‘Unpopular only with people who made no allowance for eccentricity’: Henry Bulwer (1801-72), the diplomat MP

Our MP of the Month is Sir Henry Bulwer, best known as a controversial and colourful career diplomat. In this guest post, Dr Laurence Guymer, who has published extensively on Bulwer’s diplomatic career, explores how this intersected with his time in Parliament.

Born in 1801, Bulwer attended Harrow before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He was not at Trinity for long; finding it too academic, he moved to Downing. In the 1820s, Bulwer squandered the fortune he had inherited from his grandmother. He gambled at White’s and Almack’s and surrounded himself with actresses, dancers and estranged wives of rich men. After spending time in Greece during the War of Independence, he realised that he needed to take up some regular profession, and became an officer in the First Life Guards. He soon discovered, however, that his habits were not suited to the punctuality and discipline of a soldier. In 1826, and by now an aspiring writer, Bulwer published a collection of letters he had written in Greece. One particular admirer was the future Prime Minister, William Lamb (later Viscount Melbourne). Lamb endorsed Bulwer as a candidate for Hertford at that year’s general election, a contest he lost, despite support from the Cecil family at Hatfield House.

In 1830, Bulwer made an arrangement with the Earl of Pembroke for a seat in Parliament for the pocket borough of Wilton. Bulwer ‘like[d]’ being an MP ‘very much’, finding it ‘a regular & very amusing occupation.’ His role models were the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, and the Lord Privy Seal, the Earl of Durham, who were appropriately radical, and who had political and personal affinity with former Canningites like Viscounts Palmerston and Melbourne. Brougham had launched The Edinburgh Review, a Whig party organ that attacked aristocratic government, to which Bulwer contributed articles.

Bulwer did not, however, identify with any one political grouping inside Parliament. He enjoyed spending time socially with the Cecils and the Walpoles, but considered the Tory party ‘extreme and prejudiced on almost all questions’. He felt the ‘greatest admiration for Sir Robert Peel’s superior abilities’, but could not sit with his supporters. He was often at Holland House, the centre of Foxite Whiggery, but saw the Whigs as ‘not only a purely aristocratic party, but a purely aristocratic clique, which never admitted anyone within its circle without dislike or disgust’. By spring 1830 he was a dining companion of the young novelist and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. During the 1830s a sort of Norfolk-Hertfordshire Radical-Tory axis was formed between Bulwer; his younger brother, the novelist, Edward Bulwer Lytton; the second Marquess of Salisbury (a connection by marriage); Disraeli; and the Earl of Orford (brother of Disraeli’s mistress).

Bulwer tried to establish a reputation as a radical. He voted for the total abolition of the corn laws and also pressed for a Jewish disabilities bill and a representative assembly in New South Wales. He considered political reform necessary because it was

‘absurd that the great towns of Manchester and Birmingham should not elect members to sit in parliament, while some ruined old castle or dilapidated village did so’.

Yet Bulwer’s advocacy of reform was based more on common sense (that it would act as a safety valve for the country) than on radical principles. Like many of his contemporaries, he feared that the 1832 Reform Act might lead to further, more dangerous, reform.

Bulwer combined his career in Parliament with diplomatic missions. He spent time at the Legation in Berlin, and then in Vienna and the Hague, where he gained attention for his reports on the Belgian revolt. In 1831, he was elected for Coventry as an advanced Reformer. His victory was largely the result of the Whig party manager hiring a gang of ruffians to keep Tory voters away from the hustings. The following year, Bulwer was appointed attaché at Paris. Palmerston softened the ambassador’s objections by arguing that Bulwer would ‘annoy you but little’. The Foreign Secretary had been impressed with Bulwer’s speeches in the Commons, ‘put together’, he believed, ‘with great industry & some cleverness’.


Henry Bulwer in the 1830s

Bulwer had been re-elected for Coventry in 1832, but his alienation from the two main parties led to him standing instead at Marylebone in 1835 as an independent candidate. Despite his distaste for the Whigs, Bulwer accepted the need for a compromise between them and the Radicals in order to present a united front against the Conservatives. To help achieve this union, Bulwer wrote a pamphlet during Peel’s short-lived ministry and supported fully the Lichfield House Compact.

But he largely played at being a politician, choosing to do as little work as possible, and getting by with his likeability in society. He did not dash from committee room to committee room and often missed important divisions. He had even missed the vote on the second reading of the Reform Bill. Bulwer’s attachment to Disraeli did little to improve his worsening reputation. During the Taunton by-election in 1835, Disraeli’s Whig opponents attempted to sabotage his campaign by revealing that he was a member of the radical Westminster Reform Club who had been nominated by Bulwer. Disraeli and Bulwer were seen as turncoats. However, this did not affect Bulwer’s diplomatic prospects, for he still had the support of Melbourne and Palmerston on the Whig side, and Peel and the Earl of Aberdeen on the Conservative.


Henry Bulwer as ambassador at Constantinople in the 1860s

On his return to Britain in 1837, Bulwer committed himself to his parliamentary duties, but chose not to contest Marylebone at that year’s general election. He later claimed that this was because neither party shared his opinions on the corn laws or the Irish Church. It is more likely, however, that it was because of differences with an influential portion of the electors of Marylebone. Furthermore, Bulwer had finally decided to dedicate himself fully to diplomacy. Palmerston sent him to Constantinople to assist the ambassador with a commercial treaty. Twenty years later, Bulwer finally reached the height of his career when, having served in Spain, Italy and America, the Earl of Malmesbury appointed him ambassador to the Sublime Porte.

After being recalled from Constantinople in 1865, Bulwer re-entered British politics. In 1868, he was elected as Liberal MP for Peel’s old seat, Tamworth. His health was failing, his name was synonymous with intrigue and corruption, and he was bitter against the Foreign Office. Almost his last speech in the Commons was on the disestablishment of the Irish church, which he endorsed. His friends considered it one of the best speeches on the question, but owing to Bulwer’s weak voice, barely anyone in the chamber could hear it.

Bulwer was raised to the peerage as Baron Dalling and Bulwer in 1871. It was reported that he had been elevated to the Lords because he was about to give a pro-French speech just before the Franco-Prussian War. The Prime Minister (Gladstone) wished to remain on good terms with Bismarck, so offered Bulwer a peerage to hold his tongue. Bulwer kept quiet, but did not have long to enjoy his status as a peer. He died suddenly in Naples in May 1872. Bulwer’s good friend, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, wrote of him: There is no doubt that he was a most remarkable man … unpopular only with people who made no allowance for eccentricity’.

Dr Laurence Guymer

Further reading

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Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Open University: The Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850

We are pleased to announce that the History of Parliament Trust is participating in a doctoral studentship project in partnership with the Open University. Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award, for entry in 2020-21. The deadline for application to the Open University is 15 June 2020.

The proposed PhD research will examine ‘The Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850’. It will be supervised by Dr Amanda Goodrich (Open University) and Dr Robin Eagles (History of Parliament Trust). For further details on the project, see https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/black-and-mixed-ethnicity-presence-british-politics-1750-1850

The full text of the Open University’s advertisement for this post is reproduced below. Please note that enquiries and applications should be directed to the Open University, as outlined in the section on ‘How to apply’.


Jan or Dyani Tzatzoe (Tshatshu), Andries Stoffles, James Read Sr, James Read Jr and John Philip giving evidence to a Commons committee (by Richard Woodman, 1844) (C) NPG

Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Collaborative Doctoral Award

Open University-History of Parliament Trust /AHRC PhD Studentship

The Open University has available an AHRC funded PhD studentship through the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP consortium to start 2020/1.  It is a collaborative award with the History of Parliament Trust on ‘The black and mixed ethnicity presence in British politics, 1750-1850.’

There is today a move to restore Black and mixed ethnicity (BME) people to their rightful place in British history, yet few BME individuals have been identified in formal or extra-parliamentary British politics in the period.  This doctoral thesis will aim to identify, quantify and analyse the BME presence in British politics and political culture more broadly. We aim to provide a broad mandate to the candidate, so that s/he can have scope for exploring avenues of research that interest her/him in relation to the project.

Awards for UK residents cover all tuition fees and provide a maintenance grant at the standard RCUK rate (£15,009 p.a. in 2019/20). Non-UK citizens may be eligible to apply and should check on the OOC DTP CDA page at https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/eligibility.

The Open University is internationally recognized for innovative research across the Arts and Humanities. We host a number of major AHRC- and ESRC-funded research projects.  We have a strong commitment to cross-disciplinary work, to national and international public engagement, and to creative partnerships with a range of non-university partners. We also have a track record of supporting a wide range of diverse communities in different modes of flexible learning.

The History of Parliament Trust specialises in researching and publishing reference works on the history of the Westminster-based Parliament. It has an international reputation for the value and quality of its research and its resources, online and published on the British parliament, are unparalleled. The Trust will bring considerable experience to the research and supervision of this doctoral studentship.

We invite candidates from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and particularly, although not exclusively, BME candidates. The successful applicant would be expected to begin her/his studies in October 2020, although a February 2021 would also be possible.

How to apply

Closing date: noon 15th June 2020

Equal opportunity is University Policy.

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The MP who founded a town: Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (1801-66)

Over the past few years, we have highlighted several MPs who, quite apart from their involvement in parliamentary debates and legislation, had a significant personal role in the development of the infrastructure of Victorian Britain. Previous MPs of the Month have included the leading railway engineer Joseph Locke, the pioneering telegraph engineer Charles Tilston Bright and John Treeby, who helped to build London’s first underground railway.


Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood by William Charles Ross (1826) (C) Victoria & Albert Museum

This month we focus on the career of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (1801-66), MP for Preston, 1832-47, who developed not only a railway, but an entire town: the seaport and resort of Fleetwood on the Lancashire coast. Having toyed with calling it New Liverpool or Wyreton, he instead gave it his own family name. Born Peter Hesketh in 1801, he had added the surname Fleetwood to his own in 1831 to mark his descent from that family, whose estates he inherited on his father’s death in 1824. Hesketh-Fleetwood’s great-grandfather Roger Hesketh had married Margaret Fleetwood in 1733, uniting two long-established Lancashire families and their extensive landed properties. These included an estate at Rossall, where the Fleetwoods had lived since the seventeenth century.

DecimusBurtonNPG (2)

Decimus Burton (image credit: NPG)

Realising the potential of railway transport, and inspired by a stay at St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, where he befriended the architect Decimus Burton, Hesketh-Fleetwood decided in the early 1830s to create his own seaside resort for Lancashire’s working classes. He chose a site on his Rossall estate at the mouth of the river Wyre, formerly home only to a rabbit warren. He also wanted the new town of Fleetwood, one of the first towns to be planned around a railway, to provide year-round employment as a port. He chaired a meeting at Preston in October 1834 at which the Preston and Wyre railway, whose costs were estimated at £120,000, was initiated. Construction of Fleetwood’s buildings, designed by Burton, began in 1836, when Hesketh-Fleetwood laid the first stone, and the railway opened in July 1840.


Preston constituency 1832

Hesketh-Fleetwood had, meanwhile, been elected as MP for the nearby borough of Preston, 17 miles from his home at Rossall Hall, and took advantage of his position in Parliament to promote the railway bills needed for Fleetwood’s development.  He provides another good example of a phenomenon we have explored before in our blogs: the fluid and shifting political loyalties of MPs, who often played up their ‘independence’ from party. Standing for the first time in 1832, he insisted that he was ‘unconnected with any political party’, and although his victory in the poll owed much to moderate Tory support, he also won a considerable number of Liberal votes as a popular local landowner. At Westminster he was ‘never considered a very warm Tory’ and was happy to enter the division lobbies to vote alongside Radical MPs on matters such as replacing the corn laws with a fixed duty on corn and shortening the length of parliaments.

Despite this, it was clear at the time of the 1835 election that Hesketh-Fleetwood’s loyalties lay with the new Conservative ministry headed by Sir Robert Peel. He even offered Peel the assistance of his private secretary, Charles Dod, best known as the compiler of Dod’s parliamentary companion, whose knowledge of candidates might be useful for election purposes. (Peel politely declined the offer.) Although he supported the Peel ministry in important divisions on the speakership and the address in February 1835, Hesketh-Fleetwood was absent from the critical vote on the Irish church which brought the ministry down that April. His subsequent votes in the Commons reflected his growing distance from the Conservative party.

When he sought re-election for Preston at the 1837 election, he emphasised his ‘independent support’ for the Melbourne ministry’s ‘liberal measures and principles’. Having cemented his new political loyalties with his votes in the 1838 session, he was rewarded with a baronetcy in June 1838 and presented at court by Melbourne the following month. In June 1839, in his most significant parliamentary speech, he moved to enlarge the electorate by extending the £10 household franchise given to borough constituencies in 1832 to county seats as well, but was defeated by 207 votes to 81. At the next general election, in 1841, he openly declared his support for Liberalism and stood for the first time on a joint ticket with another Liberal candidate, Sir George Strickland. Both men secured an endorsement from Preston’s Chartists.

It was not, however, his shifting party allegiance which had the greatest influence on Hesketh-Fleetwood’s political career, but the spiralling costs of developing Fleetwood. These drained his financial resources and ultimately prompted his retirement from Parliament. He was responsible for all the expense of building the town – said to be over £100,000 – and half the costs of the railway, which totalled almost £200,000 more than originally projected. His position was made worse by having entrusted much of the management of his affairs at Fleetwood to an unreliable agent. Another blow came with the opening of a new rail route to Scotland, which undermined Fleetwood’s prospects as a port.


North Euston Hotel and Baths, Fleetwood (credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0)


Statue of Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (image credit: Wyre council)

During the 1840s Hesketh-Fleetwood therefore gradually sold off ‘first one ancestral estate and then another’ to shore up his financial position. In 1844 he gave up his residence at Rossall Hall and leased it to the Northern Church of England School, which eventually bought the property. Although he claimed that his finances were on a firmer footing by 1847, he decided not to undergo the expense of a contest at that year’s general election. He continued to sell off various properties, including the North Euston Hotel at Fleetwood, during the 1850s. He spent some time living in Spain, where his Spanish second wife secured a small allowance from the king. Although he was briefly in the field as a prospective Liberal candidate for Preston in 1861-2, he abandoned this due to ill health. He died in 1866, having lost most of the family fortune. His contemporaries marked his role in Fleetwood’s development by building schools there in his honour; more recently his contribution has been recognised by a statue, unveiled in 2018.

Further reading

  • H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Fleetwood, Sir Peter Hesketh-’, Oxf. DNB [www.oxforddnb.com]
  • B. Curtis, The golden dream. The biography of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, Bart., and the founding of the town of Fleetwood in Lancashire (1994)
  • R. Fleetwood-Hesketh, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, baronet (1801-1866). Founder of the town and port of Fleetwood (1951, reprinted 1966)
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Floods, Plagues and the Second Coming: Charles Augustus Tulk MP

Apocalyptic end days, doomsday scenarios and final judgements were prominent features of many people’s religious beliefs in the 19th century, but a few went further, maintaining that the Second Coming had already taken place. Among them was our MP of the month, Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).

Charles Augustus Tulk MP

Tulk was the first ‘Swedenborgian’ MP to sit in the Commons, where he represented Sudbury from 1820-26 and Poole from 1835-7 with the help of his vast purse. (His family had inherited estates that included London’s Leicester Square). He was a founder member of London’s Swedenborgian Society, established in 1810 to promote the teachings of the self-proclaimed ‘servant of the Lord Jesus Christ’, Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1782).

Swedenborg’s followers believed that the world had already experienced a series of ‘last judgements’, including Noah’s flood and Egypt’s ten plagues. Each cataclysm had ended a a distinct religious age on Earth and been accompanied by a ‘final judgement’ of its dead in the spiritual world. Each judgement had also ushered in a new phase of religion and a new church, including the one which had developed following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the group believed, had already taken place, with Christ speaking directly through Swedenborg. Hence the need to translate and spread Swedenborg’s writings about reforming the Christian faith.

Although this theological movement suffered many internal divisions, its emphasis on humanity’s spiritual development, the supernatural world and mystical interpretations of the New Testament made it popular with several leading early 19th century radicals and romantic poets, not least Tulk’s close friends William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also became linked with early vegetarian practices, which Tulk himself seems to have followed.

But to what extent did it influence Tulk’s politics? There is little doubt that Tulk, inspired by Swedenborg’s example, entered Parliament in order to try to bring about social change. His religious beliefs emphasised that people’s actions towards others, and not faith alone, were what counted when the soul was judged. He was certainly a very independently-minded MP, even by the loose party standards of the time. Sitting alongside the extreme Radicals in the 1820s, as part of the ‘mountain’ of opposition to the Tory government, he steadily backed most of their causes, including their campaigns to abolish hanging and flogging, improve what he called the ‘atrocious’ working conditions in factories, and get rid of colonial slavery. He also had no qualms about supporting parliamentary reform, despite sitting for one of the most notorious ‘rotten boroughs’ in the country. But when it came to Catholic emancipation, almost a watchword of liberal orthodoxy by this time, he was staunchly opposed to any form of concession and instead sided with the die-hard ‘church and state’ Tories. He also refused to engage in any tactical voting against the Tory government on economic issues and any other sordid party ‘devices’.

One of Tulk’s many theological tracts

Tulk’s cross-party stance contributed to him losing his seat at the 1826 election. By then, however, almost all of his time was being taken up with fighting theological disputes arising from his writings, including rebutting charges of ‘heresy’. By the time he resurfaced, Parliament had been reformed by the 1832 Reform Act.

In his last stint as an MP for Poole from 1835-7 Tulk settled down as an ‘extreme liberal’. As well as backing the secret ballot, he supported the removal of bishops from the Lords, the revision of the corn laws, tax reductions, and allowing ladies to be admitted to the public gallery of the Commons.

What really marked out his final years in the Commons, however, was his growing concern for the working poor. His desire to restrict work on Sundays, rather than being motivated by religion, seems to have entirely been driven by the need to provide the ‘humbler classes’ with one free day a week for ‘innocent recreations’. These would include visiting newly established libraries, museums, public walks and parks, all of which Tulk tried (unsuccessfully) to bring in legislation to promote (along with stricter regulations on the sale of alcohol). The plight of the Irish tenant farmers under British rule also increasingly drew his sympathy. However, it was the unfair conviction of the Tolpuddle martyrs, a group of agricultural labourers charged with swearing an ‘unlawful’ oath, that he spoke most about. He became one of the leading supporters of the ultimately successful campaign for their pardon and release from a penal colony.

In retirement Tulk continued his theological writing. His publication in 1846 of Spiritual Christianity, however, prompted an irrevocable rift with the Swedenborgian Society, and he became ‘so noxious’ to them ‘that his death [in 1849] was not even mentioned in their magazine’, the New Church Advocate. He has long since been rehabilitated by the society, which continues to operate today.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month, religion | 2 Comments

MP of the Month: William Nugent Macnamara (1776-1856)

By the time he retired from the House of Commons in 1852 William Nugent Macnamara, the long-serving MP for County Clare, was in his late seventies and had taken no practical part in parliamentary business for the previous three years. His failing abilities in later life were in stark contrast with the younger days of the man once known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, always ready to settle disputes with a duel.

William Nugent Macnamara (CC via NPG)

A Protestant landowner and militia officer, Macnamara came from a family with deep roots in Ireland. His father Francis had represented County Clare in the Irish Parliament as a supporter of Catholic emancipation and was himself a noted duellist: his meeting with a Mr. Fitzgerald at Highgate in May 1798 resulted in the wounding of both parties. Like his father, Macnamara supported the Catholic cause, having witnessed extreme sectarian violence during his time as a young militia officer in Armagh, which culminated in the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ in September 1795. He became a popular country gentleman, earning a reputation in county Clare as ‘the poor man’s magistrate’, and was said to have been a universal favourite due to his ‘winning cordiality’ and ‘raciness of utterance’.

In January 1815 Macnamara played a leading role in one of the most memorable events in the career of Daniel O’Connell, when he acted as second to O’Connell in his duel with John D’Esterre, who was defending the honour of Dublin corporation, which O’Connell had insulted as ‘beggarly’. D’Esterre had a reputation as a ‘deadly marksman’, but in this encounter he was fatally wounded by O’Connell, who was said to owe his life to Macnamara’s expertise as a duellist. Not only did Macnamara win the toss which gave O’Connell the choice of position, but he also advised O’Connell to remove his white cravat, which prevented D’Esterre from taking advantage of this when regulating his aim. Given his prowess in this field, it was not surprising that O’Connell originally wanted Macnamara to accompany him to Ostend that September when he expected to take part in a duel with Sir Robert Peel.

O’Connell’s duel of January 1815 (Irish Magazine, Mar. 1815)

In contrast with the gentlemanly code of conduct associated with the settlement of matters of honour in a duel, Macnamara demonstrated that there was a coarser side to his nature when he was prosecuted in 1821 for helping his brother, Richard, to violently assault Thomas Wallace in Sackville Street, Dublin. Later a Liberal MP for Carlow, Wallace was the prosecuting counsel in a lawsuit against Richard for breach of promise of marriage. Macnamara was subsequently accused of publishing a letter which libelled Wallace with the intention of provoking a duel.

Macnamara, who had been suggested as a candidate for County Clare at the 1826 general election, made another important contribution to O’Connell’s career when he (and other liberal Protestants) declined to stand for the constituency in April 1828, leaving the way open for O’Connell to secure his famous by-election victory there. At the 1830 general election Macnamara was returned to Parliament for County Clare (O’Connell was elected instead for County Waterford), but only after a violent quarrel with the O’Connells during which he rebuffed a challenge to a duel from O’Connell’s second son, Morgan. Another duel seemed likely in 1831 after Macnamara fell out with his friend The O’Gorman Mahon, one of the other candidates for County Clare, during an election contest which saw ‘unlimited use of the Billingsgate language’ between the contending parties.

Happily, however, the storm blew over. Having topped the poll at Clare in 1830 and 1831, Macnamara repeated this in 1832, one of six contested elections he fought in that most volatile of constituencies. He was personally popular in the county, where he was considered ‘every inch a king’. In contrast with his fiery personality, his appearance was ‘portly, dignified and handsome’, with ‘profusely-powdered and highly-frizzled’ whiskers. With his penchant for ‘the regal fashions’, he was said by his fellow Irish MP Richard Sheil to have made ‘a very fine effigy’ of George IV. However, his reputation as a duellist was not forgotten by one observer at Westminster, who described him passing Sir Robert Peel – a political opponent and no stranger himself to a duel – in the lobbies. After Peel gave him ‘one of his most honeyed smiles’, Macnamara reciprocated ‘as blandly as if he had him at twelve paces on Wimbledon Common, with surgeons for two, and a coffin for one ordered at the adjoining public house’.

Further reading:

  • S. Farrell, ‘Macnamara, William Nugent’, HP Commons, 1820-1832, vi. 291-5.
  • O. MacDonagh, The Hereditary Bondsman. Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (1988), 134-8.
  • R. Sheil, Sketches of the Irish Bar (1854), ii. 266-70.
  • J. Kelly, That Damn’d Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860 (1995).
Posted in Biographies, Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became…

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Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): the life of a queer MP at the time of the Second Reform Act

Dr Martin Spychal introduces his new series of blogs for the Victorian Commons on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), who was elected as MP for Sutherland in 1867.

Sarony, Gower

N. Sarony, Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (c. 1884) CC NPG

Born into ‘the inner circle of English aristocratic life’, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) is best known as the likely inspiration for the hedonistic aristocrat, Lord Henry Wotton, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and as the sculptor of the Shakespeare Memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is a prominent figure in Britain’s nineteenth-century LGBTQ+ history on account of his connection with Wilde (who spoke at the unveiling of the Shakespeare Memorial), his own output as an artist and author, and his centrality to queer metropolitan society from the 1870s.*

As Joseph Bristow has suggested, despite Gower’s sexual interest in men becoming an increasingly open secret in high society by the end of the nineteenth century, his wealth and social status allowed him to avoid the criminal sentencing that destroyed the lives of less connected queer men (both before and after the 1885 Labouchère Amendment).

Shakespeare Memorial

Prince Hal in Gower’s Shakespeare Memorial (1888), now known as the Gower Monument, Bancroft Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon

This relative freedom allowed him to play an influential role in shaping, and to an extent asserting, queer identities during the late nineteenth century. Whitney Davis has astutely observed that in terms of his artistic practice, by the late 1880s Gower ‘had begun self-consciously to enact the possibility – the aesthetic possibility – of an essentially homosexual life-historical identity’. And John Potvin has suggested that Gower’s remarkable bric-a-brac ‘treasure house’ at Windsor Lodge, which became a meeting point for a generation of young aesthetes from the 1870s, reflected Gower’s ‘unique sense of queer time and place’.

In 1867, at the age of just 21, Gower was returned for the Scottish county of Sutherland. He represented the constituency until 1874. For most of those years he kept a detailed diary, parts of which found their way into his popular two volume autobiographical memoirs, My Reminiscences, published in 1883. After working on the manuscript of Gower’s diary for the History of Parliament’s forthcoming Commons 1832-1868 volumes it has become clear to me that Gower undertook a considerable amount of self-censorship in his memoirs. More importantly it is evident that the document warrants specific attention beyond the scope of the traditional History of Parliament biography format.


Gower (third from the left) on the Metropolitan Railway at Kensington High Street with fellow dignitaries, July 1868, CC NPG

As well as being a significant source for understanding the machinations of parliamentary politics at the time of the second Reform Act, Gower’s unpublished diary offers an amazing opportunity to understand the life of a young, aristocratic queer man as he navigated his way through the homosocial world of Westminster politics, and established himself in London society. It also offers an opportunity to examine Gower’s connection to London’s queer culture during the 1860s, discussed in Charles Upchurch’s excellent Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009).


The first page of Gower’s diary from 1867, SRO D6578/15/21

In a series of blogs over the next few months I’ll use Gower’s diary to consider various aspects of his life in London as an MP during 1867 and 1868, from his reputed nickname as ‘the beautiful boy’ of the House of Commons, to his election at the 1867 by-election, and his experiences as an MP at Westminster. Moving outside Parliament, I’ll consider his busy social life (featuring aristocratic balls, West End nightlife and an intriguing predilection for spectating at major London fires), an apparent summer romance with the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, his close friendship with his cousin and MP for Argyllshire, the Marquess of Lorne, and his developing connections with London’s art world.

Part two: ‘Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): the social life of a queer MP at the time of the Second Reform Act

Part three: ‘The ‘beautiful boy’ of the Commons: Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) and sexual identity in Parliament at the time of the Second Reform Act

Part four: ‘A Highland canvass in a ‘pocket county’: Ronald Gower (1845-1916) and the 1867 Sutherland by-election

Part five: ‘‘Covent Garden was lit up by a lucid light’: an MP’s account of the fire at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 6 December 1867

* Following the theories pioneered by leading queer theorists since the 1980s (including Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner) I use the term ‘queer’ because, to borrow from Warner, it ‘defin[es] itself against the normal rather than the heterosexual’. Queer allows for a much wider definition of sexuality because it avoids the binary of homosexuality vs heterosexuality.

Further Reading

S. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others (2006)

S. Avery, K. M. Graham, Sex, Time and Place: Queer Histories of London, c.1850 to the Present (2018)

J. Bristow, ‘Oscar Wilde, Ronald Gower, and the Shakespeare Monument’, Études anglaises (2016)

M. Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality 1885-1914 (2003)

H. G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (2003)

W. Davis, Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond (2010)

W. Davis, ‘Lord Ronald Gower and ‘the offending Adam’, in D. Getsy (ed.), Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain (2004)

E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

J. Potvin, Bachelors of a Different Sort (2014)

C. Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009)

P. Ward-Jackson, ‘Lord Ronald Gower, Gustave Doré and the Genesis of the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1987)

P. Ward-Jackson, ‘Gower, Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson- (1845-1916)’, Oxf. DNB

M. Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (1993)


Posted in Biographies, LGBT+ History Month, Queer Parliamentary Life, Ronald Gower Series, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Sir Robert Peel and the modern Conservative party

Today (5 Feb) marks the birthday of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the 19th century prime minister traditionally credited with founding the modern Conservative party. Peel is also subject of a new BBC ‘Prime Properties’ episode – click here to view – and the latest video from the History of Parliament’s public engagement team.

Perhaps more than any other Victorian leader, Peel’s career was dominated by themes and events that continue to have striking resonances today. These include implementing controversial constitutional reforms that divided his party, heading a short-lived minority Tory government and winning a landslide Conservative election victory using new electoral techniques. The extent of Peel’s role in rebuilding the Conservative party after its catastrophic election defeat in 1832, however, has always been a moot point. Peel was notoriously aloof and awkward as a leader. A new breed of party officials instead exerted considerable control behind the scenes during the years he was in charge. What then should we make of Peel’s personal contribution to modern Conservatism?

It is often forgotten that Peel, though immensely wealthy, was not ‘born to rule’ in the same way that many of his Harrow or Oxford University contemporaries were. His father, a highly successful and socially ambitious Lancashire industrialist, had bought his way into the landed gentry, acquiring a country estate near Tamworth and becoming its Tory MP. Generous donations to the party earned the family a baronetcy, but Peel and his father never completely lost their regional accents or parvenu status.

In 1809 the father bought Peel, aged just 21, a seat in the Commons for a ‘pocket borough’. Within a year Peel was given a junior post by the Tory government, beginning one of the most meteoric ministerial careers on record. His anti-Catholic sympathies earned him the nickname ‘Orange Peel’ during his six year stint as Irish secretary, while the new police force he established as home secretary became known as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’.

Anti-Peel graffiti at an Oxford College

In 1829, however, Peel helped to trigger a major revolt in the Tory party. Already facing criticism for his role in repealing many of the civil restrictions on Dissenters, Peel’s decision to do the same for Catholics, allowing them to hold office and become MPs, left many Protestants aghast. At Oxford University, where he had been an MP since 1817, Peel’s ‘betrayal’ of Britain’s ancient Protestant constitution sparked outrage. Effigies of the ‘traitor’ Peel were burned in protest. In Parliament, incensed Ultra-Protestants quit the Tory party in droves, withdrawing their support for the Tory ministry led by the Duke of Wellington. This split in the Tory party, more than any other event, paved the way for the Whigs to assume power in 1830, ending 25 years of Tory rule. Within a few months the Whig-Reform coalition had brought in their famous reform bill.

Why did ‘Orange’ Peel back Catholic emancipation? Electoral realities explain some of it. By 1829 the electoral power in Ireland of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association had become a major headache for the Tory ministry. By offsetting the effects of emancipation with the disfranchisement of poorer Irish voters – it is often forgotten that the 1829 act also removed 175,000 Irish Catholics from the electoral rolls – Peel and Wellington hoped to reconfigure Irish electoral politics and bring stability to the country.

Cartoon showing Peel (left) and Wellington ‘burking’ (suffocating) the British Constitution


Electoral realities also go some way to explain Peel’s even more controversial U-turn in 1846, over the corn laws. Fearing the electoral power of Richard Cobden’s immensely successful Anti-Corn Law League, which had mobilised an entire army of newly registered freehold voters for the next election, Peel tried to avert disaster by bowing to popular pressure and repealing the corn laws. Unfortunately two-thirds of his MPs disagreed. Their rebellion, still the biggest on record in British political history, ended his government. The resulting split in the party between Peelites and Protectionists helped keep the Conservatives out of office for all but five of the next 28 years. It was not until 1874 that they were again able to win a majority at the polls.

Other explanations for Peel’s policies, stressing his business-like pragmatism, economic theories and high-minded willingness to always put country before party, can be found in the leading works of Norman Gash, Boyd Hilton, Douglas Hurd and Richard Gaunt (see below). Ian Newbould’s provocative article on ‘Peel: a study in failure?’ also remains essential reading, not least because it argues that the Conservatives’ landslide election victory of 1841 owed far more to a resurgence of traditional church-and-field Toryism than support for the new ‘moderate’ Conservatism peddled by Peel in his famous Tamworth manifesto.

The most striking assessment, however, remains that of Disraeli, Peel’s nemesis in debate and successor as Tory leader in the Commons. In his speeches and books Disraeli attacked Peel as a devious unprincipled charlatan, a man totally devoid of political integrity whose entire career revolved around ‘stealing’ other people’s ideas when expediency suited him and ratting on his colleagues. This compulsive ‘political larceny’, as Disraeli termed it, explained not only Peel’s betrayal of the Protestant constitution in 1829, but also his complete volte face in taking up the cause of free trade in 1846.

That Disraeli, a former Radical turned Tory, was no stranger to similar character traits makes his assessment all the more compelling. It was Disraeli, of course, who was later responsible for passing one of the most extraordinary acts of ‘political larceny’ in the 19th century – the 1867 Reform Act. Based almost entirely on adopting the policies of his opponents, in what was widely seen as a cynical ruse to stay in power, this landmark extension of the franchise was deemed a ‘political betrayal’ without ‘parallel’ by the future Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury.

Whether Peel’s motives lay in political expediency or high-minded statesmanship, there can be little doubt about his personal influence and enduring legacy in the development of the modern Conservative party.

Further reading:

Commons speech by Disraeli, 15 May 1846

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1790-1820 volumes

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1820-1832 volumes

B. Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck (1852)

N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel (1961)

N. Gash, Sir Robert Peel (1972)

B. Hilton, ‘Peel: a reappraisal’, Historical Journal (1979), xxii. 585-614

I. Newbould, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review (1983), xcviii. 529-57

D. Hurd, Robert Peel: a biography (2008)

R. Gaunt, Sir Robert Peel: the life and legacy (2010)

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From parliamentary reporter to Member of Parliament: Robert Spankie (1774-1842)


A silhouette believed to be of Robert Spankie, Veitch, ‘Mr Serjeant Spankie’, Transactions … Lancashire and Cheshire, 82 (1930).

January’s MP of the Month takes a look at the unusual pre-parliamentary career of Robert Spankie, who was returned for Finsbury in 1832. A ground-breaking parliamentary reporter during the 1790s, Spankie ascended to the editorship of the Morning Chronicle before re-training as a barrister and serving as a controversial advocate-general of Bengal.

The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Spankie was born in Falkland in 1774 and at 14 was sent to the University of St Andrews. He left for London in 1792 without graduating, after his work at an Edinburgh newspaper brought him to the attention of James Perry, the Scottish editor of London’s leading Whig newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.

Perry invited the ‘tall and rather athletic’ Spankie to work as a parliamentary reporter, a role that entailed recording speeches in the Commons and Lords for daily publication in the newspaper. Over the following decade he established himself as ‘one of the most rapid writers ever known on the press’ due to his shorthand speed and ability to compose a newspaper column in an hour (double the speed of the next quickest correspondents).

Rowlands, House of Commons 1808

The scene of Spankie’s early career as a parliamentary reporter, T. Rowlandson, ‘House of Commons’ (1808)

He was also known for his unwavering commitment to the relay system of parliamentary reporting, where journalists sat in shifts through the early hours to record debates for publication that morning. His reputation in this regard was thanks largely to the Fleet Street legend that once, when faced with a looming deadline and a congested Commons after a late night division, Spankie:

climbed over the balustrade of the stairs which communicated from the old smoking-room with the strangers’-gallery; and, suspending himself by his hands therefrom, dropped into the members’ lobby below (a height of 16 to 18 feet), amidst a crowd of senators. So suddenly was the affair accomplished, and so fleet of foot was the performer, that he escaped caption by any of the myrmidons of the Sergeant-at-Arms, and reached the office [of the Morning Chronicle] in safety and triumph [The Times, 5 Nov. 1842].

By around 1800 Spankie had become an editor and part-proprietor of the Morning Chronicleearning the respect of radicals such as William Cobbett for his ‘excellent articles’ and cultivating a social atmosphere at the newspaper’s offices where ‘port wine and claret flowed freely’.


The Morning Chronicle, 9 Mar. 1801

Discontented with his status as a lowly ‘gentleman of the press’, Spankie began to train as a lawyer at Inner Temple in 1803. He maintained his editorial duties while reading for the bar and developed increasingly close ties with the Whigs, acting as the chief conduit between the Ministry of All the Talents and the Morning Chronicle between 1806 and 1807. His increasing political moderation during this period earned him a lifelong enemy in the previously sympathetic William Cobbett, who was outraged that Spankie had succumbed to ‘the degrading influence of ministerial temptation’.

After selling his shares in the Morning Chronicle in 1807 Spankie was called to the bar and gradually built up a practice on the Home Circuit. He developed a distinctively ‘animated’ courtroom style to detract from common complaints about his ‘most discordant voice and a revoltingly coarse Scottish accent’. His brogue would continue to hinder him for the rest of his life despite sparing ‘no pains or cost to train himself as an orator’, which included elocution lessons from the radical reformer and speech therapist, John Thelwall.

In 1813 Spankie married Euphemia Inglis, the daughter of the East India Company director, John Inglis. Family connections soon secured lucrative legal work for the East India Company, and in July 1817 he was elected advocate-general of Bengal. Arriving in India in January 1818 he enjoyed a generous salary and precedence over all other members of the Calcutta bar. As the official legal representative of the East India Company he became notorious for his role in the suppression of the Calcutta Journal and the expulsion from India of its editor James Silk Buckingham in April 1823. Radical critics at home and abroad did not fail to note the irony of a journalist of former radical leanings enthusiastically working to curtail press freedoms and defend the unpopular East India Company monopoly.


The Spankie Family in Calcutta, G. S. Veitch, ‘Mr Serjeant Spankie’, Transactions … Lancashire and Cheshire, 82 (1930), 42–67

Liver disease forced his return to London later that year, where he settled at 36 Russell Square. Quickly re-establishing himself on the Home Circuit and in the Court of Common Pleas he was appointed a serjeant-at-law in July 1824, granted patents of precedence in January 1831, and appointed King’s serjeant in November 1832. He retained his East India contacts throughout and was appointed standing counsel to the East India Company in July 1831.

Finsbury low res

The newly enfranchised metropolitan borough of Finsbury, S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary (1835)

Having exhibited little traceable political activity since his return from India, Spankie announced his intention to contest the newly enfranchised constituency of Finsbury in July 1832. His candidacy reignited his now long-standing rivalry with William Cobbett, whose Political Register condemned Spankie’s treatment of the press in India and accused him of being complicit in the ‘crowds of vendors of cheap publications, who are in Coldbath Fields Prison’. His campaign was also subject to charges of voter intimidation, when it was alleged that East India Company workers had been pressured by their bosses into voting for him.

While identifying as a lifelong reformer on the hustings he astutely positioned himself as the most moderate candidate in a field of five candidates professing Whig-Liberal sympathies. Despite Spankie’s refusal to accept any party label, the anti-reform Standard observed approvingly that Spankie was neither ‘Whig or Tory’, but ‘essentially Conservative’. Amidst cries of ‘No East India Monopoly’ on Islington Green on 12 December 1832 Spankie was declared an MP for Finsbury. His return in second place was thanks largely to a split vote among his more progressive opponents. It was also one of the rare instances of a parliamentary reporter making it from the strangers’ gallery to the benches of the Commons.


For details about how to access the biographies of Spankie and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.


Posted in Biographies, Elections, Empire, Images of MPs, MP of the Month, Parliamentary life, party labels, Scotland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons!

For eight years now we have been marking the new year with some highlights from the previous 12 months. The events of 2019 certainly focused attention on parliamentary history and the UK’s constitutional practices as never before. Taking our cue from the succession of political crises, we blogged about Political Prorogations, the Speaker and Erskine May and the dilemmas of conscience facing rebel MPs. The relationship between Parliament and ‘the people’ also came in for scrutiny, conjuring up many historical comparisons. The 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre  ­̶  perhaps the most iconic ‘popular’ protest in British history  ­̶  was commemorated with an exhibition and colloquium we helped to organise in Parliament. Alongside related Peterloo blogs, this prompted our first vlog (video blog), co-produced with Royal Holloway.

Peterloo Massacre by Thomas Tegg (1819)

Staying with the ‘Parliament versus the People’ theme, we also explored the Newport Rising of 1839, another milestone in the long history of the struggle for political change. A more regional focus came from a joint conference held with the Devon and Cornwall Record Society. This explored the South West’s relationship with Parliament. Building on his PhD research, Martin Spychal examined how the distinct political cultures of Devon and Cornwall were impacted by franchise reforms and the development of more modern electioneering practices in the years after 1832.

The Chairing by T. Rowlandson

The most popular blog of 2019 was by Kathryn Rix on electoral corruption. Based on her keynote speech at a conference held in January, this set the scene for more election-related posts throughout the year, including one on the use of uncivil speech and an 1832-68 election overview that appeared shortly before we all went to the polls in December.

The scale of ‘treating’ in early 19th century elections was again brought home in a blog about John Fenton MP. Six people died from intoxication at the 1835 election in which he was defeated, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’.

Turning the spotlight on agents, Philip Salmon focused on Thomas Jones Phillips, a pioneering Tory election strategist and ancestor of the comedian Jack Whitehall, whose ruthless manipulation of the new voter registration system was revealed in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. Two guest writers, Gary Hutchison and Nicholas Dixon, also examined election violence and the electoral influence of the Anglican clergy respectively, while Martin Spychal added blogs exploring the enfranchisement of the University of London in 1868 and its charter and offered a tantalising glimpse of his new book with a post about the Whigs’ use of science in politics. Guest blogs were also provided by Ruscombe Foster on the man ‘who might have been PM’, Sidney Herbert; by Amanda Goodrich on a previously unidentified ‘non-white’ MP, Henry Redhead Yorke; and by Jennifer Davey on the political career and influence of Lady Derby.

The core of our work remains the constituency articles and MP biographies, with their capacity to throw up all sorts of unusual perspectives on Victorian political life and challenge traditional assumptions. This year’s MP of the Month series included two impecunious peers whose experience of the Commons gave them important skills as colonial governors, Charles Monck and the Earl of Mulgrave, as well as the pioneering engineer responsible for laying the first Atlantic telegraph cable, Charles Tilston Bright MP. We also found out about from Stephen Ball about Edward Schenley MP, who eloped with a 15 year old Pittsburgh heiress almost 30 years his junior and died a multi-millionaire. His £100 bribes to the electors of Dartmouth, however, prompted his hasty removal from the Commons. Of all the oddities about Victorian MPs uncovered this year, though, it has to be danger to life posed by turnips and large cats that really stands out. Being eaten by a tiger is a such a Victorian way to trigger a by-election.

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

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Beware the turnip! Unusual causes of death among Victorian MPs

Our MP of the Month, Sir William Payne Gallwey, died on this day in 1881 after suffering a rather unusual accident…

On 19 December 1881 the former Conservative MP for Thirsk, Sir William Payne Gallwey, died following an accident while out shooting on his estate at Thirkleby Park, near Thirsk. He was not the only MP to die while pursuing this hobby: James Platt, Liberal MP for Oldham, died after the mayor of Oldham discharged his gun accidentally while they were out with a shooting party on the moors near Saddleworth. Platt was hit in the lower leg and suffered extensive blood loss, expiring just over an hour later.


Sir Ralph Frankland Payne Gallwey, son of Sir William Payne Gallwey. Image credit: NPG

In Gallwey’s case, however, it was not a firearm which caused his demise, but a turnip. As the Northern Echo reported, he ‘was out shooting in the parish of Bagby, and in crossing a turnip field fell with his body on to a turnip, sustaining severe internal injuries’. Although ‘all that medical aid could do was done’, Gallwey, who was 73 years old, was already in failing health and did not recover. He died at his home at Thirkleby Park and was buried in the local parish church three days later.

The manner of Gallwey’s death did not deter his son Ralph, who succeeded him as baronet, from pursuing his own passion for shooting. He even wrote several books on the subject, including The book of duck decoys (1886) and High pheasants in theory and practice (1913).

Gallwey’s death occurred the year after his retirement from Parliament. He had represented Thirsk from March 1851 until he stepped down at the 1880 general election. Prior to 1832 this constituency had been firmly under the control of the Frankland family, who owned 49 of the 50 properties which qualified their occupants to vote under the ‘burgage’ franchise. As a small borough, Thirsk lost one of its two seats in 1832, but Sir Robert Frankland (later Frankland Russell), who had been one of the MPs since 1815, was re-elected for the single seat in 1832, before retiring in 1834. Two other local landowners, Samuel Crompton and John Bell, then served in turn as MP. Although a commission of lunacy declared John Bell to be ‘of unsound mind’ in 1849, he remained as MP until his death in March 1851.

Lawrence, Thomas, 1769-1830; Sir Robert Frankland Russell (1784-1849), 7th Bt

Sir Robert Frankland Russell, by Thomas Lawrence. Image credit: Chequers Court

The ensuing by-election gave Gallwey, a former army officer, an opportunity to enter Parliament. His connection to Thirsk came through his marriage in 1847 to Emily, the third daughter of Sir Robert Frankland Russell. Gallwey’s father-in-law had died in 1849, leaving no sons, and it was therefore his widow, Lady Frankland Russell, who attended to the family’s electoral interests, another example of the female political influence we have blogged about before. She secured the agreement of the Bell family, the other major local landowners who wielded electoral power, to return her nominee at the long-anticipated by-election following Bell’s death. While Sir Robert Frankland had been elected as ‘a moderate Reformer’ in 1832, his political sympathies had shifted after his retirement from the Commons, and Disraeli described him in 1836 as ‘a Whig who has become Conservative’. Gallwey shared these political views, issuing an address ‘on Protectionist, Protestant, and moderate Conservative principles’ before his unopposed return in 1851. He was returned without a contest at every subsequent election until 1868, when he saw off a Liberal challenge, and again with no poll in 1874.

Despite spending almost three decades in Parliament, Gallwey failed to impress with his speaking abilities. The Northern Echo observed scathingly that

‘although he has heard the burning words of Mr Gladstone, the polished satire of Mr Disraeli, the sustained eloquence of John Bright, and the incisive epigrams of Mr Lowe, he has never acquired the art of public speaking’.

He was, however, praised in 1865 by Punch for his efforts – thwarted by the railway interest – to improve railway safety by forcing railway companies to provide some method of communication between passengers and guards.

McGregor, Robert, 1847-1922; The Turnip Field

The Turnip Field, by Robert McGregor (1847–1922). Image credit: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Strange though it may seem, Gallwey is not the only MP whose death involved a turnip. In November 1833 the Whig MP for Huddersfield, Lewis Fenton, elected for his native borough during a riotous contest the previous year, fell from one of the upper windows of his home at Spring Grove. He landed in the courtyard below at around 8:30 a.m., and died later that morning from his injuries. Press reports suggested that there was ‘considerable mystery’ surrounding the circumstances of his death, hinting at suicide, but the ensuing inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. As Fenton’s widow explained to the surgeon who tended him, Fenton had been in the habit of going into the attic to look at ‘a piece of ground where some turnips were growing, to see that none of his cows were trespassing in it’. He had apparently over-balanced while standing on a chair to look out of the window. Other evidence showed that Fenton had been in a cheerful mood the evening before his death, when he had drafted a speech for a forthcoming meeting regarding a testimonial to the anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce.

Having looked at some deaths of MPs involving vegetables, we conclude with a death for which an animal was responsible. The Hon. Henry Handcock, the youngest son of the Irish peer, Lord Castlemaine, had served with distinction in the Crimean War and sat in Parliament as MP for his native Athlone, 1856-7. He was subsequently posted to India as aide-de-camp to the governor of Madras. Like Gallwey, Handcock was out shooting when he suffered the accident which led to his death in December 1858, his quarry being ‘various kinds of wild animals’ in the jungle near Bandipore. When his party came across a tiger, Handcock could not resist the opportunity to shoot it, even though, as press reports observed, ‘it is not considered prudent to attack a tiger at all, unless from the back of a trained elephant, nor even then without the aid of a considerable party’. Handcock’s foolhardiness cost him his life, for when he moved closer to fire further shots at the tiger, which was lying down, apparently mortally injured, it attacked him, causing three large wounds and seven smaller ones. Despite medical assistance, he died three days later, aged just 24.

For details about how to access the biographies of Gallwey and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.

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Elections and electioneering, 1832-1868

As voters across the country head to the polls this month, we thought it was an ideal opportunity to look back at some of the research on 19th century elections we have featured in our blogs over the past few years. These draw on our work for the History of Parliament’s House of Commons, 1832-68 project, which is producing biographical profiles of the 2,591 MPs who sat between the first and second Reform Acts and accounts of the 401 constituencies in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales across the nine general elections which took place during this period. You can find more details about our project here.

The system under which electors cast their votes between 1832 and 1868 was very different in many ways from the modern British electoral system. As our editor, Philip Salmon, explains in this post, before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, voters cast their votes in public rather than in private. With a limited electorate (around one-fifth of the adult male population), a key argument for open voting was that it enabled non-electors to scrutinise the votes of those entrusted with the franchise. 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 voter’s function”.

tynemouth ver 5 alt

The hustings at a Tynemouth election

Before the 1872 Ballot Act, the candidates for each constituency were proposed and seconded at the nomination, which usually took place on a hustings platform erected temporarily for that purpose. Electors and non-electors, both male and female, attended the hustings and other election events such as the declaration of the poll. The participation of women in elections, despite their formal exclusion from the franchise, has featured in several of our blogs. This post on elections at Peterborough – where the voters had to endure five contests in the space of seven years – 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 Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)

Elections were often lively events, and the vivid descriptions of electioneering in the fictional borough of Eatanswill in the Pickwick Papers were inspired by Charles Dickens’s experiences of reporting on contemporary elections, including the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election. He complained on polling day that:

“the noise and confusion here … is so great that my head is splitting … the voters … are drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is.”

The corruption of the 19th century electoral system has been a recurrent theme in our blogs, with over 400 election petitions alleging bribery, treating and other election misdemeanours heard by election committees in the Commons between 1832 and 1868. Our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, considered the amount of parliamentary time and effort which this problem consumed in this post. The 1865 election at Totnes not only saw one candidate challenge the other to a duel, but also prompted an election inquiry which found that bribes of up to £200 had been offered. Another MP who spent excessively to secure his return was the shipbuilder Charles Mare, elected for Plymouth in 1852, unseated for bribery in 1853 and declared bankrupt – for the first of four times – in 1855. Totnes and Plymouth also featured in this analysis of politics in Devon and Cornwall from our research fellow Martin Spychal.

One of the aspects of the 19th century electoral system which is often overlooked is that, prior to 1885, the majority of constituencies – counties and boroughs – elected two members. With two votes each, voters could choose to support two candidates from the same party (a straight vote), share their votes between candidates from different parties (a split vote) or cast just one vote (a plump). The impact of this on voting behaviour is analysed in this blog on the mathematics of Victorian representation. Another feature of 19th century elections which has now disappeared is the existence of university seats. The rationale for the creation of the University of London seat in 1867 is explored here.

Before voters even got as far as the poll, a show of hands would be taken at the hustings to gauge the level of support for the rival candidates. Non-electors as well electors took part in this ritual, and it was therefore not unusual for the outcome of the poll to differ significantly from the result of the show of hands. More unusual, however, were cases where popular candidates at the show of hands subsequently polled no votes at all, a paradox discussed by our research fellow Stephen Ball. Among the other quirky election cases we have uncovered in our research are the Wakefield election where the victorious MP was unseated because he was technically still the returning officer at the time of his election, and the Huntingdonshire election where two candidates polled exactly the same number of votes. Both were declared elected, but after a scrutiny of the poll, one of them had his name expunged from the parliamentary record.

For more on the theme of 19th century elections, see https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/category/elections/

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MP of the Month: Thomas Neville Abdy (1810-1877) and electoral misconduct

Thomas Abdy’s political career provides a useful reminder of the chicanery, lies and corruption sometimes associated with 19th century English electioneering – venal traditions that became increasingly unacceptable during the Victorian era.

Albyns, Essex

Born into a naval family – his father was a captain who had married an admiral’s daughter – Abdy initially trained for the bar before inheriting vast family estates in Essex, including the Jacobean manor of Albyns in 1840. His ‘extensive landed means’ were put to ample use at the 1841 election, when he stood for the Essex borough of Maldon. Here the number of freemen voters had been greatly reduced by the 1832 Reform Act, enabling money to become ‘the best patron’ as bribery became much easier to manage. Abdy described himself as a ‘warm friend’ to the Liberals, but his obfuscation on some key issues, including the protectionist corn laws that he wished to ‘adjust’ but not ‘entirely repeal’, was eagerly seized on by his Tory opponents. They accused him of making statements ‘suited to all parties’ in order to ‘catch every fish that floats in the political ocean’.

Fake and misleading hand-bills were circulated by both sides purporting to have been produced by their political opponents. At one point Abdy was even threatened with being horse-whipped. Although he lost his election by 33 votes, he secured 290 ‘plumps’ or single votes. It was only the split voting of some electors, who cast one of their votes for Abdy but gave their second vote to one of his rivals, that cost him the seat.

“Falsehoods circulated by the Blues”, election hand-bill, 1847

Following his 1841 defeat, Adby set up the South Essex Reform Registration Association and became a leading figure in promoting and funding Liberal registration activity. This aimed to both recruit new Liberal supporters on to the electoral rolls and remove as many Tories as possible, by lodging legal challenges against their qualifications in the annual registration courts, even if these were just speculative or ‘vexatious’. ‘Watch the registration’, Abdy implored the Maldon branch of the new association. ‘Success depends not on the day of election, but … the registration courts’. The strategy worked. At the 1847 general election a Liberal candidate ousted Tory MPs in South Essex and in Maldon, despite more ‘falsehoods’ and fake hand-bills allegedly being distributed by the Tory ‘Blues’ .

Abdy, meanwhile, opted to stand for Lyme Regis in Dorset, where there was local interest in the railway schemes in which he was involved as a railway director. He was backed by the borough’s former MP William Pinney, who had been unseated for bribing electors with cheap loans in 1842. Abdy’s promises to employ voters on railways and his lavish ‘treating’ with beer, food and entertainment secured his return by just three votes. His Tory opponent, however, immediately lodged a petition against the result, alleging foul play.

What happened next exposed details of ‘borough-mongering’ that surprised even some of the most battle-hardened Victorian electioneers. The inquiry into the petition discovered that it had been sponsored and bankrolled by John Attwood, the newly elected Tory MP for Harwich. A ‘self-made’ Birmingham ironmaster, Attwood had purchased the splendid Hylands House estate in South Essex in 1839 and become a staunch rival of Abdy in local Essex politics. It also emerged that Attwood had been buying up properties in Lyme Regis in order to create a ‘pocket borough’ for government use, with a view to securing himself a peerage.

Abdy’s lawyers immediately set about arguing that the petition from Abdy’s Tory opponent, in these circumstances, ‘was not bona fide’. Before the inquiry could rule, however, Attwood got the petition withdrawn, leaving the committee with no choice but to declare Abdy duly elected, despite his own electoral misdemeanours. Abdy’s subsequent campaign for an investigation of Attwood’s misconduct in Lyme Regis, for which he brought up a petition to the Commons, 4 Apr. 1848, came to nothing, but much to his glee Attwood was unseated for ‘corrupt practices’ in his own constituency of Harwich later that year.

By now it was clear that Abdy’s tenure as MP for Lyme Regis would be brief. His promises of railway employment had not been forthcoming, thanks in part to the collapse of the railway investment bubble, prompting local complaints about his ‘treachery’ and ‘lies’. As well as having to cover his own railway losses, Abdy was liable for the very substantial costs of defending his election on petition. In 1849 he was also sued by agents for unpaid election debts at Maldon totalling over £5,000. By the time of the next general election, in 1852, he was in no position to defend his seat at Lyme Regis, which Pinney took over, and he retired to his estates.

Abdy made no attempt to re-enter the Commons until 1868, when, shortly after coming into yet another ‘highly profitable’ family inheritance, he stood for the newly created constituency of Essex East. He was defeated in fourth place. Two years later he came forward for a vacancy at Colchester, only to withdraw.

The constituency of Lyme Regis was abolished for electoral corruption in 1868, when both Harwich and Maldon were partially disfranchised for similar reasons. John Attwood never sat again after 1849 or obtained his peerage. In December 1849, however, the Whig-Liberal government of Lord John Russell gave Abdy a baronetcy, which still exists today.

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

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

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, MP of the Month, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Parliament versus the People: the Newport rising of 1839

The History of Parliament

Today marks the 180th anniversary of the Newport rising when government forces and Welsh Chartists clashed in the town of Newport. Here’s Dr Philip Salmon, editor of our House of Commons 1832-68 project, with more…

The Newport rising ranks alongside the Peterloo massacre as an iconic episode in the struggle for popular political rights in pre-democratic Britain. In November 1839 around 10,000 disaffected and poorly paid workers, mainly Monmouthshire miners and ironworkers, marched on Newport hoping to free local Chartist leaders from arrest and, according to some, take over the town as a prelude to ‘revolution’. Their actions followed Parliament’s refusal to consider a Chartist petition signed by 1.3 million people demanding workers’ political rights – the so-called ‘People’s Charter’.

Unlike those who had marched at Peterloo twenty years earlier, however, many of the Newport protesters were armed – most with pikes and makeshift weapons, but some…

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MP of the Month: Charles Stanley Monck (1819-94) and Canadian Confederation

Charles_Stanley_Monck BANQ

Charles Stanley Monck (image credit: Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)

Today we mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stanley Monck (1819-94), MP for Portsmouth, 1852-7, who in 1861 found himself at the head of Britain’s North American colonies at a turbulent time in their history. With a combination of shrewdness and practical common sense he guided them towards confederation as the new dominion of Canada.

Monck was the eldest son of the Hon. Charles Joseph Kelly Monck, of Belleville, county Tipperary, who in September 1848 succeeded his elder brother as 3rd Viscount Monck of Charleville. The Moncks were Wicklow landowners, but Monck himself did not expect to succeed to the family titles and estates when he began his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1836. A ‘hail-fellow’ and unconventional dresser, whose ideas were considered ‘too democratic’ by his peers, he trained for the law and was called to the Irish bar in 1841. He does not appear to have practised, however.

Imbued with a strong sense of public duty, the young Monck associated with reform-minded politicians and during the Irish famine joined them in attempting to persuade the British government to redress Irish grievances. He became involved in an abortive attempt to form an ‘Irish Party’ to unite the country’s parliamentary representatives in a common effort to secure measures to deal with the famine. He was also secretary of the Irish Reproductive Works Committee, a cross-party body formed in December 1846 to promote public works and other schemes to regenerate the Irish economy.

Monck’s zealous devotion to Irish interests did not go unnoticed and in April 1848 he stood at a by-election in County Wicklow. An able and popular landlord who was allied to no party, he called on the electors to abandon ‘senseless disputes about political theories’ and apply themselves instead to the ‘physical improvement’ of Ireland, arguing that Irish tenants should be compensated for improving their holdings and criticising absentee landlords. He was, however, opposed by the county’s leading landowners and was narrowly defeated by the former Liberal MP, Sir Ralph Howard.

A year later Monck succeeded as 4th Viscount Monck and inherited a heavily indebted estate of 16,000 acres in the province of Leinster. He remained active in public affairs, and after becoming a commissioner of charitable donations and bequests was responsible for administering funds raised for famine relief in Ireland. This work brought him into contact with high-ranking politicians such as William Gladstone.

As an Irish peer he was not allowed to represent an Irish constituency but he could sit for an English one, so at the 1852 general election he offered for the naval borough of Portsmouth as a free-trader and Peelite critic of Lord Derby’s Conservative government. He was returned unopposed. Once in the Commons he proved an eager parliamentarian, sitting on a number of select committees and closely following the Liberal party line. In April 1853 he spoke in defence of the Irish national education system, and in March 1855 was appointed a lord of the treasury and keeper of the privy seal to the Prince of Wales, overcoming a Liberal challenger at the ensuing by-election. For the next two years he acted as the party’s ‘Irish whip’ but narrowly lost his Portsmouth seat at the 1857 general election. Now without any prospect of returning to the Commons, he resigned from his official positions in February 1858.


Proclamation of Canadian Confederation (1867)

Monck contested the 1859 general election for Dudley, where his opposition to the ballot saw him lose out to another Liberal. In dire need of income, he let it be known that he was willing to take up a colonial appointment and accepted the post of governor-general of British North America from the prime minister Lord Palmerston in August 1861. Although inexperienced and relatively unknown, he arrived at Quebec when war with the United States appeared imminent and it was thought that he would need to exercise his authority with ‘a strong and vigorous hand’. However, with patience and impartiality he built the coalition in Canadian politics which paved the way for the confederation of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. At the same time he emphasised the need for strongly centralised government for the new dominion. He resigned as governor-general in November 1868 and was thanked for his services by the queen. He was created a knight grand cross of St. Michael and St. George in June 1869 and appointed to the privy council that August.

Reading-Proclamation-of-Confederation Queen's University Archives

Reading the Proclamation of Confederation, Kingston, Ontario, 1 July 1867. Image credit: Queen’s University Archives

Monck had been awarded a UK peerage in July 1866 and continued his political and administrative career in the House of Lords, serving on commissions on Irish Church property and the national education system in Ireland. In 1874 he was appointed lord lieutenant of county Dublin. His practical interest in agriculture fitted him for the difficult task of implementing Gladstone’s 1881 Irish Land Act and he served on the Irish land and arrears commissions. Debilitated by arthritis, he left public office in 1884 and subsequently broke with the Liberals over Gladstone’s plan for Irish home rule. He died at Charleville in November 1894.

Further reading:

  • T. B. Browning, rev. J. Monet, ‘Monck, Charles Stanley, fourth Viscount Monck of Ballytrammon’, Oxf. DNB: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:onbd/18937.
  • A. Pole, ‘Monck, Charles Stanley’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, vi. 575-6.
  • J. Monet, ‘Monck, Charles Stanley, 4th Viscount Monck’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, xii: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/monck_charles_stanley_12E.html.
  • E. Batt, The Moncks and Charleville House (1979).
  • E. Batt, Monck: Governor General, 1861-1868 (1976).
  • W. L. Morton, ‘Lord Monck and nationality in Ireland and Canada’, Studia Hibernia, xiii (1973), 77-99.
  • W. L. Morton, Monck’s Letters and Journals, 1863-1868. Canada from Government House at Federation (1970).
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A female politician? Lady Derby and mid-Victorian political life

The significance of female participation in 19th century elections and politics, despite women’s exclusion from the parliamentary franchise, has been an important theme in several of our blogs. In this guest post, originally published on the main History of Parliament blog, Dr. Jennifer Davey looks at the influence of Mary, Countess of Derby, in mid-Victorian political life.

The History of Parliament

Continuing our series on Women and Parliament, Dr. Jennifer Davey of the University of East Anglia looks at the influence of Mary, Countess of Derby (1824-1900) within the worlds of high politics and diplomacy. Lady Derby is the subject of her recent book, Mary, Countess of Derby, and the politics of Victorian Britain(OUP, 2019).

In May 1893, The Spectator printed a long article reflecting on the role and function aristocratic women had played in the social and political life of Victorian Britain. Sometimes referred to as ‘great ladies’, ‘female politicians’ or ‘political ladies’, these were women who held ‘definite influence over society, politics, and the general life of the exclusive’. As The Spectator emphasised, such influence was as ‘impalpable and in-definable as that of the weather, but never really denied by those who really understand how the world is governed’. One such woman was Mary, Countess of Derby (1824-1900)…

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Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Open University: The Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850

We are pleased to announce that the History of Parliament Trust is participating in a doctoral studentship project in partnership with the Open University. Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award, for entry in 2020-21. The deadline for application to the Open University is 8 January 2020.

The proposed PhD research will examine ‘The Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850’. It will be supervised by Dr. Amanda Goodrich (Open University) and Dr. Robin Eagles (History of Parliament Trust). For further details on the project, see https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/black-and-mixed-ethnicity-presence-british-politics-1750-1850

Details of how to apply to the Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme can be found here: https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/collaborative-doctoral-awards


Jan or Dyani Tzatzoe (Tshatshu), Andries Stoffles, James Read Sr, James Read Jr and John Philip giving evidence to a Commons committee (by Richard Woodman, 1844) (C) NPG

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MP of the Month: Sidney Herbert – still dancing to Nightingale’s tune

September’s MP of the Month is Sidney Herbert, who was born on this day (16 September) in 1810 and widely expected to become a Victorian prime minister. Fate, however, cruelly intervened, as Dr Ruscombe Foster, the author of an important new biography of Herbert, explains in this guest post…

Sidney Herbert (1810-61) is probably best remembered today as the Secretary at War who, in October 1854, invited his ‘intimate friend’ Florence Nightingale to head a party of nurses to Scutari, where wounded soldiers from the Crimean War were being hospitalised. Within months Nightingale was being immortalised for her work as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’. Herbert meanwhile, organised the Nightingale Fund, arguably the first national charity appeal in Britain. The £48,000 raised went towards funding the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, opened next to St Thomas’s Hospital in June 1860. Herbert also collaborated with Nightingale on the 1857-8 royal commission on the sanitary state of the army. According to popular legend Nightingale worked Herbert to his premature death.

There are innumerable biographies of Nightingale but until recently there was none of Herbert, other than a memoir commissioned by his widow. Tellingly, it would not be until 1915 that Herbert’s statue was eventually shifted to sit alongside that of Nightingale in Waterloo Place.

Sidney Herbert was, according to the great social reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, ‘born with a silver spoon’. Intelligent, handsome and personable, he inherited a vast personal fortune from his father, the 11th Earl of Pembroke, and was heir presumptive to the 40,000 acre Wilton estate in Wiltshire which had been inherited by his half-brother.

Wilton House

Having studied at Oxford University, where he was president of the Union, he entered Parliament for South Wiltshire aged 21 in 1832. Sir Robert Peel, who tipped him as a possible future prime minister, gave him junior office at the Admiralty in 1841. He promoted him to the Cabinet as Secretary at War in 1845. Herbert was one of his closest confidantes during the crisis over the repeal of the corn laws. That political drama would see Disraeli dismissively describe Herbert as Peel’s valet. Herbert, unsurprisingly, thereafter loathed the man he dubbed ‘the Jew.’

By the early 1850s, however, even Disraeli was happy to acknowledge that Herbert was one of the leading experts in the House on army matters. Herbert’s obsession became how to keep the nation safe. This led to his investigating how best to increase the strength of home forces should the French attempt an invasion. He also wanted to improve the army’s proficiency. He became increasingly convinced that there should be more promotion on merit, and that the existing system whereby most officers purchased their commissions should be phased out. By the same token he wanted to see an extension of what he called military instruction. The Crimean War broke out before his ideas could be implemented.

Herbert’s reputation survived the blame game and charges of political incompetence created by the war. His work with Nightingale from the mid-1850s complemented that which he had already been doing: if fewer soldiers were lost to illness and disease, fewer new recruits would need to be found. Nightingale’s biographers characterise her as the driving force in their work. It is arguably truer to say that theirs was a partnership in which she was the solicitor and he the barrister. And it is certainly the case that without Herbert history would not have heard of Nightingale.

Sidney Herbert, c. 1859

Herbert was more than just an army sanitary reformer during the 1850s. He was never far from the drama of high politics. He helped bring down Derby’s government in 1852, assisted in forming Aberdeen’s coalition ministry which followed it, rejected taking the Home Office under Palmerston in 1855, helped mend the Liberals’ differences in June 1859, and became Secretary for War the same month. His return to office confronted him with a familiar spectre: how to deal with a France led by Napoleon III, who seemed keen to revive the glories of his uncle.

Herbert’s fate, as he told Palmerston, was to suffer from a weak constitution. He died on 2 August 1861, killed not by overwork (still less by Nightingale’s demands), but by chronic nephritis, then only recently diagnosed as Bright’s disease. There was a remarkable outpouring of grief at the news of his passing, manifested in poetry as well as prose. Thomas Sotheron Estcourt, a former Home Secretary and another Wiltshire man, wrote of his ‘playful Wit; the rich inventive Thought.’ There was something of a consensus that Herbert might have followed Palmerston as Liberal leader – a more palatable successor than the unpredictable Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone. On this basis Herbert was one of England’s lost prime ministers. At the very least, he merits recognition, alongside the Duke of York and Edward Cardwell, as the most important army reformer of the 19th century.

Ruscombe Foster

Further reading:

R. E. Foster, Sidney Herbert. Too Short a Life (2019)


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Political Prorogations: a view from the Victorian Commons

It’s been a long time since the business of suspending Parliament and starting a new session has generated so much political controversy. Throughout most of the 20th century prorogations invariably tallied with the expectations of most parliamentarians, neatly book-ending a government’s legislative programme. Scroll back a little further into the 19th century, however, and a rather different picture emerges …

Parliament’s historic procedures and conventions have generated a huge amount of public interest recently. Responding to popular demand, the latest version of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, detailing the ‘law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament’, has even been uploaded online. What readers won’t find in the latest edition, however, is much information about prorogation. Beyond stating that it is a personal prerogative power exercised by the Crown on the advice of the prime minister, which ends the current session of Parliament, there is remarkably little discussion of how and when prorogation can or indeed has been used, particularly for political purposes.

Before becoming so routine and un-contentious in the 20th century, however, prorogations were often attracted a fair amount of controversy. Occasionally they even aroused popular indignation and triggered public protests, such as the one organised in Manchester in September 1841 against the new Tory government’s decision to prorogue during an economic crisis and sidestep calls for an inquiry into the corn laws. Petitions and memorials from across the country had flooded into Parliament urging MPs to remain in session and alleviate the nation’s starvation and distress. On 7 October 1841, however, the new prime minister Sir Robert Peel prorogued Parliament for almost four months.

A number of factors helped to make prorogation decisions more open to question in this period, including the looser nature of the two-party system, the existence of many more minority governments, and the much greater power of the House of Lords, which was far from being the subservient chamber it is sometimes assumed to have been.

What really made prorogations stand out and potentially so controversial, however, was their length. Today we are used to prorogations lasting days – the recent average is eight. Over the past 40 years no prorogation has lasted more than three weeks.

During the 19th century, by contrast, they usually dragged on for months, sometimes for almost five and on occasion even six months. The graph above plots the length of the breaks between each session of Parliament from 1836 to 1916. As such it also includes prorogations that were followed by a dissolution and a general election – a more drawn out process in the Victorian era than it is today. In 1873, for example, Parliament was prorogued on 5 August. On 26 January 1874, a few days before it was scheduled to reconvene, it was dissolved on the advice of the Liberal prime minster William Gladstone. A general election then took place and Parliament did not sit again until 5 March 1874, making a total break of 213 days (around seven months) during which Parliament was not sitting.

Even removing all the prorogations that were followed by dissolutions, however, still leaves an average prorogation length that seems extraordinary by modern standards. The mean duration from 1836-1916 was 142 days, over four and a half months. In practice this meant that for much of the Victorian period, Parliament was prorogued and not in session for over a third of any given year.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Victorian prorogations, however, and the one that maybe has the most contemporary resonance, was the correlation that often existed between their length and some sort of national crisis or major political upheaval. Put simply, when things got tough, governments tried to avoid Parliament as much as possible.

In 1838, for instance, the Whig ministry of Lord Melbourne was accused of deliberately proroguing Parliament for too long, for 173 days, in order to avoid discussion of their incompetent handling of rebellions in Canada and Ireland and their decision to go to war in Afghanistan. ‘Ministers are afraid to meet Parliament … they are afraid to encounter Parliamentary scrutiny’, protested the Tory press.

Lord Aberdeen’s government also had no intention of allowing its disastrous handling of the Crimean War to be exposed to any more parliamentary scrutiny than was absolutely necessary. When one of their own supporters tried to move for an address to the Queen against prorogation, in July 1854, they made it a matter of confidence, forcing its withdrawal.

Many of the minority governments of the 19th century made ample use of prorogation, for obvious reasons. The Conservative leader Lord Derby, keen to avoid a repeat of his short-lived first minority ministry of 1852, kept his second minority government of 1858 going for far longer than expected with the help of a six month prorogation – one of the longest on record. His successor as Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, also managed to keep the lid on a major political row within his own party and between the Commons and the House of Lords over church reform by proroguing Parliament for a similar period in 1874.

The use of such tactics inevitably meant that public campaigns and petitions for and against prorogation were a much more familiar occurrence than we are used to. The scale of the famous prorogation protests of 1820, however, was unusual. In November Lord Liverpool’s Tory government had been forced to abandon its hugely unpopular attempt to prosecute Queen Caroline for adultery, much to the fury of her estranged husband George IV. Rather than risk an inquiry, which the opposition were demanding, the prime minister prorogued Parliament, prompting nationwide demonstrations. At one rally in Durham, the Tories were accused of acting ‘unconstitutionally’ in order to ‘terminate discussion and popular protest arising from their persecution of Queen Caroline’ and ‘silence the indignation they had aroused’.

It has been a long while since the issue of prorogation triggered these sorts of levels of political commentary and public activism. Given recent events, the next edition of Erskine May may well have to provide a few more details about the use of this ancient procedure than it does now.

Further reading:

P. Salmon, ‘Exploring the History of Prorogation’, Times Literary Supplement, 6 Sept. 2019

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MP of the Month: William Tooke and the royal charters of the University of London

Following our blogs on the creation of the University of London constituency in 1868 and its first MP, Robert Lowe, August’s MP of the Month is William Tooke. As MP for Truro from 1832, Tooke worked tirelessly to secure a royal charter for the London University (later University College London) that allowed it to grant degrees to its students.

Cockney College, 1826, SW Fores

The secular London University sparked controversy from its foundation in 1826 and was commonly derided in the Tory, staunchly Anglican press, as the ‘Cockney College’. SW Fores, Cockney College (1826), CC British Museum

The London University’s campaign to achieve degree-awarding status was a key battleground in the wider movement for religious freedoms in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. The university had been the subject of considerable controversy since its establishment in 1826 as a non-degree awarding secular alternative to England’s only other universities, Oxford and Cambridge. As students at Oxford and Cambridge were required to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, non-Anglicans were effectively barred from obtaining degrees in England.

William Tooke, Charles Turner, (1836)

William Tooke by Charles Turner (1836) © NPG

William Tooke (1777-1863) was present at the first council meeting of the London University, where he was appointed treasurer and solicitor. The son of a pre-eminent London journalist, Russian historian and preacher, Tooke’s early life was spent practising as a solicitor in London from 1798. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Tooke used his legal expertise, as well as his father’s reputation, to establish himself in London’s thriving reform culture. By the end of the 1820s he was enmeshed in Bloomsbury’s network of ‘godless’ reformers, working assiduously behind the scenes for the London University, and its sister institution, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK).

Tooke’s work for the London University and the SDUK (and a raft of other learned societies and businesses during the 1820s) focused on the preparation of draft legislation, petitions and royal charters. These documents helped turn organisations that were usually dreamt up in a London tavern into secure legal entities with official powers enshrined in law.

He enjoyed some success in lobbying and working with MPs (many of whom were also members of these reforming societies) to push his draft bills and charters through parliament. But to be most effective he needed a seat in the Commons. As he was of insufficient status to stand for one of London’s prestigious borough or county constituencies, Tooke began targeting the Cornish borough of Truro from 1830 after securing the backing of a local merchant.

Royal Collection

The London University and its adjacent University of London School playground in Bloomsbury. George Scharf, University of London School (1833)

Tooke was unsuccessful at Truro at the 1830 and 1831 elections, largely as a result of borough’s closed corporation status. However, things changed following the 1832 Reform Act, which extended voting rights to the town’s middle-class Dissenters. These new voters returned Tooke to Parliament at the 1832 and 1835 elections, where he stood as a Reformer.

At Westminster Tooke supported the Whig governments of Grey and Melbourne on confidence issues, but stayed true to his independent status as a Reformer to vote in favour of corn law reform, the ballot, retrenchment, currency reform and the repeal of the malt duty. Unlike most new members, Tooke broke his parliamentary silence within days of taking his seat in the Commons and continued to intervene regularly, particularly in debates over municipal, electoral and legal reform. He was also active behind the scenes at Westminster, taking a keen interest in the business of the House, sitting on a large number of select committees and paying close attention to a wide range of public and private legislation.

King's College Versus London University (or which is the weightiest)

The Anglican King’s College London was established in response to the avowedly secular London University. It was established as a non-degree awarding college by royal charter in 1829. Robert Seymour, King’s College Versus London University (or which is the weightiest), (1828)

It was Tooke’s quest to secure degree-awarding status for the London University, via a royal charter, that took up most of his attention. While the university had been offering classes since its foundation in 1826, it could not award degrees. The only English universities that could were Oxford and Cambridge, but they required students to take the Anglican oath. As Tooke explained to the Commons in 1833 this meant that the ‘whole dissenting community of England’ was ‘altogether precluded from academic honours’.

After introducing a failed motion for a royal charter for the London University in 1833, he entered abortive negotiations during 1834 with the Whig government (many of whom were founding members of the university) to secure a charter via the Privy Council. In March 1835, during the short-lived Peel ministry, Tooke secured a majority of 110 for his motion for a degree-awarding charter for the university. This was not the end of the story, however, as Tooke was required to enter further negotiations with the Melbourne government during 1835 and 1836 to find a way that King’s College London, which had been established by royal charter in 1829 as an Anglican alternative to the London University, could also be awarded the ability to grant degrees.

University College London Royal Charter (28 Nov. 1836)

University College London Royal Charter (28 Nov. 1836) © UCL

The method that was eventually settled on, and confirmed in law in November 1836, was a system of two royal charters. The first incorporated the London University as a college rather than a university, renaming it University College London. The second charter established a new body called the University of London, which was to serve as a distinct degree-awarding examining body for University College London, and King’s College London. The first students to receive degrees, free from the obligation of a religious test, graduated from UCL in 1839.

You can find out how Tooke’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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‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Thomas Jones Phillips (1790-1843): pioneering Tory election agent

If you think some of the recent electioneering tactics that have hit the headlines seem extraordinary, spare a thought for the voters of Monmouth in the 1830s. As a new episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ reveals, one of the comedian Jack Whitehall’s ancestors was a pioneering election agent, whose experiments manipulating the electoral rolls and stopping opponents from voting helped to inspire a remarkable national electoral recovery by the Conservative party. One of the first people to fully understand and exploit the complex voter registration system introduced by the 1832 Reform Act, and one of the few local agents with direct access to the Tory leadership, Thomas Jones Phillips briefly became a leading figure behind-the-scenes.

Objecting to the voting qualifications of your political opponents and using every ruse possible to claim voting rights for your supporters seems an entirely alien and undemocratic practice to us today. Between 1832 and 1918, however, these practices became the norm in most constituencies, helping to politicise the electorate and drive forward the development of the UK’s modern party system.

Made possible by the yearly registration courts introduced by the 1832 Reform Act, which were originally designed to sort out who was eligible to vote (and who wasn’t) in advance of any poll, these tactics took a little while to spread. Many Liberal election agents, in particular, had serious qualms about using the courts to try and reduce the size of the electorate and challenge a voter’s qualifications, even if they were die-hard Tories. Trying to kick people off the electoral rolls, whatever their politics, seemed especially inappropriate after the nation had just been through a bitter 18 month political struggle for parliamentary reform and an extension of the franchise.

Aided by the incredibly imprecise legal wording of the new 1832 voting qualifications, however, and the fact that ‘objectors’ were able to lodge objections against existing electors and new ‘claimants’ without having to specify any reason, it soon became clear that the entire registration system was ripe for abuse.

Lord Worcester MP

Thomas Jones Phillips, Jack Whitehall’s four times great grandfather, enjoyed a head start. A Newport solicitor and election agent, who was employed  by the firm of Messrs. James Powles and Charles Tyler, the Duke of Beaufort’s Tory agents in the parliamentary constituency of Monmouth, Phillips had helped manage the elections of the duke’s son and heir Lord Worcester, the borough’s Tory MP from 1813 – May 1831 and July 1831-1832.

In the May 1831 election Worcester had been defeated by 19 votes after Newport’s pro-reform corporation admitted about 70 new freemen voters by ‘birth and servitude’. It was Phillips who masterminded a legal challenge against the votes of these freemen, uncovering technical issues with their admissions and long-standing errors in the appointment of Newport’s mayors which made their actions void and invalid. As a result of his work the election result was overturned by Parliament, on a petition, and Worcester was awarded the seat in July.

It was this recent experience and expertise that Phillips redeployed with such great effect in Monmouth’s first registration courts the following year. His surviving letters to Messrs. Powles and Tyler, now in the National Library of Wales, show how he created hundreds of objections to new Liberal voters on the basis of rating errors, insufficient tax payments, receipt of poor relief, incorrect spellings, imprecise addresses, changes of residence and various other legal technicalities.

Extract from a letter from Phillips listing his objections to voters, 21 Oct 1832

Thirty-seven electors were challenged because they shared the same name with at least one other voter – a widespread phenomenon in this border area with Wales. One person was even targeted for ‘having laid a wager upon the event of an election’. At the same time, Phillips also made sure his Tory ‘claimants’ had watertight qualifications, creating all the necessary paperwork such as rent and rate receipts and even paying their one shilling registration fee and any rating arrears on their behalf.

Lord Worcester lost the 1832 election, but only by 38 votes, which was extraordinary given the political circumstances and the Reform Act’s tripling of Monmouth’s electorate to almost 900. At the next election in 1835 this margin was reduced further to just four votes.

In the years ahead, Phillips’s registration antics helped the Tories win a series of victories locally, including both of Monmouthshire’s county seats and various Welsh constituencies. But it was at the national level, in the newly formed Conservative Carlton Club, that his influence really proved decisive. Lord Worcester’s  younger brother was Lord Granville Somerset, who became one of the leading architects of the Conservatives’ highly successful national registration campaigns during the 1830s. His policies drew heavily on Phillips’s practical advice and expertise, especially in the complex areas of voter rating requirements and making ‘blanket’ objections.

As a number of historical studies have shown, it would be on the basis of these new annual ‘battles’ in registration courts, using tactics trail-blazed by Phillips, that the electoral fortunes of both parties would increasingly be decided during the Victorian era.

This episode of ‘Who Do You Think You’ Are is available from the BBC here.

Further reading:

‘Register, Register, Register!’: political activity in October

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

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

P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work: local politics and national parties, 1832-1841 (Royal Historical Society, 2002)

J. Prest, Politics in the Age of Cobden (1977)

Posted in Constituencies, Elections, Wales | Tagged , | 6 Comments

MP of the Month: George Augustus Constantine Phipps, Earl of Mulgrave (1819-1890), MP and colonial governor

George Phipps, Earl of Mulgrave, later 2nd Marquess of Normanby [by Edward Mason (1845–1923) after Eugene Montagu Scott (1835–1909)]

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of our MP of the Month, George Augustus Constantine Phipps, who, after a short stint in the army, served in the Commons as Liberal MP for Scarborough, 1847-51 and 1852-57, under his courtesy title, the Earl of Mulgrave. This constituency had previously been represented by his father and grandfather, both of whom enjoyed distinguished ministerial careers. His grandfather had received an earldom in 1812, and his father was created Marquess of Normanby in 1838. A leading Whig, Normanby held a succession of offices, notably as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1835-9, and Home Secretary, 1839-41, followed by diplomatic appointments after 1846.

Mulgrave therefore had an impressive political pedigree, but the records of parliamentary debate in Hansard would suggest that he made little impression at Westminster, since he never spoke in the Commons chamber. However, as many of the biographies in our 1832-68 project reveal, being a silent member did not necessarily mean that an MP failed to contribute to parliamentary business. Mulgrave provides an excellent example of this. As a Liberal whip – briefly in 1851 and again from 1852-7 – he often acted as a teller in divisions. This meant that he became one of the House’s most assiduous members in the division lobbies, present for 207 out of 257 divisions in the 1853 session, and missing only 15 out of 198 divisions in 1856. By contrast, in 1849, before his appointment as a whip, he voted in 93 out of 219 divisions. Among the key votes where he acted as teller for the ministries of Lord Aberdeen and then Lord Palmerston were the divisions on William Gladstone’s first budget, 2 May 1853; the hostile motions of John Roebuck and Benjamin Disraeli on the government’s handling of the Crimean War; and Richard Cobden’s critical motion on the Palmerston ministry’s policy towards China, 3 Mar. 1857.

Mulgrave as teller in the division on Richard Cobden’s motion on the Canton bombardment

Alongside this role, Mulgrave held positions in the royal household. His mother had served as a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria, and he therefore had experience of life at court long before his own appointment as comptroller of the household in July 1851. His acceptance of office meant that he had to seek re-election at Scarborough. He faced a challenge from George Frederick Young, a shipowner whose staunch support for protectionism won him the support of the local shipping interest. In contrast Mulgrave favoured free trade, although he had bowed to his constituents’ concerns by voting in 1849 against the repeal of the navigation laws, which gave protection to British shipping. Despite this, he was ousted by Young at the July 1851 by-election. He had his revenge at the 1852 general election when he won the second seat ahead of Young. In December 1852 Mulgrave was appointed as treasurer of the household by the Aberdeen ministry, and canvassed actively at Scarborough in case a last-minute opponent challenged his re-election. However, he was unopposed at the by-election held in January 1853.

Mulgrave was elected again for Scarborough at the 1857 general election, but that December he entered a new phase of his political career, when he was appointed as lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. This was not Mulgrave’s first experience overseas, as he had served in Canada during his time in the army, acting as an aide-de-camp to the commander of the British forces, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Downes Jackson, 1840-3. These earlier travels included a buffalo-shooting expedition near Hudson’s Bay in 1842.

Marquess of Normanby depicted in Vanity Fair (1871). (C) NPG

After almost six years as governor of Nova Scotia, where he needed a great deal of patience to handle the highly factional politics of the colony, Mulgrave resigned and returned to Britain following his father’s death in 1863. He succeeded his father as 2nd Marquess of Normanby, but did not make his maiden speech in the House of Lords until 1866. He received further appointments in the royal household, serving as a lord in waiting from May 1866 until the Russell ministry fell from office in July. Gladstone gave him the same post in December 1868, and in 1869 he was promoted to become captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (the monarch’s ceremonial bodyguard).

Normanby was not, however, a wealthy peer, and told Gladstone that he would prefer another overseas appointment, attracted by the large salary given to colonial governors. Gladstone obliged in 1871, when Normanby became governor of Queensland, where the Mulgrave and Normanby rivers were named after him. In 1874 he was appointed as governor of New Zealand, where he often clashed with the premier, Sir George Grey, over the extent of the governor’s prerogative powers. When faced with difficult decisions, Normanby drew on his experience of the Westminster Parliament, and apparently used to ask himself, ‘What would they think upon this question in the House of Commons?’ One history of New Zealand described him as ‘one of the most formidable colonial administrators to serve Britain in the nineteenth century’.

In 1879 he was appointed to what was then regarded as ‘the blue ribbon of the colonial service’, the governorship of Victoria. Although it was suggested that he might become governor of South Australia when his term in Victoria ended in 1884, a protest from the colony put paid to this. Normanby returned to Britain, where Lord Kimberley praised his ‘statesmanlike qualities’ at a dinner in his honour, suggesting that it was a measure of his success that ‘his name had not been constantly before the public’ and that ‘his action had not called for the production of any gigantic blue-book’ (i.e. a parliamentary inquiry into his conduct). Another contemporary considered that ‘though not a man of great ability, he had sound judgement, robust common sense, and an imperturbable temper’, which served him well during a long career of public service.

Normanby continued his interest in colonial affairs and made a return visit to Australia in 1887-8. He was among the Liberal peers who joined the Liberal Unionist party in opposition to Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule for Ireland. He died at Brighton in 1890 after a lengthy illness.

On Normanby and other MPs who served as colonial governors, see also our earlier blog on Victorian MPs and Colonial Governance.

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Political protest in the age of Peterloo

The History of Parliament

Today’s blog from the editor of our House of Commons 1832-68 section, Dr Philip Salmon, is the first of many pieces in which we will discuss the Peterloo Massacre that took place in St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16th August 1819. He outlines the political climate within which this infamous episode occurred and provides context for the blogs that are to follow in the series.

This year’s bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester serves as an important reminder of the crucial role played by disaffected citizens and radical protest in reshaping Britain’s political system – a historic tradition that of course still continues today. Peterloo also marked a significant turning point in the way public protest was both organised and handled, though it took a while for this to become clear. Within a decade though, many of the pillars underpinning Britain’s ancient Protestant constitution – including discrimination against…

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MP of the Month: Edward Wyndham Harrington Schenley (1799-1878), Waterloo veteran and millionaire

Today we mark the anniversary of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo by recalling the eventful life of the Dartmouth MP, Edward Schenley (1799-1878), who as a boy was severely wounded in that campaign, yet through his elopement with a Pittsburgh heiress ended his life as a millionaire.

Members of the Rifle Brigade at Waterloo

Schenley came from an old Devonshire family and appears to have been born in Woolwich in 1799. The younger son of an artillery officer who died at Cadiz in 1813, he served as a volunteer in the Peninsular War before joining the Rifle Brigade as a 15-year-old lieutenant in 1814. He was severely wounded in the Waterloo campaign, and afterwards became a friend of Lord Byron. In 1822 he attended the cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley at Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy and was present when the poet’s ashes were buried in Rome. In 1823 he eloped with Catherine Inglis and was married at Livorno. The couple subsequently lived in Edinburgh but within three years both his wife and son were dead.

Edward Schenley (C) NPG

In July 1825 Schenley was appointed vice-consul at Guatemala and was presented to William IV in March 1828. That June he became the British consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and by the end of that year was promoting the Swan River settlement in western Australia, for which the government granted half a million acres of land. After further consular service at Haiti and Panama he travelled in Europe and in 1833 eloped with a cousin of the earl of Fife. His new father-in-law, Sir William Pole, was a Devonshire baronet and in 1835 Schenley took an active part in Lord John Russell’s election campaigns in Devon. The following year he was appointed as arbitrator to the mixed British and Spanish commission for the repression of the slave trade in Havana, where his wife died in April 1837.

Mary Schenley (née Croghan)

Schenley was next appointed as commissioner of arbitration to the British and Dutch court of commission at Surinam, where he took office in July 1841. He was, however, soon travelling in America where he was taken ill and offered accommodation by his sister-in-law, a Mrs. Macleod, who ran a fashionable girls’ boarding school on Staten Island, New York. Here the 43-year-old foreign office official embarked on his third elopement by taking off with Mary Elizabeth Croghan, the 15-year-old heiress of Pittsburgh’s largest land holder. Despite her father’s efforts to prevent a marriage the couple were wed in New York before moving on to England. This union proved to be a lasting one and produced eleven children.

Schenley soon returned to Surinam but became embroiled in controversy with the Dutch planters for supporting compensation claims made by liberated slaves who had been forced to work on the plantations. Frustrated by the government’s indifference and feeling that his family was now in danger, he returned to England on leave of absence in June 1845. In August 1847 his actions were finally vindicated by Lord Palmerston, and he retained his post until it was abolished in 1849.

Their poor financial circumstances prompted the Schenleys to visit Pittsburgh for a reconciliation with Mary’s father, who relented and bought them a house at 14 Prince’s Gate, Hyde Park, later the official residence of ambassadors of the United States. On his death in September 1850 Mary came into her inheritance and derived a sufficiently large income from her American estate to allow the family to flourish in England. Schenley’s daughter by his first marriage was presented at court in 1853, the scandal surrounding his elopement with Mary Croghan having died away by that time.

Schenley had also established himself as ‘an old and respected liberal’ in Devon and persuaded the party’s candidate for the venal borough of Dartmouth to retire in his favour at the 1859 general election. Arriving in the town with a letter of introduction from Lord John Russell, he promised to restore trade to the port and reportedly offered an advance of ‘at least £3,000’ to complete the Dartmouth and Torbay railway. As a major shareholder in the Electric Telegraph Company he was also eager to promote transatlantic telegraphic communication. He assured the electors that he would seek to extend the franchise to ‘the industrial classes’.

Returned after a contest with a Conservative, Schenley took his seat at Westminster, where he backed the Liberal government on the queen’s speech and twice voted in favour of the abolition of church rates. However, his parliamentary career was cut short when he was unseated because of bribery on 26 July 1859, after an election committee found that his agents had paid as much as £100 for a single vote. With his political ambitions thwarted,  Schenley pursued his interest in sailing by becoming a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and the family cemented its place in London society by placing their Pittsburgh residence at the disposal of the Prince of Wales during his visit to the United States.

When Schenley died in London in January 1878 he was said to possess a personal fortune of between £1,400,000 and £2,000,000. He was survived by his widow, who subsequently proved to be a generous benefactor to her native city, and at the time of her death in 1903 was thought to be worth more than £12,000,000. Two of Schenley’s daughters married into the aristocracy: Elizabeth Pole Schenley, his daughter by his second marriage, married a son of the 3rd Baron Suffield in 1865, while in 1906 Hermione Schenley became Lady Ellenborough.

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MP of the Month: John Fenton (1791-1863)

JohnFenton (C) PMSA

John Fenton, bust by Edgar Papworth in Rochdale town hall (C) PMSA

In 1832 John Fenton, a Nonconformist Whig from a local banking and textile manufacturing family, was elected as the first MP for his native Rochdale, which had been given a parliamentary seat by the 1832 Reform Act. He lost to a Conservative in 1835, a defeat which he blamed on his opponent using beer as ‘the great canvasser’ and undertaking extensive ‘treating’ of voters. Six men were said to have died from the effects of intoxication during this contest, and ‘every stomach-pump in Rochdale was employed to remove the effects of beastly drunkenness’. Yet drunkenness and venality alone did not explain the result. Fenton’s parliamentary support for the new poor law had proved unpopular, and the Conservatives had put significant effort into improving their position on the electoral register.

With the Liberals having renewed their organisational efforts, Fenton returned to Parliament at a by-election in April 1837 and was re-elected at that year’s general election, before retiring in 1841. During this time he crossed paths with two well-known Liberal politicians associated with Rochdale. His fellow townsman John Bright seconded his nomination on the hustings at the 1837 by-election, when he described Fenton as a man who took a ‘common-sense view of things’ and commended his support for the ballot and the extension of the franchise. Fenton did not, however, impress Richard Cobden, who first met him at a dinner in London in June 1837 in company with a group of other northern MPs, whom Cobden dismissed as ‘a sad lot of soulless louts’. Despite this, it was Fenton who chaired the meeting on education that December at which Cobden – later the borough’s MP – made his first public speech at Rochdale.

The columns of Hansard do not record any contributions from Fenton, who made little impact at Westminster, although The Times reported that he did speak briefly when he presented a petition from Rochdale on the Irish Church in 1833. He admitted himself that he was ‘not gifted with eloquence’. He proved more useful in the committee rooms, serving on the select committees on the sale of beer (1833) and the problem of drunkenness among the ‘labouring classes’ (1834), as well as the inquiries into the Caernarvon and Carlow election petitions. By 1839 he had decided that he would not stand again for Rochdale and his parliamentary attendance dwindled. He voted in just 29 out of the 365 divisions taken in the 1840 and 1841 sessions.

Fenton’s decision to retire at the 1841 election was due partly to ‘infirm health’ and partly to his ‘love for private life and domestic enjoyment’. His family was growing rapidly, with ten children born to his second wife between 1831 and 1845, to add to the seven children from his first marriage. He does not appear to have been politically active after he left Parliament, although he did make donations to the Anti-Corn Law League and signed a Lancashire millowners’ memorial against the Ten Hours Bill in 1847.

Instead, Fenton, ‘a fine hale-looking man’, retired happily into private life. Character sketches published in nineteenth-century local histories provide a detailed picture of his somewhat quirky domestic habits. Despite his substantial wealth – he and his brother had shared a £400,000 fortune when their father died in 1840 – he was ‘homely in his habits’, digging the fields with his workmen and trimming the hedges at his residence at Crimble Hall. He was ‘ingenious at needlework’, which he undertook with a favourite canary perched on his shoulder. He also ‘had a habit of carrying gingerbread in his pocket, which he munched frequently at odd times’. He died in 1863, and was commemorated with a bust in Rochdale town hall, presented by his widow in 1872.

Two of Fenton’s sons made unsuccessful attempts to follow him into politics. His son William seconded Cobden’s nomination as Liberal candidate for Rochdale in 1859, and was considered as a potential successor to Cobden after the latter’s death in 1865. He spent nearly £3,000 unsuccessfully contesting Chester in 1865, and was also defeated at North-East Lancashire in 1868.


Roger Fenton

Another son, Roger (1819-69), canvassed Rochdale in 1850 in anticipation of a by-election, but his political ambitions were thwarted when the sitting MP’s health improved. The following year he took up a career in photography, becoming one of the most notable photographers of the mid-nineteenth century, renowned particularly for his depictions of the Crimean War. He also photographed the Houses of Parliament – not the buildings his father would have known when he first became an MP, which were destroyed by fire in 1834, nor the temporary accommodation in which Fenton spent most of his parliamentary career, but the new Palace designed by Charles Barry.

HoPRogerFenton1857 (C) The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Houses of Parliament from Lambeth Palace (1857) by Roger Fenton © The Royal Photographic Society Collection

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The representation of Devon and Cornwall after reform, 1832-68

Last week the History of Parliament and the Devon and Cornwall Record Society hosted a conference at Exeter on ‘The South West and Parliament’. Dr Martin Spychal of the Victorian Commons spoke at the event, and today provides an overview of the electoral system and political affiliation in both counties between 1832 and 1868.

England’s southernmost counties, Devon and Cornwall, suffered an inauspicious start to the post-reform era. Prior to 1832 Cornwall had been the home of many rotten boroughs and so it saw its representation slashed from 42 to 14 MPs by the 1832 Reform Act. This was the highest rate of disfranchisement among English counties by some margin. Devon, which also fared badly, saw its representation reduced from 32 to 22 MPs.

The Grey Ministry wield their axe at the rotten borough system (including, Saltash, Bere Alston, Bossiney, Callington, East Looe…) Charles Jameson Grant, 1832

The Grey Ministry chop down the rotten borough system, including Saltash, Bere Alston, Bossiney, Callington, and East Looe… Charles Jameson Grant, 1832. CC British Museum

Electoral politics played out in both counties from 1832 in a remarkably complex constituency system that saw the introduction of a new system of voter registration. Every borough except Tiverton underwent boundary changes in 1832, in addition to the introduction of the new £10 voter, who was enfranchised alongside those already qualified under permitted ancient franchises. Both counties were divided into two brand new double-member electoral districts and saw new occupier and leaseholder voting qualifications added to the traditional 40 shilling freeholder franchise.

The persistence of ancient franchise voters, variations in property valuation and levels of local politicisation meant enfranchisement rates, as elsewhere in the country, varied wildly across each constituency within the region. However, as a whole enfranchisement rates in Devon and Cornwall were well below the English and Welsh average. Across Cornwall, adult male enfranchisement rates jumped from 9% to 15% between 1831 and 1832, and to 17% by 1867. In Devon these figures were 11.5%, 18% and 19% respectively. This compared poorly with the average adult male enfranchisement rates for England and Wales, which increased from 16% in 1831 to 22.5% in 1832 and by 1867 had reduced to 20%.


Rates of adult male enfranchisement in Cornwall, Devon and England and Wales. Compiled from electoral returns and census data © Martin Spychal

The rise in enfranchisement rates in 1835 on the graph above was caused by the registration drive that followed that year’s general election. The general decrease in adult male registration over the following 30 years was prompted by the expiration of ancient franchise qualifications, a tapering off of enthusiasm for registration and a slight increase in the percentage of adult males in the total population. The big spike in 1868 reflects the introduction of the borough householder franchise at the 1868 election.


Reformed electoral practices? G. Cruikshank, George Cruickshank’s Omnibus (1842), CC British Museum

In keeping with the rest of the UK, both counties retained a vibrant electoral culture after 1832, which provided opportunities for female and male non-electors to participate in constituency politics. Traditional canvassing practices continued after 1832 under the guidance of local party officials, who were on constant alert between elections on account of the annual registration courts. Landlord influence also persisted in a handful of boroughs such as Launceston and Ashburton. The treating of electors with food or drink remained commonplace, and the shady practice of bribery continued to play a role in many constituencies. As previous blogs have shown, when allegations could be proved Parliament often punished cases of bribery, either via the unseating of MPs (such as Charles John Mare at Plymouth), or via disfranchisement (a fate that befell Totnes in 1867).

As in previous periods, the boisterous and noisy nomination continued to precede the election of a member or the announcement of a poll. The length of a poll, however, was reduced to two days in 1832 (this was reduced to a single day in the boroughs in 1835, and the counties in 1853). After the declaration, successful candidates were then chaired in a procession throughout the town or city that hosted the constituency’s election, as was the case at the 1849 Devonshire South by-election in Exeter pictured below. Newly elected MPs were then deposited at the local pub for an election dinner that usually went on into the early hours.


‘Procession of the Chairing of Sir Ralph Lopes, Bart, The Newly elected MP for South Devon’ in Exeter, 1849, Illustrated London News, 17 Feb. 1849

At each election between 1832 and 1865 both counties tended to return a higher percentage of MPs willing to support Whig-Liberal governments than the English average. Devon was well ahead of the English average until 1852, and always returned a majority of Whigs, Liberals, Reformers and Radicals (and in 1847 and 1852 Liberal Conservatives) combined. A remarkable 95% of Devon’s MPs fell into this category in 1832. However, by 1841 the superior organisation of the Conservatives and a tiring Whig reform agenda combined to drive Whig-Liberal support down to their lowest levels in both counties.

Election Results

Whig-Liberal Support in Devon, Cornwall and England at general elections, 1832-1865. Compiled from Charles Dod, Parliamentary Companion, 1832-67 © Martin Spychal

From 1852 Devon as a whole followed national swings quite closely. Cornwall, however, saw a huge surge in Whig-Liberalism after 1857. As Professor Edwin Jaggard has argued, this can be accounted for by the strength of Dissent in the county (70% of religious worshippers were Nonconformists); the increasing acceptance among larger portions of the electorate of a new type of ‘modern’ politics in the boroughs; and a Liberal party that was outsmarting the Conservatives in terms of organisation by the latter 1850s.

These electoral swings were reflected quite closely in the voting patterns of Cornish and Devon MPs at Parliament. As part of the work for my forthcoming book, I’ve been developing the History of Parliament’s new database of parliamentary votes between 1836 and 1910 to chart the behaviour of groupings of MPs in the division lobbies at Westminster. The graph below provides a brief taster of this work. It details the incidence of Whig-Liberal support among Devon and Cornish MPs in major confidence votes between 1838 and 1868, in comparison with the UK average. The percentages on the chart only account for those present at votes, not those absent, and in future blogs I’ll consider the different ways that ‘voting support’ for particular issues might be presented.


Whig/Liberal support in major confidence votes, 1838-1868 in Cornwall, Devon and the UK. Compiled using a modified version of the History of Parliament’s Parliamentary Votes, 1836-1910 dataset. © Martin Spychal

Nevertheless, this data suggests that both county’s MPs stuck quite closely to their electioneering party labels in major votes throughout the period. Devon’s MPs were consistently more Liberal than Cornish MPs until 1852, following which Cornish representatives swung heavily towards a Palmerston-led Whig-Liberal administration. This was in contrast to Devon, whose MPs proved remarkably lukewarm over the MP for Tiverton’s premiership. By the end of the period Cornwall’s Liberal ascendancy in the Commons was confirmed as it remained strongly pro-Gladstone. Apart from the period between 1852 and 1858, when Russell, Aberdeen and Palmerston were splitting Whig-Liberal loyalties, Cornwall and Devon’s MPs were consistently more Liberal in major divisions and confidence votes than the UK average.

For details of how to access the MP biographies and constituency articles for Devon and Cornwall already completed by the 1832-68 project please click here.

Further Reading:

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

Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work. Local Politics and National Parties 1832-1841 (2002)

Edwin Jaggard, Cornwall Politics in the Age of Reform (1999)

My book Mapping the state: representation, geography and the 1832 Reform Act is forthcoming with the Royal Historical Society. You can find out more about the boundary changes in 1832 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 Biographies, Conferences and seminars, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, Parliamentary life, party labels, Uncategorized, Voting and Divisions, women, Working-class politics | 5 Comments

The Disruption, Parliament and Conservative division: Alexander Campbell (1811-1869)

In May 1843 a schism in the Church of Scotland, better known as the Disruption, led to the creation of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland. It was the culmination of a decade-long conflict over the ability of parishioners to appoint their minister, and reflected wider concerns over state interference with the Scottish Church. April’s MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Argyllshire, Alexander Campbell, who was one of the founding elders of the Free Church. His ruthless electioneering in Argyllshire from 1836, eventual election in 1841, and failed legislative attempts to prevent the breakup of the Church placed the looming controversy at the centre of parliamentary politics. It also revealed irreconcilable differences between the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel and one of his few Scottish backbenchers.


Thomas Chalmers addressing the Disruption Assembly, Tanfield Hall in Canonmills, 18 May 1843: ILN, 3 June 1843

Alexander Campbell entered Scottish Conservative politics after a brief military career, which had seen him garrisoned in Quebec between 1830 and 1832. He returned to Scotland in 1832 following the death of his father, who had sat in the Commons as a loyal ministerialist during the Napoleonic wars. On succeeding to the family estates in Perthshire and Argyllshire, which included Monzie Castle, Campbell threw himself into Conservative politics in both counties.

In December 1835 Campbell took the unusual step of commencing a canvass in Argyllshire, despite there being no imminent suggestion of an election. His constant state of electioneering throughout 1836 was provoked by the Whig government’s Irish church legislation, which he saw as an existential threat to the established Church, not just in Ireland, but in Scotland. Campbell, who was considered by one observer to be ‘more of the itinerant preacher than the parliamentary candidate’, warned that proposals to appropriate funds from the Irish Church, the continuation of the Maynooth grant and government support for Irish repealers such as Daniel O’Connell, were foreboding signs that the Whigs intended to attack the Scottish Church next.

Monzie Castle, Scottish Depicta (1804)

Campbell’s family seat, Monzie Castle, Scottish Depicta (1804), CC National Library of Scotland

By July 1836, Campbell’s campaign had brought him into contact with the leading Scottish Evangelical, Thomas Chalmers. Earlier that month, Argyllshire’s Whig MP had somewhat foolishly claimed in a letter to his constituents that Chalmers supported the Whig ministry. This provoked a war of letters between Campbell and his opponent, which received widespread publication in the English, Irish and Scottish press. The letters resulted in Chalmers’s denunciation of the appropriation of Irish Church revenues as ‘an act of violence against the Episcopalian Protestant establishment in Ireland’, and a sign that ‘the Presbyterian establishment of Scotland’ was ‘not safe’ in Whig hands. Significantly, the episode also led to the forging of a close friendship between Campbell and Chalmers.

As expected, Campbell contested the 1837 election at Argyllshire, in what the Morning Post described as a contest between ‘Protestanism or Popery’. However, he was defeated on account of the electoral strength of the county’s Whig proprietor, the 6th Duke of Argyll. In the aftermath of his defeat Campbell maintained his close links with the leadership of the Scottish Evangelicals. He was elected as an elder of the General Assembly in 1838, and emerged as a prominent figure in ongoing non-intrusionist calls to allow parishioners to appoint their ministers.

1842 Scottish Church patronage bill

Campbell’s 1842 Scottish Church patronage bill, PP 1842 (175), i. 421

Campbell’s electoral prospects increased dramatically in December 1839 with the succession of the Conservative 7th Duke of Argyll, which meant that his return for the county at the next election was now considered a certainty. With Parliament a realistic prospect, Campbell turned his attention to legislation that he hoped would solve the brewing schism over state interference in the Scottish Church. In 1840 he began to promote proposals to establish the precedence of the Church courts over the civil courts in cases where ministers proved unacceptable to their parishioners. The policy was the cornerstone of his campaign in Argyllshire during the 1841 general election, where he was returned unopposed thanks to the influence of the Duke of Argyll and the popularity of his non-intrusionist stance.

As he had promised on the hustings, Campbell’s main goal in Parliament was to introduce legislation to prevent the breakup of the Scottish Church. However, he was frustrated at Westminster by the inability of the Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Peel, to realise the gravity of the situation, as well as the government’s unwillingness to support what he felt was a deeply Conservative cause.  The government failed to support his efforts for a select committee on the Scottish Church in March 1842, and in April he introduced the Scottish Church patronage bill, which would have given congregations the right to reject ministers. Crucially, the government’s refusal to support the bill on a technicality led to its withdrawal in June 1842.

The Procession on the 18th of May

The Procession on the 18th of May, Annals of the Disruption (1893)

Despite the government’s assurances that they would legislate on the issue in the next session, Campbell was dismayed when ministers refused to back a motion on the Scottish Church in March 1843. For Campbell this was the final straw, and with the reality of a breakup of the Scottish Church imminent he returned to Monzie Castle to build a wooden church, which he would later present to the Free Church congregation there.

In May, Campbell made one last attempt to prevent a schism, pleading with the Prime Minister to ‘avert the breaking up of the Church, by instantaneous and satisfactory legislative interposition’. Peel ignored his plea, and on 18 May 1843, Campbell was one of the 73 elders who attended the Disruption Assembly, walking side by side with Thomas Chalmers from St. Andrew’s Church to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills, where the Disruption Assembly was held. On the same day he confirmed his intention to resign his parliamentary seat in order to promote the interests of the Free Church.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further reading

  • Amanda Goodrich, Henry Redhead Yorke, Colonial Radical: Politics and identity in the Atlantic world, 1772-1813 (2019) – for further details, including a 20% discount, see here
  • Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807 (2011)
  • Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (2nd edition, 1994)
  • Royal Historical Society Report on ‘Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History’ (2018)
  • ‘Ethnic minorities in Politics and Public life’, House of Commons Library, Research briefing (2017)
Posted in Biographies, Guest blog | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Conscience versus constituency: the dilemma facing Henry Sturt MP

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

EP VI 165.1

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

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

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

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

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

The Somerset squires may at Acland throw dirt,

And Dorsetshire farmers may grumble at Sturt,

But I never rat and I ought to be prized,

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

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

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

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

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

The History of Parliament

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

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

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

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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.


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.


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)
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.


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.

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…


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.


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.

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.


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 Millwall Ironworks Building’, Historic England
Posted in Biographies, Corruption, Elections, Images of MPs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 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)

Posted in Biographies, Forthcoming events, Prime Ministers | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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


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.


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

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

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

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

Russell’s failed 1854 reform bill

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

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

The Supporters of the Working Man

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

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

John Stuart Mill, Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859)

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

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

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

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


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

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The role and power of the House of Lords

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

The pre-1834 Lords (Court of Requests)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Victorian House of Lords, completed in 1847

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

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

The 1911 Parliament Act, and beyond

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

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

1911 Parliament Act

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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


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.


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

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


Amy in the reconstructed ventilator at Voice and Vote

If you would like to know more about the ventilator and the history of women in Parliament, do visit the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall. It is open until 6th October 2018 and free tickets can be booked here: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

Amy Galvin-Elliott

Posted in Guest blog, Parliamentary buildings, women | Tagged , , , | 5 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.


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.


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.


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.

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‘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.


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.


‘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.


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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