Politics and poetry: a blog post for National Poetry Day 2012

The declaration of the result of the poll following a contested election could sometimes be a violent event. James Walker, the newly returned MP for Beverley in January 1860, suffered ‘a good many hard knocks’ when his procession away from the hustings was pelted with snowballs after his victory was confirmed, and it was not unknown for members to stay away from the declaration if there was perceived to be a risk of significant disorder. On other occasions, however, the declaration marked an opportunity for rival politicians to put the strife of the election contest behind them. There was a typical example of this at the Whitby by-election of November 1859, when Harry Stephen Thompson, the victorious Liberal MP, urged those assembled ‘to let bygones be bygones, to return to your business, and show that though you have exerted yourselves, you know how to treat your adversaries with that proper feeling with which we should wish to be treated ourselves’. His vote of thanks to the returning officer was seconded by his defeated Conservative opponent, a proceeding which was routinely followed at contested elections.

What was less usual, however, was that in his victory speech, Thompson felt moved to commemorate the occasion in verse. With the election taking place under the system of open voting rather than the secret ballot, it had been evident before the result of the poll was formally declared that he would be Whitby’s new MP. After celebrations in the town the evening before the declaration, Thompson had gone home ‘to smoke an extra cigar’ and had decided to compose ‘some nursery rhyme for my children, to remind them what we were doing here’. A pastiche of ‘The house that Jack built’, he read this aloud as part of his speech at the declaration.

This is the Member for Whitby

These are the votes, two hundred and twenty-nine,

The number’s so great that they won’t rhyme,

Though they made me Member for Whitby.

                                 *

These are the electors, all true blue,

Who proved themselves to be good men and true,

By making me Member for Whitby.

                                 *

These are the ladies with eyes so bright,

Who gave the electors no rest at night

Till they’d made me Member for Whitby.

                                 *

These are the non-electors, so free,

Who made up their minds that they’d have me,

And who cheered the electors who gave the votes

Which made me Member for Whitby.

                                 *

These are the committee, who worked early and late,

And proved themselves men of business first-rate,

Who canvassed the electors who gave the votes

Which made me Member for Whitby.

                                  *

There’s my solicitor, Mr. Gray,

I hope he may live for many a day;

He chose the committee who worked early and late,

And proved themselves men of business first-rate;

And who canvassed the electors who gave the votes

Which made me Member for Whitby.’

While this was hardly a great literary effort, the crowd at the declaration greeted it with cheers and general merriment, highlighting the fact that for some of those attending, the election proceedings were as much a source of entertainment as a political event. Thompson’s poem provides some other interesting insights into mid-Victorian electioneering. As well as mentioning his committee and his election agent (Mr. Gray), he took care to refer to women and to non-voters, reflecting the role which both these groups could play in election contests, even at a time when the franchise was limited. Thompson’s choice of the phrase ‘men of business first-rate’ as a term of approbation undoubtedly reflected his own background: from a Yorkshire gentry family, he had become renowned for his business acumen as chairman of the North Eastern Railway. It is also worthy of note that the party colours used at this time varied greatly from constituency to constituency: the Whitby Liberals who had voted for Thompson were ‘true blue’, a colour now usually associated with the Conservative party, while Whitby’s Conservatives used pink.

A more detailed account of elections in Whitby and a biography of Thompson are among the articles available on the House of Commons 1832-68 preview site. For details on how to obtain access to them, please see here.

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