If you think some of the recent electioneering tactics that have hit the headlines seem extraordinary, spare a thought for the voters of Monmouth in the 1830s. As a new episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ reveals, one of the comedian Jack Whitehall’s ancestors was a pioneering election agent, whose experiments manipulating the electoral rolls and stopping opponents from voting helped to inspire a remarkable national electoral recovery by the Conservative party. One of the first people to fully understand and exploit the complex voter registration system introduced by the 1832 Reform Act, and one of the few local agents with direct access to the Tory leadership, Thomas Jones Phillips briefly became a leading figure behind-the-scenes.
Objecting to the voting qualifications of your political opponents and using every ruse possible to claim voting rights for your supporters seems an entirely alien and undemocratic practice to us today. Between 1832 and 1918, however, these practices became the norm in most constituencies, helping to politicise the electorate and drive forward the development of the UK’s modern party system.
Made possible by the yearly registration courts introduced by the 1832 Reform Act, which were originally designed to sort out who was eligible to vote (and who wasn’t) in advance of any poll, these tactics took a little while to spread. Many Liberal election agents, in particular, had serious qualms about using the courts to try and reduce the size of the electorate and challenge a voter’s qualifications, even if they were die-hard Tories. Trying to kick people off the electoral rolls, whatever their politics, seemed especially inappropriate after the nation had just been through a bitter 18 month political struggle for parliamentary reform and an extension of the franchise.
Aided by the incredibly imprecise legal wording of the new 1832 voting qualifications, however, and the fact that ‘objectors’ were able to lodge objections against existing electors and new ‘claimants’ without having to specify any reason, it soon became clear that the entire registration system was ripe for abuse.
Thomas Jones Phillips, Jack Whitehall’s four times great grandfather, enjoyed a head start. A Newport solicitor and election agent, who was employed by the firm of Messrs. James Powles and Charles Tyler, the Duke of Beaufort’s Tory agents in the parliamentary constituency of Monmouth, Phillips had helped manage the elections of the duke’s son and heir Lord Worcester, the borough’s Tory MP from 1813 – May 1831 and July 1831-1832.
In the May 1831 election Worcester had been defeated by 19 votes after Newport’s pro-reform corporation admitted about 70 new freemen voters by ‘birth and servitude’. It was Phillips who masterminded a legal challenge against the votes of these freemen, uncovering technical issues with their admissions and long-standing errors in the appointment of Newport’s mayors which made their actions void and invalid. As a result of his work the election result was overturned by Parliament, on a petition, and Worcester was awarded the seat in July.
It was this recent experience and expertise that Phillips redeployed with such great effect in Monmouth’s first registration courts the following year. His surviving letters to Messrs. Powles and Tyler, now in the National Library of Wales, show how he created hundreds of objections to new Liberal voters on the basis of rating errors, insufficient tax payments, receipt of poor relief, incorrect spellings, imprecise addresses, changes of residence and various other legal technicalities.
Thirty-seven electors were challenged because they shared the same name with at least one other voter – a widespread phenomenon in this border area with Wales. One person was even targeted for ‘having laid a wager upon the event of an election’. At the same time, Phillips also made sure his Tory ‘claimants’ had watertight qualifications, creating all the necessary paperwork such as rent and rate receipts and even paying their one shilling registration fee and any rating arrears on their behalf.
Lord Worcester lost the 1832 election, but only by 38 votes, which was extraordinary given the political circumstances and the Reform Act’s tripling of Monmouth’s electorate to almost 900. At the next election in 1835 this margin was reduced further to just four votes.
In the years ahead, Phillips’s registration antics helped the Tories win a series of victories locally, including both of Monmouthshire’s county seats and various Welsh constituencies. But it was at the national level, in the newly formed Conservative Carlton Club, that his influence really proved decisive. Lord Worcester’s younger brother was Lord Granville Somerset, who became one of the leading architects of the Conservatives’ highly successful national registration campaigns during the 1830s. His policies drew heavily on Phillips’s practical advice and expertise, especially in the complex areas of voter rating requirements and making ‘blanket’ objections.
As a number of historical studies have shown, it would be on the basis of these new annual ‘battles’ in registration courts, using tactics trail-blazed by Phillips, that the electoral fortunes of both parties would increasingly be decided during the Victorian era.
This episode of ‘Who Do You Think You’ Are is available from the BBC here.
P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW
P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work: local politics and national parties, 1832-1841 (Royal Historical Society, 2002)
J. Prest, Politics in the Age of Cobden (1977)