A Victorian Essex Election

As electors go to the polls in the Clacton by-election, we consider how Essex voters behaved in the mid-nineteenth century, when the expanding seaside resort was still part of the Essex North constituency.

Clacton-on-Sea pier, 1908. Copyright Philip Salmon.

Clacton-on-Sea pier, 1908. Copyright Philip Salmon.

In the fifty years following the 1832 Reform Act, the Conservatives enjoyed almost complete political hegemony in both the county’s northern and southern divisions (although the Liberals had some success in the borough seats of Colchester, Maldon and Harwich). Unlike today, elections in these two double-member county seats were usually uncontested. As was so often the case in the 19th century, however, this seeming acceptance of the status quo belied both a vibrant political culture centred round non-electors (in Essex’s case Braintree silk factory workers who doggedly interrupted candidates’ addresses at the nomination) and intense pre-electoral negotiations and skirmishes between candidates.

The 1859 general election at Essex North was a case in point. Although two Conservative candidates were elected without opposition, in the weeks prior to the nomination there was a sustained attempt within the local party to oust their high-profile MP William Beresford, a former chief whip who had served as secretary for war in the Earl of Derby’s 1852 administration. A highly-strung Irishman with a wicked tongue, Beresford,  throughout his thirteen year tenure as MP for Essex North, remained unpopular with a section of the local party, who were unhappy with the spectre of an ‘outsider’ representing a seat that had traditionally been the preserve of local, resident gentry.

This emphasis on local connections has long been a feature of elections in this area and elsewhere. Throughout the 19th century candidates made stringent efforts to highlight both their local credentials and attack those who lacked them. In 1859 Samuel Ruggles Brise, of Spains Hall, Essex, threatened to stand against Beresford on the grounds that the Irishman was not a ‘proper country gentleman’. His outsider status also went hand-in-hand with a wider political issue of the day. Although a devout Protestant, Beresford, as an Irishman, was viewed with suspicion by a hostile Essex press that was not unknown to publish hysterical warnings about the threat posed by the Roman Catholic Church. Brise eventually gave way (and was later elected for Essex East in 1868), but the affair revealed a schism within local Conservatism that was masked by the unopposed return recorded in the polls.

Had Brise’s intervention taken place at a by-election, there would undoubtedly have been far greater coverage of the affair; one of the well-noted features of by-elections is that one-off local contests are given a national dimension, especially given the widespread media attention. We explored the dynamics of Victorian by-elections in an earlier blog. For today, though, it is worth noting that despite what the official returns may suggest, Victorian Essex witnessed internecine Conservative rivalry and fierce debates generated by the politics of locality.

Our constituency studies of Essex North and South have recently been completed and will soon be available on our preview site. For more details see here.

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