In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, Scrooge’s nephew describes Christmas as ‘a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time’. For many Victorian Members of Parliament, ‘kind’ and ‘charitable’ giving at Christmas was an important part of their role as a major local figure, so with Christmas now upon us, it seems timely to consider the reasons behind MPs’ festive philanthropy.
The electoral influence of wealth in Victorian politics is well known. Candidates were expected to ‘nurse’ their constituency, making charitable donations to an array of local causes and institutions. Such generosity was not just confined to Christmas. As the Conservative MP Frederick Milner dryly noted in 1897, ‘no pig, or cow, or horse dies in the constituency without the member being … asked to contribute towards another’. Expectations as to the extent of giving were particularly high if the MP was also a major landowner, a situation that was common between the First and Second Reform Acts, and beyond.
Examples of MPs’ philanthropy at Christmas are widespread. Richard Bethell, Conservative Member for the East Riding of Yorkshire from 1832 to 1841, gave annual donations of ‘wheat, beef, and seasonable clothing’ to the ‘poor families residing upon his several estates’. Sir Robert Juckes Clifton, MP for Nottingham, 1861-66, provided an annual Christmas dinner for his tenants, giving them a ‘repast of the most sumptuous and bountiful character’. Clifton also regularly donated ‘large supplies of evergreens’ to decorate the city’s Roman Catholic Church at Christmas.
While it is perhaps tempting to conclude that such instances of giving were merely an alternative form of bribery – lavishing constituents with festive goods in order to shore up political support – it should be stressed that MPs’ philanthropy, particularly at Christmas, was seen as a necessary social duty. Indeed, our research has uncovered instances where MPs actively sought to remove any suggestion that their charitable donations at Christmas were politically expedient. At Christmas 1835, when James Weir Hogg, MP for Beverley, instructed his constituency committee to distribute ‘flour and coals, to as many as will accept, as a “compliment of the season”’, the committee declined to allocate the goods until January’s municipal elections were over, in case the donations might ‘in any way have a tendency to influence the electors’. Bethell, meanwhile, continued his ‘accustomed liberality’ after he left the Commons, distributing ‘prime beef’ and ‘blankets’ to the poor on his estates every Christmas. Given the limited nature of the franchise during this period, it is also worth noting that not all the recipients of festive benevolence would have been voters.
Attempts to legislate against ‘nursing’ found little support in Parliament throughout the Victorian era, underlining not only that the process was viewed as legitimate, but also the prevalence of the belief that MPs should be interested in the welfare of their constituents. It was therefore a sense of duty, rather than corrupt intentions, or even a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, which induced MPs to give at Christmas.
The Victorian Commons blog will return in the New Year. In the meantime, a Merry Christmas to all our readers.
K. Rix, ‘”The Elimination of Corrupt Practices in British Elections”? Reassessing the Impact of the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act’, English Historical Review, vol. CXXIII, no. 500 (2008), 65-97.