Innovation, corruption and bankruptcy: Charles John Mare (1814-1898)

Charles J. Mare

Charles John Mare (date unknown), (c) Grace’s Guide

Following our recent blog on the London shipbuilder and MP for Greenwich, Peter Rolt, December’s MP of the Month is Charles John Mare. Mare was Rolt’s son-in-law and an innovative East End shipbuilder. Thought to be a millionaire when he was returned for Plymouth in 1852, his election proved the apex of his career. He was unseated for bribery in 1853, and declared bankrupt, for the first of four times, in 1855.

Charles John Mare (1814-1898) was the son of a Staffordshire potter, who travelled to London, aged 18, to undertake a legal apprenticeship with his uncle in the Doctors’ Commons. Not content with the prospect of a career in law, by 1837 Mare had used his ‘social connections with marine engineers in London’ to enter into partnership with Thomas Ditchburn, establishing the iron shipbuilders, Ditchburn, Mare & Co, in Blackwall, London. Building a name for themselves via their racing yachts, the firm eventually secured extensive contracts with the navy and various companies for cross-Channel steamers, as well as for the production of iron tubes for the Britannia Bridge and other civil engineering projects. In 1843 Mare married Mary Rolt, a ‘court beauty’, maid of honour to Queen Victoria, and daughter of fellow London shipbuilder, Peter Rolt.

The Launch of the Russian Steamer Vladimir, ILN, 01 Apr. 1848

The Launch of the Russian Steamer Vladimir at C. J. Mare & Co., Blackwall, 22 Mar. 1848, ILN, 01 Apr. 1848

Mare’s ambitious plans to fulfil his company’s growing order sheet by creating the first vertically-integrated iron shipyard on the Thames, where all the materials required to build ships would be manufactured on site, led to the departure of Ditchburn from the firm in acrimonious circumstances in 1847. Despite this split, by August 1851 Mare’s plans appeared to be paying off, when it was reported that his huge site in Blackwall employed over ‘2,000 hands’, and had 25 ongoing shipbuilding projects worth upwards of half a million pounds. At the time, this included six vessels of 1,800 tons and a 2,200 steam-yacht for the Pacha of Egypt, the Faid Gihaad.


The ironworks at C. J. Mare & Co. also took on extensive non-shipbuilding contracts, notably for Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge and Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge. The roof for Fenchurch Street station was also constructed on site, ILN, 10 Dec. 1853

In March 1852, Mare’s receipt of a government contract to supply eight ships for mail services from Plymouth to India, and his position as a majority shareholder in the General Screw Steam Shipping Company (GSSSC), led to his candidacy at Plymouth. Coming forward as a Conservative ‘commercial man’ at the 1852 general election, he voiced his dissatisfaction with the recent ‘ill-advised and imperfect’ repeal of the navigation laws, which he contended had allowed ‘foreigners’ to ‘enrich themselves at our expense’, and opposed the ballot, any extension of the franchise, the removal of Jewish disabilities and the Maynooth grant.

During his lengthy campaign, Mare personally spent over £16,000 (about £1.6 million today) and wasted little opportunity in patronising Plymouth’s institutions and voters. A major focus of his campaign was his pledge to support the development of Plymouth’s dockyards, and his announcement of three 2,200 ton vessels for the GSSSC’s newly proposed Plymouth to Australia route. Mare was returned at the head of the poll in July 1852.

Mare’s excessive election spending and shameless treating of voters meant that his three Liberal opponents were so confident of unseating him through an election petition that they commenced preparations for a by-election within days of the opening of Parliament in November 1852. The Commons eventually considered the petition in May 1853, and his opponents’ charge sheet proved so convincing that Mare accepted his own guilt on the second day of an election committee. Among other accusations, Mare and his agents were found to have promised a government post to at least one voter, employment in a Plymouth foundry to 20 voters, and positions at his dockyard to up to 40 others. Some Liberals were so incensed that they called for Mare to be prosecuted in the criminal courts. During his brief time in parliament, Mare was a silent but loyal Conservative.


The launch of the Himalaya at Mare’s Blackwall site, a fortnight after he had been unseated for corruption, 24 May 1853, ILN, 28 May 1853

Mare became the subject of further public disgrace in October 1855 when he declared voluntary bankruptcy with unsecured debts of £160,000 and total liabilities of £400,000. The news was greeted with ‘universal surprise’ as his dockyard now employed upwards of 4,000 men. In public he blamed his bankruptcy on the delayed payments of clients, but it appears that Mare’s underestimation of costs on a range of contracts, and his profligate investments in property, the GSSSC and his Newmarket racehorse stud all contributed to his perilous finances.


Mare assumed control of the extensive Millwall ironworks in 1860, C.J. Mare & Co. plaque, Millwall Ironworks Building (source: Wikimedia commons)

Despite his bankruptcy, Mare’s works remained in full operation, as did his reputation as a shipbuilder. His company’s multiple contracts and extensive operations represented sufficient value for his father-in-law, Peter Rolt, who was now MP for Greenwich, to purchase the firm’s assets in 1856. Mare’s vertically-integrated business model remained in place and thrived as the Thames Iron Works & Ship Building Company until the early twentieth century. As a result, Mare’s bankruptcy was annulled in December 1857, and soon after he was appointed as a site manager of a Northfleet shipyard. By 1860 he had assumed control of an extensive shipbuilding site in Millwall, under the name C. J. Mare & Co, which he developed on an even more ambitious business model than before.

He sold out of the company in 1862 but was again declared bankrupt in December 1867 after failing to curb his property investments and expenditure on the Turf. Having returned to business as a ‘paper dealer’ he was charged with defrauding a client for £300 in 1870 and was declared bankrupt for a third time in 1874. Following this he returned to the shipping industry as a boat inspector, but was summoned to the bankruptcy courts for a fourth time in 1884.

Having suffered from bronchitis for several months, Mare died destitute in Stepney Green in February 1898. He was survived by his wife, from whom he had been ‘unhappily separated’ for a ‘long number of years’, and was only spared a pauper’s burial after a public subscription was raised when news of his death circulated in the London press. Despite disregarding him in his later life, Mare’s contemporaries, as well as the Thames Ironworks and West Ham Borough Council were quick to acknowledge his influence over nineteenth-century shipbuilding in the East End, erecting a memorial in his honour that was placed in the entrance to West Ham Municipal College, which is now East London University’s Stratford Campus.


Further reading:

  • J. Arnold, ‘Charles Mare, London Ironmaster and Shipbuilder’, London Journal, 36 (2011), 23-36
  • P. Banbury, Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway (1971)
  • E. C. Smith, A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering (1938)
  • ‘Charles John Mare – The Shipbuilder’, The Historic Shipping Website
  • ‘Former Milwall Ironworks Building’, Historic England
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Lord Derby, ‘centre’ parties and minority government

150 years ago the Conservative prime minister Lord Derby retired from office, having managed to pass one of the most significant constitutional reform packages of the 19th century – despite leading a minority government. This post examines the career of this extraordinary leader, who has been dubbed Britain’s ‘forgotten’ prime minister.

A related short programme about Derby, part of a new BBC series called Prime Properties exploring the residences of UK prime ministers, will also be presented by Dr Philip Salmon on BBC Parliament and is now available on iplayer.

The 14th Earl of Derby

The 14th Earl of Derby (1799-1869) has always been overshadowed by Peel and Disraeli in the history of modern Conservatism. The recent magisterial biography of Derby by Professor Angus Hawkins is even entitled ‘The Forgotten Prime Minister’. But Derby remains the longest serving leader of any British political party (22 years), is the only British prime minister to have led three minority governments, and is the only politician to have served in the cabinets that passed both the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts. The last of these probably helps to explain his neglect in Conservative party mythology. For although he ended up leading the Protectionist Tories after 1846 and later the ‘reunited’ Conservatives, Derby began his political career as a Whig.

Derby was first appointed to junior office under the coalition prime minister Lord Goderich in 1827. Significantly, he refused to continue working under the new Tory prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, the following year. Appointed Irish secretary in the Whig government of Lord Grey in 1830, he became one of the leading defenders of the famous reform bill in the Commons, where Grey considered his debating skills ‘unrivalled’. He also set up the first national education scheme for Ireland (1831).

As the Whigs’ colonial secretary from 1833-34 it was Derby who passed the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), phasing out slavery in British colonies and (controversially) compensating British slave owners. It was later said of Derby (by Disraeli) that ‘he abolished slavery, he educated Ireland [and] he reformed Parliament’. Not everyone admired him though. Many Irish MPs, including the Irish campaigner Daniel O’Connell, regarded him as an enemy of Ireland and its Catholic population. Derby’s ruthless approach to enforcing law and order there even earned him the epithet ‘Scorpion Stanley’. (At this time he was known by his father’s subsidiary title of Lord Stanley.)

It was also Ireland, or to be more precise the Irish Anglican Church, that prompted the first of Derby’s high-profile resignations from government. In 1834 he quit Grey’s ministry, objecting to some of his cabinet colleagues’ increasingly ‘liberal’ views about using the income of the Irish Church for non-church purposes. Derby’s departure, and its knock-on effects, not only helped to precipitate Grey’s own resignation a few months later, but also helped to pave the way for King William IV’s hugely controversial dismissal of the replacement Whig government led by Lord Melbourne later that year. This was the last time in British history that a monarch threw out a government.

By now (late 1834) Derby was busy trying to form his own ‘third’ or ‘centre’ party. Satirically dubbed the ‘Derby Dilly’ – a politically charged pun about a type of stage-coach – the new party aimed to capture disaffected ‘conservative’ Whigs appalled at the pro-Irish, radical drift of the emerging Whig-Liberal party. It also sought to enlist ‘moderate’ Conservatives keen to distance themselves from the anti-reform legacy of the old Tories. Estimates vary, but by early 1835 Derby had recruited some 40 to 50 followers, including two former Whig ministers and the former prime minister Goderich.

The “Derby Dilly”: a satirical print by HB (John Doyle) 1835

Derby’s hopes of starting a new centre party, however, were scuppered by the remarkably similar appeal put forward by the Conservative Commons’ leader Sir Robert Peel. The King had made Peel prime minister on Wellington’s advice after dismissing Melbourne’s ministry at the end of 1834. Peel’s appeal to all ‘moderate’ reformers and Conservatives willing to ‘reform abuses in church and state’, set out in his famous Tamworth Manifesto during the 1835 election, is widely regarded as a decisive moment in the emergence of modern Conservatism. For Derby it was a disaster. It completely stole his new party’s thunder. He and his followers were left with little choice but to align themselves with the Conservatives over the next few years, especially after the 1837 election results made it clear that Peel was heading towards power.

When the Conservative victory finally came in 1841, the new prime minister Peel reinstalled Derby back in his old office as war and colonies secretary. Feeling increasingly sidelined in the Commons by new front-bench talent, Derby eventually persuaded Peel to move him to the Lords in 1844, to help the ageing Duke of Wellington perform his duties as its party leader.

Just over a year later, Derby performed his second high-profile rebellion as a cabinet minister, resigning from the government in protest at Peel’s decision to completely repeal the corn laws. By 1846 he had become the leader of the Protectionist campaign against Peel’s free trade policy. This, of course, famously split the Conservative party in two, leaving it unable to govern and Derby as de facto leader of the remaining non-Peelite Conservatives.

Derby’s subsequent role as their party leader and prime minister of three minority Conservative governments has already been touched on in a previous post. What is worth stressing here is that although all of Derby’s minority governments were short-lived, they were not without major achievements. Reforms passed by Derby included settling the thorny issue of allowing Jews to sit in Parliament (1858), a complete reorganisation and transfer to the British Crown of Indian government (1858), and of course the Second Reform Act (1867), which enfranchised almost 1.2 million new voters, far more than the famous ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832.

How Derby managed to achieve these major constitutional reforms without a majority in the Commons will be the subject of a follow up article.

Further reading:

S. Farrell, ‘Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley’, in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1820-32, ed. D. Fisher (2009), vii. 158-70

A. Hawkins, The Forgotten Prime Minister: the 14th Earl of Derby (2 vols, 2007 & 2008)

A. Hawkins, ‘Lord Derby’, in Lords of Parliament, ed. R. Davis (1995), 134-62

W. Jones, Lord Derby and Victorian Conservatism (1956)

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MP of the Month: George Williams (1765-1850) and Ashton-under-Lyne


Major George Williams, c. 1800 (via

In December 1832 the voters of Ashton-under-Lyne elected George Williams, ‘a Radical Reformer’, as the first MP for their newly enfranchised constituency. Born in Newfoundland, Williams had joined the British army in North America in 1777, aged just 12. After a lengthy military career, during which he served in Nova Scotia, St. Domingo, Jamaica, Ireland and Holland, he left the army in 1800, having reached the rank of major. In 1801 he married and purchased a small estate at Little Woolton, near Liverpool. He had no connection with Ashton-under-Lyne before becoming its MP, and did not even visit the constituency until after the contest, being nominated on the hustings and elected in his absence.

It was certainly not unheard of for MPs to be returned in their absence, with illness being one reason candidates sometimes failed to attend the nomination. Lord Hotham wrote his election address for the East Riding from his sick-bed in 1841, was unable to be present on the hustings, and did not take his seat in the Commons until 1843, when he was still convalescing. In a more unusual case, Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam was returned for his family’s pocket borough of Malton in 1852 despite being on a tour of America at the time, where his precise whereabouts were unknown even to his family. In both these cases, however, the absent MP faced no opposition in what was a safe seat. In contrast, Williams had two opponents: Charles Hindley, a local cotton manufacturer, also described as a Radical Reformer, and Thomas Helps, a Tory.

Williams’s candidature stemmed largely from divisions among Ashton-under-Lyne’s Radicals and Reformers. The first candidate to enter the field was Hindley, who endorsed ‘cheap and economical government’, reform of the Church, non-sectarian education, the ballot and triennial parliaments, and objected to slavery and the corn laws. However, as Hindley recognised, his views did not ‘go far enough’ for some. While he and Williams shared much common ground – supporting the ballot, free trade and retrenchment in public expenditure – Williams was more Radical, favouring universal suffrage and annual parliaments. There were concerns that as a factory owner, Hindley might not represent the views of the working classes, and in his attempts to mediate between workers and employers during a strike in 1830-1, he had ended up losing favour from both sides. While in double-member constituencies, internal party differences could be resolved by putting forward two candidates of varying political hues – a Whig and a Radical, for example – this was not an option in a single-member borough such as Ashton-under-Lyne.

Although Williams did not address them during the election, Ashton-under-Lyne’s inhabitants were certainly aware of his reputation as ‘a veteran reformer’. As a county magistrate, he had even earned praise from the Tory Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, for acting as ‘the poor man’s friend’ by hearing cases ‘at five in the morning, before the labourer goes to his work’, thus preventing working-men losing a day’s wage. He was also noted for his efforts to keep a careful eye on county expenditure. He had previously been a radical candidate for Liverpool and Lancashire, and in 1826 had expressed his desire to see ‘the corn laws and all other monopolies destroyed’ and condemned the oppressive tithe system and the game laws. The report that one Ashton-under-Lyne deputation had encountered him ‘with a spade in his hand and good strong clogs on his feet, working on his farm’, provided further proof to his would-be constituents that he was a straightforward and down-to-earth man in tune with the people.

Williams declined ‘offering himself, publishing any address, or even presenting himself for an hour at a public meeting of the electors’ at the 1832 election, but this stance, and his insistence that he would ‘condescend to canvass no man’, merely served to reinforce his Radical credentials. In the nearby borough of Oldham, John Fielden and William Cobbett had likewise refused to canvass, wishing to have ‘purity of election’. The canvass was often seen as an opportunity to bribe or intimidate voters. In declining to campaign – although his supporters, including friends from Liverpool, did so on his behalf – Williams ensured that his election would be a cheap one. Indeed his only expenditure was his 9s. railway fare to make his first visit to his new constituency the day after his victory in the poll, when he was presented with a new hat and ‘a pair of clogs strong enough to trample a score of boroughmongers to the dust’.

He proved to be a diligent representative in the Commons, where he saw his role as that of ‘a perpetual watchful sentinel’ over government spending. He made his maiden speech, 14 Feb. 1833, in support of a motion by his fellow Radical, Joseph Hume, calling for ‘the utmost attention to economy in all branches of the public expenditure’ and the abolition of sinecures – posts with pay but little or no work attached – in the army and navy. Williams proudly informed the Commons that ‘Ashton-under-Lyne’s electors had returned him despite never having met him because they knew he was ‘an unflinching opposer of all useless public expense’. He was often found in the minority in the division lobbies, including votes to support reductions in taxation and oppose the new poor law. He also mounted an unsuccessful one-man campaign to repeal the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, under which members of the royal family required the monarch’s consent for their choice of spouse. Williams claimed that its effects ‘had been to make our princes send to Germany for wives, instead of selecting them amongst their English countrywomen’.

Williams had beaten Hindley by just ten votes in 1832. Their fortunes were reversed at the next election in 1835. Although Ashton-under-Lyne’s Liberals had decided ‘to make common cause’ and support the most promising candidate, this did not prevent Williams again being nominated in his absence. He polled just 63 votes, behind the Conservative candidate, with Hindley winning the seat with 212 votes. This marked the end of Williams’s political career, while Hindley represented Ashton-under-Lyne for the next 22 years until his death.

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The University of London, representation and the 1867 Reform Act

Last week, as part of UK Parliament Week, we held a special event with the University of London to mark the 150th anniversary of the university returning its first MP to parliament. At the 1868 general election all University of London graduates, a status open only to males until 1878, could vote for this member. In 1918 female graduates aged 30 and over were enfranchised, and from 1928 all female graduates could vote. The London University constituency continued to return a member until 1950. This week’s blog explores why politicians in the Victorian Commons deemed it appropriate to give an elite group of men – University of London graduates – an additional vote.

Clauses 24 & 25 of the 1867 Reform Act

Clauses 24 & 25 of the 1867 Reform Act (30 & 31 Vict. c. 102)

Between 1832 and 1868, Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin University each returned two members to Parliament, in constituencies that enfranchised M.A. and doctoral graduates. The Oxford and Cambridge University constituencies had sent two burgesses each to Parliament since 1604, in recognition that they were distinct corporate interests that required parliamentary representation. For similar reasons, and because of its Anglican status, Dublin University was enfranchised in the Irish Commons in 1613. Dublin University survived as one of the 100 Irish seats at Westminster following the 1800 Act of Union, and in 1832, like Oxford and Cambridge, it was restored to its pre-1800 status as a double-member seat.

C. J. Forster, The University of London: A Parliamentary Constituency (1850)

C. J. Foster, The University of London: A Parliamentary Constituency (1851)

By the early 1850s the University of London (which was established by charter in 1836) had turned its attention to lobbying for its own parliamentary representation. The university’s efforts were based on its claims of excellence and its unique position as a non-denominational degree awarding body with international reach, at the forefront of medicine, the arts and law.  Apart from some details over how graduates might qualify to vote, by 1852, Britain’s leading Liberal and Conservative politicians had signalled their agreement with these demands. As a result, every Liberal and Conservative reform measure between 1854 and 1867 contained some provision for parliamentary representation for University of London graduates.

Mid-Victorian politicians were so supportive of University representation because of two interrelated aspects of contemporary debate around representation. First, the idea that the electoral system represented interests, not individuals. And second, the context of wider reform debates between 1848 and 1867 about how the franchise might be safely extended to working men.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, university seats had been appropriated into a defence of the electoral system that held that its primary purpose was to provide for a balanced representation of the nation’s political, economic and geographic interests in the Commons. William Blackstone, in 1765, considered the University seats were:

to serve for those students who, though useful members of the community, were neither concerned in the landed nor the trading interest: and to protect in the legislature the rights of the republic of letters.

Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England: Book 1 (1765)

While theories around representation had certainly evolved by the mid-Victorian period, Britain’s leading legislators generally still agreed that the main purpose of Britain’s electoral system was to provide for a balanced representation of interests.


Lord John Russell, Whig-Liberal Prime Minister, 1846-52, 1865-66. Francis Grant, 1853 (c) NPG

Different politicians found different ways of rationalising what these interests were, and how they might be balanced. But for someone like Lord John Russell, who was a leading figure in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, Whig-Liberal Prime Minister, 1846-52 and 1865-66, and long term ally of the University of London, the representative system was understood in the following way:

  • Large urban constituencies – such as Manchester or Tower Hamlets – represented the nation’s varied commercial or manufacturing interests, and could be seen as providing a limited voice to ‘the democracy’.
  • MPs returned for the predominantly agricultural counties provided a footing for the landed – often aristocratic – interest who had a vested interest in the soil.
  • All-out war between these interests – which from the 1840s seemed very real due to debates over the corn laws – was tempered by boroughs with medium or small electorates. Importantly, small electorates that were more easily influenced by the wealth of a candidate, or a patron, provided the opportunity for prospective MPs from a variety of geographic and economic interests to put themselves up for election.
  • The settled ratio of constituencies between the four nations provided for the representation of separate national interests.
  • MPs too, via their various landholdings, business interests or associations with constituencies, provided virtual representation to geographic areas or groups not directly represented in the Commons.

Up until at least the early 1850s there was a strong impulse among many Whig-Liberals for more direct forms of interest representation in parliament. These ideas initially came to prominence during debates over the 1832 Reform Act, when suggestions for colonial, financial and legal interest constituencies were mooted by MPs. This was how the University of London was originally slotted into proposals for reform. In 1852, the Peelite First Lord of the Admiralty, and member of the University of London Senate, Sir James Graham, recommended constituencies for the new universities, the Inns of Court, East India proprietors and stockholders. On this basis, Russell’s failed 1854 reform bill proposed to enfranchise both the University of London and the Inns of Court.

Russell’s failed 1854 reform bill

Clauses 10 & 11 of Lord John Russell’s failed 1854 reform bill (PP 1854 (17), v. 375)

While direct interest representation constituencies had fallen out of favour with most leading politicians by the late 1850s, suggestions for special voting qualifications did not disappear. Instead they morphed into ideas for ‘fancy franchises’, the educational franchise and plural voting. These ideas came from across the political spectrum and arose out of a specific problem presented by the reform debates of 1848-67. Once politicians had accepted the need to reform, the question was: how did you extend the vote without the working man overpowering every other interest or group which also had a right to representation in the Commons?

The Supporters of the Working Man

While politicians increasingly courted the ‘working man’ they feared an increase of his electoral influence, ‘The Supporters of the Working Man’, Punch, April 1859

In 1859 the Conservative government of Lord Derby sought to broaden the borough franchise not by reducing the property qualification, but by extending the vote to those who, if they did not already qualify, had a certain amount of money in their pensions or banks, or were university graduates, clergy, barristers or attorneys. For the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, these ‘fancy franchises’, as they became popularly derided, were intended to ‘discard for ever that principle of population’ and avoid a ‘household democracy’, while providing representation to ‘all the interests of the country’.

John Stuart Mill, Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859)

John Stuart Mill proposed a ‘plurality of votes in favour of those who could afford a reasonable presumption of superior knowledge and cultivation’ , Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859)

Another proposal for dealing with this issue came from the advanced Liberal MP for Hull, James Clay. In 1866 he proposed that instead of reducing the borough franchise, it should be extended to those who passed an educational test. The test was aimed at enfranchising clergymen, teachers, office clerks and shop assistants, but most importantly ‘the most educated of working men’. Such a franchise was intended also to provide an opportunity for the uneducated working man who was willing to ‘sacrifice to the schoolmaster his leisure hours’ in order to prove his ‘honest earnestness’ and fitness to participate in the franchise.

One further solution for tempering the influence of the multitude was plural voting – the idea that a voter should get additional votes based on the value of his property, or an educational or financial qualification. Plural voting had been suggested in 1859 by the advanced-Liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill. However, in 1867 several Conservatives also started to advocate plural voting, when it became apparent that Disraeli was genuinely considering extending the vote in the boroughs to all male householders.

In the end, none of these three proposals made it to the 1867 Reform Act. They proved too complex to implement, and for many appeared alien to constitutional precedent. Enfranchising the University of London, however, avoided both of these problems, as Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin provided models that could be easily replicated. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, enfranchising the University of London helped comfort parliamentarians in the belief that an educated body might do its bit to temper the influence of the working man following the introduction of household suffrage in the boroughs in 1867.


To find out more about the University of London’s first MP, Robert Lowe, visit our History of Parliament blog next week. The 1868 Scottish Reform Act also enfranchised two single-member Scottish Universities seats, and from 1918 additional university seats were created before their total abolition in 1950. To find out more about University representation see J. S. Meisel, Knowledge and Power: The Parliamentary Representation of Universities in Britain and the Empire (2011).

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The role and power of the House of Lords

To mark Parliament Week 2018, our editor Dr Philip Salmon looks at a key element of Parliament which we don’t usually have much opportunity to reflect on in our work on Victorian MPs and constituencies: the House of Lords. Yet, as he explains below, the upper chamber played a vital role in many important 19th century reforms and continued to wield significant influence even after the 1911 Parliament Act.

The pre-1834 Lords (Court of Requests)

The House of Lords remains a rather neglected subject in modern British political history. One recent study has even suggested that ‘for the last half-century and more it has been largely ignored’ (but note the reading list below). Most studies constructed around the traditional theme of democratic development inevitably tend to downplay the significance of the ‘unelected’ chamber. The Lords, however, should not be under-estimated.

Over half the twenty prime ministers of the 19th century, including the two longest serving (Liverpool and Salisbury), formed their governments as peers, while two more (Russell and Disraeli) started out in the Commons but later served as premier in the upper house. For just over half the entire nineteenth century, the government was led by a prime minister sitting in the Lords. At ministerial level the presence of peers was more striking still, even well into the 20th century. Attlee’s first Cabinet of 1945 and Macmillan’s in 1957 contained five members of the Lords, while Churchill’s of 1951 had seven.

Rather than being separate or even rival institutions, as is sometimes assumed, the Victorian Commons and Lords were in fact deeply integrated in terms of their practical business, politics and personnel. Family ties and patronage networks ensured a close working relationship between members of both Houses, with many MPs either succeeding or being promoted to peerages. Many peers also continued to exercise a considerable degree of influence over elections to the Commons. Where conflicts between the two Houses did occur, as for example over the famous 1832 reform bill, they were primarily shaped by the political composition of the Lords rather than any deep-seated institutional jealousies.

The Lords always remained an overwhelmingly Tory chamber. Even by 1880, despite years of Liberal peerage creations aimed at trying to rectify a long-standing imbalance, the number of Liberal Lords had only just passed the 200 mark, or roughly 40%, of the total. This was then decimated by the Liberal party splitting apart over Irish home rule.

One effect of this was that many Whig and Liberal measures that passed the Commons were often defeated or altered out of all recognition by the Lords, sometimes even against the express wishes of the Tory leaders. The Whigs’ original 1835 municipal reform bill, for instance, was completely mangled by the Lords in defiance of the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel’s instructions.

The fact that so many controversial reforms of the 19th century ended up being proposed by Tory or Conservative governments, however, also meant that the number of conflicts between the two Houses was far lower than it otherwise might have been. Hugely contentious issues such as Catholic emancipation (1829), the Maynooth grant (1845), the repeal of the corn laws (1846) and the 1867 Reform Act, all of which would surely have been defeated in the Lords if sent there by a Liberal ministry, were allowed to pass by a Tory-dominated Lords, albeit with varying degrees of dissent.

The Victorian House of Lords, completed in 1847

Steady resistance in the Lords to measures such as the abolition of church rates, the removal of religious tests in universities, and allowing Jews to enter Parliament, put them at odds with the Commons on a regular basis throughout the 1850s and 1860s, but again it was at the behest of leaders, notably Disraeli, that they eventually gave way. In 1868 the Lords threw out Gladstone’s preliminary measures for disestablishing the Anglican church in Ireland. Following that year’s general election, however, which gave the Liberals a substantial majority, the Tory Lords reluctantly consented to pass a compromise measure at the behest of their leader Lord Cairns.

One area where institutional conflicts did occasionally occur, however, was over finance. This was supposed to be the exclusive preserve of the lower House. A problem here, however, was what exactly this financial embargo covered. In 1860, in an important showdown between the chambers, the Lords rejected the Liberal ministry’s proposals to abolish the duties on paper. This formed part of the government’s broad move towards obtaining more revenue from income and property, but was seen by many peers as touching on wider national issues as well. Rather than confront the Lords head on, the ministry passed resolutions in the Commons reasserting its exclusive right to deal with all money matters, and in the following session controversially inserted the proposals into their budget. Despite many objections this was duly passed.

The 1911 Parliament Act, and beyond

This increasing practice of ‘packing’ budgets with other measures lay at the heart of the constitutional crisis of 1909-11. After three years of throwing out a series of Liberal reforms, including an unpopular licensing bill, and earning themselves their reputation as ‘Mr Balfour’s poodle’, the Lords went one step further and rejected the so-called ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. As well as extending inheritance duties on landed estates, this had also tacked on previously rejected licensing and land valuation reforms.

The Liberal ministry called an election, held in January 1910, but their resulting losses made them heavily dependent on the support of the Irish nationalist MPs and Labour, both of whom shared the Liberal party’s growing commitment to a formal reduction of the Lords’ powers. After months of high political drama and abortive negotiations between the two Houses, and yet another general election in December 1910 that solved nothing, the Parliament Act of 1911 was eventually passed under the threat of mass peerage creations by the king.

1911 Parliament Act

Much has been made of the way the 1911 Parliament Act formally ended the Lords’ ability to interfere in money matters (as defined by the Speaker) and its replacement of the Lords’ complete veto over legislation with a delaying power of two years. In reality, however, this was precisely the way in which the Lords had operated for most of the 19th century, rarely intruding into budgetary matters and often postponing rather than preventing the passage of controversial measures (with the obvious exception of Irish home rule).

Not only were the Parliament Act’s provisions limited to bills that originated in the Commons – leaving completely untouched the peers’ powers over bills introduced in the Lords and all secondary or delegated legislation – but also the opportunity for bills to be delayed until after the next election in effect conferred a ‘referendum’ power on the upper house, legitimising its claims to a separate constitutional relationship with the electorate.

Perhaps most significantly, the Parliament Act’s technical requirements – bills delayed by the Lords had to go back through the Commons in the same form three times before becoming law – in practice made it far too cumbersome to be used on a regular basis. Tellingly, during the 20th century it was implemented just six times. In 1914 Welsh church disestablishment and Irish home rule were enacted under its provisions, only for their implementation to be suspended for the duration of the First World War (and in the latter case aborted owing to Irish independence). The 1949 Parliament Act, which further reduced the Lords’ delaying powers to one year, also reached the statute book without the Lords’ consent, as did the 1991 War Crimes Act, the 1999 European Elections Act and the 2000 Sexual Offences Act.

All other legislation that was passed during the 20th century, however, continued to be debated, scrutinised and where necessary amended by the Lords before becoming law, much as it had been during the Victorian era. The only difference was that after the primacy of the Commons had been asserted during the showdown of 1909-11, the Lords became less disposed to be combative in its approach and more inclined to engage in political manoeuvrings behind the scenes. To this extent, it could be argued that the change implemented in the early twentieth century was as much a cultural as a constitutional one.

Further Reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘Parliament’, in The Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History, 1800-2000, ed. D. S. Brown, R. Crowcroft and G. Pentland (Oxford University Press, 2018), 83-102 VIEW
  • C. Ballinger, The House of Lords 1911-2011: A Century of Non-Reform (2012)
  • R. Davis, A Political History of the House of Lords 1811-46 (2008)
  • R. Davis, Leaders in the Lords 1765-1902 (2003)
  • A. Adonis, Making Aristocracy Work. The Peerage and the Political System in Britain 1884-1914 (1993)
  • E. A. Smith, The House of Lords in British Politics and Society 1815-1911 (1992)
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MP of the Month: Peter Rolt (1798-1882), the man who built HMS Warrior

A successful Deptford timber merchant, Peter Rolt rose to eminence as a dockyard contractor and became one of the greatest of London’s shipbuilders. He was elected as Conservative MP for Greenwich in 1852. An ebullient character who was known for his ‘quiet and ready humour’, he later achieved fame as the builder of Britain’s first ironclad warship, HMS Warrior, in 1860.

A ‘Thames man’, Rolt was born at Deptford in 1798. He was descended on his mother’s side from the Elizabethan shipwright, Peter Pett (d. 1589), whose son Phineas (1570-1647), was the first commissioner of Chatham dockyard. His father’s family had maintained a yard on the Thames since the eighteenth century, and his maternal and paternal grandfathers and his father had all worked as dockyard officials.

After setting himself up as a timber merchant Rolt was married in 1820 to Mary Brocklebank, whose father Thomas was managing director of the General Steam Navigation Company. Rolt later set up the firm of Brocklebank & Rolt with his father-in-law. He established his reputation as a government contractor by constructing two important docks for the Admiralty. The first project, commenced at Woolwich in October 1843, was 300 ft. long and 92 ft. wide, and on completion in 1846 was hailed as the finest of its kind in Europe. Then, in 1847 he commenced work on a new basin at Portsmouth for fitting out steam vessels for the navy. The first of its kind to be built in Britain, it was considered a ‘stupendous’ feat of engineering when it was opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in May 1848.

Paul, John Dean, 1775-1852; Greenwich Hospital from the River, London

Greenwich Hospital from the River (1835), by John Dean Paul (C) Museum of London

By this time Rolt had already been considered as a Conservative candidate for Greenwich, and had joined the board of the Surrey Commercial Docks Company. After successfully completing his remaining Admiralty contracts – which would have disqualified him from sitting in the Commons – he accepted an invitation to stand for Greenwich at the 1852 general election. Appealing to the many ‘working mechanics’ of the borough, he championed the principle of ‘Free-trade in the food of the people’, but argued that the ‘hasty alteration’ of the navigation laws had damaged British shipping interests. His advantage as a large-scale employer in the constituency and a ‘home made’ candidate meant he topped the poll ahead of three Liberal candidates after an election which reportedly cost him £20,000.

Distracted by his business interests, Rolt made little mark in the Commons, although he proved a ‘cordial’ and consistent supporter of Lord Derby’s party. Convinced that Protestantism was ‘the glory and bulwark of the British Empire’, he refused to support what he considered to be the ‘propagation’ of Catholicism through the parliamentary grant to Maynooth College in Ireland, and was an opponent of the ballot.


HMS Warrior (photo credit: A. Rix)

In 1856 Rolt purchased the prestigious shipbuilding works on the Thames at Blackwall which had been established by his recently bankrupted son-in-law, Charles John Mare (1814-98), who had been unseated for bribery at Plymouth in May 1853. Since Rolt intended to take over Mare’s partly executed Admiralty contracts he resigned his seat and formed the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, whose onsite foundry enabled Rolt to overcome a variety of engineering challenges. His shipyard became the largest on the river Thames and its first notable success came in December 1860 with the launch of Britain’s first ironclad warship, HMS Warrior, which he had built at a cost of £254,000 and which effectively secured Britain’s naval pre-eminence for another generation.

Tall, ‘well setup and dignified’, Rolt maintained a high profile in Greenwich, where he was lauded as ‘a capital dinner-giver’ and his menus regarded as ‘models of gustative propriety’. He retained an interest in politics and was an active member of the Conservative Registration Association of the City of London, for which constituency he proposed a candidate at the 1868 general election.

By this time financial difficulties had prompted Rolt to revamp his company by adding graving dock and engineering departments. Further transformations of the business in 1871 and 1875 led to accusations that he and his associates had profited at the expense of their shareholders, but he remained head of the company until the end of his life, the success of Warrior having attracted orders for armour-clad vessels from the great naval powers of the world, including Russia, Turkey, Spain and Germany.

‘Gallant, jaunty, conversational’, Rolt was always ‘scrupulously dressed’ and cut an ‘almost juvenile figure’ up until his death in September 1882. His company continued to enjoy a close relationship with the Admiralty until 1912 when, after completing the dreadnought HMS Thunderer, the Thames Ironworks, which in 1895 had spawned the football club which subsequently became West Ham United, closed its gates for the last time.

Further reading:

  • J. Wells, The Immortal Warrior: Britain’s First and Last Battleship (1987)
  • A. Lambert, Warrior. Restoring the World’s First Ironclad (1987)
  • P. Banbury, Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway (1971)
  • A. J. Arnold, Iron Shipbuilding on the Thames, 1832-1915: An Economic and Business History (2000)
  • J. Marriott, ‘The Industrial History of the Thames Gateway’, in P. Cohen & M. J. Rustin (eds.), London’s Turning. Thames Gateway: Prospects and Legacy (2008)
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An Artist in the Attic: Women and the House of Commons in the Early-Nineteenth Century

In this guest post, Amy Galvin-Elliott from the University of Warwick looks at how women were able to witness debates in the House of Commons from the ‘ventilator’, a space used until the fire of October 1834 destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. Amy is undertaking a PhD as part of an ESRC funded project between the University of Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. She is supervised by Dr Sarah Richardson, Dr Laura Schwartz and Dr Mari Takayanagi. Her thesis is titled ‘From Suffragette to Citizen: female experience of parliamentary spaces in long nineteenth century Britain’. She recently presented her research at the Century of Women MPs conference organised by the Vote 100 project, the History of Parliament Trust and the University of Westminster.

In February 1778 a fateful incident saw women banned from the public galleries of the House of Commons. Prior to this, in spite of their lack of an official or legal role in political life, women could and did engage with the Commons and its political happenings through familial ties. However, on the day in question, the Speaker called for the public galleries to be cleared but a group of female spectators refused, initiating what The Times described as ‘a state of most extraordinary ferment and commotion’ as ‘officers found their duty of turning out the fair intruders no easy work; a violent and determined resistance was offered to them’. The consequence of this was that when the public galleries were reopened, women were no longer admitted.

Undeterred, some women continued to visit the Commons in the disguise of male clothing. However, there was no official space in which women could gather to watch political debates as they had been previously able to do. Indeed the nineteenth century dawned with a renewed focus on the ideology of separate spheres that confined women to the home and reserved the public arena for men. This included excluding women from Parliament as – in the words of The Times – ‘the good sense of the country was opposed to making the ladies of England into political partisans; much better to let them acquire political intelligence through ordinary channels than to bring them to keep bad hours and to witness proceedings that would not always be agreeable to their feelings’.

Nevertheless, women were still intent upon watching political debates, and as a result found the space of the ventilator. In the middle of the medieval House of Commons hung a chandelier, and above this a ventilation shaft ascended into an attic space to carry away the heat, smoke and fetid air of the Chamber. It was around this ventilation shaft that women gathered and peeped through to watch debates; it seemed to physically and ideologically represent their exclusion from public life. The first woman to observe the Commons from the ventilator was Elizabeth Fry; having given evidence on prison reform to a Select Committee in February 1818, she was determined to watch the ensuing debates in the House, and so the Speaker gave permission for her to watch from this attic space. It was hot, uncomfortable, and not at all fit for purpose, but women persisted in their interest in Commons debates and the ventilator was frequently filled with female spectators of the House.

The recent discovery of a watercolour painting found in a family sketch book compiled by Lady Georgiana Chatterton of Baddesley Clinton gives one of only three visual representations of the ventilator that are known. It is believed to have been painted by Georgiana herself. The painting was found alongside a ticket to Westminster Hall dated 11th July 1821; this was the date of the King’s Speech in the House of Lords, and so there would have been a high demand for tickets to Parliament, which had to be obtained through links to MPs. A well connected young girl of fourteen, as Georgiana Chatterton was at the time, would have been very likely to attend with a chaperone. Her painting depicts the women in the ventilator in vivid detail, revealing something of what it was like for women to experience engagement with Parliament through the space of the ventilator.


Sketch of the ventilator by Lady Georgiana Chatterton (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/ Baddesley Clinton NT

Lady Georgiana paints the women in the ventilator with craning necks and focused faces, showing their clear engagement with the debate in the Chamber below them and challenging the idea that women were unable and indeed ought not to be involved in politics. The women take up a large portion of the painting and are depicted in detail as clear individuals. This contrasts with the idea that women couldn’t participate in Parliament, and the male MPs depicted below them are paradoxically indistinct and restricted to the lower third of the image. In this way the men appear ironically contained and subject to the gaze of their female observers. Lady Georgiana’s focus on the ventilator and her representation of women in a position of relative power within Parliament recreates the ventilator as a female space of political education. It provided the opportunity for women to interact with both politics and one another in an all-female space, at a time when they were otherwise excluded from the political sphere. The early-nineteenth century was broadly a period of female oppression that restricted women to home and hearth, but in the very centre of power, some women were contesting the status quo and engaging with political debates from a small, cramped, and uncomfortable attic.


Amy in the reconstructed ventilator at Voice and Vote

If you would like to know more about the ventilator and the history of women in Parliament, do visit the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall. It is open until 6th October 2018 and free tickets can be booked here:

Amy Galvin-Elliott

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