Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

In what is now a well established tradition, we’re marking the new year with a look back over the past twelve months of blogging on our Victorian Commons site, where we share research about our ongoing work on the 1832-68 House of Commons project. Over 300 blog posts are now available on a range of topics connected with the period.

When it comes to our blogs in 2022, it has been a year of anniversaries, including the tenth anniversary of starting our Victorian Commons blog in July 2012. For the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, we took the opportunity to look at the involvement of one of her predecessors, Queen Victoria, in parliamentary ceremonies, from state openings to prorogations. Our editor Dr Philip Salmon reflected on the 190th anniversary of the 1832 Reform Act with a blog reassessing the role of this landmark measure in the development of the modern British political system.

George Hayter, Queen Victoria Opening Parliament, 1837: Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/queen-victoria-opening-parliament-1837-213907

Our main focus in terms of anniversaries was, however, the 150th anniversary of the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872. We set this reform in context by looking at the system of public voting in operation at elections before 1872. There was a lengthy campaign both inside and outside Parliament for the secret ballot, and Dr Martin Spychal looked at two different aspects of this. As part of his series on the notable female Radical politician Harriet Grote – which also featured blogs on her involvement in efforts to establish a radical party at Westminster and in radical parliamentary tactics in the 1835 and 1836 sessions – he considered the campaign for the ballot in the 1830s. This included novel tactics such as the distribution of model ballot boxes to radicals and reformers across the country.

A depiction of the ballot in operation ahead of George Grote’s 1838 ballot motion
Cleave’s Penny Gazette of Variety, 17 Feb. 1838

The cause of the secret ballot was later taken up by the Bristol MP Henry Berkeley, who brought the topic forward on an annual basis in the Commons. He entertained fellow MPs with anecdotes of electoral corruption, including ‘bowls full of sovereigns’ to be distributed to voters at Great Yarmouth. Berkeley’s use of humour in parliamentary debate was well-documented; in contrast, a blog from Dr Stephen Ball found that the description of Sir Robert Peel’s smile resembling ‘the silver plate on a coffin’ has been misattributed.

Our blogging on the secret ballot continued with analysis of the impact which its introduction had in multi-member seats, including at local elections. We were very pleased to take part in two events marking the ballot’s 150th anniversary: an in-person symposium at the Institute of Historical Research in honour of the late Valerie Cromwell, and an online event organised in conjunction with the Parliamentary Archives, which was recorded and can be viewed here.

Instructions to voters on how to use the secret ballot

Our most popular new blog of 2022 was our research guide to accessing Hansard’s parliamentary debates online. We have also updated the list of freely accessible sources and databases for 19th century history on our Resources page. Our most viewed post of the year was not, however, a new blog, but an old favourite, looking at the unfortunate MP whose death was caused by a turnip.

Our blogging this year has also picked up on some themes we have covered in the past, including the reluctance of some MPs to adopt strict party labels, as in the case of James Wentworth Buller. Our series from Dr Kathryn Rix on parliamentary buildings continued with a look at the building occupied by MPs for almost half of our 1832-68 period, the temporary chamber used after the 1834 fire. We have also blogged about a proposal made in 1848 to hold parliamentary sessions in Dublin to consider Irish business. Biographies of MPs are a core element of our project, and those we have highlighted in our blogs this year include the Speaker, John Evelyn Denison, and a prominent Irish MP, Charles Owen O’Conor, the O’Conor Don, the latter featuring in a guest post from one of our external contributors, Dr. Aidan Enright. We are always open to offers of guest blogs from researchers working on 19th century British and Irish parliamentary history.

Henry Melville, House of Commons. The Speaker reprimanding a person at the bar. This shows the temporary accommodation after alterations had been made in 1836 (including to the roof) to improve the acoustics, ventilation and lighting; public domain; via Yale Center for British Art

Our final blog of 2022 focused on levels of parliamentary attendance and absence among MPs. We are looking forward to sharing more of our research in the coming year through our blog, our social media channels, our publications and at conferences. We are particularly looking forward to conferences being supported by the History of Parliament at UEA in April 2023 and at Durham University on the politics of organisation in July 2023. To keep up to date with our latest plans, please follow our blog or find us on Twitter (@TheVictCommons), Mastodon (@VictorianCommons@mastodonapp.uk) or Instagram (victoriancommons). Thank you to all our loyal followers and readers for their support. We wish you all the best for 2023!

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