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 ourAboutpage. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed herewith regular blogshere.You can also follow us on Twitter@TheVictCommonsand our colleagues @HistParl &@GeorgianLords
Registration is now open for the upcoming History of Parliament / University of East Anglia two-day conference hosted by the School of History at the University of East Anglia, 19-20 April 2023. A draft programme of the papers, covering politics in Britain and its empire, c.1750-1914, is available here.
To book your place please register here. Registration closes on 5 April 2023. If you need more details please contact us. We look forward to seeing you.
Although their formats may have changed, several key elements of nineteenth-century elections – the canvassing of voters, the nomination of candidates and the polling – remain part of the electoral process today. However, one of the most colourful aspects of nineteenth-century election ritual has not survived: the ‘chairing’ of newly elected Members of Parliament. This had long been a key ceremonial part of elections, and was one of the four election scenes depicted by William Hogarth in his ‘Humours of an Election’ (1754-5). It was an important conclusion to the election contest, marking an opportunity for the community to unite in ‘symbolic acceptance of their newly elected representatives’. As with other aspects of election ritual, both voters and non-voters could participate in this event.
The chairing was essentially a victory parade, which took place after the result of the poll had been officially announced at the declaration – sometimes on the same day, or sometimes a day later. It took its name from the chair in which the MP would be transported around the constituency, either carried aloft by his supporters or mounted on a carriage or cart and pulled by horses. The chair was usually elaborately decorated in the MP’s colours and its progress around the constituency was accompanied by a procession which typically included flags and banners, bands playing music (‘See the conquering hero comes’ being one popular choice) and numerous supporters in carriages, on horseback or on foot. Crowds of spectators – often in their thousands – lined the streets or watched from windows overlooking the route.
Although the term ‘chairing’ was often used to describe the procession of victorious MPs around their constituency, this ceremony did not always involve a chair, with MPs instead riding on horseback or in carriages. The contrast between the different types of chairing was clearly recorded by Alicia Bayne in her memoir of her father, George Pryme, MP for Cambridge, 1832-41. She recollected having seen the pre-Reform chairing of the Cambridgeshire MPs Lord Francis Osborne and Henry Adeane where they sat
on wooden chairs, which were fastened to poles and supported on men’s shoulders … Every now and then, when the populace pleased, the procession stopped, and the chairs were tossed up as high as the bearers could reach, amid loud huzzas. I recollect the look of discomfort at such times on Lord F. Osborne’s face.
In contrast with this procession, where the MPs were reminded in a very direct way that they were in the hands of their constituents, her father’s chairing as MP for Cambridge in 1832 alongside his colleague Thomas Spring Rice was more sedate.
On this occasion the two members were seated in a handsome car covered with blue silk, and adorned with rosettes of crimson and blue and buff, their respective party colours. It was drawn by six grey horses, ridden by postilions dressed in blue silk jackets and caps. This cortege, headed by a marshal and three trumpeters on horseback, and followed by a band of music and a numerous cavalcade of horsemen, had a most imposing effect, and paraded the town for many hours.
One constituency in which the traditional form of chairing was a key part of the election ritual was Swansea Boroughs, where John Henry Vivian, a prominent local copper smelter, was the Liberal MP from 1832 until his death in 1855. Vivian’s local popularity meant that he was elected unopposed at six successive general elections. In the absence of a poll, the chairing enabled the population of Swansea and the four neighbouring towns which made up this constituency to give their collective endorsement to Vivian’s position as their representative. A newspaper report of the 1832 ceremony recorded that Vivian
mounted the chair, most handsomely decorated … borne by 24 men, tastefully attired in snow white shirts, ornamented with the colours, and proceeded, with a band of music, the Corporation, and the voters, four abreast, through Wind-street, Castle-street, to St. John’s Church, High-street, and back to the Guildhall.
More details of the chair, which was donated by a local coach-maker, John Francis, were given when it was re-used in 1835.
On the chair “Vivian and independence,” carried by sixteen men, with white shirts decorated with blue and yellow. The chair bore the arms of Mr. Vivian and the Corporation, and “vox populi”. The band played “God save the King,” and “See, the conquering hero comes”. The bells commenced a merry peal. Mr. Vivian was warmly greeted by enthusiastic huzzas by all who were present… the streets were thronged with men, women, and children.
The same chair was still being used in 1841, when the accompanying procession had evolved into a carefully orchestrated event featuring numerous banners and flags; mace bearers; a ‘boat on wheels, with party-coloured Sails’; the Society of Shipwrights and other groups carrying emblems of their trade; Vivian’s proposer and seconder carrying ‘wands’; Swansea’s mayor, aldermen and councillors; the civic officers of Neath, Loughor, Aberavon and Kenfig; and numerous policemen and men carrying staffs. As had become customary, the chairing was followed by an election dinner and a fireworks display.
While chairings at Swansea were orderly civic events, elsewhere, they could be a flashpoint for violence. At Whitby in 1832 the supporters of the defeated candidate Richard Moorsom were reluctant to accept the result, and hoped to unseat the victorious Conservative Aaron Chapman through an election petition. They therefore decided to chair Moorsom, carrying him to his house in a chair inscribed ‘The Patriot’s Chair’, ‘The Man of the People’ and ‘Moorsom and the Independence of Whitby’. Chapman, a shipowner, was also paraded through the town in ‘a boatlike chair’, but he ‘had hardly alighted’ from it at the Angel Inn ‘when the crowd made a rush, smashed the boat into a thousand pieces’, and carried off fragments as souvenirs.
Similar destruction took place when Ripon’s two MPs were chaired in 1841, with both the chairs and five blue silk banners torn apart by the crowd. Meanwhile at Pontefract in 1847, where the victorious MPs paraded around the town in two chairs placed on a carriage frame, the crowd rushed at the chairs to take the decorations. An elderly man fell down in the melee, was run over by the carriage and died instantly. At the next contest in the town, a by-election in 1851, a ‘splendid chair, covered with orange-covered drapery, decorated with ribands’ was ‘mounted upon a lofty four-wheeled van, drawn by four grey horses’. Wary of rumours that the violence of the previous election would be repeated, the new MP Beilby Lawley asked to be given ‘a single moment’ to get down from the chair once the procession was over. However, before Lawley could even seat himself in the chair, ‘an organized rabble’ overpowered the police constables who were protecting it, and tore the chair and van ‘into a thousand pieces’, which were taken away as trophies. The Leeds Mercury hoped that this debacle would put paid to ‘the foolish custom of chairing’.
There were some signs that chairings were dwindling in popularity, as MPs were reluctant to undergo what they often regarded as ‘a very awkward ordeal’. One of Pryme’s fellow MPs for Cambridge, Sir Alexander Cray Grant, avoided a chairing when he was returned at an 1840 by-election, instead donating 100 guineas to local charities in lieu of the money it would have cost. After violence at the declaration of the poll at Ripon in 1852, which saw the victorious MPs denied a hearing, attacked by the crowd as they left the hustings and having to be rescued by their friends, the chairing was abandoned. While Vivian had taken part in six chairings at Swansea, his successor as MP Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn did not continue the tradition after 1855. Legislation passed the previous year – the 1854 Corrupt Practices Prevention Act – had not directly prohibited chairings, but it had stipulated that all payments ‘made for or on account of any Chairing’ would be illegal payments, as would payments for ribbons, cockades, flags, banners and bands of music. Although this reform did not eradicate these colourful aspects of elections, it did have an effect in curbing them. Chairings involving an actual chair were seldom reported thereafter, although Sir James Elphinstone’s chairing at Portsmouth in 1868 in ‘a boat placed on wheels’ echoed some of the elaborate ceremonies of the earlier period.
After the 1868 general election the Newcastle Daily Chronicle recorded that even in its alternative form of riding around the constituency on horseback or in a carriage, ‘the old ceremony [of chairing] is becoming obsolete; its day has gone by’. In the one constituency it found (East Essex) where the new MPs made ‘a triumphal entry’ after the election, ‘in an open carriage … escorted by horsemen’, the ceremony was far more muted than before, with fewer than two hundred spectators rather than the thousands who would previously have attended. Even as late as the 1880 election, however, MPs could find themselves at the mercy of the crowd when a version of the chairing was performed. At Durham South in 1880, Joseph Whitwell Pease and Frederick Lambton endured ‘a vigorous manifestation of popular enthusiasm’ as they were escorted to Darlington station by a procession. The horses were removed from their carriage, which was pulled by long ropes ‘eagerly seized by all who could get a hand upon them’. Much to the MPs’ surprise, the crowd ignored the protests of officials at the station and pulled the carriage all the way to the platform.
F. O’Gorman, ‘Campaign rituals and ceremonies: the social meaning of elections in England 1780-1860’, Past & Present, 135:1 (1992), 79-115
P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work. Local politics and national parties 1832-1841 (2002), 94-5
J. Vernon, Politics and the people. A study in English political culture c. 1815-1867 (1993), 93-8
Victorian politics was frequently conceived and constructed around horse and racecourse related allusions and analogies. Given the ubiquity of the horse to 19th century life this is hardly surprising. A tantalising insight into this genre appeared 30 years ago in James Vernon’s pioneering Politics and the People (1993). But on the whole modern scholars have paid remarkably little attention to the way equine inspired political concepts helped to shape public perceptions of politicians and parties, and how developments within these terms of reference reflected broader shifts at work in a rapidly industrialising and urbanising society, in which the role of the horse itself began to undergo fundamental change.
At almost every level of politics – from the fate of bills and parties in Parliament, to the use of ‘whips’ to control MPs, to elections with candidates ‘going the course’ under competing ‘colours’ – equestrian terms and imagery were used to conceptualise political activity and events. Obvious legacies of this appropriation of horse related vocabulary include the term ‘first past the post’ to describe the electoral system in single member constituencies.
Reinforcing this equine-centred political culture, politicians themselves were often as fond of ‘the Turf’as they were of Parliament, with many leading figures hosting and patronising world-class racing fixtures, including most famously the Tory leader and prime minister Lord Derby. Lord George Bentinck, the leader of the agriculturalists who opposed Peel’s commercial free trade policies in 1846, splitting the Tory party, was just one of many highly influential MPs obsessed by the Turf. For Peel’s more vehement opponents it seemed entirely fitting (and perhaps no coincidence) that after repealing the protectionist corn laws and ‘betraying’ England’s agricultural interest, Peel met an untimely end after being thrown and crushed by an unruly ‘hunter’ horse, having ignored the warnings of his groom.
At election time, the horse came into its own. This was not just because of the endless racing terms and analogies used in election contests but also because the ‘conveyance’ of voters and related horse-hire formed a substantial chunk of most candidates’ election expenses. Marching horses and horse drawn carriage processions were also an integral part of the public theatre and ritual of Victorian electioneering.
Once in Parliament the associations continued. The calendar itself – the timing of adjournments, recesses and sessions – was designed to facilitate attendance at the great equestrian events of each season, as one of our previous blogs about Derby Day has shown. In debates, the role of the horse and associated appliances served as a standard metaphor in discussions about almost every conceivable subject, often shaping the conceptual framework around which a policy or initiative was interpreted and argued.
When the Liberal party famously split apart over the 1866 reform bill, for example, one of the main objections was that the bill separated enfranchisement from redistribution, ‘putting the cart before the horse’ as many rebel Whig-Liberal ‘Adullamite’ MPs complained. But as one of the bill’s more radical supporters explained, ‘it was necessary to know the size of the cart and the weight to be carried before the proper number of horses to draw it could be determined on’.
Fittingly, when the Tory government passed its seismic 1867 Reform Act the following year, against all ‘odds’, the bill was almost universally caricatured as a horse, either winning a race against the Liberals or breaking loose and taking a mammoth ‘leap in the dark’ with the UK constitution.
The allusion here to the earlier 1832 Reform Act, also widely caricatured as a horse or a horse drawn coach in texts and imagery, would have been clear to contemporaries. In one particularly popular image, for example, a ‘reform’ horse carrying a terrified monarch was portrayed vaulting both ‘vested interests’ and a ‘revolutionary torrent’, while being chased by a pack of Tory wolves.
Decoding these sometimes rather obscure (to a modern observer) references adds a new layer of understanding to the way early Victorian politics was framed, discussed and perceived by many contemporaries, especially at the more popular level. The central role of equestrian metaphors and imagery, in particular, serves as a reminder of just how important the horse was, not only in everyday Victorian life but also for the construction of an entire political mindset.
Related info: click here for the programme of a recent conference on ‘The Horse and the Country House: Art, Politics and Mobility’
This month our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses the 1858 ‘commission of lunacy’ on the Hertfordshire MP, Henry Meux (pronounced “Mews”). Much of the trial centred around events in Hertfordshire during the 1857 general election, where Meux was elected despite suffering from increasing symptoms of general paresis.
In June 1858 the Conservative MP for Hertfordshire, Sir Henry Meux (1817-1883), was the subject of a sensational nine-day ‘commission of lunacy’ – or ‘lunacy trial’, as contemporaries also described it. With the witness box filled daily with lords, ladies and MPs, and every detail of a noted public figure’s private life under discussion, the London-based jury trial received widespread coverage from the national and provincial press.
Despite his status as an MP, at the time of the trial all parties agreed that Meux was ‘incapable of taking care of himself’. He was bedbound and suffering from what contemporary doctors termed ‘general paralysis’. Today the condition is termed general paresis, or general paralysis of the insane (GPI), and is now known to be caused by untreated, late-stage syphilis. Meux lived for a further 25 years following the trial in a minimally conscious state. As one of Britain’s wealthiest men he was able to receive home care at his London and Hertfordshire residences until his death.
The trial was not convened to judge the present condition of Meux’s mental health, but to ascertain his ‘state of mind’ a year earlier. On 3 July 1857 he had amended his will to leave his entire estate to his wife, Lady Louisa Caroline Meux (1836-1894). They had married in January 1856, and Meux’s sisters were unhappy that Lady Meux now stood to inherit her husband’s extensive estates, as well as his share in the famous Horse Shoe Brewery. The stakes were large. In today’s money, Meux was worth in excess of £100 million.
Evidence provided to the trial suggested that Meux had started to display the initial symptoms of general paresis as early as January 1855. By Christmas 1856 several doctors had diagnosed some form of ‘disease of the brain’, and his business partner, the MP for Berwick Dudley Marjoribanks, observed a ‘great nervousness and extreme lowness of his spirits’. Over the following eighteen months he experienced a deterioration in his speech, physical mobility and mental health. He suffered increasingly from delusions of grandeur, an inability to concentrate and periods of depression.
On 31 March 1857, four months before he amended his will, Meux was elected for a third time for the three-member constituency of Hertfordshire. The timing of the election meant that Meux’s health during the month-long campaign, and the first few weeks of the 1857 Parliament, took centre stage at the trial.
Meux was still mobile and able to communicate during early 1857, but prior to the election several of his parliamentary colleagues had deemed that ‘his state of health was such as utterly to incapacitate him from undergoing the labour’ of an MP. Accordingly, his two fellow Conservative MPs for Hertfordshire urged him to retire. For Hertfordshire’s Conservative party the proposal also had the added benefit of avoiding a potentially expensive contest with a resurgent local Liberal interest.
When the scheme was presented to Meux he initially agreed to retire. But within days he changed his mind and decided to stand ‘independently’ of his ‘former colleagues’ as a ‘Liberal Conservative’. Following reports of the simmering dispute, the Irish peer, Viscount Ranelagh, briefly sought an alternative seat for Meux at Middlesex. This was until he met him in person. Ranelagh advised the trial that by the middle of March 1857, it was clear that Meux ‘was no longer master of his own judgment’ and that ‘after I had seen him I would not have dreamt of proposing him as a member of parliament’.
Elections were a lucrative business, and with the official Conservative party no longer organising his campaign, a new team of agents eagerly took advantage of Meux. An Essex-based agent, Richard Lambert, tracked Meux down in London and convinced him that he was the right man for the job. Lambert spoke on Meux’s behalf when meeting constituents and on the hustings. He also convinced Meux that in seeking a pact with local Liberals and trying to force his retirement, the official Conservative committee had orchestrated a ‘Jesuitical and deep-laid plot to injure the Conservative interest’ in the county.
Unsurprisingly Lambert advised the trial that he ‘did not notice any weakness of his [Meux’s] mind’. Constituents were also happy to take advantage of Meux’s large purse-strings, and according to one trial witness he was reported to have been ‘very well used by the [Hertfordshire] electors’.
According to most witnesses, and contemporary newspaper reports, Meux’s week-long canvass led to a severe deterioration in his health. One friend in the local party remarked that Meux ‘seemed to hardly know me’, was ‘very incoherent’ and spoke ‘all in broken sentences’. One former agent suggested that all discussions with electors were ‘supplied by the gentlemen who were with him’, and another witness indicated that:
when the electors came up and proffered their support he [Meux] merely shook hands with them, and said, “I thank you.” He was much excited in his manner. He broke off in conversation; there was no continuity in it.
At the nomination, there was clear concern for Meux’s wellbeing. The Conservative Morning Post reported at the time that he ‘appeared to be very ill’ and ‘merely addressed a few words’ to the assembled crowd. More detail was provided by a trial witness who suggested that
a very great change had taken place in him. I observed his countenance, which was haggard, weary and distressed. There was a look about the eye indicating feebleness of intellect. I bowed to him as he passed me on the steps of the [nomination] hustings, but he took no notice. His bodily state was more feeble – he looked more like a man out of the grave.
Despite his inability to address the crowd, Meux was elected unopposed as one of Hertfordshire’s three MPs. Four candidates came forward at the nomination, but one Conservative eventually stood down to avoid a contest. If the trial evidence had stopped with the 1857 election, it is likely the jury would have declared Meux unfit to amend his will later that July. However, over the next few weeks his health appeared to improve. Crucially, two MPs suggested that Meux had been spotted on the parliamentary estate as late as July 1857.
Colonel Gilpin, MP for Bedford, stated that while he had noted ‘some little difficulty in his utterance’ and was ‘most struck with his walk’, he had seen Meux ‘three times in the House of Commons’ since the  election. Likewise, Henry Danby Seymour, MP for Poole, stated that he ‘distinctly remember[ed] seeing him [Meux] in the House [of Commons] after the dissolution’ in March 1857, and that as late as July 1857, ‘the idea that he was breaking down intellectually never entered my head’. The Conservative government were evidently less confident, securing a pair for Meux for the entire parliamentary session. His only formal recorded activity after the 1857 election was the presentation of a petition on 13 July 1857, ten days after he amended his will.
As well as his rare appearances at Westminster, Meux attended to his business interests in August 1857, engaged in several hunting parties in Scotland during the summer recess, was present at militia drills in Hertfordshire in December and hosted a ‘large and distinguished circle of visitors’ at his Theobalds Park estate that Christmas. Meux was clearly in very poor health by this point, however, as fearful guests demanded that his gun be unloaded.
Meux’s apparent improvement following the 1857 election, and his continued activity that summer and autumn meant that while the jury were ‘unanimous about the present insanity of Sir Henry Meux’, they ‘were unable to fix the date when such insanity began’. As there was no requirement until legislation was passed in 1886 for MPs found to be ‘of unsound mind’ to vacate their seats, Meux remained an MP until the 1859 election, when he formally retired. As it turned out, the amendments to his will were never enacted. His only son, Henry Bruce Meux (1856-1900), came of age prior to his father’s death in 1883, when he inherited his baronetcy and estate.
A draft version of our full biography of Meux for the 1832-68 project is available on request.
A. Milne-Smith, Out of his Mind: Masculinity and Mental Illness in Victorian Britain (2022)
R. Ashton, One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (2017)
R. G. Wilson, ‘Meux family’, Oxf. DNB [www.oxforddnb.com].
The History of Parliament and the School of History, University of East Anglia, would like to invite proposals for papers for ‘Politics Before Democracy: Britain and its world, c.1750-1914’. This two-day conference, hosted at UEA on 19-20 April 2023, will bring together established academics, early career researchers and postgraduate students working in the field of British political history.
We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers on any aspect of British political history, c.1750-1914. Papers might explore (but need not be confined to) the following areas: British domestic politics; foreign policy; elections and electoral politics; gender and politics; political culture; imperial policy; economic policy.
In what is now a well established tradition, we’re marking the new year with a look back over the past twelve months of blogging on our Victorian Commons site, where we share research about our ongoing work on the 1832-68 House of Commons project. Over 300 blog posts are now available on a range of topics connected with the period.
When it comes to our blogs in 2022, it has been a year of anniversaries, including the tenth anniversary of starting our Victorian Commons blog in July 2012. For the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, we took the opportunity to look at the involvement of one of her predecessors, Queen Victoria, in parliamentary ceremonies, from state openings to prorogations. Our editor Dr Philip Salmon reflected on the 190th anniversary of the 1832 Reform Act with a blog reassessing the role of this landmark measure in the development of the modern British political system.
Our main focus in terms of anniversaries was, however, the 150th anniversary of the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872. We set this reform in context by looking at the system of public voting in operation at elections before 1872. There was a lengthy campaign both inside and outside Parliament for the secret ballot, and Dr Martin Spychal looked at two different aspects of this. As part of his series on the notable female Radical politician Harriet Grote – which also featured blogs on her involvement in efforts to establish a radical party at Westminster and in radical parliamentary tactics in the 1835 and 1836 sessions – he considered the campaign for the ballot in the 1830s. This included novel tactics such as the distribution of model ballot boxes to radicals and reformers across the country.
The cause of the secret ballot was later taken up by the Bristol MP Henry Berkeley, who brought the topic forward on an annual basis in the Commons. He entertained fellow MPs with anecdotes of electoral corruption, including ‘bowls full of sovereigns’ to be distributed to voters at Great Yarmouth. Berkeley’s use of humour in parliamentary debate was well-documented; in contrast, a blog from Dr Stephen Ball found that the description of Sir Robert Peel’s smile resembling ‘the silver plate on a coffin’ has been misattributed.
Our blogging on the secret ballot continued with analysis of the impact which its introduction had in multi-member seats, including at local elections. We were very pleased to take part in two events marking the ballot’s 150th anniversary: an in-person symposium at the Institute of Historical Research in honour of the late Valerie Cromwell, and an online event organised in conjunction with the Parliamentary Archives, which was recorded and can be viewed here.
Our blogging this year has also picked up on some themes we have covered in the past, including the reluctance of some MPs to adopt strict party labels, as in the case of James Wentworth Buller. Our series from Dr Kathryn Rix on parliamentary buildings continued with a look at the building occupied by MPs for almost half of our 1832-68 period, the temporary chamber used after the 1834 fire. We have also blogged about a proposal made in 1848 to hold parliamentary sessions in Dublin to consider Irish business. Biographies of MPs are a core element of our project, and those we have highlighted in our blogs this year include the Speaker, John Evelyn Denison, and a prominent Irish MP, Charles Owen O’Conor, the O’Conor Don, the latter featuring in a guest post from one of our external contributors, Dr. Aidan Enright. We are always open to offers of guest blogs from researchers working on 19th century British and Irish parliamentary history.
Our final blog of 2022 focused on levels of parliamentary attendance and absence among MPs. We are looking forward to sharing more of our research in the coming year through our blog, our social media channels, our publications and at conferences. We are particularly looking forward to conferences being supported by the History of Parliament at UEA in April 2023 and at Durham University on the politics of organisation in July 2023. To keep up to date with our latest plans, please follow our blog or find us on Twitter (@TheVictCommons), Mastodon (@VictorianCommons@mastodonapp.uk) or Instagram (victoriancommons). Thank you to all our loyal followers and readers for their support. We wish you all the best for 2023!
In April 2013, the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee reflected that owing to the ‘shrinking working year at Westminster’, it felt as though MPs were ‘hardly working’, leading one correspondent to a London newspaper to suggest providing them with ‘a bonus scheme related to attendance’. However, concern over the number of empty seats in the Commons chamber is hardly new and was a common theme of political discussion in the period following the Reform Act of 1832.
As the parliamentary session of 1852 closed, The Times noted that while the House of Commons had divided 127 times that year, on only 19 occasions had the number of MPs present exceeded 300. Its reminder to the country’s 656 Members that they had been ‘sent to Westminster to work’ was issued at a time when their attendance of the Commons was being closely watched, with questions being raised about their dedication to parliamentary duties.
Although MPs were obliged to attend the House of Commons, ordinarily they could not be compelled to do so, the infliction of fines for non-attendance having ceased towards the close of the seventeenth century. However, the matter of parliamentary attendance began to attract public attention during the passage of the Reform Act in 1832, which was expected to make the Commons a more popular national forum than hitherto. Prior to this, electors usually judged their MPs’ activity by reading reports of their speeches in the press or in the pages of Hansard. However, only a small minority of MPs ever spoke in debate and it would later be noted that the most conspicuous speakers were not always the most diligent Members. The large majority silently recorded their votes in divisions, although when matters of great public interest were at issue unofficial division lists appeared in the newspapers. The first attempt to collate information about these divisions was made in 1834 with the publication of a selective and not entirely accurate return of each MPs’ votes during the first two sessions of the reformed parliament. Richard Gooch’s ‘synopsis of votes’ attracted public interest and was even used at the 1835 general election to expose the absenteeism of a sitting Whig MP.
Early in 1836 MPs bowed to calls for their activities to be more widely publicised by initiating the official publication of their divisions. Provincial newspapers were now able to furnish detailed accounts of the voting activity of local members, who were no longer able to evade the public eye, the Conservative journal John Bull promising that every division would now ‘be scrutinized’ with ‘a jealous eye’, and warning MPs that during the session the ‘gaieties of Paris, the allurements of Italy, and the sports of the field, must be forsaken’. That year a national survey of MPs’ voting activity revealed a wide disparity in attendance between the two parliamentary parties, it being noted that whereas 34 Whigs voted in more than half of the divisions, only five Conservative MPs did so.
Although some observers believed that voting in divisions was ‘a fair criterion’ of the extent of an MP’s attendance at the House, it could never be ascertained whether a Member had sat through a debate before being required to vote. By the same token, MPs who may have spent hours listening to a debate would not appear in a division list if they paired with an opposition Member before the division was held. Nevertheless, by the mid-1840s absenteeism among Irish MPs, some of whom wished to boycott ‘the imperial parliament’, was so acute that it threatened to disrupt the sittings of Commons committees. A comprehensive analysis of the ‘attendance accounts’ published by the Spectator in October 1849 confirmed that ‘parliamentary truant playing’ continued to be rife. Finding that only 65 Members had voted in more than half of the divisions, 27 of whom held government office, it was concluded that some low-scoring MPs appeared to have ‘been elected for no purpose at all’. The report was widely carried by the national and provincial press, although some commentators argued that attending divisions was a doubtful standard by which to estimate a Member’s usefulness. While admiring the ‘unparalleled energy’ of the Bradford MP, Colonel Thomas Perronet Thompson, for voting in 216 of the session’s 219 divisions, the Hampshire Telegraph cast doubt on whether he had understood all of the questions on which he had voted, and contended that a man who spent an evening studying the parliamentary ‘blue books’ at his club, but avoided dividing on subjects with which he was not acquainted, could never be accused of neglecting his duty. The fine details of government measures could, it was argued, ‘be best settled’ with only five or six well-informed Members being present.
However, other commentators believed that voting was ‘the definite deed’ by which MPs could be judged, and constituents remained eager for ‘a short and easy reckoning’ of their representatives’ performance. Regular attendance was frequently demanded in two-member constituencies represented by MPs of opposing parties, the case of Gloucester demonstrating that the balance of representation was upset when the borough’s Liberal MP voted 109 times and his Conservative colleague only 16. The campaign for administrative reform which arose from the debacle of the Crimean War encouraged provincial newspapers to maintain an even closer watch on their MPs. A register maintained by the Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association furnished another comprehensive return of voting behaviour in September 1853, when it was found that fewer than one in six MPs attended more than half of the session’s divisions, and 44 voted in fewer than one tenth. Metropolitan MPs, some of whom were the keenest advocates of parliamentary reform, were among the worst offenders, and the Association encouraged constituencies to try the delinquents at the bar of public opinion. Such advice did little good, however, as a subsequent analysis in 1856 revealed that only 95 MPs had voted in more than half of divisions, while 89 were absent for more than 180 of the 198 held in the session.
Newspaper interest in this matter appears to have waned under Lord Palmerston’s emollient premiership between 1859 and 1865, but when party politics reignited over the reform bills in 1866 the relevant divisions were largely attended, a fact attested to by the Parliamentary Buff Book, which provided annual reports on MPs’ attendance until 1881. By then party discipline was more rigorously enforced and a decade later it was ‘quite common’ for more than 500 MPs to vote in a single division. By 1899 it was reported that divisions were ‘extraordinarily well attended’, and the absentee MP appeared to be a thing of the past.
K. Rix, ‘“Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the Reformed Commons, 1833-1850’, Parliamentary History, 33:3 (2014), 453-74
This guest blog comes from Dr. Aidan Enright, of Leeds Beckett University, who has recently published a book on the O’Conor Don’s political career, and who has also written the biographical article on the O’Conor Don for our 1832-68 House of Commons project.
Charles Owen O’Conor (1838-1906) was a prominent Irish Liberal Catholic MP who sought to advance Catholic and Irish interests within the Union and the empire while resisting the forces of secularism and nationalism. Born into a wealthy landowning family who could trace their lineage to the last high king of Ireland in the twelfth century, he inherited large estates in counties Roscommon and Sligo, and was more commonly known by the honorary Gaelic title, the O’Conor Don.
First elected to Parliament at a by-election in 1860, the O’Conor Don vowed to follow in the Liberal footsteps of his grandfather, Owen, and father, Denis, both of whom were allies of Daniel O’Connell in the campaign for Catholic emancipation in the 1820s and sat as Liberal MPs for County Roscommon in the 1830s and 1840s. But with his father having also served as a junior lord of the treasury in Lord John Russell’s Whig-Liberal government during the Great Irish Famine, the O’Conor Don was wary of being perceived as a ‘regular Whig or English party hack … waiting to receive office’. Indeed, when Russell offered him the same post in 1866, he turned it down.
Political expediency aside, the O’Conor Don was a fiercely independent and devout Catholic whose Liberalism was inflected with a conservative ultramontanism. He therefore differed from the Liberal Party on the education question, particularly its support for the secular Queen’s colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway, and its opposition to a charter for the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. Close to but not subservient to the Catholic bishops, he argued that a truly liberal state ought to provide ‘freedom of education,’ enabling all denominations to offer the type of education they wanted, either in their own universities or colleges, or through one national university with affiliated colleges. Like most Irish Liberal MPs, he thought William Gladstone a great man who would ‘do justice’ to Ireland by disestablishing the Protestant Church of Ireland and tackling the land and education questions. The Liberal Party swept to power on this platform in 1868, delivering disestablishment in 1869 and a land act in 1870. However, Gladstone’s university bill of 1873, which proposed a national university, was defeated due to the absence of funding for its Catholic college. The O’Conor Don opposed the bill on these grounds, warning that the failure of Parliament to address Irish Catholics’ desire for a Catholic education would only strengthen the call for Irish home rule.
He was not, however, speaking as a supporter of home rule. Indeed, the O’Conor Don declined to join Isaac Butt’s Home Government Association in 1870 and opposed his federalist proposals at a national conference in November 1873. Disillusioned with politics, the O’Conor Don considered standing down at the 1874 general election, but his fellow Liberal, William Monsell, convinced him to stay the course. Returned unopposed for a third time, he sat as an independent Liberal, refusing to join Butt’s Home Rule Party while cooperating with Nationalists, Liberals and Conservatives to achieve Irish reforms. In 1876-7, he opposed Butt’s proposals for fixity of tenure for tenant farmers on the basis that it would lead to a form of dual ownership that would satisfy neither landlord nor tenant. Instead, the O’Conor Don argued that the state should facilitate the transfer of land from landlords to tenants through compulsory purchase, thereby making the latter owner occupiers. In 1878 his long-standing support for temperance saw him guide a bill for the Sunday closing of public houses in Ireland through the House, while his lobbying behind the scenes helped put the Irish language on the intermediate education curriculum. In 1879 he introduced a bill for an examining university for Catholic colleges, which prompted Disraeli’s Conservative government to introduce and pass their own bill for an examining university for secular and denominational colleges, namely, the Royal University of Ireland.
Despite these successes, the O’Conor Don’s opposition to home rule and fixity of tenure made him unpopular with nationalists in County Roscommon. But he refused to bend his views to popular opinion, stating publicly that the job of an MP was to represent the interests of his constituents in accordance with his own judgement. During the 1880 general election campaign, Charles Stuart Parnell, the MP for County Meath, denounced the O’Conor Don as ‘a symbol of West Britonism in Ireland’ and ensured there were two nationalist candidates standing against him. He duly lost his seat to J. J. O’Kelly, an anti-clerical republican. The O’Conor Don reluctantly put himself forward to contest a County Wexford by-election for the Liberal Party in 1883 but was comprehensively defeated by the nationalist candidate, William Redmond.
His parliamentary career now over, the O’Conor Don nonetheless used his Dublin Castle and Westminster connections to make the case for land, local government and franchise reform. Repulsed by the agrarian agitations of the Land League and the tacit support for them from Parnell’s Home Rule Party, and, increasingly, the bishops and clergy, he split from Gladstone and the Liberal Party on home rule in 1886. Although ‘no lover of the union’, he opposed home rule again in 1893, employing the orthodox unionist argument that an Irish Parliament dominated by nationalists and republicans would lead to the break-up of the Union and the empire. He was, therefore, a Catholic unionist, despite his discomfort with the often anti-Catholic rhetoric of popular Protestant unionism. He was also a lifelong loyalist, as evidenced by his bearing of the standard of Ireland at the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. But the O’Conor Don was now firmly ensconced in the margins of Irish politics, his eclectic mix of ‘old liberal opinions’ no longer tenable in a society increasingly divided along Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist lines.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 theseblogs by Rebekah Moore on the History of Parliament blog.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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”’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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  session, we communicated freely, but we could find no heroes, no, no decent legislators.
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.
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’.
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 , 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.
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.
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’.
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…
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)
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.
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’.
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.
‘North Devon’, in P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work (2002), pp. 146-56.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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]’.
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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:
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.
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.
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’.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.