‘Fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling’: Charles Dickens, Eatanswill and the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election

Allen, Harry M., active 1907-1937; Charles Dickens, Aged 27

Charles Dickens, aged 27, by Harry M. Allen (after Daniel Maclise) Image credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Today’s blog marks the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth by exploring the inspiration behind one of the most notable political events in his first novel.

Dickens’s riotous description of the Eatanswill borough election in the Pickwick Papers, first published in July 1836, is one of the most famous literary representations of a British election. Readers are often surprised to find out that it is set in the reformed electoral system after 1832. However, as our research for the House of Commons 1832-68 project is revealing, the electoral traditions famously epitomised by Hogarth’s Humours of an Election and described so vividly in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, endured, evolved and often thrived between the first two Reform Acts.

As well as Dickens’s experiences of electoral practices in the boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, his account of Eatanswill was inspired by his assignment to report on the December 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election for the Morning Chronicle. Interestingly, unlike the already notoriously corrupt boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, Northamptonshire North was a brand new county constituency in the reformed electoral system. Yet the county’s voters and non-voters, who congregated in the nomination town of Kettering for the proceedings, wasted little time in developing their own rowdy and partisan electoral identity. As Dickens found, to his dismay, Northamptonshire North was anything but ‘reformed’.

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‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)

The 1835 by-election prompted by the unexpected death of Northamptonshire North’s Whig MP, Viscount Milton, gave a resurgent Conservative interest in the county the chance to assume complete control of Northamptonshire’s county seats, which four years earlier had been in the hands of the Whigs. By the end of 1835, controversy surrounding the Corn Laws, Whig reforms to the Poor Law, the Melbourne government’s coalition with Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Repealers and the ruthless attention paid by the Conservatives to electoral registration had placed the Whigs on the back foot nationally. These winds of political change, which were particularly relevant to an Anglican, agricultural county, meant that Northamptonshire North’s by-election received extensive attention in the national press.

The two candidates were the Conservative, Thomas Maunsell, and the Whig, William Hanbury. The Conservatives had been buoyed by the recent conversion of some of the division’s former Whigs, who were outraged over their local party’s advocacy of free trade and the Whig government’s ‘disgraceful coalition with O’Connell’. Both parties claimed to be certain of success after their extended canvass, where tit-for-tat partisanship reached new levels, and both sides accused each other, probably correctly, of intimidating voters and pushing the custom of ‘treating’ local residents with drink to the bounds of acceptability.

This intense atmosphere continued at the nomination, which was an unruly affair, thanks largely to Maunsell and his Conservative entourage, who arrived on horseback and muscled their way to the front of the crowd using their horse whips. Following repeated skirmishes in the crowd as the candidates were being proposed, one of Maunsell’s supporters had his loaded double-barrel pistol confiscated, after he threatened opponents with it on three occasions. Charles Dickens, who viewed the event from the reporters’ area in front of the hustings, informed his fiancée that he had never seen ‘anything more sickening and disgusting’, describing the division’s Conservatives as ‘a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains … led by clergymen and magistrates’.

After both candidates had made their speeches and a poll had been demanded, two local Whig and Conservative notables took it in turns to rile up the crowd with inflammatory speeches about the other. Dickens’s colleague at the Standard reported that ‘the scene of confusion and turbulence which ensued was quite indescribable’.

The next day, Dickens regretted that his editor had requested he stay in the division to report on the poll, prophesying that:

we shall have an incessant repetition of the sounds and sights of yesterday ‘till the Election is over – bells ringing, candidates speaking, drums sounding, a band of eight trombone (would you believe it?) blowing – men fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling – all riotously excited, and all disgracing themselves.

Sure enough, on the morning of the poll Dickens complained that ‘the noise and confusion here … is so great that my head is splitting … the voters … are drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is’. The ‘conservative electors’ were ‘such beasts’, he explained, that he and his fellow reporters were forced into hiding in his room at the White Hart hotel.

Days later, Dickens was ‘overjoyed’ when his editor told him that he could leave the county before the result was announced. Much like in one of the comical episodes featuring Samuel Pickwick and his travelling companions in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens then convinced his fellow journalists from The Times, the Morning Advertiser and the Morning Post into hiring and driving their own post-chaise to escape to nearby Northampton. After a two-day journey, which involved a detour to Boughton House and a carriage crash caused by a driver ‘overcome with potations of ale’, Dickens, to his dismay, received confirmation that Maunsell had been returned with a considerable majority.

As he wrote his account of the Eatanswill election over the following months, Dickens delighted in exposing the ‘patriotism’ of the fictional borough’s notables, electors and non-electors, as they revelled in the boisterous and intense atmosphere of the canvass, the nomination and the poll, shamelessly exploited the culture of treating and inflated their own self-importance on a national scale. As he was doing so, it is hard to escape the notion that Dickens had his experiences at Northamptonshire North in mind.

The full constituency article on Northamptonshire North will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

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