MP of the month: James Barlow Hoy (1794-1843)

As biographies of long-forgotten politicians go, this month’s MP ticks all the boxes, offering an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale, the beginnings of a brilliant political career accompanied by fraud and bankruptcy, and even an allegation of murder.

Hoy, or Barlow as he was originally known, was working as a lowly assistant surgeon in the army in 1828 when a chance inheritance from a cousin transformed his life, providing him with ‘extensive property’ in Hampshire and a ‘great fortune’ of almost £88,000. Within a year he had adopted the surname of his benefactor, the merchant Michael Hoy, and within two years had been elected for the venal borough of Southampton at vast expense, assisted by his cousin’s mercantile connections. Hoy’s opposition to the Grey ministry’s reform bill lost him the seat in 1831, but in 1832 he defied the national trend and was re-elected as a Conservative MP. The discovery of ‘fraudulent voting’, however, led to his being unseated on petition in 1833, following a lengthy investigation into Southampton’s corrupt electoral practices.

Determined to leave nothing to chance, Hoy launched a highly effective campaign at the 1835 election, pitching himself as a protector of the ‘ancient English rights’ of Southampton’s pre-1832 electors, whose entitlements to vote he had helped to defend by funding lawyers to attend the registration courts. With the support of the treasury, now in Tory control, and another vast outlay on treating and entertainment, including a series of musical election ‘rounds’ composed in his support, he topped the poll.

1835 Southampton election round

1835 Southampton Election Round

Another of Hoy’s bugbears on the hustings had been the radical cry for the secret ballot. ‘Was public opinion not to have any influence?’, he had demanded, to the approval of many non-voters. ‘Was a voter to sneak privately to the poll and not let his neighbours know what he was doing?’

Hoy not only became a noted campaigner in the Commons against this most ‘un-English’ of innovations, but also used it to highlight the glaring hypocrisy of other Liberal measures. In an impressive speech on 2 June 1835, he derided all those who supported the ballot and municipal corporation reform, noting how he was ‘surprised to see those who had been foremost in exclaiming against corporations, on account of the secrecy of their proceedings … coming forward as the advocates of a measure, the whole object of which was to secure the most complete secrecy’. If ‘public opinion were thought a necessary restraint’ and ‘useful control upon the actions’ of MPs, he asked, why should it be any ‘less necessary when voting for MPs’? Although his attempt to make the new town council elections ‘be taken openly’, in the same manner as parliamentary polls, was defeated, provision was subsequently made for council voting papers to be available for public inspection on payment of a fee.

Clearly a rising star of the Tory opposition, Hoy’s sudden departure for the Continent in 1837, ostensibly on account of his wife’s health, came as a surprise to his constituents. It may have been related to the huge sums involved in contesting Southampton on five occasions in as many years. He stayed in Naples during the 1837 and 1841 elections, although the publication in 1839 of his pamphlet Manufacturers and corn growers, a defence of the protective import duties on corn, suggests that he may have been contemplating a return to UK politics.

His ‘accidental’ death in 1843 attracted widespread publicity. During a ‘shooting excursion’ with an ‘old friend’ Captain Richard Meredith in the Pyrenees, Hoy slipped into a ravine, dropping his gun, which ‘went off’, lacerating the blood vessels in his arm. He died from these injuries and ‘lock jaw’ the following day. Hoy’s will made generous provision for his wife Marian, but due to his outstanding mortgages of £58,500 there were insufficient funds to carry it out fully and his estate was declared ‘insolvent’.

Hoy’s younger brother, the Reverend Robert Joseph Barlow, later became convinced that Hoy’s wife and Captain Richard Meredith had conspired to murder Hoy, and that Hoy had been pushed by Meredith into the ravine, allegations which found their way into his autobiographical novel W. Fitzallen, Remarkable but still true (1872). Just over a year after the accident Hoy’s widow married Meredith. In 1850, following Meredith’s own death, she took a third husband, the Catholic author John Richard Digby Beste.

For details about how to access this biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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