Brothers in the Victorian Commons

This week, as the Labour party conference gets into full swing in Manchester, much of the media’s focus will fall on Ed Miliband, and whether he has the necessary qualities to become Prime Minister. Inevitably, discussions of his character will reference his defeat of his elder brother, David, in the Labour Party leadership election of 2010. In an age that seems to be obsessed with the personalities of our political leaders, this contest for political prominence between the Miliband brothers continues to intrigue. More generally, the very existence of two brothers sitting in the Commons at the same time is in itself a rare occurrence in the modern Parliament.

In the Victorian era, however, the sight of two or more brothers taking their seats in the House of Commons was widespread. Of course, this is not surprising. In the nineteenth century, the parliamentary representation of many constituencies was dominated by one or more families. As is well known, aristocratic domination of boroughs and counties continued long after the 1832 Reform Act. For example, our constituency studies of Westmorland and West Cumberland demonstrate how the Lowther family, headed by the Tory earl of Lonsdale, monopolised the representation: from 1832 to 1841 William Lowther (vice-president of the Board of Trade in Peel’s first ministry) and his younger brother Henry sat for Westmorland in the Conservative interest. Significantly, our research also shows that, after 1832, self-made families with an industrial stake within a division’s boundaries could dominate the representation. For example, in Durham South, the Quaker Pease family, who owned a rapidly expanding commercial network of collieries and iron foundries across the region, enjoyed a formidable political interest. Joseph Pease and later his younger brother Henry sat as Liberal MPs for the division.

In the Victorian Commons, younger brothers were usually steadfastly loyal to their elder siblings. In 1846 Lord Henry Bentinck gave up a life devoted to fox-hunting to enter Parliament as MP for Nottinghamshire North in order to support his elder brother, Lord George Bentinck, who was the leader of the newly-created Protectionist Party. Of course, having a renowned elder brother had its advantages. In 1832 Hedworth Lambton, the younger brother of Lord Durham, a leading Radical, topped the poll at Durham North. He later recalled that ‘I was unknown; but in every part of the county where I went to canvass, only this simple observation was made to me – “you are Lord Durham’s brother, and that is enough'”. It was also common for younger brothers to take over their elder sibling’s seat in the Commons. When the Conservative George Lane Fox retired on health grounds as MP for Beverley in 1840, he was seamlessly succeeded by his younger brother Sackville at the subsequent by-election, prompting the defeated Liberal challenger to imagine ‘some such conversation as this between two brothers after dinner – “It does not suit my convenience to go to parliament this year; just go down to the electors of Beverley; they are good fellows, and will send you”’.

Although fraternal harmony was usually the norm in the Victorian Commons, we have, in our research, uncovered some interesting instances of conflict. Firstly, there were a number of brothers who sat at the same time for opposing political parties. In the 1852-57 Parliament, Lord Robert Pelham-Clinton, Liberal MP for Nottinghamshire North, usually voted against his elder brother, Lord Charles Pelham-Clinton, Conservative MP for Sandwich, in the division lobbies. (In 1846 Robert had followed the lead of his eldest brother, the Earl of Lincoln, and become a free trader, a conversion that destroyed their relationship with their father, the ultra Tory fourth Duke of Newcastle: a notable example of politics splitting families apart.) Meanwhile, between 1835 and 1847, Edward Buller, Liberal MP for Staffordshire North then Stafford, frequently voted in opposition to his elder brother Sir John Yarde Buller, Conservative MP for South Devon. The brothers Charles and George Packe were also political opposites; the elder brother, Charles, MP for Leicestershire South, 1836-67, broke with his family’s Whig tradition by becoming a staunch protectionist, whilst George sat as Liberal MP for Lincolnshire South, 1859-68. Bizarrely the two brothers fell out not over politics but over the felling of trees on the entailed family seat at Prestwold, Leicestershire.

Thus, in researching the Victorian Commons, although we are yet to come across a situation that parallels the Miliband contest, we are continuing to uncover a range of interesting examples of families being divided by parliamentary politics. Articles on many of the constituencies and MPs discussed in this blog are available on the House of Commons 1832-68 preview site. For details on how to obtain free access to them, please see here.

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