The power of the (silk) purse: electioneering in nineteenth-century Macclesfield

In today’s blog Dr Kathryn Rix, assistant editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1868 project, takes a local history look at the political representation of 19th century Macclesfield, where one particular industry made its presence known…

One of the most significant aspects of the 1832 Reform Act was its redrawing of the electoral map, taking seats away from ‘rotten boroughs’ such as Dunwich and Old Sarum, and redistributing them to the counties and new boroughs, including many growing industrial centres. The Lancashire cotton towns of Oldham and Blackburn and the Yorkshire woollen town of Halifax, for example, all gained MPs. In the new Cheshire constituency of Macclesfield, it was the production of another textile – silk – which was the major industry. In the 1820s Macclesfield was Britain’s leading centre of silk manufacture, and this trade continued to expand, with the number of silk looms increasing from 3,000 in 1823 to around 10,000 by 1844. Cotton manufacturing, together with the manufacture of hats, nails and buttons, also provided some local employment.

Macclesfield’s proposed constituency boundaries in 1832

Reflecting the significant role of the silk industry within the local economy, one of Macclesfield’s two parliamentary seats was held from 1832 to 1868 by John Brocklehurst, whose firm was the largest silk manufacturer not only in the town but in Britain. A public meeting of silk weavers in March 1832 declared that his ‘long and constant endeavours to defend the silk trade’ made him a fitting representative. These efforts continued that July, when Brocklehurst gave evidence to a Commons select committee on the silk trade, urging the need for ‘better and judicious protection’, as Britain’s silk industry had declined since tariffs on foreign silk were reduced in 1826. Although his own evidence only required two days’ attendance, he spent several months in London hearing the remaining proceedings.

John Brocklehurst (1788-1870) by Henry Joseph Fleuss; Image credit: Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse; Art UK

As Macclesfield’s MP, Brocklehurst became ‘an acknowledged authority’ on the silk trade in the Commons. His desire to retain protection for his industry made him more cautious than many fellow Liberals when it came to the wider question of free trade. In June 1842, when he described himself as ‘a practical man rather than a theorist’, he complained that the Anti-Corn Law League had ‘bewildered the public mind’ over free trade, at the risk of sacrificing industries such as silk which needed protection. Although he voted for the repeal of the corn laws, he made several efforts in the 1840s to retain the duties on the importation of foreign silk. Fittingly, his last Commons speech, 2 Mar. 1860, was to plead for ‘fair play’ for British silk manufacturers in the wake of the recent commercial treaty with France. Unfortunately for Macclesfield, this treaty ‘dealt a crippling blow to all but a few specialised branches of the trade’.

Brocklehurst’s position in Macclesfield was so firmly entrenched that he never felt the need to campaign alongside any other Liberal candidate on a ‘joint ticket’, and from 1837 onwards there was only one occasion when he did not top the poll. His first fellow MP was John Ryle, a local banker, followed by Thomas Grimsditch, a local solicitor, from 1837 until 1847. It was the silk trade which brought Macclesfield’s next MP to the borough. John Williams had risen from humble origins in North Wales to become a prosperous linen draper and silk mercer in London’s Oxford Street. It was his business dealings with the local silk industry which prompted him to offer for Macclesfield in 1847. Williams’s political views were far more radical than Brocklehurst’s, and his support for ‘universal suffrage and nearly all the points of the Charter’ earned him the endorsement of the Chartists’ National Central Registration and Election Committee. He ousted Thomas Grimsditch, but was himself defeated in 1852.

It was the fluctuating fortunes of Macclesfield’s industries which prompted an invitation to another Liberal candidate in 1865. David Chadwick, of Manchester, had been born in Macclesfield, and had recently renewed his connection with his native borough by supporting efforts to revive the local cotton industry, which had suffered during the ‘cotton famine’ caused by the American Civil War. The Globe Cotton Spinning and Manufacturing Company, of which Chadwick was a director, planned to provide employment for over 1,000 people by erecting a large cotton-spinning shed in Macclesfield. Chadwick later claimed that in opening this mill, ‘I had no thought of parliamentary ambition or anything of the kind’, but the fact that he laid its foundation stone less than a week before the nomination certainly did not harm his election chances. Brocklehurst, meanwhile, had made his own contribution to the local economy by keeping the family’s silk mills open during the trade slump of 1863-5 at a loss to the firm of £70,000. Although he had been in poor health since a stroke in 1861, and was unable to take part in election proceedings, he was returned for Macclesfield for the ninth time, while Chadwick finished third in the poll. When Brocklehurst finally retired from in 1868, his eldest son William filled his shoes as MP.

The influence wielded in electoral politics by Brocklehurst as a major local employer – or Chadwick as a prospective one – was generally seen as legitimate by their contemporaries. However, there was also evidence of corrupt forces at play in Macclesfield’s elections. A royal commission in 1881 found that it had been the ‘general practice’ at elections from 1832 onwards to issue dinner tickets – sometimes used for beer rather than dinner – valued at six shillings for a split vote and twelve shillings for a plumper. At the 1865 election, alongside cases of bribery and kidnapping of voters – one man was seized by ‘roughs’ as he milked his cow – there were complaints of ‘open and undisguised treating’ with drink on behalf of all three candidates. Chadwick’s bill at the Bull’s Head was said to have totalled hundreds of pounds, although part of this was for accommodation during the contest. His published election accounts claimed that he had spent £820 10s. 2½d. on his election, when the actual total was almost double. In a similar vein, Brocklehurst’s true expenditure of £1,156 19s. 8d. far exceeded the £336 9s. 2d. he declared.

It was, however, at the 1880 election – when William Brocklehurst and David Chadwick were elected for the third time as Liberal MPs – that corruption reached its peak, with an unprecedented amount of direct bribery by both parties. The royal commission listed 2,872 people as guilty of corrupt practices, although the chairman of the Conservative Association believed that as many as 4,000 had received some form of payment. The result was declared void and the writ was suspended. No more elections were held before Macclesfield became one of two boroughs disfranchised for corruption in 1885.

K.R.

Further reading: G. Malmgreen, Silk town: industry and culture in Macclesfield 1750-1835 (1985)

Find more blogs from our Commons 1832-1868 project at our Victorian Commons blog site.

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