Thomas Abdy’s political career provides a useful reminder of the chicanery, lies and corruption sometimes associated with 19th century English electioneering – venal traditions that became increasingly unacceptable during the Victorian era.
Born into a naval family – his father was a captain who had married an admiral’s daughter – Abdy initially trained for the bar before inheriting vast family estates in Essex, including the Jacobean manor of Albyns in 1840. His ‘extensive landed means’ were put to ample use at the 1841 election, when he stood for the Essex borough of Maldon. Here the number of freemen voters had been greatly reduced by the 1832 Reform Act, enabling money to become ‘the best patron’ as bribery became much easier to manage. Abdy described himself as a ‘warm friend’ to the Liberals, but his obfuscation on some key issues, including the protectionist corn laws that he wished to ‘adjust’ but not ‘entirely repeal’, was eagerly seized on by his Tory opponents. They accused him of making statements ‘suited to all parties’ in order to ‘catch every fish that floats in the political ocean’.
Fake and misleading hand-bills were circulated by both sides purporting to have been produced by their political opponents. At one point Abdy was even threatened with being horse-whipped. Although he lost his election by 33 votes, he secured 290 ‘plumps’ or single votes. It was only the split voting of some electors, who cast one of their votes for Abdy but gave their second vote to one of his rivals, that cost him the seat.
Following his 1841 defeat, Adby set up the South Essex Reform Registration Association and became a leading figure in promoting and funding Liberal registration activity. This aimed to both recruit new Liberal supporters on to the electoral rolls and remove as many Tories as possible, by lodging legal challenges against their qualifications in the annual registration courts, even if these were just speculative or ‘vexatious’. ‘Watch the registration’, Abdy implored the Maldon branch of the new association. ‘Success depends not on the day of election, but … the registration courts’. The strategy worked. At the 1847 general election a Liberal candidate ousted Tory MPs in South Essex and in Maldon, despite more ‘falsehoods’ and fake hand-bills allegedly being distributed by the Tory ‘Blues’ .
Abdy, meanwhile, opted to stand for Lyme Regis in Dorset, where there was local interest in the railway schemes in which he was involved as a railway director. He was backed by the borough’s former MP William Pinney, who had been unseated for bribing electors with cheap loans in 1842. Abdy’s promises to employ voters on railways and his lavish ‘treating’ with beer, food and entertainment secured his return by just three votes. His Tory opponent, however, immediately lodged a petition against the result, alleging foul play.
What happened next exposed details of ‘borough-mongering’ that surprised even some of the most battle-hardened Victorian electioneers. The inquiry into the petition discovered that it had been sponsored and bankrolled by John Attwood, the newly elected Tory MP for Harwich. A ‘self-made’ Birmingham ironmaster, Attwood had purchased the splendid Hylands House estate in South Essex in 1839 and become a staunch rival of Abdy in local Essex politics. It also emerged that Attwood had been buying up properties in Lyme Regis in order to create a ‘pocket borough’ for government use, with a view to securing himself a peerage.
Abdy’s lawyers immediately set about arguing that the petition from Abdy’s Tory opponent, in these circumstances, ‘was not bona fide’. Before the inquiry could rule, however, Attwood got the petition withdrawn, leaving the committee with no choice but to declare Abdy duly elected, despite his own electoral misdemeanours. Abdy’s subsequent campaign for an investigation of Attwood’s misconduct in Lyme Regis, for which he brought up a petition to the Commons, 4 Apr. 1848, came to nothing, but much to his glee Attwood was unseated for ‘corrupt practices’ in his own constituency of Harwich later that year.
By now it was clear that Abdy’s tenure as MP for Lyme Regis would be brief. His promises of railway employment had not been forthcoming, thanks in part to the collapse of the railway investment bubble, prompting local complaints about his ‘treachery’ and ‘lies’. As well as having to cover his own railway losses, Abdy was liable for the very substantial costs of defending his election on petition. In 1849 he was also sued by agents for unpaid election debts at Maldon totalling over £5,000. By the time of the next general election, in 1852, he was in no position to defend his seat at Lyme Regis, which Pinney took over, and he retired to his estates.
Abdy made no attempt to re-enter the Commons until 1868, when, shortly after coming into yet another ‘highly profitable’ family inheritance, he stood for the newly created constituency of Essex East. He was defeated in fourth place. Two years later he came forward for a vacancy at Colchester, only to withdraw.
The constituency of Lyme Regis was abolished for electoral corruption in 1868, when both Harwich and Maldon were partially disfranchised for similar reasons. John Attwood never sat again after 1849 or obtained his peerage. In December 1849, however, the Whig-Liberal government of Lord John Russell gave Abdy a baronetcy, which still exists today.
K. Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’, Parliamentary History, 36:1 (2017), 64-81
K. Rix, ‘“The elimination of corrupt practices in British elections”? Reassessing the impact of the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act’, English Historical Review, CXXIII (2008), 65-97
‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW