Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

We’re marking the start of 2021 with some highlights from our blogging over the past twelve months. During the year we have joined our colleagues across the History of Parliament’s different projects for a series of blogs focusing on local history. Our tour of the constituencies began with York, looking at the key features of our constituency articles. Moving around the country, we then shared our research on elections in Northumberland, Glamorgan, Abingdon and Exeter. Our most recent MP of the Month blog also had an electioneering theme, discussing the demands which voters in the corrupt borough of Great Yarmouth made on their candidates.

A handbill for the unsuccessful pro-reform candidate at Exeter at the 1831 general election, Edward Divett. © Devon Heritage Centre

With politicians having to adapt parliamentary procedure this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we explored the origins of a key feature of Westminster politics – the division lobbies – looking at the creation of a second division lobby in the temporary House of Commons in 1836. We also uncovered the surprising story of the fifteen year old girl from Rochdale who laid the foundation stone of the Clock Tower for the new Palace of Westminster in 1843.

The ‘Aye’ division lobby

Before lockdown restricted physical access to archives and libraries, our research fellow Dr Martin Spychal made a trip to Staffordshire Archives to consult the diary of Lord Ronald Gower, a prominent figure in Britain’s nineteenth-century LGBTQ+ history, who was the likely inspiration for the character of Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first blog in his series on Gower was our most viewed new post of 2020. Our second most popular new post came from our editor Dr Philip Salmon, who assessed Sir Robert Peel’s contribution to the development of the modern Conservative party, and in third place, our assistant editor Dr Kathryn Rix looked at the MP who created and gave his name to a town, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood.

North Euston Hotel and Baths, Fleetwood (credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0)

In subsequent posts on Gower, Martin has used his diary to explore his Commons nickname, the ‘beautiful boy’; his social life during the 1867 parliamentary session; and his experiences of canvassing in his Scottish constituency. Although Gower’s sexuality was commented upon by his contemporaries, he did not suffer the fate of the former MP for Dorset, William Bankes, who fled the country in 1841 to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences. Away from Parliament, Bankes made a notable contribution to the emerging study of Egyptology. Another MP whose most significant endeavours came not at Westminster but elsewhere was Nicholas Vigors, an expert ornithologist whose prominent involvement in the Zoological Society of London was discussed by our research fellow Dr Stephen Ball.

1865 Albumen print of Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) by by Camille Silvy. CC NPG

As ever, our MP of the Month slot has featured an eclectic mix of individuals. Charles Augustus Tulk was the first Swedenborgian to sit in the Commons, where his religious views influenced his commitment to social reform. Sir Henry Bulwer, a colourful career diplomat, interspersed his parliamentary service with overseas postings, as a guest blog from Dr Laurence Guymer explained. One of the more unusual careers before becoming an MP was that of Robert Spankie, who was in succession a parliamentary reporter, newspaper editor, barrister and advocate-general of Bengal prior to his election for Finsbury in 1832. The most notable event in the life of William Nugent Macnamara, known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, came long before he entered the Commons, when he acted as the second to Daniel O’Connell in a fatal duel in 1815.

O’Connell’s duel of 1815 (Irish Magazine, Mar. 1815)

Our MP of the Month blogs have considered some rather brief parliamentary careers, as well as several longer ones. Alfred Rhodes Bristow spent only three years as MP for Kidderminster before obligingly resigning his seat to make way for a government whip. Sir John Key, often caricatured as ‘Sir Don Key’, had to resign his seat as MP for London after just eight months when it emerged that he was disqualified by holding a government contract. Unlike Bristow and Key, Thomas Greene was a long-serving and well-regarded MP, who made an unshowy but significant contribution to parliamentary business, including as chairman of ways and means. Stephen Lushington and Thomas Barrett Lennard both campaigned for the abolition of slavery and of capital punishment, and took up a variety of other causes, with Lushington being a prominent advocate of religious reform, and Lennard trying to revive an ancient franchise based on marriage to a freeman’s daughter.

J. Phillips, ‘The great dictator and his mighty councillor, the donkey mare’ (13 Nov. 1830) CC British Museum

We look forward to sharing more of our research over the coming year, and wish our readers all the best for 2021.

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