In the second of his blogs on Harriet Grote (1792-1878), our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, explores Harriet’s introduction to electoral politics at the 1832 election and her preparations for the 1833 parliamentary session…
The 1832 election introduced Harriet Grote (1792-1878) to several of the traditional, and not so traditional, avenues through which a politician’s wife could engage in nineteenth-century electoral politics. As I discussed in my previous blog, Harriet had established herself as a central figure among London’s intellectual radicals during the 1820s, before being thrown into the world of Westminster politics during the reform crisis of 1830-32.
At the 1832 election her husband, the radical reformer and banker, George Grote (1794-1871), stood for election for the first time. He came forward for the City of London, which with over 18,000 voters, was the UK’s largest constituency. Due to the size of its electorate, canvassing in London took on a different character to most other constituencies. A huge bureaucratic machine was established, with Harriet and George operating as figureheads overseeing campaign workers.
Harriet described their closest friend and George’s banking partner, William George Prescott, as ‘the life and soul of our committee’, and remarked how at one point ‘seventy clerks’ were ‘at work all day and night’ at the King’s Head Tavern, 25 Poultry, running the campaign. In private, Harriet fulfilled the unpaid and generally unnoticed secretarial roles attached to being a politician’s wife, writing speeches, responding to correspondence and overseeing George’s schedule, or as she termed it the ‘duty of arranging his existence’.
During the election Harriet was also asked to fulfil one of the more traditional tasks associated with the politician’s wife: supplying the rosettes for George and his election team. She described how at the declaration thirty of George’s stewards ‘wore my colours in their button-holes, made by myself, a rosette of crimson satin – their especial request’.
The nomination and declaration for the City of London took place at London’s Guildhall. As it was not customary for women to stand on the hustings, Harriet was able to spectate proceedings from a ‘peep-box’ or ‘eyrie’ on one of the upper balconies of the Guildhall. In her journal she recalled:
the scene below will never be effaced from my mind. About 4,500 electors studded the hall in dense order. The hustings was occupied by the candidates and their trains, the Sheriffs presiding in full costume. I thought I should have sunk down when I saw my “Potter” [George Grote] step forth to the rostrum when his turn arrived, amid a roar of applause, a waving of hats and shouts of tremendous nature that the vaulted roof rang again.
George was elected at the top of the poll with over 8,000 votes in December 1832, the largest recorded for any candidate at the 1832 election. This made him, in Harriet’s view, the ‘senior member for the capital of the Empire’.
In contrast to later years this was a moment of intense political opportunity and excitement for both Harriet and George, who felt that the political momentum was finally behind their reformist and utilitarian ideals. In her journal she reflected ‘I doubt if ever again I shall experience the intense happiness of those inspiring moments’. She continued: ‘George is in good health, thank God, and never has the ‘dolors’ now – nor glums’. Both dared to dream that the British public were ‘echoing the sentiments which for years we had privately cherished, but which were now first fearlessly avowed’.
With the parliamentary session about to commence Harriet revived her role as the influential Threadneedle Street hostess at the heart of Westminster. In doing so she skilfully co-opted the aristocratic model of the political hostess, traditionally associated with the likes of Lady Holland or the Countess of Derby. Harriet, however, stamped her own radical middle-class identity on the hostess model, one that was fit for the exciting new world of reformed politics.
In January 1833 she moved into newly rented lodgings with George at 34 Parliament Street, above what was then Oakley’s grocers and is now the Houses of Parliament Gift Shop and Boots. She wrote to her sister ahead of the opening of Parliament, revealing her plan to turn their flat into one of Westminster’s parliamentary and intellectual hubs:
We have got some excellent apartments in Westminster, the corner of Parliament Street and Bridge Street, handsome drawing-room, anteroom and dining room communicating, good bedroom, another bedroom for George – using it as his dressing-room or to sleep in if I am not well, rooms for maids and men over that, nice people below and everything we could wish as a lodging – only £8 a week for six months, and we are lucky to get it. Here we shall be most of the session save Saturdays and Sundays – coteries of friends, political and other, and as much intellectual society as the world affords.
Her mother visited their new residence during the opening weeks of the parliamentary session. She confirmed that Harriet’s plans were coming to fruition: ‘while I was there I met many members flocking in with all the news’.
One of Harriet’s first ‘soirees’ took place on 13 February 1833, which was a night of light business in the House. Harriet assured her sister, who she was trying to convince to visit Parliament, that it was a far from male-dominated affair: ‘the Waddingtons in full force … E[liza] Shireff came with girls; also Mrs. [Sarah] Austin, Mrs. [Mary] Gaskell of Yorkshire, and a bevy of MPs, and John [Stuart] Mill to top up with’.
Harriet’s choice to live with George at Westminster, rather than remain at their residence in Dulwich, led to mutterings that she was encroaching on the bounds of acceptable behaviour for an MP’s wife. It was usual practice for male MPs without London property to live alone at their clubs or hotels during the parliamentary week.
The election agent Joseph Parkes warned Harriet that some suspected her of ‘conceit’ at seeking to exert influence over radical politics as the hostess of 34 Parliament Street. While these accusations were probably close to reality, Harriet couldn’t admit as much in polite society. Accordingly, she brushed off Parkes’s concerns by playing the dutiful wife card, assuring him that:
My chief object in taking a lodging in Parliament Street is to be enabled to look after my man … I shall “minister” to G[eorge] and when not wanted, shall tend my flowers and lead my rational course at D[ulwich] wood. My conceit, however monstrous it may sound, is not what is understood by conceit. I live with one so much my master, that the true feeling of “conceit” is effectually stopped out. I am made sensible of my inferiority most days in the week.
As we will see in my next blog, Harriet proved herself more than equal to her husband and his parliamentary colleagues. She also spared little thought for fulfilling the role of subservient parliamentary spouse…
S. Richardson, ‘A Regular Politician in Breeches: The Life and Work of Harriet Lewin Grote’, in K. Demetrious (ed.), Brill’s Companion to George Grote and the Classical Tradition (2014)
K. Rix, MP of the Month: Daniel Gaskell (1782-1875), Victorian Commons
J. Davey, Mary, Countess of Derby, and the Politics of Victorian Britain (2019)
J. Hamburger, ‘Grote [née Lewin], Harriet’, Oxf. DNB, www.oxforddnb.com
Lady Eastlake, Mrs Grote: A Sketch (1880)
H. Grote, Collected Papers: In Prose and Verse 1842-1862 (1862)
H. Grote (ed.), Posthumous Papers: Comprising Selections from Familiar Correspondence (1874)
M. L. Clarke, George Grote: A Biography (1962)