William Pinney’s career as an MP serves as an important reminder of the legacy of slave ownership in British public life and the very different attitudes to electoral corruption that existed in the nineteenth century, even among radically-inclined Liberals. In Pinney’s case the two were neatly combined. The fortune amassed from his family’s West India sugar plantations and the staggering £38,000 compensation they were awarded by the British government when slavery was abolished provided the funds for a spate of electioneering shenanigans that almost tested the reformed electoral system to its limits, both in the Commons and the courts.
Pinney’s forebears were some of the richest and most active slave owners (and traders) on record. Their activities formed the basis of one of the first full-length studies of a slave-owning dynasty (R. Pares, A West India Fortune, 1950). After inheriting his family’s landed estates at Somerton Erleigh in Dorset, Pinney’s father had retired from active business. In 1831 he purchased ‘a grand house on a hill’ at Lyme Regis with a view to creating an electoral ‘interest’ in the borough. Lyme already had a reputation for electoral corruption, but the new residence requirements imposed on household voters now made it even more vulnerable to electoral control, because so many of its properties and rooms were let out during the summer to holiday makers.
Assisted by local ‘Liberal’ well-wishers, including the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning, who had been befriended by Pinney’s sister, the family set about establishing their claims to represent the seaside resort after 1832. Pinney’s youth (he was only 26) and pro-reform politics contrasted strongly with his anti-reform Tory opponent Lord Burghersh, whose family were the former patrons of this ‘pocket borough’. What really swung the 1832 election for Pinney, however, was his family’s promise to repair the sea walls and their provision of personal loans to electors, as well as helping voters get around the residence issue by arranging for landlords to temporarily hand back keys to rented-out properties on polling day.
This system of ‘exchanging keys’ to houses at election time, mainly organised with electors’ wives, soon became a huge ruse organised on a large scale. Along with the loans it made the family’s electoral control of the borough seem ‘as secure at its cobb’. In the event Pinney sat as the MP from 1832-42 and 1852-65. It was only the arrival of an even more unscrupulous electioneer, the notorious Victorian ‘borough monger’ John Attwood, which briefly upset Pinney’s hegemony, leading to a series of corruption ‘battles’ in elections and high-profile inquiries by the Commons into all their activities.
Interestingly, when Pinney obtained a one vote majority at the 1859 election, his Tory opponent not only lodged an election petition against his return in the Commons, but also started private criminal proceedings against the mayor, who had allowed an elector to cast a vote for Pinney after the close of polling. ‘If you don’t’, Pinney was heard telling the mayor, ‘you will lose me my election’. (The mayor subequently claimed that he had believed his watch was ‘running fast’.) The constitutional conflicts over jurisdiction that these separate cases created were in the end only resolved by a secret deal between the rival candidates and the dropping of both suits.
What is most striking about Pinney’s career as an MP is not just the willingness of a fairly advanced Liberal to engage in wholesale electoral corruption, but his own attitude to slavery given his family background. As early as 1832 he had called on the hustings for its complete abolition and in 1838 he willingly voted for the Whig government’s apprenticeship reforms. The most extraordinary event, however, was his completely unabashed personal attack on a rival Tory candidate, Renn Hampden, in 1837, charging him with ‘barbarous’ acts in the West Indies, including the flogging of female slaves on his Barbados plantations. Not content with this, he also claimed that Hampden had advocated the use of the ‘flogging of women’ in a pamphlet. The irony of one of the most ‘ferocious’ anti-slavery election campaigns of the period being waged by Pinney, whose family had just received the sum of almost £38,000 in slave compensation, was entirely lost on Lyme’s fickle voters, who duly re-elected him with a 34 vote majority.
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