Next to the Wilford toll bridge, on the Trent embankment near Nottingham, stands a statue of Sir Robert Juckes Clifton (1826-1869). The life-size sandstone statue, which was once described by the Strand magazine as having ‘the worst sculptured trousers in the kingdom’, could easily be missed by passing drivers, yet the story behind the man himself is intriguing.
As Member of Parliament for Nottingham from 1861 to 1866, then again from 1868 until his premature death the following year, Clifton made little impact within the walls of the House of Commons, but in Nottingham, which was home to his family’s Clifton estates, he achieved an almost cult status. His brief but colourful career serves as a telling example of how one charismatic Victorian politician could transcend local political rivalries and defy national party labels.
His victory at Nottingham’s 1861 by-election caught many by surprise. His opponent, the official Liberal candidate Lord Lincoln, son of the influential local landowner the fifth Duke of Newcastle, dismissed Clifton as a man of ‘no distinction’ who had ‘yet to acquire political knowledge’. Yet Clifton positively revelled in his lack of formal qualifications. He was noticeably impenitent about his heavy gambling losses while a youth, and his openness about how he still loved a ‘flutter’, coupled with his disdain for teetotalism, endeared him to the electors, who affectionately called him ‘good old Bob’. Standing as an ‘independent’ Liberal, Clifton mocked the leaders of the local Liberal party for bringing forward Lincoln without consulting the electors, and was returned by a staggering majority of nearly 1,400 votes.
There has been some confusion about Clifton’s party allegiance. In the 1862 edition of Dod’s Parliamentary Companion he was described as having ‘very liberal opinions’, while McCalmont’s Parliamentary Poll Book classified him as ‘Liberal Conservative’. His activity in the Commons’ division lobby did little to clarify his loyalties. He supported Palmerston’s position of British neutrality during the American Civil War, but voted with the Conservatives over the release of armed ships built in British yards for the Confederate states. He defended the Liberal government during the Danish war, but opposed them on the volunteers bill. His voting record therefore underlines the problematic nature of attaching party labels to all Victorian MPs in the 1832-68 period, even in the 1860s when a two-party system was emerging.
Clifton’s rather nebulous political faith mattered little to his supporters; his electoral strength owed far more to his personality than his platform. As the Nottingham Daily Express adroitly noted, ‘Clifton proclaims himself as … an “Independent”, but it really matters nothing by what name he designates himself. He succeeds by his own personality and individuality’. Indeed, it seemed that there was little that could undermine his standing in the eyes of Nottingham’s electorate. At the 1865 general election it was rumoured that Clifton was behind the riotous mob that smashed the windows of his Liberal opponents’ committee rooms, and he was subsequently unseated for bribery, yet he returned at the 1868 general election and comprehensively defeated the two official Liberal candidates. This result left the Express lamenting that ‘if Liberalism is in the ascendant in this town, it can be at any time completely overridden by the paramount personal influence of Sir Robert Clifton’.
Clifton’s parliamentary career was brought to a premature end in May 1869 when he died of typhoid fever. Over 20,000 locals paid their respects at his funeral. His memory is kept alive by the statue next to Wilford toll bridge, opened the year after his death. The bridge’s construction had been initiated by Clifton in an attempt to generate revenue to pay off his gambling debts.
For details of how to access Clifton’s full History of Parliament biography from our preview site, along with a constituency study of Nottingham, see here.
- A.C. Wood, ‘Sir Robert Clifton, 1826-69’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, lvii (1953), 48-65.
J. Owen, ‘“An inexplicable constituency”? Organised Liberalism in Nottingham, 1868-1880’, Midland History, 35, 1 (2010), 107-28.