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

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Parliament versus the People: the Newport rising of 1839

The History of Parliament

Today marks the 180th anniversary of the Newport rising when government forces and Welsh Chartists clashed in the town of Newport. Here’s Dr Philip Salmon, editor of our House of Commons 1832-68 project, with more…

The Newport rising ranks alongside the Peterloo massacre as an iconic episode in the struggle for popular political rights in pre-democratic Britain. In November 1839 around 10,000 disaffected and poorly paid workers, mainly Monmouthshire miners and ironworkers, marched on Newport hoping to free local Chartist leaders from arrest and, according to some, take over the town as a prelude to ‘revolution’. Their actions followed Parliament’s refusal to consider a Chartist petition signed by 1.3 million people demanding workers’ political rights – the so-called ‘People’s Charter’.

Unlike those who had marched at Peterloo twenty years earlier, however, many of the Newport protesters were armed – most with pikes and makeshift weapons, but some…

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MP of the Month: Charles Stanley Monck (1819-94) and Canadian Confederation

Charles_Stanley_Monck BANQ

Charles Stanley Monck (image credit: Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)

Today we mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stanley Monck (1819-94), MP for Portsmouth, 1852-7, who in 1861 found himself at the head of Britain’s North American colonies at a turbulent time in their history. With a combination of shrewdness and practical common sense he guided them towards confederation as the new dominion of Canada.

Monck was the eldest son of the Hon. Charles Joseph Kelly Monck, of Belleville, county Tipperary, who in September 1848 succeeded his elder brother as 3rd Viscount Monck of Charleville. The Moncks were Wicklow landowners, but Monck himself did not expect to succeed to the family titles and estates when he began his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1836. A ‘hail-fellow’ and unconventional dresser, whose ideas were considered ‘too democratic’ by his peers, he trained for the law and was called to the Irish bar in 1841. He does not appear to have practised, however.

Imbued with a strong sense of public duty, the young Monck associated with reform-minded politicians and during the Irish famine joined them in attempting to persuade the British government to redress Irish grievances. He became involved in an abortive attempt to form an ‘Irish Party’ to unite the country’s parliamentary representatives in a common effort to secure measures to deal with the famine. He was also secretary of the Irish Reproductive Works Committee, a cross-party body formed in December 1846 to promote public works and other schemes to regenerate the Irish economy.

Monck’s zealous devotion to Irish interests did not go unnoticed and in April 1848 he stood at a by-election in County Wicklow. An able and popular landlord who was allied to no party, he called on the electors to abandon ‘senseless disputes about political theories’ and apply themselves instead to the ‘physical improvement’ of Ireland, arguing that Irish tenants should be compensated for improving their holdings and criticising absentee landlords. He was, however, opposed by the county’s leading landowners and was narrowly defeated by the former Liberal MP, Sir Ralph Howard.

A year later Monck succeeded as 4th Viscount Monck and inherited a heavily indebted estate of 16,000 acres in the province of Leinster. He remained active in public affairs, and after becoming a commissioner of charitable donations and bequests was responsible for administering funds raised for famine relief in Ireland. This work brought him into contact with high-ranking politicians such as William Gladstone.

As an Irish peer he was not allowed to represent an Irish constituency but he could sit for an English one, so at the 1852 general election he offered for the naval borough of Portsmouth as a free-trader and Peelite critic of Lord Derby’s Conservative government. He was returned unopposed. Once in the Commons he proved an eager parliamentarian, sitting on a number of select committees and closely following the Liberal party line. In April 1853 he spoke in defence of the Irish national education system, and in March 1855 was appointed a lord of the treasury and keeper of the privy seal to the Prince of Wales, overcoming a Liberal challenger at the ensuing by-election. For the next two years he acted as the party’s ‘Irish whip’ but narrowly lost his Portsmouth seat at the 1857 general election. Now without any prospect of returning to the Commons, he resigned from his official positions in February 1858.


Proclamation of Canadian Confederation (1867)

Monck contested the 1859 general election for Dudley, where his opposition to the ballot saw him lose out to another Liberal. In dire need of income, he let it be known that he was willing to take up a colonial appointment and accepted the post of governor-general of British North America from the prime minister Lord Palmerston in August 1861. Although inexperienced and relatively unknown, he arrived at Quebec when war with the United States appeared imminent and it was thought that he would need to exercise his authority with ‘a strong and vigorous hand’. However, with patience and impartiality he built the coalition in Canadian politics which paved the way for the confederation of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. At the same time he emphasised the need for strongly centralised government for the new dominion. He resigned as governor-general in November 1868 and was thanked for his services by the queen. He was created a knight grand cross of St. Michael and St. George in June 1869 and appointed to the privy council that August.

Reading-Proclamation-of-Confederation Queen's University Archives

Reading the Proclamation of Confederation, Kingston, Ontario, 1 July 1867. Image credit: Queen’s University Archives

Monck had been awarded a UK peerage in July 1866 and continued his political and administrative career in the House of Lords, serving on commissions on Irish Church property and the national education system in Ireland. In 1874 he was appointed lord lieutenant of county Dublin. His practical interest in agriculture fitted him for the difficult task of implementing Gladstone’s 1881 Irish Land Act and he served on the Irish land and arrears commissions. Debilitated by arthritis, he left public office in 1884 and subsequently broke with the Liberals over Gladstone’s plan for Irish home rule. He died at Charleville in November 1894.

Further reading:

  • T. B. Browning, rev. J. Monet, ‘Monck, Charles Stanley, fourth Viscount Monck of Ballytrammon’, Oxf. DNB: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:onbd/18937.
  • A. Pole, ‘Monck, Charles Stanley’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, vi. 575-6.
  • J. Monet, ‘Monck, Charles Stanley, 4th Viscount Monck’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, xii: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/monck_charles_stanley_12E.html.
  • E. Batt, The Moncks and Charleville House (1979).
  • E. Batt, Monck: Governor General, 1861-1868 (1976).
  • W. L. Morton, ‘Lord Monck and nationality in Ireland and Canada’, Studia Hibernia, xiii (1973), 77-99.
  • W. L. Morton, Monck’s Letters and Journals, 1863-1868. Canada from Government House at Federation (1970).
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A female politician? Lady Derby and mid-Victorian political life

The significance of female participation in 19th century elections and politics, despite women’s exclusion from the parliamentary franchise, has been an important theme in several of our blogs. In this guest post, originally published on the main History of Parliament blog, Dr. Jennifer Davey looks at the influence of Mary, Countess of Derby, in mid-Victorian political life.

The History of Parliament

Continuing our series on Women and Parliament, Dr. Jennifer Davey of the University of East Anglia looks at the influence of Mary, Countess of Derby (1824-1900) within the worlds of high politics and diplomacy. Lady Derby is the subject of her recent book, Mary, Countess of Derby, and the politics of Victorian Britain(OUP, 2019).

In May 1893, The Spectator printed a long article reflecting on the role and function aristocratic women had played in the social and political life of Victorian Britain. Sometimes referred to as ‘great ladies’, ‘female politicians’ or ‘political ladies’, these were women who held ‘definite influence over society, politics, and the general life of the exclusive’. As The Spectator emphasised, such influence was as ‘impalpable and in-definable as that of the weather, but never really denied by those who really understand how the world is governed’. One such woman was Mary, Countess of Derby (1824-1900)…

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

We are pleased to announce that the History of Parliament Trust is participating in a doctoral studentship project in partnership with the Open University. Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award, for entry in 2020-21. The deadline for application to the Open University is 8 January 2020.

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

Details of how to apply to the Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme can be found here: https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/collaborative-doctoral-awards


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

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MP of the Month: Sidney Herbert – still dancing to Nightingale’s tune

September’s MP of the Month is Sidney Herbert, who was born on this day (16 September) in 1810 and widely expected to become a Victorian prime minister. Fate, however, cruelly intervened, as Dr Ruscombe Foster, the author of an important new biography of Herbert, explains in this guest post…

Sidney Herbert (1810-61) is probably best remembered today as the Secretary at War who, in October 1854, invited his ‘intimate friend’ Florence Nightingale to head a party of nurses to Scutari, where wounded soldiers from the Crimean War were being hospitalised. Within months Nightingale was being immortalised for her work as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’. Herbert meanwhile, organised the Nightingale Fund, arguably the first national charity appeal in Britain. The £48,000 raised went towards funding the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, opened next to St Thomas’s Hospital in June 1860. Herbert also collaborated with Nightingale on the 1857-8 royal commission on the sanitary state of the army. According to popular legend Nightingale worked Herbert to his premature death.

There are innumerable biographies of Nightingale but until recently there was none of Herbert, other than a memoir commissioned by his widow. Tellingly, it would not be until 1915 that Herbert’s statue was eventually shifted to sit alongside that of Nightingale in Waterloo Place.

Sidney Herbert was, according to the great social reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, ‘born with a silver spoon’. Intelligent, handsome and personable, he inherited a vast personal fortune from his father, the 11th Earl of Pembroke, and was heir presumptive to the 40,000 acre Wilton estate in Wiltshire which had been inherited by his half-brother.

Wilton House

Having studied at Oxford University, where he was president of the Union, he entered Parliament for South Wiltshire aged 21 in 1832. Sir Robert Peel, who tipped him as a possible future prime minister, gave him junior office at the Admiralty in 1841. He promoted him to the Cabinet as Secretary at War in 1845. Herbert was one of his closest confidantes during the crisis over the repeal of the corn laws. That political drama would see Disraeli dismissively describe Herbert as Peel’s valet. Herbert, unsurprisingly, thereafter loathed the man he dubbed ‘the Jew.’

By the early 1850s, however, even Disraeli was happy to acknowledge that Herbert was one of the leading experts in the House on army matters. Herbert’s obsession became how to keep the nation safe. This led to his investigating how best to increase the strength of home forces should the French attempt an invasion. He also wanted to improve the army’s proficiency. He became increasingly convinced that there should be more promotion on merit, and that the existing system whereby most officers purchased their commissions should be phased out. By the same token he wanted to see an extension of what he called military instruction. The Crimean War broke out before his ideas could be implemented.

Herbert’s reputation survived the blame game and charges of political incompetence created by the war. His work with Nightingale from the mid-1850s complemented that which he had already been doing: if fewer soldiers were lost to illness and disease, fewer new recruits would need to be found. Nightingale’s biographers characterise her as the driving force in their work. It is arguably truer to say that theirs was a partnership in which she was the solicitor and he the barrister. And it is certainly the case that without Herbert history would not have heard of Nightingale.

Sidney Herbert, c. 1859

Herbert was more than just an army sanitary reformer during the 1850s. He was never far from the drama of high politics. He helped bring down Derby’s government in 1852, assisted in forming Aberdeen’s coalition ministry which followed it, rejected taking the Home Office under Palmerston in 1855, helped mend the Liberals’ differences in June 1859, and became Secretary for War the same month. His return to office confronted him with a familiar spectre: how to deal with a France led by Napoleon III, who seemed keen to revive the glories of his uncle.

Herbert’s fate, as he told Palmerston, was to suffer from a weak constitution. He died on 2 August 1861, killed not by overwork (still less by Nightingale’s demands), but by chronic nephritis, then only recently diagnosed as Bright’s disease. There was a remarkable outpouring of grief at the news of his passing, manifested in poetry as well as prose. Thomas Sotheron Estcourt, a former Home Secretary and another Wiltshire man, wrote of his ‘playful Wit; the rich inventive Thought.’ There was something of a consensus that Herbert might have followed Palmerston as Liberal leader – a more palatable successor than the unpredictable Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone. On this basis Herbert was one of England’s lost prime ministers. At the very least, he merits recognition, alongside the Duke of York and Edward Cardwell, as the most important army reformer of the 19th century.

Ruscombe Foster

Further reading:

R. E. Foster, Sidney Herbert. Too Short a Life (2019)


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Political Prorogations: a view from the Victorian Commons

It’s been a long time since the business of suspending Parliament and starting a new session has generated so much political controversy. Throughout most of the 20th century prorogations invariably tallied with the expectations of most parliamentarians, neatly book-ending a government’s legislative programme. Scroll back a little further into the 19th century, however, and a rather different picture emerges …

Parliament’s historic procedures and conventions have generated a huge amount of public interest recently. Responding to popular demand, the latest version of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, detailing the ‘law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament’, has even been uploaded online. What readers won’t find in the latest edition, however, is much information about prorogation. Beyond stating that it is a personal prerogative power exercised by the Crown on the advice of the prime minister, which ends the current session of Parliament, there is remarkably little discussion of how and when prorogation can or indeed has been used, particularly for political purposes.

Before becoming so routine and un-contentious in the 20th century, however, prorogations were often attracted a fair amount of controversy. Occasionally they even aroused popular indignation and triggered public protests, such as the one organised in Manchester in September 1841 against the new Tory government’s decision to prorogue during an economic crisis and sidestep calls for an inquiry into the corn laws. Petitions and memorials from across the country had flooded into Parliament urging MPs to remain in session and alleviate the nation’s starvation and distress. On 7 October 1841, however, the new prime minister Sir Robert Peel prorogued Parliament for almost four months.

A number of factors helped to make prorogation decisions more open to question in this period, including the looser nature of the two-party system, the existence of many more minority governments, and the much greater power of the House of Lords, which was far from being the subservient chamber it is sometimes assumed to have been.

What really made prorogations stand out and potentially so controversial, however, was their length. Today we are used to prorogations lasting days – the recent average is eight. Over the past 40 years no prorogation has lasted more than three weeks.

During the 19th century, by contrast, they usually dragged on for months, sometimes for almost five and on occasion even six months. The graph above plots the length of the breaks between each session of Parliament from 1836 to 1916. As such it also includes prorogations that were followed by a dissolution and a general election – a more drawn out process in the Victorian era than it is today. In 1873, for example, Parliament was prorogued on 5 August. On 26 January 1874, a few days before it was scheduled to reconvene, it was dissolved on the advice of the Liberal prime minster William Gladstone. A general election then took place and Parliament did not sit again until 5 March 1874, making a total break of 213 days (around seven months) during which Parliament was not sitting.

Even removing all the prorogations that were followed by dissolutions, however, still leaves an average prorogation length that seems extraordinary by modern standards. The mean duration from 1836-1916 was 142 days, over four and a half months. In practice this meant that for much of the Victorian period, Parliament was prorogued and not in session for over a third of any given year.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Victorian prorogations, however, and the one that maybe has the most contemporary resonance, was the correlation that often existed between their length and some sort of national crisis or major political upheaval. Put simply, when things got tough, governments tried to avoid Parliament as much as possible.

In 1838, for instance, the Whig ministry of Lord Melbourne was accused of deliberately proroguing Parliament for too long, for 173 days, in order to avoid discussion of their incompetent handling of rebellions in Canada and Ireland and their decision to go to war in Afghanistan. ‘Ministers are afraid to meet Parliament … they are afraid to encounter Parliamentary scrutiny’, protested the Tory press.

Lord Aberdeen’s government also had no intention of allowing its disastrous handling of the Crimean War to be exposed to any more parliamentary scrutiny than was absolutely necessary. When one of their own supporters tried to move for an address to the Queen against prorogation, in July 1854, they made it a matter of confidence, forcing its withdrawal.

Many of the minority governments of the 19th century made ample use of prorogation, for obvious reasons. The Conservative leader Lord Derby, keen to avoid a repeat of his short-lived first minority ministry of 1852, kept his second minority government of 1858 going for far longer than expected with the help of a six month prorogation – one of the longest on record. His successor as Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, also managed to keep the lid on a major political row within his own party and between the Commons and the House of Lords over church reform by proroguing Parliament for a similar period in 1874.

The use of such tactics inevitably meant that public campaigns and petitions for and against prorogation were a much more familiar occurrence than we are used to. The scale of the famous prorogation protests of 1820, however, was unusual. In November Lord Liverpool’s Tory government had been forced to abandon its hugely unpopular attempt to prosecute Queen Caroline for adultery, much to the fury of her estranged husband George IV. Rather than risk an inquiry, which the opposition were demanding, the prime minister prorogued Parliament, prompting nationwide demonstrations. At one rally in Durham, the Tories were accused of acting ‘unconstitutionally’ in order to ‘terminate discussion and popular protest arising from their persecution of Queen Caroline’ and ‘silence the indignation they had aroused’.

It has been a long while since the issue of prorogation triggered these sorts of levels of political commentary and public activism. Given recent events, the next edition of Erskine May may well have to provide a few more details about the use of this ancient procedure than it does now.

Further reading:

P. Salmon, ‘Exploring the History of Prorogation’, Times Literary Supplement, 6 Sept. 2019

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MP of the Month: William Tooke and the royal charters of the University of London

Following our blogs on the creation of the University of London constituency in 1868 and its first MP, Robert Lowe, August’s MP of the Month is William Tooke. As MP for Truro from 1832, Tooke worked tirelessly to secure a royal charter for the London University (later University College London) that allowed it to grant degrees to its students.

Cockney College, 1826, SW Fores

The secular London University sparked controversy from its foundation in 1826 and was commonly derided in the Tory, staunchly Anglican press, as the ‘Cockney College’. SW Fores, Cockney College (1826), CC British Museum

The London University’s campaign to achieve degree-awarding status was a key battleground in the wider movement for religious freedoms in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. The university had been the subject of considerable controversy since its establishment in 1826 as a non-degree awarding secular alternative to England’s only other universities, Oxford and Cambridge. As students at Oxford and Cambridge were required to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, non-Anglicans were effectively barred from obtaining degrees in England.

William Tooke, Charles Turner, (1836)

William Tooke by Charles Turner (1836) © NPG

William Tooke (1777-1863) was present at the first council meeting of the London University, where he was appointed treasurer and solicitor. The son of a pre-eminent London journalist, Russian historian and preacher, Tooke’s early life was spent practising as a solicitor in London from 1798. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Tooke used his legal expertise, as well as his father’s reputation, to establish himself in London’s thriving reform culture. By the end of the 1820s he was enmeshed in Bloomsbury’s network of ‘godless’ reformers, working assiduously behind the scenes for the London University, and its sister institution, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK).

Tooke’s work for the London University and the SDUK (and a raft of other learned societies and businesses during the 1820s) focused on the preparation of draft legislation, petitions and royal charters. These documents helped turn organisations that were usually dreamt up in a London tavern into secure legal entities with official powers enshrined in law.

He enjoyed some success in lobbying and working with MPs (many of whom were also members of these reforming societies) to push his draft bills and charters through parliament. But to be most effective he needed a seat in the Commons. As he was of insufficient status to stand for one of London’s prestigious borough or county constituencies, Tooke began targeting the Cornish borough of Truro from 1830 after securing the backing of a local merchant.

Royal Collection

The London University and its adjacent University of London School playground in Bloomsbury. George Scharf, University of London School (1833)

Tooke was unsuccessful at Truro at the 1830 and 1831 elections, largely as a result of borough’s closed corporation status. However, things changed following the 1832 Reform Act, which extended voting rights to the town’s middle-class Dissenters. These new voters returned Tooke to Parliament at the 1832 and 1835 elections, where he stood as a Reformer.

At Westminster Tooke supported the Whig governments of Grey and Melbourne on confidence issues, but stayed true to his independent status as a Reformer to vote in favour of corn law reform, the ballot, retrenchment, currency reform and the repeal of the malt duty. Unlike most new members, Tooke broke his parliamentary silence within days of taking his seat in the Commons and continued to intervene regularly, particularly in debates over municipal, electoral and legal reform. He was also active behind the scenes at Westminster, taking a keen interest in the business of the House, sitting on a large number of select committees and paying close attention to a wide range of public and private legislation.

King's College Versus London University (or which is the weightiest)

The Anglican King’s College London was established in response to the avowedly secular London University. It was established as a non-degree awarding college by royal charter in 1829. Robert Seymour, King’s College Versus London University (or which is the weightiest), (1828)

It was Tooke’s quest to secure degree-awarding status for the London University, via a royal charter, that took up most of his attention. While the university had been offering classes since its foundation in 1826, it could not award degrees. The only English universities that could were Oxford and Cambridge, but they required students to take the Anglican oath. As Tooke explained to the Commons in 1833 this meant that the ‘whole dissenting community of England’ was ‘altogether precluded from academic honours’.

After introducing a failed motion for a royal charter for the London University in 1833, he entered abortive negotiations during 1834 with the Whig government (many of whom were founding members of the university) to secure a charter via the Privy Council. In March 1835, during the short-lived Peel ministry, Tooke secured a majority of 110 for his motion for a degree-awarding charter for the university. This was not the end of the story, however, as Tooke was required to enter further negotiations with the Melbourne government during 1835 and 1836 to find a way that King’s College London, which had been established by royal charter in 1829 as an Anglican alternative to the London University, could also be awarded the ability to grant degrees.

University College London Royal Charter (28 Nov. 1836)

University College London Royal Charter (28 Nov. 1836) © UCL

The method that was eventually settled on, and confirmed in law in November 1836, was a system of two royal charters. The first incorporated the London University as a college rather than a university, renaming it University College London. The second charter established a new body called the University of London, which was to serve as a distinct degree-awarding examining body for University College London, and King’s College London. The first students to receive degrees, free from the obligation of a religious test, graduated from UCL in 1839.

You can find out how Tooke’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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