Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

For eight years now we have been marking the new year with some highlights from the previous 12 months. The events of 2019 certainly focused attention on parliamentary history and the UK’s constitutional practices as never before. Taking our cue from the succession of political crises, we blogged about Political Prorogations, the Speaker and Erskine May and the dilemmas of conscience facing rebel MPs. The relationship between Parliament and ‘the people’ also came in for scrutiny, conjuring up many historical comparisons. The 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre  ­̶  perhaps the most iconic ‘popular’ protest in British history  ­̶  was commemorated with an exhibition and colloquium we helped to organise in Parliament. Alongside related Peterloo blogs, this prompted our first vlog (video blog), co-produced with Royal Holloway.

Peterloo Massacre by Thomas Tegg (1819)

Staying with the ‘Parliament versus the People’ theme, we also explored the Newport Rising of 1839, another milestone in the long history of the struggle for political change. A more regional focus came from a joint conference held with the Devon and Cornwall Record Society. This explored the South West’s relationship with Parliament. Building on his PhD research, Martin Spychal examined how the distinct political cultures of Devon and Cornwall were impacted by franchise reforms and the development of more modern electioneering practices in the years after 1832.

The Chairing by T. Rowlandson

The most popular blog of 2019 was by Kathryn Rix on electoral corruption. Based on her keynote speech at a conference held in January, this set the scene for more election-related posts throughout the year, including one on the use of uncivil speech and an 1832-68 election overview that appeared shortly before we all went to the polls in December.

The scale of ‘treating’ in early 19th century elections was again brought home in a blog about John Fenton MP. Six people died from intoxication at the 1835 election in which he was defeated, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’.

Turning the spotlight on agents, Philip Salmon focused on Thomas Jones Phillips, a pioneering Tory election strategist and ancestor of the comedian Jack Whitehall, whose ruthless manipulation of the new voter registration system was revealed in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. Two guest writers, Gary Hutchison and Nicholas Dixon, also examined election violence and the electoral influence of the Anglican clergy respectively, while Martin Spychal added blogs exploring the enfranchisement of the University of London in 1868 and its charter and offered a tantalising glimpse of his new book with a post about the Whigs’ use of science in politics. Guest blogs were also provided by Ruscombe Foster on the man ‘who might have been PM’, Sidney Herbert; by Amanda Goodrich on a previously unidentified ‘non-white’ MP, Henry Redhead Yorke; and by Jennifer Davey on the political career and influence of Lady Derby.

The core of our work remains the constituency articles and MP biographies, with their capacity to throw up all sorts of unusual perspectives on Victorian political life and challenge traditional assumptions. This year’s MP of the Month series included two impecunious peers whose experience of the Commons gave them important skills as colonial governors, Charles Monck and the Earl of Mulgrave, as well as the pioneering engineer responsible for laying the first Atlantic telegraph cable, Charles Tilston Bright MP. We also found out about from Stephen Ball about Edward Schenley MP, who eloped with a 15 year old Pittsburgh heiress almost 30 years his junior and died a multi-millionaire. His £100 bribes to the electors of Dartmouth, however, prompted his hasty removal from the Commons. Of all the oddities about Victorian MPs uncovered this year, though, it has to be danger to life posed by turnips and large cats that really stands out. Being eaten by a tiger is a such a Victorian way to trigger a by-election.

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

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