In December 1832 the voters of Ashton-under-Lyne elected George Williams, ‘a Radical Reformer’, as the first MP for their newly enfranchised constituency. Born in Newfoundland, Williams had joined the British army in North America in 1777, aged just 12. After a lengthy military career, during which he served in Nova Scotia, St. Domingo, Jamaica, Ireland and Holland, he left the army in 1800, having reached the rank of major. In 1801 he married and purchased a small estate at Little Woolton, near Liverpool. He had no connection with Ashton-under-Lyne before becoming its MP, and did not even visit the constituency until after the contest, being nominated on the hustings and elected in his absence.
It was certainly not unheard of for MPs to be returned in their absence, with illness being one reason candidates sometimes failed to attend the nomination. Lord Hotham wrote his election address for the East Riding from his sick-bed in 1841, was unable to be present on the hustings, and did not take his seat in the Commons until 1843, when he was still convalescing. In a more unusual case, Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam was returned for his family’s pocket borough of Malton in 1852 despite being on a tour of America at the time, where his precise whereabouts were unknown even to his family. In both these cases, however, the absent MP faced no opposition in what was a safe seat. In contrast, Williams had two opponents: Charles Hindley, a local cotton manufacturer, also described as a Radical Reformer, and Thomas Helps, a Tory.
Williams’s candidature stemmed largely from divisions among Ashton-under-Lyne’s Radicals and Reformers. The first candidate to enter the field was Hindley, who endorsed ‘cheap and economical government’, reform of the Church, non-sectarian education, the ballot and triennial parliaments, and objected to slavery and the corn laws. However, as Hindley recognised, his views did not ‘go far enough’ for some. While he and Williams shared much common ground – supporting the ballot, free trade and retrenchment in public expenditure – Williams was more Radical, favouring universal suffrage and annual parliaments. There were concerns that as a factory owner, Hindley might not represent the views of the working classes, and in his attempts to mediate between workers and employers during a strike in 1830-1, he had ended up losing favour from both sides. While in double-member constituencies, internal party differences could be resolved by putting forward two candidates of varying political hues – a Whig and a Radical, for example – this was not an option in a single-member borough such as Ashton-under-Lyne.
Although Williams did not address them during the election, Ashton-under-Lyne’s inhabitants were certainly aware of his reputation as ‘a veteran reformer’. As a county magistrate, he had even earned praise from the Tory Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, for acting as ‘the poor man’s friend’ by hearing cases ‘at five in the morning, before the labourer goes to his work’, thus preventing working-men losing a day’s wage. He was also noted for his efforts to keep a careful eye on county expenditure. He had previously been a radical candidate for Liverpool and Lancashire, and in 1826 had expressed his desire to see ‘the corn laws and all other monopolies destroyed’ and condemned the oppressive tithe system and the game laws. The report that one Ashton-under-Lyne deputation had encountered him ‘with a spade in his hand and good strong clogs on his feet, working on his farm’, provided further proof to his would-be constituents that he was a straightforward and down-to-earth man in tune with the people.
Williams declined ‘offering himself, publishing any address, or even presenting himself for an hour at a public meeting of the electors’ at the 1832 election, but this stance, and his insistence that he would ‘condescend to canvass no man’, merely served to reinforce his Radical credentials. In the nearby borough of Oldham, John Fielden and William Cobbett had likewise refused to canvass, wishing to have ‘purity of election’. The canvass was often seen as an opportunity to bribe or intimidate voters. In declining to campaign – although his supporters, including friends from Liverpool, did so on his behalf – Williams ensured that his election would be a cheap one. Indeed his only expenditure was his 9s. railway fare to make his first visit to his new constituency the day after his victory in the poll, when he was presented with a new hat and ‘a pair of clogs strong enough to trample a score of boroughmongers to the dust’.
He proved to be a diligent representative in the Commons, where he saw his role as that of ‘a perpetual watchful sentinel’ over government spending. He made his maiden speech, 14 Feb. 1833, in support of a motion by his fellow Radical, Joseph Hume, calling for ‘the utmost attention to economy in all branches of the public expenditure’ and the abolition of sinecures – posts with pay but little or no work attached – in the army and navy. Williams proudly informed the Commons that ‘Ashton-under-Lyne’s electors had returned him despite never having met him because they knew he was ‘an unflinching opposer of all useless public expense’. He was often found in the minority in the division lobbies, including votes to support reductions in taxation and oppose the new poor law. He also mounted an unsuccessful one-man campaign to repeal the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, under which members of the royal family required the monarch’s consent for their choice of spouse. Williams claimed that its effects ‘had been to make our princes send to Germany for wives, instead of selecting them amongst their English countrywomen’.
Williams had beaten Hindley by just ten votes in 1832. Their fortunes were reversed at the next election in 1835. Although Ashton-under-Lyne’s Liberals had decided ‘to make common cause’ and support the most promising candidate, this did not prevent Williams again being nominated in his absence. He polled just 63 votes, behind the Conservative candidate, with Hindley winning the seat with 212 votes. This marked the end of Williams’s political career, while Hindley represented Ashton-under-Lyne for the next 22 years until his death.