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.


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.


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.


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

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


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.


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.

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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…


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).

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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.


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.


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.

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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 , , , | Leave a comment

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

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.


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


Further reading:

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