Beware the turnip! Unusual causes of death among Victorian MPs

Our MP of the Month, Sir William Payne Gallwey, died on this day in 1881 after suffering a rather unusual accident…

On 19 December 1881 the former Conservative MP for Thirsk, Sir William Payne Gallwey, died following an accident while out shooting on his estate at Thirkleby Park, near Thirsk. He was not the only MP to die while pursuing this hobby: James Platt, Liberal MP for Oldham, died after the mayor of Oldham discharged his gun accidentally while they were out with a shooting party on the moors near Saddleworth. Platt was hit in the lower leg and suffered extensive blood loss, expiring just over an hour later.


Sir Ralph Frankland Payne Gallwey, son of Sir William Payne Gallwey. Image credit: NPG

In Gallwey’s case, however, it was not a firearm which caused his demise, but a turnip. As the Northern Echo reported, he ‘was out shooting in the parish of Bagby, and in crossing a turnip field fell with his body on to a turnip, sustaining severe internal injuries’. Although ‘all that medical aid could do was done’, Gallwey, who was 73 years old, was already in failing health and did not recover. He died at his home at Thirkleby Park and was buried in the local parish church three days later.

The manner of Gallwey’s death did not deter his son Ralph, who succeeded him as baronet, from pursuing his own passion for shooting. He even wrote several books on the subject, including The book of duck decoys (1886) and High pheasants in theory and practice (1913).

Gallwey’s death occurred the year after his retirement from Parliament. He had represented Thirsk from March 1851 until he stepped down at the 1880 general election. Prior to 1832 this constituency had been firmly under the control of the Frankland family, who owned 49 of the 50 properties which qualified their occupants to vote under the ‘burgage’ franchise. As a small borough, Thirsk lost one of its two seats in 1832, but Sir Robert Frankland (later Frankland Russell), who had been one of the MPs since 1815, was re-elected for the single seat in 1832, before retiring in 1834. Two other local landowners, Samuel Crompton and John Bell, then served in turn as MP. Although a commission of lunacy declared John Bell to be ‘of unsound mind’ in 1849, he remained as MP until his death in March 1851.

Lawrence, Thomas, 1769-1830; Sir Robert Frankland Russell (1784-1849), 7th Bt

Sir Robert Frankland Russell, by Thomas Lawrence. Image credit: Chequers Court

The ensuing by-election gave Gallwey, a former army officer, an opportunity to enter Parliament. His connection to Thirsk came through his marriage in 1847 to Emily, the third daughter of Sir Robert Frankland Russell. Gallwey’s father-in-law had died in 1849, leaving no sons, and it was therefore his widow, Lady Frankland Russell, who attended to the family’s electoral interests, another example of the female political influence we have blogged about before. She secured the agreement of the Bell family, the other major local landowners who wielded electoral power, to return her nominee at the long-anticipated by-election following Bell’s death. While Sir Robert Frankland had been elected as ‘a moderate Reformer’ in 1832, his political sympathies had shifted after his retirement from the Commons, and Disraeli described him in 1836 as ‘a Whig who has become Conservative’. Gallwey shared these political views, issuing an address ‘on Protectionist, Protestant, and moderate Conservative principles’ before his unopposed return in 1851. He was returned without a contest at every subsequent election until 1868, when he saw off a Liberal challenge, and again with no poll in 1874.

Despite spending almost three decades in Parliament, Gallwey failed to impress with his speaking abilities. The Northern Echo observed scathingly that

‘although he has heard the burning words of Mr Gladstone, the polished satire of Mr Disraeli, the sustained eloquence of John Bright, and the incisive epigrams of Mr Lowe, he has never acquired the art of public speaking’.

He was, however, praised in 1865 by Punch for his efforts – thwarted by the railway interest – to improve railway safety by forcing railway companies to provide some method of communication between passengers and guards.

McGregor, Robert, 1847-1922; The Turnip Field

The Turnip Field, by Robert McGregor (1847–1922). Image credit: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Strange though it may seem, Gallwey is not the only MP whose death involved a turnip. In November 1833 the Whig MP for Huddersfield, Lewis Fenton, elected for his native borough during a riotous contest the previous year, fell from one of the upper windows of his home at Spring Grove. He landed in the courtyard below at around 8:30 a.m., and died later that morning from his injuries. Press reports suggested that there was ‘considerable mystery’ surrounding the circumstances of his death, hinting at suicide, but the ensuing inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. As Fenton’s widow explained to the surgeon who tended him, Fenton had been in the habit of going into the attic to look at ‘a piece of ground where some turnips were growing, to see that none of his cows were trespassing in it’. He had apparently over-balanced while standing on a chair to look out of the window. Other evidence showed that Fenton had been in a cheerful mood the evening before his death, when he had drafted a speech for a forthcoming meeting regarding a testimonial to the anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce.

Having looked at some deaths of MPs involving vegetables, we conclude with a death for which an animal was responsible. The Hon. Henry Handcock, the youngest son of the Irish peer, Lord Castlemaine, had served with distinction in the Crimean War and sat in Parliament as MP for his native Athlone, 1856-7. He was subsequently posted to India as aide-de-camp to the governor of Madras. Like Gallwey, Handcock was out shooting when he suffered the accident which led to his death in December 1858, his quarry being ‘various kinds of wild animals’ in the jungle near Bandipore. When his party came across a tiger, Handcock could not resist the opportunity to shoot it, even though, as press reports observed, ‘it is not considered prudent to attack a tiger at all, unless from the back of a trained elephant, nor even then without the aid of a considerable party’. Handcock’s foolhardiness cost him his life, for when he moved closer to fire further shots at the tiger, which was lying down, apparently mortally injured, it attacked him, causing three large wounds and seven smaller ones. Despite medical assistance, he died three days later, aged just 24.

For details about how to access the biographies of Gallwey and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.

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4 Responses to Beware the turnip! Unusual causes of death among Victorian MPs

  1. Pingback: Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons! | The Victorian Commons

  2. David Boothroyd says:

    Only a week before Sir William Gallwey had his fatal encounter with a turnip, Walter Powell (MP for Malmesbury) agreed to go in a hot air balloon flight from Bath. The wind was up and the balloon was carried all the way over Somerset and Dorset; the pilot decided to try to land before it went out into the channel. Unfortunately the descent was too rapid and when it struck the ground near Bridport, the pilot was thrown out; one other passenger jumped out quickly, but the remaining balloon (now considerably lighter) rose rapidly and Powell was unable to get out. It was blown out to see and he was never seen again.

  3. Pingback: From typhus to trains: the tragic deaths of 19th century MPs | The Victorian Commons

  4. Pingback: Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons! | The Victorian Commons

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