The Scheldt divisions, 1810

In late Ju1y 1809 the duke of Portland’s ministry sent 39,000 troops to the Dutch island of Walcheren in the mouth of the River Scheldt. After initial success, the commander Lord Chatham, master-general of the ordnance, and the cabinet dithered, allowing the French and Dutch forces to regroup and malarial fever to kill some 4,000 British soldiers. Chatham withdrew in September.  This disaster contributed to the collapse of the ministry, with Portland mortally ill and the senior cabinet ministers Lord Castlereagh and George Canning so mutually antagonistic that they fought a duel.  The chancellor of the exchequer Spencer Perceval became prime minister and formed a reshuffled administration of striking mediocrity. The opposition Whigs (whose leaders had refused Perceval’s offer to serve under them) made a determined Commons attack on the new government over the Scheldt affair in the first weeks of the 1810 session. They defeated ministers in three divisions, but were ultimately frustrated by the reluctance of independent backbenchers to bring down a Tory government for the benefit of the Whigs.

On 23 Jan. 1810 Lord Gower, son and heir of the 2nd marquess of Stafford and Member for St. Mawes, moved the opposition’s amendment to the address, denouncing recent military failures. He focused on the Scheldt fiasco, calling for inquiry and the prosecution of those responsible, but was defeated by 263-167. On 26 Jan., however, Lord Porchester, son and heir of the 1st earl of Carnarvon and Member for Cricklade, carried by 195-186 a motion for inquiry by committee of the whole House into the failure of the expedition. These two divisions, and three subsequent ones on the issue, are of particular interest because both majority and minority lists were published. (The usual practice in this period was for only the lists of opposition voters to be published.)  The Whig success on 26 Jan. derived from a change of sides from the 23rd by 31 Members and the abstention of a number of those who had voted with government on the first occasion.  Canning and his dozen personal followers did so in both divisions, but the small group (about eight) attached to Lord Sidmouth changed sides, as did Castlereagh and four of his immediate friends.

The committee of inquiry convened 20 times between 2 Feb. and 20 Mar., with Sir David Dundas, the commander-in-chief, and Chatham the principal military witnesses.  Porchester had little forensic skill, and only Samuel Whitbread, George Tierney and William Windham of the leading Whigs showed much enthusiasm for the business. Proceedings were enlivened on 27 Feb. when Jack Fuller, Member for Sussex, made a drunken spectacle of himself, insulted the Speaker and had to be physically ejected from the chamber. The flagging opposition attack was given a fillip by the radical Lord Folkestone’s seizing on Chatham’s self-exculpatory report of 15 Jan., which he had sent direct to the king, bypassing the responsible minister.  On 23 Feb. Whitbread carried against government by 178-171 an address to the king for Chatham’s narrative to be laid before the House; and on 5 Mar. a majority of 33 (221-188) voted for Whitbread’s resolutions (amended and toned down by Canning) condemning Chatham’s action. Chatham belatedly and reluctantly submitted to his cabinet colleagues’ pressure for his resignation.

Eleven Members who had divided with ministers on 26 Jan. voted against them on 23 Feb., along with three who had not voted on the first occasion. Nine who had supported government in January went with opposition on 5 Mar., and two others reversed their ministerial votes of 23 Feb. Canning and Castlereagh manipulated the votes of their personal adherents in a broadly similar fashion. Most of the Sidmouthites continued to divide with opposition.

On 26 Mar., in a tedious four-hour speech, Porchester moved resolutions condemning the expedition. Meanwhile, between 19 and 24 Mar. a group of Whig activists, including James Abercromby, Henry Brougham and James Loch, had met to concoct an analysis of the House of Commons, partly to ascertain the probable outcome of the division on Porchester’s forthcoming censure motion, and partly to assess the likely support for a Whig ministry if the government fell.  They divided the Membership into 11 categories:  214 `present opposition’, or `thick and thin’ men; 53 of whose backing the opposition were `hopeful’; 117 `doubtful’; 82 `government’ (meaning supporters of the government of the day who would probably support any new ministry); 143 `against the opposition’ (being partisan Tory supporters of the Perceval administration); eight attached to Lord Sidmouth; 12 each to Perceval and Canning; six to Castlereagh; and four to Lord Wellesley; and five of `no party’ (that is, radicals). 

On 30 Mar. 1810 Porchester’s motion was defeated by 275-227, and the ministry survived. Of Members who had deserted them in one or more of the divisions of 26 Jan., 23 Feb. and 5 Mar., 44 now reverted to them. Of the men listed as `present opposition’, 172 voted accordingly on 30 Mar., while at least another dozen paired.  Twenty-nine of those marked `hopeful’ divided with opposition, and five sided with government.  The doubtfuls who voted favoured government by 53-6.  Of the `government’ contingent, 55 voted with ministers and seven against.  None of those listed as `against the opposition’ went against government, while 114 were in their lobby, with at least another six having paired on their side. All but one of the Sidmouthites and all five radicals supported the censure; but 11 of Perceval’s friends, almost all of Canning’s, five of Castlereagh’s and three of Wellesley’s rallied to  ministers.  Thus, in a pattern of party voting which was to be repeated several times during the following 20 years, seemingly vulnerable Tory governments could be defeated on specific issues, but were able to muster sufficient backing from independent Members and disgruntled supporters when their existence was at stake and the alternative was a Whig administration.

The original opposition analysis was leaked to and published (on 1 July 1810) by the Satirist newspaper, which condemned it as evidence of a Whig plot to seize power.  The paper also noted with satisfaction that the radical Member Sir Francis Burdett’s defiance of the House’s authority over the arrest and commitment of the radical publicist John Gale Jones, which came to a head in late March, and ended in his own imprisonment for breach of privilege, had diverted attention from the Scheldt question and embarrassed and inhibited the opposition leaders.

Author: David R. Fisher