MP of the Month: John Moyer Heathcote (1800-1892), the MP who never was

One of our first tasks when we began our 1832-1868 project was to compile a full list of the MPs elected during this period whose biographies we would research. With invaluable assistance from Stephen Lees, who co-edited the later Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament volumes with Michael Stenton, we arrived at a total of 2,589 MPs, including a handful not featured in the 1832-1885 Who’s Who volume. Well over half of these biographies have now been written and can be accessed in draft form on our preview site. However, we always suspected that as our research progressed, we might find another MP or two who, for some reason, had been omitted from our original list. Our MP of the Month, John Moyer Heathcote, is one such new addition, which brings our total number of MPs to 2,590.

John-Moyer-Heathcote

John Moyer Heathcote, by Carmen Silvy (1860) (C) NPG, used under CC licence

Heathcote, a local Liberal landowner, was returned for Huntingdonshire at the general election in April 1857. James Rust, who had represented this double member county as a Conservative since 1855, topped the poll with 1,192 votes. His Conservative running-mate, Edward Fellowes, received 1,106 votes, as did Heathcote. After checking the poll books three times, the high sheriff made a double return for the second seat, declaring both Fellowes and Heathcote elected. Following the presentation of three election petitions, an election committee undertook a scrutiny of the poll. It struck off the votes of two disqualified voters and two others who had voted twice on the basis of the same qualification, and added the vote of one duly qualified voter. On 31 July 1857 it declared Heathcote not elected and Fellowes elected. The official record was amended three days later by the clerk of the crown, who erased Heathcote’s name from the return, replacing it with that of Fellowes.

Technically, therefore, Heathcote was never an MP, since his return was invalidated and his only subsequent attempt to win a seat ended in failure. This makes him almost unique in our period – the only other individual we have found who falls into the same category is John Scandrett Harford, whose name was expunged from the parliamentary record following an election petition in 1841, when he had been elected for Cardiganshire on a double return. Like Heathcote, Harford’s subsequent attempt to enter Parliament ended in defeat.

Although his parliamentary career was non-existent, Heathcote’s biography can still shed valuable light on the politics of this period. He was the first Liberal to contest Huntingdonshire for two decades, challenging what the Daily News described as ‘the compact alliance of conservative family interests, which is paramount in this county’. While the Whigs and the Conservatives had shared the representation without a contest in 1832 and 1835, the Conservatives had made a successful bid for both seats in 1837. The subsequent prominence of agricultural protection as an election issue meant that a Liberal challenge in this predominantly agricultural constituency was fruitless, especially given that many of its leading landowners were Conservatives. Heathcote considered standing for a vacancy in August 1855, but with an early dissolution of Parliament anticipated, he decided to wait for the next general election. Although the Conservatives had monopolised the county’s representation for twenty years, the latent strength of Liberalism was demonstrated by the fact that Heathcote tied with Fellowes for the second seat in 1857.

Despite the disappointment of losing the seat on petition, Heathcote stood again in 1859, when he faced two Conservative opponents, Fellowes and Lord Robert Montagu, brother of the Duke of Manchester, a major local landowner who had previously sat as the constituency’s MP. There was considerable excitement at the hustings due to the appearance of Lord John Russell, who owned property in the county. Russell had plumped for Heathcote in 1857, and after casting his vote had spoken briefly from the window of Heathcote’s committee room. Now, however, he abandoned ‘the reserve usually practised by statesmen of his standing’ in order to propose Heathcote as a candidate. His intervention was spurred on not only by ‘personal friendship’, but also the belief that this was a timely opportunity for ‘a last appeal to the still undecided constituencies’.

Russell began his hustings speech in support of Heathcote by referring to his own service as Huntingdonshire’s MP over thirty years earlier. With its representation dominated ever since by the Conservatives, he compared its MPs to men waiting on a railway platform, ‘looking vacantly at the trains going by’ and ‘declining to take part in any progress whatever’. The issue of parliamentary reform, on which he had defeated the Derby ministry a few weeks earlier, was clearly at the forefront of Russell’s mind. He denied that those who had joined him in opposing the Conservative ministry’s reform bill were motivated by faction and emphasised his own differences from John Bright’s more radical view of reform. He also criticised Derby’s government for its ‘lame and impotent measures’ and its incompetence in both domestic and foreign policy. Alluding to landlord influence in Huntingdonshire, he urged that ‘the real opinion of the electors’ on these national questions should decide Heathcote’s fate.

Despite Russell’s endorsement, Heathcote finished third in the poll, almost 250 votes short of Montagu. He did not make a further attempt at the seat, and the Conservatives were spared a contest in 1865. Heathcote did, however, continue to play an important role in local administration as a magistrate and chairman of the Huntingdon board of guardians. In 1876 he published Reminiscences of fen and mere, a local history illustrated largely by his own sketches. He died in March 1892 at the age of 91. His estates passed to his eldest son, John Moyer Heathcote (1834-1912), a talented real tennis player who also made a major contribution to the development of lawn tennis, being the first to suggest covering the ball with flannel.

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