Five elections in seven years: Peterborough, Whalley and the Fitzwilliam interest

With suggestions of election fatigue setting in across Britain, this week’s blog – featuring our MP of the Month, George Hammond Whalley – looks at a constituency which saw five elections held in seven years between 1852 and 1859: the notoriously venal borough of Peterborough. At each election, three of which were held in the space of a year between 1852 and 1853, a delicate cross-party alliance between the borough’s independent Liberals and Conservatives united over a single issue: ending the Fitzwilliam family’s control of the constituency. The Fitzwilliams, prominent Whigs, were an integral aspect of the borough’s identity and the intense electioneering campaigns that ensued pitted fathers against sons, friends against friends and ‘in two or three instances wives against husbands’. Breaking down this aristocratic family’s control of the borough proved increasingly difficult, however, as even after the cross-party alliance appeared to have been successful, the Fitzwilliams used the election petitioning system to ensure the return of their candidate.

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The Fitzwilliam seat, Milton Hall, near Peterborough, from J. P. Neale, Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, i. (1818)

The Fitzwilliam family, or the ‘Milton interest’ as it was referred to locally, had controlled the election of both of Peterborough’s MPs since 1786. Their political authority relied on a combination of patronage, the popularity of the family’s advanced-Whig principles, and the tactic of putting forward one candidate not related to the family, who also enjoyed the support of the borough’s ‘independent Liberals’. However, sixty years of independent Liberal frustration with this arrangement finally boiled over ahead of the 1852 general election, when Earl Fitzwilliam and his agents refused to consider anyone but the moderate Richard Watson, Fitzwilliam’s nephew, to stand alongside the borough’s incumbent MP, George Fitzwilliam, the earl’s third son.

Although they seriously considered doing so, no independent Liberal candidate came forward in 1852. This was primarily due to the borough’s Conservatives, who seized the opportunity to promote a moderate Conservative on an anti-Fitzwilliam ticket. Their candidate was the former Protectionist MP for Lancashire, John Clifton, who toned down his political views and was fairly successful in securing the support of independent Liberals, many of whom were seen during the election ‘sporting the [Conservative] blue colours’. Although Clifton lost out on a seat by 19 votes, it transpired that a few key independent Liberals had abstained, revealing to both parties that a Fitzwilliam candidate might be defeated with a more concerted cross-party alliance.

The opportunity to test out such an alliance came quickly as Richard Watson died a fortnight after the 1852 general election. As planning for a by-election commenced, the Fitzwilliam family again refused to listen to the suggested candidates of the independent Liberals, putting forward Earl Fitzwilliam’s friend, the moderate Whig, George Cornewall Lewis. With the previous Conservative candidate ruling himself out due to a dispute over £1,000 of unpaid election expenses, the independent Liberals finally decided to field their own candidate. They contacted the Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association in London, who suggested the ultra-Liberal but also vehemently anti-Catholic, George Hammond Whalley.

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C. P. Gasquoine, The Story of the Cambrian (1922), 10

Whalley agreed to run on the condition that the borough’s independent Liberals and Conservatives united behind him. He pleased the independent Liberals by offering to support universal suffrage, the ballot, a direct property tax and the abolition of church rates. He courted the Conservative vote by emphasising his anti-Catholicism and his opposition to the Maynooth Grant, and by expressing a willingness to support the Conservative government on an independent basis.

In an innovative move, Whalley also targeted the constituency’s females in the hope they would convince their voting husbands, brothers, fathers and friends to vote for him. He did so by hosting a tea party in the city, which attracted 700 attendees, and where he promised to reduce soap, tea and sugar duties and end ‘Milton domination’. Whalley’s tactics proved successful, leading to his victory in the December 1852 by-election by 21 votes over the Fitzwilliam candidate.

The Fitzwilliams, incensed at losing control, quickly petitioned parliament against the result, accusing Whalley of ‘bribery, intimidation, corruption and treating’, as well as the impersonation of voters. The ensuing parliamentary committee, which was most outraged at Whalley’s tactic of targeting the constituency’s females, decided to unseat him after arriving at the conclusion that a single elector had been bribed £5 for his vote. An outraged Whalley accused Fitzwilliam of using electoral procedure to enforce a system of ‘persecution, tyranny and falsehood’ and vowed to stand at the ensuing by-election, even though his ability to do so was legally unclear.

Sure enough, Whalley stood again at Peterborough’s third election in the space of a year. The Fitzwilliam candidate was a former governor of the Bank of England, Thomson Hankey, who in a bid to wrestle back some independent Liberal support offered to support the ballot. These attempts failed and Whalley was again elected by a similar margin to the by-election held only months earlier. After the election, however, Fitzwilliam, Hankey and his supporters raised another election petition, stating that Whalley had stood illegally on account of having been unseated by an election committee. It also complained of bribery and the drugging and kidnapping of voters. In response, Whalley’s supporters also submitted a petition complaining of the activities of the Fitzwilliam interest, which was presented to Parliament by the leading radical, John Bright.

Both election inquiries found that the activities of the Fitzwilliam interest and Whalley during the elections of 1852-3 had been highly dubious. Nevertheless, Whalley was unseated, as the election committee declared that candidates were unable to stand at by-elections prompted by their own unseating. The separate committee held to consider Hankey’s campaign ruled that, while the Fitzwilliam campaigns of 1852 had probably been illegal, his 1853 campaign had been within the limits of the law. This entitled Hankey to assume Whalley’s seat in parliament without a further by-election. A disgruntled Whalley continued to complain to parliament, submitting a further petition in 1854, which was again rejected.

Whalley stood again at Peterborough at the 1857 election but came third behind the two Fitzwilliam candidates, his defeat owing to a poorly organised, last-minute campaign. He challenged the result but withdrew his petition after receiving assurances from Earl Fitzwilliam that he would no longer seek to control the return of both of the borough’s candidates. When a general election followed in 1859, Whalley was eventually successful, with fireworks and bands celebrating the end of the Fitzwilliam family’s 70-year long control of the borough’s representation, as well as an end to the bitter political fighting between families and friends that had occupied the city for the past seven years.

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

For more on the Fitzwilliam family members who sat in the Commons, see our earlier blog.

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