Electoral malpractice and uncivil political speech: the case of Alfred Seymour MP

Our ‘MP of the Month’ blog highlights some themes still fresh in our minds after attending a conference on corruption at Oxford Brookes University.

Alfred Seymour (1824-1888) was the younger brother of the better known archaeologist and explorer Henry Danby Seymour MP. A ‘third cousin of the Duke of Somerset’, as he was fond of reminding people, Seymour used his family’s considerable aristocratic wealth to travel extensively in Europe and America after a traditional education at Eton and Oxford. By his mid-thirties he was keen to follow his brother into Parliament as a Liberal.

His attempts to woo the electors of Exeter with lectures about his travels, however, met with little success. ‘Whatever may be Mr Seymour’s other qualifications for parliamentary representation’, noted a local paper, ‘the art of addressing a public assembly is certainly not one of them’. His clumsy response to concerns that he was not a ‘Devonshire man’ – that travelling from London by the new railway was far quicker than struggling through the mud and filth of the county’s rural lanes – also won him few friends. Fearing that Seymour might do permanent damage to their political cause, the sitting Liberal MP opted to carry on, despite serious health issues.

Luckily for Seymour the death of an MP in another Devon borough gave him the opening he wanted. Totnes, long noted for its venality, also happened to be controlled in part by his kinsman the Duke of Somerset. As one of its veteran voters explained, ‘I always gave one vote for the duke and the other I did what I liked with’.

At the 1863 by-election, however, with just one of the constituency’s two seats free and electors therefore limited to casting a single vote, such traditional compromises were impossible. Nothing could be guaranteed. To counter protests about Seymour being ‘crammed down the throats of the electors by the noble dictator’, vast sums of money were spent on bribing voters by his agents. Intimidation of the duke’s tenants was also rife – so much so that the Conservative agents started offering bribes of up to £150 to electors who would vote for their candidate and risk eviction.

What really shocked local commentators, however, was less the endemic bribery and voter intimidation than the ‘uncivil’ and ‘ungentlemanly’ language that began to ‘pollute’ this intensely fought by-election. Crucially this was not confined to the usual suspects in crowd politics. Clearly no gifted orator, Seymour resorted to scathing personal attacks and language which the local papers dared not publish. This included mocking a disabled Conservative elector with a ‘unfortunate deformity’ as ‘loppy Harris’. His ‘taunting speech’ on the hustings was delivered in such an ‘insulting tone’, complained one reporter, that it was ‘on a par with the roughest remarks of the rough and not a whit more creditable to a gentleman of such antecedents’. He narrowly won the election.

Seymour’s ‘uncivil’ campaigning proved too much for a Conservative opponent at the next election in 1865, an army veteran called Lieutenant Colonel W. G. Dawkins. Taking exception to Seymour’s taunts that he was ‘no longer a fighting man’, when he was in fact on half-pay, Dawkins pursued the matter in the press and via an election petition after Seymour was re-elected. Accusing the MP of peddling ‘misleading statements’, making ‘needless and meaningless insults’, and of securing his election victory through corruption, Dawkins also demanded ‘satisfaction’ on the field, i.e. a challenge to a duel. Seymour’s published response may have lacked his usual obscenities but was no less withering:

With regard to your suggestion that I should meet you at Wormwood Scrubs … in order to give you the opportunity of relieving Totnes at once of a representative not of her choice … I feel deeply sensible of your amiable intentions towards my constituents but … imagine that the days are past when ‘the survivor’ is the gentleman to be elected by a constituency … I cannot be a consenting party to making myself ridiculous before the public.

Finding no direct link between the illegal practices carried out in the election and Seymour, the investigation into the election petition was unable to overturn his victory. However, it did find enough evidence of endemic corruption to pass the matter to a royal commission of inquiry. In February 1867 their report ruled that Seymour had been ‘privy and assenting’ to corrupt practices, including bribes of up to £200, prompting demands for him to be unseated and prosecuted.

An 1866 cartoon mocking electoral corruption in places like Totnes.

In an unusual maiden speech, 9 Apr. 1867, Seymour vigorously denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the sums he had paid were ‘to clear some back debts and subscriptions (laughter)’. Accusing his critics of blatant hypocrisy, he warned the House of Commons that ‘if action was to be retrospective’, it should include all MPs ‘who were implicated in the same degree’. On the advice of the Conservative minority government’s clearly worried solicitor-general, the motion to prosecute him was withdrawn.

Seymour eventually lost his seat in 1868 when Totnes was disfranchised for electoral corruption under the terms of the 1867 Reform Act. He was later elected for Salisbury after another ‘very close and exciting’ by-election, only to be defeated at the 1874 general election. By then he and his brother had achieved notoriety as leading witnesses in the celebrated Tichborne case, about the claim to an enormous fortune left to their missing nephew Roger Tichborne. It was primarily on the basis of their testimony that the claimant was eventually exposed as an imposter and convicted.

For more information about electoral corruption in the Victorian period click here.

For more information about by-elections click here.

For details of how to access the 1832-68 preview site containing our draft biographies of MPs including Alfred Seymour and his brother, click here.

 

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This entry was posted in Biographies, Conferences and seminars, Corruption, Elections, MP of the Month, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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