Our Victorian MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Devonshire South, Montagu Parker. His correspondence with his mother between 1835 and 1841 provides a fascinating perspective on life at Westminster.
Montagu Edmund Newcombe Parker (1807-1858) is best known as a footnote in Britain’s electoral history for his defeat of the Whig Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, at the 1835 Devonshire South ministerial by-election. In one of the electoral shocks of the nineteenth century, the 28 year-old Parker, a country gentleman who had been the ‘butt of the Devonshire boys’ at Eton, summoned the strength of local Conservatives to turf out a Cabinet minister who only three years earlier had been celebrated nationwide for his role in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.
Parker continued to represent Devonshire South until 1841, and, truth be told, left very little formal record of his activities in parliament. He made no recorded speeches, attended around 23% of recorded divisions (where he proved a loyal Conservative), and was appointed to three election committees. His only area of real engagement came over private legislation, where he assisted in the passage of 16 local or private acts relating primarily to Devonshire town or road improvement schemes.
Fortunately, Parker left a series of correspondence with his recently widowed mother, Harriet Edmund Parker (1785-1877), who resided at the family’s Whiteway House estate in Devon. The letters, which are held by the British Library (Add. MS. 48,258), provide an intriguing insight into life at Westminster. His mother’s evident interest in Parker’s parliamentary experiences is arguably indicative of one way in which women could engage with politics despite their exclusion from the parliamentary franchise.
Parker found himself a minor celebrity on his arrival in London in May 1835, where he initially remarked that ‘attending to ones duties in the House of Commons and going out to parties … does not give much time for rest out of the 24 hours’. Within days, however, he had caught the ‘House of Commons influenza’, which left him with ‘a most unpleasant sore throat, cold and pain in my joints’.
Parker was almost taunted into breaking his parliamentary silence within days of taking his seat, when reference was made to the Devonshire South by-election during a debate on the ballot. He recorded:
I overheard several persons near me saying “some Devonshire man ought to answer this”, with the view no doubt to get me on my legs, but I was advised, and I think with good judgement not to take any notice of it.
He was instantly suspicious of the loyalties and parliamentary stratagems of the Conservative leader, Robert Peel, expressing bemusement over the latter’s decision to speak against Lord Chandos’ s 1835 motion on agricultural distress and unwillingness to oppose the 1835 municipal corporations bill, remarking that it is ‘evident he [Peel] is playing some game which cannot be devised at present’.
Parker found the summer heat insufferable throughout London, and was disparaging of the acoustics in the temporary Commons (which opened for the 1835 session), as well as the lack of attentiveness with which MPs listened to debate. Following a debate on the 1835 municipal corporations bill he complained:
I was in the lower part of the House, and the noise and interruption that is always going on prevented him [John Yarde Buller, MP for Devonshire South] being heard … In fact there are barely a dozen speakers in the House that are listened to with attention. So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen.
In fact, the only time that Parker felt the Commons displayed the gravitas it should was on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, when he noted the ‘curious’ effect of a sitting involving ‘500 members in uniforms and court dresses of various kinds, where one had been accustomed to see nothing but plain clothes and some of those never of the cleanest’.
While Parker disliked ‘being made a cats paw of’ by the Conservative whips, he was happy to throw himself into the service of the party at the 1837 Westminster by-election. At 5 a.m. on the day of the poll he was ‘pushed into the service of getting up the slippery voters’, remarking that he was sent ‘into the most disreputable parts of Westminster, and certainly we visited places there for the first and I hope the last time’. His least favourite task in the Commons appears to have been the attendance of week-long afternoon committees on local bills, that were drawn out by the involvement of competing delegations of ‘pompous’ local officials who observed proceedings as ‘if everything depended’ on them.
By 1840, Parker had observed a real shift in power towards the Conservatives and a sense of excitement at Westminster, which was accentuated by the June assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. After expressing his delight at the Conservatives mustering 300 votes to defeat the government in a division over the Irish registration bill in May 1840, he observed how Lord John Russell had ‘lost much of his previous reputation’, and stated his belief that a few more by-election successes in ‘boroughs like Ludlow and Cambridge’ would lead to the downfall of the government.
Parker’s instincts were right. Unfortunately he was not provided with an opportunity to record his experiences of the subsequent Peel ministry, as local party machinations forced his retirement ahead of the 1841 election. Parker did not return to parliament, and died in July 1858. His mother, who lived to the age of 91, outlived him by eighteen years.
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