Nineteenth-century election rituals: the chairing of Members

Although their formats may have changed, several key elements of nineteenth-century elections – the canvassing of voters, the nomination of candidates and the polling – remain part of the electoral process today. However, one of the most colourful aspects of nineteenth-century election ritual has not survived: the ‘chairing’ of newly elected Members of Parliament. This had long been a key ceremonial part of elections, and was one of the four election scenes depicted by William Hogarth in his ‘Humours of an Election’ (1754-5). It was an important conclusion to the election contest, marking an opportunity for the community to unite in ‘symbolic acceptance of their newly elected representatives’. As with other aspects of election ritual, both voters and non-voters could participate in this event.

William Hogarth; An Election: 4. Chairing the Member; Sir John Soane’s Museum; (CC)

The chairing was essentially a victory parade, which took place after the result of the poll had been officially announced at the declaration – sometimes on the same day, or sometimes a day later. It took its name from the chair in which the MP would be transported around the constituency, either carried aloft by his supporters or mounted on a carriage or cart and pulled by horses. The chair was usually elaborately decorated in the MP’s colours and its progress around the constituency was accompanied by a procession which typically included flags and banners, bands playing music (‘See the conquering hero comes’ being one popular choice) and numerous supporters in carriages, on horseback or on foot. Crowds of spectators – often in their thousands – lined the streets or watched from windows overlooking the route.

Unknown artist; Chairing the Members; Swaffham Museum;

Although the term ‘chairing’ was often used to describe the procession of victorious MPs around their constituency, this ceremony did not always involve a chair, with MPs instead riding on horseback or in carriages. The contrast between the different types of chairing was clearly recorded by Alicia Bayne in her memoir of her father, George Pryme, MP for Cambridge, 1832-41. She recollected having seen the pre-Reform chairing of the Cambridgeshire MPs Lord Francis Osborne and Henry Adeane where they sat

on wooden chairs, which were fastened to poles and supported on men’s shoulders … Every now and then, when the populace pleased, the procession stopped, and the chairs were tossed up as high as the bearers could reach, amid loud huzzas. I recollect the look of discomfort at such times on Lord F. Osborne’s face.

In contrast with this procession, where the MPs were reminded in a very direct way that they were in the hands of their constituents, her father’s chairing as MP for Cambridge in 1832 alongside his colleague Thomas Spring Rice was more sedate.

On this occasion the two members were seated in a handsome car covered with blue silk, and adorned with rosettes of crimson and blue and buff, their respective party colours. It was drawn by six grey horses, ridden by postilions dressed in blue silk jackets and caps. This cortege, headed by a marshal and three trumpeters on horseback, and followed by a band of music and a numerous cavalcade of horsemen, had a most imposing effect, and paraded the town for many hours.

One constituency in which the traditional form of chairing was a key part of the election ritual was Swansea Boroughs, where John Henry Vivian, a prominent local copper smelter, was the Liberal MP from 1832 until his death in 1855. Vivian’s local popularity meant that he was elected unopposed at six successive general elections. In the absence of a poll, the chairing enabled the population of Swansea and the four neighbouring towns which made up this constituency to give their collective endorsement to Vivian’s position as their representative. A newspaper report of the 1832 ceremony recorded that Vivian

mounted the chair, most handsomely decorated … borne by 24 men, tastefully attired in snow white shirts, ornamented with the colours, and proceeded, with a band of music, the Corporation, and the voters, four abreast, through Wind-street, Castle-street, to St. John’s Church, High-street, and back to the Guildhall.

More details of the chair, which was donated by a local coach-maker, John Francis, were given when it was re-used in 1835.

On the chair “Vivian and independence,” carried by sixteen men, with white shirts decorated with blue and yellow. The chair bore the arms of Mr. Vivian and the Corporation, and “vox populi”. The band played “God save the King,” and “See, the conquering hero comes”. The bells commenced a merry peal. Mr. Vivian was warmly greeted by enthusiastic huzzas by all who were present… the streets were thronged with men, women, and children.

The same chair was still being used in 1841, when the accompanying procession had evolved into a carefully orchestrated event featuring numerous banners and flags; mace bearers; a ‘boat on wheels, with party-coloured Sails’; the Society of Shipwrights and other groups carrying emblems of their trade; Vivian’s proposer and seconder carrying ‘wands’; Swansea’s mayor, aldermen and councillors; the civic officers of Neath, Loughor, Aberavon and Kenfig; and numerous policemen and men carrying staffs. As had become customary, the chairing was followed by an election dinner and a fireworks display.

Order of the procession for the 1841 chairing at Swansea: Welshman, 9 July 1841.

While chairings at Swansea were orderly civic events, elsewhere, they could be a flashpoint for violence. At Whitby in 1832 the supporters of the defeated candidate Richard Moorsom were reluctant to accept the result, and hoped to unseat the victorious Conservative Aaron Chapman through an election petition. They therefore decided to chair Moorsom, carrying him to his house in a chair inscribed ‘The Patriot’s Chair’, ‘The Man of the People’ and ‘Moorsom and the Independence of Whitby’. Chapman, a shipowner, was also paraded through the town in ‘a boatlike chair’, but he ‘had hardly alighted’ from it at the Angel Inn ‘when the crowd made a rush, smashed the boat into a thousand pieces’, and carried off fragments as souvenirs.

Similar destruction took place when Ripon’s two MPs were chaired in 1841, with both the chairs and five blue silk banners torn apart by the crowd. Meanwhile at Pontefract in 1847, where the victorious MPs paraded around the town in two chairs placed on a carriage frame, the crowd rushed at the chairs to take the decorations. An elderly man fell down in the melee, was run over by the carriage and died instantly. At the next contest in the town, a by-election in 1851, a ‘splendid chair, covered with orange-covered drapery, decorated with ribands’ was ‘mounted upon a lofty four-wheeled van, drawn by four grey horses’. Wary of rumours that the violence of the previous election would be repeated, the new MP Beilby Lawley asked to be given ‘a single moment’ to get down from the chair once the procession was over. However, before Lawley could even seat himself in the chair, ‘an organized rabble’ overpowered the police constables who were protecting it, and tore the chair and van ‘into a thousand pieces’, which were taken away as trophies. The Leeds Mercury hoped that this debacle would put paid to ‘the foolish custom of chairing’.

Unknown artist; The Chairing of Thomas Hawkes (1778-1858) [after the 1834 Dudley by-election]; Dudley Museums Service;

There were some signs that chairings were dwindling in popularity, as MPs were reluctant to undergo what they often regarded as ‘a very awkward ordeal’. One of Pryme’s fellow MPs for Cambridge, Sir Alexander Cray Grant, avoided a chairing when he was returned at an 1840 by-election, instead donating 100 guineas to local charities in lieu of the money it would have cost. After violence at the declaration of the poll at Ripon in 1852, which saw the victorious MPs denied a hearing, attacked by the crowd as they left the hustings and having to be rescued by their friends, the chairing was abandoned. While Vivian had taken part in six chairings at Swansea, his successor as MP Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn did not continue the tradition after 1855. Legislation passed the previous year – the 1854 Corrupt Practices Prevention Act – had not directly prohibited chairings, but it had stipulated that all payments ‘made for or on account of any Chairing’ would be illegal payments, as would payments for ribbons, cockades, flags, banners and bands of music. Although this reform did not eradicate these colourful aspects of elections, it did have an effect in curbing them. Chairings involving an actual chair were seldom reported thereafter, although Sir James Elphinstone’s chairing at Portsmouth in 1868 in ‘a boat placed on wheels’ echoed some of the elaborate ceremonies of the earlier period.

After the 1868 general election the Newcastle Daily Chronicle recorded that even in its alternative form of riding around the constituency on horseback or in a carriage, ‘the old ceremony [of chairing] is becoming obsolete; its day has gone by’. In the one constituency it found (East Essex) where the new MPs made ‘a triumphal entry’ after the election, ‘in an open carriage … escorted by horsemen’, the ceremony was far more muted than before, with fewer than two hundred spectators rather than the thousands who would previously have attended. Even as late as the 1880 election, however, MPs could find themselves at the mercy of the crowd when a version of the chairing was performed. At Durham South in 1880, Joseph Whitwell Pease and Frederick Lambton endured ‘a vigorous manifestation of popular enthusiasm’ as they were escorted to Darlington station by a procession. The horses were removed from their carriage, which was pulled by long ropes ‘eagerly seized by all who could get a hand upon them’. Much to the MPs’ surprise, the crowd ignored the protests of officials at the station and pulled the carriage all the way to the platform.

Further reading

F. O’Gorman, ‘Campaign rituals and ceremonies: the social meaning of elections in England 1780-1860’, Past & Present, 135:1 (1992), 79-115

P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work. Local politics and national parties 1832-1841 (2002), 94-5

J. Vernon, Politics and the people. A study in English political culture c. 1815-1867 (1993), 93-8

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