MP of the month: James Barlow Hoy (1794-1843)

As biographies of long-forgotten politicians go, this month’s MP ticks all the boxes, offering an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale, the beginnings of a brilliant political career accompanied by fraud and bankruptcy, and even an allegation of murder.

Hoy, or Barlow as he was originally known, was working as a lowly assistant surgeon in the army in 1828 when a chance inheritance from a cousin transformed his life, providing him with ‘extensive property’ in Hampshire and a ‘great fortune’ of almost £88,000. Within a year he had adopted the surname of his benefactor, the merchant Michael Hoy, and within two years had been elected for the venal borough of Southampton at vast expense, assisted by his cousin’s mercantile connections. Hoy’s opposition to the Grey ministry’s reform bill lost him the seat in 1831, but in 1832 he defied the national trend and was re-elected as a Conservative MP. The discovery of ‘fraudulent voting’, however, led to his being unseated on petition in 1833, following a lengthy investigation into Southampton’s corrupt electoral practices.

Determined to leave nothing to chance, Hoy launched a highly effective campaign at the 1835 election, pitching himself as a protector of the ‘ancient English rights’ of Southampton’s pre-1832 electors, whose entitlements to vote he had helped to defend by funding lawyers to attend the registration courts. With the support of the treasury, now in Tory control, and another vast outlay on treating and entertainment, including a series of musical election ‘rounds’ composed in his support, he topped the poll.

1835 Southampton election round

1835 Southampton Election Round

Another of Hoy’s bugbears on the hustings had been the radical cry for the secret ballot. ‘Was public opinion not to have any influence?’, he had demanded, to the approval of many non-voters. ‘Was a voter to sneak privately to the poll and not let his neighbours know what he was doing?’

Hoy not only became a noted campaigner in the Commons against this most ‘un-English’ of innovations, but also used it to highlight the glaring hypocrisy of other Liberal measures. In an impressive speech on 2 June 1835, he derided all those who supported the ballot and municipal corporation reform, noting how he was ‘surprised to see those who had been foremost in exclaiming against corporations, on account of the secrecy of their proceedings … coming forward as the advocates of a measure, the whole object of which was to secure the most complete secrecy’. If ‘public opinion were thought a necessary restraint’ and ‘useful control upon the actions’ of MPs, he asked, why should it be any ‘less necessary when voting for MPs’? Although his attempt to make the new town council elections ‘be taken openly’, in the same manner as parliamentary polls, was defeated, provision was subsequently made for council voting papers to be available for public inspection on payment of a fee.

Clearly a rising star of the Tory opposition, Hoy’s sudden departure for the Continent in 1837, ostensibly on account of his wife’s health, came as a surprise to his constituents. It may have been related to the huge sums involved in contesting Southampton on five occasions in as many years. He stayed in Naples during the 1837 and 1841 elections, although the publication in 1839 of his pamphlet Manufacturers and corn growers, a defence of the protective import duties on corn, suggests that he may have been contemplating a return to UK politics.

His ‘accidental’ death in 1843 attracted widespread publicity. During a ‘shooting excursion’ with an ‘old friend’ Captain Richard Meredith in the Pyrenees, Hoy slipped into a ravine, dropping his gun, which ‘went off’, lacerating the blood vessels in his arm. He died from these injuries and ‘lock jaw’ the following day. Hoy’s will made generous provision for his wife Marian, but due to his outstanding mortgages of £58,500 there were insufficient funds to carry it out fully and his estate was declared ‘insolvent’.

Hoy’s younger brother, the Reverend Robert Joseph Barlow, later became convinced that Hoy’s wife and Captain Richard Meredith had conspired to murder Hoy, and that Hoy had been pushed by Meredith into the ravine, allegations which found their way into his autobiographical novel W. Fitzallen, Remarkable but still true (1872). Just over a year after the accident Hoy’s widow married Meredith. In 1850, following Meredith’s own death, she took a third husband, the Catholic author John Richard Digby Beste.

For details about how to access this biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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A Westminster Boy Made Good: Charles Barry (1795-1860)


Caroline Shenton won the Political Book of the Year Award in 2013 with The Day Parliament Burned Down and its sequel Mr Barry’s War is published this month. 

In this guest post she reflects on an often-forgotten aspect of the background of Charles Barry, architect of the New Houses of Parliament.

On the night of 16 October 1834, thirty-nine year old Charles Barry was travelling back to town from business in Brighton. As his stagecoach trundled over the top of the North Downs, and began its descent towards the city,

a red glare on the London side of the horizon showed that a great fire had begun.  Eager questions elicited the news that the Houses of Parliament had caught fire, and that all attempts to stop the conflagration were unavailing. No sooner had the coach reached the office, than he hurried to the spot, and remained there all night.  All London was out, absorbed in the grandeur and terror of the sight … the thought of this great opportunity, and the conception of designs for the future, mingled in Mr Barry’s mind, as in the minds of many other spectators, with those more obviously suggested by the spectacle itself. [Alfred Barry, The Life and Works of Sir Charles Barry (1867)]

Barry had more reason than many to wonder about the future of the Palace.  One of the most startling things about the enigmatic man who became the architect of the new Houses of Parliament was that he was born and brought up in Westminster itself and knew the area inside out even before the competition which changed his life.

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

The ninth of eleven children of a government Stationery Office supplier, Barry was born and spent his childhood at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the side of New Palace Yard, opposite the door of Westminster Hall at the northern end of the ramshackle old Palace.  He was christened at St Margaret’s, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, only a few steps from home. Some fifty years after Barry’s birth, the Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster – its most well-known feature – began to be constructed just opposite his birthplace. Orphaned at ten years old, at fifteen he was articled to a firm of surveyors in Lambeth across the river.  So up until he was twenty-one, Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, though very different to the one which is familiar to us today.

The old Palace must have been a constant presence in his life.  From his attic bedroom at the top of the Barry home it would have been possible to see the north door of Westminster Hall, still with the law courts held inside, as well as the Abbey and St Margaret’s, a view painted in the 1820s by Auguste Pugin, father of Barry’s most famous collaborator.  As a trainee surveyor and architect Barry’s daily walk over Westminster Bridge to Lambeth provided fine views of its eastern flank across the Thames.  Growing up in its shadow and then working across the river would have impressed on Barry’s vivid imagination the muddled shapes and textures of the Palace which had been home to the House of Lords since the thirteenth century, and to the House of Commons since the Reformation.  In 1812, at the age of seventeen, he successfully entered a drawing for exhibition at the Royal Academy for the first time. Tellingly, its subject was the interior of Westminster Hall.  For the rest of his life, Barry both drew on the existing iconography of Westminster and then indelibly imprinted his own vision on it.

‘What a chance for an architect!” he exclaimed on watching the terrible fire of 1834.  But it was also an amazing opportunity for a local boy.  For when, in 1835, he entered the competition to design a new Houses of Parliament, he had – like the other 96 entrants – to do it anonymously.  They weren’t allowed to sign their drawings but instead each competitor marked the corner of every sheet with a unique symbol – or rebus, as it was called – and then placed their name in an otherwise unmarked envelope bearing the symbol on the outside, to be opened only if they won.  Barry’s choice of rebus was the Portcullis: the heraldic badge of Lady Margaret Beaufort found peppered all over the Henry VII Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey (whose Perpendicular style Barry had already reflected across his whole design).  This very personal choice from a building so well-known to Barry subsequently became the universal symbol for Parliament, and can be found decorating nearly every nook and cranny of the new Palace, thanks to Barry’s collaborator, A. W. N. Pugin who incorporated it into the carpets, wallpaper, fixtures and fittings, and woodwork of the Palace’s interior, and the stone mason John Thomas who was responsible for the exterior carvings.  Today, Portcullis House, the parliamentary building which houses MPs’ offices and committee rooms, stands on the very site of Barry’s childhood home.

Despite living for a time in Hatton Garden and then the West End, in 1840 Barry moved his wife and family to 32 Great George Street, so that he could keep an eye on the growing Palace just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was in fact simply an extension of Bridge Street westwards towards St James’s Park.  In the 1850s, Barry was highly influential in the design and construction of a new Westminster Bridge whose profile he was determined had to blend with the Palace when viewed from downriver.  And finally, when he died in 1860, worn out with the stress of working on the Palace for twenty-five years, Barry was buried in Westminster Abbey among the most famous of his peers, but also fittingly, just a stone’s throw from the place where he was born and had gazed upon from his attic bedroom whose walls he had once decorated with imaginary scenes of faraway places.

Caroline Shenton @dustshoveller

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MP of the Month: Edward Lucas and the administration of Ireland, 1841-5

Edward Lucas was already an experienced parliamentarian when in September 1841 he was appointed under-secretary for Ireland, a post which for at least three-quarters of the year made the holder ‘the executive of Ireland’. In practice the political head of the civil service, the under-secretary was responsible for the routine working of the Irish administration and the supervision of almost every public department in Ireland. Indeed, Lucas acted as the Irish administration’s sheet anchor during the height of the Repeal agitation, yet he remains overlooked by both the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Lucas came from a Suffolk family that had migrated to Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century and acquired a large estate in county Monaghan. His family had frequently represented the county in the Irish Parliament and after attending the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford Lucas became involved in parliamentary politics on the independent and anti-Catholic interest from 1807. It was not until July 1834, however, that he was finally returned to the reformed Commons.


Dublin Castle (image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A consistent supporter of Sir Robert Peel, Lucas spoke frequently against the Whig government’s Irish reforms and in 1838 led the opposition to the introduction of an Irish poor law. Although he retired at the dissolution in 1841 to manage his estate, his talents as an MP had not gone unnoticed by Peel, who regarded him one of the ablest of the Conservative Irish members. Accordingly, that September he was appointed to the demanding post of under-secretary for Ireland, which, since the Whigs had appointed Thomas Drummond to the position in 1835, had been treated as a political appointment. Lucas was therefore charged with the day-to-day supervision of the chief secretary’s office in Dublin Castle during what would be a challenging time for British authority in Ireland.

Wood, John, 1801-1870; Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey, KG, PC, FRS

Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey. Copyright Ministry of Defence Art Collection.

As Daniel O’Connell’s agitation for the repeal of the Union came to maturity in 1843, it became apparent that Lord de Grey’s administration as viceroy in Dublin was not a happy one. Lucas had the thankless task of mediating between de Grey and the chief secretary, Lord Eliot, and the lord chancellor, Edward Sugden, both of whom the hard-line viceroy had candidly described to Peel as ‘useless’. Lucas also criticised what he regarded as Eliot’s failure to act decisively against the Repealers, and in June 1843 tendered his resignation. Regarding Lucas’s behaviour as ‘very shabby’, Peel nevertheless found it impossible to find an adequate replacement, particularly as the viceroy had informed him that Lucas was the only senior official in Dublin in whom he had any confidence. Lucas again submitted his resignation rather than continue to serve under Eliot in May 1844, but was persuaded to remain and subsequently convinced the new viceroy, Lord Heytesbury, that he was an ‘indefatigable’ and highly efficient public servant, who had proved particularly useful in facilitating communication between the government and the leaders of the Orange party.

In August 1845 Lucas cited ‘a serious affection of the eyes’ as his reason for resigning as under-secretary. He became a member of the Irish privy council. That November he chaired a commission of inquiry into the failure of the Irish potato crop, although political opponents considered him ‘too Orange-tinted’ to provide sympathetic guidance to what they had dubbed the ‘Starvation Commission’. In fact, he proved highly critical of the government’s relief measures and was replaced when the commission was restructured in February 1846.

Convinced that the country’s prospects were unlikely to improve, Lucas left Ireland for the Continent in 1850. On Lord Derby coming to power in February 1852 he was reportedly ‘wandering somewhere about’ southern Europe when the government despatched a special messenger to offer him his old job. In the event the position went to another Irish landowner, Edward Wynne, the member for County Sligo, this being the last time that the Irish under-secretaryship was given to a politician. The post was again made a permanent one in 1854 during the tenure of Wynne’s successor, Sir Thomas Larcom, although later appointments would become politicised for some years after 1886 by virtue of the Home Rule question.

Lucas eventually returned to Ireland and in the 1860s supported fellow Conservative landowners at parliamentary elections for County Monaghan, acting on the principle of maintaining ‘what is old until it is proved to be bad’. Lucas’s death at Castle Shane in November 1871 went largely unremarked, and his time at the fulcrum of the Irish executive during a turbulent period in Irish politics has been largely forgotten.

Further reading:

  • K. Flanagan, ‘The Chief Secretary’s Office, 1853-1914: a bureaucratic enigma’, Irish Historical Studies, xxiv, no. 94 (Nov. 1984), 195-225
  • R. B. McDowell, The Irish Administration 1801-1914 (1964)
  • R. B. O’Brien, Dublin Castle and the Irish People (2nd edn., 1912)
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Petitioning Parliament: two PhD studentships

One of our former colleagues, Dr Henry Miller, has recently secured a major grant to further his work on petitioning, as part of an important new project with Dr Richard Huzzey at the University of Durham. Petitioning has long been overshadowed by elections in the study of British politics, yet before the 1880s many more constituents (including women) often put their names to petitions than actually cast a vote at the polls.

A 'Monster' Petition being carried to Parliament, 1842

A ‘Monster’ Petition being carried to Parliament, 1842

As well as the landmark campaigns that used and refined the art of petitioning – slavery abolition, the agitation for the 1832 Reform Act, corn law repeal and Chartism – petitions also served as a continuous safety valve for airing local gripes and grievances on a vast range of issues, both public and private. Parliament kept records, including a entire series of volumes issued by a special select committee on public petitions. Relating this resource (once digitised) and others to digitised newspaper accounts and Hansard will provide new insights into how petitioning was organised and its long-term impact in helping to shape local and national political culture right across the UK.

This exciting new study is now looking for two PhD researchers – for full details see below or click here. As historical projects go, it could hardly be more topical.

Durham University and Warwick University are pleased to announce that we have two funded PhD studentships available as part of the ‘Re-thinking Petitions, Parliament, and People’ project generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-097). This new initiative, led by Dr. Richard Huzzey (Durham) and Dr. Henry Miller (Durham), explores the powerful role of parliamentary petitioning in the development of modern Britain and exploits the under-used records of the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Petitions. One student will be based in Durham while the other will work at Warwick with Dr. Sarah Richardson, a member of the project’s advisory board.

For full details, including the process for applying before the 19 August 2016 deadline, please see the webpages for these two studentships:

Petitions from Ireland:

Petitions from women:

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‘The sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’: MP of the Month, George Ward Hunt (1825-77)

The recent rise of a certain parson’s daughter to the premiership provides a fitting opportunity to consider the unexpected ascent of a parson’s son to one of the great offices of state during the 1860s – George Ward Hunt, Conservative MP for Northamptonshire North between 1857 and his death in 1877, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Disraeli’s 1868 administration.

Hunt’s name has become synonymous with two moments in Westminster’s popular memory. His inability to locate his dispatch box prior to his only budget speech in 1868 is often bandied about on budget day by journalists seeking historical precedent for the custom of the chancellor holding up their red box outside 11 Downing Street. When he later served as First Lord of the Admiralty in Disraeli’s second ministry from 1874, the practical need to accommodate his gargantuan frame – he was 6ft 4 inches tall and weighed between 21 and 25 stone throughout his adult life – has been used to explain a unique semi-circular recess in the Admiralty’s boardroom table, known as ‘Hunt’s Bay’. Both legends – one that paints a picture of ineptitude, the other of extraordinary obesity – have served to distort the otherwise exemplary parliamentary service of one of the rising stars of the Conservative party in the early 1860s.

Hunt’s political career did not start well. After graduating with a MA from Christ Church, Oxford, and being called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1851, he failed twice to get elected as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Northampton in 1852 and 1857. To make matters worse, in 1857 he suffered the ignominy of being on holiday in Egypt throughout the election, a fact that his local Liberal opponents never let him forget, through heckling about crocodiles, pyramids and mummies at future hustings.

NPG D43474; George Ward Hunt ('Statesmen, No. 77.') by Carlo Pellegrini

‘The fat of the land’, George Ward Hunt by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair (11 March 1871)

He was finally elected in December 1857 at a by-election for Northamptonshire North, the county division that contained his family’s Wadenhoe estate. Although Hunt’s family could trace their lineage back to Edward III, his lowly status as the son of ‘a well connected country clergymen’ marked him out from the county’s usual stock of aristocratic representatives, and his election bemused Northamptonshire’s established elite. He quickly allayed these fears by throwing himself into the business of the Commons as an active Tory backbencher during his first short Parliament. He made his maiden speech within days of being sworn in (many MPs thought it courteous to wait at least a year before rising to address the Commons, if at all), contributed frequently to debate thereafter and had introduced his first bill within six months of assuming his seat.

After his re-election in 1859 he ramped up his parliamentary activity, taking a particular interest in the fine details of electoral, legal, Church and financial reform. His commitment to debate, committee work and legislative drafting had brought him to the attention of the Conservative leadership by August 1863. In 1865 he confirmed his ambitions within the party by moving a vote of censure on the Liberal Lord Chancellor, and distancing himself from the hard-line Protestant wing of back-bench Conservatives by voting in favour of introducing a Roman Catholic parliamentary oath – a move that prompted jibes of ‘he’s half a Liberal already’ when he was re-elected at that year’s general election.

His dogged campaign to rouse the Liberal government out of its inactivity over a rinderpest outbreak during the latter months of 1865, which had infected almost 75,000 cattle by the start of the 1866 session, confirmed his worthiness for office during the early months of 1866. His farming experience and close connections with England’s agricultural elite made him steadfast in his commitment to much stricter regulations than those proposed by the Liberal government for the movement, quarantine and slaughter of cattle. Hunt’s demands were eventually adopted as national policy leading to a virtual cessation in new cases of cattle plague by November 1866, down from almost 18,000 a week earlier that year.

His excellent parliamentary record was rewarded in 1866 by his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in Derby’s third Conservative government, where he attended diligently to his official duties in the Commons as well as his daily bureaucratic responsibilities. His command of economic policy and dependable performances in the Commons led many to the realisation that he was the brains behind Disraeli’s third chancellorship, earning his chief’s endorsement as ‘our best man’ by March 1867.

On Disraeli’s ascent to the premiership in 1868, Hunt was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the new prime minister provided the following reference to Queen Victoria ahead of her first meeting with her new chancellor:

he is more than six feet 4 in stature, but does not look so tall from his proportionate breadth – like St Peters, no one is at first aware of his dimensions … he has the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form … simple, straightforward & truthful … & of a very pleasing & amiable expression of countenance. He has gained golden opinions in the execution of his office as Sec[retary] of the Treasury, & is so popular in the House of Commons that the opposition even intimated recently that if a new Speaker were required, they were not disinclined to consider Mr Ward Hunt’s claims.

[Disraeli to Queen Victoria, 26 Feb. 1868: Benjamin Disraeli letters, 1868, ed. M. G. Wiebe et al. (2013), x. 82]

While Victoria remarked on such a ‘strange description’, she jokingly expressed no doubt that Hunt would ‘add weight to our counsels’. Accordingly, she accepted Disraeli’s recommendation, confirming Hunt’s rise from unknown parson’s son to one of the four great offices of state after only a decade in Parliament.

The full biography of Hunt will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further reading:

  • Margaret Main Schoenberg, ‘Hunt, George Ward: A 19th Century Giant’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 5, 4 (1976)
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MP of the Month: Daniel Gaskell (1782-1875)

Our Victorian Commons project is shedding new light on the increasingly important role played in the behind-the-scenes business of the post-1832 House of Commons, particularly in the committee-rooms, by MPs who came from non-elite backgrounds. While a family inheritance enabled our MP of the Month, Daniel Gaskell, to lead a comfortable life as a country gentleman, his Unitarian faith set him apart from the traditional political class. He was enthusiastically supported in his parliamentary career by his wife, and the often under-valued political role of women is another major theme to emerge in our research.

Described by the novelist Mary Shelley as ‘a plain silentious but intelligent looking man’, Gaskell served as MP for Wakefield from 1832 until his defeat in 1837. He was one of around 40 Unitarians who sat in the Commons during the 1832-68 period. His grandfather, a linen draper, and his father, a merchant, had both worshipped at Manchester’s Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. Gaskell was born in Manchester, but moved to Lupset Hall, near Wakefield, following his marriage in 1806. He and his older brother Benjamin were the major beneficiaries under the will of their cousin, James Milnes, and acquired considerable urban and rural property. Lupset Hall ‘received all the embellishment which taste and art could confer upon it’ and became ‘the seat of the most liberal hospitality’. Gaskell was acquainted with prominent figures such as the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, although Mary Shelley considered him and his wife to be ‘country folks in core’.

Wakefield constituency map

Wakefield constituency map

The Radicals in the newly enfranchised borough of Wakefield – which had one MP from 1832 – invited Gaskell to be their candidate. He initially accepted, but subsequently withdrew. He was, however, persuaded to reconsider. In August 1831, his nephew, James Milnes Gaskell, who had begun canvassing Wakefield as a Conservative, recorded that ‘the radicals had so effectually worked upon my uncle’s anxious and sensitive mind that he considered it a point of conscience’ to stand. Milnes Gaskell withdrew in his uncle’s favour in March 1832, finding a safe seat at Wenlock instead. Gaskell was elected unopposed in December 1832, when his political platform included retrenchment in public spending, shorter Parliaments, the secret ballot, the abolition of slavery, revision of the corn laws and reform of the Church.

Alongside local Radical pressure, Gaskell’s formidable wife, Mary, played an important part in encouraging her ‘reluctant spouse’ to stand. As noted in our earlier blogs, although women were debarred from the parliamentary franchise, their political influence in this period should not be overlooked, whether as local voters, petitioners, electoral patrons or, in Mary Gaskell’s case, political wives. ‘Unquestionably a character’, who ‘drew upon herself a great degree of notice from the leading part she took in public matters’, she was described as ‘a sort of zealot in the patronage of ultra-Liberals’. She went to hear sermons from the Unitarian preacher, William Johnson Fox (later Radical MP for Oldham), and ‘was a kind and generous friend’ to the radical journalist and novelist William Godwin and his family, including Mary Shelley, who was his daughter. In April 1831 James Milnes Gaskell told his mother that ‘it is, in fact, my Aunt, that would be member of Parliament’.

Despite his initial reluctance to stand, Gaskell was ‘punctual in his attendance’ at Parliament. Mary Shelley marvelled that

‘he attends the house night after night and dull committees and likes it! – for truly after a country town and country society, the dullest portion of London seems as gay as a masked ball’.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

Despite her comments about Parliament’s dullness, Shelley took advantage of her friendship with Gaskell to make use of his parliamentary franking privileges, encouraging correspondents to send letters to her via Gaskell, who could receive them without payment.

Although he was assiduous in his attendance, Gaskell seldom spoke in debate. One obituary recorded that ‘the atmosphere of publicity’ was not ‘congenial to his tastes and habits’. He was, however, remembered as ‘an excellent committee-man’, highlighting the fact that contributions in the chamber were only one aspect of parliamentary engagement. While Gaskell gave general support to Whig ministers, he expressed concerns that they ‘did not proceed in the path of Reform so rapidly as was generally expected; indeed some of their early measures seemed to indicate a retrograde movement’. Reflecting his claim that ‘I have attached myself to no party’, Gaskell’s votes in the division lobbies displayed considerable independence. He often divided in the minority with Radical and Irish MPs, on issues ranging from the ballot to the introduction of a moderate fixed duty on corn. His radical leanings prompted joint Whig-Conservative efforts to find an opponent to him at the 1835 election. He survived this contest, but was defeated in 1837. His parliamentary service was rewarded with the presentation of ‘two massive pieces of silver plate’ in 1838: a vase from the ‘ladies’ of Wakefield and a soup tureen from 1,700 male subscribers.

After several years’ absence from the Commons, Gaskell reluctantly agreed in December 1845 that he would stand again for Wakefield to support the cause of free trade. With the general election delayed and the corn laws repealed, he withdrew in April 1847 on grounds of his age and health. Widowed the following year, he subsequently dedicated his energies – and up to half his annual income of £4,000 – to charitable works. He was a particularly generous benefactor to the Unitarian church, donating £1,000 in 1856 to assist poorer congregations in the north of England. He also supported educational causes, contributing £3,000 towards new premises for the Wakefield Mechanics’ Institute in 1855. He died in December 1875.

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‘The first humble beginnings of an agitation’: the women’s suffrage petition of 7 June 1866

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the presentation to Parliament of the first mass women’s suffrage petition on 7 June 1866. Signed by around 1,500 women, it was presented to the Commons by John Stuart Mill, who had been returned as Liberal MP for Westminster at the general election of July 1865. Among the most prominent signatories were Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson) and the mathematician and scientist, Mary Somerville. However, thanks to a new resource released by Parliament’s Vote 100 project, it is now possible to search the names of all of the 1,499 women listed in an 1866 pamphlet as having signed the petition. Only two known copies of this rare document survive.

Petitioning was a well-used method of bringing issues to the attention of parliamentarians, having been deployed by anti-slavery campaigners, the Chartists and, as featured in one of our earlier blogs, the Anti-Corn Law League. The Liberal ministry’s introduction of a reform bill in 1866 had brought the question of the franchise to the fore, but its proposals for widening the electorate applied only to men. The women’s petition – couched in cautious terms, and side-stepping the potentially contentious issue of marital status – asked the Commons to ‘consider the expediency of providing for all householders, without distinction of sex, who possess such property or rental qualification as your Honourable House may determine’.

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor

For Mill, the petition provided an important weapon against the argument that ‘the ladies themselves see no hardship’ in their exclusion from the suffrage ‘and do not care enough for the franchise to ask for it’. Writing to Caroline Liddell on 6 May 1866, he encouraged her to draft a petition, urging that ‘a woman who is a taxpayer is the most natural and most suitable advocate of the political enfranchisement of women’. In the event, it was Mill’s stepdaughter, Helen Taylor (who urged Bodichon that they should ‘commence the first humble beginnings of an agitation’), who produced the initial draft of the petition presented by Mill, although Liddell was among the signatories. The signatures, reportedly gathered within a fortnight, were collated at the London home of Clementia Taylor, whose husband Peter – a member of the Courtauld business dynasty – was Liberal MP for Leicester, 1862-84. (His biography is among those already completed for our 1832-68 project.)

With discussions on petitions occupying an increasing amount of the time of the Commons, the Liberal and Conservative front benches had agreed informally in 1835 not to allow debates when petitions were presented. Debates on petitions were formally abolished by a standing order in 1843. This meant that there was no substantive discussion when Mill presented the women’s petition on 7 June 1866.

Mill was, however, able to make some remarks on the petition when he moved on 17 July 1866 for the compilation of a return of the number of freeholders, householders and others who fulfilled ‘the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise’ but were ‘excluded … by reason of their sex’. Informing his fellow MPs that the petition had originated ‘entirely with ladies, without the instigation, and, to the best of my belief, without the participation of any person of the male sex in any stage of the proceedings, except the final one of its presentation to Parliament’, he emphasised ‘the number of signatures obtained in a very short space of time, not to mention the quality of many of those signatures’. Mill himself had been surprised by the petition’s size, having been willing to present a petition containing just 100 signatures. Seeing the ‘large roll’ containing the petition for the first time when he met Davies and Garrett in Westminster Hall, he declared, ‘I can brandish this with effect’.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

Although Mill’s speech was brief – it occupied less than two columns of Hansard – he took the opportunity to note that Benjamin Disraeli, who had since become chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Derby’s newly formed Conservative government, had suggested during the debates on the Liberal ministry’s reform bill that there was ‘no reason why women of independent means should not possess the electoral franchise, in a country where they can preside in manorial courts and fill parish offices’.

Even before the failure of the Liberals’ reform bill had removed the possibility of introducing an amendment on women’s suffrage, Mill, showing his shrewdness as a parliamentary tactician, had decided that it was imprudent to pursue the matter any further that session. He did not wish, as he told a fellow MP, to be accused of ‘taking up the time of the House’; pressing a matter which had no chance of practical success risked being seen as deliberately obstructive. Mill did, however, achieve his aim of laying ‘the foundation of a further movement when advisable’. Outside Parliament, women continued to organise, and further petitions were presented in spring 1867.

Mill’s opportunity for bolder action came when the Conservative ministry introduced its own reform bill in 1867. On 20 May – which was, coincidentally, Mill’s birthday – he moved, in a powerful and eloquent speech, to replace the word ‘man’ in clause 4 of the bill with ‘person’. His amendment for female suffrage was defeated by 196 votes to 73. Petitions continued to be presented to Parliament as part of the women’s suffrage campaign, including a ‘survivors’ petition’ in 1890, signed by 78 of those whose names had been included on the original petition of 1866.

20 May 1867

Mill’s amendment, 20 May 1867

Further reading:

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