To campaign for a seat in the House of Commons, only to find that no one has voted for you, is something that must haunt the imagination of any aspiring MP. In the 1850s this fate befell two controversial politicians who contested seats in their native boroughs. However, the unusual circumstances of these two mid-Victorian parliamentary by-elections have led historians to underestimate the popularity of both men. The two cases demonstrate that the statistics contained in the polling returns for parliamentary elections do not always speak for themselves, and need to be interpreted by using contemporary reports which provide a context for each contest.
The first example concerns Humphrey Brown, who sat as a Liberal MP for Tewkesbury from 1847 until he was defeated at the 1857 general election, at which time he was being investigated for his part in the recent collapse of the Royal British Bank. Having been declared bankrupt and convicted of fraud in February 1858, Brown served four months in jail before returning to his native borough to contest a by-election in March 1859. The fact that he failed to receive a single vote at this contest has been taken as evidence that mid-Victorian society did not adopt ‘an indulgent attitude to joint stock fraud’. The apparent disappearance of Brown’s electoral support does, however, require elucidation.
Contemporary newspaper reports demonstrate that Brown, who had been instrumental in creating employment in his constituency during his time as an MP, remained personally popular in Tewkesbury, particularly with the town’s many non-electors. At the nomination of the candidates he clearly won the show of hands, the customary way of gauging the popularity of the contestants, albeit with the assistance of the unenfranchised spectators, many of whom held both hands aloft in his favour. His opponent, Frederick Lygon, demanded a poll, but after being taken ill, Brown retired on the eve of polling day. (He had been diagnosed with kidney disease while in jail, and died the following year.) Even though Brown’s resignation effectively settled the outcome of the contest, the poll had to take place, having been set in motion by the returning officer. Furthermore, because Brown had won the show of hands, his opponent was required to poll a majority of the registered electors, and it was some hours before enough of them could be persuaded to leave their businesses to provide the necessary votes.
In February 1857, when William Johnston, an exponent of ‘evangelical Orange Toryism’, tried to wrest his native borough of Downpatrick from the domination of the Ker family, he received only one vote. This apparent failure has tempted one historian to view him as ‘an isolated, or even comedic, phenomenon’ at this early point in his long political career. (He later represented Belfast, 1868-78, and Belfast South, 1885-1902.) Once again, however, the true picture is more complicated. After Johnston won the show of hands against the sitting Liberal-Conservative MP, Richard Ker, his agent argued that he should be declared elected without a poll, as the register of electors had not been compiled in accordance with the relevant Act of Parliament. The election assessor rejected this objection, but Johnston, perhaps sensing a moral victory over the borough’s proprietor, ‘did not make the slightest effort to bring forward voters’ to the ensuing poll, the one vote in his favour being polled against his wishes. In spite of this apparently crushing defeat, Johnston’s influence grew in a borough where, at the 1859 general election, he managed to get Ker’s more Conservative elder brother to stand, and acted as chairman of his election committee.
In neither of these cases is it suggested that the losing candidates were ever likely to overturn the powerful proprietorial interests that faced them. It is almost certain, however, that had Brown and Johnston contested their respective polls they would have made a rather better showing than is recorded in the election returns.
There are other examples of polling taking place at what were effectively uncontested elections. At the Ripon by-election in December 1860, Dr. Frederick Lees, a temperance candidate, won the show of hands, but immediately after a poll was demanded and its date fixed, he retired. Again, the poll had to take place and Lees was defeated by 197 votes to nil, his supporters having been advised that there was no expectation that they would vote.
We expect to find and explain other instances of anomalous election results in the course of our research into the constituencies of Britain and Ireland between 1832 and 1868, and perhaps help to rescue the reputations of some of the men who, on first impressions at least, appear to have suffered the most ignominious fate facing any parliamentary candidate.
J. Taylor, ‘Commercial fraud and public men in Victorian Britain’, Historical Research, 78: 200 (2005), 230-52.
A. Jackson, The Two Unions. Ireland, Scotland, and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007 (2012), 290.
Belfast News-letter, 12 Feb. 1857; The Standard, 9 Mar. 1859; Leeds Mercury, 22 Dec. 1860; The Times, 25 Dec. 1860.