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 more details about the project and how to access and cite our work, see our About page. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed here with regular blogs here. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons and our colleagues @HistParl & @GeorgianLords

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Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty Conference

On 22 March 2018 the History of Parliament will be hosting an event at Westminster featuring 19th century highlights from the recent conference: Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British world, 1640-1886. This conference was held at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and organised by the History of Parliament and Durham University History Department. The speakers on 22 March will be:

Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire): extracts from her conference keynote, ‘Why political history still matters: representation of the people from the Bill of Rights to the Third Reform Act’

Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller (Durham University), ‘The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918’

Matthew Roberts (Sheffield Hallam University), ‘Daniel O’Connell, Repeal and Parliamentary Reform’

To register for a free place (tickets are limited) and for further details please click here.

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Before the vote was won: women and politics, 1832-68

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which received royal assent on 6 February. For the first time, virtually all the adult male population received the parliamentary franchise, whereas before this reform, around 40% of men were excluded from the electoral registers. Perhaps most notably, the Act extended the parliamentary franchise to some – although not all – women. Although females were excluded from the parliamentary franchise before 1918, it would be wrong to suppose that they were previously unable to play any part in parliamentary politics. Our research on the House of Commons, 1832-68 project continues to highlight the role of women in many aspects of Victorian politics, and we’d like to begin our 1918 centenary celebrations by revisiting some of our previous posts on this topic.


G. Cruikshank, The Rights of Women, or the Effects of Female Enfranchisement (1853)

Although women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections until 1918, some women were eligible to vote at local government level, even before the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act enabled female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils. Dr. Sarah Richardson of Warwick University blogged for us on the Victorian female franchise, drawing on a rare parish election poll book from Lichfield. Concerns about the proposed disfranchisement of female municipal voters at Brighton in the 1840s were raised by the town’s former Radical MP, George Faithfull, who featured in one of our MP of the Month blogs. One of his supporters argued that

I consider it unjust that a man should have a vote simply because he is a man, and that a lady should be disfranchised because she is a lady and the weaker body.


Lily Maxwell

One of our most recent blogs featured a woman who did cast a parliamentary vote before 1918, the Manchester shopkeeper, Lily Maxwell. Placed on the register by a clerical error, she cast her vote for Jacob Bright at a by-election in November 1867. Bright became one of the leading parliamentary advocates of female enfranchisement, taking on the mantle of John Stuart Mill, who had been active in promoting the women’s cause during his time as Liberal MP for Westminster, 1865-8. We have looked in our blogs at Mill’s presentation of the first mass women’s suffrage petition in June 1866, and his failed attempt the following year to include women’s suffrage within the 1867 Reform Act.

As well as acting as petitioners, women performed a variety of other political roles. In this blog for Parliament Week, we looked at women as electoral patrons, exercising influence over the representation of a constituency through their control of local property. We also considered the involvement of wives in their husband’s parliamentary careers, highlighting the role of Emma Oliveira in overseeing the corrupt expenditure which won her husband his seat at Pontefract in 1852.


Mary Anne Disraeli, by A. E. Chalon (1840)

Political wives have also featured in several other posts. Daniel Gaskell‘s formidable wife, Mary, played an important part in persuading her ‘reluctant spouse’ to stand for Wakefield in 1832, so much so that her nephew observed that ‘it is, in fact, my Aunt, that would be member of Parliament’. Another MP said to be ‘so completely under petticoat government, that he would not dare to vote on any question in the House of Commons without the sanction of his wife!’ was Wyndham Lewis, Conservative MP for Maidstone. After his death, his wife Mary Anne married Benjamin Disraeli, whose political career she helped to fund.


Queen Victoria’s coronation

Despite the restricted franchise during this period, non-electors, both male and female, often took a keen interest in elections. Our blog on Peterborough’s elections looked at George Whalley’s tactic of targeting the wives, sisters and daughters of electors who, it was hoped, would persuade their male relatives to vote for him. At Lyme Regis, meanwhile, the Liberal MP, William Pinney, included the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning among his supporters. The efforts of campaigning bodies such as the Anti-Corn Law League to attract female support were highlighted in our blog on George Donisthorpe Thompson, a charismatic orator who later became MP for Tower Hamlets. Finally, since we are the Victorian Commons project, we should mention our blog on Queen Victoria’s coronation, where MPs had a privileged view of proceedings.

We look forward to sharing more of our research on women’s political involvement in the nineteenth century in future blogs.

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MP of the Month: John Moyer Heathcote (1800-1892), the MP who never was

One of our first tasks when we began our 1832-1868 project was to compile a full list of the MPs elected during this period whose biographies we would research. With invaluable assistance from Stephen Lees, who co-edited the later Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament volumes with Michael Stenton, we arrived at a total of 2,589 MPs, including a handful not featured in the 1832-1885 Who’s Who volume. Well over half of these biographies have now been written and can be accessed in draft form on our preview site. However, we always suspected that as our research progressed, we might find another MP or two who, for some reason, had been omitted from our original list. Our MP of the Month, John Moyer Heathcote, is one such new addition, which brings our total number of MPs to 2,590.


John Moyer Heathcote, by Carmen Silvy (1860) (C) NPG, used under CC licence

Heathcote, a local Liberal landowner, was returned for Huntingdonshire at the general election in April 1857. James Rust, who had represented this double member county as a Conservative since 1855, topped the poll with 1,192 votes. His Conservative running-mate, Edward Fellowes, received 1,106 votes, as did Heathcote. After checking the poll books three times, the high sheriff made a double return for the second seat, declaring both Fellowes and Heathcote elected. Following the presentation of three election petitions, an election committee undertook a scrutiny of the poll. It struck off the votes of two disqualified voters and two others who had voted twice on the basis of the same qualification, and added the vote of one duly qualified voter. On 31 July 1857 it declared Heathcote not elected and Fellowes elected. The official record was amended three days later by the clerk of the crown, who erased Heathcote’s name from the return, replacing it with that of Fellowes.

Technically, therefore, Heathcote was never an MP, since his return was invalidated and his only subsequent attempt to win a seat ended in failure. This makes him almost unique in our period – the only other individual we have found who falls into the same category is John Scandrett Harford, whose name was expunged from the parliamentary record following an election petition in 1841, when he had been elected for Cardiganshire on a double return. Like Heathcote, Harford’s subsequent attempt to enter Parliament ended in defeat.

Although his parliamentary career was non-existent, Heathcote’s biography can still shed valuable light on the politics of this period. He was the first Liberal to contest Huntingdonshire for two decades, challenging what the Daily News described as ‘the compact alliance of conservative family interests, which is paramount in this county’. While the Whigs and the Conservatives had shared the representation without a contest in 1832 and 1835, the Conservatives had made a successful bid for both seats in 1837. The subsequent prominence of agricultural protection as an election issue meant that a Liberal challenge in this predominantly agricultural constituency was fruitless, especially given that many of its leading landowners were Conservatives. Heathcote considered standing for a vacancy in August 1855, but with an early dissolution of Parliament anticipated, he decided to wait for the next general election. Although the Conservatives had monopolised the county’s representation for twenty years, the latent strength of Liberalism was demonstrated by the fact that Heathcote tied with Fellowes for the second seat in 1857.

Despite the disappointment of losing the seat on petition, Heathcote stood again in 1859, when he faced two Conservative opponents, Fellowes and Lord Robert Montagu, brother of the Duke of Manchester, a major local landowner who had previously sat as the constituency’s MP. There was considerable excitement at the hustings due to the appearance of Lord John Russell, who owned property in the county. Russell had plumped for Heathcote in 1857, and after casting his vote had spoken briefly from the window of Heathcote’s committee room. Now, however, he abandoned ‘the reserve usually practised by statesmen of his standing’ in order to propose Heathcote as a candidate. His intervention was spurred on not only by ‘personal friendship’, but also the belief that this was a timely opportunity for ‘a last appeal to the still undecided constituencies’.

Russell began his hustings speech in support of Heathcote by referring to his own service as Huntingdonshire’s MP over thirty years earlier. With its representation dominated ever since by the Conservatives, he compared its MPs to men waiting on a railway platform, ‘looking vacantly at the trains going by’ and ‘declining to take part in any progress whatever’. The issue of parliamentary reform, on which he had defeated the Derby ministry a few weeks earlier, was clearly at the forefront of Russell’s mind. He denied that those who had joined him in opposing the Conservative ministry’s reform bill were motivated by faction and emphasised his own differences from John Bright’s more radical view of reform. He also criticised Derby’s government for its ‘lame and impotent measures’ and its incompetence in both domestic and foreign policy. Alluding to landlord influence in Huntingdonshire, he urged that ‘the real opinion of the electors’ on these national questions should decide Heathcote’s fate.

Despite Russell’s endorsement, Heathcote finished third in the poll, almost 250 votes short of Montagu. He did not make a further attempt at the seat, and the Conservatives were spared a contest in 1865. Heathcote did, however, continue to play an important role in local administration as a magistrate and chairman of the Huntingdon board of guardians. In 1876 he published Reminiscences of fen and mere, a local history illustrated largely by his own sketches. He died in March 1892 at the age of 91. His estates passed to his eldest son, John Moyer Heathcote (1834-1912), a talented real tennis player who also made a major contribution to the development of lawn tennis, being the first to suggest covering the ball with flannel.

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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2018

The Victorian Commons would like to wish all our readers a very Happy New Year. Before we resume blogging in 2018, we’d like to highlight some posts you may have missed in 2017.


Lily Maxwell

Our most popular post of 2017 looked at Lily Maxwell, the Manchester shopkeeper who cast a vote at a parliamentary by-election in November 1867, over 150 years before the partial enfranchisement of women as parliamentary voters in 1918. Another of our most-read blogs marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s attempt to include women as voters under the Second Reform Act. Female involvement in elections was one of the themes of our blog on the frequently contested constituency of Peterborough. We will be returning to this subject in 2018 as we take part in the Vote 100 celebrations marking the centenary of some women receiving the parliamentary franchise.

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

The 150th anniversary of the Second Reform Act featured in many of our blogs. Our MPs of the Month included three individuals who played a key part in the debates on parliamentary reform in the 1860s. Hugh Lupus Grosvenor was one of the leading Adullamites who opposed the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill. As Conservative attorney-general Sir John Rolt, a former draper’s apprentice, undertook much of the ‘drudgery’ involved in the successful passage of Disraeli and Derby’s 1867 Act. Meanwhile John Tomlinson Hibbert of Oldham was one of several Liberal back benchers who made important interventions on the Conservative ministry’s measure.

conf pic

Conference at the People’s History Museum, Manchester

We also blogged about the conference organised by the History of Parliament in conjunction with the University of Durham, held at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, and inspired by the 1867 Reform Act and the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’. Our editor Philip Salmon spoke on the political role of non-electors, while Martin Spychal looked at the language of ‘interests’ in nineteenth-century debates about the electoral system. Our assistant editor Kathryn Rix also published a new article on the Act, entitled ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’. Another publication from our section this year looked at the 1832 Reform Act: Martin Spychal’s article on Thomas Drummond and the question of parliamentary boundaries appeared in Historical Research.

Thomas Hansard d 1833

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

Several of our blogs explored the reporting of parliamentary debate or ‘parliamentary speechification’, as the Spectator dubbed it. As part of the History of Parliament’s contribution to Parliament Week 2017, we looked at Hansard and lesser-known rivals such as the Mirror of Parliament. Charles Dickens was one of the contributors to that publication, and also reported for the press on parliamentary contests, including the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election, which was one of the inspirations behind his depiction of the colourful and corrupt Eatanswill contest in the Pickwick Papers. With a general election held in 2017, we also had several election-themed blogs, offering a Victorian perspective on issues such as the relationship between local and general elections, and the experience of minority governments.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The 1852 Tower Hamlets election

Our MP of the Month series continued to show the wide range of individuals who served in Parliament in our period. John Lloyd Davies rose from humble beginnings as a hotel servant to become Conservative MP for the Cardigan Boroughs. We returned to the important question of party loyalty with our blog on Swynfen Jervis, a Liberal MP who defied his party’s whips. Sons of more famous fathers again featured with our biography of William Wilberforce (junior), the son of the prominent abolitionist, who failed to live up to his father’s reputation. Another leading anti-slavery campaigner George Thompson was a highly active platform orator before he became MP for Tower Hamlets, one of the first London MPs to be covered in our project. One extremely important MP whose biography we completed this year was Charles Gilpin, the only Quaker to hold ministerial office between the First and Second Reform Acts. Other MPs were better known for their accomplishments in other fields, including the pioneering photographer Edward King Tenison and the ichthyologist and fossil collector Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton.

All the draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be accessed for free on our ‘preview’ site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can also sign up to follow our blogs via e-mail or WordPress, follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons, or follow the new @GeorgianLords project and our other colleagues @HistParl.

We look forward to sharing more highlights from our research with you in 2018. Happy New Year!

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MP of the Month: George Donisthorpe Thompson (1804-1878)

December’s MP of the Month blog charts the path into Parliament of George Thompson, a self-educated book-seller’s son. As one of Britain’s foremost platform orators he was a major figure in the abolition of slavery in the West Indies and the United States, as well as an early campaigner for Indian independence. 


George Thompson by Charles Turner (1842) (C) NPG

Born in 1804, George Thompson was educated by his father, a Lambeth book-seller and ‘man of refined manners, and extensive reading’. Working at a City counting house from the age of twelve, he immersed himself in London’s self-improvement culture of the 1820s, distinguishing himself as a public speaker at the London Mechanics’ Institute from 1823.

He got his big break in 1831, when he was recommended by the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, for the role of travelling speaker for the London Anti-Slavery Society. With ‘his voice pealing like a trumpet’, ‘perspiration dripping from his head’ and his imposing frame ‘throbbing with emotion’, Thompson’s speeches for the society drew increasingly large crowds. His status as a national celebrity was established in 1833, when he distinguished himself in a series of week-long debates in towns across Britain with the slavery advocate and future MP for Evesham, Peter Borthwick.

Front cover 1836After the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, Thompson turned his attention to worldwide abolition. In 1834 he was invited on a lecture tour of the United States by the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. During an infamous 15-month tour his ‘vitriolic harangues’ against slavery and rumours surrounding his questionable financial dealings attracted widespread coverage, eventually leading to his denunciation by President Jackson, forcing him to flee the United States in November 1835.

On his return to Britain he supported the radical Quaker, Joseph Sturge, in his campaign to abolish slave apprenticeships, before taking up the cause of slavery in India. In 1839 he helped establish the British India Society, whose aim was to make ‘known the wrongs’ of the ‘80,000,000 of people’ in India and to expand ‘Indian cotton sails in order to undersell slave-grown Cotton from the United States’.

Firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost political agitators, Thompson lent his services to the Anti-Corn Law League as part of an agreement with the British India Society in 1841, organising a ‘national convocation’ of ministers from all Christian denominations in order that the League could ‘gain access to their chapels & associations & sanction the public co-operation of the women’. At the convocation, Thompson called for a female petition to the Queen (which secured a quarter of a million signatures), and asked ministers from across the country to arrange meetings of women at which he could lecture. Speaking in support of ‘universal emancipation’ at these meetings, his ‘impassioned language and thrilling accents … secured him great favour from female audiences’.

After two years of campaigning for the League, Thompson made his first attempt on Parliament, accepting an invitation to stand at the 1842 Southampton by-election. Coming forward on ‘liberal principles’, he promised to support the Chartist cause and ‘the total annihilation of the corn laws’, but was defeated by two Conservatives. Later that year, he travelled to Calcutta under the patronage of an Indian merchant, Dwarkanauth Tagore. Occupying an entire floor of Tagore’s townhouse in the centre of Kolkata, where he became known as ‘Hindoo Thompson’, he immersed himself in Indian law, offered counsel to the locals, and started campaigning for Indian land reform through the Bengal British India Society.


In 1846, the freed slave Frederick Douglass stayed at Thompson’s home at Whiteheads Grove, SW3.

Back in England by February 1844, he resumed campaigning for the Anti-Corn Law League. After the successful repeal of the corn laws he renewed his crusade to abolish slavery in the US, establishing the Anti-Slavery League in August 1846 with William Garrison and the freed slave, Frederick Douglass, who had been using Thompson’s home as his London residence. Although this new organisation failed to capture momentum in Britain, Thompson maintained a life-long commitment to the abolition of slavery in the US and was reportedly the ‘only foreigner’ in attendance on 14 April 1865, when the Stars and Stripes were raised at Fort Sumter.

In 1847 Thompson’s national status prompted invitations to stand at that year’s general election at Leicester, Westminster, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. He eventually came forward for Tower Hamlets, which contained Britain’s largest registered borough electorate of almost 19,000 voters.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The hustings at Tower Hamlets in 1852 where Thompson had topped the poll five years earlier, ILN, 10 July 1852.

At a series of huge public hustings he called for a further extension of free trade and religious rights, extensive parliamentary reform, retrenchment, disestablishment and secular education.  In one of the most notable results of that year’s election, Thompson defeated both of the borough’s moderate Liberal incumbents by 2,500 votes, prompting election officials to report with amazement at how ‘whole pages of votes’ were ‘filled entirely’ with ‘plumpers for Mr George Thompson’.

You can find out how Thompson’s parliamentary career progressed in his full biography, which will be published shortly on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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The ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’: quantifying parliamentary debate in 1833

The influx of new members into the House of Commons following the 1832 Reform Act prompted considerable disquiet within established political circles about the effects which this would have on the day-to-day business of Parliament. The Times reported fears that ‘the ascendancy of the mouvement faction’ of MPs drawn chiefly from the newly-enfranchised constituencies would result in ‘noise and swagger’ overwhelming ‘the good sense’ and sound principles of the Commons.

Commons 1834 a

The Chamber of the House of Commons before the fire of October 1834

In order to combat complaints that the House’s time would be consumed by ‘unprofitable talking’, and that ‘low bred mob orators’ would obstruct parliamentary business, the Spectator decided to analyse all the spoken contributions, excluding mere matters of form, made in the Commons and recorded by the Mirror of Parliament, then the most full record of parliamentary proceedings, as discussed in one of our earlier blogs. Paying particular attention to the utterances of the 51 new Members who could be fairly assumed to owe their return to the changes effected by the Reform Act, the paper hoped to silence the ‘unfair and carping attacks of the Anti-Reformers’.

When the paper’s first analysis appeared at the end of March 1833 it concluded that ‘the old stagers’ were, after all, the most prolific talkers. However, the new reform MPs, who comprised less than 8% of the House, were also reckoned to have made 320 (or 18%) of the 1,776 contributions to debate recorded up to that time. Their speeches had filled 185 of the Mirror’s 1,057 columns, each of which contained about 1,000 words. Significantly, the paper argued that it was not these new MPs who were responsible for the delay which had taken place in the conduct of public business. Instead the ‘everlasting harangues’ over Irish policy were identified as the main obstacle to progress.

By the time the Spectator produced its analysis of the 11,709 speeches made in the 1833 session that December, it had abandoned separately classifying speeches made by the new reform MPs. Understandably, the most frequent speaker by some margin was Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer and leader in the House of Commons. Other leading orators included the Irish chief secretary, Edward Stanley, and the secretary to the treasury, Thomas Spring Rice. Senior Conservatives such as Sir Robert Peel, Sir Frederick Shaw and Sir Robert Inglis also weighed in substantially by logging more than 500 speeches between them.

(c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, the paper’s ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’ revealed that the new reform MPs continued to make a disproportionate contribution to proceedings. The 51 MPs analysed in March had made a total of 1,594 speeches, occupying 815 (or 16%) of the 5,094 columns recorded in the Mirror. The most prolific MP was the veteran radical William Cobbett, who sat for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, and made no less than 261 contributions to debate. The Irish radical MP for Drogheda, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, spoke 111 times – more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. Indeed, when one adds to these speeches the huge contribution to debate made by more seasoned radicals such as Daniel O’Connell, who spoke the greatest number of words in the session (his 647 speeches covered 338 columns), and Joseph Hume (601 speeches in 253 columns), not to mention other reformers such as Henry Warburton (143 speeches), Colonel De Lacy Evans (111 speeches), and Edward Southwell Ruthven, the repeal MP for Dublin (98 speeches), it was clear that radical views were given a very full airing in the newly reformed House of Commons.

Despite all their efforts to exonerate new MPs from the charge of  ‘noise and swagger’, the Spectator could not resist agreeing with other critics of post-reform debates, when it noted that ‘out of the eleven thousand and odd speeches delivered … at least ten thousand were not worth delivering or hearing’.

Sources: The Times, 11 Feb. 1833; Spectator, 30 Mar., 28 Dec. 1833.

Further reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW
  • J. Meisel, Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the age of Gladstone (2001)
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