‘A little door to get in, and a great crowd without’: how to get elected to Parliament in early Georgian Britain

In the latest blog from the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow in the Lords 1715-90 section, considers the role of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, better known as a writer, as her husband’s ‘election agent’

In his own time Evelyn Pierrepont, duke of Kingston, was a great landowner in Nottinghamshire and a government minister, but for most people today, even those well-versed in the 18th century, he has not come down across three centuries as a particularly memorable figure. In contrast his eldest daughter, who is best known by her married name as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, is still renowned as a poet, commentator on Ottoman society, from when she accompanied her husband on an embassy to Istanbul, and an early proponent in England of inoculation against small pox. Lady Mary’s letters can also offer us a view of how members of the Georgian House of Lords and their families were involved in elections to the ‘unreformed’ House of Commons.

Only a few days after the death of Queen Anne on 1 August 1714, Lady Mary, residing in North Yorkshire while her husband was in the capital, began sending him frequent missives concerning the parliamentary elections which would have to take place within six months. Her husband of close to two years, Edward Wortley Montagu, had been a ‘Country’ Whig Member of Parliament for the borough of Huntingdon, until his father Sidney Wortley Montagu, who effectively controlled elections in the borough, decided to run himself in the 1713 election (unsurprisingly, he was selected). Edward had stood for the Yorkshire borough of Aldborough instead, but had been defeated by the Tories. Lady Mary was insistent that he try to gain a seat in the forthcoming elections, when the Whigs were sure to make a better showing.

In her letters of the late summer of 1714 she showed herself remarkably well informed of which peer had the predominant ‘interest’ in each parliamentary borough and the likely rival candidates for each seat. She felt that Thomas Pelham Holles, 2nd Baron Pelham, who controlled Aldborough with its burgage franchise, should be solicited as he ‘owed’ Wortley Montagu for his unsuccessful bid in 1713. Lady Mary provided what may well be one of the first assessments of the character of this peer who would soon become better-known as the duke of Newcastle, one of the greatest election managers of the 18th century. She thought that he, having just come of age in July 1714, ‘is very silly but very good natured’. Failing Aldborough, she believed Charles Howard, 3rd earl of Carlisle, could help Wortley Montagu gain a seat at York, but only if her husband solicited the earl’s interest as soon as possible. She despaired of his intention to contest Newark, whose electoral patron, Robert Sutton, 2nd Baron Lexinton, was likely to nominate a Tory such as his kinsman Richard Sutton (who was indeed ultimately selected for the borough).

From a distance, Lady Mary acted as her husband’s campaign manager, offering not only practical advice but also often forceful ‘encouragement’, most often in the form of admonition. She lamented Wortley Montagu’s slowness in following her instructions, as ‘Dispatch in things of this nature, if not a security, at least delay is a sure way to lose’. She was sure his failure to declare in time or to seek Pelham’s support had lost him the seats for Aldborough and York. Now it was probably too late, as ‘I believe most places are engaged by this time’. This assertion was made in September 1714, four months before the sitting Parliament had even been dissolved! She also reproved him for his continued diffidence in pushing himself forward:

The Ministry is like a play at Court; there’s a little door to get in, and a great crowd without, shoving and thrusting who shall be foremost; people who knock others with their elbows, disregard a little kick of the shins, and still thrust heartily forwards, are sure of a good place. Your modest man stands behind in the crowd, is shoved about by everybody, his clothes torn, almost squeezed to death, and sees a thousand get in before him, that don’t make so good a figure as himself.

How did she acquire such a detailed knowledge of the electoral landscape? After all, in a later autobiographical memoir Lady Mary regretted how her father, after the death of her mother when Lady Mary was only eight years old, had neglected her and her education. Her youth ‘was left to the care of a young Father, who, though naturally an honest man, was abandoned to his pleasures, and (like most of those of his quality) did not think himself obliged to be very attentive to his children’s education’. Yet she appears very quickly to have picked up from his household, and the many friends he had among the Whigs, the rudiments of the political world of the first decades of the 18th century. Her father had even taken her when she was only aged eight to the Kit-Kat Club, the enclave of Whigs, where she was toasted for her wit and beauty. ‘She went from the lap of one poet, or patriot, or statesman, to the arms of another’, and later remembered this experience as one of the highlights of her life. As she assured her future husband during their protracted courtship, ‘I came young into the hurry of the world’. Although she was clearly concerned above all with Wortley Montagu’s career, the ‘old Whiggism’ which she would have imbibed from her father’s household often bubbled up into her incessant practical advice to her husband. She assured him, ‘If it was possible to restore Liberty to your Country or limit the Encroachments of the Prerogative by reducing yourself to a Garret, I should be pleased to share so glorious a poverty with you’.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was clearly active in the ‘unreformed’ political world of her time, with its pocket boroughs, aristocratic patrons and restrictive franchise. As we celebrate this year the centenary of women’s suffrage, she serves as a reminder of the many ways women could engage actively in parliamentary politics in centuries past, even without having the vote.


Further Reading

The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, Vol. 1, 1708-1720. The letters discussed here are on pp. 213-234.

Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment (Oxford, 2001)

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