Continuing our Local History focus on Glamorgan, Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-68 project looks at the constituency’s elections after the 1832 Reform Act, when the long-serving MP, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, exerted a strong influence over the county.
Described in 1841 as ‘the Lancashire of Wales’, Glamorgan was Wales’s wealthiest and most industrialised county. Coal mining employed almost one fifth of its male workforce in 1851, compared with one seventh in agriculture. Iron working was another key industry, centred on Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, and copper smelting, using ore from Cornwall and overseas, was expanding at Swansea. The county was also home to the world’s largest tin-plate factory at Ystalyfera.
In contrast with this rapid industrial development, Glamorgan’s political representation during this period had one unchanging feature. For almost sixty years, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot was the local MP. First elected in 1830, he sat until his death in 1890, by when he was ‘Father of the House’. From 1885, when Glamorgan was divided into five constituencies, he held the Mid Glamorgan seat. Only one nineteenth-century MP, Charles Villiers, surpassed Talbot’s record for continuous Commons service.
As Glamorgan’s largest landowner and a descendant of the Mansel family, which had long provided county MPs, Talbot appears at first glance to be a traditional representative of the landed elite. However, he also had significant industrial and commercial interests, which included the development of Port Talbot and investments in the railways worth an estimated £3 million by 1890, contributing to his reputed position as the wealthiest commoner in Britain. Although he spoke only once in debate during six decades in the Commons, Talbot’s strong local position entrenched him in his Glamorgan seat. Even his divergence from the majority of the Liberal party on two key issues – repeal of the corn laws in the 1840s and Irish Home Rule in the 1880s – did not threaten his electoral prospects.
With Talbot secure, Glamorgan’s elections became a battle for the second seat which the county had been given by the 1832 Reform Act. As with other constituencies, the low number of contests – between 1832 and 1868 Glamorgan’s electors only went to the polls twice – did not necessarily indicate a lack of political interest. The 1832 election was a case in point. Although Talbot was returned without opposition alongside his fellow Whig Lewis Weston Dillwyn, at least ten other individuals had been mentioned as possible candidates. Talbot and Dillwyn’s election was aided by the fact that the influential Marquess of Bute decided not to field a Conservative opponent. Although he was a lifelong Liberal, who had voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, Talbot assured Bute privately that he held ‘conservative’ views. The lack of opposition did not, however, mean a cheap election, as the returning officer charged the candidates for various expenses of dubious legality, including £20 for silver coins thrown to the crowd and £210 for tavern bills.
The political alliance between Talbot and Dillwyn was cemented by the marriage of Dillwyn’s eldest son to Talbot’s sister in 1833, and they were re-elected without opposition in 1835. Despite the offer of a baronetcy from the Melbourne ministry, Dillwyn could not, however, be persuaded to stand again in 1837, when there was a major shift in the county’s representation. For the first time, a Conservative candidate was nominated: Viscount Adare, heir to the Irish earldom of Dunraven and, through his mother, to extensive estates in the Vale of Glamorgan. His maternal grandfather had been a long-serving MP for the county and Adare’s supporters emphasised these family connections during the contest, while his opponents mocked his youth – he was 25 years old – and lack of political experience.
The third candidate in 1837 was the Liberal industrialist (Josiah) John Guest, whose iron company at Dowlais was the world’s largest producer of iron. He was also standing again for Merthyr Tydfil, where he had been MP since 1832, but declared that he would sit for Glamorgan if elected there. The diaries of his wife, Lady Charlotte, provide a colourful account of the contest. She recorded that when Adare went to canvass in his opponent’s heartland at Dowlais, he was met by 700 of Guest’s workmen, chanting ‘Guest for ever’, whereupon ‘the Little Lord was so frightened that he did not canvass a single vote, and got the Constables to escort him safely back again’. She was equally scathing about Adare’s performance on the hustings, where he ‘read the whole of his speech … chiefly about his grandfather’. Her low opinion was echoed by the Morning Chronicle, which reported that Adare’s poor showing ‘was pitied by all – his ignorance on political matters is frightful’.
This did not, however, prevent Adare from topping the poll, aided by the influence exercised by Dunraven and Bute. Lady Charlotte claimed that ‘the Tory landlords brought their Tenants up themselves like flocks of sheep, and made them break their pledge-words. They absolutely dragged them to the Poll, threatening to turn them out of their farms unless they voted plumpers for Lord Adare’. Talbot, who had been unenthusiastic about Guest’s candidature, preferring to share the representation without a contest, kept his seat, with Guest in third place. Guest remained in Parliament, however, having easily seen off a Conservative opponent at Merthyr.
Talbot and Adare – who both opposed the repeal of the corn laws – were re-elected in 1841 and 1847, but by 1850 Adare’s support was dwindling and he spent most of the parliamentary session at Lucerne. As an Irish peer, he could have stayed in the Commons after succeeding in August 1850 as the third Earl of Dunraven, but he took the Chiltern Hundreds in December to devote more time to his newly inherited responsibilities. Keeping their powder dry for the next general election, the Liberals did not put forward a candidate at the ensuing by-election in February 1851, leaving the Conservative Sir George Tyler, a naval officer and local landowner who was committed to agricultural protection, to be returned in Adare’s place. The proposed Liberal candidate, Henry Hussey Vivian, a Swansea copper smelter, did not stand after all at the 1852 general election, as analysis of the electoral register suggested that his chances were poor. There was also concern that Liberal opposition to Tyler in the county might prompt Conservative opposition to Guest at Merthyr. A Peelite supporter of free trade, John Nicholl, offered at the last minute after losing his seat at Cardiff, but withdrew as the show of hands was being taken at the nomination. Having previously promised Tyler that he would not oppose him, he felt it would be dishonourable to continue his candidature.
After having two Whig MPs from 1832 until 1837, and shared representation from 1837 onwards, Glamorgan’s electoral politics entered a third phase in 1857 when Vivian finally decided to offer. With agricultural protection having receded as a political issue, Talbot joined forces with him, and together they saw off opposition from a new Conservative candidate, Nash Vaughan Edwards Vaughan, who polled almost 1,000 votes behind Vivian. Talbot and Vivian represented Glamorgan together until the constituency was divided in 1885, and only faced a Conservative opponent in 1874.
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