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 , , , | 1 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.

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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.

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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 , , , , | 4 Comments

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 Tilston 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 , , , , | 2 Comments

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 , , , , , | 3 Comments

Victorian Election Violence Project

We’re delighted to host a guest blog from Dr. Gary Hutchison, Research Associate on the Victorian Election Violence Project at Durham University. Here he outlines the project’s methods and shares some of its preliminary findings.

RiotActElectoral violence plagues many current developing countries, but it is not a new phenomenon. Violence and intimidation were a common part of elections in the United Kingdom up to the early twentieth century. Our project, based at Durham University and funded by the ESRC and AHRC, will use new detailed data to examine electoral violence in England and Wales from the Great Reform Act (1832) up to the Great War (1914). This involves building a large database of instances of election violence, ranging over 20 general elections and encompassing all types, from minor property damage to outright rioting.

Based on the exceptionally detailed historical records available for Britain in this period, we aim to provide new answers to some of the most challenging questions about what leads to electoral violence, and about its effects. For instance, the project will examine how much of this violence was used strategically as a tool of corruption, or whether, as many contemporary historians have argued, it was an unfortunate by-product of the carnival atmosphere of Victorian elections. Alongside other areas of inquiry, including the identification of who tended to perpetrate and fall victim to election violence, we are also examining its overall decline as a phenomenon.

Chartistriot

A Chartist riot

In order to build up our database, we are using exceptionally detailed records, including government and police records. Our most important source materials, however, are the 600-plus newspaper titles which have recently been digitised. Reports of violent events, alongside articles reporting on the individual court proceedings which often followed, are invaluable historical sources. They allow us trace a large number of individuals’ voting histories over multiple elections and correlate this with incidents of violence, along with various background characteristics (e.g., age, education, income, employment etc.). In this way, we can study the microdynamics of electoral violence and see how violence affected voting behaviour over time, and across multiple elections.

Independent of our analysis, these linked quantitative and qualitative datasets are intended to be a significant future resource for other scholars. It is hoped that these freely-available datasets will be a tool to answer a wide variety of other research questions, for scholars in history, political science and other disciplines (e.g. criminology).

Now 14 months into the 3 year project, we are currently in the process of collecting and coding newspaper reports of electoral violence. A cutting-edge and multi-stage text selection process employing machine learning algorithms has been developed in order to find relevant articles. These articles are then handed to a highly-trained team of over 40 Research Assistants for analysis and coding. This is executed through an easy-to-use and custom-built online platform which allows them to view, input, and submit codings remotely, on a mass basis.

Though our dataset is very far from complete, our preliminary conclusions are suggestive – it appears that English and Welsh election violence was far, far more common than even the most recent and advanced previous scholarship has suggested. For instance, Wasserman and Jaggard (‘Electoral violence in mid nineteenth century England and Wales’, Historical Research, 2007) found five major disturbances and a single outright riot for the 1857 election (thought to be one of the quieter contests). Even when employing a conservative comparative interpretation of their categorisations, we’ve found at least ten disturbances and six riots for this election. On the lower end of the scale, smaller individual incidents, including individual assaults, property damage, and forcible kidnapping of voters were commonplace for each election looked at so far.

1865 riot

Liberal committee rooms after riot, Nottingham, 1865. Copyright: Nottingham City Council

Violence also changed over time – a broad-stroke comparison between the elections of 1832 and 1868, for instance, shows a roughly comparable number of riots and disturbances. The effects and intensity of these, however, was different. While many riots and disturbances in 1832 took place over two or even three full days, almost all major incidents in 1868 began and ended on the same day. Most notably, we have uncovered at least twenty deaths directly caused by the 1832 contest. The death-toll for the 1868 contest was also significant, but comparatively lower, at a minimum of eight fatalities inflicted as a result of elections. These eight fatalities were a feature of the over thirty full-scale riots which occurred – often involving thousands of people, and featuring serious injuries, occasionally devastating property damage, and significant military/police responses.  There are 30 days in November, the polling period for that year – this equates to an average of one full-scale riot per day, though in practice the distribution of violence (of all types) was far more concentrated. Smaller-scale election violence incidents tend to be more spread out – the majority of riots and serious disturbances, however, were concentrated on three days, when many constituencies chose to hold their nominations or polling.  The most violent day, Tuesday 17 November 1868, was the very first day when polling could be scheduled. At least eighteen riots, disturbances, and incidents took place across England and Wales on this single day.

VEVtweets

Our Twitter account posts links to new blogs on a weekly basis, recounting newspaper reports of election violence ranging from riots to individual assaults. We have also previously posted two month-long series #OnThisDay accounts of election violence for the 1832 and 1868 elections. Beginning at the end of March, we will repeat this for the 1880 election, on its 139th anniversary.

We are currently collecting many more violent events arising from elections across the period 1832-1914; their causes and consequences were varied and complex. We aim to examine these in detail over the next 22 months.

Posted in Elections, Guest blog | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Electoral malpractice and uncivil political speech: the case of Alfred Seymour MP

Our ‘MP of the Month’ blog highlights some themes still fresh in our minds after attending a conference on corruption at Oxford Brookes University.

Alfred Seymour (1824-1888) was the younger brother of the better known archaeologist and explorer Henry Danby Seymour MP. A ‘third cousin of the Duke of Somerset’, as he was fond of reminding people, Seymour used his family’s considerable aristocratic wealth to travel extensively in Europe and America after a traditional education at Eton and Oxford. By his mid-thirties he was keen to follow his brother into Parliament as a Liberal.

His attempts to woo the electors of Exeter with lectures about his travels, however, met with little success. ‘Whatever may be Mr Seymour’s other qualifications for parliamentary representation’, noted a local paper, ‘the art of addressing a public assembly is certainly not one of them’. His clumsy response to concerns that he was not a ‘Devonshire man’ – that travelling from London by the new railway was far quicker than struggling through the mud and filth of the county’s rural lanes – also won him few friends. Fearing that Seymour might do permanent damage to their political cause, the sitting Liberal MP opted to carry on, despite serious health issues.

Luckily for Seymour the death of an MP in another Devon borough gave him the opening he wanted. Totnes, long noted for its venality, also happened to be controlled in part by his kinsman the Duke of Somerset. As one of its veteran voters explained, ‘I always gave one vote for the duke and the other I did what I liked with’.

At the 1863 by-election, however, with just one of the constituency’s two seats free and electors therefore limited to casting a single vote, such traditional compromises were impossible. Nothing could be guaranteed. To counter protests about Seymour being ‘crammed down the throats of the electors by the noble dictator’, vast sums of money were spent on bribing voters by his agents. Intimidation of the duke’s tenants was also rife – so much so that the Conservative agents started offering bribes of up to £150 to electors who would vote for their candidate and risk eviction.

What really shocked local commentators, however, was less the endemic bribery and voter intimidation than the ‘uncivil’ and ‘ungentlemanly’ language that began to ‘pollute’ this intensely fought by-election. Crucially this was not confined to the usual suspects in crowd politics. Clearly no gifted orator, Seymour resorted to scathing personal attacks and language which the local papers dared not publish. This included mocking a disabled Conservative elector with a ‘unfortunate deformity’ as ‘loppy Harris’. His ‘taunting speech’ on the hustings was delivered in such an ‘insulting tone’, complained one reporter, that it was ‘on a par with the roughest remarks of the rough and not a whit more creditable to a gentleman of such antecedents’. He narrowly won the election.

Seymour’s ‘uncivil’ campaigning proved too much for a Conservative opponent at the next election in 1865, an army veteran called Lieutenant Colonel W. G. Dawkins. Taking exception to Seymour’s taunts that he was ‘no longer a fighting man’, when he was in fact on half-pay, Dawkins pursued the matter in the press and via an election petition after Seymour was re-elected. Accusing the MP of peddling ‘misleading statements’, making ‘needless and meaningless insults’, and of securing his election victory through corruption, Dawkins also demanded ‘satisfaction’ on the field, i.e. a challenge to a duel. Seymour’s published response may have lacked his usual obscenities but was no less withering:

With regard to your suggestion that I should meet you at Wormwood Scrubs … in order to give you the opportunity of relieving Totnes at once of a representative not of her choice … I feel deeply sensible of your amiable intentions towards my constituents but … imagine that the days are past when ‘the survivor’ is the gentleman to be elected by a constituency … I cannot be a consenting party to making myself ridiculous before the public.

Finding no direct link between the illegal practices carried out in the election and Seymour, the investigation into the election petition was unable to overturn his victory. However, it did find enough evidence of endemic corruption to pass the matter to a royal commission of inquiry. In February 1867 their report ruled that Seymour had been ‘privy and assenting’ to corrupt practices, including bribes of up to £200, prompting demands for him to be unseated and prosecuted.

An 1866 cartoon mocking electoral corruption in places like Totnes.

In an unusual maiden speech, 9 Apr. 1867, Seymour vigorously denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the sums he had paid were ‘to clear some back debts and subscriptions (laughter)’. Accusing his critics of blatant hypocrisy, he warned the House of Commons that ‘if action was to be retrospective’, it should include all MPs ‘who were implicated in the same degree’. On the advice of the Conservative minority government’s clearly worried solicitor-general, the motion to prosecute him was withdrawn.

Seymour eventually lost his seat in 1868 when Totnes was disfranchised for electoral corruption under the terms of the 1867 Reform Act. He was later elected for Salisbury after another ‘very close and exciting’ by-election, only to be defeated at the 1874 general election. By then he and his brother had achieved notoriety as leading witnesses in the celebrated Tichborne case, about the claim to an enormous fortune left to their missing nephew Roger Tichborne. It was primarily on the basis of their testimony that the claimant was eventually exposed as an imposter and convicted.

For more information about electoral corruption in the Victorian period click here.

For more information about by-elections click here.

For details of how to access the 1832-68 preview site containing our draft biographies of MPs including Alfred Seymour and his brother, click here.

 

Posted in Biographies, Conferences and seminars, Corruption, Elections, MP of the Month, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2019

The Victorian Commons wishes all its readers a very Happy New Year. We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here’s a look back over our posts from 2018.

VVposterFor the first time ever, we had more than 20,000 views on our blog. Our most popular post of this year was Before the vote was won: women and politics, 1832-68, written to accompany the Vote 100 celebrations marking the centenary of women’s suffrage. We contributed a follow-up post on women and politics, 1868-1918 to the main History of Parliament blog, which also explained our involvement in the Voice & Vote exhibition. We were delighted to host a guest post by Amy Galvin-Elliott of the University of Warwick on women’s experiences of listening to Commons debates from the ‘ventilator’ before the 1834 fire. One woman who watched debates from the ventilator’s successor, the ladies’ gallery (sometimes known as the ‘cage’), was Millicent Fawcett, whose husband Henry featured in our MP of the Month series.

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843), by William Owen Image credit: Wedgwood Museum via artuk.org

The History of Parliament has also been commemorating the 75th anniversary of the death of its founder, Josiah Clement Wedgwood. We marked this by choosing his great-grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, as one of our MPs of the Month. Alongside Wedgwood, who ran his family’s pottery business, our MPs of the Month for 2018 have been an eclectic mix, reflecting the diverse range of backgrounds from which nineteenth-century parliamentarians came. Lord Hotham, a Waterloo veteran, was one of a small number of MPs who sat for the whole of our 1832-68 period. Another former army officer, George Williams, was elected for the new borough of Ashton-under-Lyne in his absence in 1832. He was a model of electoral purity, spending only nine shillings during his contest. The notorious election fixer John Fleming, by contrast, spent around £18,000 a year on his electioneering activities in Hampshire.

Charles J. Mare

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

We have looked before at MPs who were related to each other, and this year we featured Peter Rolt and his son-in-law Charles Mare. Both were prominent shipbuilders, with Rolt responsible for HMS Warrior. In 1856 he took over the Blackwall shipbuilding works developed by Mare, who had just suffered the first of four bankruptcies. Mare had lost his seat at Plymouth in 1853 on grounds of corruption. He was not the only one of our MPs of the Month to be unseated by an election petition. Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, an Irish MP, was unseated for failing to possess the property qualification required of MPs. In an even more unusual case, John Moyer Heathcote lost his Huntingdonshire seat on petition following a double return, and his name was expunged from the parliamentary record.

The Honiton MP Joseph Locke had a notable career outside Parliament, being a prominent railway engineer who, together with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson, laid the architecture of Britain and Europe’s nineteenth-century railways. John Townsend followed an extremely varied career path, being an undertaker, auctioneer, actor and theatre manager, but was forced to quit the Commons following his bankruptcy.

Derby colour

The 14th Earl of Derby

The MP for South Devon, Montagu Parker, was best known for his defeat of the Whig Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, at an 1835 by-election. His letters home to his mother from Westminster provide intriguing insights into parliamentary life.

Alongside these backbenchers, our blog also featured some far more prominent political figures. Martin Spychal shared some of his research on Wellington, Disraeli and Gladstone for the BBC Radio 4 series Prime Ministers’ Props. Philip Salmon used his appearance on BBC Parliament’s Prime Properties as an opportunity to reflect on the career of Lord Derby.

We have again taken part in UK Parliament Week, for which we blogged about the Victorian House of Lords and also celebrated the 150th anniversary of the University of London’s first MP. Shifting our focus away from the Victorian era, we wrote about the 1818 general election for the main History of Parliament site, while Kathryn Rix continued her series marking the centenary of the death of every MP and former MP who died during the First World War on military service. Her research led to the discovery that an MP’s name was missing and needed to be added to the Parliamentary War Memorial. The story of Parliament’s ‘Forgotten Hero’ was featured on the BBC News and Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, when Kathryn and Gordon Marsden MP, the chair of the History of Parliament’s trustees, were interviewed about the war memorial’s new addition.

All the draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be accessed for free on our ‘preview’ site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can also sign up to follow our blogs via e-mail or WordPress, follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons, or follow our colleagues @HistParl and @GeorgianLords.

We look forward to sharing more highlights from our research with you in 2019. Happy New Year!

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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.

ILN-10-Dec.-1853--Fenchurch-St

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.

ILN-28-May-1853

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.

CJM,-Milwall

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.

MS

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 Millwall Ironworks Building’, Historic England
Posted in Biographies, Corruption, Elections, Images of MPs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

George_Williams_portrait

Major George Williams, c. 1800 (via http://www.62ndregiment.org/George_Williams.htm)

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.

Russell

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.

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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).

Posted in Constituencies, Legislation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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)
Posted in Legislation, Parliamentary life, Prime Ministers | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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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)
Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

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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.

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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: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

Amy Galvin-Elliott

Posted in Guest blog, Parliamentary buildings, women | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

MP of the Month: Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843)

Our MP of the Month has a special significance for the History of Parliament Trust, being the great-grandfather (and namesake) of our founder, Josiah Wedgwood MP.

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Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943) (C) NPG

This year the History of Parliament is marking the 75th anniversary of the death of its founder, Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943), with events including a touring exhibition in Staffordshire. Between 1906 and 1942 Wedgwood was a Liberal and then a Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the exhibition began its tour earlier this week.

He was not, however, the first member of his family to enter the Commons. His great-grandfather and namesake, Josiah Wedgwood, is among the 2,590 MPs we are researching as part of the 1832-68 House of Commons project. Like his great-grandson this MP sat for a Staffordshire constituency, representing Stoke-on-Trent from 1832, after failing to get elected for Newcastle-under-Lyme the previous year. However, his parliamentary career was shorter than his great-grandson’s: he only sat in one Parliament before standing down at the 1835 election.

Owen, William, 1769-1825; Josiah Wedgwood II (1769-1843)

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843), by William Owen (Image credit: Wedgwood Museum via artuk.org)

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843) was the second son and namesake of the famous potter and inventor, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95). He followed his father as head of the family’s pottery manufacturing firm, based at Etruria near Stoke-on-Trent. Although he was the second son and had lived as a country gentleman in Dorset before his father’s death, taking little interest in the business, its management fell to him because of his older brother’s ‘chronic incompetence’ and his younger brother’s death.

Wedgwood has been depicted as a ‘plodding’ and unimaginative man, who lacked his father’s genius, but he proved effective at cutting the company’s costs in the face of foreign competition and the loss of European markets during the wars with France. In 1828 he closed the firm’s famous London showroom and – in the words of his great-grandson, Josiah Clement – ‘committed the unpardonable vandalism of selling off the stock, patterns, and moulds there stored’.

Standing as a Reformer at Stoke-on-Trent in 1832, Wedgwood declared his strong support for the ‘immediate abolition of slavery’. He was keen to remove the monopolies held by the East India Company and the Bank of England, and wanted to alter the corn laws. Although he was an Anglican – not sharing the Unitarian faith of his father – Wedgwood advocated reform of the Church of England. He did not, however, support further electoral reform, voicing his opposition to the secret ballot and triennial parliaments. He topped the poll, almost 200 votes ahead of his fellow potter, John Davenport, also a Reformer, who won the second seat.

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Emma Darwin (née Wedgwood) in 1840

While Hansard records more than 12,000 contributions in Parliament from Josiah Clement Wedgwood, his great-grandfather was a silent member. He was, however, a regular presence in the division lobbies, where his votes included support for a low fixed duty on corn, the shortening of slave apprenticeships and the replacement of church rates with an alternative source of funding. His youngest daughter Emma was among the women who witnessed debates in the Commons from the ‘ventilator’ – the space in the attic from where women could peer through holes designed for drawing out foul air into the chamber below. In a letter to a friend in August 1833 she recorded a notable incident, when Daniel O’Connell accused the press of not reporting him fairly or accurately.

Harriet [Gifford] and I went to the Ventilator to hear O’Connell’s quarrel with the Reporters, whom he accuses of reporting his speeches falsely, whereupon they say now they will not report a word more of his; so now he declares they shall not report at all, and he had the gallery cleared of all the strangers and the reporters amongst them yesterday.

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Sketch of the ventilator in St Stephens by Frances Rickman (1834) via http://www.parliament.uk (WOA 26)

Despite his success at the poll in 1832, Wedgwood was told that he was unlikely to retain his seat at the 1835 general election, and retired from politics. In his later years he was affected by a form of ‘palsy’ or Parkinson’s disease. He retired from the family business in 1841, two years before his death. Seven of his children survived him, including Emma, who had married her cousin (and Wedgwood’s nephew), the natural scientist Charles Darwin in 1839. Wedgwood’s second son Francis (Frank), the grandfather of Josiah Clement Wedgwood, continued the management of the family’s pottery firm.

The biography on which this blogpost is based was written by Dr. Henry Miller, and is among those available on our preview site.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen’: views from parliament by a Devonshire Tory

Our Victorian MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Devonshire South, Montagu Parker. His correspondence with his mother between 1835 and 1841 provides a fascinating perspective on life at Westminster.

The Tory Beggar's Petition

A Whig handbill mocking Parker from the 1835 by-election (BL Add MS 48,258)

Montagu Edmund Newcombe Parker (1807-1858) is best known as a footnote in Britain’s electoral history for his defeat of the Whig Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, at the 1835 Devonshire South ministerial by-election. In one of the electoral shocks of the nineteenth century, the 28 year-old Parker, a country gentleman who had been the ‘butt of the Devonshire boys’ at Eton, summoned the strength of local Conservatives to turf out a Cabinet minister who only three years earlier had been celebrated nationwide for his role in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

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Montagu Parker’s voting record on our prototype division explorer.

Parker continued to represent Devonshire South until 1841, and, truth be told, left very little formal record of his activities in parliament. He made no recorded speeches, attended around 23% of recorded divisions (where he proved a loyal Conservative), and was appointed to three election committees. His only area of real engagement came over private legislation, where he assisted in the passage of 16 local or private acts relating primarily to Devonshire town or road improvement schemes.

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Parker’s first letter to his mother after entering parliament, 22 May 1835 (BL Add MS 48,258)

Fortunately, Parker left a series of correspondence with his recently widowed mother, Harriet Edmund Parker (1785-1877), who resided at the family’s Whiteway House estate in Devon. The letters, which are held by the British Library (Add. MS. 48,258), provide an intriguing insight into life at Westminster. His mother’s evident interest in Parker’s parliamentary experiences is arguably indicative of one way in which women could engage with politics despite their exclusion from the parliamentary franchise.

Parker found himself a minor celebrity on his arrival in London in May 1835, where he initially remarked that ‘attending to ones duties in the House of Commons and going out to parties … does not give much time for rest out of the 24 hours’. Within days, however, he had caught the ‘House of Commons influenza’, which left him with ‘a most unpleasant sore throat, cold and pain in my joints’.

Parker was almost taunted into breaking his parliamentary silence within days of taking his seat, when reference was made to the Devonshire South by-election during a debate on the ballot. He recorded:

I overheard several persons near me saying “some Devonshire man ought to answer this”, with the view no doubt to get me on my legs, but I was advised, and I think with good judgement not to take any notice of it.

He was instantly suspicious of the loyalties and parliamentary stratagems of the Conservative leader, Robert Peel, expressing bemusement over the latter’s decision to speak against Lord Chandos’ s 1835 motion on agricultural distress and unwillingness to oppose the 1835 municipal corporations bill, remarking that it is ‘evident he [Peel] is playing some game which cannot be devised at present’.

Temporary Commons

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

Parker found the summer heat insufferable throughout London, and was disparaging of the acoustics in the temporary Commons (which opened for the 1835 session), as well as the lack of attentiveness with which MPs listened to debate. Following a debate on the 1835 municipal corporations bill he complained:

I was in the lower part of the House, and the noise and interruption that is always going on prevented him [John Yarde Buller, MP for Devonshire South] being heard … In fact there are barely a dozen speakers in the House that are listened to with attention. So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen.

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‘View of Caxton’s house in the Almonry, Westminster’ © London Metropolitan Archives

In fact, the only time that Parker felt the Commons displayed the gravitas it should was on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, when he noted the ‘curious’ effect of a sitting involving ‘500 members in uniforms and court dresses of various kinds, where one had been accustomed to see nothing but plain clothes and some of those never of the cleanest’.

While Parker disliked ‘being made a cats paw of’ by the Conservative whips, he was happy to throw himself into the service of the party at the 1837 Westminster by-election. At 5 a.m. on the day of the poll he was ‘pushed into the service of getting up the slippery voters’, remarking that he was sent ‘into the most disreputable parts of Westminster, and certainly we visited places there for the first and I hope the last time’. His least favourite task in the Commons appears to have been the attendance of week-long afternoon committees on local bills, that were drawn out by the involvement of competing delegations of ‘pompous’ local officials who observed proceedings as ‘if everything depended’ on them.

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Edward Oxford’s attempted assassination of Queen Victoria, June 1840 (© British Museum)

By 1840, Parker had observed a real shift in power towards the Conservatives and a sense of excitement at Westminster, which was accentuated by the June assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. After expressing his delight at the Conservatives mustering 300 votes to defeat the government in a division over the Irish registration bill in May 1840, he observed how Lord John Russell had ‘lost much of his previous reputation’, and stated his belief that a few more by-election successes in ‘boroughs like Ludlow and Cambridge’ would lead to the downfall of the government.

Parker’s instincts were right. Unfortunately he was not provided with an opportunity to record his experiences of the subsequent Peel ministry, as local party machinations forced his retirement ahead of the 1841 election. Parker did not return to parliament, and died in July 1858. His mother, who lived to the age of 91, outlived him by eighteen years.

The full biography of Montagu Parker MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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Imagery and props: the Wellington boot, Disraeli’s novels and Gladstone’s axe

Our research fellow Dr. Martin Spychal shares some insights from his work on the BBC Radio 4 series, Prime Ministers’ Props…

I’ve recently been working with our former editorial board member, Professor Sir David Cannadine on the second series of his BBC Radio 4 series Prime Ministers’ Props. Each episode examines how a Prime Minister became associated with a certain object or prop in the popular mind, and how that prop came to define the public image of the premier in question. After a twentieth-century focused first series, this time around three of our five episodes focus on nineteenth-century prime ministers: the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.

W. Heath, A wellington boot or the head of the army (1827)

W. Heath, A wellington boot or the head of the army (1827) © British Museum

One of the major means of understanding the public image of these three men is via the satirical cartoons, and early photographs, that accompanied their political careers. Wellington’s political rise and fall at Westminster between 1827 and 1830 was book-ended by two prints that mocked his connection to his famous prop – the Wellington boot.

The Wellington boot had been designed for Wellington and his troops during the Napoleonic Wars, and in post-war Britain became the footwear of choice for the fashionable gentleman. In October 1827 William Heath depicted Wellington, replete with huge cocked hat, appearing out of a Wellington boot. Wellington had recently been re-appointed as commander-in-chief of the British army under Viscount Goderich’s short-lived administration. As well as satirising the fact that Wellington was now at the head and the foot of the army, the smugness of the Duke’s face adverted to the pressing likelihood of his appointment as Prime Minister. Wellington had recently cemented his position as leader of the Protestant right of the Tory party after defeating William Huskisson’s 1827 corn law bill in the Lords, and while Goderich’s political position grew weaker during the autumn of 1827, Wellington embarked on a speaking tour of the north of England where he was feted by his supporters as a leader in waiting.

W. Heath, This ere pair of left off vellingtons to be sold wery cheap (1830)

W. Heath, This ere pair of left off vellingtons to be sold wery cheap (1830) © British Museum

Sure enough, in January 1828 Wellington was appointed Prime Minister. It was not a happy premiership, however. During his first year in office he lost standing with his supporters on the ultra right over his government’s 1828 corn law, and test and corporation legislation, and several key liberal-Tories resigned from his cabinet over parliamentary reform. Catholic emancipation in 1829 saw him lose even more friends on the right, and by the general election of 1830, many of the Tories who had lauded him in 1827 were, along with the radical press, outwardly accusing him of supporting the recently toppled Bourbon monarchy in France and seeking a military dictatorship via the newly formed Metropolitan Police. The final straw for Wellington came in November 1830 when he controversially declared that Britain’s notorious system of rotten boroughs ‘possessed the full and entire confidence of the country’, which helped spark riots in London. Wellington was forced to resign with his political authority in tatters. In response, William Heath likened the Duke and his home secretary, Robert Peel, to an unwanted ‘pair of left off Vellingtons to be sold wery cheap’.

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Vivian Grey “Sent For!!!”, Fun, 7 Mar. 1868 © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Disraeli and his novels are the subject of our second episode. Throughout his career they provided ammunition for satirists and commentators seeking to decode his political ambitions. Disraeli’s first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), which charted the political travails of Vivian Grey and his ruthless pursuit of power, proved easy pickings. When Disraeli first became Prime Minister in 1868, the satirical magazine Fun couldn’t help joking that ‘Vivian Grey’ had been ‘Sent For’.

However, contemporaries dug much deeper than this for hidden meaning in his novels. One example of this is an early Punch cartoon, which followed Disraeli’s 1847 novel Tancred. It offers a disconcerting taste of the anti-Semitic criticism that Disraeli, a practising Anglican of Jewish descent, faced throughout his career.

Punch (London, England), Saturday, April 10, 1847

The House of Commons According to Mr Disraeli’s Views, Punch, 10 Apr. 1847.

As with several of his books, Tancred centres on a protagonist and his quest for moral and religious fulfilment. For his critics, the characters in these novels offered proof of Disraeli’s ‘eastern’ bias and his desire to infect the British constitution with these alleged views. An article that accompanied the cartoon mocked Disraeli as the ‘Jewish Champion’, and warned that Tancred offered confirmation of his desire to turn the House of Commons into a ‘Mosaic parliament, sitting in Rag Fair’, a reference to the market in Houndsditch, London, popular with Jewish traders. The cartoon itself is equally disturbing, depicting Britain’s leading politicians in stereotypical Jewish clothing, with their faces imagined in anti-Semitic caricature.

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W. Currey, William Ewart Gladstone, 6 August 1877 © NPG

Disraeli’s great rival, the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, provides the focus of our third episode. Gladstone’s prop was his axe. A committed axeman since the 1850s, Gladstone actively played on his love of tree-felling to portray himself as Britain’s premier political woodsman, committed to chopping down the roots of corruption in the British constitution. As well as in cartoons and speeches, Gladstone expertly manipulated the new technology of photography to perpetuate an image of him in his leisure time at his Hawarden estate, felling trees as a plain-clothed, masculine labourer.

From the later 1870s cabinet cards and carte-de-visites of Gladstone with his axe at his Hawarden estate adorned the mantelpieces of Liberal supporters, and Gladstone’s cultivation of his woodsman image was so successful that his axe-head became the official emblem of the Liberal party during the 1885 general election.

Daily News, 23 November 1885

Daily News, 23 November 1885

In 1886, however, Gladstone’s axe received perhaps the most bizarre pictorial treatment, when one ‘C. B. Harness’ claimed that his cure-all ‘electropathic battery belt’ was responsible for Gladstone’s continued vitality. As well as providing perhaps the only example of a Prime Minister advertising a toning belt, the unauthorised use of Gladstone’s image in adverts such as this, along with the widespread success of Wellington boots and Disraeli’s novels, are an important reminder of the centrality of politics to nineteenth-century culture.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 Apr. 1886

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 Apr. 1886

You can catch the remaining episodes of this series on BBC Radio 4 at 9:30am Wednesdays. All episodes will be available through BBC iPlayer after their initial broadcast.

Further reading:

  • M. Dent. ‘“There Must Be Design”: The Threat of Unbelief in Disraeli’s Lothair’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 44 (2016), 671–686
  • D. Hamer, ‘Gladstone: The Making of a Political Myth’, Victorian Studies, 22 (1978), 29-50
  • S. Mayer, ‘Portraits of the Artist as Politician, the Politician as Artist: Commemorating the Disraeli Phenomenon’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 21 (2016), 281-300
  • H. Miller, Politics Personified: Portraiture, caricature and visual culture in Britain, c. 1830-80 (2015)
  • R. Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814–1852 (2015)
  • P. Sewter, ‘Gladstone as Woodsman’ in R. Quinault, E. Swift & R. Clayton Windscheffel (eds.), William Gladstone : new studies and perspectives (2012)
  • A. Wohl, ‘“Dizzi-Ben-Dizzi”: Disraeli as Alien’, Journal of British Studies, 34 (1995), 375- 411
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Tackling electoral corruption: how Victorian Britain reformed the trial of election petitions in 1868

As part of our series on the 1867 Reform Act, we are reblogging this piece from Kathryn Rix on an important associated measure, the 1868 Election Petitions Act.

The History of Parliament

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act, an important part of the electoral reforms which had begun with the Second Reform Act of 1867. Dr. Kathryn Rix of our Victorian Commons project explains why and how Benjamin Disraeli’s ministry aimed to tackle the problem of bribery and corruption at mid-Victorian elections.

On 31 July 1868 the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act received royal assent. This measure transformed the way that Parliament investigated allegations of bribery and corruption at elections. Rather than election petitions challenging the result of the contest being considered at Westminster by election committees composed of MPs, they would now be tried in the constituency by an election judge.

Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG

Although it did not pass until 1868, this Act needs to be understood as part of a wider package…

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MP of the Month: Henry Fawcett (1833-84)

Continuing our recent focus on the personalities and campaigns associated with ‘votes for women’, our MP of the Month highlights the remarkable career of Henry Fawcett, husband of the leading suffragist Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue was unveiled in Parliament Square earlier this year.

Prof Henry Fawcett MP

Henry Fawcett is best remembered today as the first completely blind MP. An advanced radical on most issues, he became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Liberal leadership after 1868, before Gladstone judiciously persuaded him to accept junior office as postmaster-general in his second ministry, severely curbing his tongue. Fawcett’s activities in this role included introducing a parcel post service and oversight of the early telephony system.

Our current research on the 1832-68 Commons only covers the initial three years of Fawcett’s career – he was an MP from 1865 until his death in 1884 – but this early period was no less striking. The son of a Salisbury draper, Fawcett lacked both the élite connections and financial resources conventionally required for a parliamentary seat. Instead it was his talent for mathematics and entry to Cambridge University, where he became a fellow of Trinity Hall and the first professor of political economy aged just 29, which provided him with a public platform and a new route into national politics via academic celebrity. The success of his lectures to the Social Science Association on issues such as labour relations and strikes, and the huge popularity of his accessible guides to the theories of Charles Darwin on evolution, Thomas Hare on electoral reform, and J. S. Mill on political economy (to name but a few), made him a household name before he even set foot near a hustings.

What really made Fawcett famous, however, was being blind. Aged just 25, he had been shot accidentally by his poorly sighted father during a partridge shoot. Although he was saved from a serious chest injury by a thick coat, stray pellets destroyed his eyes. The way in which he carried on with his academic career at Cambridge and maintained an active lifestyle – walking, fishing, rowing, riding and even skating – made him an inspirational figure to many. It also seemed to tally perfectly with the liberal self-help attitudes and associated laissez-faire philosophy running through so much of his writing and speeches.

Millicent helping Henry write © National Portrait Gallery, London

How did he manage? Before his marriage to Millicent (right), Fawcett relied on his family, a group of extraordinarily devoted friends at Cambridge (including his biographer Leslie Stephen), and paid secretaries to help him read and write. The tapping of his stick became a ‘familiar sound’ in Trinity Hall, where his night-time meanderings often kept students awake. The college servants also helped, but it was his employment of a ‘personal attendant’, a 14 year old ‘intelligent boy’ named Edward W. Brown (1844-71), which really made it possible for Fawcett to function as he did and remain so independent. Fawcett and his ‘lad’ became a regular sight travelling together to meetings, conferences and debates, and eventually in the corridors of the Commons.

Getting into Parliament, however, was far from easy. Despite Fawcett’s accomplishments as an academic and speaker, serious concerns existed about his ability to perform the duties of an MP. At all four of his attempts to get elected, at Southwark in 1860, Cambridge in 1863, and Brighton in 1864 and 1865, his blindness not only attracted much-needed attention and public sympathy – here after all was a candidate without money or connections – but also incredulity and opposition. ‘How is it possible for a blind man to be a Member of Parliament?’, demanded one newspaper:

How can he catch the Speaker’s eye, know when another MP rises to explain, receive deputations, or introduce them to … ministers? A Member of Parliament thus afflicted must necessarily become an impediment to business and a bore to those around him, or else he must become a nullity. (Evening Mail, 30 Nov. 1860)

Two features stand out in Fawcett’s early election campaigns. First, there was a gradual shift away from disability-based objections and a growing appreciation of Fawcett’s abilities, aided by his extraordinary talent for public speaking and regular references to the successful career of a blind representative in the Belgian assembly, Alexander Rodenbach. Second, Fawcett could be surprisingly cautious for an ‘advanced radical’ on some political issues, such as manhood suffrage, owing to his Millite concerns about democratic despotism.

This may explain why, once elected for Brighton in 1865, Fawcett initially kept his head down and didn’t rock the boat, remaining ‘comparatively quiet’ and backing the moderate Liberal leadership on many issues. Indeed, of the 224 votes he cast during his first Parliament, only 24 saw him take a radical line against Gladstone, mostly on matters relating to Dissenters’ rights and improvements to the electoral system.

One of his earliest and most famous disagreements with Gladstone, of course, was over votes for women. In June 1866 Fawcett helped J. S. Mill organise and present the first mass petition calling for women’s suffrage, signed by almost 1,500 females. The following year, on 20 May 1867, he spoke and voted in support of Mill’s unsuccessful attempt to enfranchise women, paying tribute to Mill as the ‘teacher’ from whom ‘he had learnt all his lessons of political life’. By now he had been married for almost a month to Millicent, who became his ‘eyes and hands’ and a familiar sight around Westminster. Noting how she always guided him to the Commons, one observer later described how:

A tall, fair-haired young man, evidently blind [is] led up to the door by a youthful petite lady … The British Constitution would be quite upset were a woman to invade the floor of the House of Commons … so she has to consign him to a youth who stands waiting to lead the blind member to his place … As she trips lightly up the stairway leading to the Ladies’ Cage, near the roof of the House … [a] whisper passes round, “One day, perhaps not far off, she will take her seat beside her husband, and remain there”. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. i (1875), pp. 352-6)

 

For further information about Fawcett see:

Lawrence Goldman (ed.), The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British Liberalism (1989)

Lawrence Goldman, ‘Henry Fawcett’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Leslie Stephen, Life of Henry Fawcett (1886)

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Voice and Vote: behind the scenes

Our editor Philip Salmon and assistant editor Kathryn Rix, together with our colleague Emma Peplow, share some highlights of our involvement with the Voice and Vote exhibition currently running in Westminster Hall.

The History of Parliament

This blog looks at how the History of Parliament has been involved behind the scenes with the Voice and Vote exhibition which opened in Westminster Hall last week. Dr. Philip Salmon and Dr. Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons project share their contributions to the reconstructions of the ‘ventilator’ and the ‘cage’, where women could listen to parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, while Dr. Emma Peplow highlights the ways in which our Oral History project has shed light on the experience of female MPs in the twentieth century.

DSC_1186 Nancy Astor’s suit

The Voice and Vote exhibition, which runs until 6 October, has been organised by the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project, led by Melanie Unwin and Mari Takayanagi. Marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it looks at the campaign for votes for women, as well as the role women have played in the House…

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MP of the Month: The ‘strange career’ of John Townsend (1819-1892)

Once a successful auctioneer and undertaker, Townsend’s short and controversial parliamentary career as MP for Greenwich ended in 1859 after a protracted struggle to escape bankruptcy. His ‘strange career’ was, however, far from over and he subsequently found fame in North America, where he established himself as ‘one of the most popular actors of the day’, and became the manager of a pioneering Canadian theatre company.

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John Townsend MP. Image credit.

Born in Deptford, Townsend worked in his father’s prosperous and well-established undertaking business until 1843, when he established his own estate agency. His funeral orations were said to have had no equal, and his ‘fluent and copious addresses’ to bidders ensured his success as an auctioneer. These talents had been honed on the stage: Townsend had begun his career in the theatre at the age of 12 with Edmund Kean’s company. In 1842 he leased the theatre in Richmond, Surrey, under the pseudonym John Tamworth, but by 1844 his activities as an actor-manager had brought him to the verge of bankruptcy. He subsequently recovered his fortunes in the property business, however, and developed an interest in politics, becoming agent to the successful Liberal candidate at the 1852 general election for Greenwich.

Apparently ambitious to establish himself as the borough’s ‘Member Maker’, he unwisely handled the campaign of an impecunious and unsuccessful ‘ballot candidate’ known as Colonel Sleigh at the Greenwich by-election in February 1857. Undaunted, he founded a Liberal Association in the borough at that year’s general election and announced his candidature two days before the nomination. To the surprise of many, his support for the ballot and a wide extension of the franchise secured him second place in the poll.

Unfortunately Townsend’s political activities not only cost him a great deal of money, much of it borrowed, but also caused him to neglect his business. An attempt to replenish his coffers by raising £5,000 from his constituents brought in only a few hundred pounds, and in July 1857 his newly-acquired business partner called in the receivers. Found bankrupt that September, he managed to persuade his creditors to allow him time to liquidate their claims, but after failing to do so he was bankrupted again in March 1858. However, his case was not brought to the notice of the House until 15 June, by which time Townsend had unwittingly cast illegitimate votes in important divisions on the ballot, the abolition of church rates and the county franchise bill. These votes were subsequently disallowed, and he was deemed incapable of sitting and voting in the House. However, as a bankrupt he was allowed to remain a Member for twelve months to afford an opportunity to satisfy his creditors.

Facing debts of £5,000 with assets of £87, and with his ‘legislatorial powers in abeyance’, it was widely anticipated that Townsend would retire from the Commons. After further appearances in the court of bankruptcy he secured only the lowest class of certificate, the judge concluding that his election spending had been ‘a wanton and shameful waste of assets’. Publicly accused of having ‘aimed too soon and shot too high’, he was widely criticised for having sought parliamentary honours when he could hardly meet the property qualification. When it emerged that his family had been compelled to pawn household goods in order to ‘procure their daily bread’, Townsend was condemned by the Morning Post for ‘his absurd vanity in seeking to fill a position for which he was neither qualified by intellect, by fortune, by birth, nor by position’.

To satisfy his creditors Townsend pluckily returned to the stage, which he had abandoned in 1852 to take on his late father’s business. He played leading roles in several London playhouses and is thought to have been the last actor to perform Shakespeare’s Richard III on horseback. Shortly after reciting the four-hour play from memory to an appreciative audience at the Greenwich Literary Institution, he announced his resignation from the Commons and took the Chiltern Hundreds, 8 Feb. 1859. He retained the sympathy of the borough’s working men, however, and played a significant part in getting a progressive Liberal elected in his place. In a further attempt to clear his debts Townsend became manager of the Theatre Royal in Leicester, before emigrating to Upper Canada in 1862.

Settling near Kingston, Townsend returned to the stage in 1864 and, along with his family, all of whom had been trained for the stage, formed a troupe which toured southern Ontario and became one of the first Canadian-based companies ‘that dared swim in the sea of American touring’. Remembered as ‘a capital tragedian’, who possessed a sonorous voice and a robust style, he retired from the stage in 1877, and after some years working as a respected teacher of acting and elocution he died at Hamilton, Western Ontario, in December 1892.

Further reading: D. Gardner, ‘Townsend, John’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1990)

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Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs

Earlier this year we were delighted to attend the launch of Seth Thévoz’s first book, Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs, published by I. B. Tauris. This book is based on research undertaken for Seth’s PhD thesis on ‘The political impact of London Clubs, 1832-68’, which was jointly supervised by Dr. Sarah Richardson, of Warwick University, and our editor, Dr. Philip Salmon, and funded by a PhD scholarship from the History of Parliament Trust. Part of Seth’s work included compiling a database of the club membership of every MP who sat during this period, which we are using in our biographies of the 2,590 MPs we are covering in our project.

As this summary of the book explains, Seth’s work provides important new insights into the political impact of London’s clubs.

Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs (20171221) by [Thevoz, Seth Alexander]The phenomenon of ‘Club Government’ in the mid-nineteenth century, when many of the functions of government were alleged to have taken place behind closed doors, in the secretive clubs of London’s St. James’s district, has not been adequately historicized. Despite ‘Club Government’ being referenced in most major political histories of the period, it is a topic which has never before enjoyed a full-length study. Making use of previously-sealed club archives, and adopting a broad range of analytical techniques, this work of political history, social history, sociology and quantitative approaches to history seeks to deepen our understanding of the distinctive and novel ways in which British political culture evolved in this period. The book concludes that historians have hugely underestimated the extent of club influence on ‘high politics’ in Westminster, and though the reputation of clubs for intervening in elections was exaggerated, the culture and secrecy involved in gentleman’s clubs had a huge impact on Britain and the British Empire.

Many congratulations to Seth on his publication.

 

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The 1868 Boundary Act: Disraeli’s attempt to control his ‘leap in the dark’?

As part of our series on the 1867 Reform Act, we are reblogging this piece from Martin Spychal on an important associated measure, the 1868 Boundary Act.

The History of Parliament

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Boundary Act. As Martin Spychal of the Commons 1832-68 Section discusses in today’s blog, the oft-neglected story of the Act provides several key insights into Britain’s second Reform Act and, in particular, the intentions of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister in 1868…

Leap in the Dark The 1867 Reform Act, or Disraeli’s leap in the Dark

It is often forgotten that Benjamin Disraeli intended to mitigate the democratising impact of the 1867 Reform Act’s borough householder franchise through boundary changes and the redistribution of seats. For Disraeli, boundary reform also offered an opportunity to increase Conservative influence over the English electoral system, and the chance to put his increasingly ambitious electoral intelligence network to the test.

The 1868 Boundary Act provided new boundaries to 59 English boroughs as well as 10 Welsh borough districts, and altered the temporary limits that had been assigned…

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MP of the Month: Lord Hotham (1794-1870)

Beaumont-Hotham-3rd-Baron-Hotham

Beaumont Hotham, 3rd Baron Hotham (1794-1870) (c) National Portrait Gallery

Our MP of the Month, Lord Hotham, is one of a small number of individuals who sat for the entire period covered by our 1832-68 project. A Waterloo veteran, he had first been elected to the Commons in 1820 as a Tory MP for Leominster, which he represented – with a brief gap in service in 1831 – until 1841. He then sat for the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he owned extensive estates, until retiring in 1868.

Given his political longevity, it was hardly surprising that Hotham became a well-known character in the Commons. One reason he stood out was his ‘curious and quaint attire’. His old-fashioned clothes included ‘his favourite blue broad cloth coat’ with ‘shining gilt buttons’, ‘a buff waistcoat’, ‘low shoes and gaiters’ and a hat with a curled brim.

Contemporary observers also commented on Hotham’s diligent attendance at Westminster, even into his seventies. William White, the Commons doorkeeper, wrote of Hotham in 1868 that ‘he is as erect as he was when he marched with his regiment of Guards at Waterloo; and to see him run when a division is called you would not deem him to be more than fifty’. In his penultimate Commons speech, Hotham was scathing in his criticism of fellow MPs who did not live up to his standards, objecting to a proposal that Members should be allowed to correct their vote if they had accidentally entered the wrong division lobby:

‘It argued very little for the competence of Members if, when they were told “Ayes to the right, Noes to the left,” they did not know which way to go. If hon. Members were asleep, or on the terrace smoking, or reading newspapers in the vicinity of the House, or, in short, doing anything except what they ought – attending to the Business of the House in their places – that was their own fault, and the matter was, in his opinion, not of such importance as to require special legislation’.

Despite his emphasis on the importance of attending to parliamentary business, Hotham had a lengthy spell of absence from the Commons in the early 1840s. His election address, seeking the votes of the East Riding’s electors in 1841, was written on his sick-bed, and he did not appear on the hustings that July. This did not, however, prevent him being elected unopposed in his absence alongside a fellow Conservative. Hotham’s health worsened after the election and he did not take his seat in Parliament until 1843, when he was still convalescing. Not until 1844 did his name appear again in the division lists.

Hotham later told his constituents that although he had considered resigning his seat when he was ill, he felt that the relative position of the two parties was such that ‘a vote on two on either side was of no importance whatsoever’. Having switched from Leominster to the East Riding, Hotham had the major advantage of representing a seat where he never faced an election contest. Although his political sympathies lay with the Conservatives, he prided himself on his ‘independence’ from party, voting in Parliament on the basis of ‘measures, not men’. He turned down an invitation from Lord Derby to join his ministry in 1858, and was not afraid to vote against his leaders, being one of a handful of Conservatives who divided against the Derby ministry’s reform bill in March 1859.

As an army veteran, who had served in the Coldstream Guards, Hotham took a perennial interest in military matters, where no detail was too small to escape his attention. In 1857 he raised concerns that the families of recipients of the Order of the Bath were expected to return their relatives’ insignia after their death. He also complained that the ‘star’ which formed part of this insignia was of poor quality, made of ‘pasteboard, tinsel and spangles’. Hotham did not let this matter drop, and in 1859 received assurances from the Secretary for War that the star would in future be made from silver, rather than embroidered, and would not have to be surrendered when the holder died. More significantly, Hotham served on several committees on military questions, and chaired the royal commission on army recruitment which sat in 1859-60 and made an extensive set of recommendations in 1861.

Hotham’s parliamentary interests went beyond his obvious expertise in military matters, especially as he became one of the longer-serving members of the House. ‘Precise and somewhat punctilious, but always courteous’, he often intervened on procedural points, and was concerned about issues which might affect the dignity and reputation of the Commons. He formed an unlikely alliance with the Radical MP Joseph Hume in 1840 to ensure that in future the judge of the admiralty court would not be allowed to be a Member of Parliament. The holder of this post, Stephen Lushington, was MP for Tower Hamlets, and Hotham felt it was inappropriate for him to be sitting as a judge one day, and ‘on the next engaging as a partisan in the House of Commons’. Hotham and Hume failed in a later attempt to prohibit other judges, including the master of the rolls, from being MPs. Hotham did, however, score another success in 1858 when he carried a motion to prevent MPs from promoting or advocating any measure or proceeding in the Commons for which they had received ‘any pecuniary fee or reward’. Essentially this was an attempt to tackle the problem of lobbying.

Having spent almost half a century in the Commons, Hotham retired at the dissolution in 1868, at the age of 74, concerned that he might no longer be able to offer the ‘close and constant attention’ which his parliamentary duties deserved. He died in December 1870, when he was remembered as ‘a most devoted, independent, influential representative of the people’.

Further details of Hotham’s pre-1832 career can be found in our 1820-32 volumes, available here. His 1832-68 biography will be available shortly on our preview site.

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Call for papers: ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption? Public Life and Public Service in Britain, c. 1780–1940’

Our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, will be one of the keynote speakers at a 2 day conference entitled ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption? Public Life and Public Service in Britain, c. 1780–1940’, to be held at Oxford Brookes University, 24-25 January 2019. The conference is also supported by Newman University, Birmingham, and the History and Policy Unit, King’s College, London.

Further details can be found in the call for papers. The deadline for the submission of abstracts is 27 July 2018.

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MP of the Month: Joseph Locke (1805-1860)

Our Victorian MP of the Month is Joseph Locke (1805-1860), who represented Honiton from 1847 until his death. With Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) and Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), Locke formed the ‘triumvirate of the engineering world’, who laid the architecture of Britain and Europe’s nineteenth-century railways. Unlike Stephenson and Brunel, however, Locke has remained a marginal figure in histories of nineteenth-century Britain, partly due to his political standing at the time of his death.

Joseph Locke was born in Attercliffe, near Sheffield, in 1805, but had relocated to Barnsley by 1810, where his father was a colliery manager. After receiving his education at a local grammar school, Locke was apprenticed at the age of 14 as a colliery viewer in Durham, and later under his father in Barnsley. As a gifted mining engineer, Locke caught the eye of family friend and ‘father of the railways’, George Stephenson, who employed him as an engineer at his locomotive works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1823.

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‘Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway’, Isaac Shaw, 1830, Yale Centre For British Art

In 1826 Locke was appointed assistant engineer to Stephenson on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and with Robert Stephenson (George Stephenson’s son) was crucial in ensuring the use of locomotives on the railway. In an episode that haunted him for the rest of his life, Locke was directing the Rocket at the line’s opening ceremony in 1830 when it fatally injured William Huskisson, the leading Canningite and former minister. Although some felt he was culpable for Huskisson’s death on account of the excessive speed at which the Rocket was travelling, Locke was never officially blamed for the incident.

The episode did little to hamper Locke’s upward trajectory in the burgeoning field of railway engineering. He was appointed chief engineer of the Grand Junction Railway in 1835 and subsequently enjoyed an illustrious career overseeing, among others, the London to Southampton, Sheffield to Manchester, Paris and Rouen, and Rouen and Le Havre lines, as well as railways in Spain and Holland. As an engineer, Locke developed a reputation for his innovative, efficient designs, which allowed for railways on steeper gradients. The apparent simplicity and cost-effectiveness of his work partly explains the subsequent lack of public recognition for his engineering career.

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The impressive Barentin Viaduct, part of the Paris Le-Havre Railway. Locke was the railway’s chief engineer, ILN, 27 March 1847

It was a railway project that brought Locke into Parliament. In August 1846, he purchased the manor of Honiton for £80,000 (roughly £7 million in today’s money) to aid the London and South Western Railway’s attempts to build a line between Exeter and Yeovil. The tenancies owned by the manor effectively provided Locke with a safe seat for the notoriously corrupt borough of Honiton. He was first returned at the 1847 election, labelling himself a ‘Liberal in politics’, and calling for a transformation in the social and moral condition of the country at a rate akin to that with which the railways had revolutionised travel since the 1830s.

Honiton

Locke represented the venal borough of Honiton from 1847 until his death (PP 1831-2 (141) xl.)

He held his seat until his death in 1860, and from 1857 struck an increasingly radical, anti-Palmerstonian tone. The railways featured prominently in all of his election campaigns. And, when he criticised the Conservative’s government’s international diplomacy during the 1859 election, his opponents suggested that his radicalism and involvement in continental railway development had been a covert attempt to support a much feared French invasion.

It was on one of his trips to France in 1856 that Locke sustained a knee injury during railway construction. This left him with a limp for the rest of his life and led to doctors’ orders that he be accompanied at all times by an ‘assistance-pony’. Unfortunately, we have found no proof of him using the donkey in Parliament.

Locke maintained a regular attendance in the Commons, where he usually sided with radicals on issues like the ballot, shorter parliaments and the abolition of the income tax. He was a regular presence in the committee rooms and made a number of speeches during his career, with one contemporary recording that he spoke ‘with much effect’ and that his ‘easy elegance’ was ‘equalled by his choice of language’.

During his first Parliament Locke tried to assume the role of figurehead for the railway interest at Westminster. This boosted his national profile a little, particularly when his 1849 attempts to secure the Sunday opening of railways inadvertently pushed him to the forefront of the anti-Sabbatarian lobby for the restoration of Sunday post-office deliveries in 1850. However, the forty or so MPs connected with the ‘railway interest’ proved difficult to manage, and Locke failed in his major aim of introducing legislation to prevent fraudulent practices in railway companies, a move he had hoped would restore investor confidence in the railways following a recent collapse in share prices.

Joseph-Locke-J.F.Mayall-(1855)

Engraving of 1855 photograph of Joseph Locke by John Mayall, from Devey, The Life of Joseph Locke (1862).

After dispensing with the idea of representing the railway interest, Locke turned to the scrutiny of publicly funded engineering and building projects from 1852. While his regular interventions were generally ‘well heard’ in the House, his efforts to effect a cultural shift in parliamentary attitudes towards the costing and planning of projects proved generally fruitless.  He was highly critical of the management of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, the Thames embankment, the National Science Museum and the Scottish Ordnance Survey.

His activities meant that by the end of his parliamentary career he was regarded as Westminster’s foremost engineering expert, particularly following the death in 1859 of his friend and former colleague, Robert Stephenson, who had sat as MP for Whitby. This prompted rumours that Locke would succeed Henry Fitzroy as first commissioner of works in January 1860. However, he was disregarded by Palmerston on account of his unpopularity with the Cabinet, his lack of loyalty to the Liberal party and his reputation for outspokenness.

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Albumen print of Carlo Marochetti’s statue of Joseph Locke, c. 1865, Camille Silvy, NPG

Locke died suddenly of appendicitis (after complaining of ‘considerable pain in the bowels’) in September 1860 while shooting in Scotland during the parliamentary recess. He was a wealthy man and left around £350,000. Following his death, the Institute of Civil Engineers commissioned a statue of Locke which was proposed to be placed in St Margaret’s, Westminster. It was intended to complement Robert Stephenson’s statue in Euston Square, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s in Embankment gardens. However, the Liberal government refused the application, probably as a result of Locke’s parliamentary independence. The statue was instead installed in Locke Park, Barnsley, and a replica was also erected in 1951 at Barentin in France, where Locke had overseen the construction of the impressive Barentin Viaduct.

For a brief period Locke had a memorial window in Westminster Abbey. However, after being in storage ‘for many years’, it was purchased by Barnsley town council in 1952 and is currently held by Cannon Hall Museum, Cawthorne.

The full biography of Joseph Locke MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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Upcoming event: Victorian Elections & Political Culture Workshop

Keble College: home to the Research Centre in Victorian Political Culture

On Friday 20 April 2018 the Research Centre in Victorian Political Culture, led by Professor Angus Hawkins, will be hosting a workshop on Victorian politics aimed at graduate students in the Jean Robinson Room, Keble College, Oxford OX1 3PG. The seminars will consist of 30 minute papers on some key topics followed by 45 minutes of questions and discussion.

Timetable:

9.15  Philip Salmon (Editor, The History of Parliament, 1832-1867), Victorian Elections 1832-1867

10.30 Coffee break

11.00  Simon Skinner (Balliol College, Oxford), Elections and Confessional Politics

12.15  Sandwich lunch

1.00  Alex Middleton (Corpus Christi College, Oxford), The Impact of Foreign Autocracies on mid-Victorian Political Culture.

To register please email Professor Angus Hawkins and include details of any dietary or access requirements.

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MP of the Month: John Barton Willis Fleming (1781-1844)

With modern electioneering tactics currently attracting so much scrutiny at home and abroad, our Victorian MP of the Month focuses on a notorious election fixer or ‘boroughmonger’, whose activities increasingly pushed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. His refusal to answer questions when he was summoned before a parliamentary inquiry led to demands for his arrest and scuppered his chances of an expected peerage. Disowned by the political establishment, within two years he was dead and insolvent.

The political career of John Fleming MP serves as an important reminder of the extraordinary lengths to which some election activists were prepared (and able) to go in the past, especially in the period before the introduction of the secret ballot (1872). Born John Barton Willis, Fleming had changed his name on inheriting the ‘very large fortune’ and Hampshire estates of his cousin John Fleming MP (1743-1802). By 1818 he had become the leading organiser of Hampshire’s Tories and an ‘intimate friend’ of his new ‘celebrity’ neighbour the Duke of Wellington, and had started work on a huge Grecian mansion at North Stoneham Park. Elected for the county two years later, he sat as a loyal Tory MP for Hampshire until 1831, when the popularity of the Whigs’ reform bill, to which he was staunchly opposed, made him unelectable.

North Stoneham House: seat of John Fleming MP

Furious at having to give up his Commons seat, Fleming became determined to leave nothing to chance in future. He was one of the first campaigners to fully exploit the new yearly voter registration system, employing lawyers to lodge objections to the votes of political opponents and help enrol supporters and the tenants of local Tory landlords. With would-be electors having to pay a registration fee, prove their legal entitlements if objected to, and face disqualification for various technical reasons, such as receiving charity or getting into arrears with their rates, the new system was ripe for abuse. In Southampton, where Fleming owned ‘considerable’ property, his behind-the-scenes shenanigans helped to get a Tory MP get elected in 1832, only for the result to be overturned after evidence came to light of fraudulent voting. Fleming’s activities in the county were not enough to get himself and the Duke of Wellington’s son elected in 1832, but in a shock result three years later, Fleming defeated and ousted the future Liberal prime minister Lord Palmerston, who accused him of threatening to evict tenants and of bribing supporters with tithe rebates.

Building on his personal triumph and the victory of two Tory MPs at Southampton, where Fleming now ‘ruled the electors with a rod of iron’, Fleming was instrumental in establishing the South Hampshire Conservative Society (and its various sub-committees) to collect local intelligence about voters and their families for use in the registration courts and during election campaigns. In London, meanwhile, he began to host lavish ‘grand dinners’ for the party leaders at his Pall Mall residence. ‘Fiercely partisan’, he was not beyond using his influence with Wellington, Hampshire’s lord lieutenant, to promote exclusively Tory appointments in local administration, from the bench to the board of guardians. Many of these positions involved the management of local rates, upon which the 1832 Reform Act’s household voting qualification depended.

John Fleming MP: © The Willis Fleming Historical Trust

Fleming’s activities did not go unnoticed by his political opponents in Parliament. Indeed their accusations prompted most of his rare contributions to debate. In one highly revealing episode in 1837, he was charged with manufacturing ‘faggot’ votes on the Isle of Wight, by parcelling up land and making ‘gifts’ of 40s. freeholds to non-residents (a practice later used to great effect by the Anti-Corn Law League). Even if this ‘was not against the letter of the law’, protested the local Liberal MP, ‘it was at least against its spirit, and contrary to the constitutional rights of the electors’. In response, Fleming insisted on his ‘right to dispose of his property as he pleased’.

Most of Fleming’s other speeches focused on his role in the highly controversial Southampton election contest of 1841. Charged in a petition with targeting and ‘corrupting’ vulnerable voters, Fleming was summoned to appear before an election inquiry. ‘Striking his hand energetically upon the table’, however, he refused to give details about the Conservatives’ election expenses and ‘betray the names’ of those involved. The attorney-general ruled that he must answer or face arrest. Called again the next day, he was expected to be committed to the sergeant-at-arms, only to be conveniently spared further questions when the committee decided it already had enough evidence to overturn the result. Concerned that so many ‘foul transactions’ had taken place, as one local paper put it, the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel intervened to delay the issue of a new writ, against Fleming’s wishes, and backed the appointment of an inquiry into whether Southampton should be disfranchised. After finding insufficient evidence, however, the committee eventually allowed the delayed double by-election to go ahead.

Shortly after helping two new Tory MPs get elected for Southampton in 1842, Fleming resigned as an MP for Hampshire South and took himself off on his yacht Syren. He ‘retires in disgust, having been rumped by Sir Robert Peel’, reported a local paper, adding that he would now ‘give a few years to foreign travel’.

Fleming died two years later of ‘malignant fever’ whilst sailing in the Mediterranean. His vast estate was declared ‘insolvent’. According to one obituarist, the costs associated with his electioneering activities in Hampshire after 1832 had ‘averaged’ a staggering £18,000 per year. His ‘splendid mansion’ at North Stoneham, meanwhile, though never completed, was reckoned to have cost £100,000.

The full biography of John Fleming MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Further info and reading:

The Willis Fleming Historical Trust

David Brown, Palmerston, South Hampshire and Electoral Politics, 1832-1835 (2003)

P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW

Ruscombe Foster, The Politics of County Power: Wellington and the Hampshire Gentlemen 1820-1852 (1990)

A. Temple Patterson, A History of Southampton 1700-1914 (1966)

Posted in Biographies, Corruption, Elections, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

MP of the Month: Andrew Carew O’Dwyer (1801-1877)

Many of our recent posts have focused on the way barriers to the franchise were gradually removed in the 19th century, but it is worth noting that there were also many barriers to becoming a Victorian MP. One of these was the property qualification for MPs that existed until 1858. The last MP to be unseated under this rule, Edward Glover, found himself in Newgate prison as a result of making a false declaration about his qualification.

Since 1711 membership of the Commons had been restricted to those receiving an income of £600 a year from land for county MPs, and £300 a year for borough MPs. This could prove a particular obstacle for Irish parliamentary candidates with backgrounds in trade or the professions who, although not without means, did not possess, as one Irish viceroy put it, ‘a shovelful of land’, and therefore had to make often hasty arrangements to meet the necessary property qualification.

Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O’Connell

One such MP was Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, an Irish barrister and follower of Daniel O’Connell, who sat for the Liberal borough of Drogheda from 1832 to 1835. Described as one of the ‘band of stout and brawling patriots, who had, in 1834, formed the hope of trusting Ireland’, O’Dwyer had been a late convert to O’Connell’s Repeal campaign. In January 1831 he had still been an advocate for the Union, albeit on the basis of ‘equal participation in British laws’. However, once he embraced Repeal he became one of its most determined advocates. One of the earliest and most active members of the Reform Club, he was a man of strong opinions and was not afraid to differ with O’Connell over the need for an Irish poor law. He was one of the most conspicuous of Ireland’s young ‘patriots’ and made more than one hundred contributions to debate in the 1833 session alone, speaking even more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. However, he was not well liked at Westminster. The Whigs’ election manager, Denis Le Marchant, thought there was something ‘of the ruffian’ about him, while other critics claimed that he prided himself ‘upon a total disregard for truth’.

This did little to diminish his popularity in Ireland, and he faced only token opposition at the 1835 general election. A petition was soon presented against his return, however, and an election committee decided that owing to a mistake that O’Dwyer had made in his declaration regarding his property qualification, the election was void. Since the deed for the land in question had been hastily conveyed to him, his uncertainty as to his new property’s precise location was perhaps understandable. The seat was re-contested that April, when the Conservatives, confident that they would be able to prove that O’Dwyer had no legal claim to his property, fielded an opponent. Although O’Connell assured Drogheda’s Liberal electors that O’Dwyer was ‘certainly qualified in point of property’, O’Dwyer’s victory at the poll was immediately contested. In June another committee concluded that O’Dwyer’s title to his property was not valid. He was unseated once more and his opponent was seated in his place.

The verdict proved controversial because the committee had been composed of ten Conservatives and one Liberal, and their decision had required the casting vote of the chairman, Henry Goulburn, a man O’Dwyer described as ‘a bitter political partisan, and a virulent opponent of mine’. In July O’Connell presented a petition to the Commons on behalf of O’Dwyer, which called for a more liberal regulation of the property qualification, and by 1838 the rules had been amended to include income from personal as well as landed property.

Orlagh House

Orlagh, near Dublin (via www.buildingsofireland.ie)

In the meantime, O’Dwyer was still without a seat, and as Drogheda had been earmarked by the ministry as a safe berth for Sir William Somerville, a future chief secretary of Ireland, O’Dwyer benefited from the ‘bonanza of jobbery’ which accompanied the Whigs’ administrative reforms in Ireland. In February 1837 he was appointed to the lucrative legal post of filacer of the Irish court of exchequer, and in 1841 was promoted further. When his office was abolished in 1845 he was granted a generous pension, which enabled him to purchase an estate at Orlagh, near Dublin.

Now free from office and a man of property, O’Dwyer made several unsuccessful attempts to revive his political career. At the 1852 general election he offered for the borough of Waterford, but retired in favour of the Catholic bishop’s preferred candidate, and in 1857 he came bottom of the poll. In 1859 he tried again at Drogheda, but resigned in favour of the Liberal Member. Without hope of returning to Parliament, O’Dwyer retired from politics and spent the rest of his days in London, where he died in November 1877.

Posted in Biographies, Elections, Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty Conference

On 22 March 2018 the History of Parliament will be hosting an event at Westminster featuring 19th century highlights from the recent conference: Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British world, 1640-1886. This conference was held at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and organised by the History of Parliament and Durham University History Department. The speakers on 22 March will be:

Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire): extracts from her conference keynote, ‘Why political history still matters: representation of the people from the Bill of Rights to the Third Reform Act’

Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller (Durham University), ‘The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918’

Matthew Roberts (Sheffield Hallam University), ‘Daniel O’Connell, Repeal and Parliamentary Reform’

To register for a free place (tickets are limited) and for further details please click here.

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Before the vote was won: women and politics, 1832-68

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which received royal assent on 6 February. For the first time, virtually all the adult male population received the parliamentary franchise, whereas before this reform, around 40% of men were excluded from the electoral registers. Perhaps most notably, the Act extended the parliamentary franchise to some – although not all – women. Although females were excluded from the parliamentary franchise before 1918, it would be wrong to suppose that they were previously unable to play any part in parliamentary politics. Our research on the House of Commons, 1832-68 project continues to highlight the role of women in many aspects of Victorian politics, and we’d like to begin our 1918 centenary celebrations by revisiting some of our previous posts on this topic.

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G. Cruikshank, The Rights of Women, or the Effects of Female Enfranchisement (1853)

Although women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections until 1918, some women were eligible to vote at local government level, even before the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act enabled female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils. Dr. Sarah Richardson of Warwick University blogged for us on the Victorian female franchise, drawing on a rare parish election poll book from Lichfield. Concerns about the proposed disfranchisement of female municipal voters at Brighton in the 1840s were raised by the town’s former Radical MP, George Faithfull, who featured in one of our MP of the Month blogs. One of his supporters argued that

I consider it unjust that a man should have a vote simply because he is a man, and that a lady should be disfranchised because she is a lady and the weaker body.

LilyMaxwell

Lily Maxwell

One of our most recent blogs featured a woman who did cast a parliamentary vote before 1918, the Manchester shopkeeper, Lily Maxwell. Placed on the register by a clerical error, she cast her vote for Jacob Bright at a by-election in November 1867. Bright became one of the leading parliamentary advocates of female enfranchisement, taking on the mantle of John Stuart Mill, who had been active in promoting the women’s cause during his time as Liberal MP for Westminster, 1865-8. We have looked in our blogs at Mill’s presentation of the first mass women’s suffrage petition in June 1866, and his failed attempt the following year to include women’s suffrage within the 1867 Reform Act.

As well as acting as petitioners, women performed a variety of other political roles. In this blog for Parliament Week, we looked at women as electoral patrons, exercising influence over the representation of a constituency through their control of local property. We also considered the involvement of wives in their husband’s parliamentary careers, highlighting the role of Emma Oliveira in overseeing the corrupt expenditure which won her husband his seat at Pontefract in 1852.

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Mary Anne Disraeli, by A. E. Chalon (1840)

Political wives have also featured in several other posts. Daniel Gaskell‘s formidable wife, Mary, played an important part in persuading her ‘reluctant spouse’ to stand for Wakefield in 1832, so much so that her nephew observed that ‘it is, in fact, my Aunt, that would be member of Parliament’. Another MP said to be ‘so completely under petticoat government, that he would not dare to vote on any question in the House of Commons without the sanction of his wife!’ was Wyndham Lewis, Conservative MP for Maidstone. After his death, his wife Mary Anne married Benjamin Disraeli, whose political career she helped to fund.

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Queen Victoria’s coronation

Despite the restricted franchise during this period, non-electors, both male and female, often took a keen interest in elections. Our blog on Peterborough’s elections looked at George Whalley’s tactic of targeting the wives, sisters and daughters of electors who, it was hoped, would persuade their male relatives to vote for him. At Lyme Regis, meanwhile, the Liberal MP, William Pinney, included the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning among his supporters. The efforts of campaigning bodies such as the Anti-Corn Law League to attract female support were highlighted in our blog on George Donisthorpe Thompson, a charismatic orator who later became MP for Tower Hamlets. Finally, since we are the Victorian Commons project, we should mention our blog on Queen Victoria’s coronation, where MPs had a privileged view of proceedings.

We look forward to sharing more of our research on women’s political involvement in the nineteenth century in future blogs.

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MP of the Month: John Moyer Heathcote (1800-1892), the MP who never was

One of our first tasks when we began our 1832-1868 project was to compile a full list of the MPs elected during this period whose biographies we would research. With invaluable assistance from Stephen Lees, who co-edited the later Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament volumes with Michael Stenton, we arrived at a total of 2,589 MPs, including a handful not featured in the 1832-1885 Who’s Who volume. Well over half of these biographies have now been written and can be accessed in draft form on our preview site. However, we always suspected that as our research progressed, we might find another MP or two who, for some reason, had been omitted from our original list. Our MP of the Month, John Moyer Heathcote, is one such new addition, which brings our total number of MPs to 2,590.

John-Moyer-Heathcote

John Moyer Heathcote, by Carmen Silvy (1860) (C) NPG, used under CC licence

Heathcote, a local Liberal landowner, was returned for Huntingdonshire at the general election in April 1857. James Rust, who had represented this double member county as a Conservative since 1855, topped the poll with 1,192 votes. His Conservative running-mate, Edward Fellowes, received 1,106 votes, as did Heathcote. After checking the poll books three times, the high sheriff made a double return for the second seat, declaring both Fellowes and Heathcote elected. Following the presentation of three election petitions, an election committee undertook a scrutiny of the poll. It struck off the votes of two disqualified voters and two others who had voted twice on the basis of the same qualification, and added the vote of one duly qualified voter. On 31 July 1857 it declared Heathcote not elected and Fellowes elected. The official record was amended three days later by the clerk of the crown, who erased Heathcote’s name from the return, replacing it with that of Fellowes.

Technically, therefore, Heathcote was never an MP, since his return was invalidated and his only subsequent attempt to win a seat ended in failure. This makes him almost unique in our period – the only other individual we have found who falls into the same category is John Scandrett Harford, whose name was expunged from the parliamentary record following an election petition in 1841, when he had been elected for the Cardigan Boroughs on a double return. Like Heathcote, Harford’s subsequent attempt to enter Parliament ended in defeat.

Although his parliamentary career was non-existent, Heathcote’s biography can still shed valuable light on the politics of this period. He was the first Liberal to contest Huntingdonshire for two decades, challenging what the Daily News described as ‘the compact alliance of conservative family interests, which is paramount in this county’. While the Whigs and the Conservatives had shared the representation without a contest in 1832 and 1835, the Conservatives had made a successful bid for both seats in 1837. The subsequent prominence of agricultural protection as an election issue meant that a Liberal challenge in this predominantly agricultural constituency was fruitless, especially given that many of its leading landowners were Conservatives. Heathcote considered standing for a vacancy in August 1855, but with an early dissolution of Parliament anticipated, he decided to wait for the next general election. Although the Conservatives had monopolised the county’s representation for twenty years, the latent strength of Liberalism was demonstrated by the fact that Heathcote tied with Fellowes for the second seat in 1857.

Despite the disappointment of losing the seat on petition, Heathcote stood again in 1859, when he faced two Conservative opponents, Fellowes and Lord Robert Montagu, brother of the Duke of Manchester, a major local landowner who had previously sat as the constituency’s MP. There was considerable excitement at the hustings due to the appearance of Lord John Russell, who owned property in the county. Russell had plumped for Heathcote in 1857, and after casting his vote had spoken briefly from the window of Heathcote’s committee room. Now, however, he abandoned ‘the reserve usually practised by statesmen of his standing’ in order to propose Heathcote as a candidate. His intervention was spurred on not only by ‘personal friendship’, but also the belief that this was a timely opportunity for ‘a last appeal to the still undecided constituencies’.

Russell began his hustings speech in support of Heathcote by referring to his own service as Huntingdonshire’s MP over thirty years earlier. With its representation dominated ever since by the Conservatives, he compared its MPs to men waiting on a railway platform, ‘looking vacantly at the trains going by’ and ‘declining to take part in any progress whatever’. The issue of parliamentary reform, on which he had defeated the Derby ministry a few weeks earlier, was clearly at the forefront of Russell’s mind. He denied that those who had joined him in opposing the Conservative ministry’s reform bill were motivated by faction and emphasised his own differences from John Bright’s more radical view of reform. He also criticised Derby’s government for its ‘lame and impotent measures’ and its incompetence in both domestic and foreign policy. Alluding to landlord influence in Huntingdonshire, he urged that ‘the real opinion of the electors’ on these national questions should decide Heathcote’s fate.

Despite Russell’s endorsement, Heathcote finished third in the poll, almost 250 votes short of Montagu. He did not make a further attempt at the seat, and the Conservatives were spared a contest in 1865. Heathcote did, however, continue to play an important role in local administration as a magistrate and chairman of the Huntingdon board of guardians. In 1876 he published Reminiscences of fen and mere, a local history illustrated largely by his own sketches. He died in March 1892 at the age of 91. His estates passed to his eldest son, John Moyer Heathcote (1834-1912), a talented real tennis player who also made a major contribution to the development of lawn tennis, being the first to suggest covering the ball with flannel.

Posted in Elections, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Welcome to the Victorian Commons

The Victorian Commons blog provides news and highlights from the History of Parliament’s research project on the House of Commons, 1832-68. For details about the project and how to access our work see our About page. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed here with regular blogs here. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons and our colleagues @HistParl & @GeorgianLords

For links to some of the main free to access resources we use in our research, see our Resources page: https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/resources/

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Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2018

The Victorian Commons would like to wish all our readers a very Happy New Year. Before we resume blogging in 2018, we’d like to highlight some posts you may have missed in 2017.

LilyMaxwell

Lily Maxwell

Our most popular post of 2017 looked at Lily Maxwell, the Manchester shopkeeper who cast a vote at a parliamentary by-election in November 1867, over 150 years before the partial enfranchisement of women as parliamentary voters in 1918. Another of our most-read blogs marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s attempt to include women as voters under the Second Reform Act. Female involvement in elections was one of the themes of our blog on the frequently contested constituency of Peterborough. We will be returning to this subject in 2018 as we take part in the Vote 100 celebrations marking the centenary of some women receiving the parliamentary franchise.

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

The 150th anniversary of the Second Reform Act featured in many of our blogs. Our MPs of the Month included three individuals who played a key part in the debates on parliamentary reform in the 1860s. Hugh Lupus Grosvenor was one of the leading Adullamites who opposed the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill. As Conservative attorney-general Sir John Rolt, a former draper’s apprentice, undertook much of the ‘drudgery’ involved in the successful passage of Disraeli and Derby’s 1867 Act. Meanwhile John Tomlinson Hibbert of Oldham was one of several Liberal back benchers who made important interventions on the Conservative ministry’s measure.

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Conference at the People’s History Museum, Manchester

We also blogged about the conference organised by the History of Parliament in conjunction with the University of Durham, held at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, and inspired by the 1867 Reform Act and the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’. Our editor Philip Salmon spoke on the political role of non-electors, while Martin Spychal looked at the language of ‘interests’ in nineteenth-century debates about the electoral system. Our assistant editor Kathryn Rix also published a new article on the Act, entitled ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’. Another publication from our section this year looked at the 1832 Reform Act: Martin Spychal’s article on Thomas Drummond and the question of parliamentary boundaries appeared in Historical Research.

Thomas Hansard d 1833

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

Several of our blogs explored the reporting of parliamentary debate or ‘parliamentary speechification’, as the Spectator dubbed it. As part of the History of Parliament’s contribution to Parliament Week 2017, we looked at Hansard and lesser-known rivals such as the Mirror of Parliament. Charles Dickens was one of the contributors to that publication, and also reported for the press on parliamentary contests, including the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election, which was one of the inspirations behind his depiction of the colourful and corrupt Eatanswill contest in the Pickwick Papers. With a general election held in 2017, we also had several election-themed blogs, offering a Victorian perspective on issues such as the relationship between local and general elections, and the experience of minority governments.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The 1852 Tower Hamlets election

Our MP of the Month series continued to show the wide range of individuals who served in Parliament in our period. John Lloyd Davies rose from humble beginnings as a hotel servant to become Conservative MP for the Cardigan Boroughs. We returned to the important question of party loyalty with our blog on Swynfen Jervis, a Liberal MP who defied his party’s whips. Sons of more famous fathers again featured with our biography of William Wilberforce (junior), the son of the prominent abolitionist, who failed to live up to his father’s reputation. Another leading anti-slavery campaigner George Thompson was a highly active platform orator before he became MP for Tower Hamlets, one of the first London MPs to be covered in our project. One extremely important MP whose biography we completed this year was Charles Gilpin, the only Quaker to hold ministerial office between the First and Second Reform Acts. Other MPs were better known for their accomplishments in other fields, including the pioneering photographer Edward King Tenison and the ichthyologist and fossil collector Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton.

All the draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be accessed for free on our ‘preview’ site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can also sign up to follow our blogs via e-mail or WordPress, follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons, or follow the new @GeorgianLords project and our other colleagues @HistParl.

We look forward to sharing more highlights from our research with you in 2018. Happy New Year!

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MP of the Month: George Donisthorpe Thompson (1804-1878)

December’s MP of the Month blog charts the path into Parliament of George Thompson, a self-educated book-seller’s son. As one of Britain’s foremost platform orators he was a major figure in the abolition of slavery in the West Indies and the United States, as well as an early campaigner for Indian independence. 

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George Thompson by Charles Turner (1842) (C) NPG

Born in 1804, George Thompson was educated by his father, a Lambeth book-seller and ‘man of refined manners, and extensive reading’. Working at a City counting house from the age of twelve, he immersed himself in London’s self-improvement culture of the 1820s, distinguishing himself as a public speaker at the London Mechanics’ Institute from 1823.

He got his big break in 1831, when he was recommended by the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, for the role of travelling speaker for the London Anti-Slavery Society. With ‘his voice pealing like a trumpet’, ‘perspiration dripping from his head’ and his imposing frame ‘throbbing with emotion’, Thompson’s speeches for the society drew increasingly large crowds. His status as a national celebrity was established in 1833, when he distinguished himself in a series of week-long debates in towns across Britain with the slavery advocate and future MP for Evesham, Peter Borthwick.

Front cover 1836After the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, Thompson turned his attention to worldwide abolition. In 1834 he was invited on a lecture tour of the United States by the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. During an infamous 15-month tour his ‘vitriolic harangues’ against slavery and rumours surrounding his questionable financial dealings attracted widespread coverage, eventually leading to his denunciation by President Jackson, forcing him to flee the United States in November 1835.

On his return to Britain he supported the radical Quaker, Joseph Sturge, in his campaign to abolish slave apprenticeships, before taking up the cause of slavery in India. In 1839 he helped establish the British India Society, whose aim was to make ‘known the wrongs’ of the ‘80,000,000 of people’ in India and to expand ‘Indian cotton sails in order to undersell slave-grown Cotton from the United States’.

Firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost political agitators, Thompson lent his services to the Anti-Corn Law League as part of an agreement with the British India Society in 1841, organising a ‘national convocation’ of ministers from all Christian denominations in order that the League could ‘gain access to their chapels & associations & sanction the public co-operation of the women’. At the convocation, Thompson called for a female petition to the Queen (which secured a quarter of a million signatures), and asked ministers from across the country to arrange meetings of women at which he could lecture. Speaking in support of ‘universal emancipation’ at these meetings, his ‘impassioned language and thrilling accents … secured him great favour from female audiences’.

After two years of campaigning for the League, Thompson made his first attempt on Parliament, accepting an invitation to stand at the 1842 Southampton by-election. Coming forward on ‘liberal principles’, he promised to support the Chartist cause and ‘the total annihilation of the corn laws’, but was defeated by two Conservatives. Later that year, he travelled to Calcutta under the patronage of an Indian merchant, Dwarkanauth Tagore. Occupying an entire floor of Tagore’s townhouse in the centre of Kolkata, where he became known as ‘Hindoo Thompson’, he immersed himself in Indian law, offered counsel to the locals, and started campaigning for Indian land reform through the Bengal British India Society.

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In 1846, the freed slave Frederick Douglass stayed at Thompson’s home at Whiteheads Grove, SW3.

Back in England by February 1844, he resumed campaigning for the Anti-Corn Law League. After the successful repeal of the corn laws he renewed his crusade to abolish slavery in the US, establishing the Anti-Slavery League in August 1846 with William Garrison and the freed slave, Frederick Douglass, who had been using Thompson’s home as his London residence. Although this new organisation failed to capture momentum in Britain, Thompson maintained a life-long commitment to the abolition of slavery in the US and was reportedly the ‘only foreigner’ in attendance on 14 April 1865, when the Stars and Stripes were raised at Fort Sumter.

In 1847 Thompson’s national status prompted invitations to stand at that year’s general election at Leicester, Westminster, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. He eventually came forward for Tower Hamlets, which contained Britain’s largest registered borough electorate of almost 19,000 voters.

Tower Hamlets election 1852

The hustings at Tower Hamlets in 1852 where Thompson had topped the poll five years earlier, ILN, 10 July 1852.

At a series of huge public hustings he called for a further extension of free trade and religious rights, extensive parliamentary reform, retrenchment, disestablishment and secular education.  In one of the most notable results of that year’s election, Thompson defeated both of the borough’s moderate Liberal incumbents by 2,500 votes, prompting election officials to report with amazement at how ‘whole pages of votes’ were ‘filled entirely’ with ‘plumpers for Mr George Thompson’.

You can find out how Thompson’s parliamentary career progressed in his full biography, which will be published shortly on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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The ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’: quantifying parliamentary debate in 1833

The influx of new members into the House of Commons following the 1832 Reform Act prompted considerable disquiet within established political circles about the effects which this would have on the day-to-day business of Parliament. The Times reported fears that ‘the ascendancy of the mouvement faction’ of MPs drawn chiefly from the newly-enfranchised constituencies would result in ‘noise and swagger’ overwhelming ‘the good sense’ and sound principles of the Commons.

Commons 1834 a

The Chamber of the House of Commons before the fire of October 1834

In order to combat complaints that the House’s time would be consumed by ‘unprofitable talking’, and that ‘low bred mob orators’ would obstruct parliamentary business, the Spectator decided to analyse all the spoken contributions, excluding mere matters of form, made in the Commons and recorded by the Mirror of Parliament, then the most full record of parliamentary proceedings, as discussed in one of our earlier blogs. Paying particular attention to the utterances of the 51 new Members who could be fairly assumed to owe their return to the changes effected by the Reform Act, the paper hoped to silence the ‘unfair and carping attacks of the Anti-Reformers’.

When the paper’s first analysis appeared at the end of March 1833 it concluded that ‘the old stagers’ were, after all, the most prolific talkers. However, the new reform MPs, who comprised less than 8% of the House, were also reckoned to have made 320 (or 18%) of the 1,776 contributions to debate recorded up to that time. Their speeches had filled 185 of the Mirror’s 1,057 columns, each of which contained about 1,000 words. Significantly, the paper argued that it was not these new MPs who were responsible for the delay which had taken place in the conduct of public business. Instead the ‘everlasting harangues’ over Irish policy were identified as the main obstacle to progress.

By the time the Spectator produced its analysis of the 11,709 speeches made in the 1833 session that December, it had abandoned separately classifying speeches made by the new reform MPs. Understandably, the most frequent speaker by some margin was Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer and leader in the House of Commons. Other leading orators included the Irish chief secretary, Edward Stanley, and the secretary to the treasury, Thomas Spring Rice. Senior Conservatives such as Sir Robert Peel, Sir Frederick Shaw and Sir Robert Inglis also weighed in substantially by logging more than 500 speeches between them.

(c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, the paper’s ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’ revealed that the new reform MPs continued to make a disproportionate contribution to proceedings. The 51 MPs analysed in March had made a total of 1,594 speeches, occupying 815 (or 16%) of the 5,094 columns recorded in the Mirror. The most prolific MP was the veteran radical William Cobbett, who sat for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, and made no less than 261 contributions to debate. The Irish radical MP for Drogheda, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, spoke 111 times – more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. Indeed, when one adds to these speeches the huge contribution to debate made by more seasoned radicals such as Daniel O’Connell, who spoke the greatest number of words in the session (his 647 speeches covered 338 columns), and Joseph Hume (601 speeches in 253 columns), not to mention other reformers such as Henry Warburton (143 speeches), Colonel De Lacy Evans (111 speeches), and Edward Southwell Ruthven, the repeal MP for Dublin (98 speeches), it was clear that radical views were given a very full airing in the newly reformed House of Commons.

Despite all their efforts to exonerate new MPs from the charge of  ‘noise and swagger’, the Spectator could not resist agreeing with other critics of post-reform debates, when it noted that ‘out of the eleven thousand and odd speeches delivered … at least ten thousand were not worth delivering or hearing’.

Sources: The Times, 11 Feb. 1833; Spectator, 30 Mar., 28 Dec. 1833.

Further reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW
  • J. Meisel, Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the age of Gladstone (2001)
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MP of the Month: Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor (1825-1899)

Continuing our celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, November’s MP of the Month focuses on one of the most enigmatic figures in the reform crisis of 1866-67, the property-owning magnate and multi-millionaire Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, later the 1st Duke of Westminster.

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor MP

Grosvenor is probably best known today as Britain’s richest Victorian, with a fortune of about £7 million. Far more fond of horse racing than politics, Grosvenor sat as Whig MP for the family seat of Chester from 1847 until 1869, when he succeeded his father as 3rd Marquess of Westminster. A rare presence in the Commons, and frequently abroad, when he turned up he usually backed the Whig-Liberal leadership in the voting lobbies, but hardly ever spoke before 1865.

His sudden appearance on the national political stage in 1866, as one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Adullamites’, and his pivotal role in bringing down the Liberal government over their reform bill, proposed by his friend and neighbour William Gladstone, were therefore unexpected, to say the least. Even more surprising was his willingness to help keep the Conservatives in office the following year, while they passed a measure of reform that was even more far-reaching in terms of the democratic tendencies that Grosvenor seemed to so vehemently oppose.

This apparently ‘contradictory behaviour’ – helping to defeat Gladstone’s Liberal reform bill because of its radical leanings, but then backing a Conservative ministry’s more extensive measure of reform the following year – has understandably been difficult to explain. A number of studies have concluded that in the highly complex negotiations surrounding both proposals, Grosvenor was simply out of his depth. He became an unwitting dupe for his more experienced parliamentary colleagues, lured first into the Adullamite ‘cave’ by their Whiggish rhetoric before being expertly strung along by the Conservatives. One historian (J. Winter) has even suggested that Grosvenor’s ‘naiveté’ was ‘one of Disraeli’s most valuable assets’ in securing the passage of the 1867 Reform Act.

Victorian Chester

Researching Grosvenor’s background as a constituency MP, however, has unearthed a rather more complex picture. His father’s politics as an MP had always been ambiguous, being ‘neither Whig nor Tory; reformer nor anti-reformer’, and when Grosvenor first stood for his father’s old seat at Chester in 1847, he made a point of refusing to state any political opinions or make any pledges. He ‘seems desirous of devoting his best attention to what may be called the social and moral questions of the day apart from party politics’ and ‘his politics will never be … identified with mere party Whiggism’, noted one observer.

Grosvenor’s constituency speeches over the course of the next four general elections revealed not only his genuine attachment to a ‘great extension of the franchise’ but also his horror at the growing influence of the Radicals on setting the reform agenda. In particular he believed that the radical focus on the representation of numbers, rather than ‘interests’, posed a genuine threat to the stability of the British constitution. As he explained in 1859:

If you go at once for manhood suffrage, you go by numbers and population only, by which means you take into the constituency numbers of men of the lowest orders, without property or money … who would follow any demagogue … I hold that the whole of the classes in the country should be represented, property, land, intelligence, wealth and numbers, and not numbers alone … And labour too … There is a large class of wage receiving working men who ought to be admitted to the franchise  … I shall be prepared to see the franchise extended in counties and boroughs … and a fair redistribution of seats, without which any reform bill would be imperfect. (Cheshire Observer, 23 Apr. 1859)

This statement neatly captured Grosvenor’s increasing reservations about a scheme of reform that was not based upon a balanced representation of ‘interests’ and accompanied by a redistribution of seats. By 1865 he was also warning that the ‘advanced Liberals’ regarded any lowering of the franchise as a ‘first instalment’ on the road to universal suffrage. Urging the need for some form of ‘final settlement’ to prevent years of future agitation, he called for a cross-party solution and proposed the appointment of a cross-party committee to bring in a moderate measure of reform that would ‘conciliate all interests’.

It was these long-held beliefs, expressed on the hustings and at constituency meetings, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, which propelled Grosvenor to act as he did in 1866 and help bring about the defeat of the Liberal reform bill. Gladstone’s proposals were objectionable on three grounds. Firstly, they appeared to take their cue from leading Radicals like John Bright, making a cross-party approach impossible. Secondly, his new franchises based on rental value were not ‘final’ and could easily be lowered; and thirdly, there was initially no accompanying plan of redistribution.

Significantly, when the Conservatives took office following the resignation of the Liberal ministry, they set about formulating an approach to reform that would attempt to address all three of these issues.

The full biography of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Further reading:

  • D. Sheppard, ‘The Cave of Adullam, Household Suffrage, and the Passage of the Second Reform Act’, Parliamentary History (1995), xiv. 149-72.
  • G. Huxley, Victorian Duke: The Life of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster (1967).
  • J. Winter, ‘The Cave of Adullam and Parliamentary Reform’, English Historical Review (1966), lxxxi. 38-55.

 

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‘A woman actually voted!’: Lily Maxwell and the Manchester by-election of November 1867

Lily Maxwell; image credit: Manchester City Council

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the casting of a parliamentary vote by Lily Maxwell, a Manchester shopkeeper, more than half a century before the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918. On 26 November 1867, at a by-election in Manchester, she became the first woman known to have voted at a parliamentary contest since the 1832 Reform Act had specifically limited the franchise to ‘male persons’.

Fittingly, the Liberal candidate to whom Maxwell gave her support, Jacob Bright, was a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage, who had endorsed the enfranchisement of female householders during his campaign. Maxwell’s inclusion as No. 12326 on the electoral register for the Chorlton-upon-Medlock township of Manchester was the result of a clerical error, the overseers who compiled the lists apparently not having realised that ‘Lily Maxwell’, sometimes recorded as ‘Lilly Maxwell’, was a woman. The shop and house which she rented at 25 Ludlow Street were of sufficient value to qualify their occupier under the pre-1867 borough franchise (the £10 household franchise). Although the Second Reform Act had received the royal assent on 15 August 1867, it specified that any by-elections held before 1 January 1869 would take place under the old conditions.

Jacob Bright MP

Originally from Scotland, Maxwell, a widow in her late sixties, had worked in domestic service before setting up a small shop selling crockery. Her accidental presence on the register – of which she had been unaware – was discovered by supporters canvassing for Bright, who was making his second attempt to win a seat at Manchester, having lost at the 1865 general election. Alongside his wife, Ursula Mellor Bright, he was an early supporter of the Manchester branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, founded in January 1867. Bright’s election committee alerted Lydia Becker, the society’s secretary, to Maxwell’s unusual position, and she sought to make the most of this opportunity to demonstrate that women were capable of exercising the franchise.

Lydia Becker, by Susan Isabel Dacre (Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lydia-becker-204800)

Becker and another woman accompanied Maxwell to cast her vote – which had to be given openly, the secret ballot having yet to be introduced – at Chorlton Town Hall. They were escorted from one of Bright’s committee rooms to the town hall by ‘a large number of persons, including members of the All Saints’ ward committee, and were much cheered as they passed to and from the poll’.  The event was widely recorded in the press, with the Yorkshire Post reporting that ‘a woman actually voted!’ Taking a hostile view, it suggested that the polling clerk should have ignored Maxwell’s claim when she appeared to vote, ‘as he would have ignored that of a child 10 years old’.

However, irrespective of her gender, Maxwell’s inclusion on the register – even in error – entitled her to vote, and could not be questioned at this stage. It could have been inquired into had the defeated party decided to petition for a scrutiny of the poll, but with Bright securing a majority of over 1,700 votes, this was never likely. Bright made a special mention of Maxwell’s vote in a victory speech, applauding her as ‘a hardworking honest person, who pays her rates as you do’.

Just five months earlier, the Commons had rejected – by 196 votes to 75 – John Stuart Mill’s proposal to extend the franchise to women by substituting the word ‘person’ for man in the 1867 Reform Act. During the course of this debate, George Denman, a Liberal MP and leading barrister, had raised the possibility that in using the word ‘man’ rather than ‘male persons’, the 1867 Act did in fact confer the franchise on women. This was because under an act of 1850 (sometimes referred to as Romilly’s Act), any reference to ‘man’ was also deemed to include women, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Spurred on by Maxwell’s vote, which ‘removed women’s suffrage from the region of theoretical possibilities to that of actual occurrences’, Lydia Becker co-ordinated a campaign to encourage women who possessed the required property qualification to get their names on the electoral register in 1868. In Chorlton-upon-Medlock, 1,100 female householders joined Lily Maxwell in claiming their right to vote; across Manchester as a whole, 5,750 women lodged claims, supported by the Manchester Liberal Association in the registration courts that September. Their claims were, however, rejected by the revising barrister, as were most female claims across the country. In November 1868, judges in the Chorlton v. Lings case ruled that the 1867 Reform Act did not apply to women. This did not prevent a small number of them who had not been removed from the register from voting at the general election later that month – including nine women in Manchester – but it struck a decisive blow against future claims.

After Mill’s defeat at the 1868 general election, Bright, who had retained his Manchester seat, took over the parliamentary leadership of the women’s suffrage cause. He was responsible for securing the extension of the municipal franchise to women in 1869, and in 1870 introduced the first of several women’s suffrage bills, which passed its second reading by 124 votes to 91, but was subsequently defeated.

Lily Maxwell died in poverty in October 1876, having been admitted to the workhouse a few months earlier. On the 150th anniversary of her pioneering vote, it seems fitting to conclude with the toast which Punch proposed to her in 1867:

To the fair Lily Maxwell a bumper,

Who in petticoats rushed to the poll,

And for Jacob Bright entered her plumper,

Mill’s first ‘person’, singular, sole!

Further reading:

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Reporting Parliament: a view from the Victorian Commons

Today we take it for granted that parliamentary debates are recorded in Hansard. In the Victorian era, however, there was no ‘official’ record. In this blog to end Parliament Week, Dr Philip Salmon shows how, before the advent of modern democracy, public interest in Parliament was sufficient for reports of debates to be produced and sold commercially. As democracy advanced, however, the public’s appetite began to change …

During the early 19th century the way debates and other goings-on in Parliament were reported and broadcast to the public underwent fundamental change. It was during this period that Hansard, the famous record of parliamentary speeches and proceedings, first became established, while daily accounts of discussions in both Houses began to occupy a prominent place in many leading newspapers.

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

Amazingly, this coverage of parliamentary debates not only occurred in contravention of the ‘official’ orders of the Commons, banning strangers and reporting, but also operated as a commercial venture. Aided by the huge public interest in issues such as the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, what went on in Parliament became big business. By the early 1830s an estimated 2 million people were reading parliamentary reports in the press, while Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates, launched in 1803 and taken over by Thomas Curson Hansard in 1812, sold sufficient copies to turn a reasonable profit, at least until the 1850s.

Not every attempt to cash in on the public interest in Parliament succeeded. Hansard reckoned that by 1829 he had already seen off ‘the greater part’ of 18 rival publications, ‘some promising to give a more condensed and some a more elongated account of the proceedings in Parliament’. The ill-fated Parliamentary Review, for example, rearranged all the debates by topic, providing background information and ‘critical essays’ analysing all the ‘measures discussed’ and arguments ‘on both sides of the question’. The extra work this involved, however, made it too expensive and out of date by the time it appeared.

Hansard’s approach, on the other hand, kept costs to a minimum. Rather than paying for his own reporters, Hansard concocted his account of the debates from the daily newspapers and with notes he sometimes received from MPs. His compilations, for that was what they really were, appeared in regular instalments which could later be bound together, rather than at the end of each session. His heavy reliance on the accuracy and selection criteria of the press reporters, however, was far from ideal. Debates on local or minor matters were often omitted, leading many MPs to complain, not least because of their growing need to satisfy constituency opinion. Worse still, speeches delivered late at night, after the reporters had left to file their copy, failed to get covered.

Charles Dickens as a young reporter

Sensing a gap in the market, in 1828 Charles Dickens’ uncle, John Henry Barrow (1796-1858), a former lawyer turned journalist, launched the Mirror of Parliament. Unlike Hansard, Barrow not only employed his own dedicated team of reporters, but also paid them a ‘most liberal remuneration’ for each ‘turn’ in the press gallery. The debates that were later covered by his talented teenage nephew Charles Dickens, in particular, were singled out for praise by leading politicians.

By 1831, at the height of the reform crisis, the Mirror had become ‘the highest extant authority’ of proceedings in Parliament. It wasn’t just that Barrow’s accounts of debates were much longer and closer to the original in terms of language and sentiment. Barrow also managed to cover far more speeches and include a broader range of MPs. The radical Henry Hunt’s brief Commons career is a case in point. Where Hansard printed 660 of his ‘speeches’, the Mirror recorded over 1,000.

By now, however, the Mirror was also in financial trouble. The main investor Henry Winchester MP pulled out after haemorrhaging ‘a considerable portion’ of £7,000 and although Frederick Gye, the famous owner of the pleasure grounds at Vauxhall Gardens, stepped in, within a few years he had also ‘lost a good deal of money’.

In 1834 the Mirror appealed to Parliament for financial assistance. The editor of The Times, however, was unimpressed. ‘That an individual who had embarked in the business of reporting for his own profit should throw the losses caused by his own unsuccessful management … upon the country… to the detriment of all other journalists [was] barefaced … impudence’, he declared.

The Commons agreed. A motion to support publication of an ‘authentic report of the debates arising in the House’ was defeated by 117 votes to 99. Although the Mirror managed to soldier on, reducing its reporters’ salaries and switching to a cheaper folio size, the writing was clearly on the wall. In 1841 it ceased operation.

Ironically, around the time that the Mirror of Parliament folded, the newspaper reports upon which Hansard relied so heavily for its commercial survival started to be replaced by a new form of coverage. By the late 1840s satirical and descriptive ‘sketches’ of parliamentary proceedings had begun to emerge as a staple of the rapidly expanding Victorian popular press.

This created an obvious problem for Hansard. With many newspapers eventually adopting some version of the ‘parliamentary sketch’, the number and range of press reports that Hansard was able to use to compile debates shrank. In 1862 the Morning Chronicle, which had continued to produce extensive daily coverage of debates, was forced to cease publication, leaving its arch-rival The Times as the pre-eminent source.

In this changing public atmosphere, and with its subscriptions falling, it was now Hansard that turned to Parliament for support. In 1855 the government agreed to purchase 100 copies for the various departments of state, providing a guaranteed annual income. In the late 1870s ministers agreed to subsidise coverage of the debates that the press usually ignored, and for the first time Hansard started to use its own reporters, rather than relying solely on newspaper reports.

Even this was not enough, however, and in 1888 Thomas Hansard junior (1813-91), who had been running the business since 1833,  retired and sold the entire operation to a new company, which reckoned it could produce an ‘authorised report’ without subsidy.

Over the next twenty years this venture and six successor operations, including one run by Reuters, all tried to succeed where Hansard had failed, and make a commercial success out of producing parliamentary debates. None of them succeeded. One even went bankrupt. In 1909 Parliament finally assumed responsibility for recording debates itself, employing its own staff of reporters and creating the department that continues to operate today.

Further Reading:

J. Vice & S. Farrell, The History of Hansard (2017) VIEW

K. Rix, ‘ “Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the Reformed Commons, 1833-1850’, Parliamentary History (2014), xxxiii. 453-74

http://www.carolineshenton.co.uk/dickens-and-parliament/

https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/the-story-of-parliament-parliament-and-the-press/

P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW

A. Sparrow, Obscure Scribblers. A History of Parliamentary Journalism (2003)

M. H. Port, ‘The Official Record’, Parliamentary History (1990), ix. 175-83.

E. Brown, ‘John Henry Barrow and the Mirror of Parliament‘, Parliamentary Affairs (1956), lx. 311-23

H. Jordan, ‘The Reports of Parliamentary Debates, 1803-1908’, Economica (1931), xxxiv. 437-49

The earlier blogs in the History of Parliament’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017 can be found here.

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Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty Conference: Manchester

Last week two members of the Victorian Commons project gave papers in Manchester, at a conference held at the People’s History Museum, home to what must surely be one of the UK’s finest collections of political memorabilia associated with mass movements.

Conference panel, with (left to right) Philip Salmon, Martin Spychal, Mark Bennett & Amanda Goodrich (chair)

Philip Salmon spoke about the role played by non-electors, including women, in many pre-democratic Victorian elections, showing how open public voting, the possession of multiple votes, and popular ideas about delegated or ‘virtual representation’ enabled those without the franchise to both participate in and influence elections. As one candidate put it in 1841:

‘The vote is public property, the elector is only a trustee, and you the non-electors have the right to scrutinise and to direct the exercise of the voters’ function’

Rather than being mere spectators, non-electors used well-established forms of legitimate social and moral influence, as well as ‘illegitimate’ and ‘unconstitutional’ methods, to pressurise and persuade those listed on the new electoral rolls introduced in 1832 to behave in a certain way at the poll and ‘represent’ their views. This was made easier by many electors being able to cast more than one vote. ‘I always gave one vote for principle, and the other for interest’, observed one veteran voter.

These activities not only help to explain the striking presence of non-electors in most visual depictions of elections in this period, but also suggest how Victorian polls could be far more participatory and popular than traditional models of democratisation would have us believe.

Martin Spychal took a fresh look at debates about the electoral system after 1815, demonstrating how Britain’s increasingly factional post-Napoleonic domestic climate and discussion about the reform of corrupt boroughs contributed to a break-down in the eighteenth-century defence of Britain’s unreformed electoral system by 1830.

Drawing from a text-mining analysis of parliamentary debates between 1774 and 1868, Martin demonstrated how terms such as the ‘agricultural interest’, the ‘manufacturing interest’ and the ‘shipping interest’ had entered the vocabulary of parliamentarians by the 1820s, on account of the economic policy of successive Tory governments and repeated episodes of rural and urban distress between 1815 and 1830 (see below).

agricultural-landed1

Rise of the terms ‘agricultural interest’ and ‘landed interest’ 1774-1868, (c) Martin Spychal

This was significant for parliamentary reform as during the eighteenth century, politicians had defended Britain’s ancient electoral system by arguing that it provided for a balanced representation of interests – the commercial interest, the landed interest, the monied interest and the professional interest.

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Peel and Wellington trying to repair the commercial. agricultural and manufacturing interests in the state kettle: John Philips, The Jolly State Tinkers, 1830 (c) British Museum

Martin showed how this new language of interests quickly seeped into debates about the unreformed electoral system as cases of corruption during the 1818, 1820 and 1826 elections forced parliamentarians to confront the issue of redistributing the seats of individual rotten boroughs. One by one, parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, who had previously viewed the electoral system as perfect, came round to the notion that Britain’s electoral system was no longer fit for the times.  Some saw the enfranchisement of towns such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds as a means of providing representation to Britain’s newly emergent manufacturing and commercial interests. While others, mainly country gentlemen nervous about alterations to the corn laws, became increasingly militant about ensuring an increased representation for the landed and agricultural interests.

All of this spelled disaster for the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, when on 2 November 1830 he infamously declared that Britain’s

system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country

Within a fortnight Wellington had resigned. He was replaced by the second Earl Grey, who took charge of a new government committed to one issue: the need to re-balance Britain’s electoral map so that it better represented the nation’s newly complex interests.

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From draper’s apprentice to attorney-general: Sir John Rolt and the 1867 Reform Act

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

With this year marking the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Second Reform Act, our MP of the Month is one of the lesser known architects of this measure, the attorney-general, Sir John Rolt, who, as one contemporary noted, undertook much of ‘the drudgery’ connected with the bill’s passage.

Rolt’s path to the attorney-generalship had been an unlikely one, and had largely depended on his tremendous capacity for hard work. Born in Calcutta in 1804, he was the son of a provisions merchant, James Rolt. He was brought to England about 1810, but after the deaths of his bankrupt father in September 1812 and his mother in May 1814, he became a dependant of his maternal grandparents, yeoman farmers at Fairfield, Gloucestershire. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of woollen drapers in Oxford Street, London. He next found employment in the warehouse of a Manchester-based firm in Newgate Street. In 1827 he became a clerk in a proctor’s office in the courts of Doctors’ Commons at St. Paul’s, and six years later began his legal training at the Inner Temple. Supporting himself with employment as secretary to a school for orphans and a Dissenters’ grammar school, he was admitted to the bar in June 1837. He subsequently practised in the court of chancery, where he rapidly acquired an extensive practice, and became a queen’s counsel in 1846.

Harbouring parliamentary ambitions, Rolt unsuccessfully contested Stamford for the Conservatives at the 1847 general election, and was again defeated at Bridport in 1852. Undeterred, he secured a seat for West Gloucestershire at the 1857 general election. Although he ‘made no great figure’ in the Commons, he was far from the ‘silent Conservative’ that has been portrayed, and as a back-bencher he made more than 90 contributions to debate. While he largely confined himself to the affairs of chancery and the bankruptcy court, he was also one of the main speakers on the second reading of the Liberal reform bill of 1860, and as an opponent of household suffrage declared that he ‘stood by the constitution of 1832’. His most important parliamentary achievement came in 1862, when he carried through a measure that became known as Rolt’s Act, which was a significant step towards the fusion of law and equity.

Sir John Rolt as attorney-general

Having been considered for the post of lord chief justice for Ireland, Rolt was appointed attorney-general in October 1866 and was knighted. He was involved closely in the progress of the Conservatives’ reform bill and played a significant role in the government’s handling of the demonstration mounted by the Reform League at Hyde Park in May 1867. After furnishing his opinion on the legality of the proposed assembly, he attended the Cabinet meeting which considered issuing a royal proclamation that Rolt had drafted, which declared that public use of the royal parks did not extend to the holding of political meetings. However, the government’s subsequent vacillation on the issue resulted in the demonstration taking place and precipitated the resignation of the home secretary, Spencer Walpole.

During the 1867 Reform Act’s passage through the Commons, Rolt was at Disraeli’s side ‘during the first few hours of almost every night’. An unenthusiastic reformer, Rolt soon became convinced that once the Conservative Cabinet had decided to carry a measure of parliamentary reform they did not ‘much care’ what it would be. He subsequently complained that he and other members of the government were routinely ‘kept in ignorance’ about Disraeli’s intentions, and claimed that whenever he ‘asked any question, or made any suggestion … in advance of the precise question of the moment’, no answer could ever be got from Disraeli ‘beyond “We shall see”, “Wait”, or something to that effect’. While the bill was being considered by MPs, Rolt would terminate his daily business in the law courts and resort to ‘the miserable dens’ that had been allotted to the law officers near the House and spend ‘all night long, constantly at work in some way or other on the subject’ . Understandably, Rolt’s health suffered as a result and he began to experience an alarming ‘pressure on the brain’.

Shortly after the bill passed its third reading in the Commons in July 1867, Rolt was appointed lord justice of appeal in chancery. While he had never been ranked among the greatest lawyers of his day, his performance on the bench was generally commended. However, he suffered a mild paralytic stroke in January 1868 and was compelled to resign the following month. He subsequently lived in seclusion at his seat, Ozleworth, in Gloucestershire, and wrote his memoirs, in which he confessed that the momentous events of 1867 ‘made very little impression on me’, and that he had not treated them with ‘the importance and attention I now think they deserved’. He died in June 1871.

Further reading

  • The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Rolt. Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal in Chancery (1939)
  • J. M. Rigg, rev. P. Polden, ‘Rolt, Sir John (1804-1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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MP of the Month: Charles Gilpin (1815-1874)

One of the most illuminating aspects of our work for the Victorian Commons is the discovery of significant, but long-forgotten, parliamentarians. September’s MP of the Month, Charles Gilpin (1815-1874), certainly falls under this description. As the first and only Quaker to hold ministerial office between the first and second Reform Acts, he was a major figure in mid-Victorian radical politics, yet only occasionally surfaces in histories of the period.

After establishing himself as a radical publisher and orator in his hometown of Bristol, Gilpin and his wife Anna moved to London in 1842 to take over the Quaker publishing firm, Edmund Fry and Son. Over the following decade he oversaw the publication of hundreds of radical books and pamphlets as well as the Quaker periodical The Friend, which he edited until 1857. During this time he was active in nearly every radical society in London, campaigning for temperance, parliamentary, economic and land reform as well as the abolition of slavery and capital punishment. In 1850 he even made an abortive attempt to establish, in the words of Britain’s foremost radical, Richard Cobden, an ‘anti-everything’ newspaper. He was also largely responsible for the ‘Kossuth Mania’ that swept the nation in late 1851, on account of his unofficial role as publicist for the Hungarian exile, Lajos Kossuth.

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As his publicist, Gilpin escorted Lajos Kossuth through the streets of London in November 1851 and helped promote ‘Kossuth Mania’ [Image: Illustrated London News, 8 Nov. 1851].

Gilpin’s first attempts to win a seat in the Commons came during 1852, when he stood unsuccessfully at consecutive by-elections at Perth in February and May. On the hustings he supported radical parliamentary and education reform, opposed all state funding for religious purposes, and denounced Britain’s ‘expensive and cruel’ colonial policy as well as slavery in the United States. He did not stand again until 1857, however, during which time he sold his publishing firm (which left him in a position of considerable financial comfort) and continued his activity in London’s network of radical associations.

Coming forward for Northampton in 1857 on the recommendation of the Administrative Reform Association, Gilpin maintained his radical platform used at Perth. During a successful campaign, he also supported Cobden’s recent censure of the government over the Canton bombardment and condemned the unpopular income tax for Britain’s recent ‘legacy of wars’ in the Crimea and China, which he contended ‘ought never to have been undertaken’.

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Illustrated London News, 24 July 1858

Gilpin immediately threw himself into parliamentary life, much to the distress of his wife, who reported that he arose at 7.30 a.m., and ate only ‘a bun or a biscuit as he moved from one board or Committee to another’ before returning home to bed at 2 a.m. This prompted some friendly advice from the recently unseated Cobden, who suggested he avoid ‘tilting at Palmerston’s windmills’ and staying at parliament past midnight, ‘unless you are pretty sure there will be a division involving some public principle’. Gilpin ignored such advice, however, citing his irrepressible need to speak up against the ‘consummate bosh’ spoken by members on both sides of the house.

As a diligent attender in his first parliament, he maintained a radical line in the division lobbies and became a regular voice in debates over religious rights, as well as foreign and colonial affairs. Notable for his outspokenness on the latter, he was instrumental in co-ordinating the radical response to the Orsini affair and condemned the British military reaction to the Indian mutiny, stating in May 1858 that when the mutiny’s history was written it would ‘raise a blush of shame on the cheek of every honest man’.

His forthright Commons performances ensured Gilpin topped the poll at Northampton in 1859. However, he shocked his radical friends and supporters when he accepted the position of secretary to the Poor Law Board in Palmerston’s new ministry. Instead of receiving congratulations for becoming the first Quaker government minister, he was criticised for selling out – John Bright reportedly stating, ‘so thou’s got thy snout in the trough, Charles!’

To some extent Gilpin’s critics proved justified, as he quickly fell in line with the government and became increasingly exasperated at his loss of ‘independence of thought and action’. Nevertheless, his assiduous attention to official duties, particularly in response to the Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’ from 1861, allowed him to repel some detractors. Using his position to repeatedly call for benevolence from poor law unions in Lancashire, he was instrumental in passing the 1862 Union Relief Aid Act.

Charles_Gilpin_Vanity_Fair_18_January_1873

Gilpin resumed his role as an outspoken backbencher in 1865, earning him the moniker ‘Capital Punishment’, Vanity Fair, 18 Jan. 1873

Gilpin resigned from office in February 1865, as soon as he was sure ‘the cloud had passed away from Lancashire’ and that ‘the loom and the shuttle’ had again begun ‘their ready and every-day work’. He was returned at that year’s election, with a reduced share of the vote, but quickly rediscovered his radical voice on the back benches.

During the subsequent parliament he spoke regularly for the total abolition of state funding for religion as well as the parliamentary oath, and offered his support to those lobbying for Governor Edward Eyre to face trial following his infamous 1865 declaration of martial law in Morant Bay, Jamaica. He also provided a radical critique of the Conservative government’s 1867 Reform Act, and emerged as a chief proponent for the complete abolition of capital punishment, leading the radical vanguard against what he considered to be the halfway measure of the 1868 Capital Punishments Act. Gilpin continued to represent Northampton as a radical backbencher until his death in September 1874.

The full biography of Charles Gilpin will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

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MP of the Month: John Tomlinson Hibbert (1824-1908)

Disraeli (horse) taking Britannia into the unknown with the 1867 Reform Act

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 1867 Reform Act. Introduced by Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Derby’s Conservative government, it added around a million voters to the register, primarily in borough constituencies. This greatly exceeded the numbers who would have been enfranchised by the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill, put forward by William Gladstone and Lord Russell. Disraeli’s willingness to accept Liberal backbench amendments to the Conservative bill in order to secure its passage – and to keep Gladstone on the back foot – meant that the measure which emerged from the debates in the Commons was rather different from that originally proposed, as many of the safeguards which Disraeli had included to limit the effects of household suffrage were removed.

Sir John Tomlinson Hibbert (by unknown artist); photo credit: Lancashire County Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-right-honourable-sir-john-hibbert-150792

Our MP of the Month, John Tomlinson Hibbert, was among those Liberal backbenchers who took a keen interest in the reform debates and played a prominent part in shaping the measure. Returned as MP for his native Oldham at a by-election in May 1862, he was re-elected in 1865 alongside his fellow Liberal, John Platt. As well as their shared political views, Hibbert was connected to the Platts through business: his father had founded Oldham’s largest engineering firm with Platt’s father in 1822, although by 1854 the Platts had bought out the Hibbert interest. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Hibbert qualified as a barrister. Although he did not practise as a lawyer, his legal training proved a valuable asset in his parliamentary career, and John Stuart Mill praised him as ‘rather clever as well as careful in framing amendments’ to legislation. He was also linked to the Platts by marriage: John’s younger brother James, another Liberal MP, who was killed in tragic circumstances in 1857, had married Hibbert’s sister-in-law.

Hibbert made his determination to be an effective constituency MP abundantly clear in his maiden speech, made the day after taking his seat. He highlighted the plight of Lancashire’s workers during the ‘cotton famine’ caused by the greatly reduced supply of raw cotton during the American Civil War. Hibbert also took a particular interest in law and order. He was deeply concerned about the ‘demoralising’ spectacle of public executions, to which spectators travelled on special excursion trains ‘to gratify their depraved appetite’. He made unsuccessful attempts in 1865 and 1866 to legislate for executions to take place privately within gaols. These efforts prompted the Conservative government to take up the question, passing the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act in 1868. Hibbert himself witnessed the first execution held under the Act.

He was also active in select committee work, serving on numerous inquiries. There was, however, much amusement among fellow MPs in June 1866 when Hibbert’s doctor was called to testify before the House that Hibbert would be unable to perform his duties as chairman of the committee on the Helston election petition, having been ‘taken exceedingly ill on his return from the Duke of Devonshire’s party’.

Hibbert played an important role in the debates on the 1867 Reform Act. Although Disraeli described him as ‘a man of extreme and advanced opinions’, he was among those Radicals whose support Disraeli was keen to cultivate in order to pass the bill. Notably, Disraeli tried to persuade the Cabinet to accept Hibbert’s amendment on the complex question of ‘compounding’. The Conservative ministry’s bill stated that those wishing to qualify as voters under the household franchise in boroughs must personally pay their rates, a proviso which would exclude those who ‘compounded’ their rates by paying them to their landlords as part of their rent, for which they received a discount. Hibbert’s amendment aimed to remove this financial disincentive for householders to opt out of compounding in order to be registered as voters by allowing them to continue to pay the reduced amount.

Having failed to convince fellow ministers to accept this amendment, Disraeli not only opposed it, but made the division on the ministry’s alternative proposal a confidence vote. Despite strong support from Gladstone, who gave Hibbert his backing after his own efforts to remove the requirement for personal payment of rates had failed, the amendment was defeated on 9 May. Although unsuccessful, Hibbert’s intervention clearly influenced the Conservative ministry’s actions. With many MPs still dissatisfied, the issue was finally resolved in an extraordinary fashion later that month when Disraeli accepted an amendment from another Liberal backbencher, Grosvenor Hodgkinson, which took the revolutionary step of completely abolishing the practice of compounding.

Hibbert did succeed in making other alterations to the Reform Act. His most significant contribution was to make it illegal for candidates or anyone on their behalf to make payments for transporting voters to the polls in boroughs. Payments for railway tickets or the hiring of carriages and carts to convey voters were often used as a cover for bribery, and had become a major source of expenditure for candidates. Hibbert noted that at the 1865 election, £100,000 of the £800,000 expenditure declared by candidates was spent on the conveyance of voters. Bowing to advice from Gladstone, he agreed that his clause, carried by 166 votes to 101 on 4 July 1867, should apply only to boroughs, not to counties, where the distances which electors had to travel were far greater. He criticised efforts by Irish MPs to exclude certain Irish boroughs from a similar clause in the Irish Reform Act the following year, remarking wryly that he remained to be ‘persuaded that an Irishman could not walk so far as an Englishman’.

Hibbert was re-elected in 1868 for Oldham, whose electorate had been increased five-fold by the 1867 Reform Act. He lost his seat in 1874, but returned to the Commons in 1877. Regarded as ‘one of the most loyal and useful members of the Liberal party’, he held a succession of junior offices in Gladstone’s ministries from 1871. He was ousted from his seat in 1886, but returned to Parliament in 1892, and was knighted the following year. He finally left the Commons following electoral defeat in 1895, having represented his native borough for a total 24 years. He remained active in county politics, serving as chairman of Lancashire County Council until shortly before his death in 1908.

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MP of the Month: Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton (1806-81)

Many of our recent ‘MP of the Month’ posts have focused on self-made men from non-élite backgrounds. Their numbers on the back benches and contribution to the practical business of Parliament (especially in committee) grew dramatically during the Victorian era. Traditional landed back-benchers, by contrast, tend to get a bad press in this period. Famously denounced by Peel as ‘those who spend their time hunting and shooting and eating and drinking’, their poor attendance and apparent disdain for political work were increasingly criticised by contemporary observers and frustrated constituents during the Victorian era.

One of those who might have been expected to fit this mould was Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton. With his aristocratic name, inherited title and estates, and large mansion set in acres of rolling Cheshire parkland, Grey-Egerton was, to most observers, every inch the traditional landed back bench MP. He even had an eccentric and distracting pastime, as a pioneering ichthyologist and collector of fossilised fish, many of which ended up in London’s Natural History Museum.

Some of Grey-Egerton’s fish fossils, now in the Natural History Museum.

Significantly, his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concentrates almost entirely on his scientific achievements. These were sufficient for him to have an oriental bird, Actinodura egertoni, named after him. His service as an MP barely warrants four lines.

As a Victorian politician, however, Grey-Egerton was in many ways a remarkable figure. His career is a useful reminder of just how much still remains to be discovered about the activities of back bench MPs in this period, both from élite and non-élite backgrounds.

Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton, photographed in 1855

A Protestant campaigner and staunch Tory, by the time of his death in 1881 Grey-Egerton had clocked up 46 years continuous service in the Commons, and – adding in the year he had sat in the pre-Reform House – had become the second longest serving MP of his era. Despite his privileged background, his route into politics was far from straightforward. First elected for Chester in 1830, his opposition to the Grey ministry’s ‘crude and dangerous’ reform bill cost him his seat in 1831. Standing as a Conservative for the newly created constituency of Cheshire South in 1832, he enlisted the support of the recently established Carlton Club, but was still defeated, despite spending an astonishing £5,000 on his election campaign. Undeterred he helped to establish one of the earliest local Conservative Registration Associations for organising voter enrolment. By the time of the unexpected 1835 election they had secured such an overwhelming majority of Tory electors on the registers that no political opponent came forward, enabling Grey-Egerton to be elected without a contest.

Over the next 46 years Grey-Egerton became a steady presence at Westminster, loyally backing the Conservatives on most issues. He rarely spoke, famously criticising his fellow MPs for their ‘long and tedious speeches, platitudes, and reiterations’, but instead acquired a reputation as ‘one of the hardest workers in committees’. Appointed to the 1835 committee on the British Museum, of which he was a trustee, he became a member of the subsequent royal commission and served regularly on a range of similar inquiries as well as on private railway bills. In the 1860s he emerged as a leading figure in the inquiries into mine safety.

Cheshire Cheese: one of the local industries Grey-Egerton lobbied to protect

Grey-Egerton also looked after the interests of his constituency. When Peel’s tariff reforms threatened to harm Cheshire’s cheese industry in the 1840s, by slashing the duty on American cheese imports, he successfully lobbied the board of trade for an exemption, prompting complaints that he had used unfair ‘private’ influence with ministers such as Gladstone. In 1847 he joined other Cheshire MPs in a campaign on behalf of the region’s salt producers against the salt monopoly of the East India Company. Other issues that inspired him to make a rare appearance in debate included the reform of Cheshire’s constabulary and the devastating impact of the cattle plague on the county’s livestock farmers.

Grey-Egerton’s main bug-bear throughout his career, however, was the threat to the Protestant Church posed by Roman Catholicism and the ‘Jesuitical duplicity’ of Irish MPs like Daniel O’Connell. A lifelong supporter of making people observe the Sabbath, he was deeply committed to maintaining the privileged position of the Established Church, even if this meant keeping Dissenters out of Anglican universities and forcing everyone, whatever their religion, to contribute to church rates. In an extraordinary reminder of the legislative power that independent MPs continued to exercise in this period, in 1840 he managed to pilot a private members’ bill into law enabling new Anglican churches to be built in Cheshire using surplus funds from local tolls, in order to ‘check demoralisation’. The bill passed despite the opposition of the Whig ministry’s chief whip.

It was also religion that prompted him to rebel against the Conservative leadership. In 1845 Peel proposed to make funding of the Irish Catholic seminary at Maynooth permanent. Grey-Egerton opposed the measure and continued to campaign against state funding for training Catholic priests for the rest of his life. In 1846, along with most of his landed colleagues, he voted against Peel’s repeal of the corn laws. Thereafter he always remained something of a back bench rebel, breaking with the Conservatives to support Palmerston’s handling of the Crimean war in 1855 and finding fault with parts of Disraeli’s 1867 reform bill. One of his final acts was to vote against allowing Charles Bradlaugh, the renowned atheist and secularist, to take his seat as an MP without swearing the traditional oath on the Bible.

The full biography of Grey-Egerton (along with almost 1,000 of his fellow MPs) can be viewed for free on our 1832-68 website containing drafts of all our ongoing research. For details of how to view the site please click here.

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Some parallels: the 1832 and 2018 boundary reviews

To celebrate the recent open-access publication of his article ‘‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, our Research Fellow on the 1832-1868 project, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses some parallels between the challenges facing today’s boundary commission and those encountered by the Whig government overseeing the first boundary commission of 1831-32.

The current boundary commissions for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, whose recommendations are scheduled to be implemented in 2018, have faced a number of problems at Westminster and in the localities. One ongoing point of contention has been the requirement, established by the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, that the number of constituencies should be reduced from 650 to 600. In a striking parallel Earl Grey’s Whig government had also proposed to reduce the number of Commons seats from 658 to 596 in its original reform bill of March 1831. By December 1831, however, they had abandoned these plans entirely following accusations that the seats proposed to be disfranchised were mainly Tory constituencies. There were also fears over the increased constitutional power that redistribution might provide Catholic Ireland, and a general suspicion among politicians of single-member (rather than the usual double-member) constituencies.

Mr-Justice-Nicol

Mr Justice (Andrew) Nicol, Deputy Chair of the 2018 Boundary Review

While the latter point is no longer of relevance to Britain’s contemporary single-member system, fears of possible gerrymandering and partisan issues again threaten to undermine plans to reduce the number of MPs. When the current commission’s proposals were first published it was thought that the Labour Party stood to lose the most seats. However, following the results of the 2017 election, the Conservatives now look set to lose more nationally.

As in 1831, the constitutional balance of the four nations also threatens to disrupt the boundary review. As things stand, Wales is set to lose out most in terms of its relative representation. Furthermore, if the 2017 registration data continues the upward trend of 2016, English MPs may also argue they have been under-allocated seats due to the use of registration data from 2015 to calculate seat quotas.

The decision to abolish 50 Commons seats has also proved highly controversial in the constituencies, as it has forced the current boundary commission to merge many pre-existing constituencies. As well as suggestions that individual boundaries might favour particular parties, the commission has been accused of breaking up long-established legal, political and social communities. A notable example is their proposal for a Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency, which cuts across the Cornwall and Devon boundary.

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond, Chair of the 1832 Boundary Commission (c) The University of Edinburgh

Similarly, during 1831, Tories and Radicals warned of Whig gerrymandering, and people from across the political spectrum expressed concern that boundary reform would destroy historic political communities and force together electors with divergent socio-economic interests. To counter this, when establishing the rules for redrawing borough constituencies, the head of the English borough boundary commission, Thomas Drummond, set out innovative, ‘scientific’ criteria to define electoral communities. These aimed to propose boundaries in a uniform manner across the country by evaluating every borough’s geographic, legal, economic and social circumstances. Importantly, this allowed boundary commissioners to ignore the political factions that operated in each constituency.

A similar framework was established for dividing 27 of England’s counties, a significant but often overlooked aspect of the 1832 reform legislation. In a manner comparable to the operation of the current commissions, the head of that commission, John George Shaw Lefevre, evaluated population data, geography, voter information and historic ‘communities of interest’ before dividing each county in as equal a manner as possible.

The application of these ‘disinterested’ rules for establishing borough and county boundaries proved remarkably successful. In contrast to the 1832 Reform Act itself, which occupied 15 months of furious debate at Westminster, the 1832 Boundary Act passed through Parliament with little objection. A major reason for this was that most MPs and constituencies accepted that the boundary commission had reformed the country’s electoral map fairly, and in a genuine spirit of impartiality. The current commission’s ability to push through its proposals will no doubt hinge on its ability to convince parliamentarians and voters that it has also been able to produce proposals from a ‘position of independence and impartiality’.

One other repeated criticism of today’s commission has been its use of the 2015 electoral register to allocate parliamentary seats to each region and design equal constituencies of around 75,000 electors. Critics have suggested that the commission base their modelling on either a prediction of all eligible voters, or a more up-to-date registration dataset, which might include those registered in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum and the June 2017 general election.

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The 1821 census – the perils of out-of-date data

Prior to the commencement of the 1832 boundary commission, the Grey ministry’s reform proposals faced similar criticisms for using out of date information. In April 1831, just as the 1831 census data was becoming available, ministers were ridiculed for using census data from 1821 to decide which constituencies were to lose the right to elect MPs. As my article reveals, the tireless efforts of the 1832 commission to collect more up-to-date, accurate data proved pivotal to the ultimate success of the 1832 Reform Act. The mass of cartographic and statistical data collected allowed for the publication of an extensive report explaining every constituency proposal in remarkable detail. It also enabled the government to drop their much maligned census-based disfranchisement proposals. By remodelling their plans using up-to-date data, the Whig government was finally able to convince its opponents that the UK’s electoral map had been redesigned in an even-handed manner.

Ironically, the final proposals of the current boundary commission are also expected to be released around the same time as new data – in this case the figures for the 2017 registration. If the 2017 data shows drastic changes in the geographic makeup of the electorate since 2015, there may be similar calls to those experienced by the Whigs during 1831 for a re-evaluation of their constituency and boundary proposals. Whether the current commission will be able to respond with the same degree of success only time will tell.

Further Reading

Electoral Calculus – 2018 Boundary Review

P. Salmon, ‘The English reform legislation, 1831-32’, in The House of Commons, 1820-32, ed. D. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 2009), vol. 1, pp. 374-412

M. Spychal, ‘‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, Historical Research (August, 2017).

Elise Uberoi, ‘Boundary Review: missing voters, missing seats?’, Secondreading.uk

 

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MP of the Month: Edward King Tenison

William Henry Fox Talbot

One of our earliest Victorian Commons blogs looked at the career of William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, who sat briefly as Whig MP for Chippenham, 1832-5. Our MP of the Month is another pioneering photographer, Edward King Tenison (1805-78), who sat for County Leitrim from 1847 to 1852. Drawing on Fox Talbot’s work, he helped to develop the technique of using paper negatives to create detailed photographic images of landscapes and buildings.

Springing from aristocratic stock, Tenison was a grandson of the 1st Earl of Kingston, and a cousin of the 2nd Viscount Lorton, and both his grandfather and father had sat in the Irish Parliament. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the army in 1826 and served as an officer of the 14th Light Dragoons until 1836. In 1830 he had stood for election at Roscommon, and in 1843 succeeded his brother to a large estate in that county. An able administrator, he served as both a magistrate and high sheriff for Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, and was later successively appointed lord lieutenant of the former two counties.

Having established a reputation as a considerate resident landlord, Tenison was returned to Parliament for Leitrim at the 1847 general election. A Liberal, he generally supported Lord John Russell’s Whig ministry, but as an advocate of civil and religious liberty firmly opposed anti-Catholic measures such as the Ecclesiastical Titles Act. Exhausted by parliamentary life, Tenison retired in 1852. Upon returning to politics at the 1857 general election he lost a contest for his former seat and suffered another defeat at Roscommon in 1859. The following year he retired from a by-election for the corrupt borough of Sligo after refusing to offer bribes to the Liberal electors, and after suffering another defeat at Leitrim in 1865, retired from politics altogether.

Throughout this time Tenison had pursued his abiding interest in photography. In 1838 he had married Lady Louisa Anson, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Lichfield, who had travelled in the Holy Land and Egypt and established a reputation as a travel writer and artist with her Sketches in the East (1846). Perhaps influenced by his wife’s work, Tenison took up photography in the 1840s. After experimenting with daguerreotypes he began to use paper negatives, and acquired one of the few licences granted by their originator, the pioneering photographer and one-time MP for Chippenham, William Henry Fox Talbot. He subsequently based his experiments on Baldus’s calotype process, which allowed him to use the larger negatives best suited to the architectural and scenic subjects in which he was most interested.

Lady Louisa Tenison by John Phillip; credit: Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lady-louisa-tennyson-186388

Between 1850 and 1852 he and Lady Tenison spent time in Spain where he became one of the earliest photographers taking calotypes. His bulky equipment and outdoor camera work aroused the suspicion of the authorities while stimulating the curiosity of the local people. An album of this work, which included views of the city of Toledo, Burgos cathedral, and the royal palace at Madrid, was published as Memories of Spain (1854). His wife also made a record of their experiences which, along with around 50 lithographs of her drawings, was published as Castile and Andalucia (1853).

Etude d’arbre [Study of a tree], by Edward King Tenison, c.1850-3

Tenison joined the London Photographic Society in 1853, when he first showed his work at the Irish industrial exhibition, and the following year helped to found the Dublin Photographic Society. After further exhibitions of his work in London in 1854-5, which drew upon photographs he had taken in Spain, Belgium and Normandy using both calotype and waxed paper processes, he visited Algeria and subsequently recorded striking images of buildings and landmarks of his native Ireland. In February 1860 he provided details of his experimental use of paper negatives to the Royal Dublin Society, but by that time he had already confessed to the British Journal of Photography that he had ‘almost given up the science altogether’.

Tenison died at his seat, Kilronan Castle, in June 1878. Lady Tenison survived her husband, dying at Trieste in September 1882. An album containing calotypes and salt prints taken by Tenison in Ireland in 1858 is preserved in the National Photographic Archive in Dublin. More of his work is held in private collections, and one album of his photographs was sold at Christie’s in 1999 for more than $10,000.

Recommended reading:

P. Slattery, ‘Tenison, Edward King’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, ix. 307-8.

R. Taylor & L. J. Schaaf, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives (2007).

S. Rouse, Into The Light. An Illustrated Guide to the Photographic Collections in the National Library of Ireland (1998), 52-3.

http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/E_K__Tenison/A

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Party Affiliation in the Reformed Commons, 1832-68

As the election results were declared in each constituency at this month’s general election, they were swiftly collated by the media to give an assessment of the overall balance of power within the new House of Commons. With each candidate’s party affiliation listed on the ballot paper, there could be little doubt about the number of MPs returned from each of the major political parties.

In the Parliaments of the 1832-1868 period, however, the attachment of party labels to MPs could be a much more complicated affair. MPs themselves were often reluctant to commit themselves firmly to a particular party, priding themselves on their ‘independence’. As we have indicated in several of our previous blogs, party identities could often be rather fluid, not only for MPs, but also for electors, who in double-member constituencies had the opportunity to split their votes to support candidates of differing political hues.

Contemporary parliamentary guides such as Dod’s parliamentary companion sought to classify MPs on the basis of their political opinions – for example,  the 1841 guide pitched ‘Conservatives’ against a collection of ‘Whigs’, ‘Liberals’, ‘Reformers’, ‘Radical Reformers’ and ‘Repealers’, along with those ‘not clearly denominated’. Despite some inaccuracies, they have provided an invaluable resource for historians of this period. However, for the nineteenth-century public, a more immediate indication of the shifting composition of Parliament in the aftermath of a general election was provided in the election results recorded by newspapers and journals. This blog provides an overview of how the party labels assigned to MPs by the press fluctuated in the period between the first two Reform Acts, which can tell us a great deal about the ways in which the idea of party was popularly understood.

The paramount importance of parliamentary reform in the early 1830s led The Times to divide MPs returned at the 1832 general election simply into Reformers and Conservatives. The Spectator elaborated by describing the two parties as ‘Reformers and Ministerialists’ and ‘Conservatives and Anti-Reformers’, while also acknowledging that a binary approach inevitably brought in ‘unconscious errors’. The paper also indicated which Irish Reformers were ‘Repealers’ or ‘Conditional Repealers’, and the Freeman’s Journal further divided them into ‘Repealers’, ‘Tithe Extinguishers’ and ‘Government Supporters’. James Silk Buckingham’s Parliamentary Review adopted for ‘general convenience’ the well-worn terms Conservative and Whig, but also gave the name ‘Liberal’ to MPs whose desire for further reforms went ‘almost as much beyond the Whigs as the Whigs do beyond the Conservatives’.

When Lord Melbourne’s ministry was dismissed in November 1834 The Times adopted Albion’s partisan description of parliamentary candidates as Conservatives and ‘Moderates’, who were prepared to give Sir Robert Peel’s ministry a ‘fair trial’, and ‘Ultras’ or ‘unfair trial’ men who wished to oppose them. The Spectator designated the latter party as ‘Real Reformers’ and ‘Old Whigs’, and labelled Peel’s supporters ‘Anti-Reformers’. A third category of ‘Doubtfuls’ was also introduced containing about 50 ‘wayward’ independents and ‘noted trimmers’, who could not be depended upon to vote either way.

By the time of the 1837 general election, with Melbourne back in power, The Times simply divided MPs into Conservatives and ‘Ministerialists’, but also dubbed the latter the ‘Whig-Radical’ party. The Spectator made a clear distinction between the Liberal and ‘Tory’ parties, but continued to acknowledge a small number of Doubtfuls. With reform of the duties on corn, sugar and timber on the agenda at the 1841 general election the Examiner divided candidates into ‘Monopolists’ and ‘Anti-Monopolists’, while The Times stuck to Conservatives and Whigs, although by now the latter term had become interchangeable with that of Liberal. The Spectator again opted for a clear-cut division between Liberals and Tories, but acknowledged that Dod’s guide had developed into the best source on the precise political affiliations of individual MPs.

After the Conservative party split over Peel’s repeal of the corn laws, The Times divided MPs returned to the 1847 parliament into Liberals, ‘Peelites’ and ‘Protectionists’. The Spectator, however, concluded that it was now impossible to classify MPs satisfactorily and dropped party labels altogether, arguing that the old ‘nicknames’ had lost their significance because Whigs and Tories now represented only ‘very small and unadvanced sections’ of the ‘two great parties’, and the terms Liberal and Conservative could easily be applied ‘to any of the leading politicians’.

When Lord Derby’s minority government faced the electorate in 1852 both the Spectator and The Times simply labelled MPs as ‘Ministerialists’ and ‘Non-Ministerialists’, the former including about 35 ‘supposed neutrals’. The Morning Herald classified Lord Derby’s opponents as ‘Free Traders and Liberals’, but these categorisations largely failed to take into account around 50 Irish Liberals who had mostly withdrawn their support from the Whig opposition because of Lord John Russell’s 1851 ecclesiastical titles bill.

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston’s subsequent elevation to the premiership led the Standard to describe candidates at the 1857 election as Liberal, Conservative and ‘Liberal-Conservative’, a term which had been in vogue since Lord Derby’s effective abandonment of agricultural protection some years earlier. The Times initially grouped MPs into ‘Ministerial’ and ‘Opposition’ camps, according to whether or not they had supported the motion criticising Britain’s treatment of China which had precipitated the election. However, they subsequently adopted the terms Conservative and Liberal – ‘whether Whig, Moderate Liberal, or Radical’.

 

By this time it was widely believed that the parties were in a state of ‘decomposition’ and ‘fusion’, and the Belfast News-letter insisted that, strictly speaking, Lord Palmerston had ‘no party at all’, as his ministerial benches were filled by ‘numerous little coteries … each with its little great man’. Accordingly, the Spectator again declined to employ party labels and concluded that ‘the dislocation of party distinctions, and the many crossings and divergencies’ defied broad demarcation. At the 1859 general election, however, The Times felt able to label all MPs either Liberal or Conservative, although the Spectator still believed that ‘the very vague professions’ of some members on both sides allowed for only ‘an arbitrary guess’ at the relative numbers of each party.

Reports about the demise of parties proved exaggerated, however, and by 1862 some newspapers were observing an exact balance between Conservatives and Liberals. At the 1865 general election even the Spectator was prepared to employ these labels, although it still allowed for the uncertain position taken by a few Irish ‘independents’. Therefore by the time that Gladstone and Disraeli assumed leadership of the two parties of state, popular understanding of party affiliations had become polarised and simple. It would be another twenty years before the schism over Irish home rule again interrupted the development of Britain’s two-party system.

Further reading:

A. Hawkins, Victorian Political Culture: ‘Habits of Heart and Mind’ (2015), esp. 99-102

J. Coohill, Ideas of the Liberal Party: Perceptions, Agendas and Liberal Politics in the House of Commons, 1832-52 (2011), esp. 13-45

J. Coohill, ‘Parliamentary Guides, Political Identity and the Presentation of Modern Politics, 1832-1846’, Parliamentary History, xxii (2003), 263-284

I. Newbould, ‘The emergence of a two-party system in England from 1830 to 1841: roll call and reconsideration’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, v (1985), 25-31

 

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Minority governments and major change: a Victorian view

For most modern commentators the prospects for minority governments, based on the experience of the last half century or so, don’t look particularly good. Nearly all the recent examples currently being revisited by analysts, such as those of the 1970s, have been short-lived and devoid of any major legislative achievements. Go back another century, however, and a rather different picture emerges. During the 19th century, when the UK’s parliamentary system was still evolving and party loyalties were less rigid, minority governments were not only more common but also provided opportunities for important political realignments and even some major constitutional reforms.

Sir Robert Peel’s Tory ministry of 1834-5 was the first to set the agenda for the operation of minority governments in the new era of popular politics that followed the ‘Great’ Reform Act. Formed less than two years after the landslide victory for the Whigs at the 1832 election, which left the Tories with less than 150 MPs, Peel’s ministry owed its existence to the interference of the King, who controversially dismissed the Whigs over their proposals to reform the Irish church and installed a Tory government instead. Peel’s insistence on calling an election – in which he produced his famous ‘Tamworth manifesto’ – and his attempt to adapt his policies to attract disaffected MPs in other parties created an important precedent, in which MPs were morally encouraged to support policies rather than parties, and back ‘measures not men’.

Extract from original Tamworth Manifesto, 1834

Although Peel lost the 1835 election, securing some 291 firm supporters to the Whig-Liberals’ 322, the existence of about 45 undecided MPs, many of whom backed Lord Stanley, a former Whig trying to form his own third party, left everything to play for. Peel lost major Commons votes on the address (i.e. on the King’s speech) and the appointment of a new speaker, and even suffered a humiliating rebellion within his own ranks over the taxes imposed on malt production. However, he did not resign until he was defeated in April 1835 on the Irish church, the issue which had brought him to power. Far from being a lame duck ministry, during the 140 days that this minority government held power it managed to introduce a number of key initiatives, most notably on reforming the outdated finances of the Church of England, but also on other controversial issues like church tithes and civil marriages.

Another Conservative prime minister oversaw not just one but three minority governments. The career of the Earl of Derby, as Lord Stanley became in 1851, provides another example of how Victorian prime ministers were able to govern and even implement major reforms without enjoying a Commons majority. This former Whig turned Protectionist Tory led ministries in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-68. Like Peel, he encouraged a ‘measures not men’ approach to parliamentary behaviour, although he left his leader in the Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, to sort out what this meant in practice. He also fought elections, in 1852 and 1859, in an unsuccessful bid to secure a majority, but like Peel only felt obliged to resign as prime minister after a Commons defeat on a central issue. His legislative achievements included finishing off two highly controversial measures which had been initiated by the Liberals. One completely changed the way India was governed, abolishing the long-entrenched monopoly of the East India Company, and the other, despite being a thorny issue with Protestant Tory hard-liners, allowed Jews to sit in Parliament.

This ability to absorb and adapt policies that would be difficult for other parties to oppose was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the parliamentary shenanigans surrounding one of the most far-reaching measures of the mid-Victorian era: the so-called ‘leap in the dark’ 1867 Reform Act. It seems extraordinary that this major constitutional reform, dramatically extending the vote to a large proportion of working-class men and almost doubling the electorate, should have been passed by the Tories, the party that had done the most to prevent the far less radical ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832. It is even more astonishing that this second instalment of reform, long lobbied for by radicals and Chartists, should have been passed by a Tory minority government some 70 MPs short of their rivals.

Disraeli (the horse) taking Britannia into the unknown, 1867

The story of how the Liberals’ reform bill of 1866 split the Liberal party into warring camps, allowing Derby and Disraeli to seize power and implement a free-for-all approach to policy-making that resulted in the 1867 Reform Act, provides one of the most revealing episodes in ‘parliamentary government’ on record. By accommodating almost every demand that secured majority Commons support, and skilfully exploiting the hopes and fears of his dubious party supporters in both Houses, Disraeli, in particular, turned minority governance into an art form.

Future blogs celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, later this year, will explore the passage and impact of this major achievement in more detail. Whether minority governments in our own era can pull off a similar feat remains to be seen.

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‘The only really important public service I performed’: John Stuart Mill’s women’s suffrage amendment, 20 May 1867

Our MP of the Month is John Stuart Mill (1806-73), who sat as Liberal MP for Westminster, 1865-8.

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, the House of Commons voted for the first time on the question of granting the parliamentary franchise to women. In this landmark division, an amendment to the Conservative ministry’s 1867 reform bill put forward by the Liberal MP for Westminster, John Stuart Mill, 75 MPs backed women’s suffrage. However, 196 MPs, including the Liberal party leader, William Gladstone, entered the opposite lobby.

In his autobiography, Mill, who sat in the Commons from 1865 until his defeat at the 1868 general election, described his amendment of 20 May 1867 as

by far the most important, perhaps the only really important public service I performed in the capacity of a Member of Parliament: a motion to strike out the words which were understood to limit the electoral franchise to males, thereby admitting to the suffrage all women who as householders or otherwise possess the qualification of all male electors.

John Stuart Mill

Women’s suffrage had been part of Mill’s political platform when he stood for election in 1865. During his successful campaign he was supported by female activists including Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies and Bessie Rayner Parkes. The following year, he presented the first mass female suffrage petition to the Commons, with 1,521 signatures.

In 1866 the Liberal ministry brought forward a reform bill, whose main purpose was to extend the franchise in borough constituencies to include a greater proportion of working-class men. This bill was defeated, but when the new Conservative ministry introduced its own reform bill in 1867, Mill took the opportunity to put a women’s suffrage amendment. Several more women’s suffrage petitions had already been presented to the Commons in March and April 1867, including one from Manchester with 3,161 signatures.

Mill made what was generally regarded as an eloquent and able speech when he introduced his amendment on 20 May 1867, which was, coincidentally, his 61st birthday. He began by asking whether there was

any adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the Constitution, though they may fulfil all the conditions legally and constitutionally sufficient in every case but theirs.

Mill went on to point out that women’s exclusion from the franchise went against ‘one of the oldest of our constitutional maxims’, namely that taxation and representation should go hand-in-hand. He cited and then sought to demolish several of the arguments commonly put forward against women’s enfranchisement, and argued forcefully that

the notion of a hard and fast line of separation between women’s occupations and men’s – of forbidding women to take interest in the things which interest men – belongs to a gone-by state of society which is receding further and further into the past.

A break-down of the division list reveals that an interesting cross-section of MPs voted in the minority with Mill. He took particular pride in having secured the support of John Bright, when ‘ten days before, he was decidedly against us’. Bright would, however, subsequently change his mind, voting against women’s suffrage in 1876. However, Bright’s younger brother Jacob, who entered the Commons as Liberal MP for Manchester at a by-election in November 1867, became a prominent advocate of the cause. He was responsible for securing the right for women to vote in municipal elections from 1869, and brought forward the first dedicated women’s suffrage bill in 1870.

Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, via McCord Museum

Like Bright, the majority of MPs who voted with Mill were Liberals. Among them was Viscount Amberley, the eldest son of Lord John Russell, who had been elected for Nottingham at a by-election the previous year. His wife, Katharine, had signed the June 1866 women’s suffrage petition. So too had Clementia Taylor, wife of the Leicester MP Peter Alfred Taylor, who also voted with Mill. Another Liberal supporter of Mill’s amendment whose wife was prominent in the women’s suffrage movement was Henry Fawcett, who had married Millicent Garrett – the future president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – less than a month earlier.

While many of the Liberal MPs who voted with Mill were associated with the ‘advanced’ wing of the party, there were some surprising names in the minority on the division list. The long-serving Glamorgan MP, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, a veteran of the pre-Reform Parliament, had displayed both Whiggish and Protectionist sympathies during his time in the Commons, but voted with Mill for women’s suffrage. Mill also attracted the support of a dozen Conservative MPs, with Russell Gurney, a leading lawyer and MP for Southampton, acting as a minority teller. The future chief Conservative party organiser, John Eldon Gorst, also voted with Mill, as did Benjamin Disraeli’s fellow Conservative MP for Buckinghamshire, Robert Bateson Harvey.

A significant number of the MPs who voted with Mill suffered the same fate as him at the 1868 general election, losing their seats. However, there were 19 MPs who divided for Mill’s amendment who would subsequently vote for Jacob Bright’s women’s suffrage bill in 1870. They included not only Fawcett, but also the Leeds MP Edward Baines, the Oldham MP John Tomlinson Hibbert and the Edinburgh MP Duncan McLaren.

Although it would be more than half a century before women received the parliamentary vote in 1918, and a further ten years before the 1928 Equal Franchise Act gave equal voting rights to men and women, the division of 20 May 1867 marked an important step in establishing women’s suffrage as a parliamentary question.

Minority for the Noes on John Stuart Mill’s women’s suffrage amendment, 20 May 1867

Further reading:

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Local polls and general elections: a Victorian perspective

As barometers of political opinion, local elections have long had a special place in British politics, offering useful (though not necessarily accurate) guides to national trends. The link between local and national polls, however, has always been complicated. As the pundits get to grips with this week’s local polls and what they might tell us about next month’s general election, spare a thought for the original pioneers (voters and parties) of England’s first town council elections.

England’s first municipal polls of 1835 were unbelievably complex by today’s standards. Held in the same year as the fourth(!) hotly contested general election to take place in less than five years, this new set of elections to create town councils quickly became highly politicised. What made 1835 especially unusual was the need to elect entire councils all in one go and then hold yet another poll to replace any councillors nominated as aldermen. With up to 12 council seats needing to be filled (in boroughs without wards), electors could cast a vote for one, two, three or up to a dozen candidates on their ballot papers. Even in multi-ward constituencies they could usually pick six councillors. With both the Conservatives and Liberals putting forward candidates, along with a host of independent and radical contenders, the voting permutations on offer became staggering.

In the six-seat wards of Shrewsbury, for example, council voters could chose one Tory and five Liberals, two Tories and four Liberals, half and half, four Tories and two Liberals, or five Tories and one Liberal. Each voter could also select different Tories and Liberals to make up these combinations, and of course the whole process could then be repeated by those who ‘plumped’ and opted to only use five, four, three etc. of all their six available votes. In theory (at least) Shrewsbury’s electors faced an astonishing 5,664 choices in these first town council elections. In nine-seat wards like those in Stockton, where two candidates vied for each council seat, there were an even more daunting 88,939 voting possibilities.

Fig 1: Printed council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

The way politicians and activists responded to these extraordinary council elections laid the foundations for the type of national party involvement in local polls that remains in place today. Rather than leaving anything to chance, and run the risk that voters might choose opposing parties or make mistakes, local Conservatives and Liberals began to distribute pre-printed ballot papers listing all their own candidates (see Fig. 1). All the elector then had to do was sign his name and hand in the voting paper. For many this provided the easiest route, and England’s first council elections showed a remarkably high-level of party-based voting, with many voters supporting exactly the same party that they had backed in general elections. Not everyone complied with this arrangement, however. As well submitting their own hand-written voting papers, electors often altered the pre-printed party lists by crossing out names and adding their own choices (see Figs. 1 & 2).

Fig 2: Hand written council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

One upshot of all this was that local election results became far more important than they otherwise might have been as potential indicators of national party strength. With so many municipal electors also qualifying for the parliamentary franchise, largely because of similar voting restrictions and registration systems, national party leaders inevitably began to take a keen interest in the outcome of local polls. In 1838, for instance, one agent in Dover confidently informed the Tory leaders that the ‘new mayor’ and ‘other vacancies in the municipal body will … be supplied from the Conservative party, so that there may be reason to expect a corresponding improvement in the Parliamentary franchise’. In a similar vein, the future Tory PM Sir Robert Peel was advised the following year that ‘the municipal election is already ours and this ascendancy will ultimately operate upon the parliamentary return’.

Today’s political leaders will inevitably be scrutinising this week’s local elections for indications of how their parties could perform in the general election. Whether these local polls will be as useful a barometer of national party strength as they were in the early Victorian era, however, remains to be seen.

Further reading:

  • See our earlier blog marking the 180th anniversary of town council elections
  • F. Moret, The End of the Urban Ancient Elite in England (2015)
  • J. A. Phillips, ‘England’s “other” ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (ed), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005), 139-163
  • P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History, xix (2000), 357-376 VIEW
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