In July 1841 Joseph Holdsworth (1789-1857), a prosperous local dyer, was elected as Liberal MP for his native town of Wakefield. Only nine months later he found himself out of Parliament, having been unseated by an election petition. Holdsworth was not alone in losing his seat on petition; what made his case unique was the reason for his downfall. It was not bribery or corruption which ended his parliamentary career, but the fact that at the time of his election, he technically held the position of returning officer, and was therefore barred from standing as a candidate.
The events of the 1841 Wakefield contest are best described as shambolic, with confusion not only about Holdsworth’s eligibility to stand, but also the correct date for the nomination of candidates. At previous elections in the constituency (1832, 1835 and 1837), Holdsworth had presided as returning officer. In 1841 he was invited by over 200 voters to come forward as a candidate himself, in opposition to the sitting Conservative MP, William Lascelles. Holdsworth accepted, and wrote to his deputy and to the sheriff who had re-appointed him as returning officer earlier that year, resigning the post. The sheriff appointed Thomas Barff to act as returning officer in Holdsworth’s place.
During the election campaign, reports circulated that because Holdsworth had not resigned as returning officer within a week of being re-appointed in March 1841, his resignation was invalid. The Conservatives warned electors that Holdsworth was therefore disqualified, and that any votes for him would be ‘thrown away’. Holdsworth himself sought legal advice about his chances of retaining the seat if elected. To complicate matters further, Barff, the replacement returning officer, inadvertently gave insufficient notice of the date of the hustings, initially fixing 29 June. After he realised his mistake, he announced that the nomination would take place on 1 July. The Conservatives, however, took the precautionary measure of holding their own nomination proceedings on 29 June, presided over by a local solicitor, at which Lascelles was proposed, seconded and declared elected unopposed. When Barff conducted the official nomination two days later, it was Holdsworth who won the ensuing poll. Two petitions were presented against his return, and the election committee which heard the case in April 1842 ruled – by 4 votes to 3 – that Holdsworth’s efforts to resign as returning officer were indeed invalid. He was unseated, and Lascelles was declared elected in his place.
This did not mark the end of the matter. The following month a local public meeting urged Lascelles to resign rather than take advantage of the ‘legal subtlety’ which had seated him without a majority. Lascelles refused, arguing that he had given ample notice of Holdsworth’s disqualification. The events of 1841 were not easily forgotten: one local meeting snubbed Lascelles by asking another MP to present its petition against the 1843 factory bill, amidst cries of ‘He does not represent us’. Lascelles found himself in a very uncomfortable position when the next general election took place in 1847: his commitment to free trade meant that many of his Conservative supporters had withdrawn their backing, yet the circumstances of his ousting of Holdsworth meant that there was little Liberal sympathy for him. He switched constituencies, standing instead for Knaresborough. Holdsworth was invited to contest Wakefield again in 1847, but declined due to the recent death of his wife. Although he remained active in local politics, serving as Wakefield’s mayor in 1849, his failed attempt to rid himself of his obligations as returning officer in 1841 meant that his parliamentary career was a brief and unsatisfactory one.
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