Lord Chancellors – learned in the law?

Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, reflects on the Lord Chancellor’s legal experience…

Michael Gove was sworn in as Lord Chancellor on Tuesday, resplendent in the gold-trimmed gown of the office, but without the full-bottomed legal wig, apparently to mark the fact that he is not a qualified lawyer. It has been said that Gove is the second person to hold the office who is not a barrister, following Chris Grayling, appointed in 2012.

Undoubtedly he is the second person since the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 made it unnecessary for the Lord Chancellor to be a lawyer, and separated the position of Lord Chancellor from the role of head of the judiciary. It’s wrong to say, however, that Mr Gove is the second person ever to be lord chancellor without being learned in the law. The earl of Shaftesbury, appointed Lord Chancellor on 17 November 1672, had also never gone on from the what at the time was a customary brief attendance at one of the Inns of Court – the training ground for lawyers but also a sort of finishing school for the English gentry at the time – to qualifying as a barrister. Which is not to say that he did not know a lot about the law: he had taken a leading role in the Law Commission in the 1650s, an attempt to reform many of the antiquated aspects of the law during the period after the abolition of the monarchy by the Rump Parliament. He spoke frequently in Parliament on quite abstruse legal matters. But naturally his fellow lawyers regarded him with intense (and to some extent justified) suspicion. Shaftesbury aroused a lot of distrust among many of his contemporaries, but his reforming instincts were especially deeply distrusted. One lawyer, Roger North, was incensed by his attitude to the procedures of Chancery and the privileges of the House of Commons:

after he was possessed of the great seal, he was, in appearance, the gloriousest man alive: and no man’s discourse, in his place, ever flew so high as his did, not only against the House of Commons, where, perhaps, he expected a party to sustain him; but against the tribe of the court of chancery, officers and counsel, and their methods of ordering the business of the court. As for the Commons, he did not scruple to declare openly, that he did not understand by what reason or right men should sit and vote themselves privileges. And for the chancery, he would teach the bar that a man of sense was above all their forms. He laboured hard and stuck at nothing to get men of his confidence into the House of Commons, and so, with all the gaiety de coeur imaginable, and a world of pleasant wit in his conversation, as he had indeed a very great share, and shewed it upon all occasions, he composed himself to perform the duties of his place.

He adopted an unusually high-profile approach to the office, attempting to revive an old practice of riding to Westminster Hall on the first day of the new term (though trouble with his horse made this less impressive than intended), and ensuring that his speeches on the swearing-in of two lord treasurers and one of the barons of the exchequer were printed. His speech on Baron Thurland’s taking his oath emphasized the burdens that small claims pursued in the court by the king’s officers imposed on ‘the industrious part of the nation’.

In part, opposition to Shaftesbury was simply the natural reaction of a profession that had missed out on a job and was worried about the failure of an amateur to respect their time-honoured, and lucrative, ways of doing things. But it was also doubts about the new chancellor’s executive instincts that caused unease It was widely rumoured that his predecessor had been put out because of his objections to a series of commands which he thought to be of dubious legality: to seal a commission for martial law relating to the troops assembled for an assault on Holland, to seal the Declaration of Indulgence, which lifted statutory restrictions on worship outside the Church of England, or to agree to an injunction to protect some of the bankers affected by the government’s decision to default on their loans in 1672 from proceedings for debt. Shaftesbury managed to overcome these scruples. Mired quickly in other controversies, Shaftesbury did not last long: he was dismissed, rather cordially, by Charles II in 1674, and went on to become one of the most prominent and most reviled leaders of the Whigs during the ‘Exclusion Crisis’ of 1678-81.



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How does it feel to be a new MP?

This week at Westminster MPs elected for the first time will still be finding their feet. With such a large new intake these certainly will not be on their own, but how will they be feeling? This question is one we ask former MPs when we interview them for our oral history project. There are some very common answers (we’ve lost track of how many describe arriving at Westminster as ‘the first day of school!) but there are also very different experiences, depending often on the MP’s politics, expectations or background. In this post I’ll discuss some of the most striking experiences I’ve discovered from our audio archive, all from MPs who first entered the Commons between 1970 and 1997.

Unsurprisingly, especially after the high emotion of election night, many MPs remembered feeling excited or proud when first arriving at Westminster, as demonstrated in this audioclip from Conservative MP John Powley (1983 intake):

Yet for many, their excitement could also be tinged with foreboding, as described by Labour MP John Savidge (1997 intake):

On a personal level I thought on those first few weeks it was 95% euphoria and 5% sheer terror… correspondence started arriving very quickly but you didn’t have an office at that stage, you didn’t have any staff, you didn’t have anywhere to live on a regular basis. It was all going to need to be sorted out. Those worries were in the back of your mind, but you didn’t worry too much because you were feeling ecstatic!

This concern was shared by other MPs, partly because before the 2010 election the induction process was rather low-key and the House of Commons was not the most straightforward place for a newcomer. David Stoddart (1970 intake) phoned the secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party to ask what to do and received the reply “just turn up when you feel like it.” Procedure inside the chamber baffled plenty. For example the Scottish MP Eric Clarke (1992 intake) remembered being tripped up over language: ‘The word “you” – that means the Speaker. Now how many times does a Scotsman use the word “you”?’ Whereas Conservative John Watson (1979 intake) admitted that when it came to procedure, ‘I hadn’t the foggiest what was going on’.

MPs had to rely on friends in the party, other MPs from nearby constituencies, or staff members to both show them around and explain official procedure and the more obscure conventions. Many remembered being very grateful for being shown around or simply shown where the toilets were. The kindness of other MPs surprised John Sykes (1992 intake), as he discusses in this audioclip:

The advice could also be very practical: John Cartwright, elected in a by-election in 1971, remembers being advised by Willie Whitelaw that drinking during late sittings was ‘a big danger’ (not advice Whitelaw always stuck to himself!)

For those with good networks, or who knew something of the Commons, the confusion of being the new person could be brief. Conservative Tom Stuttaford (1970 intake) knew many in the party’s hierarchy:

I was very nicely received actually. Alec Douglas-Home who was then foreign secretary was absolutely charming to me… My wife’s family had put Macmillan into Stockton and the Macmillan family were very kind to me.

Labour MP Hilary Armstrong took over her seat from her father in 1987, so although she did not like the ‘clubby’ atmosphere of the Commons and the lack of support for new members, she knew more than most and what to expect. However, for those without these networks it could be difficult. Labour’s Alice Mahon and Mildred Gordon, both elected in 1987 and on the left of the party, felt very uncomfortable with the ‘class divide’ and ‘hostility’ from other MPs. Gordon remembered:

My first reaction was what the hell have I done?! It was like going in to prison. You only saw your family in the family room, and I was in some dank dark corridor, which is all I could get a desk in for a time.

Some described feeling lonely from being away from family, or shock at the realisation that as backbenchers they had very little power. This was especially the case for those who had risen in local government, as Conservative Sir David Trippier (1979 intake) remembers in this clip:

Labour’s David Hinchliffe (1987 intake), however, has possibly the strangest experience I came across in our interview collection. You just never know what you can pick up on the campaign trail…


For more on our oral history project, visit our website or read some of our oral history project blogposts.

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The ‘Election’ of the Speaker in Fifteenth-Century Parliaments

Today Parliament returns, and the new assembly’s first job is to elect a new Speaker. Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, explores how medieval parliaments ‘chose’ their Speakers…

The practice of electing the Speaker can be traced back almost to the origins of the office in the 1370s, but there is almost nothing to show the form taken by these elections or even if it was common for the speakership to be contested. The official record, the rolls of parliament, simply record that the Commons were, at the outset of each Parliament, charged to elect a Speaker and that their nominee was then formally presented to the King.

There are only two breaks in the silence of the sources. The record of a report made by a Bishop’s Lynn MP to his constituency on his return from the brief Parliament of December 1420 notes an election at the beginning of the assembly in which Roger Hunte narrowly defeated John Russell by four ‘voices’. The only other surviving reference to a medieval Speaker’s election employs the same term. A diary written by the Colchester MPs in the Parliament of 1485, preserved in the borough’s memorandum book, records that Thomas Lovell was elected by ‘voyse’, but here there is no indication of a contest. The probability is that, as is known to have happened in the sixteenth century, the Speaker was generally acclaimed, unanimously and without contention, at the outset of the Parliament.

The election of 1420 was probably a rarity, and a study of the personnel of the speakership in the fifteenth century provides the reason why this should have been so. The Speaker, as he was routinely to be in the sixteenth century, was generally a royal nominee. Usually the Crown chose, as it did with Lovell in 1485, a senior lawyer in its service. No doubt the Commons were generally ready to accept such a nomination, for a capable lawyer or administrator, trusted by the Crown, was likely to prove an effective conduit of communication between the House and the executive.

None the less, on occasion, matters did not run smoothly, particularly when the executive was weak. The Parliament which met at Westminster on 6 November 1449 provides a striking example. It met in an atmosphere of acute crisis. The events of the previous summer had shown, beyond doubt, that Normandy would be lost to the resurgent French, and Rouen itself had fallen only days before Parliament assembled. The Commons were inclined to attribute these reverses to the Crown’s mismanagement, and they elected as their Speaker not a lawyer but an old soldier, Sir John Popham, a veteran of the battle of Agincourt. It is hard to imagine that Popham would have been the Crown’s choice, and it seems reasonable to infer that he was elected against a royal nominee. Yet, almost immediately, Popham pleaded that physical infirmity prevented him exercising the speakership, and the Commons elected William Tresham, a royal official who had been Speaker in three previous Parliaments. It is likely that Tresham was the Crown’s original choice; that, as a protest, the Commons elected Popham against him; and that the government then pressured Popham to stand down. The Commons were thus obliged reluctantly to revert to the accustomed practice of accepting the government’s nomination.

The election of another soldier Sir William Oldhall as Speaker in the Parliament of November 1450 confirms what Popham’s election only implies, namely that, in exceptional circumstances, royal nominations could be defeated. Oldhall, a prominent servant of the government’s principal opponent, Richard, duke of York, was probably the last person in the House that the Crown would have chosen. But what happened when the boot was, so to speak, on the other foot, when the government won the election of its man, but an opposition sought his removal?

This happened in the next Parliament. By the time it met on 6 March 1453, York’s political fortunes, after his failed rising of the previous year, were at a low ebb, and the Commons elected a senior Exchequer official, Thomas Thorpe, a committed supporter of the government, as their Speaker. He was, no doubt, the royal nominee. In the following summer, however, while Parliament was in recess, Henry VI fell into a state of mental prostration, and the political climate changed once more. The duke of York now contrived Thorpe’s removal. He sued him for illegally seizing some of his goods; had him condemned in heavy damages; and, on Thorpe’s failure to pay a sum beyond his capacity to pay, had him committed to the prison of the Fleet. When the next parliamentary session opened on 14 February 1454 the Commons could only ineffectually complain that their Speaker’s imprisonment contradicted the parliamentary privilege of freedom from arrest. They then chose a Speaker more acceptable to the duke.

These dramatic events can hardly be said to be typical of the history of the speakership. From the late 1440s England was descending into civil war and the normal rules of politics were put in suspension. Yet, even in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when nominations were routinely made by the Crown and accepted by the Commons, there remained a tension between this practice of nomination and the idea, already seemingly present from the earliest years of the office, that the Speaker should be the free choice of those for whom he spoke.   That tension was eventually resolved in favour of the latter, and the Crown made no attempt to impose its nominee after 1679.


Further reading

J.S. Roskell, The Commons and their Speakers in English Parliaments, 1376-1523 (Manchester, 1965)

A. Curry, ‘Speakers at War in the late 14th and 15th Centuries’, and A. Hawkyard, ‘The Tudor Speakers 1485-1601, Parliamentary History, xxix (2010), pp. 8-48.


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Early Modern ideas about Parliament’s origins

Our series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament continues today. Dr Paul Cavill, Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University discusses how the origins of Parliament were viewed in the early modern period…

When did the first parliament in England meet? In modern historical consciousness, the answer is straightforward enough: in the year 1265, following the victory of Simon de Montfort over King Henry III at the battle of Lewes. Historians have long objected that the position was by no means so clear-cut. We might prefer to envisage a protracted process of development, possibly stretching as far back as Anglo-Saxon assemblies, which culminated over the mid to late thirteenth century. Underlying this question is the issue of what defines a parliament. Was the first parliament the first general assembly of the king’s subjects so to be called by contemporaries (or later writers)? Or was it the first such assembly to display certain key characteristics, such as the presence of elected representatives of the commons? A purely linguistic answer is possible – in the mid thirteenth century the English language took the word parlement from French – but hardly helps us to understand the peculiar evolution of our assembly. Equally, ‘essentialising’ parliament (that is, defining specific attributes that an assembly must have to qualify) runs the risk of retrospectively imposing purposes or objectives on past actors – de Montfort foremost among them – that they did not hold. Because of its modern association with representative democracy and constitutional monarchy, parliament has proven especially liable to anachronism.

Drawing of Polydore Vergil

Drawing of Polydore Vergil

One fruitful way of exploring this conundrum is by exploring how people in early modern England wrote and thought about previous parliaments. Dr Alexandra Gajda (of Jesus College, Oxford) and I organised a conference on this theme at Oxford in 2013. Alex and I are now editing a collection of essays based on that conference, called Writing the History of Parliament in Tudor and Early Stuart England. My contribution is an essay on the Italian humanist émigré Polydore Vergil. In 1534, Vergil published the first Renaissance history of England, the Anglica Historia. At that time, Vergil’s adopted countrymen showed little interest in the relative antiquity of parliament: while believing parliament to be very old, they did not pinpoint its beginning, and they used the word promiscuously to refer to all sorts of other assemblies (including classical, legendary and supernatural ones). An assumption that parliaments had met before the Norman Conquest co-existed quite happily with the belief that Magna Carta had been the first statute (and not a concession wrung from King John by the barons, as we now think of it). Then in the Anglica Historia, Vergil innovated: he dated England’s first parliament to the year 1116 and thus credited King Henry I as its founder. Historians have long scratched their heads as to why. I shall be offering an explanation (if not a solution) in a paper at the History of Parliament and ICHRPI’s conference ‘Making Constitutions, Buildings Parliaments’ in London this June and July.

My paper and essay will consider the reception in the Tudor and early Stuart periods of Vergil’s dating. The Anglica Historia received a notoriously hostile reception on account of its scepticism about the mythical line of early British kings: Vergil had even dared to doubt the existence of King Arthur! Yet Vergil’s dating of parliament was initially received without complaint and then tacitly absorbed into the most popular vernacular histories, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles. Thus, by 1600, Vergil’s dating of the first parliament had become received wisdom, even though it lacked a contemporary (or modern) rationale. It used to be said that the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed a historical ‘revolution’ out of which the modern discipline emerged. While scholars no longer see developments in such terms, they still recognise the extent to which – as part of a transformation in the intellectual outlook of the English gentleman – historical and antiquarian thought became more sophisticated, open to European influence, and relevant to politics.

Ironically, the early efforts often produced by modern standards ‘worse’ history. The rediscovery of forged texts breathed life into myths about England’s past. Some extended parliament’s origins to Anglo-Saxon, British or Roman times. Belief in the longevity of their institution emboldened discontented parliamentarians to censure royal policy, and led them to perceive the crown’s irritated and uncomprehending response as proof that the monarchy fundamentally misunderstood the constitution. This sense of antiquity certainly contributed to deteriorating relations between the early Stuart kings and their parliaments, and thence to a decade of ‘personal rule’ from 1629. My paper and essay arise out of a sense that modern scholarship is prone to interpret any comment about the antiquity of parliament in these partisan terms. The fact that Polydore Vergil’s dating continued to permeate historical consciousness in the early Stuart period, I shall suggest, may undermine some of the more sweeping claims to identify the political meaning behind contemporary historical writing.


Dr Paul Cavill is Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University. He studies the political and religious history of Tudor England, and is author of The English parliaments of Henry VII, 1485–1504 (Oxford, 2009).

You can read all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.

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The youngest MP since…?

Following the election of Mhairi Black last week, many of you have asked us about young MPs! Over to our Director, Dr Paul Seaward…

Many have said that Mhairi Black’s election as the SNP Member of Parliament for Paisley and Renfrewshire South at the age of 20 makes her the youngest MP since the seventeenth century. It has already been pointed out (some have quoted the History of Parliament) that this is not quite true. Certainly Christopher Monck, then known as the earl of Torrington, was elected to the House of Commons in January 1667, about 7 months short of his 14th birthday.

But he is the youngest MP we know about, rather than the only one under 21. In fact, it’s already been pointed out that several rather high profile MPs in the eighteenth century were elected well under the legal age of majority, at 21, including Charles James Fox, elected for Midhurst at a mere 19.

So Mhairi Black is the youngest MP since when? It’s difficult to say definitively, as we don’t always know MPs’ dates of birth, and there are still some periods that we haven’t investigated fully. Kathryn Rix, in our sister Victorian Commons blog, has given details of the only MP who has so far come to light in the 1832-68 period who was elected when under 21 – although he had celebrated his 21st birthday in the month or so between being elected and taking his seat, so presumably no-one minded too much. It does look likely that there were no under-age MPs after the 1832 Reform Act, particularly as it seems that the age limit was being taken more seriously in the decade or so before 1832.

As Andrew Thrush’s introductory survey to our 1604-29 volumes shows, though it was assumed to be against the custom of Parliament, it was common in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century for young men under, sometimes well under, the age of 21 to be elected, a practice regarded with irritation by some older members, but vaguely amused tolerance by plenty more. Under-age members included, for example, 15 year olds like Lord Wriothesley and Sir Montagu Bertie; even Sir Francis Bacon boasted that he was an MP at the age of 17.

By the late seventeenth century (and perhaps spurred on by the example of Christopher Monck) it seems to have become a bit less acceptable: there was a debate on the subject in 1678 occasioned by the presence in the House of two relations of the Earl of Danby aged 17 and 18 and in 1685 a motion to expel two teenagers was effectively suppressed. One MP referred to the fact that the issue had ‘ever been industriously avoided’. The case of Monck produced a bizarre anomaly when he succeeded to his father’s title, Duke of Albemarle in 1670, when he was still under 21 and barred from taking his seat in the House of Lords because of his age. No-one could quite work out whether the seat was, as a result, vacant or not.

It was possibly the fact that the practice seemed to be getting more common, especially in the 1695 Parliament, that finally compelled some action. In the Elections Act (sometimes known as the Splitting Act) of 1696 (7 and 8 William III, c. 25, clause 8) a provision was included which made clear that only men (it actually said ‘person’, but meant men) over 21 could either vote or be elected to Parliament.

In fact, as our surveys demonstrate, the Act, though it may have had some impact for a few years, was largely ignored afterwards, and the practice continued, and it was rare for a candidate to be objected to on account of his age (as demonstrated in 1754-90 period and 1790-1820 period). Most of these men were elected for ‘pocket’ or ‘nomination’ boroughs, constituencies so tightly under the control of a wealthy and powerful local figure that there was little or no opposition to their nomination – which would often go to their son or other relation. Nevertheless, the practice does seem to have become seen as rather less acceptable by the end of the century. In 1796 there was a successful attempt to unseat a member (Sir Thomas Mostyn) because he was too young, and a sea-change must have happened around 1820.

In the period 1820-32 only three members were elected under age, and all of them were only just under age. The county Down election in 1826 was deliberately prolonged so that it finished after Lord Castlereagh’s 21st birthday. And as we’ve seen, we can (so far at least) only find one member elected after 1832 who was under 21.

So who was the youngest before Mhairi Black? It was almost certainly Robert Jocelyn, Viscount Jocelyn, who was only just 18 when returned for County Louth in the general election of 1806 when a suitable candidate had not been lined up. He gave up the seat at the election the following year, only returning in 1810, after he had attained his majority – an indication of the fact that his election was indeed regarded as a bit improper.


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Predicting the polls: a Victorian perspective

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. Potential supporters and opponents could easily be identified. This not only had an obvious impact on canvassing – rewards for loyal friends, pressure and influence exerted on foes – but also enabled local parties to ‘target’ electors in one other way that in our modern democracy seems extraordinary.

Objections to voting entitlements notice from 1844

Objections to voting entitlements notice from 1844

Before 1918 party agents actually had the ability to challenge the voting qualifications of their known opponents in registration courts, where the lists of all those who could vote (as opposed to those who failed to meet the franchise requirements) were decided by revising barristers. It was not unusual for both parties to have solicitors (and professional agents) in attendance at the annual registrations, assisting the claims of their supporters and trying to find fault with the entitlements of their opponents in order to get them struck off the registers. The outcome of these legal battles could even decide the result of a future election. If one party won a clear majority on the rolls, there was simply no point in their opponents going to the trouble and expense of standing in a poll. This helps to explain why so many Victorian elections continued to be ‘uncontested’.

Interestingly, it was not unusual for ‘floating’ voters or those with a record of switching sides to have their voting entitlements challenged by both political parties in the registration courts. Instead of being courted, as undecided voters are today, this group was deliberately shunned, being considered too fickle and unworthy of the franchise by those who thought party loyalty should be a public duty.

Whatever certainty was gained by successful campaigns to remove these ‘floating’ voters from the rolls, however, was more than offset by the number of ‘new’ electors who freshly qualified for the franchise each year. These inexperienced voters, who had recently acquired sufficient property (or moved into a large enough house) to qualify for the various franchises on offer, posed a real challenge for election agents. Although their admission to the registers might be sponsored by one of the parties, sometimes even to the extent of having their registration fees and rates paid on their behalf, there was never any guarantee that they would poll as expected.

New voters therefore injected an essential element of uncertainty into most Victorian polls, helping to offset the decisive nature of organised registration campaigns. It was this group, more than any other, who possessed the ability to ‘swing’ an election. Unlike today, however, these new voters were not synonymous with youth, but instead were usually mature men well advanced in their careers and economic status. Due to considerable electoral turnover, driven by high levels of mortality and residential mobility, these newly qualified voters often made up as much as third of the electorate.

Modern candidates can take comfort from the fact that one final feature of Victorian elections, which created huge amounts of electoral uncertainty, has long since ceased to exist. This was the ability of electors to cast multiple votes due to the large number of constituencies that elected two (or more) MPs, enabling voters to cast two (or more) votes. In 1832 over 96% of the English electorate actually had more than one vote at their disposal. By being able to cast multiple votes, electors could easily split their support between parties, backing one candidate whilst also polling for a rival. Alternatively they could choose to cast just one of their votes, in a form of behaviour known as ‘plumping’. It was this multiple voting system that ultimately made Victorian polls far more complex than our modern first-past-the-post elections. Even with pollbooks and the ability to influence the registers, the range of voting permutations on offer when more than two candidates stood meant that electoral outcomes often became impossible to predict. At least today’s pollsters only have to deal with single-member seats.


Further Reading:

For further information about Victorian multi-member polls see

For further details about party registration battles see

You can read all in our series on historical elections here.

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‘Elections and how to fight them’: electioneering a century ago

We continue our series on election campaigning through the centuries today. Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the Victorian Commons, gives us an insight into the campaign trail at the turn of the 20th century…

After the South Molton election of 1910, via http://sophialambert.com/familyhistory/CHAPTER8.htm

The winning candidate (George Lambert)’s headquarters after the South Molton election of 1910, via this website

The title of this post, ‘Elections and how to fight them’, comes from a handbook written in 1905 by John Seymour Lloyd. This was just one of several guides published to instruct candidates, election agents and party activists in how to run an election campaign. The Conservative Central Office’s ‘Practical Manual on the Conduct and Management of Parliamentary Elections, for the use of Conservative Candidates and Election Agents’ was first issued in 1890 and was into its fourth edition by 1909. Such handbooks provide fascinating insights into electioneering at the beginning of the previous century.

One of the key concerns of these advice manuals was to ensure that party organisers did not fall foul of election law, in particular the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, a landmark piece of legislation. For the first time, it placed strict limits on how much candidates were allowed to spend during their campaign, and for what purpose. For example, there were restrictions on the number of paid election workers who could be employed, and candidates were not allowed to have their committee-rooms in pubs, a provision designed to discourage the ‘treating’ of voters with free food and drink.

However, as their titles suggested, these manuals were more than simply technical guides to the complexities of election law. Instead they aimed to provide ‘information on practical questions which arise during the progress of an election’. There were tips on canvassing, the holding of election meetings, the distribution of election leaflets, and how to get the voters out on polling day.

With an exclusively male electorate until 1918, references in these publications to women were few and far between. But while women did not yet have the right to vote, they could still play an important role as volunteer election workers: the charms of the ‘lady canvasser’ and the usefulness of the female members of the Primrose League in performing secretarial tasks came in for praise. It was also suggested in Lloyd’s manual that the candidate’s ‘affectionate wife’ (if he had one) should accompany him on his polling day tour of the constituency.

As now, the sending out of election literature to voters in their homes was an important element of the campaign. At the 1906 general election, the Liberal and Conservative party headquarters between them supplied over 60 million items to the constituencies for distribution, and vast amounts of leaflets, pamphlets, posters and other material were also produced at local level. This was the major item of expenditure for candidates, and election agents were warned to keep a careful check on spending. Lloyd’s handbook suggested that ‘Committee Rooms are too often found littered with pamphlets which nobody wants and nobody reads’.

As the political parties were involved not only with getting voters to the poll, but also getting them on to the electoral register in the first place, they could accumulate significant amounts of information on individual voters and their interests, and send them targeted election material. One Liberal agent advised his fellow party activists to classify those on the register into eleven different occupational groups, ranging from ‘factory or mill workers’ and ‘farm labourers’ to ‘grocers, provision merchants, and sweet-stuff sellers’.

One striking difference from current constituency campaigns is the amount of attention which these early twentieth century guides devote to the organisation of public meetings and the skills demanded of election speakers. Election meetings were a vital aspect of the local contest, and it was common for several to be held daily in the run up to polling day. In 1906 the Conservative candidate for Chorley spoke at 50 meetings during his campaign, while in January 1910 the victorious Liberal in Mid-Devon managed over 150.

The advent of the motor car made it easier for candidates to get around their constituency during the campaign, although candidates at earlier elections had managed to reach far-flung districts on horseback or in carriages. Viscount Wolmer, Liberal candidate for the Petersfield division of Hampshire, ‘rode or drove over 1,000 miles to village meetings’ at the 1885 election. Cars could, however, prove more of a hindrance than a help: one Liberal election agent warned that any available cars should not be wasted in giving rides to party workers keen to experience this novelty, but used for taking voters to the poll.

The motor car was just one example of the application of modern technology to early twentieth century election campaigning. One hundred years later, with televised election debates and the use of social media to the fore during the campaign, it seems rather odd to read the tentative suggestion in a 1909 election manual that it would be worth installing a telephone in the candidate’s main campaign office, as this would save money on telegrams.

Given the lengthy list of electioneering tasks set out in these manuals, it is hardly surprising that Lloyd concluded that ‘during a contest there can be few idle moments for the person, be he candidate or agent, who is responsible for the conduct of an election’. Anyone involved in preparations for this week’s polls will undoubtedly sympathise with these sentiments from a century ago.


You can read all in our series on historical elections here – watch out for the final post on election day!

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