From ‘People’s Champions’ to ‘Tribunes of the People’: popular politicians in Parliament, c. 1810 to 1867

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Simon Morgan of Leeds Beckett University. On 22 February 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Simon will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on popular politicians and Parliament between 1810 and 1867. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting

Heroes to their followers, demagogues and deceivers to their detractors, the popular politician was one of the defining characters of the political scene from the Napoleonic Wars to the Second Reform Act.  Drawing support direct from the ‘people’ rather than wealth, title, lineage or political connexion, they became synonymous with the causes they represented, from parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation to Chartism and the repeal of the Corn Laws. 

My book Celebrities, Heroes and Champions: Popular Politicians in the Age of Reform examines the careers of figures such as Henry Hunt (1773-1835), Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), Feargus O’Connor (1796-1855), Richard Cobden (1804-1865), John Bright (1811-1889) and a range of others.  It argues that not only were they significant politically, but that they were part of a wider set of changes to the public sphere defined by the expansion of an early form of celebrity culture. Their images proliferated across a range of two-dimensional media and three-dimensional artefacts, while their virtues and vices were sung through the streets by ballad-sellers or pasted up in print shop windows for the admiration or amusement of passers-by.  They were, in short, cultural phenomena.

Crowds gather to view caricatures of politicians outside George Humphrey’s print shop in 1821, 27 St James’s Street, T. Lane, ‘Honi. Soi. Qui. Mal. Y. Pense’ (1821), CC The Met

The book focuses principally on the activities of popular politicians outside Parliament.  Nevertheless, Parliament was a central part of this culture.  When the speeches of prominent MPs were printed daily in newspaper such as The Times, where else provided such a tremendous platform for ideas and personalities?  However, the same qualities that could capture and hold the attention of a public meeting rarely guaranteed a fair hearing in the House of Commons.  Several of my case studies did succeed in getting themselves elected, often against considerable odds, but their parliamentary careers were sometimes short and relatively few were rated as effective or successful parliamentarians.

Why was this the case?  To begin with, most popular politicians lacked the networks which mainstream Whig and Tory MPs could rely on.  Following the Great Reform Act, in the absence of a modern party apparatus, these were focused around clubs such as the Reform or the Carlton: the basis of what Norman Gash termed ‘club government’.  This, together with the deep suspicion from Members for those they viewed as interlopers backed by threatening popular movements, meant they were often isolated in the House of Commons itself, limiting their effectiveness. 

And then there was the question of style. Men like Hunt, O’Connell and O’Connor had developed a rapport with their followers based on what might be called ‘championing’, following Oliver MacDonagh’s use of the term in his biography of O’Connell.  This style drew on the assumption that the popular leader was the ‘people’s champion’, doing personal combat with the state Leviathan and its appointed representatives on behalf of the voiceless and disenfranchised. 

Daniel O’Connell in a re-imagined parliamentary bout over the 1834 Irish Tithe bill with the Whig Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the Commons, Viscount Althorp. John Doyle, ‘A Fancy Sketch’, August 1834, CC BM

As a result, it was by nature oppositional and aggressive, involving ad hominem attacks on individuals alongside rhetorical assaults on corrupt or flawed institutions. This was often accompanied by open reference to the violent potential of the popular movement at their backs, or the intimidating spectacle of monster meetings and processions.

These difficulties needed to be overcome to forge an effective parliamentary career. Some did succeed. O’Connell was a case in point, as Catholic Emancipation allowed him to build a core following in the House through the weight of his own personal authority in Ireland, and he adapted quickly to the demands of the debating chamber and parliamentary procedure. 

However, O’Connell’s closeness to Melbourne’s administration bought him a limited degree of influence over government policy at the price of continual risk to his popular support.  In the end his support for the Whigs led him to forfeit the trust of English radicals and saw a significant diminution of his following in Ireland itself.  He was rescued from this dilemma by the election of an unsympathetic Conservative government, freeing him to begin his last great movement for Repeal of the Union.

Daniel O’Connell sweeps the ‘foreign vipers’ (the Peel government) from Ireland with his ‘Repeal’ brush. Published by J. McCormick (1844). CC BM

The virtual disappearance of the extra-parliamentary mass movement in the 1850s and early 1860s witnessed a transition away from the popular leader as ‘People’s Champion’.  Instead, we see increasing reference to a character referred to as the ‘Tribune of the People’. 

Drawing on the precedent of their Classical namesakes, Tribunes were expected to be the voice of the people in Parliament.  Rather than being the apex of a threatening popular movement, shouldering their way into the Commons Chamber like Gothic invaders, Tribunes are better conceptualised as a putative bridge between Parliament and people.  Their unique position depended on commanding the trust and attention of both. 

John Bright climbs ‘a very greasy pole’ to popularity, with ‘reform bill’ engraved into it. The print followed a series of political meetings in industrial towns in the winter of 1858-59 when he was increasingly being referred to as the ‘tribune of the people’, Punch, 29 Jan. 1859

The archetypal Tribune was the middle-class Quaker radical, John Bright.  The term seems to have been first ascribed to him during his election for Birmingham in 1857, following the ignominious rout of the Manchester School at the General Election earlier that year.  This was part of a broader political reinvention which saw Bright emerge as the parliamentary spokesman of a movement for moderate franchise reform: a unifying figure who could finally bring middle-class radicals together with their working-class counterparts after the traumas of the 1830s and 1840s.

All of this was arguably a sign that Parliament had ridden out the challenges of those turbulent times and reaffirmed its legitimacy. In 1867, the Second Reform Act changed the political landscape by rapidly expanding the urban electorate. There was still room for independent back-benchers like Charles Bradlaugh to gain a public following.  Generally speaking, however, the new ‘popular’ politicians were no longer leaders of movements, but of mass-membership political parties.


To find out more, Simon’s full-length paper ‘From ‘People’s Champions’ to ‘Tribunes of the People’: popular politicians in Parliament, c. 1810 to 1867’ is available here. Simon will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 22 February 2022.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Simon, please send it to

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