V. General Elections, 1820-1831

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

The Election of 1820

Following the death of George III on 29 Jan. 1820, the cabinet, encouraged by an economic upturn and the apparent weakening of the threat of sedition which had prompted their post-Peterloo repressive legislation of late 1819, decided on the earliest possible dissolution of Parliament.1 It took place on 29 Feb. 1820. In anticipation, Lord Holland had told Lord Grey that the Whig Commons leader George Tierney and the whip Lord Duncannon believed that the parliamentary opposition would ‘not lose in numbers’ as a result of the elections.2 On 27 Feb., four days after the thwarting of the Cato Street conspiracy to assassinate the cabinet, Tierney wrote to Grey:

I hope rather than expect that what has passed will not have a very prejudicial influence on the public mind at the approaching elections … If we had good active candidates with some money we might very much increase the small number which, even as matters stand, we shall gain. Whether it proceeds from poverty, prudence, or apathy I cannot tell you, but the fact is there is little disposition stirring for parliamentary honours.3

As the earliest returns began to come in, Holland commented:

The elections, notwithstanding the windfall of the Cato Street conspiracy, are not likely to be favourable to ministers … There is a general indisposition to the ministers, and [a] still more general one to the Court, but neither Whigs nor the aristocracy nor even the moderate reformers gain all that Court, Tories, ministers and Parliament have lost. The truth is that, very short of positive radicalism or universal suffrage, there is a spirit grown up and growing every day throughout the country, against the nature and practice of our government, and tending I fear to the separation of the upper and middling classes of society, a natural consequence of wars, taxation, paper currency, and servility of Parliaments.4

A week later Tierney, back in London after his election for Knaresborough, told Grey that ‘on the whole of the elections in England I think you may rely upon a gain of nine, but our losses in Scotland and Ireland will I am afraid reduce it to three’.5 The conservative Whig Lord Lansdowne was ‘very much struck with the state of popular feeling indicated by the elections, particularly the county elections which have already [20 Mar.] taken place’. Echoing Holland, he went on:

I have reason to believe that government are at length a good deal alarmed, in the only way which they ought to be alarmed, at the want of confidence of the middling orders in the institutions of the country.6

In mid-March the patronage secretary Charles Arbuthnot, who was primarily responsible for overall management of the elections, confessed to the premier Lord Liverpool:

I am very uneasy about our returns. Our friends have everywhere deceived themselves and us. The fact is … [the Whigs’] candidates are wealthier men than ours generally, added to which, three or four of our county Members have run away shamefully. But still, unless those who write to us are egregiously mistaken, we shall make our way up in the three kingdoms. I know that in divisions it scarcely signifies a straw whether we get three or four more or less at a general election; but in point of impression the evil is great. I am sure that there has been no want of exertion on the part of the government, and indeed I do not know a single place where we have lost by our own mistakes or mismanagement.7

Liverpool thought there had been some ‘mismanagement’, which, together with ‘the unfairness of our friends in withdrawing without giving us timely notice’, had done some damage; but he believed that

the public feeling has certainly been much more strongly with us than at the last general election [1818]. The … [Six Acts] are decidedly popular and scarcely any of the opposition have ventured to bring them forward as a ground of attack, whilst they have been most serviceable to many of our friends. The Whig party has shown itself very contemptible, and it appears clearer every day that there are but two national parties in the country: the church and king party, and the radicals. The latter, however, are become truly formidable.8

The paymaster-general Charles Long, who at the end of the third week of March thought ‘we shall rather lose than gain upon the whole [in England], but it will not be above four or five at the utmost’, with Scotland and Ireland ‘possibly’ balancing matters, also voiced the opinion that ‘the country is fast dividing itself into the friends of government and radicals’. His prediction that ‘the Whigs will … soon disappear from the stage’ proved to be nonsense.9

The elections went on from 6 Mar. to 13 Apr. 1820 (when the protracted Galway contest terminated), but most of the returns were known by the end of March. Of the 380 constituencies, 93 (24 per cent) were contested. In England there were 69 contests (28 per cent); in Wales four (17); in Scotland ten (22); and in Ireland ten (15). In England, nine counties (23 per cent) and 60 boroughs (30) went to the poll. In Wales there were contests in one county (Glamorgan) and three borough districts (Cardiff, Denbigh and New Radnor). In Scotland, five counties (17 per cent) and five burgh constituencies (33) were contested. In Ireland three counties (nine per cent) and seven boroughs (21) saw polls. Overall, 18 counties (16 per cent) and 76 boroughs (29) were contested. One of the most spectacular results occurred in Staffordshire: there was no contest, but the ministerialist sitting Member Lord Gower, the son of the fabulously wealthy 2nd marquess of Stafford, conceded defeat to the Whig coal owning squire put up by the Staffordshire Freeholders’ Association three days before polling was to begin. The government failed to turn out the Whig John Lambton from county Durham and lost seats to Whigs in Bedfordshire and Middlesex, after contests, and in uncontested Hampshire, Huntingdonshire and Buckinghamshire; but they regained a seat for Devon, in a replay of the epic contest of 1818, and quietly gained seats in Leicestershire, Northumberland, Somerset and Worcestershire. The most spirited contests in the larger English boroughs occurred in Berwick, Chester, Great Yarmouth, Ipswich, London, Maidstone, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Northampton, Nottingham, Oxford, Pontefract, Preston, Reading, Southampton, Stafford and York. Opposition had the advantage in these constituencies and gained seats for Berwick, Ipswich (two, after a successful petition in June 1820), Northampton and York; but two sound Tories ousted two radically inclined Members in the London affair. The four contests in Wales were local and dynastic in character, but on balance produced a gain of one seat (Cardiff Boroughs) for the government. In Scotland there was a party struggle in Renfrewshire, won by a Whig, while in Kincardineshire the favoured ministerialist candidate was dished by the intransigence of the Tory lord lieutenant, which allowed a Whig to win the seat. A bid to oust Joseph Hume, the radical tormentor of departmental ministers, from Aberdeen Burghs failed, but a supporter of government won back Linlithgow Burghs, lost at a by-election in 1819. In Ireland, there were fierce and costly contests in Cork, county Dublin, county Limerick and Queen’s County, but the eight sitting Members emerged unscathed. In Limerick, the talented Lansdowne Whig barrister Thomas Spring Rice again challenged Lord Gort’s sitting Member. He was defeated at the polls, but was seated on petition, 3 July 1820. There was the usual ration of rowdiness, drunkenness and violence, with particularly nasty incidents at Chester, Kingston-upon-Hull and Preston and in Aberdeen Burghs, Elgin Burghs and Renfrewshire.10 Peterloo, the Six Acts and Cato Street were topics of debate in many constituencies. Parliamentary reform was advocated by Whigs, radicals and independents in Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Cumberland, Herefordshire, Huntingdonshire, Middlesex, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Norfolk, Nottingham, Reading and Stafford. In most English and some Scottish counties there were complaints, by both candidates and freeholders, of agricultural distress and the need for enhanced protection and tax reductions to relieve it. Apart from in Ireland, where it was implicit, the Catholic question was not much aired; but ‘No Popery’ sentiments were expressed in Chester, Devon, Essex, Exeter, Kent, Rutland and Somerset.

Holland told his illegitimate son Charles Fox that ‘we, as opposition, shall be on the whole rather gainers by the general election’; but he admitted that it was hard to say ‘cui bono’ in the present state of parliamentary alignments.11 Henry Brougham made more extravagant claims, asserting that ‘the elections have all gone swimmingly for us, except Devon and Sussex’, that they had been ‘highly unfavourable to the ministers’, and that ‘our most unfavourable estimate is fourteen gained from them’. Duncannon reckoned on 207 ‘thick and thin men, besides some dozen or two generally voting with us, and near half a dozen to come in on the new writs and committees’.12 Tierney told Grey, 5 Apr. 1820, that ‘ministers have certainly lost on the balance at least six’ (he thought Duncannon was too sanguine in claiming 12), and that ‘government people are much discomposed by the result of the elections, and it is the fashion to call it the triumph of the radicals’.13 Charles Williams Wynn, Member for Montgomeryshire and leader of the small Grenvillite ‘third party’ in the Commons, analysed the gains and losses in England. He calculated, accurately, opposition gains from government in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Buckinghamshire, Chippenham, Grantham, Hampshire, Huntingdonshire, Ipswich (two Members, once Thomas Barrett Lennard had been seated on petition, 14 June), Northampton, Penryn, Portsmouth, Seaford, Shaftesbury (two Members), Staffordshire, Stockbridge, Wallingford and York. Against this total of 18, he set 11 ministerial gains in Boston, Heytesbury, Leicestershire, London (two), Midhurst, New Woodstock, Northumberland, Reading, St. Albans and Somerset. However, he was wrong about Reading, whose new Member John Monck was an advanced Whig; about Heytesbury, where Charles A’Court replaced a fellow ministerialist; and about Midhurst, where the new man Abel Smith was a conservative Whig. Thus he should have reckoned on a net opposition gain of ten. He thought government supporters had been replaced by ‘doubtful’ men at Dover, Northampton and Tamworth (all three new Members, Joseph Butterworth, William Leader Maberly and Lord Charles Townshend proved to be steady oppositionists); but he made a mistake in classifying Sir David Milne (who was in any case soon unseated from Berwick-upon-Tweed on petition) as doubtful. A revised figure would be opposition gains in England of 13.14 These were at least partially offset by losses in Scotland and Ireland. After the division on the civil list, 8 May, when opposition mustered 157 to 256, the Tory backbencher Henry Bankes got the impression that ‘more relative alteration has been made to the strength of the parties … than ministers expected, which they hardly admitted to have operated’;15 but Hudson Gurney, Member for Newtown, Isle of Wight, was more probably correct when he wrote that ‘ministers and opposition’ stood ‘respectively pretty much as before, but the neutrals have advanced again’.16

Petitions against the returns for 36 constituencies reached the Commons during the 1820 session: 34 arising out of the general election and two (Truro and Dublin) concerning the outcome of subsequent by-elections. Six were successful and resulted in the seating of the petitioners: Bishop’s Castle, Boroughbridge, Bridport, Callington, Ipswich and Limerick. The investigations into ten resulted in confirmation of the election result: Aberdeen Burghs, Chester, Galway, Haddingtonshire, Nottingham (the petition was deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’), Penryn, Petersfield, Portsmouth, St. Ives and Wootton Bassett. Four inquiries led to the voiding of elections: Berwick-upon-Tweed, Colchester, Grantham and Truro. Ten petitions lapsed after failure to enter into recognizances: Cambridge, Carlisle, Coventry, Drogheda, Dublin, Elgin Burghs, Maidstone, Newport, Wallingford and Westminster. Consideration of six was deferred until 1821, when one (Bossiney) lapsed; one (Boston) led to the seating of the petitioner; and four (Aldborough, Hedon, Tregony and Truro) resulted in confirmation of the sitting Members. A petition against the Warwick by-election of November 1820 was considered in 1821 and the sitting Member was deemed to have been duly elected. In 1822 there were petitions concerning by-elections for Drogheda (lapsed) and West Looe (sitting Member confirmed); in 1823 from Arundel, county Dublin and county Sligo (all lapsed), and Bossiney (deferred, and result confirmed in 1824); and in 1824 from county Cavan (lapsed) and Huntingdon (deferred, and sitting Member confirmed in 1825). Petitions touching the right of election were received from Boroughbridge, Callington, Limerick, Petersfield and Portsmouth in 1821; from Hereford and West Looe in 1825; and from Huntingdon in 1826.

Of the 658 Members returned at the 1820 general election, only 87 (13 per cent of the whole) had no previous parliamentary experience. A further 19 novices came in at by-elections or on petition in 1820. Between 1821 and the dissolution in 1826 89 other first-time parliamentarians were returned at by-elections. During the lifetime of the 1820 Parliament there were 176 by-elections, of which 33 were contested. The last occurred in Roxburghshire, 8 May 1826.


The Election of 1826

This election was a long time coming. The 1820 Parliament had sat for six sessions by the summer of 1825, and an autumn dissolution was so widely expected in September that many constituencies were canvassed or addressed by sitting Members and potential candidates. Liverpool initially favoured a late September dissolution, but was eventually prevailed on by George Canning and the other pro-Catholic cabinet ministers, who argued that going to the country in the present inflamed state of popular feeling on the Catholic question, with the ‘No Popery’ cry being raised in many constituencies, would be seen as a deliberate bid to harm the relief cause, to postpone it until the following year. Liverpool acquiesced on condition that the divisive issues of Catholic emancipation and the corn laws were not to be raised in Parliament in 1826, to which Canning and his associates agreed. The cabinet formally endorsed the postponement on 23 Sept. 1825. Still anticipating an early dissolution, the Whig Alexander Baring told Lansdowne that ‘I know not what Ireland may do, but England will have a vile No Popery Parliament’.17 After the postponement, his fellow Whig Sir James Mackintosh wrote to Holland, 8 Oct. 1825:

I don’t apprehend from what I can learn that the dissolution had it taken place would have much changed the state of parties in the House. But I rather believe we should have lost more as Whigs than as Catholics … I don’t find that these losses depend upon the Catholic question, though they will be ascribed to it.18

In January 1826, however, he reported that both Canning and the anti-Catholic diehard lord chancellor Eldon ‘expect to be strengthened by the general election’, though his own belief was that the latter ‘would win’.19 Lord John Russell felt that ‘the No Popery cry is not very strong, and that except in five or six places it will not affect the seats of our friends’; but he admitted that ‘this is not the general opinion’.20 In late March 1826 the Whig Lord Carlisle concluded that Parliament would ‘certainly be dissolved in June, unless the king should be again ill’. He thought it ‘will not be so favourable a time for ministers as last year, but there is but little spirit of party afloat, except against the Catholics’.21

The dissolution duly took place on 2 June 1826. The first English borough elections were held a week later. Most of the others were completed by the end of the month, but some Irish and Scottish returns were not to hand until the first two weeks of July. The latest dated one was that for Orkney and Shetland, 12 July 1826. Of the 380 constituencies, 112 (29 per cent) were contested, an increase of 19 on 1820.22 In England there were 85 contests, in Wales one (Denbigh Boroughs), in Scotland eight, and in Ireland 18. The English counties had ten contests (25 per cent) and the English boroughs 74 (37). Cambridge University was contested. There were contests in five Scottish counties (17 per cent) and three districts of burghs (20). In Ireland, 13 counties (41 per cent) went to the polls, and five boroughs (15) did so. Overall, there were contests in 28 counties (25 per cent) and 83 boroughs (32 per cent). The Catholic question was the outstanding but not the only issue aired on the hustings and in addresses. In the English counties in particular, the need for greater agricultural protection and hostility to the government’s recent relaxations of the corn laws were subjects of debate. In some of the larger industrializing towns, there were calls for further reductions in corn import duties and other imposts and demands for relief from distress caused by unemployment. The 1826 campaign, promoted principally by Dissenters, for the abolition of colonial slavery continued during the elections. Parliamentary reform was largely in abeyance, but was touched on in several English counties and in other places where candidates were keen to continue promoting it. There were unsuccessful radical interventions in Somerset and Sussex, and at Chichester, Lewes and Preston, while at Hertford Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, a society roué of advanced political views who stood to inherit a lucrative Yorkshire estate, won a seat with the aid of systematic bribery. Henry Warburton was another radical who secured a seat (Bridport) at this election; and it was reported by the Whig manager Edward Ellice that Sir Francis Burdett, the hero of Westminster, ‘does not rejoice at the success of a dozen radicals who have got seats’, believing that they would ‘do harm in the House’.23 In Huntingdonshire Russell, the Whig champion of parliamentary reform, stood on the same purity of election platform (refusing to canvass, solicit or spend) as that taken by his eldest brother Lord Tavistock in neighbouring Bedfordshire. He was ousted by two anti-Catholic Tories, but was more than satisfied with his showing in the poll. The elections saw some extreme outbreaks of violence: there were fatalities at Carlisle and Leicester, for example, and serious riots and attacks on candidates at Coventry, East Retford, Lincoln and Northampton. At New Woodstock, Lord Blandford, one of the successful candidates, joined with his brother in street brawls. There was rioting and disorder in Denbigh Boroughs, while in Caithness the defeated George Sinclair and Lord Fife stirred up a large mob, who disrupted proceedings and after the election sought to inflict physical vengeance on a freeholder who was thought to have betrayed Sinclair. The violence and intimidation in Ireland reached new heights and cost numerous lives. The counties of Armagh, Cavan, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Limerick, Louth, Monaghan and Westmeath (where two people were killed and over a hundred injured ‘in scenes that would disgrace the inhabitants of New Zealand’)24 were the most notable cases; and there was great violence at the election for Mallow.

The Catholic question was undoubtedly the dominant issue, and almost all commentators interpreted the outcome of the elections in terms of the gains and losses on both sides of this issue. The home secretary Robert Peel thought that there had never been an election less marked by significant disagreements over ministerial policy.25 In England, especially, there was widespread and strong expression of popular anti-Catholic sentiment. It clearly made an impact electorally, but not to the extent that leading anti-Catholics had hoped. In contested elections, there were gains for the anti-Catholics in Bedfordshire; at Reading (a short-lived success, as the anti-Catholic George Spence was unseated on petition by the Whig former sitting Member Charles Fyshe Palmer in March 1827); in Huntingdonshire, and at Leicester (or so it seemed), Coventry and Beverley. The anti-Catholics Robert Adam Dundas and Charles Mackinnon were defeated at Ipswich by the pro-Catholics William Haldimand and Robert Torrens, but were seated on petition in time for the division on relief on 6 Mar. 1827. On the other hand, the pro-Catholics made gains at Dover, Preston and Worcester. The spectacular successes of ‘No Popery’ candidates at Coventry and Leicester disguised the fact that in both cases the corporations who backed them had their own local agenda. In any case, Robert Otway Cave, one of the winners at Leicester, dissembled on the Catholic question. Richard Heathcote also equivocated in order to secure his seat for Coventry, while Edward Sugden lied in his teeth at New Shoreham, though to no avail. Popular anti-Catholic feeling contributed to Brougham’s disappointing showing in Westmorland, but he had no chance of upsetting the Lowthers. In London, Matthew Wood’s support for emancipation cost him some popularity, but he was still returned in fourth place. The war secretary Lord Palmerston, faced with three anti-Catholic ministerialist rivals at Cambridge University, held on to his seat with the backing of the Whigs. ‘No Popery’ was raised with intensity but unsuccessfully at Bristol, Chester, Dover, Hereford, Kingston-upon-Hull, Northampton, Shrewsbury, and Southwark, and in Oxfordshire and Surrey.26 In Wales, there were gains for anti-Catholics in Caernarvonshire and the Caernarvon, Denbigh and Pembroke Boroughs, partially offset by a pro-Catholic gain in Cardiff Boroughs. There was a net anti-Catholic gain of two in Scotland, with their successes in Kincardineshire, Roxburghshire, Elgin and Haddington Burghs set against losses in Haddingtonshire and the Anstruther Burghs. It was in Ireland, where the Catholic question monopolized attention, that the most significant electoral developments occurred. In county Waterford a local branch of the revived Catholic Association had been preparing for almost a year to challenge the Protestant Beresford interest with a local pro-Catholic candidate, Henry Villiers Stuart, by trying to prevail on the Catholic 40s. freeholders to defy their landlords. Local committees were set up, the Catholic priests were recruited to canvass and cajole and money was subscribed to compensate victims of eviction. Daniel O’Connell and the other leaders of the Association had sought to organize their supporters into Liberal clubs in about 18 counties, but more in hope than expectation of success in procuring a freeholders’ revolt. As it became increasingly clear that, with the Whig duke of Devonshire, whose nominee Richard Power occupied one seat, having declared his neutrality, Villiers Stuart was almost certain to defeat the other sitting Member, Lord George Beresford, O’Connell and the Association intervened. After six days of comparatively peaceful polling, Beresford, a humiliating 830 votes behind Villiers Stuart, gave it up. Duncannon, whose father Lord Bessborough was a substantial Irish landowner, commented to Holland:

The Waterford election … is indeed a very great triumph for the Catholics, and has been conducted much to their credit with the most perfect order and regularity … I think, however that it has opened a new view of the state of Ireland as connected with the Catholic question, and not a very pleasing one to those who have property here, if that question is not speedily set to rest. The priests have tried their strength and succeeded against the landlords.27

Inspired by the progress of events in Waterford, the Association leaders, at almost the eleventh hour, acted to help secure the return of Alexander Dawson for county Louth, and of the sitting Member Henry Westenra, a convert to the Catholic cause, for county Monaghan, at the expense of his Orangeman colleague Charles Leslie. Both these elections were marked by the same features as that in Waterford: organization and dragooning of freeholders, high profile clerical intervention, blatant sectarianism, and intimidation. Unlike in Waterford, however, there was great and lethal violence. In Louth, so John Leslie Foster, the anti-Catholic sitting Member who was returned with Dawson, told Peel, the priests called on ‘every Catholic who had a vote’ and provoked ‘a personal fury almost demoniacal’ against him:

Very many Protestants were forced to vote against me by the threats of assassination or having their houses burnt. My voters were waylaid by large mobs along every line of road, and severely beaten, not merely in coming but in returning. Lord Oriel’s tenantry, who most of them proved steady, were attacked ten miles … from the county town by a mob of above a thousand persons collected for the purpose, and the continued escort of military became at last indispensable. When the poll commenced, all the priests of the county were … distributed through the different booths, where they stood with glaring eyes directly opposite to the voters of their respective flocks as they were severally brought up. In the county town the studied violence and intimidation were such that it was only by locking up my voters in inclosed yards that their lives were spared.28

At the same time, it should be noted that some of the worst violence at these elections occurred in counties Galway and Kerry, where sectarianism was not a factor. There was a successful Catholic freeholders’ revolt in county Westmeath, where Hugh Tuite ousted Robert Smyth by 24 votes. There were spirited but unsuccessful challenges on these lines in counties Cavan and Kilkenny. In addition to Waterford, Louth, Monaghan and Westmeath, pro-Catholics gained seats for counties Armagh (where the sitting Member Charles Brownlow had become a convert in 1825) and Limerick, in that O’Connell’s preferred candidate Thomas Lloyd defeated the sitting Member Standish O’Grady, who was not considered to be sufficiently liberal on the Catholic question. There was a theoretical pro-Catholic gain at the borough of Kinsale, where John Russell replaced Sir Josias Rowley, but in the event he cast no votes on the issue in the new Parliament. These successes were partially offset by anti-Catholic gains in the closed boroughs of Athlone, Carlow and New Ross.29 While the numerically modest pro-Catholic gains in Ireland were more than counterbalanced by losses in England, Wales and Scotland, the electoral events there were profoundly significant, marked a turning point in Irish history, and brought the concession of Catholic emancipation much nearer. Peel was less alarmist than many of his Protestant colleagues, being ‘not so sure as some are that the priests have triumphed over the landlord’. He conceded that ‘they have carried the tenantry in some counties by a coup de main’, but thought there might be ‘a powerful reaction’ before the next election.30 O’Connell and his allies, however, were at last fully alive to the potential of the electoral weapon now at the Association’s disposal.31

Palmerston, buoyed by his success at Cambridge, reckoned that ‘the grand point is that the No Popery cry has been tried in many places and has everywhere failed; and we may now appeal to the experience of facts to show that there does not exist among the people of England that bigoted prejudice on this point which the anti-Catholics accused then of entertaining’.32 In that popular anti-Catholicism was too negative a phenomenon to be electorally effective on a large scale, this was true; but Palmerston underestimated its impact on the elections. The Whig Denis Le Marchant wrongly thought that ‘the Catholics have gained more in Ireland than they have lost in England’, while the civil servant John Mallet believed that ‘the relative strength of the friends and enemies to emancipation remains much the same’. Francis Thornhill Baring, the new Whig Member for Portsmouth, thought that outside Ireland ‘the number of ministerial and opposition Members are pretty nearly as they were before, and in these quiet easy times of party politics it signifies not much whether a dozen were lost or gained’.33 The home office under-secretary Henry Hobhouse, who noted that ‘the elections in England have been decidedly friendly to ministers’, wrote that ‘it is calculated that the Protestant interest has gained in the House of Commons 32 votes’.34 This was wide of the mark. Overall, a more realistic assessment puts the net gain for anti-Catholics at 13, composed of five as a result of contested elections, six for uncontested seats and the two additional Members for Yorkshire, conceded after Grampound’s disfranchisement.35 The pro-Catholic cabinet minister Williams Wynn expected, with most of the returns in, that ‘we shall lose sufficient to turn the majority against us, at least in the first session, on the Catholic question’.36 So it proved, for the motion to consider Catholic claims, 6 Mar. 1827, was defeated by four votes (276-272). On 12 May 1828, however, it was successful by six votes; and the following year emancipation was carried through the Commons in well under a month with great ease.

Petitions against the returns from 42 constituencies were presented to the Commons during the first session of the 1826 Parliament, and one arising out of the Berwick-upon-Tweed by-election of 29 March was received on 1 May 1827. Only six of these 43 petitions secured reversal of the results: those concerning Banffshire, county Galway, Ilchester, Ipswich, Leominster (a double return for one seat) and Reading. Investigation of a further 20 confirmed the election of the sitting Member or Members. Two inquiries led to the voiding of elections: Berwick-upon-Tweed (general election) and East Retford (for which no new writ was issued that Parliament). Petitions concerning 14 elections, including the Berwick by-election, lapsed. Consideration of one concerning county Westmeath was deferred, as a commission of inquiry was set up, but this disintegrated in 1828, when a renewed election committee confirmed the election of Tuite. The inquiries into the elections for East Retford and Penryn produced reports on systematic corruption and led to partially successful attempts to legislate to prevent it in future. The Coventry committee, after considering the evidence of 81 witnesses, narrowly confirmed the sitting Members but censured the mayor and magistrates for failing to ensure unimpeded access to the booths for supporters of the defeated Whigs. It advised the introduction of a bill giving Warwickshire magistrates concurrent jurisdiction in the county of the city of Coventry during elections. Such a measure passed the Commons, but ran out of time in the Lords and was never reintroduced. The county Galway investigation reported on ‘an organized system of rioting’ and condemned the authorities for failing to protect the successful petitioner James Lambert’s voters. Besides the pending county Westmeath affair, the House received petitions complaining of the returns at four by-elections in 1828. Those from Durham and Weymouth were not pursued, and that from Dover was investigated to the benefit of the sitting Member. No action was taken on the petition concerning the portentous by-election for county Clare, in which O’Connell defeated the minister William Vesey Fitzgerald, seeking re-election after appointment to office. A petition concerning the right of election at Ludlow was received and investigated. In 1829, the Clare by-election petitions were considered and O’Connell declared duly elected, 6 Mar., but that was not the end of the affair. Petitions from Tralee and Wexford were deferred, but the former lapsed. No petition was forthcoming from Bath about the double return at the by-election of 2 February, but the House ruled it a void election, 4 Mar. 1829. A petition touching on the right of election at Dover was considered and reported on. In 1830 the renewed Wexford petition was investigated and the result reversed, with a special report of the evidence being presented. Petitions concerning county Limerick and Rye, where a ruling on the right of election seemed to open the previously closed borough, also saw the petitioners seated. A petition against the return of Beresford for county Waterford, 2 Mar. 1830, was not pursued. Inquiry into the petition regarding the Cork by-election of 9 July 1829 ended in the voiding of the election, 3 Mar., but the complaint against the result of the ensuing by-election, 29 Mar. 1830, was not prosecuted.

A total of 143 Members with no previous parliamentary experience (22 per cent of the new House) were returned at the 1826 general election. During the life of the Parliament, a further 62 novice Members came in at by-elections or on petition. Of these, nine were in place before the division on Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827. In this, 61 of the new Members voted for relief and 63 against it. Between 1826 and the 1830 dissolution there were 155 by-elections, of which 31 were contested. There were 119 in England (21 contested), three in Wales (all uncontested), eight in Scotland (one contested), and 25 in Ireland (nine contested). The last to take place was that for St. Mawes on 3 May 1830.


The Election of 1830

George IV was known to be dying for several weeks before he expired on 26 June 1830, and the prospect of an election had occupied politicians’ and agents’ minds for some time. In late May Lord Mahon, the son of Lord Stanhope, who was searching for a seat, was informed by the minister Lord Granville Somerset and the election broker John Vizard that there would be ‘great difficulty, not to say impossibility’ in securing one ‘by purchase’, as ‘greater sums will be given for seats at the next election than upon any former occasion’. Mahon was led to believe that ‘one reason why seats are so extravagantly dear at present is because the East India Company, anxious for the renewal of their charter, are in the field as competitors’.37 Shortly before the king’s death, Mahon (who eventually found a berth at Wootton Bassett for £1,500 a year) told his father that ‘many persons have already secured their seats’; yet a month later Lord Strangford heard that ‘in many places, seats in the next Parliament are actually going a-begging’.38 Two days after the king’s death the outgoing Irish secretary Lord Francis Leveson Gower wrote from London to William Gregory, the under-secretary in Dublin:

It is important that the government should be aware of the present prospect of the approaching elections. I would be obliged to you to collect as far as possible any information bearing on the subject and transmit me a list of the seats with much information appended— the probable candidates, their chance, their means of supporting a contest, their politic[s] and nature of their expected support.

A week later, however, he had to ask Archdeacon Singleton, ‘Is there anyone you could set to work to give us some news of the elections? Gregory knows nothing and will not take the trouble or acquire the means of knowing’.39 Whether the deficiency of Irish electoral information was rectified is not clear. Parliament was dissolved on 24 July and the first English borough elections took place on the 30th. The latest dated returns were those for Argyllshire (26 Aug.), Inverness-shire (27 Aug.) and Orkney and Shetland (1 Sept.). Of the 380 constituencies, 128 (34 per cent) were contested, 16 more than in 1826 and 35 more than in 1820. In England ten counties (25 per cent) and 76 boroughs (38) were contested. There were no contests in Wales. Three Scottish counties (ten per cent) and six burgh groups (40) were contested. Ireland was much more contentious than in 1820 and 1826, with 18 counties (56 per cent), 14 boroughs (42) and Dublin University going to the polls. Overall, 31 counties (27 per cent) and 96 boroughs (37) were contested.

A number of controversial issues were aired. The most prominent was probably the call for further economy, retrenchment and tax reductions to relieve distress. In Ireland, this demand was given additional edge by hostility to recent duty increases. Here, too, tithes and repeal of the Union were on the agenda. In many constituencies the slavery question was debated, with Dissenters in particular pressing strongly for abolition and presaging their renewed and intensive petitioning campaign. The 1830 sale of beer bill, which had sought to open the trade, and the East India Company’s trade monopoly were sore points in a number of places. There was retrospective recrimination or rejoicing over Catholic emancipation. Parliamentary reform was widely and sometimes vociferously supported, often by the unfranchised crowds who besieged the hustings as well as by committed reforming candidates and sitting Members. Some candidates made pledges on the issue, with varying degrees of sincerity. In general terms, the strength of support for reform and the concomitant disillusionment with and contempt for the existing system confirmed the Whig leaders’ commitment to promoting the cause in the new Parliament. It also convinced most of the Huskissonites of the need for change. There was some spectacular violence in England, notably at Bedford, Boston, Bristol, Dover, Great Grimsby, Kingston-upon-Hull, Lichfield, Northampton, Norwich and Shaftesbury. In Wales, the Caernarvon mob ran amok. The Irish elections, where the county electorates had been drastically pruned by the 1829 disfranchisement of the 40s. freeholders, were perhaps a little less turbulent than in 1826; but there was excessive violence and rioting in counties Louth, Monaghan and Tipperary, and in Galway, Kilkenny and Limerick.

It soon became apparent that the elections were going badly for the government in the English and some Irish counties and in the more populous and open boroughs. In the English counties, ministerialists were defeated or ousted without a contest in Cambridgeshire, Devon, Essex, Norfolk, Northumberland, Somerset, Suffolk, Surrey and Sussex. In the larger boroughs, there were setbacks in Beverley, Carlisle, Durham, Norwich and Taunton. In uncontested Wales, ministerialists were turned out from Denbigh Boroughs and Glamorgan, though there was a gain in Caernarvon Boroughs. The government’s only obvious losses in Scotland were in Nairnshire (by its rotation with Cromartyshire) and Stirling Burghs. Irish losses occurred in counties Clare, Galway, Limerick, Longford, Mayo, Roscommon, Tipperary and Wexford, and at Downpatrick, Dublin University and Kilkenny. Brownlow wrote to the Huskissonite Edward Littleton of ‘the new spirit that has been born in Ireland from the new qualification of voters’, in that ‘men have offered themselves in half the counties on independent interests and the battle has been for principles and not for names’.40 Many years later Brougham (whose triumphant return for Yorkshire as an outsider supported by the West Riding industrialists, in defiance of the county aristocracy, Whig as well as Tory, was perhaps the most significant result of all) recalled that the government had neglected to deploy much ‘crown influence’.41 There was not much of this available, but the ministry certainly intervened directly in at least ten Irish counties and two boroughs (Drogheda and Dublin). They also exercised such influence as they could command in the Aberdeen, Anstruther and Perth Burghs and in Haddingtonshire. Above all, they made a dead set at the small band of Huskissonites, but with singular lack of success. They failed to dislodge Charles Grant from Inverness-shire, and, while they enlisted local influential partisans to drive his brother Robert out of Inverness Burghs, he had the satisfaction of defeating the home secretary Peel’s brother Jonathan at Norwich. (Peel’s brother Edmund was also beaten by a Huskissonite, at Newcastle-under-Lyme, while his brother-in-law George Dawson and crony John Croker lost their Irish berths.)42 In the Haddingtonshire contest, the Huskissonite Sir George Warrender, a supporter of the unsuccessful local candidate against a ministerialist stranger, was provoked to deplore the ‘somewhat new and extraordinary’ degree of government interference there and elsewhere; to ‘tell ministers’ that ‘such was the view taken by the public of their interference, that they would lose all the counties and great towns in England, though they might gain by it in the rotten boroughs and in Scotland’, and to declare his probable conversion to the need for reform.43

However, the elections ought not to be considered in crude party terms, for party animus was not particularly intense. In addition to the government’s obvious failure in open constituencies and the strength of popular support for reform, a striking feature was a considerable collapse of the traditional electoral influence of the ruling elite. While this was far from constituting a total breakdown of deference, contemporaries were struck by it. Of the English county elections, Le Marchant wrote that ‘one great feature of them is that the small gentlemen and the independent farmers separate themselves from the aristocracy, and usually oppose the government candidates’.44 The defeats of ministerialists in Devon and Suffolk, for example, were made possible by freeholders’ revolts. The spirit of insubordination endangered entrenched Whig as well as Tory interests: Lord John Russell lost his family’s seat for Bedford by one vote, although the neglect of the constituency by his brother as the previous Member was a factor. Lord Grosvenor conceded one of his family’s seats at Chester, and at Lichfield Lord Anson only secured the return of both his nominees by agreeing publicly that the local independents should take one seat next time. In a number of English boroughs there were attempts, albeit largely unsuccessful, to overthrow establish patronal interests by legal campaigns to open the franchise or self-elected corporations or both: the closed Cinque Ports of Hastings, Hythe, New Romney, Rye and Winchelsea were targets for this, as were Calne, Dartmouth, Marlborough, Truro and Wigan.45 The extent to which the news of the revolution in Paris had an effect on the British elections is not clear. It is probably correct, as Professor Gash argued many years ago, to assume that it had little if any influence on the results; but it certainly arrived in plenty of time to enhance popular enthusiasm for reform in many open constituencies, as Dr. Quinault has suggested.46 For example, Poulett Thomson, who thought it ‘a glorious revolution’, reported on 14 August that in Kent, ‘the only part [of the kingdom] I have been in, I find the people excited by … [the French news] to a very great degree’.47 Mallet replied to information sent him by Francis Baring after his return for Portsmouth that ‘I am not at all surprised that the news of the Paris events should have been so cordially received [there], and I think all the better of the people of this country for their feelings on the occasion’. At the same time, he regretted ‘the extreme coldness of tone and feeling which prevails among the higher classes of society’.48 Its greatest impact was in enhancing the urban reform movement in the autumn, when news of the Belgian revolt against Holland added to the excitement. Also contributing to this were Brougham’s speechifying in the West Riding manufacturing towns during his campaign in Yorkshire and Henry Hunt’s tour of the Lancashire industrial centres after his defeat at Preston. The return of the radical Joseph Hume for the prestigious semi-metropolitan constituency of Middlesex was another sign of the times. Overall, there was an unmistakable impression that the government had been morally if not numerically weakened by the elections and that ‘the people look to great changes’.49

There were widely discrepant estimates of the gains and losses, reflecting the confusion of the political situation and uncertainty about the stance of many new Members. In mid-August Lord Durham reckoned that the opposition groups had gained 33 seats, with more sure to come; and he subsequently claimed a gain of 50.50 Duncannon, who thought some of the Irish Members would form ‘a very obstreperous set’, guessed that government had ‘lost near 30’.51 On the ministerial side, Croker thought the elections had been ‘very bad’ for the government, but admitted that this was ‘not the light in which the treasury views the returns’.52 The ever optimistic and not terribly competent Planta supplied Peel with a series of calculations as the elections progressed. On 13 August he claimed a government gain of 16 seats, and on the 18th, sending some calculations ‘made out’ by Charles Ross, one of 17. On 23 August he put the balance at 48 seats gained and 28 lost.53 His final tally, sent to Wellington on 30 Aug. 1830, was a net gain of 22 seats: 15 in England and Wales; four in Scotland, and three in Scotland.54 In September Brougham, having been egged on by George Agar Ellis, published anonymously The Result of the General Election; or, What has the Duke of Wellington gained by the Dissolution? Claiming to have seen the treasury calculation of a net gain of 21 [sic], Brougham dissected the English and Irish results and argued that in reality the government had lost between 20 and 26 seats. Analysis of Planta and Brougham’s claims of gains and losses indicates that the latter was very largely correct. In the first place, Planta, whose arithmetical ability was not his strong point, counted ‘gains’ in county Armagh and at Dublin twice, so that the true net gain according to his terms was 20. Looking at the returns for the places which he and Brougham specified, it emerges that he was wrong to claim gains for Bedfordshire, East Retford, Great Grimsby, Hindon, Kingston-upon-Hull, Lincoln, Oxford, Shaftesbury (one gain, not two) and Wells in England; for Renfrewshire in Scotland, though he omitted to notice an obvious gain in Lanarkshire; and for counties Armagh, Monaghan, Westmeath and Wexford and the borough of Wexford in Ireland (where he overlooked the gain at Drogheda). Brougham was wrong to claim opposition gains at Gloucester, Banbury and Rye, but was otherwise correct in his analysis. Thus a revised and more accurate calculation of government gains and losses would be:



















This represents a net overall loss of 15 seats. In fairness to Planta, it must be noted that these revisions are partly based on consideration of how Members voted in the division on the civil list which brought the ministry down, 15 Nov. 1830, almost three months after the elections, during which much water flowed under the political bridge. Not least, Wellington’s obtuse declaration against all reform and the desire of some Members to curry favour with disgruntled constituents were factors in the defeat. However, it does appear that Planta’s calculations, like his subsequent analysis of the allegiance of individual Members, were significantly inaccurate, and that the government emerged from the elections even weaker than it had been at the time of the king’s death.55

Petitions touching the general election returns from 56 constituencies were lodged with the new Parliament, plus four arising out of the by-elections for Liverpool (30 Nov. 1830), Knaresborough (2 Dec. 1830), Perth Burghs (13 Jan. 1831) and Londonderry (2 Apr. 1831). Of these 60, investigation of four ended in a reversal of the result: Queenborough, Seaford, Wexford and the Perth Burghs by-election. The inquiries into 32 confirmed the election of the sitting Member or Members, and the petitions concerning Dover, county Mayo and Tregony were deemed to be ‘frivolous and vexatious’. Seven cases resulted in the voiding of the elections: county Clare, Colchester, Durham, Evesham, Liverpool (by-election), Londonderry (general election) and Perth Burghs (general election). Special reports were produced on corruption at Evesham and Liverpool and the new writs were suspended. Fourteen petitions lapsed, that concerning Rye was withdrawn pending the hearing of an appeal petition, which reversed an earlier ruling on the right of election, and those touching the Knaresborough and Londonderry by-elections were overtaken by the April 1831 dissolution.

A total of 141 men (21 per cent of the Membership) with no previous parliamentary experience were returned at the general election. Of these, 101 came in for English seats (21 per cent of English Members); three (13) for Welsh seats; nine (20) for Scottish seats; and 28 (28) for Irish constituencies. Of the 141, only 35 (25 per cent) divided with government on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, while 64 (45) were in the opposition majority. Those who voted with ministers were made up of 27 English Members, one Welsh, six Scottish and one Irish Member; and their opponents of 48 English Members, one Scottish Member and 15 Irish Members. Twenty-two Members with no previous parliamentary experience were returned to the 1830 Parliament at by-elections or on petition. There were 59 by-elections during the life of the Parliament, of which 14 were contested. They included the sensational affair at Preston in December 1830, when Hunt defeated Lord Derby’s grandson Edward Smith Stanley, seeking re-election on his appointment as Irish secretary in the Grey ministry, by 338 votes in a poll of 7,122. The last one to take place was that for Shaftesbury on 19 Apr. 1831, four days before the dissolution obtained by the Grey ministry from a reluctant king following the defeat of their English reform bill on Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment.


The Election of 1831

Parliament was dissolved on 23 April. In a number of places declarations had already been issued and preliminary canvassing undertaken for the anticipated first general election following the enactment of reform. The English borough elections began on the 29th. Most of the results were in by the end of the third week of May. The Scottish burghs elected their Members between 23 and 26 May, and only four Scottish counties remained to do so thereafter: Fifeshire, Inverness-shire and Sutherland (27 May) and Orkney and Shetland (1 June). Of the 380 constituencies, 122 (32 per cent) were contested, as against 93 in 1820, 112 in 1826 and 128 in 1830. There were contests in 11 English counties (28 per cent); 67 English boroughs (33); at Cambridge University; in three Welsh counties (25 per cent) and one Welsh borough; in 12 Scottish counties (40); at Edinburgh and in four burgh districts (33); in 13 Irish counties (41); eight Irish boroughs (24), and at Dublin University. Overall, 34 per cent of the counties and 31 per cent of the boroughs saw contests.

This election, in which the Tories suffered as close to a landslide defeat as was possible under the unreformed electoral system, has, for obvious reasons, attracted more scholarly scrutiny than the others in this period. Professor O’Gorman summed it up as ‘the apotheosis of independence’ and ‘a verdict on the electoral system’, and Dr. Parry saw it as ‘a referendum—not so much on the bill under discussion—since the issues involved were too complicated—but on the abstract principle of reform (and opposition to slavery)’.56 Michael Brock attributed the government’s success to ‘the very great popularity of the bill’.57 The detailed research which lies behind the constituency articles in these volumes has made it clear that at the centre of the electoral debate, in places where it could find expression, was the ministry’s specific reform scheme, rather than an abstract principle. While reformers might have reservations about details of the proposals, the slogan ‘The bill, the whole bill and nothing but the bill’ had real meaning. Most Tories who had to fight for their seats (usually without success) paid lip service to the need for ‘moderate reform’ but condemned the ministerial scheme as too radical or even revolutionary. The growing popular pressure for effective reform and the strides made by the cause of electoral independence since the summer and elections of 1830, together with the realization by a significant portion of the ruling elite that resistance to all reform might result in a disastrous breakdown, played their part in producing the large reform majority.58 Professor Jupp adroitly summed up the election as having been ‘as much an endorsement as a demand that could not be refused’.59

The day after the dissolution the Scottish Whig John Archibald Murray, who was in London, reported that James Brougham had told him that he had ‘gone over the lists with [the patronage secretary] Ellice last night and they reckoned that ministers would gain 70’. Murray thought this ‘a sanguine calculation’, but he noted that ‘all the Tory county Members are flying from their seats’.60 The first two days of the elections made it clear that the reformers were on course for an emphatic victory. Two reformers walked over at Dover, the only Tory Member for London, William Ward, gave it up, the quondam radical Whig Sir Robert Wilson was ousted from Southwark on account of his vote for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, while Gascoyne himself was in deep trouble at Liverpool. There were defeats at the polls for two aristocratic interests in the Hertfordshire boroughs of Hertford (2nd marquess of Salisbury) and St. Albans (1st earl of Verulam), and the anti-reformer Richard Hart Davis threw in the towel at Bristol.61 On 2 May Charles Baring Wall informed Ralph Sneyd that three days earlier he had been ‘beaten at Guildford, as every gentleman is everywhere. They adore me still, but the bill they idolize still more; and after what I saw there I feel convinced there is no resisting the torrent’.62 On 3 May Arbuthnot told Salisbury that ‘by the returns from the post office up to this morning we had lost 20 seats in boroughs, and had gained ten’. He added that of the 251 returns now in, ‘ministers have 120, we 129 and two doubtful’. ‘This’, he concluded, ‘would not be so bad; but it will be sad work when the county returns come in’. On 5 May he put the score at ‘loss of seats’ 34; ‘gain’ 16; ‘balance against us’ 18; ‘numbers returned’ 339; ‘radicals’ 172; ‘we’ 162; two ‘doubtful’. But, he added, ‘the crash will be the counties’.63 So it proved, for, as the Whig Lord Sefton commented, the English county Members were soon ‘tumbling about like ninepins’.64 The Tory Thomas Gladstone noticed with dismay ‘how almost universally the counties are going in favour of reform. Look where you will, the same blind fury for “the Bill” seems to rage. I fear that Peel was not far wrong, when he spoke of the dangers of the “journalism” of this country’.65 In part this reflected a Tory surrender, in that the government’s early successes in the open boroughs made it obvious that there would be a majority to carry the reform bills through the Commons and so deterred many Tory peers and gentry from wasting money and courting unpopularity in a hopeless cause with new elections perhaps only months away. There were defeats for anti-reformers in Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Dorset, Essex, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. Some old and seemingly impregnable aristocratic interests were overturned by defeat at the polls or by the withdrawal of candidates: for example, Rutland (Cambridgeshire and Leicestershire); Lonsdale (Cumberland and Westmorland); Newcastle (Nottinghamshire); Beaufort (Gloucestershire); and Beauchamp (Worcestershire). Shropshire was the only English county to return two anti-reform Members, and of the other 80 all but four were supporters of the English reform bill. The exceptions were Lord Chandos, who successfully defended his Buckinghamshire seat, Lord Mandeville, who did likewise in Huntingdonshire, Henry Lowther (Westmorland) and Lord Granville Somerset (Monmouthshire). Reformers came in for the overwhelming majority of the English open boroughs, while about 84 per cent of English anti-reform Members were returned for boroughs scheduled for partial or complete disfranchisement or nomination boroughs likely to be opened by the reform bill. Four others sat for the Universities. (The defeat of the foreign secretary Palmerston at Cambridge was one of the few crumbs of comfort for the Tory opposition.)66 It is quite clear that in the counties the support for reformers and the ministerial scheme came from Whig gentry and hordes of freeholders and tenants, while in the open boroughs they were endorsed by a majority of urban tradesmen with backing from the lower orders.67

The wife of the former Tory minister Sir Henry Hardinge wrote to her brother Lord Londonderry on 12 May 1831 that ‘we have lost 19 seats’ and that ‘when Ireland and the counties are added it may be 30 or 32, but Sir H. is confident we shall muster 290 anti-reformers’.68 The reality was worse. In early May Lord John Russell reckoned ministers ‘shall gain about 40 on the balance, or perhaps 50, which will give us a majority of 80 or 100’, though he added that ‘such a majority is good to pass the [reform] bill, and for nothing else. We cannot work through measures with it’.69 A week later Ellice was reported to be counting on a gain of 41 so far, ‘besides all the counties which are to come’.70 The following day Poulett Thomson, vice-president of the board of trade, told the leader of the Commons Lord Althorp that ‘up to today, we have gained, taking the most unfavourable calculation, 49 Members, or 98 votes’, and on 18 May he thought ‘the majority is now about 140, without including any but the Bill candidates’.71 Brougham’s ‘own estimate’ in mid-May was a gain of 90, made up of 31 county Members, 39 borough Members, ten Scottish and ten Irish.72 Ellice now reckoned that ‘our majority cannot be less than 150, and will be somewhere between that number’ and Brougham’s ‘more sanguine calculation’.73 No detailed analysis of the allegiances of the new Parliament has come to light, but comparison of the composite majority of two against the English reform bill in the 1830 Parliament (that is counting Members who did not change their votes in the two divisions) with that of 136 for the second reading of the reintroduced measure, 6 July 1831, indicates that the government had gained at least 70 seats, certainly for the purposes of backing the reform bills. In England they made about 51 gains, in Wales four, in Scotland eight (almost all in the burghs), and in Ireland seven (chiefly in the counties).

The arch-Tory Harriet Arbuthnot wrote in her diary, 16 May 1831, that ministers

have so managed the elections that they will get anything they please; they have by the furious writing of their papers, excited the people into a perfect state of madness; the most disgraceful outrages have been in a manner sanctioned by the government, who take no pains to prevent or quell riots; the anti-reformers have not dared to appear out of their houses, candidates have been nearly beat to death who were anti-reformers. In Scotland the lord advocate has instructed the mass of the people how to assemble in tumultuous and overwhelming masses, and all over the three kingdoms the government have, in the most barefaced manner, informed all voters holding government situations, however small the value, that if they did not vote for the government candidates they would be dismissed.

Three weeks later she complained:

The government have certainly acted throughout a most wicked and unjustifiable part … They … roused the people … into a positive frenzy of desire for … [the reform scheme’s] success. They encouraged every species of violence … and … persuaded the people that the king was most anxious for the bill and that if it was carried, they would have bread and meat at half the price they now pay.74

In the first week of polling Hardinge observed to Londonderry that ‘the reform mania, uncontrolled by positive influence as in the case of close boroughs or of anger of the freemen whom the bill disfranchises, is not to be overcome at this crisis when a k[ing] heads the mob or blindly submits to the dictates of his ministers’.75 The independent backbencher Sir George Staunton, who had voted for the second reading of the reform bill but for the wrecking amendment, was alarmed by the activities of ‘furious and unprincipled demagogues’ during the election and found it ‘impossible not to fear that the Parliament now electing under the influence of the prevailing excitement will prove a revolutionary Parliament’.76 Peel blamed the Tories’ defeat on ‘royalty and physical strength combined’.77 These elements did play a part in the elections, but chagrined and alarmed Tories understandably exaggerated their effects. The elections were not significantly more violent than others in this period, although the atmosphere was certainly more frenzied than usual. There was serious violence at Wigan and Rye, and in the latter case physical force secured the return of one pro-reform Member. Bridgwater, Newark, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stamford and Warwick saw some nasty incidents, and a number of other places experienced run-of-the-mill disorder. In Wales, rival mobs fought in Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire and Caernarvon Boroughs, and the sheriffs made no return for Carmarthen on account of destructive rioting. Ireland seems to have been comparatively peaceful,78 but the Scottish elections were unusually violent: Dumfries Burghs, Edinburgh, Haddington Burghs, Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Dunbartonshire and Lanarkshire were scenes of ugly mob violence and attacks on successful anti-reform candidates. The Lanarkshire affair was later noticed in the Commons. Alexander Pringle, the Tory Member for Selkirkshire, thought it was ‘quite a new feature in Scotland to bring up the mob and excite them to canvass the elections, and we have on this occasion had some notable examples’.79 Almost all the electoral violence was perpetrated by pro-reform elements, and the prospect of verbal abuse and possible physical intimidation must have deterred a number of Tory candidates.80 There was some unfair exploitation of the king’s approval of the reform bills and granting of the dissolution, which masked William’s mounting alarm at the mood of the country and wish to have the measures considerably modified; but the public knew nothing of this and he was very popular at this time.81 As for the deployment of government influence, no doubt it occurred in the limited number of constituencies in which it could be effective, and the Irish administration, whose electoral successes owed much to the exertions of Sir William Gosset (former Member for Truro), the under-secretary at Dublin Castle, found itself in hot parliamentary water over its alleged interference in the Dublin election. However, Professor Newbould has pointed out that for all the government’s success at these elections, its ‘central electoral organization was almost non-existent’. Financially, it was largely dependent on donations from wealthy individuals, but money was in short supply.82 Ellice had difficulty in finding candidates and making them pay their own way. Early in proceedings he told Brougham that

everything is put upon me, and I am blamed for everything that goes wrong … I cannot find candidates, and, what is still more difficult, the persons exactly suited to the particular places requiring them, and above all, men that know their own minds with money to fight any borough and almost any county … All is going right where we have people of nerve and determination to deal with, something wrong where we have undecided and weak candidates.83

A document in Ellice’s papers dated 7 Nov. 1831 records donations amounting to £14,550 from over 40 individuals and including £1,500 from the treasury, and lists 21 constituencies, plus Ireland and Wales, on which various sums amounting to £14,368 1s. 6d. had been laid out.84 The reformers’ Loyal and Patriotic Fund, sustained by popular subscriptions nationwide, made contributions to the expenses of some candidates, including Lords Tavistock and Nugent in Bedfordshire and Aylesbury, John Rooper in Huntingdonshire and Benjamin Hall in Monmouth Boroughs, but its impact was limited. The radical Parliamentary Candidates Society, which the Westminster activist Francis Place came to dominate, was originally formed with the object of promoting suitable reform candidates, but in practice concentrated on publicizing details of the votes and speeches of anti-reform Members. It established at least ten provincial offices, but its practical effect was minimal.85 The Tories, on the other hand, made use of their new Charles Street office as an electoral headquarters and could draw on cash left over from the previous government’s fighting fund, supplemented by new subscriptions. A surplus remained after the elections.86

Only 15 petitions arising from general election contests were submitted to the first session of the new Parliament, along with three concerning the subsequent by-elections at Bandon Bridge (22 July), Dublin (18 Aug.) and Wallingford (21 Sept.). One was received from Calne on the right of election. Of these 19 petitions, the inquiries into three resulted in a reversal of the result: Coleraine, Haddington Burghs and Monmouth Boroughs. Three investigations ended in confirmation of the sitting Member or Members: Dublin by-election, Glasgow Burghs and Roxburghshire. Three led to the voiding of elections: Dublin general election, Great Grimsby and Pembrokeshire. Seven petitions lapsed (Bandon Bridge, Bere Alston, Carlisle, Northampton, Petersfield, county Wexford and Weymouth), and consideration of those concerning the Calne franchise and the Wallingford by-election was deferred. Inquiry into the Carmarthen petition resulted in the issue of a new writ and censure of the sheriffs for making no return. Special reports were produced on bribery and ministerial interference at Dublin, treating at Great Grimsby and the conduct of the sheriff in Pembrokeshire. In addition to the Wallingford petition, petitions concerning four by-elections were lodged in the second session of the 1831 Parliament. The inquiry into the one concerning Dorset confirmed the return of the sitting Member, while the Forfarshire petition succeeded in having the result reversed. The Wallingford petition lapsed, as did those from Drogheda and Tregony.

A total of 116 Members (18 per cent of the whole) with no previous parliamentary experience were returned at the 1831 general election: 83 for English seats, two for Welsh, 11 for Scottish and 20 for Irish. They were in favour of reform by 70 to 30 per cent. Twenty-one men with no previous parliamentary experience were returned on petition (two) or at by-elections (19) during the life of this Parliament. There were 60 by-elections, of which 19 were contested, including those for Dorset (September 1831) and Cambridgeshire (October/November 1831), which attracted considerable national attention and seemed to deliver contradictory verdicts on the supposed reaction against reform in the rural areas. The last by-election was that for county Tipperary, where Otway Cave was returned on 8 Aug. 1832, eight days before the prorogation of the last unreformed Parliament, which was dissolved on 3 Dec. 1832.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

End Notes

  • 1.  J.E. Cookson, Lord Liverpool’s Administration, 1815-1822 (1975), p. 215; Hants RO, Calthorpe mss 26M62/F/C70, Wilberforce to Calthorpe, 1 Feb. 1820.
  • 2.  Add. 51546, Holland to Grey, 15, 22 Feb. 1820.
  • 3.  Grey mss.
  • 4.  Add. 51609, Holland to R. Adair, 8 Mar. [1820].
  • 5.  Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 17 Mar. 1820.
  • 6.  Lansdowne mss, bound vol. of letters to Lord Murray.
  • 7.  Add. 38458, f. 321.
  • 8.  Harewood mss, Liverpool to Canning, 23 Mar. 1820.
  • 9.  Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 21, 23 Mar. [1820].
  • 10.  F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties: The Unreformed Electoral System of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989), 256 n. 102, states his `own impression’ that `serious election violence was infrequent’, with about half a dozen constituencies experiencing it at each election and `a similar or slightly greater number of less important incidents [occurring] elsewhere’. The research undertaken for the constituency articles in these volumes has largely confirmed this view as far as England is concerned, but there was extreme violence in a number of Irish counties in 1826 and 1830 and in various Scottish constituencies in 1831.
  • 11.  Add. 51782, Holland to Fox. 4 Apr. 1820.
  • 12.  Brougham mss, Brougham to Lady Charlotte Lindsay, 1 Apr. 1820; Add. 38284, f. 28; 40344, f. 38
  • 13.  Grey mss.
  • 14.  NLW, Coedymaen mss, bdle. 29, Williams Wynn to Phillimore, 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 15.  Dorset RO, Bankes mss D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 116. See also Colchester Diary, iii. 124-5.
  • 16.  Norf. RO. Gurney mss RGQ 401/158.
  • 17.  Lansdowne mss, Baring to Lansdowne, 16 Sept. 1825.
  • 18.  Add. 51655.
  • 19.  Ibid. Mackintosh to Holland, 23/25 Jan. 1826.
  • 20.  Add. 51679, Russell to Lady Holland, 16 Jan. 1826.
  • 21.  Add. 51580, Carlisle to Lady Holland, 27 Mar. [1826].
  • 22.  G.I.T. Machin, The Catholic Question in English Politics, 1820-1830 (Oxford, 1964), p. 69, gives figures of 88 for 1820 and 100 for 1826.
  • 23.Baring Jnls. i. 46.
  • 24.Westmeath Jnl. 29 June, 6 July 1826.
  • 25.  Add. 37304, f. 152; A. Mitchell, The Whigs in Opposition, 1815-1830 (Oxford, 1967), p. 185.
  • 26.  See also Machin, 70-83.
  • 27.  Add. 51724, Duncannon to Holland [July 1826].
  • 28.  Parker, Peel, i. 410-11.
  • 29.  See Machin, 83-85; S.J. Connolly, `Mass Politics and Sectarian Conflict, 1823-30’, in A New History of Ireland, v. ed. W.E. Vaughan (Oxford, 1989), pp. 97-99; O. Macdonagh, The Hereditary Bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (1988), pp. 223-6.
  • 30.  Add. 41388, f. 66; N. Gash, Mr. Secretary Peel (1985 edn.), 387.
  • 31.  Macdonagh, 226-7.
  • 32.  Bulwer, Palmerston, i. 170-1, quoted in Machin, 86.
  • 33.Baring Jnls. i. 46-49.
  • 34.Hobhouse Diary, 121.
  • 35.  See Machin, 85-86, 195.
  • 36.  NLW ms 10804 D, letterbk. 2, Williams Wynn to duke of Buckingham, 24 June 1826.
  • 37.  Cent. Kent. Stud. Stanhope mss U1590 C130/9, Mahon to Stanhope, 22, 24, 26 May; C138/2, Strangford to same, 21 May 1830.
  • 38.  Ibid. C130/9, Mahon to Stanhope, Sunday [June]; C138/2, Strangford to same, 25 July 1830.
  • 39.  NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks. M. 738, Leveson Gower to Gregory, 28 June, to Singleton, 6 July 1830
  • 40.  Duke Univ. Lib. Fazakerley mss, Littleton to Fazakerley, 1 Sept. 1830.
  • 41.  Brougham, Life and Times, iii. 48; P. Jupp, British Politics on the Eve of Reform. The Duke of Wellington’s Administration, 1828-30 (1998), p. 48
  • 42.  See the comments of the Whig Charles Poulett Thomson to John Fazakerley, 9 Aug. 1830 (Add. 61937, f. 116).
  • 43.Edinburgh Evening Courant, 12 Aug. 1830.
  • 44.Baring Jnls. i. 66.
  • 45.  See M. Brock, The Great Reform Act (1973), pp. 88, 90-94, 99-101; Jupp, 399; B. Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England, 1783-1846 (Oxford, 2006), pp. 414-15; O’Gorman, 310; R. Stewart, The Foundation of the Conservative Party, 1830-1867 (1978), p. 52-55.
  • 46.  See Gash, `English Reform and French Revolution in the General Election of 1830, in Essays presented to Sir Lewis Namier ed. R. Pares and A.J.P Taylor (Oxford, 1956), pp. 258-88; R. Quinault, `The French Revolution of 1830 and Parliamentary Reform’, History, lxxix (1994), pp. 377-94; Jupp, 422.
  • 47.  Add. 76381, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 48.Baring Jnls. i. 66.
  • 49.  Ibid. i. 65. Add. 61937, f. 118.
  • 50.  Durham CRO, Londonderry mss D/Lo/C86/12; Grey mss, Durham to Grey, 17 Aug. 1830.
  • 51.  Brougham mss, Duncannon to Brougham, 27 Aug. [1830]. See also Mitchell, 232; Three Diaries, p. xxi.
  • 52.  Lonsdale mss, Croker to Lord Lowther, 13 Aug. 1830.
  • 53.  Add. 40401, ff. 125, 130, 132, 138, 139-40.
  • 54.  Wellington mss WP1/1136/21.
  • 55.  For consideration of Planta’s analysis of the new House, see below, pp. 345-9.
  • 56.  O’Gorman, 312-13; J. Parry, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain (Yale, 1993), p. 96.
  • 57.  Brock, 198.
  • 58.  On the prominent role of aristocratic Whig reformers in the elections and politics of 1830-1, see P. Mandler, Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform: Whigs and Liberals, 1830-1852 (Oxford, 1990), pp. 71-75.
  • 59.  Jupp, Governing of Britain, 245.
  • 60.  Stair mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Murray to Sir John Hamilton Dalrymple, 24 Apr. 1831.
  • 61.  See Brock, 195-6.
  • 62.  Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC17/57.
  • 63.  Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Arbuthnot to Salisbury, 3, 5 May 1831.
  • 64.Greville Mems. ii. 141.
  • 65.  St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 124, T. to J. Gladstone, 10 May 1831.
  • 66.  The Times, 9 July 1831; Cannon, 221.
  • 67.  See O’Gorman, 312-13.
  • 68.  Durham CRO, Londonderry mss D/Lo/C 83 (33).
  • 69.  Add. 51680, Russell to Lady Holland [3 May 1831].
  • 70.  Dacres Adams mss (Aspinall transcripts), Adams to T.P. Courtenay, 10 May 1831.
  • 71.  Add. 76382, Poulett Thomson to Althorp, 11, 18 May 1831.
  • 72.  Add. 51564, Brougham to Lady Holland, Monday [16 May 1831].
  • 73.  Brougham mss, Ellice to Brougham, Tuesday [May 1831].
  • 74.  Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 419-21.
  • 75.  Londonderry mss 83 (32).
  • 76.  Duke Univ. Lib. Staunton mss, memoranda.
  • 77.  Add. 40402, f. 43.
  • 78.  Lansdowne mss, Anglesey to Lansdowne, 27 May 1831.
  • 79.  NAS GD224/581/4.
  • 80.  See O’Gorman, 256; Stewart, 78-79; Brock, 197-8.
  • 81.  See Brock, 198; I. Newbould, Whiggery and Reform, 1830-41 (1990), pp. 68-69; Cannon, 220; Parry, 96.
  • 82.  Newbould, 69.
  • 83.  Brougham mss, Ellice to Brougham, 2 May 1831.
  • 84.  NLS, Ellice mss.
  • 85.  Brock, 200; O’Gorman, 313; D. Miles, Francis Place (1988), pp. 181-3.
  • 86.  Stewart, 68-69, 77-78.