MP of the Month: Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton (1806-81)

Many of our recent ‘MP of the Month’ posts have focused on self-made men from non-élite backgrounds. Their numbers on the back benches and contribution to the practical business of Parliament (especially in committee) grew dramatically during the Victorian era. Traditional landed back-benchers, by contrast, tend to get a bad press in this period. Famously denounced by Peel as ‘those who spend their time hunting and shooting and eating and drinking’, their poor attendance and apparent disdain for political work were increasingly criticised by contemporary observers and frustrated constituents during the Victorian era.

One of those who might have been expected to fit this mould was Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton. With his aristocratic name, inherited title and estates, and large mansion set in acres of rolling Cheshire parkland, Grey-Egerton was, to most observers, every inch the traditional landed back bench MP. He even had an eccentric and distracting pastime, as a pioneering ichthyologist and collector of fossilised fish, many of which ended up in London’s Natural History Museum.

Some of Grey-Egerton’s fish fossils, now in the Natural History Museum.

Significantly, his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concentrates almost entirely on his scientific achievements. These were sufficient for him to have an oriental bird, Actinodura egertoni, named after him. His service as an MP barely warrants four lines.

As a Victorian politician, however, Grey-Egerton was in many ways a remarkable figure. His career is a useful reminder of just how much still remains to be discovered about the activities of back bench MPs in this period, both from élite and non-élite backgrounds.

Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton, photographed in 1855

A Protestant campaigner and staunch Tory, by the time of his death in 1881 Grey-Egerton had clocked up 46 years continuous service in the Commons, and – adding in the year he had sat in the pre-Reform House – had become the second longest serving MP of his era. Despite his privileged background, his route into politics was far from straightforward. First elected for Chester in 1830, his opposition to the Grey ministry’s ‘crude and dangerous’ reform bill cost him his seat in 1831. Standing as a Conservative for the newly created constituency of Cheshire South in 1832, he enlisted the support of the recently established Carlton Club, but was still defeated, despite spending an astonishing £5,000 on his election campaign. Undeterred he helped to establish one of the earliest local Conservative Registration Associations for organising voter enrolment. By the time of the unexpected 1835 election they had secured such an overwhelming majority of Tory electors on the registers that no political opponent came forward, enabling Grey-Egerton to be elected without a contest.

Over the next 46 years Grey-Egerton became a steady presence at Westminster, loyally backing the Conservatives on most issues. He rarely spoke, famously criticising his fellow MPs for their ‘long and tedious speeches, platitudes, and reiterations’, but instead acquired a reputation as ‘one of the hardest workers in committees’. Appointed to the 1835 committee on the British Museum, of which he was a trustee, he became a member of the subsequent royal commission and served regularly on a range of similar inquiries as well as on private railway bills. In the 1860s he emerged as a leading figure in the inquiries into mine safety.

Cheshire Cheese: one of the local industries Grey-Egerton lobbied to protect

Grey-Egerton also looked after the interests of his constituency. When Peel’s tariff reforms threatened to harm Cheshire’s cheese industry in the 1840s, by slashing the duty on American cheese imports, he successfully lobbied the board of trade for an exemption, prompting complaints that he had used unfair ‘private’ influence with ministers such as Gladstone. In 1847 he joined other Cheshire MPs in a campaign on behalf of the region’s salt producers against the salt monopoly of the East India Company. Other issues that inspired him to make a rare appearance in debate included the reform of Cheshire’s constabulary and the devastating impact of the cattle plague on the county’s livestock farmers.

Grey-Egerton’s main bug-bear throughout his career, however, was the threat to the Protestant Church posed by Roman Catholicism and the ‘Jesuitical duplicity’ of Irish MPs like Daniel O’Connell. A lifelong supporter of making people observe the Sabbath, he was deeply committed to maintaining the privileged position of the Established Church, even if this meant keeping Dissenters out of Anglican universities and forcing everyone, whatever their religion, to contribute to church rates. In an extraordinary reminder of the legislative power that independent MPs continued to exercise in this period, in 1840 he managed to pilot a private members’ bill into law enabling new Anglican churches to be built in Cheshire using surplus funds from local tolls, in order to ‘check demoralisation’. The bill passed despite the opposition of the Whig ministry’s chief whip.

It was also religion that prompted him to rebel against the Conservative leadership. In 1845 Peel proposed to make funding of the Irish Catholic seminary at Maynooth permanent. Grey-Egerton opposed the measure and continued to campaign against state funding for training Catholic priests for the rest of his life. In 1846, along with most of his landed colleagues, he voted against Peel’s repeal of the corn laws. Thereafter he always remained something of a back bench rebel, breaking with the Conservatives to support Palmerston’s handling of the Crimean war in 1855 and finding fault with parts of Disraeli’s 1867 reform bill. One of his final acts was to vote against allowing Charles Bradlaugh, the renowned atheist and secularist, to take his seat as an MP without swearing the traditional oath on the Bible.

The full biography of Grey-Egerton (along with almost 1,000 of his fellow MPs) can be viewed for free on our 1832-68 website containing drafts of all our ongoing research. For details of how to view the site please click here.

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

Some parallels: the 1832 and 2018 boundary reviews

To celebrate the recent open-access publication of his article ‘‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, our Research Fellow on the 1832-1868 project, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses some parallels between the challenges facing today’s boundary commission and those encountered by the Whig government overseeing the first boundary commission of 1831-32.

The current boundary commissions for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, whose recommendations are scheduled to be implemented in 2018, have faced a number of problems at Westminster and in the localities. One ongoing point of contention has been the requirement, established by the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, that the number of constituencies should be reduced from 650 to 600. In a striking parallel Earl Grey’s Whig government had also proposed to reduce the number of Commons seats from 658 to 596 in its original reform bill of March 1831. By December 1831, however, they had abandoned these plans entirely following accusations that the seats proposed to be disfranchised were mainly Tory constituencies. There were also fears over the increased constitutional power that redistribution might provide Catholic Ireland, and a general suspicion among politicians of single-member (rather than the usual double-member) constituencies.


Mr Justice (Andrew) Nicol, Deputy Chair of the 2018 Boundary Review

While the latter point is no longer of relevance to Britain’s contemporary single-member system, fears of possible gerrymandering and partisan issues again threaten to undermine plans to reduce the number of MPs. When the current commission’s proposals were first published it was thought that the Labour Party stood to lose the most seats. However, following the results of the 2017 election, the Conservatives now look set to lose more nationally.

As in 1831, the constitutional balance of the four nations also threatens to disrupt the boundary review. As things stand, Wales is set to lose out most in terms of its relative representation. Furthermore, if the 2017 registration data continues the upward trend of 2016, English MPs may also argue they have been under-allocated seats due to the use of registration data from 2015 to calculate seat quotas.

The decision to abolish 50 Commons seats has also proved highly controversial in the constituencies, as it has forced the current boundary commission to merge many pre-existing constituencies. As well as suggestions that individual boundaries might favour particular parties, the commission has been accused of breaking up long-established legal, political and social communities. A notable example is their proposal for a Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency, which cuts across the Cornwall and Devon boundary.

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond, Chair of the 1832 Boundary Commission (c) The University of Edinburgh

Similarly, during 1831, Tories and Radicals warned of Whig gerrymandering, and people from across the political spectrum expressed concern that boundary reform would destroy historic political communities and force together electors with divergent socio-economic interests. To counter this, when establishing the rules for redrawing borough constituencies, the head of the English borough boundary commission, Thomas Drummond, set out innovative, ‘scientific’ criteria to define electoral communities. These aimed to propose boundaries in a uniform manner across the country by evaluating every borough’s geographic, legal, economic and social circumstances. Importantly, this allowed boundary commissioners to ignore the political factions that operated in each constituency.

A similar framework was established for dividing 27 of England’s counties, a significant but often overlooked aspect of the 1832 reform legislation. In a manner comparable to the operation of the current commissions, the head of that commission, John George Shaw Lefevre, evaluated population data, geography, voter information and historic ‘communities of interest’ before dividing each county in as equal a manner as possible.

The application of these ‘disinterested’ rules for establishing borough and county boundaries proved remarkably successful. In contrast to the 1832 Reform Act itself, which occupied 15 months of furious debate at Westminster, the 1832 Boundary Act passed through Parliament with little objection. A major reason for this was that most MPs and constituencies accepted that the boundary commission had reformed the country’s electoral map fairly, and in a genuine spirit of impartiality. The current commission’s ability to push through its proposals will no doubt hinge on its ability to convince parliamentarians and voters that it has also been able to produce proposals from a ‘position of independence and impartiality’.

One other repeated criticism of today’s commission has been its use of the 2015 electoral register to allocate parliamentary seats to each region and design equal constituencies of around 75,000 electors. Critics have suggested that the commission base their modelling on either a prediction of all eligible voters, or a more up-to-date registration dataset, which might include those registered in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum and the June 2017 general election.

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 10.19.06

The 1821 census – the perils of out-of-date data

Prior to the commencement of the 1832 boundary commission, the Grey ministry’s reform proposals faced similar criticisms for using out of date information. In April 1831, just as the 1831 census data was becoming available, ministers were ridiculed for using census data from 1821 to decide which constituencies were to lose the right to elect MPs. As my article reveals, the tireless efforts of the 1832 commission to collect more up-to-date, accurate data proved pivotal to the ultimate success of the 1832 Reform Act. The mass of cartographic and statistical data collected allowed for the publication of an extensive report explaining every constituency proposal in remarkable detail. It also enabled the government to drop their much maligned census-based disfranchisement proposals. By remodelling their plans using up-to-date data, the Whig government was finally able to convince its opponents that the UK’s electoral map had been redesigned in an even-handed manner.

Ironically, the final proposals of the current boundary commission are also expected to be released around the same time as new data – in this case the figures for the 2017 registration. If the 2017 data shows drastic changes in the geographic makeup of the electorate since 2015, there may be similar calls to those experienced by the Whigs during 1831 for a re-evaluation of their constituency and boundary proposals. Whether the current commission will be able to respond with the same degree of success only time will tell.

Further Reading

Electoral Calculus – 2018 Boundary Review

P. Salmon, ‘The English reform legislation, 1831-32’, in The House of Commons, 1820-32, ed. D. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 2009), vol. 1, pp. 374-412

M. Spychal, ‘‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, Historical Research (August, 2017).

Elise Uberoi, ‘Boundary Review: missing voters, missing seats?’,


Posted in Constituencies, Elections, Legislation, Publications | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Edward King Tenison

William Henry Fox Talbot

One of our earliest Victorian Commons blogs looked at the career of William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, who sat briefly as Whig MP for Chippenham, 1832-5. Our MP of the Month is another pioneering photographer, Edward King Tenison (1805-78), who sat for County Leitrim from 1847 to 1852. Drawing on Fox Talbot’s work, he helped to develop the technique of using paper negatives to create detailed photographic images of landscapes and buildings.

Springing from aristocratic stock, Tenison was a grandson of the 1st Earl of Kingston, and a cousin of the 2nd Viscount Lorton, and both his grandfather and father had sat in the Irish Parliament. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the army in 1826 and served as an officer of the 14th Light Dragoons until 1836. In 1830 he had stood for election at Roscommon, and in 1843 succeeded his brother to a large estate in that county. An able administrator, he served as both a magistrate and high sheriff for Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, and was later successively appointed lord lieutenant of the former two counties.

Having established a reputation as a considerate resident landlord, Tenison was returned to Parliament for Leitrim at the 1847 general election. A Liberal, he generally supported Lord John Russell’s Whig ministry, but as an advocate of civil and religious liberty firmly opposed anti-Catholic measures such as the Ecclesiastical Titles Act. Exhausted by parliamentary life, Tenison retired in 1852. Upon returning to politics at the 1857 general election he lost a contest for his former seat and suffered another defeat at Roscommon in 1859. The following year he retired from a by-election for the corrupt borough of Sligo after refusing to offer bribes to the Liberal electors, and after suffering another defeat at Leitrim in 1865, retired from politics altogether.

Throughout this time Tenison had pursued his abiding interest in photography. In 1838 he had married Lady Louisa Anson, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Lichfield, who had travelled in the Holy Land and Egypt and established a reputation as a travel writer and artist with her Sketches in the East (1846). Perhaps influenced by his wife’s work, Tenison took up photography in the 1840s. After experimenting with daguerreotypes he began to use paper negatives, and acquired one of the few licences granted by their originator, the pioneering photographer and one-time MP for Chippenham, William Henry Fox Talbot. He subsequently based his experiments on Baldus’s calotype process, which allowed him to use the larger negatives best suited to the architectural and scenic subjects in which he was most interested.

Lady Louisa Tenison by John Phillip; credit: Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture;

Between 1850 and 1852 he and Lady Tenison spent time in Spain where he became one of the earliest photographers taking calotypes. His bulky equipment and outdoor camera work aroused the suspicion of the authorities while stimulating the curiosity of the local people. An album of this work, which included views of the city of Toledo, Burgos cathedral, and the royal palace at Madrid, was published as Memories of Spain (1854). His wife also made a record of their experiences which, along with around 50 lithographs of her drawings, was published as Castile and Andalucia (1853).

Etude d’arbre [Study of a tree], by Edward King Tenison, c.1850-3

Tenison joined the London Photographic Society in 1853, when he first showed his work at the Irish industrial exhibition, and the following year helped to found the Dublin Photographic Society. After further exhibitions of his work in London in 1854-5, which drew upon photographs he had taken in Spain, Belgium and Normandy using both calotype and waxed paper processes, he visited Algeria and subsequently recorded striking images of buildings and landmarks of his native Ireland. In February 1860 he provided details of his experimental use of paper negatives to the Royal Dublin Society, but by that time he had already confessed to the British Journal of Photography that he had ‘almost given up the science altogether’.

Tenison died at his seat, Kilronan Castle, in June 1878. Lady Tenison survived her husband, dying at Trieste in September 1882. An album containing calotypes and salt prints taken by Tenison in Ireland in 1858 is preserved in the National Photographic Archive in Dublin. More of his work is held in private collections, and one album of his photographs was sold at Christie’s in 1999 for more than $10,000.

Recommended reading:

P. Slattery, ‘Tenison, Edward King’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, ix. 307-8.

R. Taylor & L. J. Schaaf, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives (2007).

S. Rouse, Into The Light. An Illustrated Guide to the Photographic Collections in the National Library of Ireland (1998), 52-3.

Posted in Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Party Affiliation in the Reformed Commons, 1832-68

As the election results were declared in each constituency at this month’s general election, they were swiftly collated by the media to give an assessment of the overall balance of power within the new House of Commons. With each candidate’s party affiliation listed on the ballot paper, there could be little doubt about the number of MPs returned from each of the major political parties.

In the Parliaments of the 1832-1868 period, however, the attachment of party labels to MPs could be a much more complicated affair. MPs themselves were often reluctant to commit themselves firmly to a particular party, priding themselves on their ‘independence’. As we have indicated in several of our previous blogs, party identities could often be rather fluid, not only for MPs, but also for electors, who in double-member constituencies had the opportunity to split their votes to support candidates of differing political hues.

Contemporary parliamentary guides such as Dod’s parliamentary companion sought to classify MPs on the basis of their political opinions – for example,  the 1841 guide pitched ‘Conservatives’ against a collection of ‘Whigs’, ‘Liberals’, ‘Reformers’, ‘Radical Reformers’ and ‘Repealers’, along with those ‘not clearly denominated’. Despite some inaccuracies, they have provided an invaluable resource for historians of this period. However, for the nineteenth-century public, a more immediate indication of the shifting composition of Parliament in the aftermath of a general election was provided in the election results recorded by newspapers and journals. This blog provides an overview of how the party labels assigned to MPs by the press fluctuated in the period between the first two Reform Acts, which can tell us a great deal about the ways in which the idea of party was popularly understood.

The paramount importance of parliamentary reform in the early 1830s led The Times to divide MPs returned at the 1832 general election simply into Reformers and Conservatives. The Spectator elaborated by describing the two parties as ‘Reformers and Ministerialists’ and ‘Conservatives and Anti-Reformers’, while also acknowledging that a binary approach inevitably brought in ‘unconscious errors’. The paper also indicated which Irish Reformers were ‘Repealers’ or ‘Conditional Repealers’, and the Freeman’s Journal further divided them into ‘Repealers’, ‘Tithe Extinguishers’ and ‘Government Supporters’. James Silk Buckingham’s Parliamentary Review adopted for ‘general convenience’ the well-worn terms Conservative and Whig, but also gave the name ‘Liberal’ to MPs whose desire for further reforms went ‘almost as much beyond the Whigs as the Whigs do beyond the Conservatives’.

When Lord Melbourne’s ministry was dismissed in November 1834 The Times adopted Albion’s partisan description of parliamentary candidates as Conservatives and ‘Moderates’, who were prepared to give Sir Robert Peel’s ministry a ‘fair trial’, and ‘Ultras’ or ‘unfair trial’ men who wished to oppose them. The Spectator designated the latter party as ‘Real Reformers’ and ‘Old Whigs’, and labelled Peel’s supporters ‘Anti-Reformers’. A third category of ‘Doubtfuls’ was also introduced containing about 50 ‘wayward’ independents and ‘noted trimmers’, who could not be depended upon to vote either way.

By the time of the 1837 general election, with Melbourne back in power, The Times simply divided MPs into Conservatives and ‘Ministerialists’, but also dubbed the latter the ‘Whig-Radical’ party. The Spectator made a clear distinction between the Liberal and ‘Tory’ parties, but continued to acknowledge a small number of Doubtfuls. With reform of the duties on corn, sugar and timber on the agenda at the 1841 general election the Examiner divided candidates into ‘Monopolists’ and ‘Anti-Monopolists’, while The Times stuck to Conservatives and Whigs, although by now the latter term had become interchangeable with that of Liberal. The Spectator again opted for a clear-cut division between Liberals and Tories, but acknowledged that Dod’s guide had developed into the best source on the precise political affiliations of individual MPs.

After the Conservative party split over Peel’s repeal of the corn laws, The Times divided MPs returned to the 1847 parliament into Liberals, ‘Peelites’ and ‘Protectionists’. The Spectator, however, concluded that it was now impossible to classify MPs satisfactorily and dropped party labels altogether, arguing that the old ‘nicknames’ had lost their significance because Whigs and Tories now represented only ‘very small and unadvanced sections’ of the ‘two great parties’, and the terms Liberal and Conservative could easily be applied ‘to any of the leading politicians’.

When Lord Derby’s minority government faced the electorate in 1852 both the Spectator and The Times simply labelled MPs as ‘Ministerialists’ and ‘Non-Ministerialists’, the former including about 35 ‘supposed neutrals’. The Morning Herald classified Lord Derby’s opponents as ‘Free Traders and Liberals’, but these categorisations largely failed to take into account around 50 Irish Liberals who had mostly withdrawn their support from the Whig opposition because of Lord John Russell’s 1851 ecclesiastical titles bill.

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston’s subsequent elevation to the premiership led the Standard to describe candidates at the 1857 election as Liberal, Conservative and ‘Liberal-Conservative’, a term which had been in vogue since Lord Derby’s effective abandonment of agricultural protection some years earlier. The Times initially grouped MPs into ‘Ministerial’ and ‘Opposition’ camps, according to whether or not they had supported the motion criticising Britain’s treatment of China which had precipitated the election. However, they subsequently adopted the terms Conservative and Liberal – ‘whether Whig, Moderate Liberal, or Radical’.


By this time it was widely believed that the parties were in a state of ‘decomposition’ and ‘fusion’, and the Belfast News-letter insisted that, strictly speaking, Lord Palmerston had ‘no party at all’, as his ministerial benches were filled by ‘numerous little coteries … each with its little great man’. Accordingly, the Spectator again declined to employ party labels and concluded that ‘the dislocation of party distinctions, and the many crossings and divergencies’ defied broad demarcation. At the 1859 general election, however, The Times felt able to label all MPs either Liberal or Conservative, although the Spectator still believed that ‘the very vague professions’ of some members on both sides allowed for only ‘an arbitrary guess’ at the relative numbers of each party.

Reports about the demise of parties proved exaggerated, however, and by 1862 some newspapers were observing an exact balance between Conservatives and Liberals. At the 1865 general election even the Spectator was prepared to employ these labels, although it still allowed for the uncertain position taken by a few Irish ‘independents’. Therefore by the time that Gladstone and Disraeli assumed leadership of the two parties of state, popular understanding of party affiliations had become polarised and simple. It would be another twenty years before the schism over Irish home rule again interrupted the development of Britain’s two-party system.

Further reading:

A. Hawkins, Victorian Political Culture: ‘Habits of Heart and Mind’ (2015), esp. 99-102

J. Coohill, Ideas of the Liberal Party: Perceptions, Agendas and Liberal Politics in the House of Commons, 1832-52 (2011), esp. 13-45

J. Coohill, ‘Parliamentary Guides, Political Identity and the Presentation of Modern Politics, 1832-1846’, Parliamentary History, xxii (2003), 263-284

I. Newbould, ‘The emergence of a two-party system in England from 1830 to 1841: roll call and reconsideration’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, v (1985), 25-31


Posted in Elections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Minority governments and major change: a Victorian view

For most modern commentators the prospects for minority governments, based on the experience of the last half century or so, don’t look particularly good. Nearly all the recent examples currently being revisited by analysts, such as those of the 1970s, have been short-lived and devoid of any major legislative achievements. Go back another century, however, and a rather different picture emerges. During the 19th century, when the UK’s parliamentary system was still evolving and party loyalties were less rigid, minority governments were not only more common but also provided opportunities for important political realignments and even some major constitutional reforms.

Sir Robert Peel’s Tory ministry of 1834-5 was the first to set the agenda for the operation of minority governments in the new era of popular politics that followed the ‘Great’ Reform Act. Formed less than two years after the landslide victory for the Whigs at the 1832 election, which left the Tories with less than 150 MPs, Peel’s ministry owed its existence to the interference of the King, who controversially dismissed the Whigs over their proposals to reform the Irish church and installed a Tory government instead. Peel’s insistence on calling an election – in which he produced his famous ‘Tamworth manifesto’ – and his attempt to adapt his policies to attract disaffected MPs in other parties created an important precedent, in which MPs were morally encouraged to support policies rather than parties, and back ‘measures not men’.

Extract from original Tamworth Manifesto, 1834

Although Peel lost the 1835 election, securing some 291 firm supporters to the Whig-Liberals’ 322, the existence of about 45 undecided MPs, many of whom backed Lord Stanley, a former Whig trying to form his own third party, left everything to play for. Peel lost major Commons votes on the address (i.e. on the King’s speech) and the appointment of a new speaker, and even suffered a humiliating rebellion within his own ranks over the taxes imposed on malt production. However, he did not resign until he was defeated in April 1835 on the Irish church, the issue which had brought him to power. Far from being a lame duck ministry, during the 140 days that this minority government held power it managed to introduce a number of key initiatives, most notably on reforming the outdated finances of the Church of England, but also on other controversial issues like church tithes and civil marriages.

Another Conservative prime minister oversaw not just one but three minority governments. The career of the Earl of Derby, as Lord Stanley became in 1851, provides another example of how Victorian prime ministers were able to govern and even implement major reforms without enjoying a Commons majority. This former Whig turned Protectionist Tory led ministries in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-68. Like Peel, he encouraged a ‘measures not men’ approach to parliamentary behaviour, although he left his leader in the Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, to sort out what this meant in practice. He also fought elections, in 1852 and 1859, in an unsuccessful bid to secure a majority, but like Peel only felt obliged to resign as prime minister after a Commons defeat on a central issue. His legislative achievements included finishing off two highly controversial measures which had been initiated by the Liberals. One completely changed the way India was governed, abolishing the long-entrenched monopoly of the East India Company, and the other, despite being a thorny issue with Protestant Tory hard-liners, allowed Jews to sit in Parliament.

This ability to absorb and adapt policies that would be difficult for other parties to oppose was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the parliamentary shenanigans surrounding one of the most far-reaching measures of the mid-Victorian era: the so-called ‘leap in the dark’ 1867 Reform Act. It seems extraordinary that this major constitutional reform, dramatically extending the vote to a large proportion of working-class men and almost doubling the electorate, should have been passed by the Tories, the party that had done the most to prevent the far less radical ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832. It is even more astonishing that this second instalment of reform, long lobbied for by radicals and Chartists, should have been passed by a Tory minority government some 70 MPs short of their rivals.

Disraeli (the horse) taking Britannia into the unknown, 1867

The story of how the Liberals’ reform bill of 1866 split the Liberal party into warring camps, allowing Derby and Disraeli to seize power and implement a free-for-all approach to policy-making that resulted in the 1867 Reform Act, provides one of the most revealing episodes in ‘parliamentary government’ on record. By accommodating almost every demand that secured majority Commons support, and skilfully exploiting the hopes and fears of his dubious party supporters in both Houses, Disraeli, in particular, turned minority governance into an art form.

Future blogs celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, later this year, will explore the passage and impact of this major achievement in more detail. Whether minority governments in our own era can pull off a similar feat remains to be seen.

Posted in Elections, Parliamentary life | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

John Stuart Mill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, via McCord Museum

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

Posted in MP of the Month, women | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Local polls and general elections: a Victorian perspective

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

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

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

Fig 1: Printed council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

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

Fig 2: Hand written council voting paper, Shrewsbury 1835

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

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

Further reading:

  • See our earlier blog marking the 180th anniversary of town council elections
  • F. Moret, The End of the Urban Ancient Elite in England (2015)
  • J. A. Phillips, ‘England’s “other” ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (ed), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005), 139-163
  • P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History, xix (2000), 357-376 VIEW
Posted in Constituencies, Elections, Local government | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Five elections in seven years: Peterborough, Whalley and the Fitzwilliam interest

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Elections, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper proposals

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

New publication: ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

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

Article summary:

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

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

Posted in Corruption, Publications | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell (Leeds Museums and Galleries;

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell: Leeds Museums and Galleries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

  • A. Stott, Wilberforce. Family and friends (2012)
  • W. Hague, William Wilberforce (2008)
Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling’: Charles Dickens, Eatanswill and the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election

Allen, Harry M., active 1907-1937; Charles Dickens, Aged 27

Charles Dickens, aged 27, by Harry M. Allen (after Daniel Maclise) Image credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Today’s blog marks the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth by exploring the inspiration behind one of the most notable political events in his first novel.

Dickens’s riotous description of the Eatanswill borough election in the Pickwick Papers, first published in July 1836, is one of the most famous literary representations of a British election. Readers are often surprised to find out that it is set in the reformed electoral system after 1832. However, as our research for the House of Commons 1832-68 project is revealing, the electoral traditions famously epitomised by Hogarth’s Humours of an Election and described so vividly in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, endured, evolved and often thrived between the first two Reform Acts.

As well as Dickens’s experiences of electoral practices in the boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, his account of Eatanswill was inspired by his assignment to report on the December 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election for the Morning Chronicle. Interestingly, unlike the already notoriously corrupt boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, Northamptonshire North was a brand new county constituency in the reformed electoral system. Yet the county’s voters and non-voters, who congregated in the nomination town of Kettering for the proceedings, wasted little time in developing their own rowdy and partisan electoral identity. As Dickens found, to his dismay, Northamptonshire North was anything but ‘reformed’.


‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)

The 1835 by-election prompted by the unexpected death of Northamptonshire North’s Whig MP, Viscount Milton, gave a resurgent Conservative interest in the county the chance to assume complete control of Northamptonshire’s county seats, which four years earlier had been in the hands of the Whigs. By the end of 1835, controversy surrounding the Corn Laws, Whig reforms to the Poor Law, the Melbourne government’s coalition with Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Repealers and the ruthless attention paid by the Conservatives to electoral registration had placed the Whigs on the back foot nationally. These winds of political change, which were particularly relevant to an Anglican, agricultural county, meant that Northamptonshire North’s by-election received extensive attention in the national press.

The two candidates were the Conservative, Thomas Maunsell, and the Whig, William Hanbury. The Conservatives had been buoyed by the recent conversion of some of the division’s former Whigs, who were outraged over their local party’s advocacy of free trade and the Whig government’s ‘disgraceful coalition with O’Connell’. Both parties claimed to be certain of success after their extended canvass, where tit-for-tat partisanship reached new levels, and both sides accused each other, probably correctly, of intimidating voters and pushing the custom of ‘treating’ local residents with drink to the bounds of acceptability.

This intense atmosphere continued at the nomination, which was an unruly affair, thanks largely to Maunsell and his Conservative entourage, who arrived on horseback and muscled their way to the front of the crowd using their horse whips. Following repeated skirmishes in the crowd as the candidates were being proposed, one of Maunsell’s supporters had his loaded double-barrel pistol confiscated, after he threatened opponents with it on three occasions. Charles Dickens, who viewed the event from the reporters’ area in front of the hustings, informed his fiancée that he had never seen ‘anything more sickening and disgusting’, describing the division’s Conservatives as ‘a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains … led by clergymen and magistrates’.

After both candidates had made their speeches and a poll had been demanded, two local Whig and Conservative notables took it in turns to rile up the crowd with inflammatory speeches about the other. Dickens’s colleague at the Standard reported that ‘the scene of confusion and turbulence which ensued was quite indescribable’.

The next day, Dickens regretted that his editor had requested he stay in the division to report on the poll, prophesying that:

we shall have an incessant repetition of the sounds and sights of yesterday ‘till the Election is over – bells ringing, candidates speaking, drums sounding, a band of eight trombone (would you believe it?) blowing – men fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling – all riotously excited, and all disgracing themselves.

Sure enough, on the morning of the poll Dickens complained 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 ‘conservative electors’ were ‘such beasts’, he explained, that he and his fellow reporters were forced into hiding in his room at the White Hart hotel.

Days later, Dickens was ‘overjoyed’ when his editor told him that he could leave the county before the result was announced. Much like in one of the comical episodes featuring Samuel Pickwick and his travelling companions in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens then convinced his fellow journalists from The Times, the Morning Advertiser and the Morning Post into hiring and driving their own post-chaise to escape to nearby Northampton. After a two-day journey, which involved a detour to Boughton House and a carriage crash caused by a driver ‘overcome with potations of ale’, Dickens, to his dismay, received confirmation that Maunsell had been returned with a considerable majority.

As he wrote his account of the Eatanswill election over the following months, Dickens delighted in exposing the ‘patriotism’ of the fictional borough’s notables, electors and non-electors, as they revelled in the boisterous and intense atmosphere of the canvass, the nomination and the poll, shamelessly exploited the culture of treating and inflated their own self-importance on a national scale. As he was doing so, it is hard to escape the notion that Dickens had his experiences at Northamptonshire North in mind.

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

Posted in 1832-68 preview site, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

MP of the Month: From pot boy to parliamentarian – John Lloyd Davies (1801-60)

Of all the ‘self-made’ men who made the mid-nineteenth century House of Commons distinct from earlier periods, few can have begun life in such humble circumstances as John Lloyd Davies, MP for Cardigan Boroughs from 1855-7.

The son of a publican, Davies was born on the premises of the Old Black Lion in Aberystwyth in November 1801, but lost his father when aged about five. Accounts differ as to how he came to be educated. One account said his mother was ‘determined to give him the best possible education’, but another statement, made in the course of a legal dispute over Davies’s legacy in 1879, claimed that until he met his future wife he was illiterate and earned his living as an hotel servant, and that it was she who ‘had him educated’. In any case, Davies was subsequently articled to a solicitor, and by the age of 24 had succeeded to a lucrative practice in Newcastle Emlyn. In June 1825 he married his benefactress, Anne, the only surviving child of the late John Lloyd, a one-time mayor of Carmarthen. The widow of an army officer, she had grown wealthy through inheriting substantial estates at Blaendyffryn and Alltyrodyn from her late husband and from a cousin.

As a proprietor with a life interest in these estates, Davies rose quickly within the local squirearchy. He was appointed to the county bench, made a deputy lieutenant and was an active trustee of the Carmarthenshire turnpike trusts. At the 1837 general election he proposed one of the candidates for Carmarthenshire. Recognised as a ‘very active and talented’ magistrate, he subsequently confronted the Rebecca rioters in the Llandysul district, and in June 1843 helped to repel an attack on Carmarthen workhouse. In 1845 he was appointed high sheriff of Cardiganshire.

Having declined several invitations to stand for Parliament, Davies agreed to offer for a vacancy at Cardigan in February 1855. Being ‘neither Whig nor Tory’, but claiming to be an independent Conservative, he won favour by addressing the electors in his native tongue, ‘much to the delight’ of those unacquainted with English. As a zealous Anglican, he opposed the Maynooth grant. He objected to an extension of the county franchise, but at the same time, he backed Irish land reform and supported the secret ballot. Above all, he was a trenchant critic of the government’s conduct of the war against Russia, accusing ministers of sending ‘54,000 of their countrymen … to starve in the Crimea’.

Davies came into Parliament at a time when the expansion of the provincial press had stimulated a wider public interest in the proceedings of the Commons. He not only attended the House regularly – proving as likely to vote with Lord Palmerston’s ministry as not – but also made frequent, brief interventions in debate on a variety of different topics and took part in the growing practice of questioning ministers. However, despite enhancing his reputation as a popular representative by campaigning to exempt Dissenters from the payment of church rates, and promoting the establishment of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan, he was promptly brought to earth after the dissolution in March 1857. Having issued what his critics described as ‘the most boastful and egotistical’ of election addresses, he found himself opposed by a member of the borough’s most influential family and promptly retired.

His days as an MP over, Davies still remained active in public life, becoming a trustee for a scheme to establish a joint stock ‘Bank of Wales’, and was heavily involved as company chairman in promoting the construction of a railway line between Carmarthen and Cardigan, which was regarded as his greatest achievement.

His wife had died shortly before he entered Parliament, but Davies married another heiress in March 1857, the daughter of a Gloucestershire landowner. His second wife died in February 1860 and Davies passed away three weeks later. Despite leaving a legacy of £10,000 to his two infant sons, along with the Alltyrodyn estates which were not legally his to give, much of his goods and livestock had to be sold off to meet the demands of his creditors, reflecting the provisional nature of the social and political standing of this low-born but capable MP.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month, Wales | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2017

We would like to wish all the readers of the Victorian Commons a very Happy New Year for 2017! We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here are some of our blog highlights from 2016.

Looking back over our MP of the Month series, some interesting common themes have emerged. One developing strand in our research is the growing number of MPs from non-élite backgrounds, and the impact that their activities – which were often particularly noticeable in the committee rooms – had on the Commons. Among them are the Abingdon paper manufacturer, John Thomas Norris, described as an ‘upstart from the ranks’; Charles Capper, the Manchester weaver’s son who made his fortune in the shipping industry before serving briefly as MP for Sandwich; and James Barlow Hoy, formerly an assistant surgeon in the army. Another rather unlikely parliamentarian was John Gully, elected in 1832 for Wakefield, but better known as a champion pugilist, professional betting man and racehorse owner. Like Gully, Charles George Lyttelton was an enthusiastic sportsman, but it was his prowess as a cricketer which brought him renown.

Once again we have been delighted to host guest blogs. Caroline Shenton shared her expertise on the building of the new Houses of Parliament with her post on its architect, Charles Barry. Having contributed articles on Buteshire to our project, Matthew McDowell of the University of Edinburgh blogged for us about one of its MPs, James Lamont, better known as an Arctic explorer and scientist than as a parliamentarian.

We were joined this year by a new member of our research team, Martin Spychal, whose first blog for us looked at county politics in Northamptonshire South, where the Knightleys were one of the dominant families. He has also blogged about a Chancellor of the Exchequer described by Disraeli as having ‘the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’, George Ward Hunt. Another office-holder to feature as one of our MPs of the Month was Edward Lucas, who served in the important role of under-secretary for Ireland.

The fluidity of nineteenth-century party labels has been a recurrent theme in our research, and was brought to the fore in our blogs on Rowland Alston (who was also noted for averting a duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel) and on Samuel Bayntun, a ‘true blue’ Tory turned Reformer. We have continued to explore the political influence of women, as shown in our blog on the Unitarian MP Daniel Gaskell, whose wife played a key role in encouraging his parliamentary career. In June we marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill presenting the first mass women’s suffrage petition to the Commons.

The draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be found on our preview site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can sign up to follow our blog via e-mail or WordPress, or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons

We look forward to sharing more of our research with you in 2017. Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New book: Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910

Our assistant editor, Dr. Kathryn Rix, has just published her first book, with Boydell and Brewer, in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, entitled Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910. She shares some of the key themes of her research in this blog.

bookcoverParties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties were confronted with the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.

My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), it also assesses the impact which this had on political culture.

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via this website)

In particular, this book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.

One of the principal questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. This book uses the agents’ perspective to shed new light on these important debates about party identity, arguing that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. While the main focus of the research presented here is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also discussed.

Overall, this book highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.

For further details on this book, see here and here (with a discount offer from the publisher).

Kathryn will be giving a paper on her research to the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 30th May 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

Posted in Publications | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

MP of the Month: Charles Capper (1822-1869)

Continuing with our recent theme of unlikely parliamentarians, our MP of the Month is Charles Capper, the son of a Manchester weaver. Capper made his fortune in the shipping industry, and wrote a notable history of the port of London, before being ruined by the financial panic of 1866. Sadly the panic, which also triggered a rapid decline in Capper’s mental health, occurred only days after he had been elected for Sandwich. His premature death, only three years later, left his family destitute.


Charles Capper’s Candelabrum (Illustrated London News, 29 Nov. 1856).

Born and educated in Manchester, Capper’s first job was for the haulage company Pickford’s, where he worked as a clerk and gained a reputation as ‘a remarkably swift penman’. In October 1845 he married Mary Jane Dowey at St Philip’s Church, Liverpool. They relocated to East London shortly after, when Capper’s former manager offered him the role of goods manager for the Eastern Counties Railway at the company’s Brick Lane depot. He worked for the company for a decade, quickly earning promotion to superintendent of the line.

During the decade he and Mary had four sons at their residence on The Grove, Stratford. Capper was well-loved by his colleagues, and when he left the Eastern Counties Railway for a position at the newly opened Victoria Docks in 1855, they all pitched in for a silver candelabrum, which was so extravagant that it featured in the Illustrated London News.

Capper devoted the next decade of his life to reforming the organisation of London’s chaotic docks, working from his offices on Mincing Lane (considered by one contemporary to be the ‘centre of the colonial market of the metropolis’). He was an active member of London’s shipping lobby, writing numerous anonymous pamphlets and letters to editors regarding London’s docks. By 1860 he had also started to invest heavily in shipping, particularly through the East India and London Shipping Company.

In 1862 Capper increased his standing in London’s commercial circles with his economic and social history, The Port and Trade of London. His aim for the book was to explain how British commerce had recently expanded ‘with a rapidity and to an extent, utterly unexampled in the history of the world’. In it he criticised ‘modern’ historians for attributing ‘outbreaks of war and … peace to the passions of monarchs, the intrigues of courts … and rival nations’. Instead, he argued that ‘wars and revolutions’ originated primarily from the ‘commercial necessities and interests of peoples’. The book went through several editions, becoming a standard text for Victorian students of commerce.


C. Capper, The Port and Trade of London, Historical, Statistical, Local and General (1862)

Capper’s greatest achievement, however, arguably came in 1864 with the passage of the London and St Katharine Docks Act. The Act amalgamated several East London dockyards, and it was largely thanks to Capper’s lobbying efforts that it passed through parliament. Capper continued to expand his portfolio, and by 1865 he was a ‘rich man’, serving as a director of 11 shipping, colonial and financial firms. This prompted an engagement in philanthropic activity, and following his death he was remembered as ‘one of the largest promoters of the effort to bring the Eastern Londoners within the means of religion and educational culture’.

Capper’s financial interests also opened up the opportunity of a parliamentary career. His position as director for the Down Docks Company, which was lobbying parliament for the right to build new docks in Deal, brought him into contact with the Sandwich and Deal Conservative Association in 1865. The association agreed to put Capper forward as a candidate for the borough at that year’s general election, but he polled third after his Liberal opponents accused him of trying to buy votes with promises of a new dockyard. Nevertheless, within a year he was returned for the borough at a by-election, beating his Liberal opponent by eight votes.

Unfortunately, within days of having ‘secured the high objects of his ambition’, the financial panic of 1866 placed Capper’s extensive shipping investments, and as a result his mental well-being, under considerable strain. With his portfolio diminishing rapidly, Capper found it difficult to engage fully with life in the Commons, where he acted as a silent supporter of the Conservative administration. When another Conservative announced his intention to stand at Sandwich in 1868, Capper took little convincing to retire from politics.

Capper died suddenly at his home only months later on 21 March 1869, reportedly from exhaustion following a bout of ‘severe diarrhoea’. A friend later explained that his sudden death had been occasioned by ‘anxieties’ and ‘a broken heart’, following his realisation that the panic of 1866 had left him bankrupt. Capper’s estate was entirely absorbed in order to repay his outstanding debts, leaving his wife and four children with little more than his silver candelabrum. Prominent figures in London’s commercial world, including Thomas Baring and Lionel de Rothschild, raised a subscription for Capper’s family, and his sons were offered ‘situations on small salaries’. Within eighteen months of his death, however, Capper’s wife was forced to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for £30 on account of being ‘destitute of all means and … compelled to rely upon the sale of articles of clothing’.

For details about how to access Capper’s biography and all our other draft articles click here.

Posted in 1832-68 preview site, Biographies, MP of the Month, Working-class politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: John Gully (1783-1863)

Following on from the History of Parliament’s blog series on ‘Unlikely parliamentarians’ to mark Parliament Week 2016, our MP of the Month is another unlikely parliamentarian. John Gully, ‘an advanced reformer’, served as MP for Pontefract for five years from 1832. In a parliamentary sketch, Charles Dickens described this

quiet gentlemanly-looking man in the blue surtout, grey trousers, white neckerchief, and gloves, whose closely-buttoned coat displays his manly figure and broad chest to great advantage.

Gully’s gentlemanly demeanour in the Commons gave little hint of his extraordinary background. The son of a Gloucestershire innkeeper, he had been in turn a butcher, imprisoned debtor, champion pugilist, pub landlord, professional betting man and racehorse owner, and fathered 24 children (by two wives). Indeed his return to Parliament seemed so incongruous that it was rumoured that he had only sought election to win a bet.

John Gully

John Gully (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gully was born in his father’s pub near Bristol in 1783. When his father opened a butcher’s shop in Bristol, he trained Gully in this trade. Subsequent financial difficulties saw Gully imprisoned for debt in London’s King’s Bench prison. However, he secured his release in 1805 after his debts were paid by prize-fight promoters who had noted his prowess in a brief fight against his Bristol acquaintance, Henry Pearce, a champion prize-fighter, and were keen for the pair to fight a proper match. Six feet tall, with an ‘athletic and prepossessing’ frame, Gully lost their bout at Hailsham, Sussex, at which the future William IV was among the numerous spectators. When Pearce retired later that year, Gully was regarded as his successor as ‘champion of England’, and won notable fights in 1807 and 1808, before quitting to become landlord of a London pub.

Described as ‘second to none’ as a judge of racehorses, Gully became a professional betting man on the Turf, making his own wagers and taking commissions for others. He acquired his own racehorses in 1812, and in 1827 moved to Newmarket to pursue this more seriously. He won (and lost) huge sums through gambling: he and his business partner were said to have made £90,000 when their horse won the 1832 Derby. Although one contemporary claimed that Gully was ‘a regular blackleg’, the general consensus was that, in contrast with most of those involved with betting on the Turf, Gully was notably honourable and straightforward.


Pontefract constituency map

Continuing his upward social trajectory, Gully bought Ackworth Park, near Pontefract, in 1832, and invested in coal mines in northern England, which brought him ‘immense profits’. (He left a fortune of £70,000 on his death in 1863.) The Reformers of Pontefract invited their new neighbour to stand as their candidate at the general election in December 1832. Visiting the town to decline their invitation, Gully was so angered by comments by their Tory opponents that he changed his mind and decided to stand. He was elected unopposed as one of Pontefract’s two MPs. The diarist Charles Greville, while listing him among the ‘very bad characters’ returned to the first Reformed Commons, conceded that despite being ‘totally without education’, Gully had ‘strong sense, discretion, reserve, and a species of good taste’ and had ‘acquired gentility’. When Gully was presented at court by Lord Morpeth in 1836, another contemporary described this as ‘an instance of the levelling system now established in England’.

Although Gully rarely spoke in the Commons, he was a diligent attender who served on several select committees. He was often found in the minorities voting with Radical and Irish MPs in support of reforms such as the ballot, the removal of bishops from the House of Lords, the abolition of flogging as a punishment in the army and reform of the corn laws. He was re-elected in 1835, but retired in 1837 as the ‘late hours’ sitting in the Commons had damaged his health. He stood again at Pontefract in 1841, when he declared himself ‘the enemy of all monopolies, and the friend of the poor’, but retired early from the poll.

Despite this defeat, Gully remained politically active. Given his humble origins, it was perhaps unsurprising that he was sympathetic to the demands of the Chartists for parliamentary reform, although he disliked their violent tactics. He was also a keen supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League. He continued to enjoy considerable success as a racehorse owner, and the Manchester Times recorded in 1846 that ‘few men are more popular on the English race course, or more approved of by the aristocracy of the land’. The parliamentary career of this sporting celebrity demonstrates the ways in which those from non-elite backgrounds could find their way into the post-1832 House of Commons.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist

Our MP of the Month blog for October comes from Dr Matthew McDowell, of the University of Edinburgh, who has contributed to our 1832-68 project with articles on Buteshire and its MPs. In this guest blog, he explores the career of James Lamont, better known for his exploits outside Parliament than in the Commons.

At only four years old, a frightened James Lamont witnessed the enormous crowds present in Edinburgh to celebrate the passing of the 1832 Reform Act throwing stones at his window: his father, a Tory, had refused to light up his window at night, which was taken as a signal that he did not support Reform. In contrast with his father’s views, Lamont sat as Liberal MP for Buteshire, 1865-8, but his political career was a brief and irregular interlude in his scientific and literary endeavours, and at odds with the more mobile, heroic, robust figure written about in his accounts of sea voyages to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya. He was one of the pre-eminent Arctic explorers and celebrity scientists of his day, and his daughter Augusta, who followed her father into science rather than politics, would later note:

Three years in Parliament! – what a contrast to the roving outdoor life that he had hitherto led! His later ‘gloomy reflections’ suggest that there was regret for time so spent.

Contemporary accounts, however, cast a different light on Lamont’s otherwise unremarkable time as an MP, for his political campaigns themselves revealed much about the fault lines in Scottish society in the immediate run-up to the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867.

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

Lamont was the son of Lt. Col. Alexander Lamont, of Knockdow Estate, in Toward, Argyll. He was educated at Rugby School and the Edinburgh Military Academy. Upon his uncle’s death in 1849, Lamont inherited a fortune which, as Stephen Mullen has noted, was largely based on government compensation for his uncle’s Trinidad slave plantations. He began to attend to his estates in both Scotland and the West Indies, at the same time devoting himself to travelling and exploration. Lamont’s many voyages included trips to Nova Scotia, Labrador, the Mediterranean and South Africa, but it was his trips to the Nordic and Russian Arctic that remain his defining explorations. In 1858 and 1859, Lamont, on board his schooner the Ginerva, sailed up to and explored areas of Svalbard. He was also a keen hunter of seals, walruses, grouse and polar bears. These adventures formed the basis of Lamont’s first book, Seasons with the Sea Horses; or, sporting adventures in the northern seas (1861).

In 1869, 1870 and 1871, upon a newly-constructed yacht, the Diana, Lamont went further: not only did he explore more of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, but he also went on extensive trips which documented Novaya Zemlya. These voyages were documented in his second book, Yachting in the Arctic Seas, or notes of five voyages of sport and discovery in the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya (1876). Both books are bloody reads: the hunting and slaughter of animals dominates Lamont’s stories. A recent article on Lamont by Leah Devlin has focused on his beliefs on the evolution of walruses and polar bears, as discussed in his books, as well as in correspondence with Charles Darwin. Certainly, his political opponents made much of his support for the theory of evolution.

Lamont’s brief political career was sandwiched in between these two major publications. He had been selected by the Liberals to run for the Paisley constituency in 1857, before his first voyage to the Arctic, but did not go to the poll. In 1859, he was selected as Liberal candidate for the island constituency of Buteshire, one of the Conservative Party’s safest Scottish seats, bordering Lamont’s ancestral home, but was defeated by nine votes. ‘The result’, he later recollected in Seasons with the Sea Horses, ‘proved unfortunate for the walrus, although perhaps the cynical reader may be disposed to add, “fortunate for the constituency”, and I was once more at liberty to proceed on my intended voyage’. Here, his political career was treated as an inconvenient footnote. It fared no better in Yachting in the Arctic Seas, where Lamont painted his 1868 retirement from Parliament as a chance to get back to his one true passion:

So completely did these ideas gain possession of me that at the general election of 1868 I abandoned a seat in Parliament … and set to work to build a vessel which should embody all Arctic requirements in a moderate compass.


Buteshire, from The Imperial gazetteer of Scotland. Vol. I, by Rev. John Marius Wilson

The reality of Lamont’s ‘abandonment’ of his political career was far messier. Standing again for Buteshire at a by-election in 1865, Lamont had launched a scathing attack on his Conservative opponent George Frederick Boyle, the local landlords’ preferred candidate, on account of his religious affiliations. Boyle was both a layman in the Scottish Episcopal Church and a well-known patron of Tractarianism, who famously built an Episcopal training college in Millport. Exploiting the sectarian rivalries between Scotland’s competing faiths, Lamont enlisted the support of local Free Church ministers and sought to portray Boyle as the ultimate nightmare: a Catholic landowner in disguise. ‘When our forefathers rose against the superstitions and mummeries of the Romish Church at the Reformation’, he declared on the hustings, ‘an ancestor of mine, also called James Lamont of Knockdow, pulled down a Roman Catholic Church on Loch Striven side, so that not one stone of it remained upon another’. Although he narrowly lost the by-election, Lamont used his speech at the declaration to charge local landlords with intimating crofter-electors, provoking a riot.

At the 1865 general election six months later Lamont rode the Liberal wave into Parliament. Reporting on his 1865 campaigns, the Tory Edinburgh Courant referred to him as a ‘Darwinite murderer of seals’, whose own graphic exploits, as written about by the man himself, displayed a lust for power. Once elected, however, Lamont failed to make his presence felt in the Commons, rarely speaking at any length in debate and voting infrequently in the division lobbies. After siding with the Conservatives against Gladstone on the question of Irish church disestablishment, to which he was bitterly opposed, Lamont was deselected by Buteshire’s Liberals, forcing his retirement at the 1868 election. That so little space was given to politics either by himself or his daughter in their accounts of his career confirms that unique celebrities of Lamont’s make were not necessarily suited to life at Westminster.

Further reading

  • Augusta Lamont, Records and Recollections of Sir James Lamont of Knockdow (self-published, 1950)
  • A.G.E. Jones, ‘Lamont, Sir James, first baronet (1828-1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography []
Posted in Biographies, Guest blog, MP of the Month, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MP of the month: James Barlow Hoy (1794-1843)

As biographies of long-forgotten politicians go, this month’s MP ticks all the boxes, offering an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale, the beginnings of a brilliant political career accompanied by fraud and bankruptcy, and even an allegation of murder.

Hoy, or Barlow as he was originally known, was working as a lowly assistant surgeon in the army in 1828 when a chance inheritance from a cousin transformed his life, providing him with ‘extensive property’ in Hampshire and a ‘great fortune’ of almost £88,000. Within a year he had adopted the surname of his benefactor, the merchant Michael Hoy, and within two years had been elected for the venal borough of Southampton at vast expense, assisted by his cousin’s mercantile connections. Hoy’s opposition to the Grey ministry’s reform bill lost him the seat in 1831, but in 1832 he defied the national trend and was re-elected as a Conservative MP. The discovery of ‘fraudulent voting’, however, led to his being unseated on petition in 1833, following a lengthy investigation into Southampton’s corrupt electoral practices.

Determined to leave nothing to chance, Hoy launched a highly effective campaign at the 1835 election, pitching himself as a protector of the ‘ancient English rights’ of Southampton’s pre-1832 electors, whose entitlements to vote he had helped to defend by funding lawyers to attend the registration courts. With the support of the treasury, now in Tory control, and another vast outlay on treating and entertainment, including a series of musical election ‘rounds’ composed in his support, he topped the poll.

1835 Southampton election round

1835 Southampton Election Round

Another of Hoy’s bugbears on the hustings had been the radical cry for the secret ballot. ‘Was public opinion not to have any influence?’, he had demanded, to the approval of many non-voters. ‘Was a voter to sneak privately to the poll and not let his neighbours know what he was doing?’

Hoy not only became a noted campaigner in the Commons against this most ‘un-English’ of innovations, but also used it to highlight the glaring hypocrisy of other Liberal measures. In an impressive speech on 2 June 1835, he derided all those who supported the ballot and municipal corporation reform, noting how he was ‘surprised to see those who had been foremost in exclaiming against corporations, on account of the secrecy of their proceedings … coming forward as the advocates of a measure, the whole object of which was to secure the most complete secrecy’. If ‘public opinion were thought a necessary restraint’ and ‘useful control upon the actions’ of MPs, he asked, why should it be any ‘less necessary when voting for MPs’? Although his attempt to make the new town council elections ‘be taken openly’, in the same manner as parliamentary polls, was defeated, provision was subsequently made for council voting papers to be available for public inspection on payment of a fee.

Clearly a rising star of the Tory opposition, Hoy’s sudden departure for the Continent in 1837, ostensibly on account of his wife’s health, came as a surprise to his constituents. It may have been related to the huge sums involved in contesting Southampton on five occasions in as many years. He stayed in Naples during the 1837 and 1841 elections, although the publication in 1839 of his pamphlet Manufacturers and corn growers, a defence of the protective import duties on corn, suggests that he may have been contemplating a return to UK politics.

His ‘accidental’ death in 1843 attracted widespread publicity. During a ‘shooting excursion’ with an ‘old friend’ Captain Richard Meredith in the Pyrenees, Hoy slipped into a ravine, dropping his gun, which ‘went off’, lacerating the blood vessels in his arm. He died from these injuries and ‘lock jaw’ the following day. Hoy’s will made generous provision for his wife Marian, but due to his outstanding mortgages of £58,500 there were insufficient funds to carry it out fully and his estate was declared ‘insolvent’.

Hoy’s younger brother, the Reverend Robert Joseph Barlow, later became convinced that Hoy’s wife and Captain Richard Meredith had conspired to murder Hoy, and that Hoy had been pushed by Meredith into the ravine, allegations which found their way into his autobiographical novel W. Fitzallen, Remarkable but still true (1872). Just over a year after the accident Hoy’s widow married Meredith. In 1850, following Meredith’s own death, she took a third husband, the Catholic author John Richard Digby Beste.

For details about how to access this biography and all our other draft articles click here.

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

A Westminster Boy Made Good: Charles Barry (1795-1860)


Caroline Shenton won the Political Book of the Year Award in 2013 with The Day Parliament Burned Down and its sequel Mr Barry’s War is published this month. 

In this guest post she reflects on an often-forgotten aspect of the background of Charles Barry, architect of the New Houses of Parliament.

On the night of 16 October 1834, thirty-nine year old Charles Barry was travelling back to town from business in Brighton. As his stagecoach trundled over the top of the North Downs, and began its descent towards the city,

a red glare on the London side of the horizon showed that a great fire had begun.  Eager questions elicited the news that the Houses of Parliament had caught fire, and that all attempts to stop the conflagration were unavailing. No sooner had the coach reached the office, than he hurried to the spot, and remained there all night.  All London was out, absorbed in the grandeur and terror of the sight … the thought of this great opportunity, and the conception of designs for the future, mingled in Mr Barry’s mind, as in the minds of many other spectators, with those more obviously suggested by the spectacle itself. [Alfred Barry, The Life and Works of Sir Charles Barry (1867)]

Barry had more reason than many to wonder about the future of the Palace.  One of the most startling things about the enigmatic man who became the architect of the new Houses of Parliament was that he was born and brought up in Westminster itself and knew the area inside out even before the competition which changed his life.

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, oil on canvas, circa 1851 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

The ninth of eleven children of a government Stationery Office supplier, Barry was born and spent his childhood at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the side of New Palace Yard, opposite the door of Westminster Hall at the northern end of the ramshackle old Palace.  He was christened at St Margaret’s, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, only a few steps from home. Some fifty years after Barry’s birth, the Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster – its most well-known feature – began to be constructed just opposite his birthplace. Orphaned at ten years old, at fifteen he was articled to a firm of surveyors in Lambeth across the river.  So up until he was twenty-one, Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, though very different to the one which is familiar to us today.

The old Palace must have been a constant presence in his life.  From his attic bedroom at the top of the Barry home it would have been possible to see the north door of Westminster Hall, still with the law courts held inside, as well as the Abbey and St Margaret’s, a view painted in the 1820s by Auguste Pugin, father of Barry’s most famous collaborator.  As a trainee surveyor and architect Barry’s daily walk over Westminster Bridge to Lambeth provided fine views of its eastern flank across the Thames.  Growing up in its shadow and then working across the river would have impressed on Barry’s vivid imagination the muddled shapes and textures of the Palace which had been home to the House of Lords since the thirteenth century, and to the House of Commons since the Reformation.  In 1812, at the age of seventeen, he successfully entered a drawing for exhibition at the Royal Academy for the first time. Tellingly, its subject was the interior of Westminster Hall.  For the rest of his life, Barry both drew on the existing iconography of Westminster and then indelibly imprinted his own vision on it.

‘What a chance for an architect!” he exclaimed on watching the terrible fire of 1834.  But it was also an amazing opportunity for a local boy.  For when, in 1835, he entered the competition to design a new Houses of Parliament, he had – like the other 96 entrants – to do it anonymously.  They weren’t allowed to sign their drawings but instead each competitor marked the corner of every sheet with a unique symbol – or rebus, as it was called – and then placed their name in an otherwise unmarked envelope bearing the symbol on the outside, to be opened only if they won.  Barry’s choice of rebus was the Portcullis: the heraldic badge of Lady Margaret Beaufort found peppered all over the Henry VII Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey (whose Perpendicular style Barry had already reflected across his whole design).  This very personal choice from a building so well-known to Barry subsequently became the universal symbol for Parliament, and can be found decorating nearly every nook and cranny of the new Palace, thanks to Barry’s collaborator, A. W. N. Pugin who incorporated it into the carpets, wallpaper, fixtures and fittings, and woodwork of the Palace’s interior, and the stone mason John Thomas who was responsible for the exterior carvings.  Today, Portcullis House, the parliamentary building which houses MPs’ offices and committee rooms, stands on the very site of Barry’s childhood home.

Despite living for a time in Hatton Garden and then the West End, in 1840 Barry moved his wife and family to 32 Great George Street, so that he could keep an eye on the growing Palace just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was in fact simply an extension of Bridge Street westwards towards St James’s Park.  In the 1850s, Barry was highly influential in the design and construction of a new Westminster Bridge whose profile he was determined had to blend with the Palace when viewed from downriver.  And finally, when he died in 1860, worn out with the stress of working on the Palace for twenty-five years, Barry was buried in Westminster Abbey among the most famous of his peers, but also fittingly, just a stone’s throw from the place where he was born and had gazed upon from his attic bedroom whose walls he had once decorated with imaginary scenes of faraway places.

Caroline Shenton @dustshoveller

Posted in Guest blog, Parliamentary buildings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MP of the Month: Edward Lucas and the administration of Ireland, 1841-5

Edward Lucas was already an experienced parliamentarian when in September 1841 he was appointed under-secretary for Ireland, a post which for at least three-quarters of the year made the holder ‘the executive of Ireland’. In practice the political head of the civil service, the under-secretary was responsible for the routine working of the Irish administration and the supervision of almost every public department in Ireland. Indeed, Lucas acted as the Irish administration’s sheet anchor during the height of the Repeal agitation, yet he remains overlooked by both the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Lucas came from a Suffolk family that had migrated to Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century and acquired a large estate in county Monaghan. His family had frequently represented the county in the Irish Parliament and after attending the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford Lucas became involved in parliamentary politics on the independent and anti-Catholic interest from 1807. It was not until July 1834, however, that he was finally returned to the reformed Commons.


Dublin Castle (image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A consistent supporter of Sir Robert Peel, Lucas spoke frequently against the Whig government’s Irish reforms and in 1838 led the opposition to the introduction of an Irish poor law. Although he retired at the dissolution in 1841 to manage his estate, his talents as an MP had not gone unnoticed by Peel, who regarded him one of the ablest of the Conservative Irish members. Accordingly, that September he was appointed to the demanding post of under-secretary for Ireland, which, since the Whigs had appointed Thomas Drummond to the position in 1835, had been treated as a political appointment. Lucas was therefore charged with the day-to-day supervision of the chief secretary’s office in Dublin Castle during what would be a challenging time for British authority in Ireland.

Wood, John, 1801-1870; Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey, KG, PC, FRS

Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859), 2nd Earl de Grey. Copyright Ministry of Defence Art Collection.

As Daniel O’Connell’s agitation for the repeal of the Union came to maturity in 1843, it became apparent that Lord de Grey’s administration as viceroy in Dublin was not a happy one. Lucas had the thankless task of mediating between de Grey and the chief secretary, Lord Eliot, and the lord chancellor, Edward Sugden, both of whom the hard-line viceroy had candidly described to Peel as ‘useless’. Lucas also criticised what he regarded as Eliot’s failure to act decisively against the Repealers, and in June 1843 tendered his resignation. Regarding Lucas’s behaviour as ‘very shabby’, Peel nevertheless found it impossible to find an adequate replacement, particularly as the viceroy had informed him that Lucas was the only senior official in Dublin in whom he had any confidence. Lucas again submitted his resignation rather than continue to serve under Eliot in May 1844, but was persuaded to remain and subsequently convinced the new viceroy, Lord Heytesbury, that he was an ‘indefatigable’ and highly efficient public servant, who had proved particularly useful in facilitating communication between the government and the leaders of the Orange party.

In August 1845 Lucas cited ‘a serious affection of the eyes’ as his reason for resigning as under-secretary. He became a member of the Irish privy council. That November he chaired a commission of inquiry into the failure of the Irish potato crop, although political opponents considered him ‘too Orange-tinted’ to provide sympathetic guidance to what they had dubbed the ‘Starvation Commission’. In fact, he proved highly critical of the government’s relief measures and was replaced when the commission was restructured in February 1846.

Convinced that the country’s prospects were unlikely to improve, Lucas left Ireland for the Continent in 1850. On Lord Derby coming to power in February 1852 he was reportedly ‘wandering somewhere about’ southern Europe when the government despatched a special messenger to offer him his old job. In the event the position went to another Irish landowner, Edward Wynne, the member for County Sligo, this being the last time that the Irish under-secretaryship was given to a politician. The post was again made a permanent one in 1854 during the tenure of Wynne’s successor, Sir Thomas Larcom, although later appointments would become politicised for some years after 1886 by virtue of the Home Rule question.

Lucas eventually returned to Ireland and in the 1860s supported fellow Conservative landowners at parliamentary elections for County Monaghan, acting on the principle of maintaining ‘what is old until it is proved to be bad’. Lucas’s death at Castle Shane in November 1871 went largely unremarked, and his time at the fulcrum of the Irish executive during a turbulent period in Irish politics has been largely forgotten.

Further reading:

  • K. Flanagan, ‘The Chief Secretary’s Office, 1853-1914: a bureaucratic enigma’, Irish Historical Studies, xxiv, no. 94 (Nov. 1984), 195-225
  • R. B. McDowell, The Irish Administration 1801-1914 (1964)
  • R. B. O’Brien, Dublin Castle and the Irish People (2nd edn., 1912)
Posted in Ireland, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Petitioning Parliament: two PhD studentships

One of our former colleagues, Dr Henry Miller, has recently secured a major grant to further his work on petitioning, as part of an important new project with Dr Richard Huzzey at the University of Durham. Petitioning has long been overshadowed by elections in the study of British politics, yet before the 1880s many more constituents (including women) often put their names to petitions than actually cast a vote at the polls.

A 'Monster' Petition being carried to Parliament, 1842

A ‘Monster’ Petition being carried to Parliament, 1842

As well as the landmark campaigns that used and refined the art of petitioning – slavery abolition, the agitation for the 1832 Reform Act, corn law repeal and Chartism – petitions also served as a continuous safety valve for airing local gripes and grievances on a vast range of issues, both public and private. Parliament kept records, including a entire series of volumes issued by a special select committee on public petitions. Relating this resource (once digitised) and others to digitised newspaper accounts and Hansard will provide new insights into how petitioning was organised and its long-term impact in helping to shape local and national political culture right across the UK.

This exciting new study is now looking for two PhD researchers – for full details see below or click here. As historical projects go, it could hardly be more topical.

Durham University and Warwick University are pleased to announce that we have two funded PhD studentships available as part of the ‘Re-thinking Petitions, Parliament, and People’ project generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-097). This new initiative, led by Dr. Richard Huzzey (Durham) and Dr. Henry Miller (Durham), explores the powerful role of parliamentary petitioning in the development of modern Britain and exploits the under-used records of the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Petitions. One student will be based in Durham while the other will work at Warwick with Dr. Sarah Richardson, a member of the project’s advisory board.

For full details, including the process for applying before the 19 August 2016 deadline, please see the webpages for these two studentships:

Petitions from Ireland:

Petitions from women:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘The sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’: MP of the Month, George Ward Hunt (1825-77)

The recent rise of a certain parson’s daughter to the premiership provides a fitting opportunity to consider the unexpected ascent of a parson’s son to one of the great offices of state during the 1860s – George Ward Hunt, Conservative MP for Northamptonshire North between 1857 and his death in 1877, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Disraeli’s 1868 administration.

Hunt’s name has become synonymous with two moments in Westminster’s popular memory. His inability to locate his dispatch box prior to his only budget speech in 1868 is often bandied about on budget day by journalists seeking historical precedent for the custom of the chancellor holding up their red box outside 11 Downing Street. When he later served as First Lord of the Admiralty in Disraeli’s second ministry from 1874, the practical need to accommodate his gargantuan frame – he was 6ft 4 inches tall and weighed between 21 and 25 stone throughout his adult life – has been used to explain a unique semi-circular recess in the Admiralty’s boardroom table, known as ‘Hunt’s Bay’. Both legends – one that paints a picture of ineptitude, the other of extraordinary obesity – have served to distort the otherwise exemplary parliamentary service of one of the rising stars of the Conservative party in the early 1860s.

Hunt’s political career did not start well. After graduating with a MA from Christ Church, Oxford, and being called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1851, he failed twice to get elected as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Northampton in 1852 and 1857. To make matters worse, in 1857 he suffered the ignominy of being on holiday in Egypt throughout the election, a fact that his local Liberal opponents never let him forget, through heckling about crocodiles, pyramids and mummies at future hustings.

NPG D43474; George Ward Hunt ('Statesmen, No. 77.') by Carlo Pellegrini

‘The fat of the land’, George Ward Hunt by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair (11 March 1871)

He was finally elected in December 1857 at a by-election for Northamptonshire North, the county division that contained his family’s Wadenhoe estate. Although Hunt’s family could trace their lineage back to Edward III, his lowly status as the son of ‘a well connected country clergymen’ marked him out from the county’s usual stock of aristocratic representatives, and his election bemused Northamptonshire’s established elite. He quickly allayed these fears by throwing himself into the business of the Commons as an active Tory backbencher during his first short Parliament. He made his maiden speech within days of being sworn in (many MPs thought it courteous to wait at least a year before rising to address the Commons, if at all), contributed frequently to debate thereafter and had introduced his first bill within six months of assuming his seat.

After his re-election in 1859 he ramped up his parliamentary activity, taking a particular interest in the fine details of electoral, legal, Church and financial reform. His commitment to debate, committee work and legislative drafting had brought him to the attention of the Conservative leadership by August 1863. In 1865 he confirmed his ambitions within the party by moving a vote of censure on the Liberal Lord Chancellor, and distancing himself from the hard-line Protestant wing of back-bench Conservatives by voting in favour of introducing a Roman Catholic parliamentary oath – a move that prompted jibes of ‘he’s half a Liberal already’ when he was re-elected at that year’s general election.

His dogged campaign to rouse the Liberal government out of its inactivity over a rinderpest outbreak during the latter months of 1865, which had infected almost 75,000 cattle by the start of the 1866 session, confirmed his worthiness for office during the early months of 1866. His farming experience and close connections with England’s agricultural elite made him steadfast in his commitment to much stricter regulations than those proposed by the Liberal government for the movement, quarantine and slaughter of cattle. Hunt’s demands were eventually adopted as national policy leading to a virtual cessation in new cases of cattle plague by November 1866, down from almost 18,000 a week earlier that year.

His excellent parliamentary record was rewarded in 1866 by his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in Derby’s third Conservative government, where he attended diligently to his official duties in the Commons as well as his daily bureaucratic responsibilities. His command of economic policy and dependable performances in the Commons led many to the realisation that he was the brains behind Disraeli’s third chancellorship, earning his chief’s endorsement as ‘our best man’ by March 1867.

On Disraeli’s ascent to the premiership in 1868, Hunt was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the new prime minister provided the following reference to Queen Victoria ahead of her first meeting with her new chancellor:

he is more than six feet 4 in stature, but does not look so tall from his proportionate breadth – like St Peters, no one is at first aware of his dimensions … he has the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form … simple, straightforward & truthful … & of a very pleasing & amiable expression of countenance. He has gained golden opinions in the execution of his office as Sec[retary] of the Treasury, & is so popular in the House of Commons that the opposition even intimated recently that if a new Speaker were required, they were not disinclined to consider Mr Ward Hunt’s claims.

[Disraeli to Queen Victoria, 26 Feb. 1868: Benjamin Disraeli letters, 1868, ed. M. G. Wiebe et al. (2013), x. 82]

While Victoria remarked on such a ‘strange description’, she jokingly expressed no doubt that Hunt would ‘add weight to our counsels’. Accordingly, she accepted Disraeli’s recommendation, confirming Hunt’s rise from unknown parson’s son to one of the four great offices of state after only a decade in Parliament.

The full biography of Hunt will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further reading:

  • Margaret Main Schoenberg, ‘Hunt, George Ward: A 19th Century Giant’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 5, 4 (1976)
Posted in 1832-68 preview site, Biographies, Images of MPs, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Daniel Gaskell (1782-1875)

Our Victorian Commons project is shedding new light on the increasingly important role played in the behind-the-scenes business of the post-1832 House of Commons, particularly in the committee-rooms, by MPs who came from non-elite backgrounds. While a family inheritance enabled our MP of the Month, Daniel Gaskell, to lead a comfortable life as a country gentleman, his Unitarian faith set him apart from the traditional political class. He was enthusiastically supported in his parliamentary career by his wife, and the often under-valued political role of women is another major theme to emerge in our research.

Described by the novelist Mary Shelley as ‘a plain silentious but intelligent looking man’, Gaskell served as MP for Wakefield from 1832 until his defeat in 1837. He was one of around 40 Unitarians who sat in the Commons during the 1832-68 period. His grandfather, a linen draper, and his father, a merchant, had both worshipped at Manchester’s Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. Gaskell was born in Manchester, but moved to Lupset Hall, near Wakefield, following his marriage in 1806. He and his older brother Benjamin were the major beneficiaries under the will of their cousin, James Milnes, and acquired considerable urban and rural property. Lupset Hall ‘received all the embellishment which taste and art could confer upon it’ and became ‘the seat of the most liberal hospitality’. Gaskell was acquainted with prominent figures such as the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, although Mary Shelley considered him and his wife to be ‘country folks in core’.

Wakefield constituency map

Wakefield constituency map

The Radicals in the newly enfranchised borough of Wakefield – which had one MP from 1832 – invited Gaskell to be their candidate. He initially accepted, but subsequently withdrew. He was, however, persuaded to reconsider. In August 1831, his nephew, James Milnes Gaskell, who had begun canvassing Wakefield as a Conservative, recorded that ‘the radicals had so effectually worked upon my uncle’s anxious and sensitive mind that he considered it a point of conscience’ to stand. Milnes Gaskell withdrew in his uncle’s favour in March 1832, finding a safe seat at Wenlock instead. Gaskell was elected unopposed in December 1832, when his political platform included retrenchment in public spending, shorter Parliaments, the secret ballot, the abolition of slavery, revision of the corn laws and reform of the Church.

Alongside local Radical pressure, Gaskell’s formidable wife, Mary, played an important part in encouraging her ‘reluctant spouse’ to stand. As noted in our earlier blogs, although women were debarred from the parliamentary franchise, their political influence in this period should not be overlooked, whether as local voters, petitioners, electoral patrons or, in Mary Gaskell’s case, political wives. ‘Unquestionably a character’, who ‘drew upon herself a great degree of notice from the leading part she took in public matters’, she was described as ‘a sort of zealot in the patronage of ultra-Liberals’. She went to hear sermons from the Unitarian preacher, William Johnson Fox (later Radical MP for Oldham), and ‘was a kind and generous friend’ to the radical journalist and novelist William Godwin and his family, including Mary Shelley, who was his daughter. In April 1831 James Milnes Gaskell told his mother that ‘it is, in fact, my Aunt, that would be member of Parliament’.

Despite his initial reluctance to stand, Gaskell was ‘punctual in his attendance’ at Parliament. Mary Shelley marvelled that

‘he attends the house night after night and dull committees and likes it! – for truly after a country town and country society, the dullest portion of London seems as gay as a masked ball’.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

Despite her comments about Parliament’s dullness, Shelley took advantage of her friendship with Gaskell to make use of his parliamentary franking privileges, encouraging correspondents to send letters to her via Gaskell, who could receive them without payment.

Although he was assiduous in his attendance, Gaskell seldom spoke in debate. One obituary recorded that ‘the atmosphere of publicity’ was not ‘congenial to his tastes and habits’. He was, however, remembered as ‘an excellent committee-man’, highlighting the fact that contributions in the chamber were only one aspect of parliamentary engagement. While Gaskell gave general support to Whig ministers, he expressed concerns that they ‘did not proceed in the path of Reform so rapidly as was generally expected; indeed some of their early measures seemed to indicate a retrograde movement’. Reflecting his claim that ‘I have attached myself to no party’, Gaskell’s votes in the division lobbies displayed considerable independence. He often divided in the minority with Radical and Irish MPs, on issues ranging from the ballot to the introduction of a moderate fixed duty on corn. His radical leanings prompted joint Whig-Conservative efforts to find an opponent to him at the 1835 election. He survived this contest, but was defeated in 1837. His parliamentary service was rewarded with the presentation of ‘two massive pieces of silver plate’ in 1838: a vase from the ‘ladies’ of Wakefield and a soup tureen from 1,700 male subscribers.

After several years’ absence from the Commons, Gaskell reluctantly agreed in December 1845 that he would stand again for Wakefield to support the cause of free trade. With the general election delayed and the corn laws repealed, he withdrew in April 1847 on grounds of his age and health. Widowed the following year, he subsequently dedicated his energies – and up to half his annual income of £4,000 – to charitable works. He was a particularly generous benefactor to the Unitarian church, donating £1,000 in 1856 to assist poorer congregations in the north of England. He also supported educational causes, contributing £3,000 towards new premises for the Wakefield Mechanics’ Institute in 1855. He died in December 1875.

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

‘The first humble beginnings of an agitation’: the women’s suffrage petition of 7 June 1866

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the presentation to Parliament of the first mass women’s suffrage petition on 7 June 1866. Signed by around 1,500 women, it was presented to the Commons by John Stuart Mill, who had been returned as Liberal MP for Westminster at the general election of July 1865. Among the most prominent signatories were Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson) and the mathematician and scientist, Mary Somerville. However, thanks to a new resource released by Parliament’s Vote 100 project, it is now possible to search the names of all of the 1,499 women listed in an 1866 pamphlet as having signed the petition. Only two known copies of this rare document survive.

Petitioning was a well-used method of bringing issues to the attention of parliamentarians, having been deployed by anti-slavery campaigners, the Chartists and, as featured in one of our earlier blogs, the Anti-Corn Law League. The Liberal ministry’s introduction of a reform bill in 1866 had brought the question of the franchise to the fore, but its proposals for widening the electorate applied only to men. The women’s petition – couched in cautious terms, and side-stepping the potentially contentious issue of marital status – asked the Commons to ‘consider the expediency of providing for all householders, without distinction of sex, who possess such property or rental qualification as your Honourable House may determine’.

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor

For Mill, the petition provided an important weapon against the argument that ‘the ladies themselves see no hardship’ in their exclusion from the suffrage ‘and do not care enough for the franchise to ask for it’. Writing to Caroline Liddell on 6 May 1866, he encouraged her to draft a petition, urging that ‘a woman who is a taxpayer is the most natural and most suitable advocate of the political enfranchisement of women’. In the event, it was Mill’s stepdaughter, Helen Taylor (who urged Bodichon that they should ‘commence the first humble beginnings of an agitation’), who produced the initial draft of the petition presented by Mill, although Liddell was among the signatories. The signatures, reportedly gathered within a fortnight, were collated at the London home of Clementia Taylor, whose husband Peter – a member of the Courtauld business dynasty – was Liberal MP for Leicester, 1862-84. (His biography is among those already completed for our 1832-68 project.)

With discussions on petitions occupying an increasing amount of the time of the Commons, the Liberal and Conservative front benches had agreed informally in 1835 not to allow debates when petitions were presented. Debates on petitions were formally abolished by a standing order in 1843. This meant that there was no substantive discussion when Mill presented the women’s petition on 7 June 1866.

Mill was, however, able to make some remarks on the petition when he moved on 17 July 1866 for the compilation of a return of the number of freeholders, householders and others who fulfilled ‘the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise’ but were ‘excluded … by reason of their sex’. Informing his fellow MPs that the petition had originated ‘entirely with ladies, without the instigation, and, to the best of my belief, without the participation of any person of the male sex in any stage of the proceedings, except the final one of its presentation to Parliament’, he emphasised ‘the number of signatures obtained in a very short space of time, not to mention the quality of many of those signatures’. Mill himself had been surprised by the petition’s size, having been willing to present a petition containing just 100 signatures. Seeing the ‘large roll’ containing the petition for the first time when he met Davies and Garrett in Westminster Hall, he declared, ‘I can brandish this with effect’.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

Although Mill’s speech was brief – it occupied less than two columns of Hansard – he took the opportunity to note that Benjamin Disraeli, who had since become chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Derby’s newly formed Conservative government, had suggested during the debates on the Liberal ministry’s reform bill that there was ‘no reason why women of independent means should not possess the electoral franchise, in a country where they can preside in manorial courts and fill parish offices’.

Even before the failure of the Liberals’ reform bill had removed the possibility of introducing an amendment on women’s suffrage, Mill, showing his shrewdness as a parliamentary tactician, had decided that it was imprudent to pursue the matter any further that session. He did not wish, as he told a fellow MP, to be accused of ‘taking up the time of the House’; pressing a matter which had no chance of practical success risked being seen as deliberately obstructive. Mill did, however, achieve his aim of laying ‘the foundation of a further movement when advisable’. Outside Parliament, women continued to organise, and further petitions were presented in spring 1867.

Mill’s opportunity for bolder action came when the Conservative ministry introduced its own reform bill in 1867. On 20 May – which was, coincidentally, Mill’s birthday – he moved, in a powerful and eloquent speech, to replace the word ‘man’ in clause 4 of the bill with ‘person’. His amendment for female suffrage was defeated by 196 votes to 75 (including tellers). Petitions continued to be presented to Parliament as part of the women’s suffrage campaign, including a ‘survivors’ petition’ in 1890, signed by 78 of those whose names had been included on the original petition of 1866.

20 May 1867

Mill’s amendment, 20 May 1867

Further reading:

Posted in women | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

An ‘upstart from the ranks’: MP of the Month, John Thomas Norris (1808-70)

Norris’s political career illustrates a number of the striking developments being explored in our work on the Victorian Commons, including the ever-expanding number of ‘non-elite’ MPs; the role of town council elections as a stepping stone to Parliament; and the emergence of new types of party activism in even the smallest constituencies. Norris’s experience of getting elected also hints at the ongoing prejudices against many of those who had dared to ‘raise themselves up from the ranks’.

Thomas Norris MPBy the mid-1830s Norris was running a paper mill with his father at Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon. He had also started a London print works in Aldersgate, which in 1837 secured the contract to supply the ‘county printing’ for Middlesex. The firm published a number of trade journals, such as the weekly Railway Times, which Norris helped to finance and eventually owned. In 1854 he leased another paper mill at Sandford in Oxfordshire, by which time about 80 of his London printers were attending his ‘annual treats’ to a dinner in Abingdon’s town hall.

Alongside business, Norris threw himself into local radical politics. In 1835, at the height of the crisis  over the passage of the Whigs’ municipal reform bill, he published a scathing attack on a City of London Tory councillor for opposing the ‘democratic’ changes being made to the way aldermen were appointed. A supporter of the radical parliamentary candidates for the city at the 1837 general election, and a regular target of Tory ‘objections’ in the voter registration courts, he stood as a ‘reforming’ councillor for Aldersgate ward in 1839, only to have his election overturned on petition by the Tories for alleged ‘non-residence’. Standing again, in an ‘extraordinary’ by-election, he comfortably won the seat and went on to become a key figure in London’s campaign to remove the ‘cruel and filthy’ live cattle market from Smithfield.

In Abingdon, a few miles north of his Sutton Courtenay paper mill, Norris served as one of the Thames navigation commissioners and became part of a local group of reforming tradesmen and businessmen intent on breaking the Tories’ stranglehold over the borough. Along with the local coal and wine merchant Gabriel Davis (1809-89), Norris helped organise a series of by-election challenges to the sitting Tory MP, backing the campaign to elect the Liberal army officer James Caulfield, who finally won the seat in 1852. Norris was an obvious replacement when Caulfield died, but was pushed out by the leading Whig Lord Norreys. In a ‘remarkable’ struggle he was then beaten by a ‘more moderate’ Liberal when Norreys succeeded to the Lords in 1854. Mocked on the hustings, Norris was accused by a former ally of being an ‘upstart’:

In too great haste to get to the top of the ladder, he was not content to climb step by step, but wished to vault at once to the top (laughter).

Norris had the last laugh when he was elected without opposition in 1857. (He also easily defeated a Tory in 1859). An active constituency MP, he campaigned steadily against the proposed closure of Abingdon’s gaol and the transfer of its county sessions to Reading, as well as on local police and railway matters. His most significant contribution, however, was in pressing the case for a repeal of the paper duties, which had been part of Gladstone’s 1860 budget but was controversially rejected by the Lords. Insisting that English paper makers were being forced out of business by tax-free imported paper, and that repeal would benefit the working classes as well as producers of literature, he urged the chancellor to ‘abide manfully by his budget’ and for the ministry to back him, which they duly did in 1861. This incident was crucial in clarifying the Commons’ supremacy over the Lords in all money matters.

Norris then turned his attention to the import duties on the ‘foreign rags’ used to make paper, warning in 1864 that many English paper manufacturers were starting to go bankrupt. By then he was clearly speaking from bitter personal experience. With his business in difficulty, he became far less active in Parliament. Standing again for Abingdon in 1865, he was unfairly accused of being an ‘absentee’ and narrowly defeated by another rival Liberal. Later that year, to ‘much astonishment’, he was declared bankrupt, with debts of £89,000 and assets of £40,000. The Sutton Courtenay paper mill failed to sell, however, and he was still running it in 1869, when a boiler exploded, killing a stoker. He was ‘fully insured’.

Norris died childless the following year. His paper mill struggled on until the 1880s and was demolished in the early 20th century. The associated Mill House later achieved fame as one of the country retreats of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. More recently it was bought back by Asquith’s great granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

The full biography of Norris will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Further info about Norris can also be found here.

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Local government, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Commons and Cricket: Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922)

Being that time of the year when, to use Kipling’s less than charitable terms, the ‘muddied oafs at the goals’ begin to make way for ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’, it seems apt for our MP of the Month to be one of the most accomplished cricketers to take his seat in the reformed Commons.

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922) was a scion of one of Worcestershire’s leading Whig families, the Lytteltons having held land in the Vale of Evesham since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Among his ancestors were scholarly judges, colonial governors, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. The family was, however, was not without its black sheep. The libertine 2nd Baron, Thomas Lyttelton (1744-79), known within the family as ‘Naughty Tom’, was – according to Horace Walpole – a ‘detestable character’ whose ‘ingratitude, profligacy, extravagance, and want of honour and decency’ were aimed at nothing but ‘shocking mankind, and disgracing himself’. On the other hand, Lyttelton’s father, George William Lyttelton (1817-76), was among the most brilliant scholars of Victorian England, and in 1846 served his brother-in-law, William Gladstone, as under-secretary for the colonies. He was one of the chief promoters of the colonisation of New Zealand.

A gilded youth, Charles Lyttelton stood well over six foot with ‘auburn hair and fine dark eyes’. A crack shot and ‘superb games player’, he quickly made his name at Eton as a cricketer. A ‘splendid bat, with a free, commanding style’, he subsequently played first-class cricket for Cambridge University, where he topped the batting averages for two years running, with a highest score of 81 at the Oval in 1864. He was not only an outstanding batsman but also an effective medium pace bowler and a good wicket keeper, and took part in 12 matches for Gentlemen against Players between 1861 and 1866.

Alfred Lyttelton

In fact, the Lytteltons were obsessed with cricket, and all seven of Lyttelton’s brothers played cricket for Eton. Like him, three of them captained the team, his brother Edward going on to represent England at football, while the youngest brother, Alfred, became one of the country’s finest tennis players. At their ancestral home, Hagley Hall, the brothers joined their father and two uncles to form a cricket XI, the highlight of the year being their annual game against Bromsgrove School.

Unlike his siblings, Lyttleton was deeply reserved and ‘had no natural social gifts’. He was nevertheless the only member of his family to sit in Parliament between 1820 and 1895, being elected as a Liberal for East Worcestershire at a by-election in June 1868. He sat until he was defeated at the 1874 general election, during which time he proved a loyal Gladstonian, although much to his uncle’s disgust he would break with the Liberals over the question of Irish Home Rule in 1886. Once in the Lords he served on royal commissions on agriculture and metropolitan traffic, and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

Lyttelton’s achievements as a commissioner for land, 1881-9, and for railways, 1891-1905, and as deputy chairman of the Great Western Railway, 1890-1, were in some ways overshadowed by the more illustrious careers of his brothers. Neville Gerard (1845-1931) became chief of the army general staff; George William Spencer (1847-1913) was a private secretary to Lord Granville, and to Gladstone when prime minister in 1880-5 and 1892-4; Arthur Temple (1852-1903) was Bishop of Southampton; Edward (1855-1942) was headmaster first of Haileybury College, then Eton; while Alfred (1857-1913) was a long-serving MP and secretary of state for the colonies, 1903-5.

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Although Lyttelton’s gifts were ‘of a less shining order’ than those of his brothers, he was well suited to the role of a patrician. After succeeding as 5th Baron Lyttelton following his father’s suicide in 1876, he inherited the title of 8th Viscount Cobham from a distant relative in 1889. As ‘the quietest and most modest of men’, his role as ‘the old-fashioned patriarchal head’ of his family was fulfilled ‘in everything except the desire to exercise authority’. His grandson, the jazz trumpeter and legendary broadcaster, Humphrey Lyttelton, remembered him only as ‘a disembodied head’ from a family portrait in which all the darker tints had turned pitch black.

Further reading:

  • B. Askwith, The Lyttletons. A Family Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (1975)
  • S. Fletcher, Victorian Girls. Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters (2004)

For another cricket-themed blog from us, see

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

A family affair: the Knightleys and Northamptonshire South, 1832-1868

The double-member county division of Northamptonshire South is often associated with the Spencer family, most notably Viscount Althorp (later the third Earl Spencer and older brother of Princess Diana’s great-great-grandfather), who played a key role in the reforming ministry of Lord Grey. However, the Spencers, including Althorp and his nephew, only occupied the representation of the division for a mere three years between 1832 and 1868.

In reality it was the Cartwrights and the Knightleys, who, through two father-and-son combinations, dominated the constituency’s electoral politics. Of the two, Charles and Rainald Knightley were the most successful. They represented one of the division’s seats uninterrupted from 1835, demonstrating that the key to electoral success was reputation, money and a firebrand form of agricultural, independent conservatism.

The Knightleys, whose Daventry estate lay in the west of the county, had returned MPs for Northamptonshire since 1420. Charles, born in 1781, was a celebrity in the county long before he was returned to Westminster. One of the best riders in the county’s famous Pytchley Hunt, he once allegedly leapt 31 feet over a brook near Brixworth Hill on his horse ‘Benvolio’ (the official world record for such a feat is still just over 27 feet). He was also a renowned cattle breeder and spent considerable resources on agricultural improvement on the family’s estates.

He had been an active character in Northamptonshire’s Conservative electoral politics since 1826, and after failing to get elected in 1831 was returned for the new southern division in 1835. His charismatic speaking style, willingness to pay close attention to voter registration and canvassing, as well as his outspoken support for the Protestant Church and the interests of agriculture – he was a fierce advocate of protection – meant he comfortably retained his seat until his retirement in 1852.


‘a fine old Tory’, Rainald Knightley by Spy, Vanity Fair (1881)

Charles’s stranglehold over the county exasperated his local Liberal opponents (who repeatedly criticised his influence over the Tory Northampton Herald) and bewildered some national commentators – The Times mocked him ahead of the 1847 election, calling him ‘a well dried specimen of the old English squire’, who should be ‘ticketed and put in a museum’. Nevertheless, Charles’s critics failed to knock him off his perch, and on his retirement he rubbed salt into their wounds by successfully supporting the candidacy of his son, Rainald, who replaced him as one of the constituency’s two MPs.

Charles’s decision to support his son’s candidacy in 1852 also angered those in the upper echelons of the local Conservative party who preferred an alternative candidate. Importantly, the internal party dispute over Rainald’s candidacy received extensive coverage in the local press and quickly established his reputation in the county as an ‘independent’ Conservative – a status he actively cultivated, with considerable success, throughout his subsequent forty-year career as an MP.

Until at least 1868, Rainald repeatedly described himself to the electors in an ambiguous manner. In 1859, for instance, he stood as a ‘moderate and liberal, but consistent, Conservative’. However, in Parliament he followed in his father’s footsteps, aligning himself with a group of backbench Tory ‘Old believers’ led by ‘Big Ben’ Bentinck, who shared a deep disdain for Disraeli’s attempt to establish a disciplined Conservative party at Westminster.

This distrust of Disraeli was reflected in the division lobbies, and his support for Palmerston over the Chinese War in 1857, as well as his outspoken support for the established Church, helped him to stand out from his Liberal and Conservative rivals at the 1857 and 1859 elections. His independence from Disraeli also allowed him to play a key role in the debates over parliamentary reform between 1866 and 1868. In 1866 he coalesced with the Liberal ‘Adullamites’ to prevent the passage of the Liberal ministry’s reform bill, and in 1867 he was instrumental in forcing Disraeli to underpin his Conservative reform bill with a separate measure dealing with corrupt practices.

Rainald’s good finances were also important, as they helped him to maintain his reputation for independence. This was perhaps best exemplified when his fellow Conservative incumbent Henry Cartwright was forced to retire ahead of the 1868 election, after Rainald refused to stand alongside him on the basis that Cartwright would be beholden to the whims of the local party due to his inability to fund his own election campaign.

The Knightleys’ brand of independent Conservatism proved remarkably popular with electors in Northamptonshire South, and Rainald continued to represent the county until his retirement in 1892, when the centuries-long Knightley link with the representation of Northamptonshire came to an end.

The full biographies of Charles and Rainald Knightley, as well as Northamptonshire South’s other MPs during the 1832-68 period, will soon be available on our preview site.

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From ‘true blue’ Tory to Reformer: Samuel Adlam Bayntun (1804-1833)

While our MP of the Month sat only briefly in the Commons after 1832, his parliamentary career provides valuable insights into two important aspects of nineteenth-century politics: the fluidity of party labels and the influence which money had in the selection of candidates.

Etty, William, 1787-1849; S. A. Bayntum, MP for York (1830-1832)

Samuel Adlam Bayntun by William Etty. Image credit: Fairfax House via

A ‘dashing young man’, Samuel Bayntun was the son of a wealthy Wiltshire clergyman. After graduating from Oxford, he joined the army, serving with the 1st Dragoon Guards and then transferring to the 1st Life Guards. While stationed at York in 1827 he was asked to stand for that constituency at a future election as a ‘Protestant Tory’. At the 1830 general election he was elected as a supporter of ‘old true blue’ principles. By the time of the 1831 election, however, Bayntun’s political position had already begun to shift. Although he remained a Tory, he declared his support for the Whig ministry’s reform bill as a measure of constitutional ‘renovation’. Following his unopposed return, he maintained his support for parliamentary reform in the division lobbies.

In October 1832 Bayntun began canvassing at York in anticipation of that December’s general election. Finding his views on parliamentary reform ‘too liberal’, many of his former supporters, including his election committee, transferred their allegiance to another Tory, John Lowther. This left Bayntun reliant on the votes of York’s Reformers and ‘liberal Blues’. Although his election address emphasised his ‘strictly independent’ principles, it also declared his support for numerous ‘liberal’ measures, including reductions in public expenditure and taxation, the removal of sinecures and monopolies, reform of the Church, the abolition of slavery and amendment of the corn laws. On the hustings he even asserted that the ballot might prove necessary to secure purity of election. His opinions led some reports to describe him as a ‘reformer’ or a ‘liberal’. However, Bayntun insisted that he was ‘no less’ a Tory than before, although Wellington’s ‘despotic dicta’ against parliamentary reform had left Bayntun unable to support his ministry. He won the second seat at York, behind the Whig Edward Petre, with whom he shared 741 split votes. In contrast, he shared only 124 votes with Lowther, the Tory candidate.

Reports on the composition of the new Parliament showed continued uncertainty about Bayntun’s party affiliation: the Morning Post classed him as a Conservative, while the Spectator described him as a Ministerialist and Reformer, and the Leeds Mercury considered him a Liberal. However, his votes in the division lobbies soon confirmed that he had abandoned his Conservative views, giving general support to Whig ministers, but also joining the minorities in support of Radical causes. These included the ballot, repeal of the house and window taxes, and the abolition of flogging as a military punishment.

Bootham Bar, York, bef. c. 1840 (c) The Mansion House and Guildhall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Bootham Bar, York, bef. c. 1840
(c) The Mansion House and Guildhall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Although Bayntun’s shifting political position was one reason for the defection of his former backers at York, another important factor was an ongoing dispute over the costs of the 1830 election. Bayntun claimed in September 1832 that he had been told that this earlier contest would cost him no more than £5,000, but, having paid out more than £11,000, he was still being asked for a further £3,000 or £4,000. In December he initiated court proceedings against the treasurer of his election committee, Mr. Cattle, for the return of money provided for the 1830 contest. With little prospect of Bayntun spending large sums in 1832, especially given rumours that he was heavily in debt, his former supporters turned to another candidate who was more likely to foot the heavy election expenditure which York’s freemen expected.

Bayntun’s court case against Cattle ended in humiliation in March 1833. While Bayntun’s counsel claimed that Cattle had embezzled funds, the jury found that Cattle had in fact spent all the money Bayntun had given him, much of it on bribery and corruption, with Bayntun’s knowledge. Bayntun was further embarrassed by another court case that April when he was charged with illegally pawning a looking-glass (valued at £6), which he had rented with other furniture for his London lodgings. Although the case was dismissed, it was indicative of his precarious financial position, with creditors looming. The ‘mental anxiety’ caused by his ‘pecuniary embarrassments’ was felt to have hastened Bayntun’s untimely death from scarlet fever in September 1833, aged just 29. According to an unconfirmed later account, he was buried secretly by torchlight in St. John’s churchyard, Devizes, ‘to prevent the seizure of his corpse by creditors’. In a curious and macabre final twist, one of Bayntun’s brothers, with whom he had quarrelled, exhumed the body and discharged a pistol into its face.

For Bayntun’s parliamentary career before 1832, see our 1820-32 volumes.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

MP of the month: Rowland Alston (1782-1865)

Rowland Alston’s career provides a useful illustration of just how diverse (and to a modern eye incongruous) the political outlook of MPs in the same party could be before the development of more formal modern political allegiances. It also serves as a reminder that not all Liberals supported free trade and the repeal of the corn laws, and offers another example of a slave-owner MP who was a Whig-Radical and supported abolition (see our previous blog on William Pinney). Tellingly, it was not political inconsistency that secured Alston notoriety, but his role in averting a potentially fatal duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel.

Pishiobury Park, Herts.

Pishiobury Park, Herts.

Alston’s background, like his politics, seems unconventional to a modern eye, but scarcely warranted comment at the time. His father was the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Alston (1724-74), an MP known for his bouts of insanity, and his ‘housekeeper’, to whom all of Sir Thomas’s property had passed. Alston, an impoverished second son, initially pursued an army career, serving with the Scots Guards, but in 1810 he married a wealthy heiress, whose properties included the Pishiobury estate in Hertfordshire and a plantation in Jamaica.

Over the next twenty-five years Alston became one of Hertfordshire’s leading reformers, campaigning steadily for parliamentary reform, almost standing for election at Hertford in 1823 and 1831, and only narrowly being defeated when he contested the county as an ‘advanced reformer’ and candidate of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Quizzed about why he supported abolition, yet owned slaves, he explained that he had come into his slaves ‘by marriage’ and would happily emancipate them ‘the instant provision was made to ensure them employment and food’. In 1835 two of the sitting MPs for the county retired and he came in unopposed.

In the Commons Alston generally backed the Whigs, although he occasionally sided with the radicals on military issues, including their campaigns to end army flogging and put Lord Cardigan on trial for the brutal treatment of his troops. In 1836 he and his son received £2,505 in slavery compensation from the Whig government, a sum which he freely admitted amounted to almost ‘half the value of his entire property’, but he opposed their plan of slavery apprenticeships and joined other abolitionists in trying to secure an immediate end to indenture in 1838.

Alston’s main loyalty, however, was to the agricultural interest. He followed Lord Chandos (and many Tories) regularly into the lobbies in support of repealing the malt tax, relieving distress on farmers, and preserving the corn laws. In 1839 he even tried (unsuccessfully) to derail the Whig ministry’s new beer bill, protesting that it would ruin maltsters and brewers alike. Unlike most of his ‘agricultural’ allies, however, Alston was also a staunch and outspoken supporter of the Whig ministry’s new poor law and workhouse system, which he helped to implement locally. He also strongly backed the Whig ministry’s proposed reduction of import duties on foreign sugar in 1841.

This put him at odds not only with agricultural Protectionists, wary of any free trade initiatives, but also with many of his radical colleagues in the Anti-Slavery Society, who feared that cheaper imports would encourage slave-grown sugar from non-British colonies. By the time of the 1841 election, therefore, Alston had managed to alienate former allies in both the agricultural and Liberal camps. With party lines now so much more clearly defined across a range of issues – ironically helped by the sort of local registration activity that he himself had encouraged – Alston became a victim of the times and lost his seat.

He is now best remembered for saving the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel from a potentially catastrophic duel with the navy officer Captain John Townshend, the Liberal candidate at Tamworth in 1837, who after his defeat had accused Peel of ‘breaking his word’ about allowing his tenants to vote freely. Peel had demanded ‘satisfaction’ and it was only through the furious backstairs negotiations of Alston (Townshend’s second) with Sir Henry Hardinge MP that the affair was eventually settled without bloodshed after Townshend was persuaded to issue a full public apology.

The full biography of Alston and many other MPs is available on our 1832-68 preview site.

For the Legacies of British Slave ownership project click here.

Further details about Alston can also be found on this genealogical site.

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

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons

As 2015 comes to a close, we would like to wish all the readers of the Victorian Commons a very Happy New Year for 2016! We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here are some of our highlights of 2015.

Our most popular post this year featured the unfortunate case of James Platt, the newly elected Liberal MP for Oldham, who was accidentally shot dead by his friend, the mayor of Oldham. Platt was one of our twelve MP of the Month blogs, which have also included Edward Greene, of the Greene King brewery; Captain Brownlow Layard, who lobbied on the issue of soldiers’ welfare; and William Pinney, whose election for Lyme Regis shed intriguing light on the question of slavery. Particularly interesting reads were Albert Grant, whose shady reputation as a financier inspired Anthony Trollope to create Augustus Melmotte, the central character in The Way We Live Now, and Benjamin Rotch, would-be duellist, inventor, teetotaller and prison reformer.

In the summer we said goodbye to one of our research fellows, Dr. James Owen, who found time to write one last blog for us, on William Schaw Lindsay, an MP whose remarkable rise from destitute orphan to merchant prince included an encounter with a sabre-wielding pirate. Although James will be much missed, we are pleased to be joined from January 2016 by Martin Spychal, whose PhD research on the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act featured on our blog earlier this year.

Two other historians have shared their PhD research with us in guest blogs: Gary Hutchison of the University of Edinburgh, who is working on Scotland and the Conservative party, 1832-1868; and Rebekah Moore, our AHRC collaborative doctoral award student, who is investigating the temporary Houses of Parliament after the devastating 1834 fire.

Alongside our blogs on parliamentary elections, our editor Philip Salmon shared his expertise on Victorian political memorabilia and on town council elections, marking the 180th anniversary of the Municipal Corporations Act. We also remembered the 200th anniversary of Waterloo with Stephen Ball’s blog on some of the Irish MPs who fought there. With youthful MPs in the news following Mhairi Black’s election in May, we blogged about the youngest MP of the 1832-68 period, returned at the age of 20. Our assistant editor Kathryn Rix has been looking beyond the Victorian period with a series of posts on the main History of Parliament site about MPs killed during the First World War.

Our draft biographies and constituency articles can be found on our preview site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can sign up to follow our blog via e-mail, or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons

We look forward to sharing more of our research with you in 2016. Happy New Year!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘A kindhearted savage of a man’: Arthur Wills Blundell Sandys Trumbull Windsor Hill, Earl of Hillsborough (1812-68)

While the Reformed Commons undoubtedly contained men who had broken the sixth commandment, most had done so while licensed by military service. The Earl of Hillsborough, however, appears to have been responsible for the death of at least one man before he left university, and managed to acquire a fearsome reputation which dogged his later years.

Hillsborough’s family (marquesses of Downshire) possessed large estates and extensive political influence in the north of Ireland, but made limited contributions to affairs of state. The 1st Marquess of Downshire’s record as a secretary of state was such that ‘no historian has had a good word to say’ for him. Hillsborough – the eldest son of the 3rd Marquess – was no exception to the family tradition. Yet in representing County Down from 1836 to 1845 he provided solid support for Sir Robert Peel before breaking with him over the Maynooth grant and the repeal of the corn laws.

From youth Hillsborough was reputed to possess ‘immense physical strength’. While studying at Oxford University in 1830 he got involved in ‘a pugilistic affray’ with two local boatmen. One of the pair, whom Hillsborough ‘easily disposed of’ due to his ‘superior science’ in fighting, was said to have died as a result of the bout. Jane Welsh Carlyle (wife of the historian Thomas Carlyle) later recorded that Hillsborough ‘is awfully strong, and his strokes tell, as he doesn’t expect!’

Oxford from the towpath with Christ Church Meadow, William Turner (1789-1862) (c) Worcester College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Oxford from the towpath with Christ Church Meadow, William Turner (1789-1862) (c) Worcester College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A few months later, in February 1831, Hillsborough accidently caused the death of Lord Conyers Osborne, the favourite son of the Duke of Leeds. After the two young men had ‘a slight rencontre’ in the quadrangle of Christ Church, Oxford, Osborne collapsed and died, the cause of his death being attributed by the Regius Professor of Anatomy to ‘an effusion of blood upon the brain’. The coroner’s verdict of death by ‘Chance medley’ satisfied Osborne’s father, and there the matter ended.

Osborne’s death left Hillsborough ‘in a state of mind approaching distraction’, but this did not prevent him entering the fray at a ‘ferocious’ election riot at Oxford just three months later. With ‘his gigantic arm’ he ‘knocked the mob about on either side of him’ in order to save a fellow undergraduate who ‘had been hung to a lamp-post by the strings of his gown!’ Nevertheless, in 1836 he was described by the king’s aide-de-camp, General William Dyott, as quiet, ‘unassuming’ and ‘gentlemanlike’, while Mrs. Carlyle later characterised him as ‘a dear, good kindhearted Savage of a Man!’

In August 1836 Hillsborough replaced his uncle, Lord Arthur Moyses Hill, as MP for County Down, and that November demonstrated his combative spirit at Banbridge by thanking Daniel O’Connell for giving him the opportunity to fling his ‘contemptuous defiance in his teeth’. A silent Member, Hillsborough rarely visited the division lobbies, but was a staunch Protectionist, arguing that in Ireland there was ‘no nice line of separation’ between the agricultural and the manufacturing interest, the weaver and the farmer being ‘frequently combined in one person’.

In April 1845 Hillsborough left the Commons upon succeeding as 4th Marquess of Downshire. Generally regarded as a benevolent landlord who treated his Catholic and Protestant tenants even-handedly, he lived mainly in England, but maintained a strong electoral interest in County Down. His English estates consisted of 5,500 acres in Berkshire and Suffolk. When in Ireland he resided ‘in regal state’ at Hillsborough, the owner of 115,000 acres in five Irish counties worth a total of £72,500 a year. He remained a staunch Protectionist, using his position as president of the Royal Agricultural Society to call for ‘a war … on the part of the farmers against the Manchester cotton manufacturers’. He became one of the Conservative leader Lord Derby’s closest confidants among the aristocracy.

In 1860 his pugnacious reputation caught up with him when it was alleged that he had used his ‘Herculean strength’ to throw the skipper of his yacht overboard after finding the ‘rough, worthy sailor’ kneeling by the side of his seventeen-year-old daughter. Rumours that he was ‘being brought home to be tried by the Peers’ forced Downshire to issue a public rebuttal, in which he promised that if he ever caught the ‘scoundrel’ who had circulated the story, he would ‘throw him overboard’. Whether or not the matter ended as Jane Carlyle predicted it might, ‘in Lord Downshire giving somebody a good thrashing!’, is not known.

Having avoided further scandal, Hillsborough died in August 1868 at Herne Bay, Kent. His correspondence is held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Downshire Papers forming a major historical archive of nineteenth-century estate management.

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

MP of the month: William Pinney and another kind of ‘slavery election’

William Pinney’s career as an MP serves as an important reminder of the legacy of slave ownership in British public life and the very different attitudes to electoral corruption that existed in the nineteenth century, even among radically-inclined Liberals. In Pinney’s case the two were neatly combined. The fortune amassed from his family’s West India sugar plantations and the staggering £38,000 compensation they were awarded by the British government when slavery was abolished provided the funds for a spate of electioneering shenanigans that almost tested the reformed electoral system to its limits, both in the Commons and the courts.

William Pinney MP

William Pinney MP

Pinney’s forebears were some of the richest and most active slave owners (and traders) on record. Their activities formed the basis of one of the first full-length studies of a slave-owning dynasty (R. Pares, A West India Fortune, 1950). After inheriting his family’s landed estates at Somerton Erleigh in Dorset, Pinney’s father had retired from active business. In 1831 he purchased ‘a grand house on a hill’ at Lyme Regis with a view to creating an electoral ‘interest’ in the borough. Lyme already had a reputation for electoral corruption, but the new residence requirements imposed on household voters now made it even more vulnerable to electoral control, because so many of its properties and rooms were let out during the summer to holiday makers.

Assisted by local ‘Liberal’ well-wishers, including the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning, who had been befriended by Pinney’s sister, the family set about establishing their claims to represent the seaside resort after 1832. Pinney’s youth (he was only 26) and pro-reform politics contrasted strongly with his anti-reform Tory opponent Lord Burghersh, whose family were the former patrons of this ‘pocket borough’. What really swung the 1832 election for Pinney, however, was his family’s promise to repair the sea walls and their provision of personal loans to electors, as well as helping voters get around the residence issue by arranging for landlords to temporarily hand back keys to rented-out properties on polling day.

This system of ‘exchanging keys’ to houses at election time, mainly organised with electors’ wives, soon became a huge ruse organised on a large scale. Along with the loans it made the family’s electoral control of the borough seem ‘as secure at its cobb’. In the event Pinney sat as the MP from 1832-42 and 1852-65. It was only the arrival of an even more unscrupulous electioneer, the notorious Victorian ‘borough monger’ John Attwood, which briefly upset Pinney’s hegemony, leading to a series of corruption ‘battles’ in elections and high-profile inquiries by the Commons into all their activities.

Interestingly, when Pinney obtained a one vote majority at the 1859 election, his Tory opponent not only lodged an election petition against his return in the Commons, but also started private criminal proceedings against the mayor, who had allowed an elector to cast a vote for Pinney after the close of polling. ‘If you don’t’, Pinney was heard telling the mayor, ‘you will lose me my election’. (The mayor subequently claimed that he had believed his watch was ‘running fast’.) The constitutional conflicts over jurisdiction that these separate cases created were in the end only resolved by a secret deal between the rival candidates and the dropping of both suits.

What is most striking about Pinney’s career as an MP is not just the willingness of a fairly advanced Liberal to engage in wholesale electoral corruption, but his own attitude to slavery given his family background. As early as 1832 he had called on the hustings for its complete abolition and in 1838 he willingly voted for the Whig government’s apprenticeship reforms. The most extraordinary event, however, was his completely unabashed personal attack on a rival Tory candidate, Renn Hampden, in 1837, charging him with ‘barbarous’ acts in the West Indies, including the flogging of female slaves on his Barbados plantations. Not content with this, he also claimed that Hampden had advocated the use of the ‘flogging of women’ in a pamphlet. The irony of one of the most ‘ferocious’ anti-slavery election campaigns of the period being waged by Pinney, whose family had just received the sum of almost £38,000 in slave compensation, was entirely lost on Lyme’s fickle voters, who duly re-elected him with a 34 vote majority.

For further information on Pinney and Lyme Regis please see the full-length articles available on our preview site. Details of how to obtain access can be found here.

For the Legacies of British Slave ownership project click here.

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

MP of the Month: Benjamin Rotch (1793-1854)

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Benjamin Rotch, Whig MP for Knaresborough from 1832 until 1835. This quirky character, described by one contemporary as a man who ‘would resort to any wily expedient to attain his own ends’, provides a good example of the varied backgrounds and experiences of the new intake of MPs elected in 1832. Untangling his eclectic career proved to be an extremely interesting piece of research, taking in the Nantucket whaling industry, the complexities of patent law, prison reform and a challenge to a duel.

'Dangers of the whale fishery' (1820), via NOAA Photo Library

‘Dangers of the whale fishery’ (1820), via NOAA Photo Library

The Rotch family had emigrated from England to Massachusetts, where they rose from humble beginnings to become the most influential figures in the colonial whaling industry by 1750. However, the American revolutionary war’s adverse effects and the imposition of a punitive British tariff on whale oil in 1783 led many whalers to relocate. Rotch’s grandfather William, ‘by far the richest man on Nantucket’, transferred his activities to Dunkirk in France, where Rotch was born in 1793. Following the outbreak of war between France and England, his father moved the family to London. Later reports that Rotch and his mother had escaped from France hidden in a butter firkin and a flour barrel were refuted by his brother.

Rather than entering the family business, Rotch trained as a barrister, qualifying in 1821. He also became involved in other ventures, taking out patents, including one for a rubber horseshoe, and designing the prize-winning ‘Arcograph’, which allowed arcs of large circles to be drawn and measured. In collaboration with a Mr. Bradshaw, Rotch ended the monopoly of hackney coaches in London by acquiring licences to operate the cheaper and faster cabriolets in 1823, only to sell his interest the following year. He achieved financial success with his ‘patent lever fid’, a device to assist with striking and raising the topmast of ships. As a barrister he specialised in cases on patent rights and was an expert witness to the 1829 select committee on the patent laws.

Benjamin Rotch, MP for Knaresborough, 1832-1835

Benjamin Rotch, MP for Knaresborough, 1832-1835

Rotch first considered entering Parliament in 1826, when, in contrast with his later views, he canvassed Sudbury as a ‘true blue’. However, he withdrew amidst allegations that another candidate had bought him off. In 1830 he assisted the campaigns of Tory candidates at Knaresborough and Evesham. However, at the 1831 election he supported the Whig Sir James Mackintosh at Knaresborough, making a speech which Mackintosh presciently described as being ‘chiefly calculated to obtain a seat in the reformed Parliament’.

In 1832 Rotch stood as a Whig at Knaresborough, where he fought an acrimonious battle for the second seat with another Whig, Henry Rich. When Rotch emerged victorious, Rich petitioned against him on the grounds that he was an alien, having been born in France of American parents, but had to withdraw the case after difficulties obtaining documents from France. Although Rotch had, like his family, been a Quaker, he was not practising by 1832; it was therefore Joseph Pease who took the honour of being the first Quaker MP.

An active MP, Rotch somehow managed to combine his parliamentary duties with the unpaid position of chairman of the Middlesex quarter sessions, sitting in court at Clerkenwell each day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., before going to the Commons after dinner. In one year alone he claimed to have tried 1,570 cases, handled 100 appeals and sat for 125 days. This prompted him to speak self-interestedly in support of proposals for Middlesex to become the only county which paid its chairman, but these did not bear fruit.

His expertise led Rotch to serve on several select committees on legal matters, such as the laws of inheritance. He assisted with drafting a bill on patents, although the measure subsequently stalled. Reflecting his earlier interests as a cab proprietor, Rotch moved without success in July 1833 for an inquiry to consider regulating the conduct of drivers of cabriolets, hackney coaches, omnibuses and stage coaches. Drawing on his experience on the bench, he took a sustained interest in crime and punishment, being particularly concerned about the poor state of prisons such as Newgate. He unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation to confiscate the property of convicted felons in order to compensate their victims and defray imprisonment costs. His desire to pass a bill to protect workers who did not wish to join trades unions cost him support in his constituency, and he stood down in 1835.

After leaving the Commons Rotch continued his legal practice and remained chairman of the Middlesex quarter sessions. In October 1835, however, he became embroiled in a dispute which culminated in his resignation from the post. In evidence to a Lords inquiry on prisons, Rotch had condemned Newgate as ‘one of the most ill-conducted gaols in the country’ and accused London’s lord mayor and aldermen of only accepting into the gaol ‘such county prisoners as are, by the fees paid on their trial and conviction, likely to enrich the City purse’. A war of words prompted Rotch to challenge the lord mayor, Alderman Winchester, to a duel. Winchester responded by filing charges against Rotch for trying to incite a breach of the peace. Admitting that no provocation could have justified his actions, Rotch resigned as chairman in December and the charges against him were dropped after he apologised.

Cold Bath Fields Prison (in 1864)

Cold Bath Fields Prison (in 1864)

Despite this incident, Rotch remained active as a magistrate and took a keen interest in prison reform. In 1849, at his own cost, he sent sheep into Cold Bath Fields prison, hoping to train prisoners for new careers as shearers in Australia. This, combined with his zeal for teetotalism, on which he lectured prisoners and prison staff, led to him being mocked as ‘Drinkwater Rotch, the Sheep-shearing Magistrate’. He continued to dabble in a variety of projects, such as drafting an insurance scheme for railway passengers and taking out a patent for the manufacture of artificial saltpetre, until his death on 31 October 1854.

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

180th Anniversary of Town Council Elections

This month marks the anniversary of a completely new system of local elections being implemented throughout England and Wales. One hundred and eighty years ago, almost 180 boroughs in England and Wales began to publish the lists of all those eligible to vote in the new town council elections created by the 1835 Municipal Reform Act. Barely three weeks after the Act’s passage, specially appointed revising barristers started setting up registration courts to decide who would be able to vote in what initally looked like being a remarkably democratic franchise. Unlike the parliamentary household vote – only given to those occupying property worth at least £10 a year in rental value – the new municipal franchise had no minimum property requirement. In theory every male householder, no matter how humble his dwelling, would be able to take part.

Hand written council voting paper, 1835

Hand written council voting paper, 1835

As the revising barristers set about making their lists another group of lawyers were also busy. The Municipal Corporations Act completely eradicated all the old town corporations, many of which were self-electing and controlled by patrons, ending a system of local government that in some places had been around for over 500 years. All town halls and other corporate property had to be transferred to the new councils, but with exceptions or compensation for anything that belonged to private institutions or individuals, such as independent charities and freemen. The legal fallout from this, especially over inherited debts and liabilities, often rumbled on for years, leading to costly court cases and numerous appeals to parliament.

It was the impact on local politics and democratic accountability, however, that was most striking. For many local reformers the creation of elected town councils in 1835 amounted to a far more significant event than the 1832 Reform Act. Annual elections, in particular, made municipal reform a far more relevant and ‘popular’ measure than parliamentary reform. The political memorabilia that was produced to celebrate the 1832 Reform Act is fairly well known. What is often overlooked is the vast amount of very similar material made to celebrate the ‘crushing of the closed corporations’ in 1835, usually on a borough by borough basis.

Stockport Municipal Reform Jug

Stockport Municipal Reform Jug

A number of studies of electoral behaviour in this period have suggested how important municipal reform was in stimulating local party organisation. One factor behind this, which at first seems rather odd, is that the number of town council electors often turned out to be much smaller than had been expected – in some boroughs it was even less than the number who qualified for the parliamentary vote. The reason for this, which soon became apparent at the first October registration, was the registration requirement for municipal voters to have been resident for 3 years and to have paid all their local rates up to the last 6 months – in effect 2 ½ years of ratepaying. Parliamentary electors, by contrast, only had to have been resident for the last 6 months and to have paid a minimum of 2 ½ months’ rates.

This huge difference in rating and residency requirements meant that those who moved around a lot, missed the odd rate payment, or paid their rates to a landlord rather than directly, failed to qualify as council voters. As a result, the municipal and parliamentary franchises turned out to be remarkably similar in practice. Party activity in helping to enrol supporters for one set of elections therefore often had implications for the other electoral register, and it was not long before the local registration associations that had started to be formed to aid parliamentary campaigns also began to have a politicising effect on local municipal elections as well.

1835 Coventry Municipal Reform Medal

Coventry Municipal Reform Medal

One final lasting legacy of the town council system introduced in 1835 was its stimulus to local politicians and the creation of a new culture of civic service. Many long-serving councillors, mayors and aldermen went on to try their hand at parliamentary politics, both as organisers and candidates. An increasing number eventually found their way into the Victorian Commons, as the MP biographies being compiled for the 1832-68 project are beginning to make abundantly clear. For more information about how to access this material, via our 1832-68 preview site, please click here.

Further reading:

  • F. Moret, The End of the Urban Ancient Elite in England (2015)
  • J. Phillips, ‘England’s other ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (eds.), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005)
  • P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History (2000), ix. 357-76
  • D. Fraser (ed.), Municipal reform and the industrial city (1982)
  • B. Keith-Lucas, The English local government franchise (1952)
Posted in Elections, Local government | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Scotland and the Conservative Party, 1832–1868

Gary Hutchison is a past winner of the History of Parliament’s undergraduate dissertation prize and is currently a PhD student and Wolfson Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. As he begins the second year of his doctoral research, he outlines his project on Scottish political history after 1832 in this guest blog.

The Conservative party has, to put it mildly, enjoyed mixed fortunes in Scotland.  At some points, it has constituted a serious political force, while at others has been relegated to a marginal position.  Whether strong or weak, however, the party (and conservatism more generally) has always exerted an influence on the general direction of Scottish political and social development.

While the evolution of the UK Conservative party after 1832 has been explored by many scholars, the course taken by the Scottish Conservative party remains almost entirely uncharted.  Indeed, it constitutes not so much a gap as a gaping hole in both Scottish and British political historiography.  Apart from some works on Scottish politics in general, and an official history, there are no specifically-focused works on Scots Tories between 1832 and 1868.  Much work has been done on the Scottish Liberal party, but this has tended to focus more on internal conflicts between Liberal factions, rather than their differences with their Tory opponents.

Charting the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives is therefore well overdue. It allows for the exploration of a number of interconnected themes, including the extent of electoral deference in Scotland and how this related to the role of the landowner and employer in Scottish politics.  It also sheds light on how local party identities and organisations were formed, and how these affected the development (or lack thereof) of the Scottish Conservative party centrally.  The Scottish Conservatives have thus far been perceived as particularly backward in terms of their party apparatus. That is to say, while the Scottish Liberals were making organisational and ideological progress towards a ‘modern’ party status, the Conservatives were doing so at a slower pace.  This assertion has, however, never been proven through systematic historical inquiry.  Moving beyond organisational themes, a study of party-political evolution will serve to identify the types of people who voted Conservative, why they did so, and their consequent effect on Scottish society in the mid-nineteenth century. This study also undertakes prosopographical analysis of the Scots Tory cohort in the post-Reform parliament, which has already given rise to a number of unanticipated lines of inquiry.

While it is true that the Liberal party dominated Scottish politics in the period 1832–68, this depiction can be somewhat misleading.  In fact, the Scottish Conservative party was far from dormant, holding some seats securely throughout the period, and offering a strong challenge in many others.  Conservative voters may have represented a significant part of the electorate – a part that has received little to no attention.  As the vast majority of Scottish seats were of the single-member type, it may well be that the vagaries of the First Past The Post electoral system have led subsequent researchers to seriously underestimate the extent of Scottish Conservative support, especially in comparison to an English electoral system which still contained a great many multi-member seats.  Much work has been done on the central question in nineteenth-century Scottish politics, ‘Why was Scotland Liberal?’.  In order to more fully explore this however, it is also necessary to ask – why was Scotland not Conservative?


Posted in Guest blog | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Captain Brownlow Layard: The Soldier’s Friend

Contrary to popular perceptions of the nineteenth-century British army, a significant number of its officers who sat in the Commons held progressive and radical views. Among them was our MP of the Month, Captain Brownlow Villiers Layard (1804-53), who sat as a Liberal for Carlow between 1841 and 1847 and campaigned tirelessly to improve the common soldier’s lot.

A career officer, Layard was no ‘feather bed soldier’ and had joined the British army in India in 1823. Three years later he distinguished himself at the siege of Bhurtpore by planting his regiment’s colours on the ramparts of the city. After purchasing a captaincy in 1834 he married an Irishwoman and settled in county Dublin.

The storming of Bhurtpore, 1826; artist unknown (c) Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The storming of Bhurtpore, 1826; artist unknown (c) Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Although little known in politics, Layard came forward at the 1841 general election for Carlow, a significant Irish borough and a frequent party battle-ground. As in many such constituencies money was ‘lavishly and unblushingly squandered’, and it seems likely that Layard’s return was financed by Josiah John Guest, the wealthy Welsh ironmaster and Liberal MP for Merthyr Tydfil, 1832-52, who had married Layard’s first cousin, Lady Charlotte Guest.

An advocate of ‘civil and religious liberty’ and a keen supporter of the Irish temperance movement, Layard consistently supported the Whigs, but also favoured more radical policies such as the secret ballot, and, having witnessed its effects in China and Singapore, the suppression of the opium trade. Although he was opposed to a repeal of the Union, he demanded that Ireland be governed ‘with justice and impartiality’ and offered an enthusiastic welcome to Daniel O’Connell when he returned to the Commons after his state trial in 1844.

However, Layard’s chief concern was army reform, and he frequently called for better equipment, transport, pensions and education to be provided. A critic of the system by which officers could purchase rank, he also wanted to improve the welfare of families of married soldiers, recommending that their wives and children receive treatment in regimental hospitals and be allowed to accompany them on foreign service. Above all, Layard wished to see the practice of life-time recruitment ended, arguing that Britain was the only country to require such long periods of service. He raised the issue on several occasions between 1842 and 1845, and generated favourable publicity for his cause when he moved unsuccessfully for an inquiry into enlistment in August 1846.

Layard returned to this subject the following year and used parliamentary returns to demonstrate that in just three years 28,000 British soldiers had served terms of imprisonment, 3,500 had been flogged and 8,000 had deserted. He also denounced the ‘immense’ mortality rates of colonial service, informing the House that since 1817 more than 120,000 soldiers had died while serving in the Leeward Islands and Jamaica alone. He argued that by reducing the minimum period of service to ten years the army would attract a better class of recruit and thus reduce the cost of apprehending and imprisoning deserters. He also hoped that it would remove the need for corporal punishment, which he regarded as a ‘revolting custom’ and ‘a national disgrace’.

Unfortunately for Layard, such concerns had little resonance in Carlow, where at the 1847 general election he was defeated by John Sadleir, later leader of the Irish Independent party. Within ten years both Sadleir (implicated in bank fraud) and Layard had ended their own lives. One of Layard’s chief criticisms of the long service tradition of the British army was that it caused so many young soldiers to kill themselves rather than face a lifetime in the ranks, suicide then accounting for one in twenty deaths in some branches of the army. His final speech in the Commons had outlined the fate of one such man who had cut his throat while under arrest in county Galway.

After he retired from the army in 1852 Layard became concerned about his financial circumstances and began to suffer ‘various fanciful diseases’. In December 1853 he fatally slashed his throat with a razor after being refused laudanum. A largely forgotten man, Layard’s ideas would not bear fruit until the Cardwell army reforms of 1868-74, when shorter terms of army service were introduced and flogging (at least in peacetime) was abolished.

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

MP of the Month: the untimely death of James Platt, MP for Oldham (1823-57)

James Platt (1823-57), MP for Oldham

James Platt (1823-57), MP for Oldham

On this day in 1857, a shocking and tragic accident took place on the moors above Ashway Gap, near Saddleworth. One of Oldham’s recently elected Liberal MPs, James Platt, was shot dead by his close friend and relative, Josiah Radcliffe, the mayor of Oldham. Radcliffe’s gun had discharged accidentally after he stumbled while they were out with a shooting party on the moors, hitting Platt in the lower leg. The ‘innocent cause of the calamity’, Radcliffe was ‘beside himself with grief’ and ‘took Mr Platt round the neck and bewailed his fate in the most heart-rending tears’. Platt was carried to his family’s newly constructed summer residence nearby, where doctors were hurriedly summoned, but died just over an hour later, having suffered extensive blood loss. His family declined the suggestion of a public monument, but commemorated him with a memorial cross on the moors.

Josiah Radcliffe, mayor of Oldham (c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Josiah Radcliffe, mayor of Oldham (c) Gallery Oldham; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Just five months earlier, Radcliffe had presided as returning officer at Platt’s election as MP for his native borough. With his older brother John, Platt was a partner in the largest machine-making firm in the world, Platt Bros. & Co., which manufactured machinery for the textile industry in Britain and overseas. His engineering and marketing ability helped the business, founded by their father Henry in partnership with Elijah Hibbert, to flourish. The Platts bought out the Hibberts’ interest in the firm in 1854.

Alongside their business interests, the Platts took a leading role in the campaign for the rapidly expanding industrial town of Oldham to be incorporated as a municipal borough. When their efforts bore fruit in 1849, James Platt was elected to Oldham’s first town council. Although he was defeated in 1852, he was re-elected as a councillor in 1853 and chosen as an alderman in 1856. Renowned for his local benevolence, he took a particular interest in educational causes, believing that ‘ignorance is … the parent and perpetuation of error and misery’. From 1848 until his death he served as president of the Oldham Lyceum, founded in 1840 as a mutual improvement society for working men.

As with many of the MPs we have researched, Platt’s civic service acted as a springboard for a parliamentary career. In 1856, supporters of William Johnson Fox, one of Oldham’s sitting Liberal MPs, approached John and James Platt to ask if either would be Fox’s running-mate at the next general election; while John declined, James accepted. Divisions among the local party meant that he and Fox faced a rival radical candidate, John Morgan Cobbett. During the contest in March 1857, Platt emphasised his local credentials and expressed support for the extension of education, the ballot, shorter parliaments, the redistribution of seats, universal suffrage, disestablishment of the Church and the admission of Jews to Parliament. When it became apparent during the polling that Platt would take the second seat behind Cobbett and ahead of Fox, he mooted retiring in Fox’s favour, but this was not pursued.

Platt’s untimely death produced a flurry of tributes. The Manchester Examiner and Times praised him as ‘a rising man’, whose opinion was sought by the government, and claimed that ‘it was the general feeling in the House that Mr. Platt would one day distinguish himself greatly’. This picture of him as a promising parliamentarian appears to have been justified. Although Platt made only three contributions to debate during his brief spell in the Commons, he demonstrated his commitment to advocating the needs of industrial Lancashire. His first speech, 29 June 1857, emphasised the benefits for manufacturing in assisting the development of art in Britain. Earlier that month he had attended the annual dinner of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Platt was involved with the Cotton Supply Association, a Manchester-based organisation which aimed to reduce British dependence on the supply of American cotton by promoting cultivation elsewhere. This prompted him to speak knowledgeably on the advantages of encouraging railway construction in India, in order to cut the costs of transporting cotton from that country, 17 July 1857. His final contribution, 10 Aug. 1857, reflected his long-standing interest in the provision of public parks in northern towns.

Memorial cross to James Platt at Ashway Gap

Memorial cross to James Platt at Ashway Gap

Platt’s death left Oldham to mourn the loss of ‘a kind friend, a good neighbour, a beneficent townsman, an honest representative’. His seat was filled by his former running-mate, William Fox, but the Platt family’s parliamentary connection with Oldham was renewed in 1865 when John Platt was elected, serving as MP until his death from typhoid in 1872.

Further reading

  • D. Farnie, ‘Platt family’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

A rather pale copy of the original: John Morgan Cobbett (1800-1877)

As we continue our research on the 1832-68 Commons project, one theme we are exploring is the importance of family connections in an MP’s parliamentary career. Long-standing family ties to an area could assist a candidate in securing election for a particular constituency. Family networks could also be significant within Parliament, providing bonds with fellow MPs or links to members of the Lords. We have already blogged about MPs who were brothers and about the six members of the Fitzwilliam dynasty who sat in our period. John Morgan Cobbett, our MP of the Month, was influenced not only by his famous father, the Radical journalist and MP, William Cobbett, but also by his future wife’s father, John Fielden.

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Cobbett’s political reputation has been overshadowed by that of his father: one of William Cobbett’s biographers describes his sons as ‘rather pale copies of the original’. William Cobbett was elected for Oldham in 1832 and sat until his death in 1835. His fellow Radical MP for Oldham was John Fielden, renowned for his unceasing efforts to secure a ten hour working day for women and young people in textile factories. In 1851 John Cobbett married Fielden’s daughter, Mary, although he was known to be Fielden’s prospective son-in-law for several years beforehand.

William Cobbett exerted a major influence on John’s early political career. Asked in 1833 to recommend a candidate for a by-election at Coventry, William suggested his son, apparently without consulting him first. However, John was taken ill en route to the constituency, and, nominated in his absence, polled only 89 votes. In 1835 Chichester’s Radicals asked William’s advice on a candidate. Seizing this opportunity to stand, John was endorsed by William in glowing terms. Describing himself as a Radical Reformer, he advocated a very similar political platform to his father, wishing to repeal the poor law, malt duty and newspaper stamp duty; abolish the standing army; revise the pension list; remove church rates; and introduce the secret ballot, triennial Parliaments and an extended franchise. He polled a distant third.

John Morgan Cobbett; copyright Parliamentary Archives

John Morgan Cobbett; copyright Parliamentary Archives

Following William’s death in June 1835, John attempted to fill his shoes at Oldham. Making a clear bid for his father’s political inheritance, John’s election address declared that ‘there are no political principles on which I differ from him’. He was backed by Fielden, who became ‘something of a surrogate father’, but there were grumbles among Oldham’s Radicals about ‘hereditary succession’ deciding the representation. John’s staunch Anglicanism lost him support from disillusioned Nonconformists, who rallied behind Feargus O’Connor (the future Chartist leader). Although O’Connor withdrew from the poll early on, these divisions allowed a narrow Conservative victory.

After another unsuccessful contest at Chichester, Cobbett in 1847 became Fielden’s running-mate at Oldham, where the latter’s insistence that ‘unless Mr. Cobbett is elected with me, I will not sit’ provoked charges of dictation. Cobbett’s lack of support for Dissenting demands such as disestablishment prompted two rival Radicals to enter the field, although only William Johnson Fox went to the poll. Fox and the lone Conservative, John Duncuft, defeated Cobbett and ousted Fielden after 15 years as Oldham’s MP. These events provoked bitter recriminations among Oldham’s Radicals, and one local observer remembered Cobbett as ‘that terrible “incubus” … who darkened the prospects of real Reformers for a long period’.

At the 1852 election, Cobbett stood again for Oldham, advocating universal suffrage, annual parliaments and the ballot, and arguing for restrictions on the hours during which factory machinery could operate, to safeguard the ten hour day for which Fielden had fought so hard. He topped the poll in a tacit although unofficial alliance with the Conservative Duncuft, defeating Fox, and was re-elected in 1857 and 1859.

John Fielden, by George Hayter (c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Fielden, by George Hayter (c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Fielden had died in 1849, and Cobbett assumed his mantle at Westminster, where the factory question occupied much of his attention. He was keen to pass legislation to prevent evasion of the ten hour day (by means such as using two shifts of child labour). He wished to extend limitations on working hours to other industries such as bleaching and dyeing, and sat on several committees relating to working-class employment conditions. His personal legislative achievement was an Act passed in 1860 to pay salaries rather than fees to coroners, which would prevent cost-cutting local magistrates from discouraging the holding of inquests.

In other respects, Cobbett abandoned the political legacy of his father and father-in-law, gradually drifting away from Liberalism to the Conservative party. His vote for the limited measure of parliamentary reform proposed by the Derby ministry in 1859 led to him being declared ‘utterly unfit to represent radical Oldham’. Like his father, he opposed the malt duty, defending the working-man’s right to his beer, which by the 1860s put him closer to many Conservatives than to the Liberals. The Preston Chronicle described him in 1865 as ‘a sort of hybrid politician’. At that year’s election, when he was defeated, he campaigned jointly with the Conservative candidate, although he did not officially adopt the Conservative label until 1868. He was lauded by Disraeli in 1872 as an ‘invaluable’ parliamentarian. Re-elected for Oldham at a by-election that June, he sat until his death in 1877. In contrast with his father’s vociferous Radicalism, John Cobbett’s shifting political stance led his opponents to depict him as a political chameleon.

The full biography of John Morgan Cobbett can be found on our preview site.

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

Congratulations to Martin Spychal, Pollard prize runner-up

We would like to congratulate Martin Spychal, who holds an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament, on being runner up in the Pollard Prize for the best paper given at an IHR seminar by a postgraduate student or  researcher within one year of completing the PhD. His doctoral research is on ‘Parliamentary boundaries and reform in England, 1830–1868’.

He gave his paper, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act, to the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. It will be published in Historical Research, but in the meantime, you can read a summary on the History of Parliament blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Job opportunity on our project: Research assistant / Research fellow

The History of Parliament has a vacancy for a research assistant / research fellow on its 1832-1945 House of Commons project. The successful candidate will have a PhD (or be close to completing one) in a relevant area of history or a related field and will join a small team of professional historians writing articles for the 1832-68 volumes and undertaking research on the period after 1832.

Further particulars are available here and an application form can be downloaded here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: the remarkable rise of William Schaw Lindsay

In the Persian Gulf in 1839, William Schaw Lindsay, captain of the merchant ship Olive Branch, was attacked by a sabre-wielding pirate, whom he promptly shot dead. If this brief encounter was almost unbelievably spectacular, Lindsay’s rise from a destitute orphan to a merchant prince was no less remarkable. Born in Ayr, Scotland, in 1815, he lost his parents at an early age, and ran off to Liverpool to seek employment before his sixteenth birthday. Beginning as a cabin boy, he rose swiftly to the rank of captain and only narrowly escaped death during a shipwreck in which he broke both of his legs and an arm. After short spell as a ship fitter in Hartlepool, he founded the shipbroking firm W. S. Lindsay and Co. in 1849 and rapidly amassed 220 vessels in his fleet, making him one of the largest shipowners in the world.

William Schaw Lindsay, copyright National Portrait Gallery

William Schaw Lindsay, copyright National Portrait Gallery

Lindsay’s parliamentary career was less spectacular. His activities inside the walls of the Victorian Commons never reached the dramatic heights of his adventures in the Persian Gulf. Yet, as MP for Tynemouth (1854-59) and then Sunderland (1859-65), Lindsay’s parliamentary path intertwined in surprising ways with a number of significant political events.

Shortly after his election for Tynemouth as an ‘independent’ Liberal, Lindsay played an active part in the Administrative Reform Association, founded in 1855 as a reaction to the perceived aristocratic mismanagement of the Crimean War. As his ships were under charter to the British government during the conflict, he had first-hand experience of what he believed to be ‘official indolence and inefficiency’ and in the Commons he vociferously criticised the government’s capabilities. His outspokenness, though, often exasperated his parliamentary colleagues, one of whom accused him of meddling ‘with matters which he does not understand’.

Willis's Rooms, Westminster

Willis’s Rooms, Westminster

It was Lindsay’s actions during the summer of 1859, however, that briefly made him a pariah among Westminster Liberals. At the Willis’s Rooms meeting of 6 June that year, which witnessed the official birth of the Liberal party, Lindsay was one of a few dissenting voices who spoke out against the newly-united party’s co-ordinated attack on the Conservative ministry’s reform bill. In the preceding days he had acted as an intermediary between the Conservative Disraeli and John Arthur Roebuck, a prominent Liberal on the verge of crossing the floor of the Commons to join the Tories. According to a fellow MP, his subsequent declaration of support in the Commons for the reform bill drew ‘rapturous cheers from the Tories’ and ‘dealt several damaging blows to the Liberal leaders’.

Lindsay’s outspoken support for the Confederate states also courted controversy. He had travelled widely in North America before the Civil War and on his return he announced to the Commons his intention of moving a resolution to recognise the Southern states, which he believed ‘must become an independent nation’. Alongside Roebuck, he subsequently met privately with Napoleon III in an effort to draw the French emperor into pressing Britain to recognise the Confederate government, a contentious mission that earned them a strong rebuke in the Commons from Palmerston, the Prime Minister. Although his parliamentary efforts came to nothing, his private actions had an impact on a personal level: in 1862 he sheltered families of the Confederate diplomats who were removed, as contraband of war, from the British mail packet the Trent, in his Shepperton home.

Shepperton Manor, which Lindsay purchased in 1856

Shepperton Manor, which Lindsay purchased in 1856

Lindsay’s parliamentary career ended prematurely in 1864, when he became paralysed and lost the use of his legs. Thereafter he focused his energies on writing, producing anonymous accounts of his experiences at sea and publishing his authoritative four-volume History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce (1874-6). He died at Shepperton Manor in August 1877.

Lindsay’s diary, held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, provides an unrivalled insight into the Administrative Reform Association, while his correspondence, also at Greenwich, paints a vivid portrait of a man who responded both politically and personally to the American Civil War. His outspokenness in the Commons chamber, meanwhile, serves as a useful reminder that, even by the 1860s, some politicians continued to defy national party labels. While his heroism on the high seas and meteoric rise from orphan to captain of industry understandably captures the imagination, his brief but colourful parliamentary career provides a useful, alternative thread with which to trace key developments in the life of the Victorian Commons.

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

The Palace of Westminster: the balance between the traditional and the practical

In this week’s blog Rebekah Moore, one of our AHRC collaborative PhD students, recalls an earlier debate about the cost and location of the UK’s Parliamentary buildings …

Last week, a report examining the necessary repairs and alterations to the Palace of Westminster suggested that if MPs and Lords remained in the Palace, the repairs would cost £5.7 billion over the course of thirty-two years. However, if the building was vacated, the cost would be reduced to £3.5 billion over six years. This has prompted debate over whether parliament should vacate its ancient home for a more practical building, better suited to the demands of modern parliamentary business.

The 'Black Hole of Calcutta' Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

The Black Hole of Calcutta Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

These debates mirror those that took place between 1830 and 1834, when MPs discussed whether the Reformed parliament should move to a more suitable location. Following the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, St Stephen’s was home to 658 MPs, yet the floor of the House of Commons could only seat 300. The cramped conditions led one commentator to remark that the House of Commons was reminiscent of ‘the second edition of the Black hole of Calcutta’.

The inconvenience of the Commons chamber led to two Select Committee inquiries, in 1831 and 1833 to discuss potential improvements to the House of Commons. In 1833, twenty-two plans were submitted, with suggestions about where a new House could be constructed. Many of these proposals suggested alterations to the existing Commons chamber. However, the parliamentary estate was increasingly cramped, and there were no opportunities to expand the House of Commons without significant disruption and expense.

By the 1830s, Westminster was an increasingly inconvenient location for parliament. The proximity of the river to the ancient Palace posed a risk of flooding, and MPs were forced to endure the stench of the Thames. In addition, Westminster was home to some of the worst slums of London. In 1832, a cholera epidemic claimed around 22,000 lives across England and Wales, with Westminster being one of the areas worst affected.

Both Hyde Park and St James’ Park were suggested as alternative locations for the new Houses of Parliament. There were several advantages to these sites. There was sufficient space to construct a building that contained all the requirements for modern parliamentary business. Also, both sites were close to Buckingham Palace, which was nearing completion. This provided increased convenience when the monarch was required for the State Opening of Parliament at the start of each session. Despite attracting support from radical MPs, however, alternative sites for parliament were never seriously considered.

The debate was briefly reignited by the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in October 1834. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, William IV offered Buckingham Palace for the use of parliament, hoping to dispose of a residence he disliked. However, Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, was ‘unwilling to be the Minister who should advise your Majesty, upon his responsibility, to remove the Houses of Parliament from their ancient and established place of assembly at Westminster’.

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The attachment to the site of the Palace of Westminster remained throughout the 1830s. The Palace provided a link with the past, supporting a narrative of political progress. It evoked the memories of great parliamentarians, such as Charles James Fox and William Pitt the younger, whose political rivalry was associated with one of the great ages of parliamentary oratory. After the political upheaval of Catholic emancipation (1829), followed by the 1832 Reform Act, the Palace of Westminster also provided an important symbol of stability and continuity. As a result, despite the extensive damage caused by the fire of 1834, parliament continued to meet in temporary accommodation constructed within the ruins of the Old Palace until the occupation of the New Palace of Westminster in 1852.

In 1835, a Select Committee published a list of requirements for the New Palace. Whilst most detailed the architectural requirements, it also stipulated that the new building should be constructed on the traditional site, effectively ending discussions about the location of the Houses of Parliament. The victor of the architectural competition was Charles Barry with his gothic palatial design, which has now been used by parliamentarians for over 150 years. The current debates on how to deal with the growing strain placed on this nineteenth century building by the demands of a twenty-first century Parliament have clear echoes of the debates on parliamentary accommodation in the 1830s.

Further reading:

Andrea Fredericksen, ‘Parliament’s Genius Loci: The politics of place after the 1834 fire’, in Christine and Jacqueline Riding (eds.) The Houses of Parliament. History, Art Architecture (2000).

Posted in Parliamentary life | Tagged | 1 Comment

Waterloo: The Irish Dimension

As we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Britain’s epoch-making victory at Waterloo, we examine the contribution made by Irish soldiers who fought in the battle, and in particular the men who later sat in the reformed Parliament for Irish seats.

While only three Irish regiments fought at the battle, recent research has demonstrated that as many as one in three of the soldiers in some of the British regiments that participated were Irish-born. Indeed Wellington was himself born in Dublin, and three of his brigade commanders were also Irishmen.

Of the eight Irish MPs known to have served in the battle, four had aristocratic backgrounds. Lord Arthur Moyses Hill (1792-1860), was the second son of the marquess of Downshire, and served as an aide-de-camp to Wellington during the battle. He sat as a Conservative for County Down, 1817-36.

George Lionel Dawson Damer (1788-1856), third son of the 1st earl of Portarlington, a major with the 1st Dragoon Guards, was an assistant quarter-master-general to the Prince of Orange during the Waterloo campaign, in which he was wounded. One of ‘the Regency dandies’ of the Prince Regent’s social circle, he married Mary ‘Minnie’ Seymour, the adopted daughter of the prince’s unlawful wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1835 he was elected as a Conservative for his family’s borough of Portarlington, for which he sat until 1847, serving as comptroller of the household under Peel’s ministry, 1841-6, before representing Dorchester until 1852.

Another Irish aristocrat to fight was William Browne (1791-1876), a younger son of the 1st earl of Kenmare. A lieutenant in the 52nd Foot, Browne had fought at the siege of Bergen op Zoom in 1814, and took part in his regiment’s famous charge on the flank of the Imperial Guard, in which he was severely wounded. A supporter of Catholic emancipation, he was elected for County Kerry in 1830 and backed the first reform bill before being forced out by the Repeal party in 1831. He sat again for his native county as a Liberal in the 1841 Parliament, and then retired to life as ‘an inconspicuous country gentleman’.

Standish O’Grady (1792-1848) served as a lieutenant with the 7th Hussars at Waterloo, where he demonstrated his skills by leading his regiment in a successful rear guard action against the French cavalry during the army’s withdrawal from Quatre Bras. He sat as a Whig for County Limerick on three separate occasions between 1820 and 1835, and is the only one of these eight MPs to leave a substantial record of his involvement in the battle, his letters to his father, whom he succeeded as 2nd Viscount Guillamore in 1840, being preserved in the archives of the National Army Museum.

Sir James Charles Chatterton

Four commoners also fought in the battle. James Charles Chatterton (1794-1874), who had the longest army career of this group of MPs, was decorated for his services in Portugal, Spain, Flanders and France, and fought at the battle with the 12th, or Prince of Wales’s light dragoons. He was returned as a Conservative for Cork in 1835, only to be unseated on petition, but sat again from 1849 to 1852, when he carried ‘the great banner’ at Wellington’s funeral. Having succeeded to the family’s baronetcy in 1855, he was made a knight commander of the Order of the Bath in 1862 and was promoted to the rank of general in 1866.

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Irish veteran who served longest at Westminster was William Verner (1782-1871), another experienced soldier who had served with distinction in the Peninsula campaign. Like O’Grady, he was an officer of the 7th Hussars and was wounded in the head at Waterloo, where he was given the field rank of major, and subsequently served on Wellington’s staff. One of Ireland’s leading Orangemen, he entered politics in 1820 and sat as a staunch Conservative for his native county of Armagh from 1832 until he retired aged 85 in 1868. He was created a baronet in 1846.

William Henry Watson (1796-1860) was an Englishman who fought at the battle but went on to represent an Irish constituency. After his father had been killed on active service in 1811 he was ‘left an orphan in the establishment at Sandhurst’, and entered the army aged 15. He served in the Peninsula with the 1st Royal Dragoons before exchanging into the 6th Inniskillen Dragoons shortly before the battle and entered Paris with the allied army. The following year he left the service to pursue a highly successful legal career and represented Kinsale as a Liberal from 1841-7. Returning to parliament as MP for Hull in 1854, he criticised the ‘scandalous’ system under which ‘nepotism and patronage’ rather than merit determined the composition of the army’s officer corps. He was knighted and became a judge in 1856.

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (1785-1849) the son of a Cork flour merchant, also joined the army aged 15 and in 1809 served on the ill-fated Walcheren expedition. Like Chatterton, he fought with the 12th light dragoons in many of the major battles of Wellington’s Peninsula campaign. Although he was only a junior captain at Waterloo he assumed command of his regiment after all of its senior officers had been killed. Given command of the regiment in 1827, he was elected for Kinsale in 1832 as a supporter of the Whig ministry. Not finding politics to his taste, however, he retired in 1835 to resume his military career, and regularly attended the annual Waterloo dinners given by Wellington to the officers he had commanded.

The political views of the MPs considered here ranged widely, but on 18 June 1815 they were united in a common cause which ushered in almost a century of relative peace in Europe.

For more on MPs who fought at Waterloo, see our editor Philip Salmon’s post on the main History of Parliament blog:

Further reading:

  • J. & D. Bromley, Wellington’s Men Remembered. A Register of Memorials to Soldiers Who Fought in the Peninsula War and at Waterloo, vols. 1 (2011) & 2 (2015).
  • P. Molloy, ‘Ireland and the Waterloo campaign of 1815’, (MA thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011).
Posted in Biographies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Conference on petitioning

Readers of our blog may be interested in an event involving our former research fellow, Dr. Henry Miller (now at the University of Manchester’s History Department). During his time at the History of Parliament, he published an article in the English Historical Review on ‘Popular petitioning and the corn laws, 1833-46’. He is now expanding his research to study the culture of petitioning in Britain during the ‘long nineteenth century’ (1780-1914).

Dr. Miller is organising a symposium on ‘Transnational Cultures of Petitioning’, which will take place in Manchester on 29 and 30 June. Further details can be found here:

Posted in Forthcoming events | Tagged | Leave a comment

Goodbye and Good Luck to Dr James Owen!

Dr James Owen

Dr James Owen

This month we bid farewell to Dr James Owen, who is leaving the 1832-68 project for a teaching post in the USA. Since joining us in 2009 James has completed over 200 MP biographies and almost 30 full-length constituency articles ranging across the entire country – a huge contribution totalling over half a million words. Somehow he also found time to manage our social media and write an extremely well-received book on Labour and the Caucus, details of which can be found here.

Nottingham election riots: badly damaged committee rooms

Nottingham election riots: badly damaged committee rooms

James’s many articles for us include studies of the outrageously corrupt borough of Harwich, with its 18 contested elections, new analyses of county politics in places as diverse as County Durham and Suffolk, and accounts of towns and cities targeted by the Chartists such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Nottingham, the latter of which became notorious for its election riots. A full list of James’s constituency articles appears below. Along with the 200+ related MPs he has profiled, most of this material can now be accessed on our preview site.

As well as wishing James all the best in his new post we would like to pay tribute to his dedication, good humour and extraordinary productivity. We will miss him hugely.

Constituency articles by Dr James Owen:

  • Bury St Edmunds 
  • Carlisle
  • Cockermouth
  • Colchester
  • Cumberland East
  • Cumberland West
  • Durham City
  • Durham North
  • Durham South
  • East Retford
  • Essex North
  • Essex South
  • Eye
  • Gateshead
  • Grantham
  • Harwich
  • Morpeth
  • Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Northumberland North
  • Northumberland South
  • Norwich
  • Nottingham 
  • Nottinghamshire North
  • Nottinghamshire South
  • Suffolk East
  • Suffolk West
  • Sunderland
  • Thetford
  • Tynemouth and North Shields
  • Westmorland
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Albert Grant (1830-1899), the financier who inspired Trollope

The name of Albert Grant will not be known to many, although he was one of the most famous entrepreneurs of mid-Victorian England. A pioneer of ‘mammoth company promoting’, his career had much in common with that of George Hudson, the ‘railway king’. Despite making several fortunes Grant’s reputation suffered greatly by the promotion of ‘bubble’ companies which were financially unsound and involved shareholders in enormous losses.

Perhaps more familiar will be the name of the corrupt financier Augustus Melmotte, the central character of Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now. Grant is widely believed to have served as the model for Melmotte, and the novel was first published serially at the height of Grant’s fame in 1874-5.

Albert Grant, depicted by 'Spy' in Vanity Fair

Albert Grant, depicted by ‘Spy’ in Vanity Fair

Grant was born Abraham Gottheimer in Dublin in 1830, but changed his name to Albert Grant in 1863. He was the son of Berton Gottheimer, a Jewish commission agent who was born in Prussia around 1798. Having dissolved a partnership as a Liverpool merchant in 1829, Berton subsequently set up in London, as an importer of fancy goods. Grant’s mother, Julia, was born in Portsmouth.

By 1851 Grant was employed as a merchant’s clerk in the city of London. He then became ‘a traveller in wines’, a business he dissolved in 1857. By then he had been baptised into the Anglican faith. He was admitted as a freeman of the city of London, and by 1858 had established himself as a banker and discount agent in Lombard Street. In 1859 he set up the Mercantile Discount Company, which provided financial services for the trading community. Concerns were voiced about the large salaries and beneficial financial guarantees enjoyed by Grant and his partners. The company failed in 1861 with liabilities of £1,500,000. Grant, however, escaped any personal loss in the affair, and was soon financing railway schemes in Yorkshire, Essex and Wales.

In 1863 he expanded his activities in the city, establishing Crédit Foncier and Mobilier of England, one of a number of ‘rip-off finance houses’ which flourished in the sustained bull market of the period. This institution served as the principal vehicle for Grant’s company promotions, most of which were subject to allegations of fraud.

Having systematically enriched himself by rigging the market and routinely inflating the price of the shares he sold, Grant stood for parliament as a Liberal-Conservative for the corrupt borough of Kidderminster at the 1865 general election. Promising to support ‘a well-digested’ scheme of parliamentary reform, and a policy of ‘non-intervention’ in foreign affairs, he was narrowly returned despite being confronted on the hustings by a disgruntled investor, who called him ‘a confounded German swindler’. He survived a petition against his return.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuel, Milan, c. 1880

Galleria Vittorio Emanuel, Milan, c. 1880

One of Grant’s greatest successes was funding the construction of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, a huge arcade in the centre of the city, and now one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. The king of Italy rewarded him with a barony in May 1868. However, the ‘grand but inevitable smash’ of Crédit Foncier came in July 1868, when Grant left the company amidst allegations that large commissions on the company’s profits had been improperly pocketed by the directors. Although he attempted to defend his conduct, he decided to retire from Parliament at the 1868 general election.

Grant soon rebuilt his financial empire. During a period of extraordinary activity between 1871 and 1874, he floated numerous domestic and foreign companies, including the Cadiz Waterworks, Central Uruguay Railway, and Russian Copper Company, the nominal capital of which amounted to more than £25,000,000, but whose shares eventually lost four-fifths of their market value. He was said to have obtained lists of financially naïve investors to capitalise his schemes. His ventures were also assisted by his ‘masterly’ use of the press, which included making large payments to the city editor of The Times, and the acquisition of The Echo, a London evening paper which he bought for £20,000.

By now immensely wealthy, in 1872 Grant bought Horstead Hall, near Norwich, and the following year acquired a site near Kensington Palace, where he built Kensington House, a magnificent Italianate palace, at a cost of nearly £350,000.

Square of Shakespeare in Leicester Square, presented by Albert Grant

Square of Shakespeare in Leicester Square, presented by Albert Grant

Grant was re-elected for Kidderminster at the 1874 general election. That May he enhanced his public reputation by paying 800 guineas for a portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Landseer, which he presented to the National Portrait Gallery, earning him a vote of thanks from the Commons. That July his public career reached its apogee when he presented Leicester Square to the people of London. The square, then known as Leicester Fields, had long been in a dilapidated state, but because the site was owned by numerous freeholders the municipal authorities had found it practically impossible to improve the area. Yet Grant managed to purchase the rights of all the respective owners and, after planting an ornamental garden and erecting a statue of Shakespeare, along with busts of Newton and Hogarth among others, transferred ownership of the site to the Metropolitan Board of Works at a personal cost of £28,000.

Shortly after this public triumph, Grant’s election at Kidderminster was declared void on grounds of bribery and corruption, and his business affairs began to suffer a dramatic reverse. Not all of Grant’s companies were worthless, but one which was proved to be his undoing. Although he pocketed £200,000 for the flotation of the Emma Silver Mining Company of Utah in 1871, it was subsequently found that there was actually little or no silver, and a law suit initiated against Grant revealed ‘the murkiest details of stock market manipulation’.

His career as a company promoter appeared to be over, but Grant was adept at defending himself against subsequent lawsuits. In May 1875 he displayed great skill as ‘a legal orator’ during a three-day speech, believed to have been the longest ever made in a court of law by a layman, on the interpretation of the Limited Liability Act. He became chairman of the General Banking Company in 1878, but a year later filed a petition for liquidation with liabilities of £800,000 and assets of just £18,000. Undeterred, he sought parliamentary honours once more, but was defeated at Kidderminster in 1880.

Grant found Kensington House impossible to maintain as a private residence and sold it at auction in 1878. It was dispersed in lots in 1882 and demolished the following year. The marble staircase, estimated to have cost £70,000, was acquired by Madame Tussaud’s, and the front gates were reconstructed as the East Sheen entrance to Richmond Park. Having attempted to clear his debts, he set up yet another new company, the National Finance Corporation, in 1885.

While Augustus Melmotte’s story ended in a dramatic fashion with his suicide, Grant’s concluded with his bankruptcy in 1897. In dwindling health for some time, he died at Bognor in August 1899.

Further reading:

  • D. Kynaston, The City of London. A World of Its Own 1815-1890 (1994)
  • T. Seccombe, rev. M. Reed, ‘Grant, Albert [formerly Abraham Gottheimer], Baron Grant in the Italian nobility’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The youngest MP? The ‘baby’ of the first Reformed Parliament

With the election of Mhairi Black as MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South at the age of 20, there has been some discussion of how far back in the parliamentary records one has to delve to find a younger MP.

To date, our research on the 1832 to 1868 period has uncovered just one MP who was returned to Parliament under the age of 21. The Hon. William Charles Wentworth Fitzwilliam, grandson of Earl Fitzwilliam, was born on 18 January 1812. Educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was elected on 12 December 1832 for Malton, aged 20. Although it seems likely that he was the youngest MP of our period, he was some months older than Mhairi Black when he was first elected.



A double-member constituency, Malton was one of several ‘nomination’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs which continued to be controlled by an aristocratic patron after the 1832 Reform Act. Firmly under the control of the Fitzwilliam family, who were prominent Whigs, it did not see a single contested election between 1832 and 1868. Opposition to William Fitzwilliam, even if he was under-age, was therefore pointless. Moreover, it was generally believed that as the new Parliament would not assemble until after his 21st birthday, he would not be disqualified.

Fitzwilliam did not represent Malton for long, however. His grandfather died on 8 February 1833, when Fitzwilliam’s father succeeded to the earldom, and Fitzwilliam took the title of Viscount Milton. His father had been MP for Northamptonshire North, and Milton (as he now was) resigned his Malton seat in order to be elected for that constituency instead. He was re-elected for Northamptonshire North at the 1835 general election, when one hostile account referred to him as the ‘baby Fitzwilliam-nominee’. He found it difficult to get a hearing at the hustings, as ‘all kinds of noises, and particularly most successful imitations of the bellowing of an enraged bull and the yelping of a cur just run over by a gig, were raised by the Blue party, and continued till Lord Milton bowed to the storm’. However, he was elected unopposed alongside a Conservative.

Although Milton did not contribute to debate in the Commons, he proved a useful member in the committee-rooms. He demonstrated a growing confidence in public speaking when he proposed Lord Morpeth on the West Riding hustings at a by-election in May 1835, earning plaudits for ‘the manly excellencies of his character, his abilities, and his strong attachment to liberal politics’. However, this promising political career was cut short by his death from typhus on 8 November 1835, aged just 23. One fellow MP lamented that ‘the tomb has deprived the House of one destined to be a future ornament’.

Posted in Biographies | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Predicting the polls: a Victorian perspective

Our editor Philip Salmon explains the complexities of Victorian polling.

The History of Parliament

As the UK goes to the polls today, here’s the last in our series of blogs on elections through the centuries. With the outcome of today’s vote still baffling the pollsters, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, discusses how parties tried to deal with uncertainty before voting was secret…

Victorian electoral print of an elector and candidate

As the UK’s pollsters and pundits vie for coverage in what appears to be a remarkably unpredictable election campaign, it is worth noting how Victorian political parties tried to minimise the uncertainty of going to the polls, using their own very distinct methods.

Victorian politicians enjoyed one major advantage over modern candidates. Because all voting was done in public before 1872, they could easily ascertain how each elector had behaved at a previous poll. Pollbooks listing all the individual votes cast by every elector provided agents with a clear guide to the politics of each constituency…

View original post 704 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment