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

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

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

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

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

John Stuart Mill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, via McCord Museum

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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Local polls and general elections: a Victorian perspective

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

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

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

Fig 1: Printed council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

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

Fig 2: Hand written council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

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

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

Further reading:

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

With suggestions of election fatigue setting in across Britain, this week’s blog – featuring our MP of the Month, George Hammond Whalley – looks at a constituency which saw five elections held in seven years between 1852 and 1859: the notoriously venal borough of Peterborough. At each election, three of which were held in the space of a year between 1852 and 1853, a delicate cross-party alliance between the borough’s independent Liberals and Conservatives united over a single issue: ending the Fitzwilliam family’s control of the constituency. The Fitzwilliams, prominent Whigs, were an integral aspect of the borough’s identity and the intense electioneering campaigns that ensued pitted fathers against sons, friends against friends and ‘in two or three instances wives against husbands’. Breaking down this aristocratic family’s control of the borough proved increasingly difficult, however, as even after the cross-party alliance appeared to have been successful, the Fitzwilliams used the election petitioning system to ensure the return of their candidate.

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The Fitzwilliam seat, Milton Hall, near Peterborough, from J. P. Neale, Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, i. (1818)

The Fitzwilliam family, or the ‘Milton interest’ as it was referred to locally, had controlled the election of both of Peterborough’s MPs since 1786. Their political authority relied on a combination of patronage, the popularity of the family’s advanced-Whig principles, and the tactic of putting forward one candidate not related to the family, who also enjoyed the support of the borough’s ‘independent Liberals’. However, sixty years of independent Liberal frustration with this arrangement finally boiled over ahead of the 1852 general election, when Earl Fitzwilliam and his agents refused to consider anyone but the moderate Richard Watson, Fitzwilliam’s nephew, to stand alongside the borough’s incumbent MP, George Fitzwilliam, the earl’s third son.

Although they seriously considered doing so, no independent Liberal candidate came forward in 1852. This was primarily due to the borough’s Conservatives, who seized the opportunity to promote a moderate Conservative on an anti-Fitzwilliam ticket. Their candidate was the former Protectionist MP for Lancashire, John Clifton, who toned down his political views and was fairly successful in securing the support of independent Liberals, many of whom were seen during the election ‘sporting the [Conservative] blue colours’. Although Clifton lost out on a seat by 19 votes, it transpired that a few key independent Liberals had abstained, revealing to both parties that a Fitzwilliam candidate might be defeated with a more concerted cross-party alliance.

The opportunity to test out such an alliance came quickly as Richard Watson died a fortnight after the 1852 general election. As planning for a by-election commenced, the Fitzwilliam family again refused to listen to the suggested candidates of the independent Liberals, putting forward Earl Fitzwilliam’s friend, the moderate Whig, George Cornewall Lewis. With the previous Conservative candidate ruling himself out due to a dispute over £1,000 of unpaid election expenses, the independent Liberals finally decided to field their own candidate. They contacted the Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association in London, who suggested the ultra-Liberal but also vehemently anti-Catholic, George Hammond Whalley.

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C. P. Gasquoine, The Story of the Cambrian (1922), 10

Whalley agreed to run on the condition that the borough’s independent Liberals and Conservatives united behind him. He pleased the independent Liberals by offering to support universal suffrage, the ballot, a direct property tax and the abolition of church rates. He courted the Conservative vote by emphasising his anti-Catholicism and his opposition to the Maynooth Grant, and by expressing a willingness to support the Conservative government on an independent basis.

In an innovative move, Whalley also targeted the constituency’s females in the hope they would convince their voting husbands, brothers, fathers and friends to vote for him. He did so by hosting a tea party in the city, which attracted 700 attendees, and where he promised to reduce soap, tea and sugar duties and end ‘Milton domination’. Whalley’s tactics proved successful, leading to his victory in the December 1852 by-election by 21 votes over the Fitzwilliam candidate.

The Fitzwilliams, incensed at losing control, quickly petitioned parliament against the result, accusing Whalley of ‘bribery, intimidation, corruption and treating’, as well as the impersonation of voters. The ensuing parliamentary committee, which was most outraged at Whalley’s tactic of targeting the constituency’s females, decided to unseat him after arriving at the conclusion that a single elector had been bribed £5 for his vote. An outraged Whalley accused Fitzwilliam of using electoral procedure to enforce a system of ‘persecution, tyranny and falsehood’ and vowed to stand at the ensuing by-election, even though his ability to do so was legally unclear.

Sure enough, Whalley stood again at Peterborough’s third election in the space of a year. The Fitzwilliam candidate was a former governor of the Bank of England, Thomson Hankey, who in a bid to wrestle back some independent Liberal support offered to support the ballot. These attempts failed and Whalley was again elected by a similar margin to the by-election held only months earlier. After the election, however, Fitzwilliam, Hankey and his supporters raised another election petition, stating that Whalley had stood illegally on account of having been unseated by an election committee. It also complained of bribery and the drugging and kidnapping of voters. In response, Whalley’s supporters also submitted a petition complaining of the activities of the Fitzwilliam interest, which was presented to Parliament by the leading radical, John Bright.

Both election inquiries found that the activities of the Fitzwilliam interest and Whalley during the elections of 1852-3 had been highly dubious. Nevertheless, Whalley was unseated, as the election committee declared that candidates were unable to stand at by-elections prompted by their own unseating. The separate committee held to consider Hankey’s campaign ruled that, while the Fitzwilliam campaigns of 1852 had probably been illegal, his 1853 campaign had been within the limits of the law. This entitled Hankey to assume Whalley’s seat in parliament without a further by-election. A disgruntled Whalley continued to complain to parliament, submitting a further petition in 1854, which was again rejected.

Whalley stood again at Peterborough at the 1857 election but came third behind the two Fitzwilliam candidates, his defeat owing to a poorly organised, last-minute campaign. He challenged the result but withdrew his petition after receiving assurances from Earl Fitzwilliam that he would no longer seek to control the return of both of the borough’s candidates. When a general election followed in 1859, Whalley was eventually successful, with fireworks and bands celebrating the end of the Fitzwilliam family’s 70-year long control of the borough’s representation, as well as an end to the bitter political fighting between families and friends that had occupied the city for the past seven years.

The full constituency article on Peterborough will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

For more on the Fitzwilliam family members who sat in the Commons, see our earlier blog.

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Call for Papers: conference on ‘Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty’, 3-4 Nov. 2017

Durham University and the History of Parliament are hosting a conference with the People’s History Museum in Manchester, 3-4 Nov. 2017, with support from the Royal Historical Society and Durham University’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. For further details see below or visit the conference website here.

Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British world, 1640-1886 (3-4 November 2017, People’s History Museum, Manchester)

The 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, which made important strides towards the inclusion of working people amongst the electorate, is an occasion for wider reflection on the claims for – and of – parliaments to be truly representative of the people. We wish to facilitate discussion across the traditional boundaries of early modern and modern history and to include the Irish parliament and legislatures of British colonies – as well as those excluded from them – alongside the houses of parliament in Westminster.

We welcome proposals for papers concerning any part of the British world in the period 1640-1886, which might engage with themes such as:

  • Revolutionary, radical, or reform movements championing popular sovereignty or claiming its mandate for their designs;
  • Instruments for the representation of popular sovereignty, whether the electoral franchise, mass mobilisation through petitions and meetings, or the claims of the press;
  • Comparative or imperial histories of popular sovereignty within the British world;
  • Debates over the composition of electorates and candidates for representative institutions, including the use of property or racial qualifications;
  • Contests over political representation, as reflected in demands, bills and Acts for parliamentary reform;
  • The performance of popular sovereignty in petitions, election rituals, and polling;
  • Clashes between representative bodies claiming the authority of – or rejecting the value of – popular sovereignty;
  • The language of popular sovereignty, including its contested meanings and the imagination of “the people”;
  • The intellectual histories of parliamentary and popular sovereignty, including “virtual representation”.

Paper proposals

To propose a paper for the conference, please submit a single document containing a 1-page CV and an abstract of 250 words or fewer to EPeplow@histparl.ac.uk by 25 April 2017.

The conference will take place at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. A conference charge of up to £60 (depending on pending funding applications) will be necessary to cover costs. Accepted paper-givers will be responsible for funding their own transport and accommodation costs.

We particularly welcome paper proposals from female and ethnic minority researchers, who are under-represented on the programmes of many academic conferences.

We are also very keen to welcome postgraduate researchers, perhaps presenting their work for the first time. Thanks to the generosity of the Royal Historical Society, postgraduate students presenting a paper or attending the conference may apply for a Royal Historical Society bursary (to a maximum of £80) towards travel and accommodation costs. Priority will be given to those presenting a paper, and you should apply by explaining your travel and accommodation needs in a statement of 250 words or fewer by 25 April 2017.

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Defying the Whip: ‘rebel’ MP of the month, Swynfen Jervis (1798-1867)

One of the themes being explored by the Victorian Commons project is the decline of ‘independence’ in the 19th-century Commons and the rise of party-based voting by MPs – a development neatly captured in Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous lampoon of 1882 about MPs being forced to ‘leave their brains outside’ and ‘vote just as their leaders tell ‘em to’ (Iolanthe).

MPs continued to assert their independence on a number of major issues throughout the 1832-68 period, as the rebellion of the Tories against Peel on free trade in 1846 or the split in the Liberals over parliamentary reform in 1866 amply demonstrate. Few, however, chose to defy the party leadership quite so publicly or defiantly as Swynfen Jervis, the ‘eccentric’ Liberal MP for Bridport from 1837-41.

An early photo (c. 1850) of Jervis: © NPG

Jervis stands out for all sorts of reasons, not least because of his zealous support for free trade at a time when most landowners continued to defend the corn laws. Unlike many inheritors of large country estates, Jervis was convinced that removing the import duties on foreign corn would benefit agriculture and that free trade itself was the ‘birth-right of every Englishman’. Jervis even promised to compensate all his tenant farmers on his Darlaston Hall estates should they suffer. ‘If any reduction takes place in the price of grain without a proportionate rise in the demand for other agricultural produce’, he announced, ‘I am ready to meet such a change … by a corresponding reduction of rent’.

It was the striking manner in which Jervis rebelled against the Whig-Liberal government on a crucial Irish vote in 1839, however, which brought him to national attention. Rather than simply staying away or quietly voting against the government, Jervis took the highly unusual step of sending the private communication he had received from the government Whip, Edward Stanley, to the newspapers. He then added a full explanation of his reasons for refusing to obey. ‘As an earnest Reformer, I have always voted with ministers’, he declared, ‘but the question which is now about to be raised in the Commons, however it may be glossed and disguised …  had been made a convenient stalking-horse to support their waning popularity’ and ‘appears to me utterly impossible to approve … without indirectly sanctioning their general policy’.

Swynfen Jervis dictating verse, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1852)

The press had a field-day, especially as official party ‘whipping’ was still in its infancy and remained cloaked in controversy. ‘The letter of Swynfen Jervis, an old and staunch Reformer, repelling the official application of the secretary of the treasury for his vote … has excited the universal displeasure and animadversions of minsters’, noted one Tory paper. Commentary in the Liberal press included assertions that ‘the member’s heart is with the Tories’ and mockery of him as a ‘strange eccentric being, who professing out and out democracy, “is everything by turns and nothing long”’. Bridport’s electors, however, were more forgiving. ‘I see nothing but is manly, straightforward and honest in the conduct of Mr. Jervis’, wrote one local observer.

Jervis continued to defy the Whig-Liberal government on a range of issues after 1839. He also earned the opprobrium of the Tories by launching a scathing attack on the Church of England in more private correspondence, this time with a local parson, that found its way into the press. Despite remaining popular with the ‘ultra-Radical clique’ at Bridport, Jervis retired as its MP in 1841. Meeting him around this time, the Tory essayist Thomas Carlyle didn’t mince his words:

A wretched dud called Swinfen Jervis … called one day … a dirty little atheistic radical, living seemingly in a mere element of pretentious twaddle, with Sheridan Knowleses … and all the literary vapidities of his day.

A subsequent associate of the pre-Raphaelites Dante and Christina Rossetti, who were regular visitors to Darlaston Hall,  Jervis is best remembered today for his poems and his Dictionary of the Language of Shakespeare, which appeared posthumously in 1868.

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

Further reading:

  • T. A. Jenkins, ‘The Whips in the Early-Victorian House of Commons,’ Parliamentary History, 19 (2000), 259-286.
  • J. Sainty and G. Cox, ‘The Identification of Government Whips in the House of Commons 1830-1905’, Parliamentary History, 16 (1997), 339-358.
  • P. M. Gurowich, ‘The Continuation of War by Other Means: Party and Politics, 1855-1865′, Historical Journal, 27 (1984), 603-631.
  • H. Berrington, ‘Partisanship and Dissidence in the Nineteenth-Century House of Commons’, Parliamentary Affairs, 21 (1967-8), 338-74.
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New publication: ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

An article by our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, on ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’ has just been published in a special issue of Parliamentary History, edited by Robert Saunders, and entitled ‘Shooting Niagara – and after?’ The Second Reform Act and its world. This publication, marking the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, also includes contributions from Colin Barr, Malcolm Chase, Kathryn Gleadle, Alex Middleton, Jonathan Parry and Gareth Stedman Jones. It can be accessed here.

Article summary:

Kathryn Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

This essay considers the role which the issue of bribery and corruption played during the debates on parliamentary reform in 1867-8, a theme previously neglected by historians of the Second Reform Act. It examines the ways in which the 1867 Act itself sought to deal with corruption, analysing the rationale for the disfranchisement of four venal boroughs. It also looks at the attempts made by backbenchers to insert provisions to curtail the growing costs of elections. Above all, it shows how the decision to confine discussion of electoral malpractice largely to the separate 1868 Election Petitions Act facilitated the progress of the main Reform Act. The 1868 Act was of ground-breaking constitutional significance in transferring jurisdiction over election petitions from committees sitting at Westminster to election judges, who tried petitions in the constituencies. Why the Commons – somewhat reluctantly – decided to surrender what had hitherto been a jealously-guarded privilege of the lower House is examined, discussing the failings of the existing tribunal and the role of Disraeli in skilfully guiding through reform. For contemporaries, the 1868 Act was very much part of a wider reform settlement. Reintegrating the question of electoral corruption into historical analysis of the Second Reform Act helps to provide a fuller understanding of the broader concerns underpinning the extension of the franchise in 1867.

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‘The son of one of the best men who ever adorned the country’: William Wilberforce (1798-1879)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell (Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-wilberforce-17591833-37751)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell: Leeds Museums and Galleries http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-wilberforce-17591833-37751

Trading heavily on his family name, William Wilberforce (1798-1879), eldest son and namesake of the noted anti-slave trade campaigner, was elected in 1837 as Conservative MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, which his father had represented from 1780 until 1784. During one election meeting he was overcome with emotion when referring to his father (who had died four years earlier), declaring that he wished to ‘follow his example, and endeavour to diffuse among all nations, light, liberty, and civilization’. On his canvass of the electors, he noted that ‘I find the name of my father, your own townsman, a passport to the hearts of all around me’.

Despite his family background, Wilberforce’s career before entering Parliament had been distinctly unpromising, and he had been a considerable source of anxiety to his parents. In 1816 his father noted his ‘sad qualities’ and ‘selfishness’, and the following year bemoaned that ‘I fear he has no energy of character or solid principle of action’. In 1820 Wilberforce senior described his son as ‘in many respects extremely amiable; & his talents are certainly of a superior order, but he sadly wants diligence’. Wilberforce junior disappointed his parents with his idle habits and extravagant spending as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where his misdemeanours including getting drunk on a Sunday. They consequently removed him from the university.

Although Wilberforce qualified as a barrister in 1825, he quickly decided that the legal profession was not for him. Instead, with financial support from his father, he invested in a dairy farm at St. John’s Wood, which aimed to supply London’s residents with cheap and pure milk. However, this venture failed in 1830 due to an unreliable business partner and a severe drought, running up a debt of £50,000. Bailing out his son proved financially crippling for Wilberforce senior, who rented out his house in order to economise. Wilberforce junior spent time in Switzerland and Italy in order to escape his creditors. Meeting him at Naples in April 1833, John Henry Newman found him ‘certainly graver – I cannot exactly say, wiser’.

Wilberforce’s election in 1837 for his father’s former constituency offered the potential for a new start. Proud to follow in his father’s footsteps, he argued at a celebratory election dinner that his victory showed the importance of the ‘hereditary principle’ in Parliament, in contrast with the ‘reckless change and innovation’ urged by the Liberal party. His father had earlier advised that should he ever enter the Commons, he should choose ‘some specific object, some line of usefulness’. Yet while Wilberforce senior’s election for Hull had marked the beginning of a 45 year career in the Commons – he subsequently sat for Yorkshire, 1784-1812, and Bramber, 1812-25 – his son’s time at Westminster was brief and unremarkable. He managed to make only three speeches in the chamber before he was unseated on petition in March 1838.

The reason for his unseating was that Wilberforce did not possess the property qualification then required of MPs. The election committee agreed that his Yorkshire estates – inherited from his father – were of sufficient value to qualify him. However, rather ironically, given Wilberforce senior’s hopes that his son might follow him into Parliament, the complex terms under which Wilberforce junior was granted these properties by his father’s will – notably that trustees had the power to sell the estates within 21 years of Wilberforce senior’s death – meant that he lacked the ‘absolute and indefeasible interest’ in these properties which the law demanded.

Despite this setback, Wilberforce stood again, seeking election at Taunton at the 1841 general election. He finished third in the poll behind the sitting Liberal MPs, despite resorting to bribery in his efforts to win the seat. His brother Samuel complained that ‘had his hands been clean’, Wilberforce might have been able to petition successfully against his opponents, who had apparently also resorted to corrupt practices.

In September 1841 Wilberforce made his final attempt to enter the Commons, at a by-election at Bradford, where he was proposed as ‘the son of one of the best men who ever adorned the country’. Despite being an outside candidate, while his opponent was a former MP for the borough, Wilberforce came within four votes of victory. He subsequently faded from public view, leading what one obituary described as an ‘unsympathetic, aimless, objectless life’.

Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), depicted in Vanity Fair (1869)

Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), depicted in Vanity Fair (1869)

He spent much time abroad in the late 1850s and early 1860s, residing at St. Germain en Laye, near Paris. An American visitor who met him there in 1857 found him ‘rather dull, with nothing of his father but the name’. In common with his brothers Henry and Robert – both of whom were Anglican clergymen – he converted to Roman Catholicism. Their fourth brother, Samuel, the most prominent of Wilberforce senior’s sons, remained an Anglican, serving as Bishop of Oxford, 1845-69, and Winchester, 1869-73. Nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’, he was involved in a famous debate on evolution with Thomas Huxley and others at Oxford in June 1860. William Wilberforce returned to live in England in the 1870s and died in 1879.

Further reading

  • A. Stott, Wilberforce. Family and friends (2012)
  • W. Hague, William Wilberforce (2008)
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