‘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)

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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 | Leave a comment

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.


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