of Dublin’s corporation that Parliament might sit in Dublin once every three years, and in April the Longford MP, Samuel Wensley Blackall (1809-71), sought to amend John O’Connell’s parliamentary resolution in favour of the repeal of the Union by calling for an annual session to be held in Dublin ‘to dispose of Irish business’. The suggestion was taken up by a Liberal candidate at the Sligo by-election in July 1848, and the following month the idea was more fully developed by Lord William Fitzgerald (1793-1864). The younger brother of the duke of Leinster, Fitzgerald had sat for County Kildare from 1814 to 1831 as a supporter of Catholic rights and parliamentary reform, and in 1846 he had published Some Suggestions for the Better Government of Ireland. A preliminary meeting to discuss the idea took place in Dublin on 14 August, and a week later the first meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Periodical Sittings of the Imperial Parliament in Dublin was held in Abbey Street. A circular explaining the plan was soon issued and on 24 August the Home Office confirmed that the society’s petition had been laid before the Queen.

The Society argued that holding an annual parliamentary session in Dublin would encourage the capital investment required to develop the country’s natural resources and stimulate trade, and might also coax the ‘wealthy and educated’ back to Dublin, which was then regarded as a ‘city of desolate palaces … without an aristocracy, and tenanted by struggling shopkeepers and half-famished artizans’. On the other hand, the city still boasted a Parliament House that was ‘a proud monument of choicest architecture’. Situated on College Green, where it replaced an earlier building which had been adapted for parliamentary use, this had been the home of the Irish Parliament for most of the eighteenth century before it was abolished by the Act of Union in 1800. The building had, however, been purchased by the Bank of Ireland for £40,000 in 1803 and after being adapted for its new purpose, opened to the public as a bank in 1808.

It was also hoped that the scheme would put an end to ‘distant and ignorant legislation’ by allowing MPs to judge from personal observation which measures best suited the country. By paying ‘careful and undivided attention’ to Irish business, they would become more ‘accessible to the people’ and placed within ‘daily reach’ of the public bodies responsible for administering the country. It was also argued that ‘party considerations’ would operate less powerfully in a ‘localized’ parliament and thus facilitate better tempered discussions of Irish issues. The Drogheda Journal went so far as to predict that introducing English MPs ‘to the favourable notice of the Irish’ would ‘cement in bonds of affection the Union, by removing not only Irish, but also English prejudices’. However, the country’s repeal press countered that opponents of Irish reform would still be ‘the same men – with the same antipathies, prejudices, bigotries [and] hates’.

The Irish House of Commons in session in 1780, by Francis Wheatley

It was generally acknowledged that supporters of the scheme were men ‘whose patriotism, probity [and] loyalty’ placed their motives ‘above all suspicion’. They included Viscount Massereene and the one-time United Irishman, Baron Cloncurry, along with the former MPs Sir Montague Chapman, Sir David Roche, Hugh Morgan Tuite and Charles Arthur Walker, and a handful of sitting MPs like Viscount Miltown and Samuel Blackall, who believed that ‘bad legislation’ had been forced upon Ireland not from malice but out of ‘ignorance’. These men aimed to stimulate ‘an unequivocal demonstration of national opinion’ without creating ‘a nucleus for party strife’. They expected their proposal to appeal to Unionists because ‘an Imperial Parliament’ was being advocated, to Repealers because it was ‘a Parliament held in Ireland’, and to Englishmen because it tended towards ‘the real amalgamation of the empire’ and removed the main obstruction to their own ‘internal government’.

Although the association eschewed public demonstrations, simply requesting that supporters submit their names along with a nominal donation, some public figures, including Fitzgerald’s own brother, feared the campaign was just another destabilising ‘agitation’. The proposal stimulated a good deal of discussion in the press. The scheme was most warmly welcomed by moderate Conservative newspapers like the Ulster Gazette, which agreed that it was ‘idle to say that the Imperial Parliament treats Ireland as it treats Yorkshire, or legislates for our country as an integral portion of the empire’, and hoped that the scheme would check the ‘centralising tendency of imperial rule’.

One of the association’s understated objectives was to supplant the campaign to repeal the Union, and it received a poor reception in the O’Connellite press. Dismissed as a poor substitute for self-government, the scheme was criticised for offering little that would revive the Irish economy, the Freeman’s Journal asserting that ‘legislatures never created industry, never manufactured capital, never made wealth’. Many Unionists were also uneasy, the Dublin Evening Post dismissing the scheme as ‘at once impracticable … and mischievous’ because it required either the wholesale transfer of the machinery of government to Dublin, or the severance of departments of state from the immediate control of Parliament. Perhaps the harshest critic of the scheme was the Glasgow Herald which, like The Times, doubted whether enough British MPs could be persuaded to attend the sittings in Dublin to prevent them from being dominated by ‘a Rump of Irish demagogues raving under the influence of a Dublin mob’.

The society continued to meet weekly until the end of November 1848, when a sub-committee began to administer its affairs, a sure sign that the campaign was running out of steam. When the body held its only public meeting in December it was already clear that the scheme had made little headway with the general public, and the society suspended its activities in January 1849, hopeful that the campaign would be taken up at Westminster by sympathetic Irish MPs. Here the matter ended, however, although it was subsequently noted that during the first week of the new parliamentary session at Westminster the House of Commons had ‘done nothing else but talk of Ireland and the Irish’.

Parliament House, Dublin, prior to 1792, when the dome was destroyed in a fire
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‘She, yes, she was the only member of parliament’: Harriet Grote, radical parliamentary tactics and House of Lords reform, 1835-6

In the fifth of his blogs on Harriet Grote (1792-1878), our research fellow Dr Martin Spychal explores Harriet’s relationship with the veteran radical Francis Place (1771-1854), her views on radical tactics and her increasingly resourceful strategies for influencing Parliament during the 1835 and 1836 parliamentary sessions.

In September 1836 the veteran radical, Francis Place (1771-1854), shared his thoughts on one of his closest Westminster allies, Harriet Grote (1792-1878). While women could not vote or sit in Parliament (which would remain the case until 1918), he wrote that

she [Harriet], yes, she was the only member of Parliament with whom I had any [verbal] intercourse in the latter third of the [1836] session, we communicated freely, but we could find no heroes, no, no decent legislators.

C. Lewin, Harriet Grote c.1830-1840, after Landseer, CC British Museum

Place’s suggestion that Harriet was a de facto MP was anything but a joke. As I’ve explored in previous blogs, during the 1830s Harriet enjoyed as much influence at Westminster as many of her male counterparts. This included her husband, the MP for London, George Grote (1794-1871). After George’s election in 1832, Harriet combined her role as a hostess, her growing correspondence networks, and a physical presence at Parliament to establish herself as one of Westminster’s leading politicians.

In early 1835 this culminated in an abortive attempt to mastermind the establishment of a radical party, capable of forming a government. As this blog discusses, over the following eighteen months, Harriet proved herself to be an accomplished political analyst and radical tactician. And with politics pushing her to her wits’ end by the summer of 1836, she put her words into action and sought out new means of influencing politics.


With the Whig government headed by Viscount Melbourne in place and her brief dreams of a radical administration scuppered, Harriet cut an increasingly cynical figure throughout 1835. This reflected a wider radical malaise with British politics, which had promised so much only three years earlier with the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

In June 1835 Harriet confessed her increasing frustration to Francis Place, regretting that ‘I have exerted myself as far as is becoming to my sex and position, to animate the good to courage’. The ‘good’ for Harriet were the pool of around 180 radical and reformer MPs returned at the 1835 election, who due to the lure of favours from the Whig government had become ‘timid’ in their politics. By contrast, Harriet felt that she and her dwindling band of allies had avoided such a fate by maintaining their independence: ‘we don’t by conversing with Whig pismires [ants], get Whig spectacles astride our noses, and Whig hearts in our breasts’.

Harriet’s correspondence to Francis Place, 7 June 1835, BM Add MS 35150. Francis Place by Samuel Drummond (1833), CC NPG

For Harriet it was not just the lure of Whig patronage that had stalled radical progress. She perceived a deeper problem with the nation’s radical, male, leaders who were failing to fulfil their ‘duty’ as ‘popular organs’ in Parliament. ‘If popular representation be good for anything’, she wrote to Place, ‘it is because the “organs” are sent up there to lead and to give the tone to the public mind’. In fact, reformer and radical MPs were doing nothing of the sort. She continued:

If after all the sweating, the striving, the bawling and the paying to get your man seated, he is to do nothing, but sit there waiting for the people to agitate and consult and direct him what to do! Stuff, besotted ignorance, swinish ignorance. If I ain’t sick and tired of seeing the whole rationale of representation virtually repudiated and nullified by the twaddle men in and out of Parliament (but chiefly by men in P[arliament] to this disgrace be it spoken).

Harriet’s assessment of parliamentary radicalism continued to worsen over the following year. This was compounded by a period of illness that kept her away from Westminster during the first months of the 1836 parliamentary session. When she returned to London in May 1836 she was dismayed with the continued disorganisation of radical forces. She advised one correspondent: ‘I have been in town for a day or two and observe with regret that our party does not appear braced for vigorous action’.

Her brief absence had confirmed her belief that her constant presence was required at Westminster to prevent George, and the entire radical parliamentary cause, from falling foul of Whig advances. She advised Place:

My motive for going up [to London] is the grave importance of this juncture. [George] Grote likes of course to have me at hand when any emergency falls out likely to draw him forth. I carried him up to the best of my power last year [1835], and with effect against the vehement railing of Joseph Parkes, who wanted to muzzle him about the English Municipal Reform Bill!

The important ‘juncture’ was the opportunity that political circumstances had presented for establishing House of Lords reform, or ‘peerage reform’ as it was also known, on the political agenda. The issue had recently been given publicity by the leader of the Irish Repealers, Daniel O’Connell, who had announced his intention for a parliamentary motion on the issue. However, Harriet dismissed O’Connell’s motion as futile gesture politics. Here was another radical parliamentary motion (in a crowded agenda of radical parliamentary motions) that was certain to fail.

The Whig government reluctantly carry a battering ram with Daniel O’Connell’s head to the House of Lords. The artist might well have replaced O’Connell’s head with Harriet Grote’s. John Doyle, ‘A Battering Train’, 8 June 1836, Wellcome Collection

Instead, Harriet wanted to use the House of Lords’ recent amendments to the government’s Irish municipal reform proposals to begin a long-term campaign of exposing the power of the unelected peers. She advised Place:

Here is a plain quarrel [Irish municipal reform], on a broad and definable ground, the real rights of England and Ireland. There is no “jug” in it, no sectarism. There is no “vested rights” in the way, there is no sacrifice of money to compensate injured parties. There never can be a more favourable position for the popular men to improve into strength, and the people see clearly now, that legislation unfairly stopped by the Ho[use] of Lords.

As George and his colleagues were doing little to set the political agenda, Harriet took matters into her own hands. She called in a favour from one of her closest contacts on Fleet Street, the editor of the Spectator, Robert Rintoul (1787-1858). Harriet couldn’t sit in Parliament, or speak on the hustings, but she could publish anonymously in the press.

Harriet Grote issued a call to arms to radicals over peerage reform in the Spectator. H. Grote, ‘State of the Game’, Spectator, 28 May 1836

In an article in the 28 May edition of the Spectator Harriet urged the leaders of the ‘popular party’ to ‘preach the truth’ on the necessity for peerage reform. She also demanded ‘vigorous coercion on the part of the people’ to ‘signify to the enemies of the popular cause that resistance is hopeless’. She was under no illusions as to the speed at which reform could be expected: ‘the present condition of politics resembles the commencement of a game of chess. We must strive to play the pawns skilfully’.

As well as setting the tone for a long-term campaign, Harriet began to orchestrate parliamentary tactics. The Lords’ amendments to the Irish municipal corporations bill were about to return to the Commons. And rumour in Westminster suggested that the Whig government would agree to some form of compromise. Radicals and reformers could not compromise, so she began to organise a motion rejecting the Lords’ amendments. She told one correspondent:

I have used all the influence I possess, without I trust stepping out of my province, to hearten up our lads to take a division upon a stout motion for sending back our bill, intact, to the Lords. Nous venons! [we come!]

For Harriet, the strategy provided the ‘few Roman souls’ in Parliament with the opportunity to distance themselves completely from any ‘shuffling dirty compromise on the part of the Whigs’. She advised another friend, ‘if the Whigs attempt to drag the Radicals in the mud anew, all I can say is the Rads ought to turn restive’.

The Lords and Commons would continue to play political football with Irish municipal reform until 1840, ‘The Lord’s Last Kick: Or, Corporation Foot-Ball’, Figaro in London, 9 July 1836

Within days of her Spectator article and attempts to corral a radical rebellion, the Whig government backed down and refused to accept the Lords’ amendments. The bill did not pass that session, and the continued intransigence of the Lords meant that Irish corporation reform would not pass for a further four years. For a few years, at least, this helped to keep peerage reform at the top of the radical agenda.

For Harriet the episode served another important purpose. It confirmed the necessity of her constant presence at Westminster. By the end of the 1836 parliamentary session, she and George had sold their Dulwich Wood residence and purchased a central London house in Belgravia, at 3 Eccleston Street. After a brief trip to Paris that autumn, Harriet was ready to resume full political activity…

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 (1792-1878)’, Oxf. DNB, www.oxforddnb.com

W. Thomas, ‘Place, Francis (1771–1854)’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 Harriet Grote, Harriet Grote, Ireland, Parliamentary life, Voting and Divisions, women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

‘Standing between two extremes’: James Wentworth Buller MP and the politics of moderation

The development of a more rigid party system has been a recurrent theme in many of our blogs about Victorian politics, including this one about ‘Defying the Whip‘. Few MPs, however, had their political careers destroyed and then resurrected quite so spectacularly on account of their refusal to adhere to a strict party line as James Wentworth Buller. His career, first as MP for Exeter, 1830-35 and then North Devon, 1857-65, neatly illustrates the fluctuating and sometimes extreme attitudes to party alignments that make early Victorian politics so compelling for historians.

James Wentworth Buller (1798-1865)

A wealthy Devon landowner and Oxford academic, Buller first entered the Commons in 1830 aged 32. Elected for Exeter, which his father had represented as a Tory, many assumed he would adopt the same line in politics. Instead he cautiously supported the Whig ministry’s reform bill, backing it in some of its key stages. Standing on ‘Whig principles’ at the 1832 general election, he praised the measure as the ‘most important act’ of the century and topped the poll, aided by cross-party support in the form of second votes shared with both the Tory and Radical candidates. He soon upset both camps, however, by backing some radical causes, such as a revision of the corn laws, but also opposing further religious reforms, including the admission of Dissenters to Oxford and Cambridge universities.      

The unexpected 1835 election caught him off guard. Attacked for his views by both supporters of the corn laws and by local Dissenters, a ‘false and scandalous’ handbill also charged him with indifference towards the poor and saying that labourers could survive on lower wages. However, it was his willingness to give the incoming Conservative ministry of Sir Robert Peel ‘a fair trial’ which created the most controversy. Protesting that ‘he had never attached himself to any party’, Buller insisted:

‘it was most important that there should be a large number of independent men in Parliament, anxious to mediate between contending parties’.  

Defeated in third place after a heated contest, Buller blamed the loss of his seat on ‘standing, as he did, between two extremes’. ‘His moderate and cautious bearing did not satisfy the feeling of the day’, it was later noted. ‘In the fervor of the reform era, moderation was no recommendation’.

Four years later, when Buller tried to return to the Commons in a North Devon by-election, he faced even more staunch opposition. His reservations about co-operating with the Tories triggered a savage attack by the local party, who accused him of  ‘chameleon like properties’ and a lack of ‘fixed political principles’. Mocking him as a ‘shilly shally man’, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette observed:

‘He began by soliciting the suffrages of the electors of Exeter, in 1830, as a staunch Conservative … Afterwards he became metamorphosed into “a Whig” and supported Lord Grey’s administration. From a ‘Grey-Bird’ he changed into ‘a Peelite’ … Subsequently he relapsed into a crepusculous state, and became a ‘Nonedescript’ – since that it seems he has degenerated into ‘a Radical’ and … is ready to bolster up the O’Connell Melbourne ministry’.

Extract from an 1839 election squib.
Credit: Devon Heritage Centre

Basing his decision to stand on the state of the voter registration – in a memorable phrase he declared ‘I wait for the registration before I pass the Rubicon’ – Buller was convinced he had a chance. What he could not have predicted, however, was the savagery of the campaign that followed. Faced with Tory accusations that he was ‘an enemy to the farmers’, because of his earlier vote to lower the corn duties, he found that his work in the county as ‘a noted breeder’ and ‘agriculturalist’ counted for nothing. Worse still, his marriage to a Catholic allowed the Tories to raise the ‘Church in danger’ cry. As well as the ‘poison of the corn laws’, noted one of his agents, they ‘raise a cry of Popery because Mr. Buller has married a Papist!’.

After an extremely bitter campaign, in which the Anglican clergy actively canvassed against him, morally ‘releasing’ voters from any earlier promises of support, Buller was defeated. The Bishop of Exeter subsequently expressed his outrage at Buller’s ‘ill-treatment’, noting how knowledge of his ‘most generous’ patronage of St. Thomas the Apostle’s church in Exeter might ‘have prevented the parsons from joining the indignant farmer against him’. Others were appalled at the ‘falsehoods’ circulated against him. Rumours that he would offer again for Exeter at the 1841 general election and at a subsequent by-election came to nothing.

Sixteen years later, however, the blurring of national party alignments and the memory of Buller’s attempts to chart a middle course helped him top the poll at the 1857 general election for North Devon. The political moderation and independence that had been viewed as a liability in the 1830s had become an electoral asset in the aftermath of the Conservative split of 1846. His victory was widely viewed as a vindication of his earlier political principles. It showed ‘he was on the right road of public life’, declared one observer. Campaigning under the ambiguous banner ‘Liberalism was the best Conservatism’, Buller promised ‘to support the institutions of the country’ and ‘whatever amendments they required … not for the purpose of revolutionizing and destroying, but of strengthening and perpetuating these institutions’. He also offered his ‘decided support to Protestantism’, a stance perhaps made less complicated following the death of his Catholic wife in 1855. ‘Never was there a more signal act of atonement for a public wrong than the election of 1857 was for the rejection of 1835’, the Western Times later declared.

Buller continued to sit for North Devon until his death in 1865, backing Palmerston and the Liberals on many issues, but also continuing to take his own independent line as an MP.

A draft version of our full biography of Buller for the 1832-68 project is available on request.

Further reading:

‘North Devon’, in P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work (2002), pp. 146-56.

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Accessing Hansard online: a research guide

Hansard - Wikipedia

This post aims to expand on the information provided on our Resources page about accessing parliamentary debates online using Hansard. In 1812 the printer and publisher Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833) took over the publication of parliamentary debates from the radical journalist William Cobbett, who had been producing them since 1803. Like Cobbett, Hansard compiled his accounts of parliamentary proceedings from newspaper reports, particularly those in The Times. They were not verbatim reports, and it was not until the early twentieth century, when Parliament assumed responsibility for its publication, that Hansard became the official record. However, from 1877 Thomas Curson Hansard junior (1813-91), who had taken over from his father, did receive an annual subsidy from Parliament, on condition that he included reports of debates on private bills and in committee, as well as those after midnight, which tended to be neglected by the newspapers.

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

There are several options for accessing Hansard online.

1 Former Hansard Millbank site

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/index.html covers debates from 1803 to 2005, and replicates the data previously provided by the Hansard Millbank site, although not all of the search functions work in the way that they used to. The quick access to all the speeches by a specific MP makes this particularly useful for us in researching our biographies of MPs, although there is an issue with not all speeches being tagged. We also find it the quickest site when we want to access a certain day’s debate, as it is very easy to click through using the bars at the top.

Front page of https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/index.html

2 UK Parliament site

https://hansard.parliament.uk/ provides coverage of Hansard from 1803 to the present through the UK Parliament’s site. Debates can be accessed by date, but unfortunately we have not found that the option to search by Member name works very well for our 19th century MPs.

Front page of https://hansard.parliament.uk/

For the technically minded, the UK Parliament site also offers the option to download the full text of each day’s debates in xml format: http://www.hansard-archive.parliament.uk/

3 Hansard at Huddersfield site

It is also possible to access the text of debates through the Hansard at Huddersfield site, https://hansard.hud.ac.uk/site/index.php, but where this is most useful is through its search functions and visualisations, which enable the tracking of the use of particular words and concepts in Parliament.

Front page of Hansard at Huddersfield https://hansard.hud.ac.uk/site/index.php

Having examined the frequency of a particular term – such as ‘corn laws’, a topic on which debate unsurprisingly reached a peak in 1846 when Sir Robert Peel proposed their repeal – it is then possible to look in more detail at these results in various ways, such as displaying the key word in context (KWIC). There is also the option to compare the frequency of different terms – further information on the various features can be found on their site.

Search for “corn laws” on Hansard at Huddersfield site

4 ProQuest UKPP site (subscription)

The three previous sites are all free to access, but it is also possible to read Hansard debates through ProQuest’s UK Parliamentary Papers subscription site, to which many university libraries give access. Like the earlier Hansard sites, it has some minor failings with regard to the tagging of MPs. As well as Hansard, this site offers access to parliamentary papers with reports of commissions and select committees, to public petitions and to the Commons Journal (the formal record of proceedings) for 1833 and 1834. The Commons Journal from 1835 onwards can be accessed free of charge in pdf format via the UK Parliament website: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmjournal.htm.

The images below show how a report of the same debate – on the choice of a Speaker for the opening session of the 1833 Parliament – is displayed on the different sites.

Debate from https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1833/jan/29/choice-of-a-speaker (former Hansard Millbank site)

Debate from https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1833-01-29/debates/36db605f-1f29-43a9-852b-053c0039b8f5/ChoiceOfASpeaker (UK Parliament Hansard)

Debate from Hansard at Huddersfield site

Debate from ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers site

The ProQuest site includes several volumes which are missing from the other three online web applications. For the 1832-68 period which we are researching, there are four volumes of Hansard missing from the other sites – vols. 43 (May-July 1838), 74 (Apr.-May 1844), 106 (June-July 1849) and 112 (June-July 1850) – but these can be accessed either in the printed volumes or via Google Books.

Other options for accessing reports of debates not included in Hansard are its rival publication the Mirror of Parliament, which ran from 1828 until 1841, and newspaper reports, which sometimes offer more extensive accounts than the material compiled in Hansard.

‘A Knock Down Blow’ by ‘H.B.’, 1842 (Sir Robert Peel assails Lord John Russell with a volume of Hansard)
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‘Another of my female politicians’ epistles’: Harriet Grote (1792-1878), the 1835 Parliament and the failed attempt to establish a radical party

In the fourth of his blogs on Harriet Grote (1792-1878), our research fellow Dr Martin Spychal looks at Harriet’s involvement in the abortive attempt to establish a radical party at Westminster in the wake of the 1835 election.

In November 1834 four years of Whig government came to an end with the appointment of a Conservative ministry. The change in government led to a general election in January 1835, which threw Harriet Grote (1792-1878) and her husband, George (1794-1871) into a state of ‘agitation and fervour’. Together, their efforts helped secure George’s re-election, along with that of three fellow reformers for the City of London constituency.

Harriet and George oversaw the campaign for the return of ‘Four Real Reformers’ at the 1835 London election, True Sun, 1 Jan. 1835

Despite George’s success, at a national level the 1835 election offered worrying signs for those seeking to implement radical change at Westminster. Harriet lamented a lack of new or existing radical political talent, writing in late November 1834 that:

[George] Grote is continually receiving applications from radical constituencies [to stand at the 1835 election], and only grieves that he can’t name a man or two, but he knows none worthy

George and Harriet’s scepticism proved somewhat misplaced as the 1835 election actually led to a slight rise in the number of MPs labelling themselves reformers or radicals – from 155 in 1832 to 179 in 1835. This emboldened the Grotes and their allies to try to form a new party of around 70 to 80 trusted ‘independent and pronounced’ radical and reformer MPs, who were to act distinctly from the Whigs and Irish Repealers (the other two opposition groupings to the Conservative government).

The radical satirist Charles Jameson Grant looked forward to the Conservative government’s failure following the 1835 election. One minister about to meet his fate quips ‘Ah! it’s all over with us, the Radicals have the majority in the elections’. C. J. Grant, ‘The Tories about to hang themselves through sheer vexation’, January 1835, Yale University Library

The party’s chief aim, in Harriet’s words, was ‘consultation and combined action among the English radicals’. George, one ally professed, was ‘most probably’ going to act as leader. Their first task was to ensure a coherent radical opposition to Peel’s Conservative government. However, Harriet’s close friend, MP for Cornwall East, William Molesworth, looked even further ahead. He advised his mother privately of his hope that the party would ‘one day or another bring destruction upon both Whigs and Tories’.

Behind the scenes Harriet was one of the central organising forces, losing little time in marketing Grote, perhaps prematurely, as ‘chief of opposition’. She embarked on a letter writing campaign to MPs and their wives and continued to exert her influence as Westminster’s premier radical hostess – both at the Grote’s new ‘handsome and cheerful set of apartments’ at 11 Pall Mall and their weekend residence at Dulwich Wood.

Harriet and George moved to a ‘handsome and cheerful set of apartments’ at 11 Pall Mall for the 1835 session

Harriet’s gender, as well as her unceasing hostility to the Whigs, meant that her involvement proved too much for some. Her most significant enemy in this regard was someone that she still considered a ‘worthy friend’, the election agent and reformer, Joseph Parkes (1796-1865). Ahead of the opening of Parliament, Parkes took it upon himself to act as a middleman between the Whigs and the reformers, supplying intelligence to the Whigs over the Grotes’ plans for a new party.

In January 1835 Parkes alerted the former Whig minister, the 1st Earl Durham, to Harriet’s attempts to disparage another former Whig minister and MP for Manchester, Charles Poulett Thomson. Thomson, who used his Manchester hustings speeches to profess more radical ambitions than some of his Whig colleagues, continued to work with his Whig colleagues, and Parkes, throughout the 1835 election campaign.

For Harriet the Whigs (represented here by Brougham) and the Tories (represented here by Wellington) were as bad for John Bull (represented her by ‘John Gull’) as each other. Charles Jameson Grant, ‘Roasting Jack; or John Bull Executed between two Thieves’, March 1835, Yale University Library

To Harriet, Whigs like Thomson who maintained free trade ambitions but refused to support further constitutional reforms such as the ballot or shorter parliaments were not to be trusted. Although surviving documentation is scarce (in general Harriet advised her correspondents to burn her letters), she appears to have started warning reformer and radical MPs against considering alliances with Whigs such as Thomson. Parkes wrote to Durham to warn him of Harriet’s efforts and vent his frustration about her complete aversion to any form of compromise with the Whigs:

I send you another of my female politicians’ epistles ([from] Mrs Grote). Return it to me. I don’t know what in [Charles Poulett] Thompson’s [sic] speech she finds so very seedy. The worst of the radicals is their shadowing refining antipathies.

For historians trying to reconstruct women’s involvement in nineteenth-century politics, Parkes’s suggestion that Harriet was one of several ‘female politicians’ involved in the formation of the radical party is tantalising – and based on her surviving correspondence at the time we might add Sophia Evans (wife of the MP for Dublin, George Evans), and Mary Gaskell (wife of the MP for Wakefield, Daniel Gaskell) to that list.

It is also likely that a desire to keep Harriet away from power motivated Parkes in expressing his opinion against suggestions that George might lead any new party. As we will see in future blogs, this was the beginning of a complete breakdown in Harriet and Parkes’s relationship. For now though, Parkes conceded that although George enjoyed the ‘best status’ among Parliament’s reformers, he was not ideal leadership material. Parkes advised Durham that George, unlike Harriet, lacked the level of cunning to lead a party: ‘he [George] wants Devil’.

On 26 February 1835 Whigs, reformers and Repealers co-operated to defeat Peel’s Conservative government over the address. Charles Jameson Grant, ‘The Whig Radical ‘Amended’ Address to the King’s Speech, Feb. 1835, Yale University Library

Ultimately the new party failed to materialise. The immediate rationale for a radical party faded once it became apparent that Whigs, reformers and Repealers were willing to co-operate to bring down Peel’s Conservative government. However, there was still the question of securing influence over the next government.

The prospects of a new party really ended when the Grotes and their allies became paranoid that a coup had been set in train to establish the leader of the Irish Repealers, Daniel O’Connell, as its head. Many reformers and radicals, including the Grotes, shared a general distrust of O’Connell’s politics and feared he simply sought to prop up a Whig government.

Harriet blamed the machinations of one of her least favourite Whigs, Lord Brougham, and the naivety of the radical MP for Middlesex, Joseph Hume. With word of O’Connell’s involvement circulating around Westminster, potential MPs dropped like flies. In April 1835, Harriet called an end to the episode, conceding ‘our gentleman have next to abandoned the design [for a party]’.

To read part five of Martin’s blog series click here

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)

P. Salmon, Electoral Reform At Work: Local Politics and National Parties, 1832-1841 (2002)

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 Harriet Grote, women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

‘So much dignity and efficiency’: John Evelyn Denison, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1857-72

On 8 April 1857 John Evelyn Denison was in the library at his Nottinghamshire residence, Ossington Hall, when he received a letter from the prime minister.

My dear Denison,

We wish to be allowed to propose you for the Speakership of the House of Commons. Will you agree?

Yours sincerely,


Lord Palmerston to J. E. Denison, 7 Apr. 1857

This brief epistle marked the beginning of Denison’s fifteen-year tenure of the Speaker’s chair: just over three weeks later, on 30 April, the Commons chose him as Speaker, with no opposing candidate. Denison later recorded that he had hesitated about accepting the invitation to take on this role, which

took me by surprise. I had made no application to Lord Palmerston; I had not canvassed a single vote. Though I had attended of late years to several branches of the private business, and had taken more part in the public business of the House, I had never made the duties of the Chair my special study.

J. E. Denison, Notes from my journal when Speaker of the House of Commons (1900), 1.

However, Denison’s remarks downplayed the significance of his previous parliamentary experience. He had spent more than three decades in the Commons before becoming Speaker. His father John Denison (?1758-1820) had inherited a fortune and sizeable landed estates from his uncle Robert, a Leeds woollen merchant with whom he had been in business. This had facilitated John’s parliamentary career as MP for Wootton Bassett, 1796-1802, Colchester, 1802-6, and Minehead, 1807-12. After inheriting his father’s estates in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire in 1820, Denison followed in his footsteps as an MP.

J.E. Denison in 1832 by Frederick C. Lewis, after J. Slater, via NPG

Denison, who was known to his family as Evelyn rather than John, was first returned to the Commons in 1823 aged just 23, when he won a by-election at Newcastle-under-Lyme. He then represented Hastings, 1826-30, and although he failed to win a seat at the 1830 general election, in 1831 he was elected for both Liverpool and Nottinghamshire, but opted to sit for the latter. When that county was divided into two constituencies in 1832, he was elected for the southern division, where he lived at Ossington. After losing local support, he stood down at the 1837 election, but in 1841 he found a new berth at Malton, a pocket borough under the control of Earl Fitzwilliam. In 1857 he changed constituencies yet again, stepping into the shoes of his brother-in-law as MP for Nottinghamshire North, the seat he would represent throughout his time as Speaker.

For Lord Harry Vane, who proposed Denison as Speaker in April 1857, the variety of constituencies he had represented was an important recommendation, since it put him ‘in a peculiarly favourable position for understanding the wants both of town and country constituencies’. Despite having aristocratic connections by marriage – his father-in-law was the 4th Duke of Portland – Denison’s wide-ranging parliamentary experience meant that he was considered by The Times to be ‘a thorough representative of the Commons of England’, who also had the advantage of being ‘a tall, handsome man, with a good voice and manner’. Having been consulted by Palmerston as to the merits of potential candidates for the Speakership, the editor of The Times, John Delane, had endorsed Denison.

As well as knowledge of different constituencies, Denison’s three decades in the Commons had given him considerable expertise in the conduct of parliamentary business, both inside and outside the chamber. Vane noted that he had ‘made himself master of all the details of Parliamentary law and usages’ and had ‘a very intimate knowledge of the mode of conducting the private business of this House’, while Thomas Thornley, who seconded Denison’s nomination, reckoned that he had been ‘a member of more Select Committees than almost any other Member of the House’.

In the Parliament which preceded his selection as Speaker, Denison had sat on select committees which considered improving the dispatch of public business, the standing orders, the format and language of legislation and the amalgamation of railway and canal bills (which made up a large part of the private legislation dealt with by the Commons). He was also a member of inquiries into a range of other subjects, including the ordnance survey of Scotland, the registration of land, friendly societies, the ecclesiastical commission and the crown forests. He joined two other MPs to pass a measure for the education of poor children in 1855, sometimes referred to as Evelyn Denison’s Act (18 & 19 Vict., c. 34).

A year before he became Speaker, Denison gave some insights into the principles which guided his parliamentary conduct, observing that his ‘habits of mind were not in favour of violent measures or extreme opinions’, preferring ‘a reasonable compromise upon a matter of difficulty’. The moderate nature of his political views was reflected in the fluidity of his party allegiance, particularly in the early stages of his career, when he gradually drifted from the Tories to the Whigs. His lengthy service on the Commons back benches gave him a clear indication of some of the issues he would face in the chair. Although he contributed to debate more frequently as his parliamentary career progressed, he insisted that he would never speak ‘merely for the sake of speaking’, being ‘a zealous economist’ of the time of the Commons, unlike some fellow MPs.

J. E. Denison in his Speaker’s robes in 1863, by J & C Watkins, via NPG

After fifteen years in the Speaker’s chair, Denison retired on health grounds in February 1872, and went to the Lords as Viscount Ossington, but died the following year. He was not so well-regarded as his predecessor, Charles Shaw Lefevre, being seen as ‘less firm and forceful’ and with ‘less vitality to spare’. The Liberal backbencher Sir John Trelawny recorded a debate on parliamentary reform in 1860 when Denison ‘rather feebly’ tried to restore order, only to have some members mimic him. He contrasted Denison’s ‘waning authority’ with Shaw Lefevre, who ‘would have quelled the mutiny by a few words mingling urbanity with awe’.

A Commons debate chaired by J. E. Denison in 1860, by Thomas Barlow, after John Phillip, via NPG

Trelawny’s opinion of Denison was not improved by his decision to use his casting vote as Speaker against the third reading of Trelawny’s bill to abolish church rates, on which the Ayes and Noes tied, 19 June 1861, although he admitted that the general consensus was that Denison ‘took the proper course’. Despite his qualms that Denison was ‘rather fussy sometimes’ and ‘interferes too much or too little’, Trelawny recognised that ‘many members are very provoking’, and gave Denison some credit as ‘a good man – & a fair Speaker’. The Times, which had championed him in 1857, was rather more positive, declaring when he retired that he had filled the chair ‘with so much dignity and efficiency’.


Further reading

J. E. Denison, Notes from my journal when Speaker of the House of Commons (1900)

T. A. Jenkins (ed.), The parliamentary diaries of Sir John Trelawny, 1858-1865 (1990)

G. F. R. Barker, revised by H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Denison, (John) Evelyn, Viscount Ossington’, Oxf. DNB [www.oxforddnb.com]

This blog was first published on the main History of Parliament blog as part of its new blog series on the Speakers of the House of Commons.

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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

This new year (2022) marks our tenth anniversary of blogging about Victorian politics and society. Almost 300 blogs have now appeared on these pages, mainly written by researchers (past and present) working on the 1832-68 House of Commons project at the History of Parliament. 2022 also marks the sesquicentennial of the introduction of the secret ballot – arguably the single most important change to electoral culture in modern British history and something we will be looking at in more detail with some special events. To keep informed of our plans, please follow our blog or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons. For now though, here are some of the highlights from 2021.

Given the events of the past year, it was perhaps not surprising that our focus on Victorian vaccinations attracted many thousands of views. It is often forgotten that England implemented compulsory vaccinations in the 19th century. However, it was the bizarre way in which people receiving a vaccination risked losing their voting rights that was the main topic of this article, highlighting the legal anomalies arising from the bureaucratic small-print of the Victorian voting system.

Scene from a ‘chairing’ ceremony.
Image credit: Philip Salmon

Five other blogs also explored electoral themes – a subject with an endless supply of striking features to a modern observer. The vast amounts of alcohol given away in elections was one of the many issues covered by Kathryn Rix in her accounts of politics in Macclesfield and Whitby. After one Whitby contest people were 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’. Similar reports peppered the broader survey of the role of pubs in electoral organisation by Philip Salmon. This again stressed the impact of elections not just on male voters, but also on unenfranchised women and children. The genuine vitality of local politics in this period, even in the smallest towns, was also picked up in a blog by Stephen Ball assessing Irish borough politics in County Cork. Taking a cue from recent boundary change announcements, meanwhile, Martin Spychal re-examined the processes of redrawing and mapping the UK’s electoral boundaries in 1832.

The buildings of Parliament and the working practices of MPs and staff emerged as another blogging theme of 2021. We began a new series about the different spaces used by the Commons in the 19th century, detailing the accommodation used before and immediately after the devastating fire of 1834.

Ruins of the Commons after the 1834 fire. Image credit: Philip Salmon

We also took a closer look at the staff, clerks and servants who kept the Palace going in often difficult circumstances. Their work frequently involved staying up all night, as a blog about late night sittings and the attempts to reform what was effectively a nocturnal debating chamber clearly showed. Continuing our research on parliamentary procedure, we also explored the murky practices of ‘pairing’, when opposing MPs unofficially agreed not to vote, as well as examining ‘calls’ of the House and ‘counting out’ the House, a controversial procedure used to shut-down a sitting. Among other things this helped to trigger the introduction of bell-ringing and eventually electric bells. 

‘H.B.’, ‘The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours’ (18 July 1831) Image credit: Philip Salmon
Harriet Grote by C. Landseer c.1830. Image credit: British Museum

The role of women in 19th century political life remained another important focus. The political influence of Harriet Grote, wife of the Radical MP George Grote, was investigated in blogs looking at her early life, her role as a radical hostess, and her activities behind-the-scenes in the first reformed Parliament of 1833-4. This series will continue next year. The impact of the Queen Caroline affair a decade earlier continued to attract our attention too. One blog scrutinised her political association with the Radical MP Matthew Wood. The way in which her popular campaign came to an end and a new style of Tory politics began to emerge formed the basis of another blog marking the 200th anniversary of the 1821 Coronation.

During 2022 we aim to produce more research guides, similar to the blog we posted about religious affiliations in the Victorian period. We will also be uncovering more information about non-élite and unconventional politicians, men like the former colonial activist John Dunn who left Tasmania to become an MP. For now though, all that remains is to thank all our loyal followers and readers for their support and to wish you all a much improved new year in 2022.

Posted in Elections, Harriet Grote, Ireland, Monarchs, Parliamentary buildings, Parliamentary life, religion, Resources, Uncategorized, women | 1 Comment

A Call of the House

When party management at Westminster was still being developed the only means of ensuring good attendance at parliamentary debates was to ‘call the House’, an event described in 1855 as ‘one of the most interesting and exciting scenes’ the Commons ever witnessed. At a time when MPs’ attendance at debates was often poor, the practice was employed when important questions required the full attention of the House.

The earliest authenticated call of the House took place in 1549, although the procedure is thought to have originated in a statute of Richard II. Usually MPs were given at least one week’s notice that a call was to take place, although the interval could vary between one day and six weeks. On the day appointed the order might be discharged (i.e. dropped), but if proceeded with the Members’ names were called over according to their counties, which were arranged alphabetically, the English and Welsh counties coming before those of Scotland and Ireland. The names of MPs who did not answer were recorded by the clerk of the House and if a reasonable excuse for absence was not given defaulters were liable to be committed to the custody of the serjeant at arms and ordered to pay a fine.

By the nineteenth century calls of the House were embedded in parliamentary practice. For example, both Houses were called during the regency crisis of 1810, and the Commons was called in 1822 to consider parliamentary reform, and in 1829 to discuss Catholic emancipation. Several calls were made during the passage of the reform bills, and in March 1831 three defaulters were fined between eight and ten guineas. This was the last time that absentees were penalised, but it evidently proved an effective deterrent: the threat of another call in September 1831 reportedly ‘very much thinned the assemblage of fashionables’ at Doncaster races.

The House of Commons in 1833, by Sir George Hayter https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00015/The-House-of-Commons-1833

Between 1820 and 1840 the Commons was called 43 times, and between 1833 and 1868 fourteen calls were requested, although only four were carried out. The first came in the opening session of the reformed Commons when Daniel O’Connell, who had threatened to call the House on each day that ‘unconstitutional’ measures were considered for Ireland, motioned for a call on the first reading of the government’s coercion bill. His motion was opposed by a Conservative, Charles Williams Wynn, but was seconded for the government by Lord Althorp and passed. The call guaranteed the largest attendance yet seen in the House, and because there was only room for 400 MPs in the chamber, the galleries were ‘filled to overflowing’ and a gangway for the Speaker was only maintained with difficulty.

Sir John Key by M. Pearson (1832)
CC British Museum

Critics of the practice insisted that calling the House did not produce an advantage because there was no compulsory process by which Members could be obliged to vote. This did not deter Radical MPs from attempting to attract attention to their proposed reforms, however, although Sir John Key’s motion to call the House to consider the repeal of assessed taxes in April 1833 was not brought to a vote. An attempt by Sir Samuel Whalley to call the House on window taxes in May was defeated by 273-124, and in July Sir John Wrottesley lost his motion for a call on the Irish church temporalities bill by 160-125.

Other MPs were more successful, however, and in March 1834 Thomas Spring Rice’s motion to call the House for the debate on the repeal of the Union was readily agreed to. Little action was taken against the 48 defaulters, however, as it was now more common for absentees simply to be ordered to appear at a future day. All the same, when Lord John Russell called the House to hear his resolutions on the Irish Church in March 1835 it was expected to be ‘rigidly enforced’ and only 28 MPs were absent. However, at least two of the defaulters were allowed to postpone appearing before the Speaker for more than a week. This indulgent attitude threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the practice. When Daniel Whittle Harvey called the House to consider his plan to revise the pensions list, 63 MPs failed to appear. When the defaulters were subsequently called to appear before the Speaker, Harvey noticed that Sir Charles Greville did not answer his name, even though he had been seen a few minutes earlier ‘looking at pictures’ in the nearby gallery. Concluding that the proceedings had descended into ‘farce’, Harvey moved for his order to be discharged the following day.

Although this was the last time a call was carried out, the mere threat of one often guaranteed good attendance. In February 1838 Sir William Molesworth proposed to call MPs to debate the administration of Canada, largely to test if any Member, whether ‘Tory, Whig, or Radical’, was prepared to support an ‘oppressive and imbecile government’ merely for ‘party purposes’. His motion passed without a division but was withdrawn when it became clear that a full attendance was guaranteed. Similarly, neither Robert Adam Christopher’s motion to call the House for the debate on the corn laws in March 1839, nor Lord Ashley’s for the discussion of Irish national education that June, needed to be enforced.

Some calls were abandoned because they were impractical. By the time O’Connell’s proposal to call the House for the second reading of the Irish bank bill came up in August 1839, many MPs were already ‘scattered all over the world’ and the motion was dropped. In May 1843 Sackville Lane Fox threatened to call the House to consider means of suppressing the repeal agitation. However, when it emerged that O’Connell was in Ireland and had no intention of returning to Westminster, the hapless MP had to stage a humiliating climb down. The continued absence of Repeal MPs continued to present problems for the House, burdened as it was by a mountain of railway bills. Eager to compel them to attend, Joseph Hume announced he would propose a motion to call the House on 22 May 1845. However, the government was keen to avoid a confrontation with the Irish and simply ensured that a quorum was not available for the sitting. Similarly, when Henry Grattan tried to call the House to debate the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland in February 1849, his motion was opposed by the government and negatived without a division.

Joseph Hume

Joseph Hume made greater progress in November 1852 when, with the support of certain party leaders, he secured a call for Charles Villiers’s resolution on free trade. Ironically, Hume was absent when the time came, but his motion proved unnecessary as 450 Members attended the opening of the debate, Richard Cobden noting that ‘40 or 50’ of the MPs returned at that summer’s general election had now appeared in the chamber for the first time. The practice was, however, dealt a blow in July 1855 when John Roebuck, responding to reports that MPs were being induced to leave Westminster prior to his critical motion on the conduct of the Crimean War, attempted to call the House. The whole affair was interpreted as a partisan attack on the ministry, and his motion was defeated by a majority of 25.

Thereafter ‘the terrors of a “call” of the House’ passed away. Despite rumours that the House would be called to consider the Lords’ amendments to the second reform bill in August 1867, no one attempted to do it again until March 1882, when Thomas Sexton’s bid to revive the practice was defeated by a majority of 68. By this time, however, it had been concluded that improved means of transport and more efficient party management meant that attendance at debates was ‘generally ample’, and old-fashioned practices such as calling the House were unnecessary.

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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.

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Elections | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Parliamentary life, party labels, Voting and Divisions | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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…

To read part four of Martin’s blog series click here

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, Harriet Grote, Legislation, Parliamentary life, party labels, Uncategorized, women | 5 Comments

‘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)

Posted in Constituencies, Corruption, Elections | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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…

To read part three of Martin’s blog series click here

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)

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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.

Posted in Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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/

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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…


To read part two of Martin’s blog series click here

Harriet Grote’s letter to John Arthur Roebuck was 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.

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 , , , , , , | 5 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.


Part five: ‘‘Covent Garden was lit up by a lucid light’: an MP’s account of the fire at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 6 December 1867

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

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

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

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

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 , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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…


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

Part five: ‘‘Covent Garden was lit up by a lucid light’: an MP’s account of the fire at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 6 December 1867

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

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

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

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)