For Parliamentarians in the early Georgian period, Christmas was not infrequently interrupted by the business of politics. Dr Charles Littleton and Dr Robin Eagles of the Georgian Lords consider some of the ways the festivities might be upset.
The parliamentary calendar has long marked the period between the festivals of Christmas on 25 December and Epiphany on 6 January with a recess, a time for politicians to remove themselves from the cares of public life to relax, socialize and even make merry.
Political crises, though, do not observe such religious festivals. December 1720, for example, was hardly a time of merriment for members of Parliament as they spent their Christmas frantically trying to determine how to bring the public finances into order after the precipitous fall in the value of the stock in the South Sea Company. This company, which had over-promoted and oversold its stock, saw its value plummet from £1,000 at its height in the late summer down to £100 by the end of the year. Parliament, prorogued since June, was hurriedly recalled in the face of this financial crisis for 8 December, and the Commons immediately made clear their intention to punish those within the Company deemed guilty of having swindled the public and bankrupted the country. Some MPs delighted in describing the bloodcurdling punishments in wait for them. The mood was ugly. Just two days before Christmas there was a meeting of the Company’s General Court, where one of the principal speakers lashing out at the Directors was Henry Howard, Viscount Morpeth, Member for the borough of Morpeth, who later, in 1738, succeeded as 4th earl of Carlisle. According to his sister, Morpeth ‘spoke with great applause and I believe did considerable service’. She also noted that participants at this meeting had been warned not to sit near the Directors ‘for fear of accidents’. This fear was well-grounded, for ‘several people went with pocket pistols and resolved to use them’. [HMC Carlisle, 26] Another account of this singularly unfestive meeting noted that it was several times interrupted by ‘opprobrious exclamations against the Directors’, who beat a surprisingly hasty retreat from the room as soon as they could. [Boyer, Political State of Great Britain xx, 593, 598].
Having called for the papers of the South Sea Company, the Commons adjourned that same day on 23 December, ‘by reason of the Christmas holidays’. They remained formally adjourned until 9 January, but feelings were running so high that they broke into their holidays to reassemble on 29 December to take a first look at these incriminating papers. [HMC Carlisle, 26] The Lords were of a similar sentiment; led by the fiery (and somewhat unstable) duke of Wharton, they too called for copies of all the Company’s papers, which were not ready until Parliament officially resumed on 9 January.
One group which certainly did not have a restful Christmas were the many copyists who had to prepare copies of the Company’s paperwork for both houses in time for their reconvening in early January. The early months of 1721 were spent discussing ways to reinstate confidence among government investors and to find easy scapegoats among the former Directors of the Company. The principal actor in seeing through measures for both was Sir Robert Walpole, who had only recently joined the ministry as Paymaster-General after he had helped to resolve the schism among the Whigs. The South Sea Bubble crisis was the making of him – aided it must be said by the unexpected deaths in rapid succession of some of his principal rivals. He was to emerge from it as the ‘prime minister’, generally considered the first of that office, about to embark on a ministry which lasted almost 21 years.
Milk and water-gruel and a ha’penny roll
It was not just crises of the scale of the South Sea Bubble that sometimes made Christmas less than relaxing for Georgian parliamentarians. Frequently it proved less a holiday season with opportunities for merry-making than a busy time dominated by fêting voters in the hopes of shoring up influence in the boroughs and shires. Just two days before Christmas 1731, the acerbic wit Lord Hervey noted in a letter to his close friend, Stephen Fox, that the earl of Essex had left that morning ‘to be kissed and stuffed at Freeholders’ Christmas feastings by his Grace the duke of Newcastle in Sussex’. Two years later, Newcastle was again in campaigning mode and was thanked by his Sussex neighbour, the duke of Richmond,’ for all your polite entertainment at Bishopstone; If every freeholder in the County was as well pleased with it as myself, Sir Cecyl Bishop & Esqr Fuller might whistle for a vote…’ [Richmond Newcastle correspondence, 9] The effort clearly proved successful and when the following year Sir Cecil Bishopp of nearby Parham House and John Fuller (possibly the same as the former Member for Plympton Erle) stood for Sussex against the sitting candidates, James Butler and Newcastle’s brother, Henry Pelham, neither were successful – though both achieved rather more votes than Richmond’s dismissive remark suggested was likely.
Christmas Day itself was no bar to Newcastle’s determined marshalling of his support. In 1740, making no reference to the import of the day itself, he again sought Richmond’s participation in his efforts to shore up his interest in the area in advance of the poll the coming May. Richmond was normally willing to oblige, as far as he was able, but by December 1748 he was beginning to sound jaded, worn down by his responsibilities on the bench:
… Surely I may be allowed to stay here [Goodwood] dureing the Holydays when no mortall will be in town, & that really I have been employ’d severall hours most days & severall whole days, & shall be so for ten days longer, in makeing enquirys into these horrid murders, & preparing evidences for the Tryalls… [Richmond Newcastle correspondence, 281]
Newcastle may have been particularly insistent on the opportunities the festive period offered for courting votes, but he was far from the only peer to do so. In 1733 Hervey remarked to Fox that ‘your friend, Lord Lovel’ [the former Thomas Coke] who had gone to Norfolk:
to make votes by his hospitality for his brother… entertains all the freeholders with cursing English blockheads, descanting on the impossibility of living like a gentleman if one is served by them, telling them the progress he has made in garbling his family of the uncouth, awkward dogs, and that in another year he hopes not to have one of them under his roof. [Lord Hervey and his Friends, 184]
Hervey wondered at Lovel’s approach. While he may have ‘proved himself perfectly free from being a John-Trot in his taste, one cannot but own, that on this occasion… the being so very French is being a little Irish too.’ As for Hervey himself, he declared himself tired of politics: ‘I look with more horror on the meeting of the Parliament, than my little son does on Monday sennight, when the holidays determine and he is to go to school again’. Christmas can have meant little cheer for him as well. Notoriously sickly (and peculiar in his habits) Hervey’s Christmas Eve dinner consisted of a pint of milk and pint of water gruel mixed together, accompanied with a halfpenny bread roll.
A Merry Christmas from all at the Georgian Lords
CGDL & RDEE
John Carswell, The South Sea Bubble (rev. edn, 1993)
The Correspondence of the Dukes of Richmond and Newcastle, ed. Timothy McCann (1984)
Lord Hervey and his Friends, ed. Ilchester (1950)