The shipping and the railway interests: Whitby’s electoral politics, 1832-1868

This post first appeared on the History of Parliament’s blog as part of its local history series on port constituencies.

In July 1832 the ‘blues’ (Liberals) and ‘pinks’ (Conservatives) in the port of Whitby each held lavish celebrations to mark the passing of the Reform Act, which granted the town the right to elect one MP. Whitby had not originally been included in the Grey ministry’s reform bill, but was one of several single member boroughs added in April 1831. Explaining why Whitby deserved its own MP, the Whig chancellor of the exchequer, Viscount Althorp, noted that it was not ‘near any enfranchised place’ and argued that it was desirable to increase the representation of this part of Yorkshire. He also emphasised ‘the amount of its shipping interests’.

Richard Weatherill; Upper Harbour, Abbey and St Mary’s Church; Pannett Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/upper-harbour-abbey-and-st-marys-church-9953

Located on the North Yorkshire coast, at the mouth of the river Esk, Whitby was one of the country’s largest ports in the early nineteenth century, being ranked eighth in terms of the tonnage of vessels registered there in 1828. Its main business was importing timber and other goods from North America and the Baltic, as well as a large ‘coasting’ trade with other British ports. Whitby had been noted for whaling, but this was in decline from the early 1820s and stopped completely after 1837. However, it remained an important fishing port. Shipbuilding was another key industry, together with associated trades such as sail-making and rope-making. Whitby also became known for the manufacture of jet ornaments, boosted by the fashion for mourning jewellery in the later nineteenth century.

Whitby’s first MP, Aaron Chapman, came from a prominent local family involved in banking and shipowning, although Chapman himself lived in London, where he managed his family’s business interests. Reinforcing his connection with the shipping interest, he was an Elder Brother of Trinity House, the body responsible for lighthouses and pilotage. Chapman, a Conservative, was challenged at the borough’s first contest in December 1832 by Richard Moorsom, a local landowner whose family had previously been involved in shipping. The key election issue was free trade: Moorsom defended the move towards free trade embodied in the system of ‘reciprocity’, which involved making agreements with other nations for mutual concessions on tariffs, whereas Chapman criticised reciprocity as ‘impolitic’ and largely responsible for the depressed state of British shipping.

Chapman defeated Moorsom in the poll by 217 votes to 139. The overwhelming support of Whitby’s shipowners was central to Chapman’s success, with one of his supporters having warned voters that ‘if Mr. Moorsom was returned to parliament, to support the Free-trade system, grass would continue to grow in their shipyards, nay grass would grow down to the water’s edge’. However, Chapman’s opponents claimed that corrupt means had also been used, with ‘threats and promises’. Moorsom’s committee had resolved ‘to maintain purity of election, and repress bribery and inordinate expense’, and the Liberals claimed not to have distributed a single shilling’s worth of drink. In contrast – in an example of the central role played by the public house at elections – the Conservatives were alleged to have distributed liquor freely to anyone presenting a pink card, and

numbers were to be seen lying in the gutters in beastly and senseless drunkenness, too shocking for description, men, women and even children of six and seven years of age.

Reflecting Whitby’s maritime traditions, the ceremony of chairing the victorious MP used ‘a boatlike chair’, from which Chapman ‘had hardly alighted when the crowd made a rush, smashed the boat into a thousand pieces’, and took fragments as souvenirs. The 1835 chairing, which took place after Chapman was re-elected unopposed, used a similar chair, described as ‘a beautiful model of a ship, with figure head, quarter badges … lined with pink-coloured satin, with a canopy of the same materials, and christened the “Royal William”’. Chapman was again spared a contest in 1837 and 1841, but announced in July 1845 that he would step down at the next election.

The Whitby and Pickering Railway Drawn by G. Dodgson, engraved by J. Stephenson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whitby’s representation in the 1830s and 1840s had been monopolised by the shipping interest, but after Chapman’s retirement, another influence came to the fore: the railway interest. This stemmed from the possibilities which the railway offered to promote Whitby as a holiday destination. George Hudson, the railway entrepreneur, had inherited property on Whitby’s West Cliff in the 1820s, and in 1843 he founded the Whitby Cliff Building Company to develop the area as a seaside resort. His position in the town was boosted further by the York and North Midland company’s purchase in 1845 of the Whitby and Pickering railway, which it planned to connect to the Stockton and Darlington railway. Hudson was suggested as a possible successor to Chapman, but took the opportunity of a by-election in August 1845 to be returned for Sunderland. Various other names were mooted, including William Gladstone, but at the 1847 election it was Robert Stephenson, the railway engineer, who was elected unopposed as Whitby’s Conservative MP. His father George had been a friend of Hudson’s since they first met at Whitby in 1834.

Francis Grant; George Hudson (1800-1871); Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/george-hudson-18001871-35165

Stephenson’s death shortly after his election for the fourth time as Whitby’s MP in 1859 prompted a by-election at which the Liberal candidate came from the railway interest: Harry Stephen Thompson, chairman of the North Eastern railway (NER). Two candidates appeared on the Conservative side. Aaron Chapman’s nephew, Thomas Chapman, chairman of Lloyd’s shipping register in London, was backed by his family influence and Whitby’s shipping interest, but faced a rival in the form of Hudson, who had recently lost his Sunderland seat. Hudson had fallen from grace after the exposure of his fraudulent railway dealings in 1849 and at the time of the Whitby by-election he had fled abroad to escape his creditors.

Although Chapman was endorsed by George Young of the General Shipowners’ Society, Thompson was keen to avoid the election becoming a struggle between the railway and shipping interests, arguing that the ‘railways brought more to shipping than they carried away’. He highlighted the NER’s investment in dock facilities on the Tyne and branch lines to Northern ports, including Whitby. He also noted that the company had spent £70,000 to free up Hudson’s West Cliff property for development, which would help Whitby to become ‘a first-rate watering-place’. One Liberal election poster declared, ‘Let us have Thompson and Railways for the future Prosperity of Whitby’. Thompson triumphed over Chapman in the poll.

Harry Stephen Thompson, MP for Whitby, 1859-65 NPG under CC licence

This did not mark the end of Hudson’s political connection with Whitby, as he offered again in 1865, when he voiced his hopes that legal proceedings would enable him to regain control of the West Cliff property and tried to gain sympathy due to the ‘persecution’ he had suffered at the hands of the NER. Thompson, meanwhile, had lost some popularity. This was partly because he appeared to be lukewarm on the question of parliamentary reform, but stemmed also from the belief that the railway developments he had overseen as NER chairman had benefitted Scarborough more than Whitby. One election placard urged voters to

Bundle Thompson off to Scarboro’ by train;

That’s where all his cheap trips went, and where brass was spent

And he’ll do the same again.Whitby lads, he’ll cut you again.

However, Hudson’s candidature was prevented by his dramatic arrest just two days before the nomination at the behest of one of his creditors, and his subsequent imprisonment in York Castle, proceedings in which he alleged Thompson had a hand. The Conservatives’ last-minute substitute, Charles Bagnall – a Staffordshire iron-master in business at Whitby since 1861, who was related by marriage to the Chapmans – benefitted from the voters’ desire to ‘avenge Hudson’s wrongs’. He defeated Thompson with a majority of 23 votes. It may have been its shipping interests which prompted Whitby’s enfranchisement in 1832, but the railway interest came to play an increasingly influential role within the electoral politics of this Yorkshire port.

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