Ethnic minorities in Parliament: a new addition to the Victorian Commons

In our research on the membership of the House of Commons between 1832 and 1868, we previously identified two non-white MPs: John Stewart, MP for Lymington, 1832-47, the illegitimate son of a West Indian plantation owner, who was probably of mixed ethnicity; and David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, MP for Sudbury, 1841-2, who was of mixed European and Indian descent. However, in her new book, Dr. Amanda Goodrich of the Open University has uncovered fresh information about the father of one of our MPs which means that we have a third name to add to our list, as she explains in this guest post.

GoodrichbookThere is much focus today on restoring forgotten black and mixed ethnicity (BME) people to their rightful place in British history.  No BME Members of Parliament have been identified by the History of Parliament in the Georgian period and only two – as noted above – in the 1832-68 period. This is partly because those writing the original volumes on the eighteenth century would not have focused on BME ethnicities and such details were often omitted from autobiographical material. But, as my recently published book on Henry Redhead Yorke illustrates, that does not mean there were not more BME individuals involved in British politics. They may well be difficult or impossible to identify due to the conventional hierarchical archive structures or the lack of primary sources, but that does not mean that they did not exist.

HenryRedheadYorkeBM

Henry Redhead Yorke (1772-1813) (C) British Museum, used under a Creative Commons licence

Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke (1802-1848), who represented York from 1841 until 1848, is one such previously unidentified MP of BME heritage. Until my research proved otherwise it was assumed that he was English. In fact his father, Henry Redhead Yorke (1772-1813), was a West Indian creole of African/British descent, whose mother was a manumitted slave from Barbuda and whose father was an Antiguan plantation owner and plantation manager of the Codrington family’s estates in Antigua. It was also previously assumed that Henry Redhead Yorke was white, but the evidence indicates that he was a man of colour.

Henry Redhead Yorke was born in 1772 and brought up in a slave society on the island of Barbuda. He was taken to England as a small boy to be educated as a gentleman. Such a move was common for wealthy plantation families who sent their sons ‘home’ to be educated, and desired to retire ‘home’ to England even if in fact they were born in the West Indies. When they did immigrate to England they often brought an entourage with them including legitimate and illegitimate children, wives and slave mistresses and their children. Such flagrant flaunting of sexual impropriety between planters and slaves shocked the indigenous English population. Yet such West Indian planters were often extremely wealthy, and this gave them implicit privileges not shared by other BME people in England at the time.  Indeed, the English élite were keen to marry their younger sons and daughters to the children of wealthy West Indians to boost the family coffers.

Henry Redhead Yorke followed the educational route for a role in formal politics or the law, studying at Cambridge University and then undertaking legal training at Inner Temple. He joined the Whig Club in 1790. However, he then performed a political volte face to become an extra-parliamentary radical revolutionary. He visited Paris, experienced the French Revolution at first hand, and adopted revolutionary ideology. On returning to England in 1793 Yorke became a radical activist preaching revolutionary ideas to ordinary people around Britain. He was arrested for his radicalism and imprisoned in Dorchester Gaol in 1795. On his release in 1798 he expeditiously changed his politics again, becoming a loyalist patriot and conservative journalist and writer. He retained his gentlemanly status throughout his turbulent political life and married the daughter of the wealthy keeper of Dorchester Gaol. They had four children, one of whom was Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke. Yorke brought his sons up as gentlemen, educating them at public schools and Cambridge University.

Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke carried on the tradition, marrying well, to the Hon. Elizabeth Cecelia Crosbie, daughter of William Crosbie, 4th Baron Brandon (an Irish title), and granddaughter of Lady Cecilia Latouche, daughter of the first Earl of Milltown. He served as Liberal MP for York from 1841 until 1848. He lived in Eaton Square and was a member of the Reform Club. Thus, his assimilation into English society appeared complete. However, his parliamentary career ended in tragedy, as he committed suicide in 1848 very publicly in Regent’s Park by taking prussic acid. The jury at his inquest returned a verdict of insanity.

By unearthing one BME Georgian in the archives, it has been possible to shed new light on the background of one Victorian MP. Both were well hidden due to lack of archival evidence and historians’ assumptions about their ethnicity. Of course, it was not easy for BME individuals to rise to the social and political ranks required of MPs. Yet, wealthy West Indian planters were something of a unique group, who through their wealth and by marrying their children to members of the elite gained access to Parliament. Nathaniel Wells, of African British descent, became deputy lieutenant of Monmouthshire. Richard Beckford, an illegitimate child of William Beckford and a slave in Jamaica, stood for Parliament in Hindon, Wiltshire in 1774. The Lascelles, from Barbados, found their way into both houses of Parliament. One historian has noted that men from planter families ‘were everywhere as mayors, aldermen and councillors’.

This raises the question of how many more MPs and political activists from the past may have been of black or mixed ethnicity?  It is important we explore this question to ensure we represent British history accurately, incorporating all those who have played a part in our past with equal attention.  We must restore forgotten BME individuals to their place in British history.  As the Royal Historical Society has recently argued, changing our approach to BME histories ‘is imperative to enhance public understandings of the past in Britain’ and ‘to reflect the full diversity of human histories’.

AG

Further reading

  • Amanda Goodrich, Henry Redhead Yorke, Colonial Radical: Politics and identity in the Atlantic world, 1772-1813 (2019) – for further details, including a 20% discount, see here
  • Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807 (2011)
  • Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (2nd edition, 1994)
  • Royal Historical Society Report on ‘Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History’ (2018)
  • ‘Ethnic minorities in Politics and Public life’, House of Commons Library, Research briefing (2017)
Advertisements
Posted in Biographies, Guest blog | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Conscience versus constituency: the dilemma facing Henry Sturt MP

The Victorian Commons, as some of our recent blogs have shown, was an important testing ground for many of the practices and parliamentary procedures that remain in place today. It also provides early examples of MPs having to grapple with many of the dilemmas that still face modern representatives. With the two party system becoming far more entrenched and new constituency pressures emerging after 1832, MPs increasingly found themselves having to make difficult choices between conscience and party, or conscience and constituency. Even low-profile backbenchers, who desperately tried to keep out of the spotlight, were unable to escape these uncomfortable ‘crossing the Rubicon’ moments.

EP VI 165.1

Henry Charles Sturt; mezzotint by J.R. Jackson. Image credit: National Galleries of Scotland

One MP who very publicly found himself caught up in a crisis of conscience versus constituency was Henry Charles Sturt (1795-1866). A friend of the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel, whom he had fagged for at Harrow, Sturt had been parachuted into the unreformed Commons by his aristocratic family aged just 21 in 1817, sitting for their pocket borough of Bridport. He quit in 1820, to pursue his growing passions for science, archaeology and agriculture, but in 1830 served another short spell as an MP for Dorset.

In 1835 Sturt was re-elected for Dorset as a replacement for William Bankes, who had been implicated in a homosexual scandal. Sturt stood as a supporter of Peel’s short-lived Conservative ministry. More importantly, as a leading member of the county’s agricultural societies and a pioneer of ‘model cottages’ for his tenants, he went to Parliament with the backing of the county’s farmers. He had no problem getting elected again in 1837 and 1841, when he claimed to have ‘been elected by an agricultural constituency on a full understanding that he would support the corn laws’.

This didn’t stop him controversially backing Peel’s modification of the corn laws in 1842, widely seen as a first step towards the removal of the protective tariffs enjoyed by farmers. When Peel proposed to completely repeal the corn laws in 1846, however, Sturt found himself in a quandary. He initially promised ‘to stand by the present protection to agriculture’ and was listed as a firm supporter of the corn laws. Privately convinced by Peel’s arguments in support of free trade, however, he was forced to admit that he had ‘changed his opinion’ and could no longer in conscience support such a law. The Protectionist press demanded that he stand by his constituents and election promises. Finding his position untenable, Sturt resigned.

Accused of lacking the moral courage to stand up to Peel, and of ‘leaving his constituents in the lurch’, Sturt found himself the object of widespread derision. One critic warned him to sell his Dorsetshire estates and flee to France. He even ended up in a popular song about those who remained loyal to their constituents:

The Somerset squires may at Acland throw dirt,

And Dorsetshire farmers may grumble at Sturt,

But I never rat and I ought to be prized,

For a vote, though it’s silent, should ne’er be despised

Later, writing to Peel, who had desperately tried to persuade him not to resign, Sturt offered a mild but ‘telling’ reproach to his leader and friend. ‘My only criticism of your present measure’, he told the prime minister, ‘shall be very gentle – whether it might not have been managed without stranding others and myself’.

To see how to access the full biography of Sturt and other MPs in our 1832-68 project please click here.

Posted in MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Speaker and the same question: a view from the Victorian Commons

Our editor Philip Salmon wrote this for the History of Parliament on Erskine May, parliamentary procedure and the 19th century Commons.

The History of Parliament

In today’s blog Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the 1832-1945 House of Commons project, explores some of the historical background behind recent Parliamentary rulings relating to Brexit.

The rules governing UK parliamentary procedure, not surprisingly, don’t often get much public attention. However, some of the recent decisions by Speaker Bercow serve as an important reminder that the practices of the past can have an important bearing on modern politics. In the absence of a written constitution, political history continues on occasion to have a special relevance in British public life.

One striking example of this is the convention that the same question cannot be put again and again within a parliamentary session. The origin of this might seem obscure, stemming as it does from the early 17th century power struggles between the Crown and the Commons. By the Victorian era, however, it had evolved into an underlying principle…

View original post 666 more words

Posted in Parliamentary life | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Anglican clergy and English elections, 1832-37

This week we hear from Nicholas Dixon, of Pembroke College, Cambridge, on clerical influence in the reformed electoral system. It is one of the themes addressed in his PhD, which examines the Church of England’s influence on English politics and society during the early nineteenth century.

Following the 1832 election the Duke of Wellington asserted that there had been a ‘revolution’ resulting in a mass transferal of power from gentlemen ‘professing the faith of the Church of England’ to ‘the shopkeepers, being dissenters from the Church, many of them Socinians, others atheists’. Many historians have readily accepted Wellington’s verdict, seeing the 1832 Reform Act as the culmination of a ‘constitutional revolution’ in which Anglican political interests were irreversibly displaced.

'The Church in Danger' (c.1830), published by Thomas McLean

Perceived threats to the established Church fuelled a rise in clerical electoral activity, ‘The Church in Danger’ (c.1830), published by Thomas McLean. CC British Museum

Yet, for other contemporaries, the Reform Act led to a strikingly incongruous phenomenon: the intensification of clerical influence over elections. In addition to local and personal factors, this process (which was already evident in the 1820s) was driven by a desire to respond to perceived threats to the Church that clergymen generally saw manifested in radical agitation, the Queen Caroline affair, Catholic emancipation, the reform crisis and dissenters’ campaigns.

Clerical politicisation took many different forms. At its most basic level, it involved the clergy voting en masse for Conservative candidates. In the English county elections of 1832 the proportion of clerical votes for Conservatives proved consistently high: 78% in Durham North, around 80% in Nottinghamshire North and 84% in Sussex East. In 1835, 89% of clerical votes in Lincolnshire North were cast for the Conservative candidates. Voting was more split in boroughs, but overall, the picture was one of Conservative dominance with pockets of Whig support.

C. J. Grant, 'Canvassing', McLean's Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, 36 (1832)

After 1832 the clergy played an increasingly active role in constituency canvassing, C. J. Grant, ‘Canvassing’, McLean’s Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, 36 (1832), © British Library

Clerical canvassing had been a common activity since the eighteenth century, but in the 1830s it reached new heights of force and assertiveness. In Berkshire in 1832, a clergyman informed a freeholder that should the Conservative candidate not be elected, ‘we cannot expect the blessing of God upon our public measures.’ And in 1837, a Cheshire rector Joshua King denounced the local Whig candidate George Wilbraham as a ‘radical revolutionist’ and ‘inhuman monster’. During the same election at Maldon, a flag in Conservative blue was flown from the tower of the parish church, and in Surrey in 1835 a Whig supporter had his ‘reform colours’ trampled by a local clergyman. In several constituencies the clergy openly boycotted tradesmen with whom they had political differences. In every case, those involved appeared to be unconcerned by the publicity which their public statements and actions invited.

The expanding newspaper press offered further outlets for clerical electioneering. Following the 1832 election, an anonymous curate wrote to the Staffordshire Advertiser that he had ‘been told that I have completely blasted all hopes of preferment in my profession by supporting a Tory’ but that he ‘would rather live and die a poor curate’ than support the Whigs. Clergymen of the opposite persuasion also used the press to promote partisan views. In an address printed in the Northampton Mercury in 1835, Henry Rolls, a rector, argued that Lord Melbourne’s alliance with Daniel O’Connell did not threaten the established church.

Anon, 'The Man Wot's Got the Election' (c.1833)

Clergymen even took to the hustings to propose candidates. Might a clergyman have proposed this fictional ‘church and state’ Tory? Anon, ‘The Man Wot’s Got the Election’ (c.1833), CC British Museum

Clergymen were also leading participants in the formal proceedings of an election. At the nomination, it was very common for the clergy to propose candidates and make speeches. In some cases, clerical electioneering persisted during the polling. At Bridlington in 1837, it was complained that the local clergy had ‘stood all day long in the open street, accosting every voter as he proceeded to the booth, and using every description of threat, misrepresentation, and undue influence, in order to secure his vote.’

Furthermore, the clergy took a prominent part in the celebrations that followed the victory of their favoured candidates. Most were not as exuberant as the curate who, according to one newspaper, celebrated the victory of Francis Burdett in North Wiltshire in 1837 by ‘chairing him per substitute, through [Ashton Keynes]’ and waving a flag inscribed ‘Burdett and Liberty’.  Victory speeches by clergymen were also a feature of poll declarations and dinners given in honour of successful candidates.

'The Exeter Cat and Plymouth Mouse'

In this 1834 cartoon, Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, is depicted as a cat pursuing the Whig MP Lord John Russell. Phillpotts was a fierce critic of the Whig government and believed that ‘[i]t is in the House of Commons that the battle for the Church must be fought’. John Doyle, ‘The Exeter Cat and Plymouth Mouse’ (1834). CC British Museum

There was a clear consensus at all ends of the political spectrum, not only that the clergy changed the course of elections, but that their influence increased during this period. Following his victory at Essex South in 1837, the Conservative Thomas Bramston fulsomely acknowledged ‘the assistance we have received from the clergy of this district.’ Concurrently, the Whig periodical the Spectator stated that ‘[s]uch has been the temporary success … of the clerical tactics, and so general the triumph of the Church party in England, that there is little hope of stopping the parsons in their unchristian career.’

By strenuous activity, the clergy demonstrated that parliamentary reform did not, as Wellington had predicted in 1832, spell the end of Anglican electoral influence. If anything, this influence was now augmented by the newly emergent Conservative associations, in which clergymen played a prominent role. Conservative clergy adapted well to the post-1832 requirement for an annual registration of those eligible to vote, closely supervising this process to ensure that Conservative voters were extensively registered. Accordingly, the Whigs’ losses in the general election of 1837 were principally attributed by one of their supporters to ‘the violence and activity of the Clergy’. The clerical factor in English politics had conspicuously assumed a permanent and effectual form.

ND

Posted in Elections, Guest blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Corruption at elections in Britain in the 19th century

Following on from Martin Spychal’s blog about the paper he gave at last month’s ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption?’ conference, organised jointly by Oxford Brookes and Newman Universities, we hear from our assistant editor Kathryn Rix. She gave the conference keynote, looking at parliamentary efforts to tackle the problem of electoral corruption in the nineteenth century.

Riponmedalreverse

Election medal, Ripon, 1832. Image (c) K. Rix

In December 1832 voters in the Yorkshire borough of Ripon went to the poll for the first time in more than a century. The victory of the Reformers Thomas Staveley and Joshua Crompton over their two Conservative rivals was commemorated with a medal, depicting ‘The genius of patriotism driving corruption from the constitution’ and bearing the inscription ‘Purity and independence triumphant!’ In other constituencies, too, hopes were expressed that the 1832 Reform Act would mark the beginning of a new era of electoral probity.

By disfranchising notorious rotten boroughs such as Dunwich, Gatton, Old Sarum and around 50 more, the 1832 Act had done much to clean up the electoral system. The redistribution of seats, in combination with the extension of the franchise, helped to put paid to the trade of the boroughmonger. The Act also made practical changes which diminished the corruption and expense of elections, most notably by limiting the duration of the polling to two days. This was cut further to one day in boroughs from 1835 and in counties from 1853. The Radical MP for Wigan, Richard Potter, praised this subsequent reform for its potential to curb bribery, since ‘the mischief under the old system was generally done in the night’. A shorter poll also reduced the opportunities for treating – the provision of food and drink – and for intimidation of voters.

Heath1830howtogetmadeanMP

How to get made an MP (1830), W. Heath. Image (C) British Museum

However, the electoral system after 1832 was far from pure. In 1836 the London and Westminster Review bemoaned the fact that while the Reform Act was still in its cradle, ‘already … has the envious goddess of Corruption sent two most deadly serpents, Bribery and Intimidation, to strangle the baby-giant’, with the result that ‘the representative system is utterly defeated’.

Electoral corruption persisted throughout the period covered by our 1832-68 project. At the 1865 election, an astounding 64% of Lancaster’s voters either took or gave a bribe, while at Totnes, bribes of up to £200 were offered for a single vote. Both these constituencies, together with Great Yarmouth and Reigate, were stripped of their representation by a special clause in the 1867 Reform Act. The remedy of disfranchisement had previously been applied to the venal boroughs of Sudbury (in 1844) and St Albans (in 1852).

The disfranchisement of some of the worst constituencies was just one of the ways that Parliament attempted to tackle the problem of electoral corruption. Alongside major pieces of legislation such as the 1854 and 1883 Corrupt Practices Prevention Acts, the 1868 Election Petitions Act and the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, there were a number of lesser measures, and efforts were made to pass several more.

Speaking in the House of Lords in 1847, Lord Lansdowne – a political veteran who had held office under every monarch since George III – observed that

year after year, Parliament after Parliament, during the last century attempts had been made to repress by statute those abominable practices. Some of those Acts had been adopted, others had been rejected; but all of them had afforded convincing proof in their progress that of all the subjects for legislation this was most difficult to handle.

My conference paper explored some of the reasons why Parliament found the issue of electoral corruption so hard to deal with, and began by considering the large amount of parliamentary time and effort which this problem consumed. Between 1832 and 1868 well over 700 election petitions appealing against election results on the grounds of bribery, treating and other electoral misdemeanours were presented to the House of Commons, and more than 400 of these were subsequently heard by an election committee composed of MPs. Eleven MPs served on each election committee up until 1839; seven MPs between 1839 and 1844; and five MPs from 1844 until 1868, when the Commons handed over this task to election judges sitting not at Westminster, but in the constituency under investigation.

Attempts to legislate also proved time-consuming, given the complexities of electoral law and the great interest MPs took in a question which affected them so directly. One Liberal backbencher declared that the prolonged debates on the 1854 Corrupt Practices Act had shown that ‘a bribery Bill was almost sufficient for a Session in itself’. Sir Rainald Knightley successfully used the issue as a blocking tactic to scupper the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill, with his instruction that it must include ‘provision for the better prevention of bribery and corruption’. This was intended to fatally overload the measure. The most comprehensive reform on this subject, the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, had already been discussed in the 1881 and 1882 sessions before it was finally passed. It spent 23 nights in committee in 1883, and took up the equivalent of ‘one third of the full time allotted to the Government in the course of an average session’.

The difficulties of reform were compounded by several other factors, including the wide range of potential remedies which could be applied, ranging from disfranchisement to reforming the system of trying election petitions. For many voters – and indeed non-voters – elections were seen as an opportunity to make some money, or at the very least, to eat, drink and be transported to the poll at the candidate’s expense. There was therefore very little outside pressure for reform. For MPs too, some of this expenditure – paying the expenses of poor voters to come to the poll, or providing refreshment for those who had travelled some distance to vote, for example – seemed little more than innocent hospitality.

punch1847cartoonconveyance

Punch (1847)

The debates on the 1854 Corrupt Practices Act give a clear sense of MPs grappling with whether it was possible to draw some kind of dividing line between election expenditure which was legitimate and unobjectionable, and election expenditure which, while not necessarily corrupt in itself, could open the door to corruption and should therefore be prohibited. As election costs spiralled with a growing number of election contests and the extension of the franchise in 1868, MPs became increasingly willing not only to take decisive action against the problem of electoral corruption, but also to protect their own pockets by tackling the related issue of election expenditure. This combined attack on corruption and expenditure was central to the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, the most significant nineteenth-century legislation on this issue, which had far-reaching consequences for electioneering and party organisation.

Further reading

  • K. Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’, Parliamentary History, 36:1 (2017), 64-81
  • K. Rix, ‘“The elimination of corrupt practices in British elections”? Reassessing the impact of the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act’, English Historical Review, CXXIII (2008), 65-97
  • K. Rix, Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 (2016)
Posted in Conferences and seminars, Corruption, Elections | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

MP of the Month: Sir Charles Tilston Bright (1832-1888), pioneering telegraph engineer

An important aspect of our study of the reformed Commons is the degree to which representatives of science and industry were incorporated into the legislature during a period of great economic expansion. Our MP of the Month was among those who entered Parliament from a scientific and engineering background. A young pioneer of new technology, Charles Tilson Bright was responsible for laying the first Atlantic telegraph cable.

Charles_Tilston_Bright

Sir Charles Tilston Bright

Descended from an ‘old Yorkshire family’, Bright was born at Wanstead in Essex, the youngest son of Brailsford Bright, a manufacturing chemist and merchant. From 1840 he was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School, where he demonstrated an aptitude for chemistry and the study of electricity. By 1848, however, his father was bankrupt and being unable to attend university the 15-year-old Bright joined his elder brother, Edward, at the newly-founded Electric Telegraph Company. Working under the direction of William Fothergill Cooke (1806-79), a pioneer of electric telegraphy, he was first employed in the construction of telegraph lines for various railways in northern England and Scotland. In 1852 he was appointed chief engineer to the Magnetic Telegraph Company and in conjunction with his brother, the company’s manager, he patented a series of inventions, including systems for fault testing, relaying electric currents, protecting submarine cables and type-printing.

bon-cableIn 1853 he laid down the first deep water cable which linked Port Patrick in Scotland with Donaghadee in Ireland, and in 1856 he entered into an agreement to develop telegraphic communication between Newfoundland and Ireland under the auspices of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. As engineer-in-chief, he was responsible for superintending the laying of the 2,000-mile-long cable. Work began in June 1857 and after two failed attempts the task was completed on 5 August 1858, Bright’s report on the expedition being published in Illustrated London News, 28 Aug. 1858. Although only 26 years of age, he was knighted for his services by the Irish viceroy, although it would be another eight years before the Atlantic telegraph was brought into full commercial use.

transatlanticcable

Transatlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland

Now at the head of his profession, Bright went into partnership and superintended further submarine cable-laying in the Baltic and Mediterranean. In 1864 he completed a line to India via the Persian Gulf and in November 1865 raised the issue of extending the cable to Australia and China. By then he had accepted an invitation to stand as a Liberal candidate for the maritime borough of Greenwich, where many of his telegraphic cables had been manufactured and where he was a household name. He was returned after a tight contest at which he was able to exploit his business contacts to bring in useful Conservative votes. An opponent of the ballot, he was by ‘no means a Radical’, but still enjoyed the company of John Bright, with whom he regularly played billiards at the Reform Club. A loyal back-bencher, he rarely spoke in debate, although his observations were always ‘concise and to the point’ and confined to issues he knew thoroughly. Consequently, he sat on the select committee inquiry into the operation of postal and telegraphic communication between the United Kingdom and India, and took an understandable interest in the Telegraph Purchase and Regulations Act of 1868, under which all of Britain’s inland telegraphs were acquired by the Post Office. However, the amount of time he spent working abroad eventually caused discontent within his constituency, and he retired at the 1868 general election, his place being taken by William Gladstone, who had lost his seat for South Lancashire.

Freed from parliamentary commitments, Bright personally superintended the laying of nearly 4,000 miles of cable in the Caribbean, including one that connected Florida to Cuba. However, by 1871 malaria had so weakened his health that he returned to Europe and turned his attention to mining for copper and lead. In 1881 he was one of the British commissioners at the Electrical Exhibition in Paris, for which the French government awarded him the Légion d’Honneur. He became president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1887, by which time he was widely recognised as one of the chief pioneers of the electrical industry.

Described as ‘genial and clubbable’ and ‘generous to the point of extravagance’, Bright never became particularly wealthy and in May 1888 he died suddenly of apoplexy at his brother’s home near Erith in Kent. His youngest son, Charles Bright (1863-1937), also became an authority on submarine telegraphy and was himself knighted in 1919.

Further reading:

A. C. Lynch, ‘Bright, Sir Charles Tilston’, Oxf. DNB, vii. 616-7.

E. B. Bright & C. Bright, The Life Story of the late Sir Charles Tilston Bright, 2 vols. (1899).

Illustrated London News, 4 Sept. 1858, 19 May 1888.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Science, parliamentary inquiry and the Whig decade of reform

In January two members of the Victorian Commons project spoke in Oxford at the ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption?’ conference, organised jointly by Oxford Brookes and Newman Universities. This week Dr Martin Spychal takes a look at one of the themes explored in his paper – and also in his forthcoming book: science and parliamentary inquiry.

During the 1830s the Whig ministries of the 2nd Earl Grey and Viscount Melbourne presided over a wide range of domestic reforms. These efforts initiated extensive changes to the electoral system, the Church, the poor laws, factory employment, local government, tithes, public health and policing. In 1836 the home secretary, Lord John Russell, explained the philosophy of the Whig reform agenda to the poor law commissioner and rising administrator, Edwin Chadwick. ‘We are endeavouring to improve our institutions’, Russell informed Chadwick, by introducing ‘system, method, science, economy, regularity, and discipline’.

'The administration of amusement for John Bull', Dec. 1830

Brougham, Russell and Grey blow soap bubbles of reform, economy and retrenchment for the amusement of John Bull following the establishment of the Grey Ministry. November 1830, Anon, The administration of amusement for John Bull (1830) © British Museum

As part of the work for my forthcoming book I’ve been exploring the meaning and significance of science to the Whig reform agenda of the 1830s. In particular, I’ve been focusing on the role that the 1831-2 boundary commissions played in establishing a scientific approach to parliamentary inquiry and legislation. This interest was sparked by the government’s contentious assertion in 1831 that the ‘character, knowledge, and science’ of the boundary commissioners meant they could redraw the United Kingdom’s electoral map in an impartial, disinterested manner.

Brougham, A discourse of the objects, advantages, and pleasures of science (1827)

Science for the masses? H. Brougham & SDUK, The Objects, Advantages, and Pleasures of Science (1827) © Google Books

In the early nineteenth century, science was still used as a fairly catch-all term to denote knowledge that in one way or another had been reduced to a system. Contemporaries happily spoke of military science, the science of law, politics, finance and even religion, alongside what we would think of today as the natural sciences.

Science as a term, however, had much deeper cultural connotations. This was thanks largely to the rise of gentlemanly scientific society culture from the later 1790s, which promoted such disciplines as chemistry, geology and natural history; the influence of political economy over successive Tory ministries from 1815; and the establishment of Mechanics’ Institutes and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in the 1820s, which sought to expand scientific learning to the masses.

For many of the Whigs that constituted the Grey and Melbourne ministries, ‘the all conquering science’, as the Marquess of Lansdowne termed it in 1824, and its proliferation and widespread application across society, explained their sense of a march of progress, and Britain’s continuing journey to a higher plane of civilisation. This confidence in the power of science extended to Whig understandings of the possibilities of reform. Interestingly, as Joe Bord has demonstrated, Whig experience of inter-partisan cooperation at scientific societies from the 1810s led to the belief among a new generation of Whiglings, such as Lord John Russell, that similar co-operation might be possible in the political sphere.

W. Heath, March of Intellect (1829)

Oft-ridiculed in prints such as this, the ‘march of intellect’ presented new opportunities for Whig reformers. W. Heath, March of Intellect (1829) © British Museum

Russell reasoned that if scientific societies could further their science by ‘investigating the facts’ without troubling themselves as to what ‘theory they may confirm or validate’, why couldn’t legislators do the same thing? In particular, this marked out the 1820s as a period of growing enthusiasm for statistics among Whiggish and reforming legislators, and gave rise to the emerging social science movement. This movement prompted the formation of the Manchester and London statistical societies from 1833, who as Theodore Porter has argued, advocated the creation of a ‘science of government’ through ‘the accumulation of simple, irrefutable facts’.

Until November 1830, the majority of this generation of Whigs had never experienced government. This meant that the 1831-2 boundary commissions, which were established in the summer of 1831 as part of the Grey ministry’s plans for parliamentary reform, provided the first opportunity to apply these ideas about scientific inquiry. It was an opportunity that the enigmatic and most famous contemporary Whig of them all, the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, grabbed with both hands.

R. Seymour, The March of Intellect, c.1828

Intellect, equipped with his Brougham handled broom, seeks to sweep aside the Test and Corporation Acts, the game laws, legal delays and sinecures. R. Seymour, The March of Intellect, c.1828 © British Museum

Brougham had long been an advocate of the use of commissions of inquiry as a means of influencing a more active social legislative agenda. Nevertheless, his influence at Westminster over the past two decades had been frustrated by his difficult reputation and opposition status. Importantly, Brougham was the central figure in a circle of Whigs, reformers and political economists associated with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the London University.

One man from this coterie who had particularly impressed Brougham was the Royal Engineer, chemist and mathematician, Thomas Drummond. Drummond had spent most of the past decade on the Ordnance Survey in Ireland. Since 1829, however, he had been based in London, putting his training as a chemist to use in the development of lighthouse lights for Trinity House, lecturing on his work to the Royal Society, and providing public and private demonstrations (including to Brougham) of his dazzling modifications to Gurney’s limelight.

Henry Pickersgill, Thomas Drummond (1832), University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

An influential figure behind the Whig decade of ‘scientific’ reform? H. Pickersgill, Thomas Drummond (1832), © University of Edinburgh

Together, Brougham and Drummond devised a scheme for redrawing the United Kingdom’s electoral map that was infused with science at every step. First, they recruited commissioners, almost exclusively, from the ranks of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, or the Ordnance Survey. This left them with commissioners of either gentlemanly scientific ‘expertise’, or technical training in surveying and cartography. Using these men, they proposed an extensive cartographic, statistical and socio-economic investigation, which they contended would provide a neutral, disinterested analysis of each constituency’s geography and demography. The commissioners were then instructed to apply the results of this investigation to a strict set of criteria for identifying an electoral community. Here was an inductive method for defining parliamentary boundaries, which Brougham and Drummond contended, would allow for every constituency to be defined consistently across the four nations.

Whether or not this scientific method of investigation actually allowed for the creation of a set of impartial parliamentary boundaries, however, is a matter for another day…

MS

Further reading:

J. Bord, Science and Whig Manners: Science and Political Style in Britain, c. 1790–1850 (2009).

P. Harling, The Waning of `Old Corruption’: The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846 (1996).

L. Mitchell, Whig World: 1760-1837 (2005).

T. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (1998).

My book Mapping the state: the English boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act is forthcoming with the Royal Historical Society. You can find out more about Drummond and the boundary commission in my earlier article, “One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, Historical Research, 90, 249 (2017).

Posted in Conferences and seminars, Legislation | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment