MP of the Month: Alfred Rhodes Bristow (1818-1875)

By the 1850s a seat in Parliament was proving a useful career path for men of relatively humble means to achieve substantial professional advancement. A prime example was our MP of Month, Alfred Rhodes Bristow. The son of a Greenwich tradesman, he honed his legal and political skills in municipal politics and election agency before securing a parliamentary seat, which he then readily traded for a lucrative government position.

Bristow was born in Greenwich in 1818, the youngest son of a draper and government contractor. Educated at King’s College, London, he qualified as a solicitor in 1841, and the following year married the daughter of a local calico printer. He subsequently established a successful conveyancing practice and in 1851 began acting as the election agent for an independent Liberal barrister named Montague Chambers. Chambers held moderately radical views and despite losing to a government candidate at the Greenwich by-election of February 1852, he later won the seat with Bristow’s help at the 1852 general election.

John Dean Paul, Greenwich Hospital from the River, London (1835); Museum of London;

Alongside parliamentary elections, Bristow became involved in municipal affairs. In December 1855 he was elected to the new metropolitan board of works as a representative for Greenwich, Deptford and Hatcham. An active committee man, he demonstrated his political flexibility in February 1857 by bringing forward a government nominee, General William Codrington, for another by-election at Greenwich. Codrington, a former commander of the British army in the Crimea, easily defeated the Radical candidate. By the time of the 1857 general election, Bristow – who was described as rather ‘beyond middle-height’, well-proportioned but ‘inclined to bulk’, with features which beamed ‘with intellect and intelligence’ – was said to have the representation of Greenwich ‘in his pocket’. Although in 1857 he was unable to save Chambers from defeat by a more advanced Radical, Bristow had astutely formed a joint committee which secured Codrington’s return at the top of the poll.

When Chambers abandoned his candidature for Kidderminster at the 1859 general election for another unsuccessful attempt on Greenwich, Bristow agreed to take his place at the venal carpet-making borough. Although he stood under the motto of ‘Bristow and the working classes’, he adopted a conciliatory stance towards his Conservative opponent, whose party nevertheless branded him ‘an out-and-out Republican’. Elected with a small majority, he was accused of unduly influencing the electors. A petition against his return, however, was dropped after reportedly being ‘paired’ with a Liberal petition at Pontefract, on the condition that Bristow paid £700 towards his opponent’s election costs.

Brinton’s carpet factory, Kidderminster

Bristow was well suited to life at Westminster, where he paid unwearied attention to matters of business. He had a ‘rich, pleasing, and harmonious’ voice, and developed a reputation as a candid and straightforward public speaker. His genial nature and talent for putting people at their ease made him ‘a universal favourite’ in the House. Although he advocated a thorough programme of reform, he insisted that it could be achieved ‘without a particle of revolution or rebellion’, and attracted popular support in Kidderminster. At Westminster he helped to restructure the municipal administration of London by assisting William Tite with a bill to amend the Metropolis Local Act of 1855. At the same time he was always ready to provide ‘bustling support’ for Lord Palmerston’s ministry whenever ‘his vote was of consequence’.

He made himself particularly useful to the Palmerston ministry by resigning his parliamentary seat in 1862 in order to create a vacancy for Luke White, the government’s ‘Irish whip’. He was rewarded with the post of solicitor to the admiralty, with a ‘comfortable’ salary of £2,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, the medical grounds he cited as his reason for retirement from the Commons were derided by the Conservative press, which reported the House’s ‘unbounded amusement’ that after only three parliamentary sessions this ‘stout, muscular individual’ could no longer ‘without risk to his life, remain out of bed after midnight!’

Bristow discharged his duties at the admiralty with ‘tact, ability, and energy’. Still keen to advance his legal career, he was called to the bar in November 1868, and continued to maintain substantial business interests, which included a directorship of the East London Bank. Not done with politics, he answered a call from the Kidderminster branch of the Reform League to offer himself at the 1868 general election, but subsequently withdrew from the contest. In 1874 he seconded the nomination of his former client, General Sir William Codrington, as a candidate for the Westminster constituency. Active to the end, Bristow spent a particularly busy day in the capital on 5 April 1875, when he collapsed and died at the feet of his wife and niece outside the Crystal Palace Hotel, Norwood.

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

The Leeds Mercury report of Gower’s nickname was reprinted in several papers, Orkney Herald, 9 June 1868

In the third of his blog series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal explores Gower’s parliamentary reputation as the ‘beautiful boy’ of the Commons, and his increasing disaffection with conventional aristocratic society during the 1868 parliamentary session.

In May 1868 the twenty-two-year-old MP for Sutherlandshire, Ronald Gower (1845-1916), made his maiden parliamentary speech. When reporting on the speech the Leeds Mercury shared some unexpected Westminster gossip. The paper informed its readers that Gower had

the reputation of being the handsomest man in the House of Commons, and when he first entered it a year ago he obtained the name of ‘the beautiful boy’, which has clung to him ever since.

Leeds Mercury, 30 May 1868.

MPs were regularly given nicknames by their colleagues, but in our research for the History of Parliament’s forthcoming Commons 1832-1868 volumes, Gower’s designation as ‘the beautiful boy’ stands alone as an example of the objectification and sexualisation of a young MP by his older colleagues.

Gower was not the only MP to be labelled as ‘the handsomest man in the House of Commons’. Seeking re-election for Hull in 1868, Charles Norwood was commended to the electors with the observation that ‘the ladies, so many of whom now grace us with their presence, say that he is the handsomest man in the House of Commons’. However, the use of the nickname the ‘beautiful boy’ for Gower carried rather different connotations. A Commons full of classically trained MPs could surely not have failed to note the association of such a moniker with notions of the ‘beautiful boy’ (or erômenos) of ancient Greek culture, a figure synonymous with sexual desire between an older man and a younger male.

Unattributed pencil drawing of Gower likely late 1860s, reprinted in Williamson, The Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower: A Memorial Tribute (1916)

At first glance, then, the existence of such a nickname suggests a level of openness in attitudes towards same-sex desire in the homosocial private club culture of the nineteenth-century Commons. This would be surprising, however, given Ben Griffin’s insightful research into masculine identity at Westminster during the period. As Griffin astutely notes, mid-Victorian MPs ‘could not abandon heterosexuality, domestic responsibilities, domestic authority, independence or self control without abandoning one’s claim to be a “real” man’.

What seems more likely is that in calling Gower ‘the beautiful boy’ MPs were referencing, and adding to, Westminster gossip and innuendo surrounding his sexuality. Following his arrival in the Commons in May 1867 it is conceivable that MPs came up with the nickname to marginalise a colleague who they perceived as unmanly or effete. Certainly, reports in the Elgin Courant suggest some perception of what would now be termed Gower’s camp aesthetic. In reporting on his parliamentary nickname, the paper couldn’t resist the play on words of calling Gower ‘his Grace’s graceful brother’, ‘his grace’ being Gower’s brother and fellow parliamentarian, the 3rd duke of Sutherland (1828-1892).

As his first year in Parliament wore on, though, it is highly plausible that MPs started to link Gower’s nickname to rumours about his sexuality. As discussed in my previous blog, Gower’s private diaries indicate that he spent most of the 1867 parliamentary session mixing London’s conventional aristocratic social calendar with London’s queer West End nightlife. Covent Garden’s theatres and drinking establishments were a stone’s throw from Parliament and were very public spaces. It is not hard to conceive that reports of Gower’s regular attendance in the area, and apparent relationships with other men, got back to his colleagues.

By calling Gower ‘the beautiful boy’, then, MPs may at best have been offering a coded warning to Gower to ensure that his extra-parliamentary activities were in keeping with the expected norms for a figure in public life. Alternatively the nickname was simply deployed as a form of bullying.

A distinct change in Gower’s social habits during the 1868 parliamentary session suggests that he was more than aware that questions were being raised about his extra-parliamentary nightlife. His diary for 1868 indicates that he stopped his regular trips to Covent Garden’s theatres and Evans’s Supper Rooms of the previous year. In their place were visits to the more respectable, and private, Mayfair gentleman’s ‘night clubs’ (as Gower called them) of Pratt’s Club House, 14 Park Place, and Egerton’s, 87 St James’s St.

Gower complained of the ‘feeling of loneliness’ in the Commons prior to the election of his nephew and friend the marquess of Lorne. Lorne took his seat on the day Disraeli addressed the Commons for the first time as Prime Minister, ILN, 14 Mar. 1868

As 1868 progressed, Gower’s diary also suggests his increasing disaffection with parliamentary life and the social expectations of conventional aristocratic society. In March 1868, Gower’s nephew and close friend, John ‘Ian’ Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914), was returned to Parliament. Lorne’s constant presence in London over the following months came as a great relief to Gower:

What a difference his being in the House [of Commons] makes to me I cannot say, it only wanted such a company to take away the feeling of loneliness that I formerly felt among so many older people than myself; and our walks or drives to and from the House are charming.

SRO, D6578/15/22, 5 Mar. 1868

Although his friendship with Lorne provided some respite from the ‘loneliness’ of the Commons, by the summer of 1868 Gower complained increasingly in his diary of the ‘pain and boresomeness’ of much of London society. In doing so he began pining for a more selective social set that shared his love of art and literature.

In July 1868 he was inspired by a visit to the Holland Park residence of the artist, Frederic Leighton (1830-1896):

If only I could see more and live more with the people (and society in general of those) with whom Ian and I breakfasted this morning (Thursday 2nd) life would be intensely more enjoyable and interesting. We broke fast nearly at 12 with F. Leighton and a far greater brother artist [George] Watts; with these was also young [Valentine] Prinsep, a rising artist and I do not think I have ever spent two pleasanter hours.

SRO, D6578/15/22, 2 July 1868
By 1868 Gower had tired of the Prince and Princess of Wales and their annual visits to Dunrobin. The ceremonial surrounding the Wales’s 1866 visit was detailed in ILN 13 Oct. 1866

His disdain for conventional aristocratic society was compounded that autumn after enduring a fortnight at his family’s estate in Dunrobin in the company of the future Edward VII, the Prince of Wales. He complained that ‘I do not enjoy the society (if it can be called such) which the Wales’s bring’. Regretting that ‘the more I am here [Dunrobin] the greater I feel the change from old times’, he went on to imagine an alternative future life in an idealised ‘Spanish Castle’ in Kilmarnock:

My “Spanish Castle” is a wee house at Kilmarnock. It’s large enough for me or two friends where I can feel and be perfectly free; with my books and myself. All this may sound and perhaps is selfish. If so I cannot help it; surely, we all may follow unnatural tendencies (if right and honourable) and mine is to be utterly independent and not obliged to live at all with a set of people utterly and wholly uncongenial and unsympathetic to myself.

SRO, D6578/15/22, 4 Oct. 1868

As well as foreseeing his future bric-a-brac ‘treasure house’ at Windsor Lodge (which as John Potvin has demonstrated became a meeting point for a generation of young aesthetes from the 1870s), Gower’s statement presents as a remarkably frank admission of his sexuality and disillusionment with the conventions of aristocratic society.

Definition of ‘unnatural offences’ according to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act

As with the multiple meanings inherent in his parliamentary nickname of the ‘beautiful boy’, it is hard to escape the notion that in privately admitting his ‘unnatural tendencies’ Gower was coming to terms with his sexuality. ‘Unnatural’ was nineteenth-century shorthand for same-sex desire and ‘unnatural offences’ was the principal legal term used to categorise an array of criminal sexual offences enacted by men such as ‘sodomy’, ‘indecent assault’ or ‘carnal knowledge’.  

Within eighteen months of entering public life as a member of Parliament, Gower had clearly come to realise that a career at Westminster was not for him. While he would be returned again to Parliament at the November 1868 general election, his position of immense privilege as a member of one of Britain’s leading aristocratic families allowed him to devote the next few years of his life to forging an alternative career as a sculptor and writer…


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

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

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

Further Reading

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

K. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (first published 1978, most recent edition 2016)

B. Griffin, The politics of gender in Victorian Britain: masculinity, political culture and the struggle for women’s rights (2012)

J. Potvin, Bachelors of a Different Sort: Queer Aesthetics, Material Culture and the Modern Interior in Britain (2014)

R. Scruton, Beauty (2009)

S. Sontag, Notes on “Camp” (first published 1964, most recent edition 2018)

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

Posted in LGBT+ History Month, Parliamentary life, Queer Parliamentary Life, Ronald Gower Series | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A ‘pocket’ borough or a borough needing deep pockets? Abingdon’s elections in the nineteenth century

In this blog, originally posted on the main History of Parliament site, Dr Philip Salmon examines the parliamentary representation of Abingdon in the 19th century.

Abingdon was widely regarded as an easily managed ‘pocket’ or ‘nomination’ borough during the 19th century. For a while it certainly had all the appearance of being one. During the decade and a half either side of the 1832 Reform Act its politics were completely dominated by two influential MPs. From 1818 until 1832 John Maberly MP, a wealthy cloth manufacturer and banker – the epitome of a self-made entrepreneur – effectively bought the borough. His generous gifts of coal to the poor and distribution of one guinea ‘treating’ and dining tickets to every elector ensured his return as a Whig at five successive elections before 1832, in four of which he faced no opposition. His connection with Abingdon’s principal trade, the manufacture of cloth and carpets, also secured him support, though his own business interests were based in Scotland and often viewed as rival operations.

Abingdon’s oddities as a constituency also shored up Maberly’s position. Before 1832, Abingdon was one of just five English boroughs that elected one MP rather than two. The lack of a second seat greatly reduced the number of candidates willing to risk the expense and trouble of a contest. Abingdon’s franchise was another factor. Before 1832, all residents who paid local taxes were eligible to vote, as a part of a ‘scot and lot’ franchise. Around 300 inhabitants fell into this category, but doubts about who qualified after long periods of uncontested elections meant that the result of any poll would almost certainly be challenged on petition, at considerable expense. Regular changes to the local rate assessments used to determine this type of franchise further muddied the waters.

Abingdon Boundary Map, 1832

One striking consequence of Abingdon’s ‘scot and lot’ franchise was that the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832 made almost no difference to the size of its electorate. Most people who qualified for the new £10 household franchise were already ‘scot and lot’ voters. The Reform Act also made no changes to the borough’s boundaries. Maberly’s dominance therefore looked set to continue after 1832. In the event, however, the dramatic collapse of his finances in 1832 and his ensuing bankruptcy forced him to abandon politics and flee to the Continent.

His replacement as Abingdon’s MP was Thomas Duffield of Marcham Park, a local Tory squire, who easily saw off a challenge by Maberly’s son William Leader Maberly at the 1832 election. Duffield’s immense wealth – he had married an heiress to the fortune of John Elwes MP – gave him the same sort of hold over Abingdon that Maberly had enjoyed. The fact that he was a Tory, albeit of an ‘independent’ and moderate kind, seemed to matter less than his ability to continue Maberly’s patronage and philanthropy, including coals for the poor. Re-elected without opposition in 1835, 1837 and 1841, Duffield eventually became so secure in his berth that he was able to act as the borough’s patron. In 1844 he resigned to provide a safe seat for the Conservative solicitor general Frederick Thesiger, who was duly elected unopposed.

Any resemblance Abingdon had to a pocket borough, however, was completely destroyed the following year. Emboldened by their recent gains in the town’s council elections, a group of reforming tradesmen and businessmen organised an opposition to Thesiger at the 1845 by-election, triggered by his appointment as Conservative attorney general. Led by John Thomas Norris, a London paper manufacturer with local paper mills at Sutton Courtenay and Sandford-on-Thames, and Gabriel Davis, an Abingdon wine and grain merchant, the group brought forward the wealthy nabob General James Caulfeild as their candidate. Although he was narrowly defeated after a notoriously venal contest, at the 1847 election they tried again. This time they came within three votes of success. In 1852 Thesiger decided he had had enough and transferred to the safer (and cheaper) seat of Stamford. A series of Tory hopefuls then attempted to muster support but all quit, leaving the Liberal Caulfeild to be elected without opposition.

Caulfeild’s unexpected death shortly after his election set in train a different series of challenges to the status quo in Abingdon. Although Caulfeild had been invited to stand by Abingdon’s tradesmen, he had also been acceptable to the local Whig squires and gentry who traditionally dominated county politics. The suggestion that the paper manufacturer Norris now replace him, however, was firmly resisted by the local aristocracy. They instead settled on the former Conservative MP for Oxfordshire Lord Norreys, who had recently become a ‘Liberal-Conservative’. Norris reluctantly agreed to stand aside and support Norreys, but only on the understanding that he would be next in line for any vacancy. When Norreys succeeded to his family’s peerage just two years later, however, a more ‘moderate’ Liberal candidate, the young aristocratic army officer Joseph Reed, was introduced by the Whig squires with the support of an ‘influential’ section of Abingdon’s reformers. Norris, it was asserted, was too much of an ‘upstart’ and in ‘too great haste to get to the top of the ladder’.

With Norris refusing to give way a second time the 1854 by-election became a contest between two different types of Liberal candidate: one a nominee of the area’s traditional ruling elite, the other a self-made businessman and local employer backed by local tradesmen. Although Reed won, his tenure was short. Plagued by debt and fearing more election expenditure, he stepped down at the 1857 election and sought re-election elsewhere, before landing in debtor’s prison. The Whigs and Liberals were left with little option but to rally around Norris. The ‘pretentious upstart’, by now a director of the Eastern Counties Railway, was duly elected unopposed. A supporter of many radical causes in the Commons, he successfully saw off a Conservative challenge at the 1859 election. Like many businessman MPs, however, he found that Parliament interfered with the running of his company. Accused of neglecting his parliamentary duties, at the 1865 election he lost his seat to another well-connected ‘Liberal Conservative’. Within a year he was declared bankrupt.

Colonel Charles Lindsay MP

The aristocratic credentials of Norris’s successor were impeccable. A younger son of the Earl of Crawford, who had served with the Grenadier Guards in the Crimean war, including at Balaklava, Colonel Charles Lindsay sat until his defeat in 1874. At that year’s election the pendulum swung back again in favour of a businessman MP, the Liberal John Creemer Clarke, who as well as being Abingdon’s former mayor and chairman of the local railway, was appropriately enough another clothing manufacturer. He sat until the borough’s abolition in 1885.

Abingdon was just one of many small English boroughs in which local political activity during the Victorian era revolved around rival party attachments, interest groups and preconceptions about who was fit to be an MP. Underpinning these tensions the distribution of money, either in the form of bribery or patronage of local institutions, ensured that representation remained an extremely costly business, placing a serious strain on any MP’s purse. It remains to be seen how typical Abingdon was in this respect, but for 25 of the 67 years covered in this brief survey Abingdon was represented by an MP who subsequently went bankrupt. Abingdon may not have been a pocket borough in the traditional sense, but it certainly needed deep pockets.

Useful links:

Abingdon Area Archaeological and Historical Society

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‘Highly respected in Parliamentary circles’: Thomas Greene (1794-1872)

Our MP of the Month Thomas Greene (1794-1872) represented his Lancaster constituency for more than three decades. As a well-respected back bench MP, he made an important contribution to parliamentary business behind the scenes, and served as chairman of ways and means from 1841 until 1847.

The name of Thomas Greene may be obscure today, but at the time of his death in 1872, The Times recorded that he had been ‘widely known and highly respected in Parliamentary circles’. He provides a good example of those diligent back bench MPs who made an unshowy, but significant, contribution to the smooth functioning of the Victorian Commons. His parliamentary career also illustrates another feature of nineteenth-century politics which we have explored in previous blogs: the fluidity of party allegiances, particularly in the 1830s.

Thomas Greene (1794-1872) by James Lonsdale; Parliamentary Art Collection;

Greene entered the Commons in 1824 following a by-election victory at Lancaster, which lay close to the family estates he had inherited in 1810. He represented the borough – with one brief hiatus – until his retirement in 1857, and was unopposed at his first six elections. Although he was elected as a supporter of Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry, Greene asserted that he was ‘not devoted to party and would always vote conscientiously’. During his early years in the Commons, he ‘tacked between the Tories and Whigs to retain the local support by which he made his seat his own’. He opposed Catholic emancipation, but voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, hoping to prevent a more sweeping reform. In 1831 he was elected as a ‘moderate reformer’ and again took a pro-reform stance on the hustings in 1832, although he was keen to go to Parliament ‘unshackled’ by pledges and preserve his ‘independence of character’.

Greene’s votes in the first Reformed Parliament confirmed his unwillingness to follow a strict party line. At the 1835 election he again advocated a policy of moderate reform, but this time stood as a supporter of Sir Robert Peel and his Tamworth manifesto. He duly backed Peel’s short-lived ministry on key issues in the division lobbies and was listed by the Parliamentary Test Book (1835) as a Conservative. While other parliamentary guides were slower to recognise his change of allegiance, it was evident from his subsequent votes against the Melbourne ministry that his loyalties had shifted.

Extract from the Parliamentary Test Book (1835)

When the Conservatives returned to office in 1841, Peel, on Lord Stanley’s recommendation, appointed Greene to the important position of chairman of the committee of ways and means. In addition to the committee’s handling of matters relating to the public revenue, the chairman of ways and means had recently been given responsibility for overseeing unopposed private bills in the Commons. Peel cited Greene’s experience in ‘the private business of the House’ as a key reason for his selection. Although he had not been a regular speaker in the chamber, he had taken a particular interest in procedural matters, and had been a diligent member in the committee-rooms. In the 1837-41 Parliament he had served on several select committees dealing with procedural issues, including the select committees on private business and the revision of the standing orders. Alongside this experience, Greene could draw upon his training as a lawyer. He had been called to the bar in 1819, although he did not pursue a legal career.

Greene’s appointment as chairman of ways and means prompted a marked increase in his attendance at Westminster, voting in at least half of divisions in every session except 1843. He spoke much more regularly, although his interventions were mostly brief procedural points when chairing debates. He was keen to make improvements in the procedure followed by committees on railway bills, which were occupying an increasing amount of the House’s time, as well as on private bills, and again sat on several select committees on procedural matters. He remained loyal to Peel over the Maynooth grant, despite this giving ‘mortal offence to his ultra-Tory supporters’ at Lancaster, and also backed him over the repeal of the corn laws. While his moderate views had previously been a source of strength, he recognised on the hustings in 1847 that this was no longer the case, since ‘I do not go far enough for either party, and so I have doubtless lost many votes’. He was, however, re-elected in second place, assisted by the ‘personal regard’ of many voters for him.

Greene was replaced as chairman of ways and means by a Liberal in 1847, but continued to give the Commons the benefit of his procedural expertise. In 1848 he was appointed as one of three commissioners who would superintend the completion of the new Palace of Westminster, which had been subject to delay and increased expense. This prompted several contributions to debate as he and the other commissioners attempted to resolve problems such as the acrimonious dispute between Charles Barry and David Boswell Reid over the ventilation of the Commons chamber. Greene displayed his frustration with Barry, complaining in April 1851 that his ‘very unsightly’ interior decoration was at odds with the wish of the Commons that ‘the new chamber should be as unadorned as possible’.

The Commons chamber, ILN, 7 Feb. 1852.

The new Conservative ministry of 1852 led by the Earl of Derby (who as Lord Stanley had recommended Greene to Peel in 1841) saw Greene as ‘the natural person to bring forward’ as chairman of ways and means, but expectations that he would resume his former role were scuppered by his defeat at that year’s general election. Derby instead chose John Wilson Patten, hoping he might accept the position ‘temporarily … with an understanding that he would resign it if Greene should regain his seat’. Greene did not, however, displace Patten when re-entered the Commons at a by-election in April 1853. He rarely spoke in debate in his final Parliament, but remained active in the committee-rooms, serving on the select committees on the business of the House and on standing orders, as well as inquiries into the ventilation of the Commons, Peterborough’s elections, the Thames marshes, compensation claims against the Portuguese government, the public health bill and the nuisances removal amendment bill. He also played another important part in managing the business of the House as one of the chairmen of the general committee on railway and canal bills and regularly chaired the committee of selection, which oversaw the appointment of committees on private bills. While Greene’s name was not associated with any landmark piece of legislation or a campaign on any particular issue, his diligent activity at Westminster was essential to the functioning of parliamentary business.

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

In the second of his blog series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal explores Gower’s London social life during his first year in Parliament, including a brief summer romance with the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Albumen print of Ronald Gower by Camille Silvy (1865) CC NPG

One of the most privileged men in nineteenth-century Britain, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), was returned to Parliament in May 1867, aged 21, for his family’s pocket county of Sutherland. As discussed in my first blog of this series, historians and literary critics have shown how Gower played an influential role in shaping British queer identities, utilising his position of privilege to navigate life as a queer man in late nineteenth-century Britain.

My research into the first two years of his parliamentary career for the History of Parliament’s Commons 1832-1868 project has revealed new insights into Gower’s life as a young queer MP. This blog focuses on Gower’s social life during his first year in Parliament, which mixed London’s more conventional aristocratic social calendar with London’s queer nightlife.

Gower’s detailed private diary reveals that he maintained a very busy social life after taking his seat in Parliament in May 1867. As well as attending aristocratic dinners and balls and the major cultural events of that year’s London Season, he was a devoted attendee of London’s art galleries, West End theatres and Covent Garden nightspots. He was usually accompanied on these frequent, and elongated, nights out by one or more of his close school or university friends: Robert ‘Jorcy’ Jocelyn (1846-1880), John ‘Ian’ Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914), Lord Archibald Campbell (1846-1913), or his brother Albert Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1843-1874).

One of Gower’s favourite London theatres, the Adelphi: ILN, 18 Dec. 1858

During 1867 Gower was a regular presence in London’s West End theatres: the Strand, the Adelphi, Drury Lane Theatre, Haymarket, St James’s, the Royal Italian Opera House and the Royal Alhambra Palace. The acerbic witticisms that litter his diary suggest that he fancied himself as something of a theatrical critic, and he was more than happy to prioritise attending a new play over important debates in the Commons.

On 28 June 1867, for instance, he missed a close vote over the Conservative ministry’s reform bill to attend the St James’s Theatre to watch his favourite play of the season for the second time, Les Idées De Madame Aubray by Alexandre Dumas fils. The crowd, he reported, were ‘cheering [Monsieur] Ravel and [Mademoiselle] Deschamps being the principal performers but the whole company is excellent’.

After attending the theatre (or escaping from what he invariably found to be ‘very slow’ aristocratic dinners or balls) Gower would usually move on to his favourite late-night Covent Garden drinking haunt, the notorious Evans’s Supper-room, 43 King Street.

Evans’s Supper Room, 43 King Street, ILN, 26 Jan. 1856

Evans’s was a male-only late night dining room and music hall (with women only admitted to view proceedings from behind a screen and on presentation of their address). Known for its heavy drinking culture and ‘madrigal glees’ sung by ‘well known boys’, it was derided by temperance reformers during the 1860s for ‘vice and profligacy’ and for attracting disreputable gentlemen ‘who had not paid a tailor’s bill for the last seven years’.

As a number of historians have shown, the theatres, pubs and clubs of London’s West End were some of the most significant queer spaces in nineteenth-century London.

One contemporary recalled how from the 1850s ‘the Adelphi Theatre, the Italian Opera, and the open parks at night became his fields of adventure’. That Evans’s Supper-room may also have been regarded by contemporaries as one of London’s queer spaces is suggested by its mention in Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park’s sodomy trial of 1870. During their trial a witness reported that waiting staff at Evans’s refused to remove the cross-dressed Park and Boulton from the establishment, as well as the latter’s partner, the former MP for Newark, Lord Arthur Clinton (1840-1870).

Advert to ‘sup’ after theatre at Evans’s Supper Rooms, Sun, 5 July 1867

Several remarkably open entries in his diary suggest that these queer spaces allowed Gower to pursue a brief relationship during July and August 1867 with the ‘quite beautiful’ and ‘Spanishy’ William John Mayne (1846-1902), the son of the first commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Richard Mayne (1796-1868). The relationship embraced the complete array of Gower’s social haunts, evolving from a meeting at a conventional aristocratic ball, to a series of nights out in Gower’s favourite Covent Garden nightspots.

Gower’s diary entry for 27 July 1867 where he describes the ‘quite beautiful’ and ‘Spanishy’ Richard Mayne, SRO, D6578/15/21

It appears that Gower and Mayne either met at a ball at Stafford House on 15 July 1867, or at the India Office Ball held later that week to celebrate the London visit of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz, which Gower described as ‘probably the finest ball ever given in London’. A week later Gower took Mayne for lunch and then to the Royal Academy of Arts:

27 July 1867

On Saturday 27th [July] to town after lunch (a new friend) W. Mayne (Sir Richard’s last son and youngest) came with me to the [Royal] Academy; he is 22 and quite beautiful; Spanishy; lived a good deal in Paris and has the most charming manners.

Gower’s diary suggests he met with Mayne on four further occasions over the following few weeks. In addition to the places already discussed above, Gower’s diary entries listed below mention Chiswick House, where Gower lived during 1867 with his mother the 2nd duchess of Sutherland; St. James’s Club, Gower’s gentleman’s club then situated at Grafton Street; and 80 Chester Square, Mayne’s home address:

28 July 1867

Mayne came [to Chiswick House] in the afternoon and was (in Archie’s [word illegible]) booted … I drove Mayne back to [80] Chester Square at 7.

3 Aug. 1867

Later out with Will. Mayne (who I am exceptionally fond of).

5 Aug. 1867

Dined with W. Mayne at my Club (St. James’s), and we went to the Adelphi to see Kate Terry in ‘The Lady of Lyon’, much disappointed; also to Evans’s.

15 Aug. 1867

I went to town on the 15th and stopped the night, dining with W. Mayne and going with him to a concert at Covent Garden and also to Evans’s.

Carte de visite of Kate Terry (1844-1924) in her farewell performance at the Adelphi as Juliet, 31 Aug. 1867. Gower ‘found it impossible to get a place’ but saw her earlier that month with Mayne and witnessed her ‘charming’ penultimate performance on 30 Aug. as Beatrice in As You Like It.

Gower’s diary contains no further mentions of Mayne, suggesting that the relationship ended abruptly. It may have been that Mayne spurned Gower’s advances, that either one grew tired of each other, or that they were spotted. Both were high profile figures – the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and a member of Parliament – and if the affair had become public knowledge it would have been a society scandal.  Little is known about Mayne following this, aside from that he died, aged 56, unmarried and ‘without profession’ in Ostend, in August 1902.

Either way, for Gower the moment appears to have been a watershed. As my next blog will discuss, it was not long before rumours surrounding Gower’s sexuality surfaced in Parliament, leading him to change his social habits and to long for an alternative mode of life.


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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

S. Joyce, ‘Two Women Walk into a Theatre Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative’, Victorian Review (2018), 83-98

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

C. Upchurch, ‘Forgetting the Unthinkable: Cross-Dressers and British Society in the Case of the Queen vs. Boulton and Others’, Gender and History (2000), 127-57

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

Representing Glamorgan, 1832-85: Mr. Talbot and his colleagues

This post originally appeared on the History of Parliament’s blog as part of a Local History series on Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. The earlier posts in the series looked at elections in the 1640s and the 18th century. In the 19th century, it was the long-serving Liberal MP Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot who exerted the strongest influence in Glamorgan, but he sat alongside several different colleagues during his sixty years in the Commons.

Described in 1841 as ‘the Lancashire of Wales’, Glamorgan was Wales’s wealthiest and most industrialised county. Coal mining employed almost one fifth of its male workforce in 1851, compared with one seventh in agriculture. Iron working was another key industry, centred on Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, and copper smelting, using ore from Cornwall and overseas, was expanding at Swansea. The county was also home to the world’s largest tin-plate factory at Ystalyfera.

Dowlais Iron Works by George Childs (1840) (C) National Museum of Wales

In contrast with this rapid industrial development, Glamorgan’s political representation during this period had one unchanging feature. For almost sixty years, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot was the local MP. First elected in 1830, he sat until his death in 1890, by when he was ‘Father of the House’. From 1885, when Glamorgan was divided into five constituencies, he held the Mid Glamorgan seat. Only one nineteenth-century MP, Charles Villiers, surpassed Talbot’s record for continuous Commons service.

As Glamorgan’s largest landowner and a descendant of the Mansel family, which had long provided county MPs, Talbot appears at first glance to be a traditional representative of the landed elite. However, he also had significant industrial and commercial interests, which included the development of Port Talbot and investments in the railways worth an estimated £3 million by 1890, contributing to his reputed position as the wealthiest commoner in Britain. Although he spoke only once in debate during six decades in the Commons, Talbot’s strong local position entrenched him in his Glamorgan seat. Even his divergence from the majority of the Liberal party on two key issues – repeal of the corn laws in the 1840s and Irish Home Rule in the 1880s – did not threaten his electoral prospects.

C.R.M. Talbot

Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803-1890)

With Talbot secure, Glamorgan’s elections became a battle for the second seat which the county had been given by the 1832 Reform Act. As with other constituencies, the low number of contests – between 1832 and 1868 Glamorgan’s electors only went to the polls twice – did not necessarily indicate a lack of political interest. The 1832 election was a case in point. Although Talbot was returned without opposition alongside his fellow Whig Lewis Weston Dillwyn, at least ten other individuals had been mentioned as possible candidates. Talbot and Dillwyn’s election was aided by the fact that the influential Marquess of Bute decided not to field a Conservative opponent. Although he was a lifelong Liberal, who had voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, Talbot assured Bute privately that he held ‘conservative’ views. The lack of opposition did not, however, mean a cheap election, as the returning officer charged the candidates for various expenses of dubious legality, including £20 for silver coins thrown to the crowd and £210 for tavern bills.

The political alliance between Talbot and Dillwyn was cemented by the marriage of Dillwyn’s eldest son to Talbot’s sister in 1833, and they were re-elected without opposition in 1835. Despite the offer of a baronetcy from the Melbourne ministry, Dillwyn could not, however, be persuaded to stand again in 1837, when there was a major shift in the county’s representation. For the first time, a Conservative candidate was nominated: Viscount Adare, heir to the Irish earldom of Dunraven and, through his mother, to extensive estates in the Vale of Glamorgan. His maternal grandfather had been a long-serving MP for the county and Adare’s supporters emphasised these family connections during the contest, while his opponents mocked his youth – he was 25 years old – and lack of political experience.

Sir Josiah John Guest (C) National Library of Wales

The third candidate in 1837 was the Liberal industrialist (Josiah) John Guest, whose iron company at Dowlais was the world’s largest producer of iron. He was also standing again for Merthyr Tydfil, where he had been MP since 1832, but declared that he would sit for Glamorgan if elected there. The diaries of his wife, Lady Charlotte, provide a colourful account of the contest. She recorded that when Adare went to canvass in his opponent’s heartland at Dowlais, he was met by 700 of Guest’s workmen, chanting ‘Guest for ever’, whereupon ‘the Little Lord was so frightened that he did not canvass a single vote, and got the Constables to escort him safely back again’. She was equally scathing about Adare’s performance on the hustings, where he ‘read the whole of his speech … chiefly about his grandfather’. Her low opinion was echoed by the Morning Chronicle, which reported that Adare’s poor showing ‘was pitied by all – his ignorance on political matters is frightful’.

Lady Charlotte Guest (C) National Library of Wales

This did not, however, prevent Adare from topping the poll, aided by the influence exercised by Dunraven and Bute. Lady Charlotte claimed that ‘the Tory landlords brought their Tenants up themselves like flocks of sheep, and made them break their pledge-words. They absolutely dragged them to the Poll, threatening to turn them out of their farms unless they voted plumpers for Lord Adare’. Talbot, who had been unenthusiastic about Guest’s candidature, preferring to share the representation without a contest, kept his seat, with Guest in third place. Guest remained in Parliament, however, having easily seen off a Conservative opponent at Merthyr.

Talbot and Adare – who both opposed the repeal of the corn laws – were re-elected in 1841 and 1847, but by 1850 Adare’s support was dwindling and he spent most of the parliamentary session at Lucerne. As an Irish peer, he could have stayed in the Commons after succeeding in August 1850 as the third Earl of Dunraven, but he took the Chiltern Hundreds in December to devote more time to his newly inherited responsibilities. Keeping their powder dry for the next general election, the Liberals did not put forward a candidate at the ensuing by-election in February 1851, leaving the Conservative Sir George Tyler, a naval officer and local landowner who was committed to agricultural protection, to be returned in Adare’s place. The proposed Liberal candidate, Henry Hussey Vivian, a Swansea copper smelter, did not stand after all at the 1852 general election, as analysis of the electoral register suggested that his chances were poor. There was also concern that Liberal opposition to Tyler in the county might prompt Conservative opposition to Guest at Merthyr. A Peelite supporter of free trade, John Nicholl, offered at the last minute after losing his seat at Cardiff, but withdrew as the show of hands was being taken at the nomination. Having previously promised Tyler that he would not oppose him, he felt it would be dishonourable to continue his candidature.

After having two Whig MPs from 1832 until 1837, and shared representation from 1837 onwards, Glamorgan’s electoral politics entered a third phase in 1857 when Vivian finally decided to offer. With agricultural protection having receded as a political issue, Talbot joined forces with him, and together they saw off opposition from a new Conservative candidate, Nash Vaughan Edwards Vaughan, who polled almost 1,000 votes behind Vivian. Talbot and Vivian represented Glamorgan together until the constituency was divided in 1885, and only faced a Conservative opponent in 1874.

For details on how to access Glamorgan and other draft constituency articles through our preview site, see here.

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‘A strenuous and able Reformer’: Dr Stephen Lushington (1782-1873)

Stephen Lushington, after William John Newton, mezzotint (1834)
Stephen Lushington, after William John Newton, mezzotint (1834) CC NPG

This month we take a look at Dr Stephen Lushington (1782-1873). One of six anti-slavery campaigners whose names are inscribed on the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London, Lushington famously served as Queen Caroline’s legal counsel in 1820. As MP for Tower Hamlets from 1832, he was influential in determining the final details of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act and was an outspoken, although often frustrated, advocate of religious and legal reforms and the abolition of capital punishment.

The son of an East India Company chairman, Lushington was educated at Eton and Oxford where he specialised in civil law. He first entered parliament in 1806, at the age of 24, but was forced to resign after his opposition to the slave trade and support for Catholic emancipation offended his electoral patron. Swapping Parliament for a legal career in Doctors’ Commons, Lushington practised diligently as a civilian in the admiralty and ecclesiastical courts, enjoying some distinction in 1816 by acting with Henry Brougham in Lady Byron’s separation case. Aided by Brougham’s influence, Lushington was returned to Parliament in 1820 and rose to national prominence that year as counsel to Queen Caroline.

Lushington (far right) as counsel to Queen Caroline, J. Fairburn, ‘All a Bottle of Smoke!! or John Bull and the Secret Committee’ (1820), CC NPG

A committed advanced Whig throughout the 1820s, Lushington lost his seat at the 1830 election. He returned to Parliament at a by-election in April 1831 at the beginning of the parliamentary struggle over the Whigs’ reform legislation. As a prominent member of the Anti-Slavery Society and close ally of several cabinet ministers, Lushington acted as a middle-man between the government and the anti-slavery lobby during May 1832, fearing that the efforts of the latter might derail the reform bill.

Lushington was returned for the newly created London borough of Tower Hamlets at the 1832 general election. He represented the constituency until his appointment as a judge of the admiralty court required his retirement in 1841. As a reformer he offered consistent support to the ballot and shorter parliaments (but not household suffrage), the abolition of slavery (but supported the government’s compensation scheme), the improvement of conditions for army and naval officers, corn law reform, Jewish emancipation and the abolition of capital punishment.

Lushington (far right) skulks off after narrowly avoiding a duel with Robert Peel, J. Doyle, ‘A Nice Distinction or a Hume-iliating Rejoinder to a Warlike Ap-Peel!’ (1835) CC NPG. Also see An Illustrative Key to the Sketches of H. B.

Known for their clarity of argument, Lushington’s speeches never failed to attract the attention of his fellow MPs on account of his inability to pronounce the sound r (probably the speech impediment, rhotacism) and his ‘clear and shrill’ tone, as well as his habit of baring his teeth and fixing a piercing gaze on fellow members as he spoke. His public speeches also had an uncanny knack of provoking the Conservative press. During the 1835 election he came remarkably close to a duel with the new prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. This followed reports that he had labelled Peel and the Duke of Wellington ‘convicted swindlers’ on account of their recent conversion to reform.

Lushington’s is one of six anti-slavery campaigners whose names are inscribed on the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London © Martin Spychal 2020

Lushington’s major policy legacy after 1832 stemmed from his involvement in the anti-slavery movement. In 1824 he was one of the first anti-slavery leaders to advocate immediate, rather than gradual abolition, the movement as a whole only resolving in favour of complete abolition in 1832

In 1832 Lushington and his fellow campaigner, Thomas Fowell Buxton, drafted an anti-slavery bill for the government. However, this was rejected in favour of the eventual 1833 legislation that proposed an immediate and much more extensive system of compensation for slave owners. Lushington came to accept compensation for slave owners as the only means of getting Parliament to accept abolition, and did not vote against it in the Commons.  Along with Buxton he convinced the national anti-slavery lobby to accept the compensation scheme with concessions, one of which was a reduction in the duration of the slave apprenticeships that followed abolition, from twelve years to seven.

Lushington remained active as a parliamentary representative of the anti-slavery movement thereafter. In 1836 he called on the government to delay its recognition of the newly formed Republic of Texas until it agreed to ‘desist altogether’ in the slave trade, lobbied for the immediate cessation of slave apprenticeships, sat on the 1839 select committee that investigated Portugal’s involvement in the Brazilian slave trade and used his expertise in maritime law to support ministers in drafting the 1839 Slave Trade Suppression Act. In his final year in Parliament, Lushington also started to apply pressure to the board of control to address slavery in India.

As well as his attention to slavery Lushington was a leading Anglican advocate of the removal of Jewish disabilities, the reform of the parliamentary oath and Dissenters’ rights. In 1839, after years of frustration with the extent of religious reforms, he made a particularly impassioned speech in which he urged his fellow Conservative and Whig MPs to take religious grievances seriously:

first, for the sake of justice; secondly, for the sake of their own character; and, lastly, for the sake of that which every well-regulated Government should have nearest and dearest to their hearts – the appeasement of the bitterness of that religious dissension, which day after day disgraced and debased the discussions of Parliament (Hansard, 25 Apr. 1839)

With his allies, Lushington brought in the 1841 Punishment of Death Act which removed capital punishment for rape, embezzlement, forgery and the demolition of church property (4 & 5 Vict. c.56)

Lushington’s commitment to the removal of religious grievances was reflective of his wider attempts to effect the wholesale reform of the civil and ecclesiastical courts. However, as with religious grievances he was left frustrated by the ease with which parliamentarians, particularly peers, could block reform. In 1839, for instance, he lambasted the House of Lords for sitting on one of his proposals to reform the ecclesiastical courts ‘for upwards of ten weeks’.

He did achieve some small victories, however, one of which came in his final year in Parliament. As a vocal advocate on the issue since 1813, Lushington had argued that capital punishment had no utility as a preventative measure, as it caused reluctance among victims of crime, juries and judges to prosecute offences and led to irreversible errors in sentencing. He also believed that public executions ‘did debase, and lower, and brutalise the public morals, and the public mind’.

After several failed attempts, Lushington and his allies secured the passage of the 1841 Punishment of Death Act, which removed capital punishment for rape, embezzlement, forgery and the demolition of church property. It would take another 132 years before capital punishment was totally abolished in the United Kingdom.

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

Further Reading

S. Waddams, Law, Politics and the Church of England: the career of Stephen Lushington 1782-1873 (1992)

D. Eltis, ‘Dr Stephen Lushington and the Campaign to Abolish Slavery in the British Empire’, Journal of Caribbean History, 1 (1970), 43-8.

L. M. Bethell, ‘Britain, Portugal and the Suppression of the Brazilian Slave Trade: The Origins of Lord Palmerston’s Act of 1839’, EHR, 80 (1965), 761-784

A. H. Manchester, ‘The Reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts’, American Journal of Legal History, 10 (1966), 51-75.

R. G. Thorne, ‘Lushington, Stephen (1782-1873)‘, HP Commons 1790-1820

T. Jenkins, ‘Lushington, Stephen (1782-1873)’, HP Commons 1820-1832

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MP of the Month: Thomas Barrett Lennard (1788-1856)

Thomas Barrett Lennard‘s career neatly captures some of the oddities and contradictions of early Victorian politics, especially the survival of older attitudes and beliefs alongside the emergence of more ‘modern’ progressive ideas. Lennard’s campaign to abolish the death penalty for theft and to remove various forms of corporal punishment was way ahead of its time. But he attracted ridicule for repeatedly trying to revive the ancient ‘freeman-by-marriage’ franchise, whereby men acquired their voting rights by marrying the daughters of freemen (see below). He also campaigned steadily against slavery, while at the same time owning slaves on a Jamaican estate inherited by his wife.

Original ‘wife’ based freeman voter enrolments: Maldon 1826

Lennard had been groomed for a political career by his ambitious father Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard (1762-1857), the illegitimate son and heir of the extremely wealthy Essex landowner Lord Dacre. First returned for Ipswich in 1820, and then the venal borough of Maldon from 1826-37 and 1847-52, Lennard had quickly established himself as a highly respected backbench radical, backing Dissenters’ rights, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. However, his attempt in 1831 to prevent the Whig ministry from abolishing the ‘freeman-by-marriage’ voting qualification, in order to protect the ‘privileges’ of the ‘fair sex’ in his own constituency of Maldon, was widely ridiculed. When he applied to Lord Grey, the premier, for a peerage for his father later that year, he was fobbed off. Despite being over 70, Lennard’s father then decided to also enter the Commons. In 1832 he was elected as a Whig for Essex South, joining Lennard, who had been re-elected for Maldon.

Father and son MPs were not unusual at this time. But having a very elderly father join a veteran political son reversed the normal relationship and sparked inevitable criticism and jibes. Launching a stinging harangue against a local Whig peer, who had refused to back the campaign of his elderly father, Lennard declared:

Thank God the days of aristocratic influence are over! Thank God my father does not come forward the creature of the aristocracy … I care not for my Lord Petre, nor for the aristocracy … I look only to the people because I know it is only among the people that real public virtue and intelligence, and feeling, are to be found [Loud cheering].

Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard MP

Perhaps because of his father’s moderating influence, Lennard kept a lower profile for the next few years, curbing his radicalism and loyally backing the Whig government on most key issues. In 1835, however, he couldn’t resist another shot at reviving the marriage  franchise, during the debates on the municipal reform bill. Insisting that it was ‘one of the most valued rights of the daughters of the freemen of Maldon’, he proposed to restore the freeman franchise to anyone ‘who shall espouse the daughter of any freeman of any borough’. His speech, recorded the reporters, was ‘rendered wholly inaudible by the general confusion and noise’ that ensued. His motion was thrown out, 163-50. Lennard’s subsequent claim at the 1837 election to have ‘toiled night and day in the house of commons for the benefit of the freemen’ and their ‘wives and daughters’ cut little ice. He lost his seat. When he was re-elected in 1847, however, he again targeted his campaign at the ‘ladies’ of Maldon, believing they could influence the freemen.

Lennard had declared himself the ‘most decided enemy of slavery in every shape or form’ at the 1832 election. His actions in the Commons seemed to bear this out. He presented at least 14 anti-slavery petitions the next year and steadily supported the Whig government’s plans to abolish colonial slavery in the division lobbies. At the 1835 election he went even further, accusing his Tory opponents of being the ‘bigoted advocates of slavery’. Yet later that year he was himself a beneficiary of the government’s scheme to compensate slave owners. He received £1,252 for manumitted slaves in Jamaica. The plantation involved was the Stewart Castle estate owned by the Sheddon family, with 288 slaves, part of which had been inherited by his wife Mary Bridger Sheddon.

Lennard later declared that ‘of all the things’ he was ‘most proud’, it was ‘having been a party to removing much of the barbarous system of capital punishments, which not long ago made the fronts of our gaols little better than human slaughter houses’. Although none of his own proposals ever became law, the vast bulk of his Commons speeches were in support of measures limiting the use of capital and corporal punishment. He was particularly active in the ultimately successful campaign to remove the death penalty for theft, believing that many criminals were ‘often urged to the deeper crime of murder to avoid the conviction of the lesser crime’. He also spoke regularly about the tragedy ‘of a man unjustly convicted of murder, and afterwards executed’. Both in this and his vehement denunciation of flogging, whipping and beating, Lennard was way ahead of most of his contemporaries.

Lennard maintained a much more traditional approach when it came to elections and was never shy of opening his purse at election time. Defeated in 1852, after a notoriously corrupt contest that almost led to Maldon being disfranchised, he vowed to stand again at the next opportunity but died in 1856. His 94 year old father was by then the country’s oldest living baronet.

To access the full biographies of Thomas Barrett Lennard and his father or any other articles being prepared for the 1832-68 volumes please click here.

Related blogs:

MP of the month: Thomas Neville Abdy (1810-77) and electoral misconduct

A Victorian Essex Election

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From duelling to sharing the representation: Northumberland’s electoral politics in the nineteenth century

This post first appeared on the History of Parliament blog as part of a local history series on Northumberland’s politics. You can read the other posts in the series here and here.

Northumberland poll book (1826)

In 1826 Northumberland experienced its first contested election since 1774, with four candidates vying for the county’s two seats. For the previous fifty years, electors had not had the opportunity to cast their votes, as the representation had been decided by negotiations between the major local landowners, who included the Percy family (Dukes of Northumberland), of Alnwick Castle; the Bennet family (Earls of Tankerville), of Chillingham Castle; and the Greys, of Howick. The breakdown of this compromise prompted an expensive contest in 1826, said to have cost the candidates £250,000 between them. This bitterly fought election saw an argument on the hustings between Thomas Wentworth Beaumont (one of the candidates) and John Lambton (son-in-law of the future Whig prime minister Earl Grey) spill over into a duel at Bamburgh Sands. In the event, this was bloodless, but memories of 1826 helped to shape the county’s electoral politics thereafter, with the major local interests keen to avoid a repeat of this vitriolic and costly campaign.

Bamburgh Castle by Peter de Wint. Image credit: Lincoln College, University of Oxford;

Henry Grey, 3rd Earl Grey (formerly Viscount Howick), MP for Northumberland North, 1832-41 Image (C) NPG

Northumberland was split into two double-member constituencies in 1832. The election town for the new, largely agricultural Northumberland North division was Alnwick. For Northumberland South, which contained most of the county’s coal mines and was more economically mixed, Hexham was where the hustings took place. The representation of both constituencies continued to be dominated by the county’s major landowners, who succeeded in their aim of avoiding election contests as far as possible. In the northern division, Earl Grey’s heir, Viscount Howick, who had sat for the constituency as a Whig since 1831, successfully quashed the possibility of a contest in 1832 by refusing to join forces with another candidate, the prominent local radical Matthew Culley. Howick feared that such a coalition might prompt his opponents to bring out a second candidate, and preferred instead to share the representation with the Conservative Lord Ossulston, heir to the Earl of Tankerville.

General Lord Henry Hugh Manvers Percy, VC, MP for Northumberland North, 1865-8

It was not until 1841 that Northumberland North had its first election contest, when Sir Matthew White Ridley, of Blagdon, oversaw Conservative efforts to win both seats. This succeeded in ousting Howick, but his cousin Sir George Grey topped the poll to regain a seat for the Liberals in 1847. The defeated Conservative candidate on that occasion, Algernon George Percy, Lord Lovaine, had been disadvantaged by being relatively late in the field. However, he defeated Grey in 1852, when he was elected alongside Ossulston. This marked the beginning of a new era in the constituency’s politics, with the Conservatives unopposed at the 1857, 1859 and 1865 elections. Ossulston succeeded to the peerage in 1859, when Ridley stepped into his shoes as MP, while Lovaine retired in 1865, when his father’s succession as 5th duke of Northumberland brought him new responsibilities. He was seamlessly replaced by his younger brother, Lord Henry Percy, an army officer who had won acclaim for his brave conduct during the Crimean War, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

With most English constituencies electing two members until 1885, it was not unusual for the rival parties to take the decision to share the representation. While Northumberland North moved from shared representation in the 1830s to a battle over the representation in the 1840s, before settling into a period of Conservative hegemony from the 1850s, Northumberland South always returned one member from each side. Like the northern division, it was its major landowners – some of whom also had industrial interests through their collieries – who dominated the representation, and contested elections were rare: only in 1832 and 1852 did the electors go to the poll.

Matthew Bell, MP for Northumberland South 1832-52 Image (C) NPG

In contrast with Howick’s aversion to a coalition in the northern division in 1832, in Northumberland South the wealthy Whig landowner Thomas Wentworth Beaumont, who had been one of the county’s MPs since 1830, joined forces with the more politically advanced William Ord, who had previously sat for Morpeth, now reduced to single-member status. This sparked a bitterly fought campaign, in which Beaumont topped the poll and Ord finished in third place behind the Conservative Matthew Bell, who had been the county’s MP from 1826 to 1831. Bell continued to represent Northumberland South without a contest for the next twenty years, sharing the representation with Beaumont again in 1835 and with Christopher Blackett in 1837. The latter election was particularly uneventful, since Blackett was suffering from influenza and did not appear at the nomination. Still in poor health, he did not seek re-election in 1841, when Saville Ogle, a London-based barrister who had family connections to Northumberland, was the successful Liberal candidate.

Henry George Liddell, MP for Northumberland South, 1852-78 Image (C) NPG

After being re-elected without opposition in 1847, Bell and Ogle both stepped down on health grounds in 1852. They were replaced as candidates by two local landowners: Henry George Liddell on the Conservative side and Beaumont’s son, Wentworth Blackett Beaumont, aged just 23, for the Liberals. Rather embarrassingly for Sir Matthew White Ridley, who masterminded Conservative electioneering in the southern as well as the northern division, a contest was provoked by the decision of his brother George to stand as a Radical. He later noted that ‘George, very improperly, stood on the Radical interest for the Southern Division. … He did not consult me at all’. He worked hard to rally support from the local landed gentry for Liddell, who won the second seat for the Conservatives with a majority of 99 votes over George Ridley. As in the northern division, the 1852 contest was the constituency’s last for more than a quarter of a century. Liddell remained as Conservative MP until 1878, when he succeeded to the Lords, while Beaumont represented the seat for the Liberals until 1885.

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York: exploring the local history of a Victorian constituency

This blog, which explains some of the key features of our constituency articles, and how they might be of use to those interested in the history of a particular locality, originally appeared on the main History of Parliament’s blog. To explore more of the work of our colleagues on different constituencies, from the medieval period to the modern, visit


York’s parliamentary boundaries in 1832

Like most English boroughs in our period, York elected two MPs. Our constituency articles begin by setting out some of the key statistics relating to a constituency: the size of its electorate; its population; its boundaries; its area; the qualification required for the franchise; and what form its local government took. York had long been a parliamentary borough and its electorate after 1832 therefore included not only the £10 householders, who had been given the franchise by the 1832 Reform Act, but also a significant number of ‘ancient rights’ voters who retained the franchise, provided that they continued to live within seven miles of the polling place. In York’s case, these ‘ancient rights’ voters were the freemen, who significantly outnumbered the new £10 householders: in 1832 there were 531 £10 householders and 2,342 freemen in the electorate. Even as late as 1862, freemen made up 56% of York’s electors. This helps to explain why it was among the constituencies with the highest proportion of working-class voters: more than a third in 1865-6. Freemen were often blamed for the corruption which was prevalent in York’s elections in the 1830s, but an 1835 inquiry found that the new £10 householders were far from immune to bribery.

British (English) School; Bootham Bar, York

British (English) School; Bootham Bar, York (c. 1840) Image credit: The Mansion House and Guildhall;

All our constituency articles provide an overview of the economic and social make-up of the constituency. Although York’s population continued to expand, the commissioners who advised on its future parliamentary boundaries in 1831-2 noted that, with neighbouring towns growing rapidly due to the textile industry, it was ‘no longer a northern metropolis’. There was, however, some manufacturing, including of linen, iron, chemicals, glass, combs, carpets, gloves and lace, as well as a product for which York became renowned: confectionery. There were three major firms in existence during this period, two of which remain familiar names today: Joseph Terry and Co., Rowntree’s, and M. A. Craven and Son. A small proportion of York’s population was employed in agriculture and market gardening, including 400 people in chicory farming in 1851.

York remained significant as a market town and administrative centre, being the home to Yorkshire’s general assizes (although assize business for the West Riding was transferred to Leeds in 1864). It also had a focal position in England’s railway network, being at the junction of the York and North Midland railway and the Great North of England railway. The so-called ‘railway king’, George Hudson, played a prominent part in York’s municipal and parliamentary politics on the Conservative side, although he was himself MP for Sunderland, 1845-59. Our articles also give details about the different religious groups within each constituency. In York’s case, the 1851 religious census showed that Anglicans made up 43.7% of adult attendances at church or chapel, with Nonconformists slightly less (42.5%) and Catholics comprising 9.2%. Our economic and social profiles conclude by listing the newspapers published in each constituency: their reports are a key source for our research.

After looking at what might be termed the ‘anatomy’ of the constituency, our articles then examine its electoral history, looking at the nine general elections which took place during our period, as well as any by-elections. In York’s case, there were two by-elections, both caused by the death of an MP: Samuel Adlam Bayntun died of scarlet fever in 1833 after less than a year in the Commons, while Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke, one of the small number of non-white MPs in our period, committed suicide in 1848.


Henry Vincent (by George Dawe, 1842) Image credit: NPG

York’s election results indicate how closely balanced the parties were, with one Liberal and one Conservative being elected for the borough at every general election from 1835 onwards. Such ‘shared representation’ was not unusual in the double-member seats which made up the bulk of England’s constituencies during this period. The Conservatives – whose MPs were drawn from Yorkshire’s landed gentry – were generally happy with this state of affairs, only putting forward a second candidate on two occasions. On the Liberal side, however, it prompted divisions between those willing to share the representation and those who thought the party should try to win both seats. This also reflected a fault-line within the local Liberal party between Whiggish or ‘moderate’ Liberals and the ‘advanced’ or Radical wing. The latter were keener to challenge the Conservatives for the second seat, but performed less strongly at the polls. A key source of disagreement between these two sections was parliamentary reform, and a Chartist candidate, Henry Vincent, stood in 1848 and 1852, polling almost 900 votes on each occasion. Not until 1859 did the Liberals put aside their differences to field two candidates standing together in coalition, but they still failed to win the second seat. Like the Conservatives, their candidates mainly came from outside York. In our period, it was not until 1865 that York elected one of its own townsmen, George Leeman, as an MP. Our constituency articles explore in detail the factors which influenced the choice of candidates and the outcome of each election, and end with a brief summary of the constituency’s history after 1868.

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‘The House divided’: the creation of a second division lobby for the Commons in 1836

With the creation of a second division lobby in 1836 having been mentioned during yesterday’s Commons debate on Restoration and Renewal, it seemed a good opportunity to share this post from our assistant editor Dr Kathryn Rix which originally appeared on the main History of Parliament blog. It traces the history of the transition from one division lobby to two.


Commons Journal, 22 Feb. 1836

On 22 February 1836 an historic vote took place in the House of Commons, when the second reading of the London and Brighton Railway Bill was defeated by 281 votes to 75. What made this division so significant was not the legislation involved, but the manner in which the vote took place. As the Commons Journal recorded, ‘The House divided: The Yeas to the old Lobby; The Noes to the new Lobby’. That new lobby, used for the first time in this division, had only recently been built. Before 1836, when a vote was taken, the presumed minority had gone out into the lobby, while the presumed majority had remained in the chamber to be counted. It was only from 1836 that the Commons used the system of two division lobbies which we know today.

What caused this major change in procedure? One key factor was the desire to publish an official record giving the names of MPs who had voted in each division. The official Votes and Proceedings, published by the Commons on a daily basis, did not provide full division lists. Before 1836, the publication of detailed division lists outlining how each MP had voted was due to the efforts of individual MPs, who collected this information and supplied it to the press. Radicals such as Joseph Hume were among those who took the time to gather such information but, despite their efforts, the lists published in newspapers such as The Times were often inaccurate. Key divisions, where MPs were particularly keen that their constituents should know how they had voted, were often followed by a flurry of letters from MPs to the press, correcting the record. But as The Times pointed out in March 1835,

‘we are not responsible for the accuracy of these lists. We shall be very glad when the house has discovered some plan for furnishing exact lists.’

The Commons was already considering the matter, which had been raised by Radical MPs soon after Parliament assembled for the first time after the 1832 Reform Act. Moving that the Commons should publish an official record of each division, ‘giving the name of each Member in the Majority and Minority’, the Radical Daniel Whittle Harvey declared that

‘In a Reformed Parliament he believed, that all hon. Members would be desirous that their constituents should know how they voted, and the part they took upon every occasion.’

This was particularly important for radical MPs keen to show their constituents that they were diligent representatives who were redeeming their election pledges by voting for reforms such as the ballot and reductions in taxation. It was also part of a wider move to give greater publicity to the activities of the Commons. Other MPs, however, raised concerns that it would be impossible to produce accurate division lists without causing ‘great delay’ to Commons business. Harvey’s motion was defeated, but the following year the Commons agreed to the suggestion of another Radical MP, Henry Ward, to appoint a select committee on the issue.

This committee’s preferred option was to use separate lobbies for the Ayes and the Noes, but it had to bear in mind the limited space within which the Commons operated. It therefore suggested instead that the usual tellers in divisions should be accompanied by two clerks – one would call aloud MPs’ names while the tellers counted them, and the other would write the names down. The presumed majority who stayed in the House would be dealt with first, bench by bench, and those who went out into the lobby would be recorded as they returned into the chamber. Despite some opposition – including from the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel – in July 1834 the Commons voted by 76 to 32 to implement the committee’s recommendations that session.

The system was swiftly abandoned after a discouraging first attempt at taking three divisions using the new procedure on 17 July 1834. Some Members appear to have resisted the change, behaving in an ‘offensive’ manner towards Joseph Hume when he tried to record their names. In addition, although the largest of these divisions involved only 105 MPs, the new system failed to produce a completely accurate division list – the name of one MP who voted on the first division was omitted. It was agreed the following day to abandon the experiment. Hume himself argued that reform in this area was impossible without changes to the fabric of the House.

The destruction of much of the old Palace of Westminster during the devastating fire of October 1834 gave MPs the opportunity to make such changes. The Commons moved into the chamber previously used by the House of Lords (the former Court of Requests), and in March 1835 a fresh select committee was appointed to consider the question. Its report in May unanimously endorsed the two lobby system, and the building committee overseeing the temporary accommodation of the Commons agreed that there should be two lobbies. The architect, Sir Robert Smirke, estimated that an additional lobby could be constructed within a fortnight at a cost of £600.

The building of this second lobby took place during the parliamentary recess. In October 1835 the Morning Post reported that ‘surveyors are daily employed measuring the grounds and preparing their plans for the intended new buildings’, which included ‘the square boarded temporary erections, intended to communicate with the House of Commons, and form a division lobby’. This work appears to have been completed before the Commons reassembled on 4 February 1836. Two weeks later, MPs adopted the resolutions needed to implement the new arrangements. Peel complained that the extra clerks required would cause expense, but had ‘no objection to try the experiment’, which could always be reversed. Fittingly, Henry Ward and Joseph Hume, who had been such keen advocates of the second lobby, were the tellers for the Noes in the first division under the new system. An attempt in March 1836 by the Conservative MP James Barlow Hoy to reverse this reform gained no support. A second division lobby became integral to the Commons, and was one of the areas of Charles Barry’s new Palace which MPs inspected carefully when they tested their new chamber for the first time in May 1850.


The ‘Aye’ division lobby in the new Palace of Westminster

Further reading:

  • K. Rix, ‘“Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the reformed Commons, 1833-50’, Parliamentary History, 33:3 (2014), 453-74.
Posted in Parliamentary buildings, Voting and Divisions | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

MP of the Month: Nicholas Aylward Vigors (1785-1840), soldier, scientist and politician

Like many of our MPs, Nicholas Vigors had a varied career, as a soldier, landowner, politician and eminent zoologist. Although best known as a founder and secretary of the Zoological Society of London, Vigors also enjoyed a lively career as a Radical MP who participated in several tight contests for the Irish county and borough of Carlow.


The House of Commons, 1833, by Sir George Hayter. Vigors is among the MPs included. Image credit: NPG

Vigors was born in 1785 at Old Leighlin, county Carlow, a descendant of a Devonshire clergyman who had settled in Ireland in the early seventeenth century. He was the eldest surviving son of an army officer and deputy governor of Carlow. He became a student at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1803, and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1806. He left Oxford without taking a degree in 1809, but demonstrated his mastery of classical and literary studies by publishing An Enquiry into the Nature and Extent of Poetic Licence (1810).

Vigors next served as an ensign in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsula campaign and was seriously wounded in the action at Barrosa in March 1811. After retiring from the army he resumed his studies at Oxford and graduated in 1817 at the age of 32. Awarded his MA the following year, he devoted himself to the study of birds and insects and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1819. Critical of the society’s emphasis on botany, he formed his own extensive collection of specimens and helped to establish the less socially restrictive Zoological Club in 1822. As secretary and later chairman, he demonstrated his talent as an administrator and pioneer of new methodologies – a leading ‘quinarian’, he argued for a geometric ordering of species in sets of five. He wrote some forty scientific papers, mostly on ornithological subjects, and in 1825 published an important study of the natural affinities between families of birds. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in February 1826, and that April became the first secretary of the Zoological Society of London. A year later he was appointed principal editor of the Zoological Journal, and in July 1832 he was created an honorary DCL by Oxford University.

Quinarian system

The quinarian system of zoological classification

Vigors was the mentor of the ornithologist John Gould (1804-81) and wrote the text for his A Century of Birds Hitherto Unfigured from the Himalayan Mountains (1830-2). He also oversaw the publication of The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated (1830-1). In May 1833 he founded what became the Royal Entomological Society. He donated his collections of preserved fauna and birds to the Zoological Society, and with the assistance of collaborators such as Sir Stamford Raffles, the renowned founder of Singapore, he supplied its zoological gardens at Regent’s Park with many exotic specimens from abroad. As the driving force behind the organisation, he employed a bureaucratic and domineering style of management and frequently clashed with the aristocrats who dominated the board of the society’s zoo.

Vigors had succeeded to his family estate in County Carlow in 1828, and despite having lived principally in London for almost twenty years he served on the county’s grand jury. He began his parliamentary career when he was returned for Carlow borough at the 1832 general election as a Reformer. Despite clashing with the Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell, who Vigors believed had adopted a dictatorial attitude towards his fellow Irish Liberals, he backed O’Connell’s motion in favour of the repeal of the Union in April 1834. He was defeated at Carlow borough in the 1835 general election, but six months later was elected for County Carlow in a double by-election, only to be unseated on petition a few months later. Vigors was subsequently embroiled in a political controversy when it emerged that he had arranged for his fellow candidate Alexander Raphael to make a £2,000 payment to Daniel O’Connell in return for O’Connell’s support for Raphael’s candidature. These revelations did not, however, prevent Vigors being successful at another County Carlow by-election in February 1837. Despite two further attempts to unseat him, he remained in the Commons until his death. He rarely spoke in debate, but was an assiduous attender who voted almost invariably with the Radicals, and was regarded as a diligent and efficient member of parliamentary committees.

Vigors's Carlow petition - Wellcome Collection

Catching a Tartar by H.B. (John Doyle), 1836. This cartoon, with Daniel O’Connell as the central figure, refers to the 1835 Carlow election petition. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Vigors had resigned as secretary of the Zoological Society upon taking his seat in Parliament in 1833, and he stood down as editor of the Zoological Journal in 1835. He remained concerned about the lack of scientifically trained gentlemen among the aristocratic trustees of learned societies, and in March 1836 advised a parliamentary inquiry into the management of the British Museum that specialists should be included on the board of trustees, and called for the natural history department to be taken out of the museum. That year he assisted Sir William Jardine and Prideaux John Selby with their Illustrations of Ornithology (1836-43), and he later wrote the section describing the birds of the American north-west for The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage (1839).

Toucan_by_Nicholas_Aylward_Vigors_1831 - Wikipedia

A toucan, by N. A. Vigors, 1831

Vigors was unmarried and died at his house in Chester Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, on 26 October 1840. He was buried in the nave of St. Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, county Carlow, and was survived by an only son, Ferdinand, who was said to have inherited much of his father’s talent.

Further reading:

  • A. Desmond, ‘Vigors, Nicholas Aylward’, Oxf. DNB, lvi.
  • P. Long, ‘Vigors, Nicholas Aylward’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, ix. 667-8.
Posted in Biographies, Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The Donkey and his young asses’: stationery, corruption and the short-lived parliamentary career of Sir John Key (1794-1858)

M. Pearson, 'The Right Honorable Sir John Key, Bart.' (1832)

Portrait of Sir John Key in his mayoral robes, with his right hand on a petition for the reform bill, February 1832, M. Pearson (1832) CC British Museum

This month our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, takes a look at the humiliating demise of Sir John Key, or ‘Sir Don Key’ as he was widely mocked at Westminster. As Lord Mayor of London and one of Britain’s most prominent wholesale stationers, Key was returned for London at the 1832 general election. He was forced to resign eight months later, however, after being exposed for accepting a government contract and lying to the Prime Minister to secure a job for his son…

Key was born in London in 1794 and by the early 1820s was a partner in his family’s wholesale stationery firm, Key, Brothers and Son. Based at 30 Abchurch Lane, London, the company was regarded as one of the ‘most opulent’ stationers in the country thanks to its extensive contracts with the book and printing trade, as well as the ‘commercial world at large’.

Key’s family had maintained close connections with the City of London Corporation since the mid-eighteenth century, and in 1823 Key was elected to the City’s Court of Aldermen. Quickly developing a reputation as a devout and outspoken Dissenter, Key confirmed his political aspirations at the 1826 election when he stood briefly as an anti-ministerial candidate at Chippenham.

The great dictator and his mighty councillor, the donkey mare

The Donkey Mare advising Wellington, the ‘Great Dictator’, J. Phillips, ‘The great dictator and his mighty councillor, the donkey mare’ (13 Nov. 1830) CC British Museum

In November 1830, aged 36, Key entered the national consciousness, when as Lord Mayor of London his advice to the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, led to the cancellation of William IV’s planned attendance of the annual Lord Mayor’s procession. City-wide unrest over the recently established Metropolitan Police, discontent with the government’s unwillingness to introduce parliamentary reform and the recent July Revolution, led Key to warn Wellington that ‘a set of desperate and abandoned characters’ intended to attack the Prime Minister during the procession.

The subsequent cancellation of the appearance of the King and his ministers was quickly condemned as an act of cowardly self-preservation by Wellington. That ‘John Key’ and ‘Mayor’ rhymed with ‘Donkey’ and ‘Mare’ proved too much to resist for the nation’s satirists, who immediately took to depicting the Prime Minister taking counsel and running scared from a grotesque long-eared equine beast. As Bell’s Life in London mocked:

…he who triumph’d o’er each foe,

And laid the great Napoleon low,

Was frighten’d by a Don-Key.

Bell’s Life in London, 21 Nov. 1830

W. Heath, The city don-key or raw head and bloody bones

Don-Key the stationer Mayor with his ‘Fools-cap’ scares Wellington and his Home Secretary, Robert Peel: W. Heath, ‘The city don-key or raw head and bloody bones’ (Nov. 1830) CC British Museum

Within days, Wellington’s government had been replaced by the reforming Whig ministry of the 2nd Earl Grey. Key proved a vocal supporter of the Whig government and their reform legislation, and in August 1831 was rewarded with a baronetcy. In a controversial move that owed much to his support for the Grey ministry, Key was re-elected Lord Mayor for a second term in November 1831 – which was this time accompanied by the customary ceremonial of a full procession and a ministerial-attended banquet.

H. Heath, Jack Ketch executing sentence on a culprit (1832)

Key in his mayoral robes in 1832, standing between the pro-reform MPs for London, Alderman Wood and Alderman Waithman, as a hangman decapitates a bust of Wellington in the Guildhall Chamber: H. Heath, Jack Ketch executing sentence on a culprit (1832) CC British Museum

Capitalising on his status as Lord Mayor, Key was returned to Parliament for the City of London at the 1832 general election. As a reformer, he campaigned for the repeal of the corn laws and the abolition of slavery, and claimed leadership of the metropolitan campaign to abolish the unpopular house and window taxes. Ironically, given future events, he professed his support for ‘every practicable measure of economy and retrenchment’, including the ‘abolition of needless and sinecure places’ and a reduction in ‘the remuneration of the public servants’.

Key took his seat in the Commons in January 1833 but by July that year rumours began to circulate that he had been granted a government contract to supply paper to the Stationery Office. To make matters worse, it then emerged that his son, Kingsmill Grove Key (1815-1899), had been employed by the Stationery Office, despite being under-age.

The Stationers' Company, which Key had been master of in 1830 went to great lengths to prove Key's son

Members of The Stationers’ Company, of which Key had been master in 1830, obtained and published Key’s marriage certificate to prove his son was under 21: John Bull, 4 Aug. 1830

These allegations came to a head on Friday 2 August 1833, when the Tory MP for Launceston, Henry Hardinge, announced his intention to present a petition from ‘certain stationers and paper-manufacturers’ calling for Key’s election to be declared void on the grounds that it was illegal for MPs to be in receipt of government contracts. As the weekend wore on, and with a breach of privilege hearing looming, Key attempted to avoid prosecution by applying for the Chiltern Hundreds (the mechanism by which MPs resigned from the Commons).

On Monday 5 August the government granted Key’s request, just hours before Hardinge was due to introduce his petition. This prompted the leader of the Tory opposition, Robert Peel, and the leader of the Repealers, Daniel O’Connell, to accuse the government of a cover-up.

A select committee was immediately convened to investigate the allegations. They discovered that Key’s firm held a contract to supply paper to the Stationery Office in 1831 and 1832, and that after his return as an MP the same contract was awarded nominally to his brother, Jonathan Muckleston Key, who lived in Gloucestershire. The committee discovered that despite sitting as an MP, Sir John Key continued to supply paper to the Stationery Office ‘delivered by his carts and servants’ while making all ‘communications from and to the [Stationery] Office’ in ‘his brother’s name’.

The committee’s findings over Key’s son proved equally embarrassing. It emerged that in July 1833 Key had written to the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, to ask for his son to be appointed as Storekeeper to the Stationery Office, which had a minimum age of 21. Key admitted to the select committee that he had deceived the secretary to the treasury, Charles Wood, by informing him that his eighteen-year old son, Kingsmill, was ‘about 22 years of age’.

The Don-Key Drive From the Stationary Office, Bell's New Weekly Messenger, 11 Aug. 1833

Key and his young ass escape their petitioners. Grey and Brougham (left) turn their backs on Key, while Peel and Wellington (right) revel in Key’s downfall: ‘The Don-Key Drive From the Stationary Office’, Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, 11 Aug. 1833

The government were further embarrassed by revelations that they had been aware of Key’s contract to supply paper to the Stationery Office, that Key had destroyed several pieces of correspondence with Wood and Grey ‘the day after the petitions against him were presented to the House of Commons’, and that Kingsmill had been required to inspect paper supplied to the Stationery Office by his father’s firm.

Key escaped prosecution for breach of privilege as he was no longer an MP, as did Kingsmill as he had resigned his position. Somehow Key defied further calls for his resignation as an alderman, and the Grey ministry resisted pressure to annul Key’s baronetcy. However, the episode proved incredibly damaging to the reputation of the government, whose radical and reformist supporters had hoped that the 1832 Reform Act would bring an end to such flagrant corruption. As the radical Poor Man’s Guardian opined, ‘the Donkey and his young asses’ had ‘combin[ed] with Grey to break the law and commit a robbery upon the state’.


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

Posted in Corruption, MP of the Month | 2 Comments

From Rochdale to Westminster: Emily Kelsall and the new Houses of Parliament

This post from our assistant editor Dr Kathryn Rix was first published on the Parliamentary Archives: Inside the Act Room blog, which has many more articles to read on parliamentary history, from the medieval to the modern.

One of the more unusual items in the Parliamentary Archives is a silver trowel, used to lay the first stone of the Clock Tower in Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament on 28 September 1843. Now formally known as the Elizabeth Tower, but commonly referred to as Big Ben (after its Great Bell), the tower was completed in 1859.


Silver trowel used to lay the first stone of the Clock Tower, Parliamentary Archives, OOW/50

The trowel’s inscription states that the stone was laid by ‘Emily, second daughter of Henry Kelsall, Esqr. of Rochdale’. At a time when female access to Parliament was limited – women who wished to listen to debates were confined to the ‘ventilator’ before 1834 or the ladies’ gallery (nicknamed ‘the cage’) in later years – this is a fascinating souvenir of a woman who did not come from the aristocracy or the monarchy performing a ceremonial role at Westminster. Why was a woman from Rochdale, then a growing industrial town 170 miles from London, chosen for this task?


Sketch of the ventilator in St Stephens by Frances Rickman (1834), via (WOA 26)

Existing histories reveal little more than that Emily Kelsall was the sister-in-law of Samuel Morton Peto, whose name also features on the trowel as one of the builders, alongside those of his business partner Thomas Grissell, and Charles Barry as architect. The stone-laying apparently went unreported in the press, making it difficult to discover more about Emily’s role. However, from local and family histories, newspapers, census returns and other records, it has been possible to build up a picture of her life, revealing her to have been a formidable woman. One of her daughters wrote proudly that ‘the present Feminist movement has had its foundations well and truly laid in many parts of the country by such women as my mother’.


New Palace of Westminster 1858, via (WOA 1656)

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that Emily was only 15 years old when she laid the Clock Tower’s first stone. She was born on 10 March 1828 at her parents’ home, Butts House, in the centre of Rochdale. Her father Henry Kelsall (1793-1869) originally came from Mottram in Longdendale, on the Derbyshire/Cheshire border, but was apprenticed to a relative in Rochdale, Jesse Ainsworth, a woollen manufacturer. With two of his brothers, Kelsall began his own business as a woollen manufacturer in Rochdale with ‘six pair of hand-looms and four [spinning] jennies’. He married Ainsworth’s daughter Lydia (1792-1875) in 1819, and they moved to Butts House around 1825. Kelsall and his brother-in-law William Bartlemore established their own mills, the first in 1835 and a second in the 1840s. By 1851 the firm, which specialised in flannel manufacture, was one of Rochdale’s major employers, with 798 workers. This enabled the family to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. The Ainsworths and the Kelsalls were Baptists, and Kelsall was a generous benefactor to his faith.


Emily’s sister, Sarah Ainsworth (née Kelsall), Lady Peto (C) NPG

Emily was the third of five children. At the time of the 1841 census, aged 13, she was living in Rochdale with her parents, older brother and two younger sisters. The garden of Butts House went down to the river Roch and Emily recalled that they ‘had boats and used to catch fish’. Part of her education took place in London at Mrs. Broadbelt’s school for ‘daughters of gentlemen’ in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. In December 1842, while walking nearby, she and her older sister Sarah Ainsworth Kelsall (1821-92) had a chance encounter with Samuel Morton Peto (1809-89). Having sought her father’s permission to see her again, Peto subsequently asked Sarah to marry him. She was Peto’s second wife – he had been widowed in 1842 – and their wedding took place in Rochdale on 12 July 1843.

Emily laid the Clock Tower’s first stone just over two months later. This low-key ceremony echoed a similarly modest event on 27 April 1840, when Sarah Barry, the architect’s wife, laid the new Palace of Westminster’s very first stone, contrary to rumours that Queen Victoria would perform this task. Caroline Shenton has suggested that ‘worry about public opinion and personal reputations’ given the spiralling costs of the groundworks at Westminster may have been the reason why ‘no politician or official’ wanted to undertake this role. Such concerns applied equally in 1843, which probably explains why Peto’s young sister-in-law rather than a more prominent individual was given the honour.


Sir Samuel Morton Peto (C) NPG

Emily’s life entered a new phase on 2 August 1848, when she married George Tawke Kemp (1810-77), a Spitalfields silk manufacturer, who originally came from Essex. Like the Kelsalls, Kemp was ‘an earnest and conscious’ Baptist. He was a founding member of Bloomsbury Baptist Church, opened in December 1848, which was constructed and funded by Peto (by then a Liberal MP), who had joined the Baptists after marrying Emily’s sister.

When the 1851 census was taken on 30 March, Emily, listed as a ‘lady’, was again at her parents’ Rochdale home, where Peto and her sister were also staying. Her husband was at 43 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, where Emily gave birth that August to their first child, Emily Jessie (1851-1900). Four more daughters followed: Ellen Constance (1852-1922), Susannah Florence (1856-1916), Lydia Peto (1858-1918) and Emily Georgiana (1860-1939). The youngest three were born in Rochdale, the family’s main residence from 1856, when George became a partner in his father-in-law’s business, known thereafter as Kelsall & Kemp. He was also a partner in the silk manufacturing firm of Kemp, Stone & Company, based nearby at Middleton.

The family built ‘a beautiful residence’, Beechwood, on Manchester Road, Rochdale, moving there in 1860. Emily and George’s last child, George, was born in 1866. Remembering their upbringing, one of their daughters noted that ‘our parents were both anxious that we should be good linguists, so we all learned French from a very early age, then German and Italian, but, I regret to say it, not Latin – it being still considered unnecessary for girls’. In 1871 the family’s seven servants at Beechwood included a Swiss governess. Emily gave her children Bible lessons on Sundays, and they also studied music, painting and dancing, although ‘the greatest attention was devoted to history’.


John Bright & Richard Cobden c. 1860 (C) NPG

The Kelsalls and Kemps took a keen interest in politics and numbered the leading Radicals John Bright and Richard Cobden among their ‘intimate friends’. George Kemp was one of the representatives of Lancashire’s silk and woollen industries who visited Paris to assist Cobden’s negotiations of the Anglo-French commercial treaty of 1860, and the family hosted Cobden at Beechwood on his final visit to his Rochdale constituency in November 1864. Emily’s father and husband were both magistrates, and Henry Kelsall was at one point mooted as a parliamentary candidate. George Kemp, ‘a good public speaker’, was briefly a member of Rochdale’s town council. The Kemps were well-travelled, visiting Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Corsica, Italy and Algeria. Emily went abroad every year for over 40 years.

In 1877 she accompanied her husband to Egypt, where he hoped the climate would improve his health, but he died there that March. He left an estate valued at £160,000 (equivalent to around £10 million today). Following his death, and that of his managing partner, Joshua Heap, in 1886, Emily and her nephew took over the management of the business, even though she was by then profoundly deaf. She was described as ‘a woman of the keenest business judgment’.

She was also remembered for her ‘fine character and quietly dispensed philanthropy’, particularly to Rochdale’s poor. Alongside her support for Baptist organisations, she was responsible for several other local projects, including mothers’ meetings, a lads’ club and a nurse for the poor. In 1879 she rented a property in Rochdale to provide ‘respectable lodgings’ for women who would otherwise be homeless. She also funded the building of the Three Cups Coffee Tavern in Sudden, a temperance establishment. One local history urged parents to ‘bid their daughters look, and take from her examples of their future life’.


Emily Georgiana Kemp, self-portrait from The Face of China (1909)

Her own daughters certainly took inspiration from her. Two of them, Emily Jessie and Susannah Florence, became Baptist missionaries, working mainly in China. In July 1900 Emily Jessie, her husband Thomas Wellesley Pigott and their son were among 44 missionaries and their families publicly beheaded during the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer rebellion. Emily’s youngest daughter, Emily Georgiana, was one of the first generation of students at Somerville College, Oxford, and also attended the Slade School of Fine Art. Like her parents, she was well-travelled, publishing accounts of her visits to China, Korea and Central Asia. She funded the construction of Somerville College chapel, opened in 1935.

Emily’s son George (1866-1945) was elected in 1895 as Liberal Unionist MP for Heywood. He was re-elected in his absence in 1900, while serving in South Africa during the Boer War. His sisters Ellen and Lydia addressed meetings in his support during the contest. His commitment to free trade prompted him to join the Liberals in 1904, when he became prospective candidate for Middleton. However, the demands of business meant that he did not stand there in 1906.


George Kemp in July 1899 (C) NPG

In January 1910 he won North-West Manchester as a Liberal, and was re-elected that December, defeating the future Conservative prime minister Andrew Bonar Law. Declaring that he ‘loathed politics’, in August 1912 he resigned his seat over the Liberal ministry’s home rule bill and re-entered the Conservative fold. He was knighted in 1909 and created Baron Rochdale in 1913. Among the causes he promoted in Parliament was women’s suffrage, arguing when he moved the second reading of the women’s enfranchisement bill, 5 May 1911, that ‘the nation suffers a loss by the exclusion of capable women from the power to select Members of Parliament’.

Emily did not live to see her son advocate the rights of ‘capable women’. She died aged 72 at the Lord Warden Hotel, Dover, on 2 December 1904, from acute bronchitis and asthma. She had been taken ill en route to Bordighera, Italy, where she had spent every winter for the last few years of her life. She left an estate valued at £27,399 11s. 5d., from which she bequeathed £500 each to the Baptist Missionary Society and its Ladies’ Association. She was buried at Rochdale cemetery, with her coffin being transported on a lorry from Kelsall & Kemp’s factory, fittingly draped in white flannel.

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‘The power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’: parliamentary reform and its impact on Exeter, 1820-1868

This week Dr Martin Spychal, research fellow for the Commons 1832-68, uses polling and voter registration data to explore the 1832 Reform Act’s impact on elections in Exeter. This blog was originally published on the History of Parliament blog as part of our Local and Community History Month focus on the historic constituency of Exeter.


A handbill for the unsuccessful pro-reform candidate at the 1831 general election, Edward Divett. Exeter’s Whigs, Reformers and Liberals looked to parliamentary reform as the only way to eradicate ‘church and chamber’ influence. © Devon Heritage Centre

Exeter Cathedral and the city’s long history of loyalty to the crown loomed large over its politics during the 1820s. To be returned for one of Exeter’s two seats in the Commons, whether as a Whig or as a Tory, candidates had to secure the confidence of the Anglican-controlled council chamber, the cathedral and the parish clergy. The political influence of ‘church and chamber’, as it was known locally, was apparent even to the most casual of onlookers. At the 1820 election, for instance, the mayor of Exeter ran the Tory candidate’s campaign and in 1830 the incumbent liberal-Tory was forced to retire after his vote for Catholic emancipation incensed the dean and chapter of Exeter Cathedral.

This state of affairs was not to everyone’s liking, particularly Exeter’s smaller tradesmen and shopkeepers who predominated in the city’s Baptist, Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian and Catholic chapels, as well as its synagogue. Their collective efforts during the 1820s to return a MP for the city proved fruitless, meaning that as the decade wore on parliamentary reform was seen as the only means of shifting power in the city. As the Liberal Western Times, and its outspoken editor, Thomas Latimer, protested in 1831, church and chamber used their joint influence in Exeter ‘as much as is exercised in a rotten borough’.


Election results for the double-member seat of Exeter, 1832-1868, McCalmont’s Parliamentary Poll Book

It therefore came as little surprise that the anti-Church and council faction of Whigs, Liberals and Reformers celebrated the 1832 Reform Act as the dawning of a new era. This optimism appeared to be confirmed when two Whig-Liberal candidates were returned at the 1832 election, prompting the Western Times to declare that ‘the power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’.

This Liberal confidence proved short-lived. In 1835 Exeter’s Conservatives regained one of the borough’s two seats. From then on it was the Conservatives, rather than the Liberals that came closest to assuming complete control of the borough. Exeter’s Liberal MP narrowly avoided losing his seat at the 1841 and 1852 elections, and a second Liberal candidate was roundly trounced at two by-elections in the 1840s. And for a brief period, following the 1864 by-election, the Conservatives returned both of Exeter’s members. The retirement of an incumbent Conservative ahead of the 1865 election led to the unopposed return of a Liberal and Conservative in 1865.

Western Times, 17 Jan. 1835

Polling results detailing plumps, straights and splits at the 1835 Exeter general election. The Conservative candidate topped the poll, and the incumbent Whig-Liberal, Edward Divett, was returned in second place. Western Times, 17 Jan. 1835

Due to the complex changes to voting rights and extensive boundary reforms that took place in Exeter in 1832, the constituency provides an excellent case study of the unintended consequences of the 1832 Reform Act. As well as revealing the continuation of ‘ancient’ freeman and freeholder voting rights in the reformed electoral system, the constituency offers some stark examples of how, in the long run, the finer details of the 1832 Reform Act actually proved favourable to Conservative candidates.

The rules surrounding who could vote in Exeter after 1832 were some of the most complex in the country. The borough’s ancient freeman qualification continued to enfranchise freemen of the borough who lived within seven miles of Exeter Guildhall, and had been entitled to vote on 1 March 1831 or had become freemen ‘by birth or servitude’ since then. As Exeter had the administrative status of a county, all men who owned a 40s. freehold within its newly extended parliamentary limits also qualified to vote, so long as the freeholder’s primary residence was within seven miles of Exeter’s new boundaries. In addition, all men who occupied a house with an annual rental value of £10, and who were not in arrears on their parish rates for the previous twelve months, were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act.

To make matters more complicated Exeter’s list of registered voters was pored over each year by party lawyers who sought to disfranchise their opponents’ supporters for all manner of technical reasons in the annual registration court. As with many other constituencies across England, in Exeter it was the Conservative lawyers and election agents who proved most adept and ruthless at removing their opponents from the rolls.

Registered electors

Exeter’s ancient rights freeman and freeholder franchises comprised a significant portion of Exeter’s voters after 1832, while the freeholder voters continued to grow in number after the 1867 Reform Act © Martin Spychal

One of the technicalities raised consistently in Exeter’s registration court related to the annual 1s. voter registration fee introduced by the 1832 Reform Act. While it was clear that all £10 householders had to pay this fee, ancient rights freemen and freeholders successfully challenged parish officials and revising barristers throughout the 1830s to secure an exemption from the annual charge.

The lack of a 1s. registration fee for this group meant that the freeholder franchise, in particular, continued to grow in popularity after the 1832 Reform Act, and even continued to do so following the 1867 Reform Act. In 1835 833 voters were registered under Exeter’s freeholder qualification, by 1865 that figure had increased to 1013, and by 1881 it had risen to 1181.

By contrast, Exeter’s ancient freemen declined in number from 586 in 1832 to 224 in 1865. At every election during this period, polling data revealed that at least 70% of freemen supported Conservative candidates. This led to constant complaints from Liberals that Exeter’s freemen were propping up ‘church and council’ influence in the borough, as they had done before 1832.

Picture 1

Conservative candidates were able to secure support from over 50% of Exeter’s 40s. freeholders and £10 householders at each contested general election in Exeter between 1835 and 1852. The Conservative candidate at the 1864 by-election required the support of freeman voters to secure his election © Martin Spychal

In reality, however, the votes of freemen on their own only swayed one election to the Conservatives between 1832 and 1868 – the 1864 by-election. Exeter’s polling data actually reveals that Conservative candidates enjoyed consistently high levels of support among the more popular freeholder and £10 householder franchises, a majority of whom voted for Conservative candidates at the three-way contests of 1835, 1841 and 1852, whether by splitting with the Liberal candidate or casting a partisan plump or straight votes.

As well as franchise changes, in 1832 Exeter’s boundaries were extended to include the parishes of St Leonard, St Thomas and Heavitree. At the time, these changes were welcomed by Whigs, Reformers and Liberals, and opposed by the forces of Exeter Conservatism, who unsuccessfully petitioned the House of Lords against the ‘great injustice’ of the boundary commissioners’ proposals.


The expansion of Exeter’s boundaries in 1832 proved beneficial to Conservative candidates at every election from 1835. PP 1831-2 (141), xxxviii. 1

However, polling data for each of the contested elections between 1832 and 1868 reveals that these initial Conservative fears were misplaced. While around 60% of voters in St Thomas supported Liberal candidates throughout the period, voters in Heavitree and St Leonards proved consistently pro-Conservative from 1835. This meant that if Exeter’s boundaries had remained unchanged in 1832 as the Conservatives had wanted, Liberal candidates would have performed better – topping the poll at the 1852 election and winning the 1864 by-election.

The next major change to Exeter’s electoral conditions came with the 1867 Reform Act, when the franchise was extended to include all male householders. As in 1832, Exeter’s Liberals again looked to reform as the best means of finally toppling the influence of ‘church and chamber’. As in 1832, Liberal candidates secured both seats at the 1868 election. However, the Liberal’s triumph again proved short-lived. At the 1874 election the enduring popularity of Conservatism among Exeter’s electors ensured the return of two Conservative candidates at the first general election after the introduction of the secret ballot.


Further Reading

T. Jenkins, ‘Exeter’, Commons 1820-32 (2009)

Robert Newton, Eighteenth-Century Exeter (1984)

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

Philip Salmon, ‘‘Register, register, register!’: political activity in October’, Victorian Commons (2012)

Philip Salmon, ‘The mathematics of Victorian representation’ Part 1 & Part 2, Victorian Commons (2014)

Martin Spychal, ‘The representation of Devon and Cornwall after reform, 1832-68’, Victorian Commons (2019)

David Thackeray, ‘Democracy in Devon: exhibition at the Devon Heritage Centre’, Victorian Commons (2013)

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‘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

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

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 []
  • 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”.

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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

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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

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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

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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:
  • 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:
  • 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

Details of how to apply to the Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme can be found here:


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.

Posted in Biographies, Elections, MP of the Month, religion, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

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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Posted in Parliamentary life | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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 “most difficult” subject for legislation: parliament and electoral corruption in the nineteenth century’, in I. Cawood and T. Crook (eds.), The many lives of corruption. The reform of public life in modern Britain c.1750-1950 (2022), 156-76
  • 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 , , , , | 8 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 , | 4 Comments