“The Cause of Decency against Indecency”: Lady Chatham and the 1788 Westminster election

The latest post from the Georgian Lords features a guest blog by Dr Jacqueline Reiter, biographer of the 2nd earl of Chatham, on the role of the countess of Chatham in the notorious Westminster by-election held in the summer of 1788.

On 12 July 1788, the London Gazette announced the appointment of Vice-Admiral Samuel, Lord Hood, to the Admiralty Board. Members of Parliament who accepted a government position had to stand for re-election, but in 1784 Hood had come top of the poll in the notoriously open borough of Westminster, where every male householder had the right to vote. After a bitter campaign and a lengthy scrutiny, the second Westminster seat had gone to Charles James Fox, leader of the parliamentary opposition and a man who would jump at the chance to replace Hood with a more congenial running-mate. Although Hood’s appointment had been planned for two months, therefore, its revelation was carefully timed to catch the opposition by surprise.

Hood’s presence on the Admiralty Board was a vital part of Pitt the Younger’s scheme to elevate his brother, Lord Chatham, to the post of First Lord of the Admiralty. Chatham was 32, a landsman, and had never served politically; placing Hood on the Board was necessary to reassure any government supporters who felt the new First Lord needed hand-holding. But the possibility that Hood might lose his by-election increased when the opposition, despite the short notice, put up Lord John Townshend as an alternative candidate. Although Pitt dismissed the prospect of Hood’s losing Westminster as of “comparatively little consequence” [A.M. Wilberforce, Private Papers of William Wilberforce (1897), p. 22], it would nevertheless be highly embarrassing, whereas Hood’s victory might damage Fox’s future chances of re-election.

The government did its best to characterise the contest as one of military manliness (Hood) against degeneracy (Townshend) – “the cause of Decency against Indecency” [World, 25 July 1788]. Hood’s female supporters boosted this moral message. The activities of aristocratic women at Westminster was nothing new; in 1784, Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, had campaigned for Charles James Fox, and (as Elaine Chalus and Judith Lewis have argued) political canvassing was a well-established part of an 18th-century aristocratic woman’s role. But in 1784 the Duchess had made a palpable impact, and Pitt’s government had turned out a number of aristocratic female canvassers to counter it. They resorted to the same strategy in 1788, although this time the duchess of Devonshire did not take part.

Perhaps the most influential addition to the government side was Mary, countess of Chatham. Lady Chatham was married to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, which gave her a direct stake in the election’s outcome; she was also the prime minister’s sister-in-law. This was her first election, as in 1784 she had been too ill to undertake any canvassing, but she took to her role with gusto. The minute the poll opened, Lady Chatham rode about in her carriage, handing out navy blue cockades and persuading as many voters as possible to vote for Hood. “We were very successful indeed yesterday, and I hope shall be so today,” wrote Lady Chatham’s sister on 19 July [TNA, PRO 30/8/64, f. 186].

Lady Chatham’s role as a well-known, virtuous woman of fashion underscored the fact that élite female political involvement was openly tolerated – if it was respectable. Such respectability was badly needed in the cut-throat contest. The poll opened on 18 July 1788, and the ministerialist newspaper World immediately claimed “the Foxites … had got half Covent-Garden filled with Marrow-bones and cleavers. A party that preceded them had got thick bludgeons, to keep other people quiet”. On 21 July, riots led to two deaths and nearly 40 individuals being seriously injured, among them John Macnamara, one of the Members for Leicester and a member of Hood’s electoral committee. The tumult barely subsided for the duration of the poll, which closed on 4 August. Both sides were to blame, but the ministerialist press did not hesitate to use it as evidence that the election was a contest between good and evil.

The involvement of Lady Chatham and her female associates gave the government papers a weapon with which to assault Lord John Townshend. Hood’s supporters rapidly realised the gruff old admiral stood no chance against Townshend’s urbanity; the main recourse of Hood’s friends was to cast aspersion on Townshend’s moral laxity. Only a couple of years previously, Townshend had fought a duel over the wife of William Fawkener and married her after her divorce. One piece of pro-Hood propaganda had Townshend announcing to his electors “Pray recommend me to your wives and daughters!”; the Morning Post (then a Pittite organ) nicknamed him “the Libertine”; and the World even accused him of an indecent assault on the duchess of Rutland. Such rumours were almost certainly untrue, but Townshend’s history gave them credence.

Under these circumstances, the involvement of Lady Chatham and women of her stamp was especially useful. Lady Chatham was above reproach; she and the duchess of Rutland were described as “the most virtuous and fashionable women about town”. They were contrasted with Townshend’s female supporters:

BON TON. – Yesterday the Duchess of Rutland … went in her carriage, on a Canvas against Lord John Townshend … Lady Chatham was on the same gracious purpose. …

MAUVAIS TON. – All the “Free and Easy” were cruising against Lord Hood! [World, 23 July 1788]

The Morning Post also accused Townshend of relying on courtesans and demireps to secure votes: “Among the ladies of fashion in that interest were Perdita [Mary Robinson, the Prince of Wales’s former flame], Mother Armistead [Elizabeth Armistead, Fox’s mistress], four Misses belonging to Mother Western, and the same number belonging to Mother Windsor.”

Beyond this, Lady Chatham’s involvement in the election was remarkable because she was the closest thing to Pitt or Chatham themselves interfering – something neither of them could have done, either as cabinet ministers or (in Chatham’s case) as a member of the House of Lords. This was a double-edged sword, as the opposition rapidly worked out. “We know that the bills of public houses opened on account of Lord Hood have recently been collected,” the oppositionist Morning Herald wrote. “By whom? Not, indeed by the Minister in person, nor the new naval Premier … but by the nearest relative of both, who could appear without fixing agency on either of them – by LADY CHATHAM.”

Tantalisingly, Lady Chatham left no record of her electioneering activities in 1788. Despite her best efforts and those of the government (which included deploying a £20,000 subscription and possibly several thousands in secret service funds), Townshend received 6,392 votes and Hood only 5,569. But given the desperate nature of the contest and the government’s efforts to secure a Hood victory, Lady Chatham may have done more than meets the eye. Without evidence, we will never know whether the respectable and virtuous Lady Chatham crossed the line in this battle between “decency” and “indecency”.



Further reading

Marc Baer, The Rise and Fall of Radical Westminster, 1780-1890 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Elaine Chalus, Elite women in English political life, c1754-1790 (Oxford, 2005)

Judith S. Lewis, Sacred to Female Patriotism: gender, class, and politics in late Georgian Britain (London, Routledge, 2003)

Jacqueline Reiter, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2017)

Jacqueline Reiter, “The Invisible Countess”, History Today July 2018, pp. 50-6


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