MP of the Month: John Barton Willis Fleming (1781-1844)

With modern electioneering tactics currently attracting so much scrutiny at home and abroad, our Victorian MP of the Month focuses on a notorious election fixer or ‘boroughmonger’, whose activities increasingly pushed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. His refusal to answer questions when he was summoned before a parliamentary inquiry led to demands for his arrest and scuppered his chances of an expected peerage. Disowned by the political establishment, within two years he was dead and insolvent.

The political career of John Fleming MP serves as an important reminder of the extraordinary lengths to which some election activists were prepared (and able) to go in the past, especially in the period before the introduction of the secret ballot (1872). Born John Barton Willis, Fleming had changed his name on inheriting the ‘very large fortune’ and Hampshire estates of his cousin John Fleming MP (1743-1802). By 1818 he had become the leading organiser of Hampshire’s Tories and an ‘intimate friend’ of his new ‘celebrity’ neighbour the Duke of Wellington, and had started work on a huge Grecian mansion at North Stoneham Park. Elected for the county two years later, he sat as a loyal Tory MP for Hampshire until 1831, when the popularity of the Whigs’ reform bill, to which he was staunchly opposed, made him unelectable.

North Stoneham House: seat of John Fleming MP

Furious at having to give up his Commons seat, Fleming became determined to leave nothing to chance in future. He was one of the first campaigners to fully exploit the new yearly voter registration system, employing lawyers to lodge objections to the votes of political opponents and help enrol supporters and the tenants of local Tory landlords. With would-be electors having to pay a registration fee, prove their legal entitlements if objected to, and face disqualification for various technical reasons, such as receiving charity or getting into arrears with their rates, the new system was ripe for abuse. In Southampton, where Fleming owned ‘considerable’ property, his behind-the-scenes shenanigans helped to get a Tory MP get elected in 1832, only for the result to be overturned after evidence came to light of fraudulent voting. Fleming’s activities in the county were not enough to get himself and the Duke of Wellington’s son elected in 1832, but in a shock result three years later, Fleming defeated and ousted the future Liberal prime minister Lord Palmerston, who accused him of threatening to evict tenants and of bribing supporters with tithe rebates.

Building on his personal triumph and the victory of two Tory MPs at Southampton, where Fleming now ‘ruled the electors with a rod of iron’, Fleming was instrumental in establishing the South Hampshire Conservative Society (and its various sub-committees) to collect local intelligence about voters and their families for use in the registration courts and during election campaigns. In London, meanwhile, he began to host lavish ‘grand dinners’ for the party leaders at his Pall Mall residence. ‘Fiercely partisan’, he was not beyond using his influence with Wellington, Hampshire’s lord lieutenant, to promote exclusively Tory appointments in local administration, from the bench to the board of guardians. Many of these positions involved the management of local rates, upon which the 1832 Reform Act’s household voting qualification depended.

John Fleming MP: © The Willis Fleming Historical Trust

Fleming’s activities did not go unnoticed by his political opponents in Parliament. Indeed their accusations prompted most of his rare contributions to debate. In one highly revealing episode in 1837, he was charged with manufacturing ‘faggot’ votes on the Isle of Wight, by parcelling up land and making ‘gifts’ of 40s. freeholds to non-residents (a practice later used to great effect by the Anti-Corn Law League). Even if this ‘was not against the letter of the law’, protested the local Liberal MP, ‘it was at least against its spirit, and contrary to the constitutional rights of the electors’. In response, Fleming insisted on his ‘right to dispose of his property as he pleased’.

Most of Fleming’s other speeches focused on his role in the highly controversial Southampton election contest of 1841. Charged in a petition with targeting and ‘corrupting’ vulnerable voters, Fleming was summoned to appear before an election inquiry. ‘Striking his hand energetically upon the table’, however, he refused to give details about the Conservatives’ election expenses and ‘betray the names’ of those involved. The attorney-general ruled that he must answer or face arrest. Called again the next day, he was expected to be committed to the sergeant-at-arms, only to be conveniently spared further questions when the committee decided it already had enough evidence to overturn the result. Concerned that so many ‘foul transactions’ had taken place, as one local paper put it, the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel intervened to delay the issue of a new writ, against Fleming’s wishes, and backed the appointment of an inquiry into whether Southampton should be disfranchised. After finding insufficient evidence, however, the committee eventually allowed the delayed double by-election to go ahead.

Shortly after helping two new Tory MPs get elected for Southampton in 1842, Fleming resigned as an MP for Hampshire South and took himself off on his yacht Syren. He ‘retires in disgust, having been rumped by Sir Robert Peel’, reported a local paper, adding that he would now ‘give a few years to foreign travel’.

Fleming died two years later of ‘malignant fever’ whilst sailing in the Mediterranean. His vast estate was declared ‘insolvent’. According to one obituarist, the costs associated with his electioneering activities in Hampshire after 1832 had ‘averaged’ a staggering £18,000 per year. His ‘splendid mansion’ at North Stoneham, meanwhile, though never completed, was reckoned to have cost £100,000.

The full biography of John Fleming MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Further info and reading:

The Willis Fleming Historical Trust

David Brown, Palmerston, South Hampshire and Electoral Politics, 1832-1835 (2003)

P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW

Ruscombe Foster, The Politics of County Power: Wellington and the Hampshire Gentlemen 1820-1852 (1990)

A. Temple Patterson, A History of Southampton 1700-1914 (1966)

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