A month ago Dr Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library, spoke on ‘Sir Thomas Gascoigne (1745-1810), national politics and the York county election of 1784’. The paper was based on Dr Lock’s recently-published biography of Gascoigne, election manager for the Rockingham/Fitzwilliam interest Whig candidates in Yorkshire. The paper discussed the local and national circumstances of an election that led to a surprising defeat for the ‘formerly unassailable Rockingham interest’, recently inherited by the Marquess’s nephew, the earl Fitzwilliam. Realising on the eve of the election that they would lose the poll, the Fitzwilliam candidates, William Weddell and Francis Ferrand Foljambe withdrew, meaning Henry Duncombe and William Wilberforce were returned.
Dr Lock surveyed both the national and local aspects of the election to explain the defeat and judge the role of Gascoigne, a surprising choice as election agent. The campaign nationally was characterised by rivalries between the parliamentary factions led by William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox. The Fox-North coalition administration had recently been forced out of power, and Fox’s controversial East India bill was attacked countrywide as an example of Fox overstepping his power. This issue played a part in Yorkshire through handbills such as the one opposite attacking the pro-Fox Weddell and Foljambe. However, it was the interplay of national and local issues, Dr Lock argued, that had a real impact on this election.
One particular issue was the proposal for a receipt tax proposed by the Foxite MP for York, Lord John Cavendish. The proposed tax, falling most heavily upon those involved in trade and industry who used receipts, became widely represented as an attempt by ‘the landed interest in Parliament, to throw the burthens of taxation unfairly and unwisely upon trade’ [A Serious Address to the Public, Concerning the Tax on Receipts (London, 1784)]. In Yorkshire this played badly in the large manufacturing districts in the West Riding, who opposed both the tax and Fitzwilliam’s ‘aristocratic’ candidates.
Dr Lock turned to the organisation of the election campaign, which did not help the Fitzwilliam candidates’ chances. This was particularly crucial due to the timing of the election: Parliament was dissolved on 25 March and both sides had just thirteen days in which to organise and execute the canvass, raise subscriptions, make arrangements for the poll and organise enough accommodation and transport for their supporters to come to York to vote. This was particularly crucial in Yorkshire, the largest constituency in the Commons in terms of acreage and the size of the electorate. The Fitzwilliam candidates faced a highly-organised opposition backed by the pro-reform Yorkshire Association. This powerful local group had initially supported Whig interests in the county, but differences emerged over the extension of the franchise and in 1784 they supported Duncombe and Wilberforce. The locally-based organisation had many advantages: an experienced election manager in the form of William Gray, strong links throughout the county, and a professional organisation to canvass and bring their supporters to the poll (through the help of ‘treating’ at inns, recompense for time away from business, and organised travel into the county seat).
In contrast, the Fitzwilliam interest’s approach was more amateurish. Part of this was due to Gascoigne’s appointment as election manager, a man who had limited experience of election campaigning, let alone as a manager. Although an MP, Gascoigne had spent most of his life abroad and was a recent convert from Catholicism. Dr Lock explored the impact of Gascoigne’s Catholicism, which was used against him during the campaign. Yet his lack of experience proved more costly. He was unsure of the rules about the franchise (even canvassing those who were ineligible to vote); he failed to authorise payments for expenses quickly, and the canvass itself was ‘chaos’ with little coordination. Although Gascoigne quickly improved his organisation, this bad start proved difficult to recover from, with many agents reporting back that they were ‘too late’ to secure the support of voters.
Dr Lock concluded by arguing that it would be ungenerous to lay the Fitzwilliam defeat solely on Gascoigne’s lack of experience or flawed organisation. Public opinion, particularly due to the proposed Receipt tax in the industrial districts of the West Riding, was against them. As one of Gascoigne’s agents concluded after the decision to withrdraw: ‘considering the Tide of popular Rage which bears against us, and in this particular juncture spreads so very wide, our friends have in my judgement adopted a wise Resolution in declining the Poll.’
For more on Sir Thomas Gascoigne, see Dr Lock’s new book, ‘Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment: The Life and Career of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 1745-1810’.
Join us tonight when Philip Aylett (House of Commons) will speak on ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’. Full details here.
The blogpost from Dr Paul Seaward’s recent paper to follow!