Parliaments, Politics and People seminar – Ex-servicemen and the Liberal Party: the Great War generation and the electoral and parliamentary politics of the 1920s

Today’s blog ahead of our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this evening, is from Dr Matthew Johnson. Matthew is Associate Professor (Modern British History) at the University of Durham. He gave his paper at our last PPP seminar on ‘Ex-servicemen and the Liberal Party: the Great War generation and the electoral and parliamentary politics of the 1920s’…

The political and electoral collapse of the Liberal Party in Britain has long fascinated historians. Explanations for the party’s downfall have often focused on the crisis in Liberal ideology supposedly provoked by the demands of waging ‘total war’ after August 1914. The unprecedented militarization of British society during the war – in particular the introduction of military conscription – has been seen as posing a challenge to Liberal values which ultimately wrecked the party. However, what is often missed in this narrative is the extent to which the legacies of this wartime process of militarization were reflected in the Liberal Party itself, and in particular in the Liberal Party in Parliament.

Over the decade which followed the end of the war, more than 100 ex-servicemen who had served in the conflict were elected to Parliament as Liberal MPs, and scores more stood unsuccessfully as Liberal parliamentary candidates. These men included members of all three fighting services, enlisted men and senior military commanders, professional soldiers and those who had been swept up in the vast mobilization of the war years. While a number of historical studies have explored the involvement of the ‘War Generation’ in radical and reactionary right-wing politics, these ex-servicemen represent a dimension to post-1918 Liberal politics that has gone almost entirely unconsidered in the scholarship.

1918 campaign pamphlet for Liberal candidate Richard Reiss

Contrary to conventional assumptions about Liberal antipathy towards war, military service, and the armed forces, Liberal politicians who had served in the Great War regarded their status as ‘soldiers’ to be integral to their political identities and a valuable electoral asset. In electoral contests throughout the 1920s, Liberal candidates identified themselves by their military rank, drew attention to their wartime service, and published photographs of themselves in military uniform. Many directed special appeals for the votes of former members of the armed forces, presenting themselves as custodians of the rights and interests of the men who had served in the war. At the same time, like their opponents on the political right, they also framed their service records as demonstrating an idealised masculinity, which could be offered as evidence of their fitness for political office. By presenting themselves to voters in these ways, Liberal politicians directly challenged attempts by the political right to appropriate patriotism for narrow partisan advantage after the war.

However, such efforts sometimes ran into difficulties. Politicians who had served in ‘safe’ or comfortable military positions during the war – for example as staff officers, rather than in the trenches – or who had expressed reservations about certain aspects of the war effort were sometimes attacked by critics anxious to deny them political credit for a patriotic service record.

At the same time, politicians who had served in the armed forces were forced to confront the unstable and contested ‘meaning’ attributed to the Great War in its aftermath. Throughout the inter-war period, celebrations of the victory of 1918 competed with a narrative of disillusionment and futility, rendering the politics of ‘patriotism’ profoundly problematic. The position of ex-servicemen in post-war society was similarly ambiguous, with former soldiers regarded not only as ‘heroes’ but also as ‘victims’ and even, potentially, as a disruptive social element.

While Liberal politicians who had served in the war were more than happy to invoke their service records when framing appeals to voters, they proved unable to agree on how the political lessons of the war might be related to the challenges of the post-war world. This was evident in Liberal divisions over how to respond to the defining political controversies of the period – including problems of colonial violence, industrial unrest, and the advance of ‘Socialism’. Drawing different lessons from their experiences of military service, more than a third of the Liberal MPs who had fought in the war ultimately abandoned the party, following a bewildering range of different political trajectories. Many ended up in the Labour and Conservative parties, while others flirted with Fascism and Communism.

As the experiences and political careers of these men demonstrate, the problem facing the Liberal Party as it sought to confront the legacies of the Great War was not that Liberal politicians were ideologically incapable of using the language and visual imagery of war and military mobilization; rather it lay in the failure of Liberals to unite around a shared understanding of what the war had ultimately ‘meant’, and to incorporate this understanding into a broader, distinctly ‘Liberal’ vision for Britain’s political future.


Click here for the full Parliaments, Politics and People seminar series schedule at the Institute of Historical research, including information on tonight’s paper.

Posted in 20th century history, Conferences/seminars, Elections, military history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dudley North, 3rd Lord North and the discovery of the waters of Tunbridge Wells

As part of our focus on health and medicine, Dr Ben Coates of the Lords 1604-29 Section considers the origins of the famous spa at Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and ponders whether the parliamentary context might shed light on the date of these events…

In March 2017 a new, cartoon-style mural by artist Chris Burke was unveiled on platform 2 of Tunbridge Wells station in Kent. This replaced an older mural painted in 1989 by Brian Barnes, which had been removed for safety reasons. Like its predecessor, the new artwork illustrates the history of the town and, also like its predecessor, it depicts Dudley North, 3rd Lord North who, we are informed, ‘discovered the healing properties of the chalybeate spring’ in 1606.


Mural of Dudley, Lord North at Tunbridge Wells station

According to an eighteenth-century historian of the town, North had fallen ‘into a lingering consumptive disorder’ which defied the ministrations of his doctors. Seeking a cure, in the spring of 1606 he retired to Eridge House, a hunting lodge about two-and-a-half miles from Tunbridge Wells, belonging to his friend Edward Neville, 8th or 1st Lord Abergavenny. He stayed there about six weeks but, finding no improvement in his condition, set out to return to London. Passing through a wood, he came across a spring and noticed that the water had a ‘shining mineral scum’ and a ‘ferruginous’ [i.e. rusty] taste, causing him to suspect that it might have medicinal properties. He had some bottled and brought back with him to London, where his physicians confirmed its beneficial properties. He subsequently returned to Eridge and, after three months, the combination of the spring water and pure country air had wrought a total cure.

There are good reasons for accepting this account. North himself wrote that he ‘first made known to London and the king’s people’ the ‘uses of Tunbridge and Epsom waters for health and cure’. Moreover, although North lived to be over 80, his writings are full of complaints about his health, which he believed had been permanently impaired by the overuse of a ‘treacle’ he had taken to guard against the bubonic plague during the 1603 epidemic, one of the worst of the seventeenth century. (This treacle was probably theriac, otherwise known as Venice treacle, a preparation which typically included viper’s flesh and opium).

However, there is a problem with dating his discovery to the spring of 1606. Parliament was in session from 21 January until 27 May and, although North was only recorded as attending slightly more than half the sittings of the House of Lords during this time, there is no period of absence long enough to accommodate a six week stay at Eridge. It is, of course, possible that the incident took place later that year. However, there is an alternative account, recorded by a descendant of Lord Abergavenny’s steward. In this version, dated to 1615 or 1616, North discovered the spring while journeying to Eridge, and thought that the waters must have medicinal properties because they tasted like those of Spa, in modern Belgium, whose waters were so famous that the town became synonymous with medicinal watering-places. Whatever the date of North’s discovery, in 1619 it was reported that for three or four years the waters of Tunbridge ‘have been much frequented’ and the fortunes of a spa town had been made.


For further details see:

  • B. Burr, History of Tunbridge-Wells (1766), 5-14
  • [D. North], Forest of Varieties (1645), 122, 134, 214
  • ‘Papers Relating to Proceedings in the County of Kent’ ed. R. Almack in Camden Miscellany iii (Camden Society lxi, 1854), p. v
  • Chamberlain Letters N.E. McClure (1939), ii. 261

Biographies of Lords North and Abergavenny will appear in the History of Parliament’s volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29, scheduled for publication in 2019.

Posted in 17th Century history, Early modern history, Health and Medicine, James I to Restoration, social history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

‘Of unsound mind’? MPs, mental health and the 1886 Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act

Today, during Mental Health Awareness Week, we hear from Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1832-1886 Section and the Victorian Commons blog. She explains the legislation that bound MPs suffering with prolonged periods of mental illness from 1886 until legislative reform in 2013…

In 1886 Parliament passed the first piece of legislation dealing directly with the mental health of its members, the Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act, which received Royal Assent on 10 May. This measure, which passed with very little debate, laid out the procedure to be followed in cases where an MP was ‘received, or committed into, or detained in any asylum, house, or other place as a lunatic’. After being informed that an MP was in this position, the Speaker would send two commissioners of lunacy (or the equivalent Irish or Scottish officials) to visit and examine the MP. They would report to the Speaker on whether the MP was ‘of unsound mind’. If this was the case, a second examination would be made six months later. If the MP was still deemed to be of unsound mind, his seat would be declared vacant, and a new writ would be issued for a by-election.


Sir Charles Cameron (c) NPG

The rationale for passing this measure did not, however, stem primarily from concern for the health of the MP involved. Instead it was the fact that his absence from the Commons meant that his constituency was ‘deprived of its constitutional rights’. The Act was brought in by a Liberal backbencher, Charles Cameron, MP for the Glasgow (College) division. He was a qualified doctor, although he had also served for ten years as a newspaper editor. He was prompted to introduce his bill by the ‘unfortunate condition’ of one of his Glasgow colleagues in the previous Parliament, Robert Middleton.

Between the Second and Third Reform Acts, Glasgow was a triple member seat. At the 1880 general election three Liberals were elected: Cameron, Middleton and George Anderson. After only a few months as an MP, Middleton’s health ‘gave way’ and he was absent from Westminster from 1881 onwards, leaving Glasgow to be represented by only two of its three MPs until the dissolution in 1885. The exact details of Middleton’s condition were not made public, but an obituary in 1891 recorded that he had ‘lived in strict retirement’ after giving up his parliamentary duties.

The issue of MPs who were ‘of unsound mind’ was not a new one for Parliament to confront. At the first election after the 1832 Reform Act, the Hon. George Barrington (1794-1835), son-in-law of the prime minister, Earl Grey, was returned as MP for the new borough of Sunderland. On the hustings in December 1832 he was reported to have shown ‘a wildness and peculiarity’ in his behaviour, which was blamed at the time on physical ill health. However, it subsequently transpired that he was suffering from ‘a state of mental affliction’ which had resulted in him being placed under ‘constant personal restraint’ (i.e. in a straitjacket) since the election.

In March 1833 a letter signed by 158 electors was sent to Grey voicing sympathy with Barrington’s situation, but also expressing concern about Sunderland’s ‘unexpected deprivation of one of our representatives’. Grey’s response criticised their impatience and lack of consideration towards Barrington. Despite this, he advised his relative to resign his seat in order to prevent him being ‘harassed and annoyed’ by the personal attacks being made on him. Barrington duly took the Chiltern Hundreds later that month, enabling his replacement at a by-election, and died in June 1835 aged just 40.

While Sunderland quickly had a new MP in place, other constituencies experienced longer periods without representation. John Bell (1809-1851) was first elected as Liberal MP for Thirsk in 1841, when he did not face an opponent. He was again spared a contest at the 1847 general election. Even before then, his friends had seen signs of his failing mental health. His attendance at Westminster appears to have ceased in May 1848, the last occasion on which his name appeared in the division lists. In July 1849, after hearing evidence of Bell’s violent outbursts and his delusions – which included the belief that he was a bird – a commission of lunacy declared him to be ‘of unsound mind’. Despite this, he remained as Thirsk’s MP until his death in March 1851.


Charles Leach MP (1847-1919)

Having passed the 1886 Act, the Commons used it only once, in the case of Charles Leach (1847-1919), Liberal MP for Colne Valley, who was committed to a private lunatic asylum in December 1915. Leach, ‘the son of very poor parents’ from Halifax, had worked in a factory as a young boy, and later became a shoe and bootmaker. He subsequently entered the Nonconformist ministry, and during the First World War he was appointed as a chaplain to the armed forces, visiting the wounded in London’s military hospitals. This, together with his parliamentary duties, placed him under great strain. He was examined twice as specified in the 1886 Act and found to be ‘of unsound mind’. In August 1916 a new writ was issued for a by-election to replace him.

The principles of the 1886 Act remained enshrined in legislation until 2013, with only the details of the procedure of notification and medical examination having changed. Under section 141 of the 1983 Mental Health Act, MPs who had been detained while suffering from mental illness for six months would vacate their seats, just as in the 1886 measure. These provisions, referred to by Dame Anne Begg in September 2012 as ‘a throwback to a time when mental illness was hidden away and not dealt with’, were repealed by the 2013 Mental Health (Discrimination Act), which also included clauses relating to jurors and company directors. For the MPs debating this measure in 2012, some of whom shared their own experiences of mental illness, this reform was seen as an important step in removing the stigma associated with mental health conditions.


Further reading:

Posted in 19th Century history, 20th century history, Health and Medicine | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

‘Skulking on the Poop’: the court martial of Captain Henry Rufane 1745

Today’s blog for Mental Health Awareness Week is from Dr Robin Eagles of the Lords 1660-1832 Section. He describes the controversy surrounding the mental and physical health of Marine Captain Henry Rufane during his trial following a battle at sea with the forces of the Young Pretender in 1745…

In the summer of 1745 Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) launched his bid for the British crown. He set out in two ships with a party of around 700 troops of the Irish Brigade in the warship, Elizabeth, while he travelled with his closest companions in a smaller vessel, the Du Teilay (or Doutelle). On 9 July they were intercepted by the Lion commanded by Captain Piercy Brett. A fierce action ensued in which both Lion and Elizabeth were severely damaged, though Elizabeth came off worst. One newspaper reported she was ‘torn all to pieces, several of her ports amidships were broke into one, and by a Dutch ship who spoke with her the next day, they own’d that they lost 300 men.’ Charles left his escort to distract the British man-o-war and was thus able to slip away. He arrived in Scotland relatively unscathed but lacking the professional troops as well as arms and money that had all been stored on the Elizabeth.

This much is extremely well known. Yet what most histories of the rebellion neglect to pick up on is an intriguing sub-plot that was played out aboard the Lion. From Plymouth, into which he had limped after the fight, Captain Brett wrote to the lords of the Admiralty commending the bravery of his men excepting just one: ‘the Captain of Marines, whom I have put under arrest, for skulking in the Poop, under cover of some Baggs that were there, for the greatest part of the Engagement’.

The man in question was Captain Henry Rufane, a former draper’s assistant who had exchanged that trade for a commission some years before. Brought home under arrest, on 10 September he, along with one of his corporals who had been found hiding with his commanding officer, was tried by court martial on board the Duke. Corporal Kane was acquitted but Rufane was sentenced to death for cowardice.

Given some of the testimonies sworn against him, Rufane’s conviction appears unsurprising. The deposition of one man, Serjeant Joseph Cuff, emphasized that at the beginning of the action Rufane appeared to be behaving normally, ordering his men ‘to load and fire as fast as they could’ while he himself stood ‘at the right hand of his men’; but later on when Midshipman How was sent to bring down the marines to help man the guns, he swore that he found only Rufane and two others, all of them lying flat on their bellies. When challenged the two marines both claimed to be wounded. Rufane, though, admitted that he was unhurt but ‘seem’d very much terrified, and would not rise from the place where he was.’

Despite the apparently clear case against Rufane, on 4 October the lords of the Admiralty wrote to the duke of Newcastle, secretary of state, informing him that one of their number, Lord Vere Beauclerk, had referred the matter to the king and cabinet council and enclosed the trial papers for their consideration. What the various depositions reveal is that far from a coward, who had lost his nerve at the worst possible moment, Rufane was suffering from serious ill health.

Rufane’s own defence hinged on two points. The first related to the embarrassing circumstance of being found prone under sacks on the poop deck. In answer to this he insisted that he understood it to be his duty to reserve his men from enemy fire until they had loaded. However, more significantly, he also gave testimony that when the order came from Brett to redeploy ‘he had a fit coming on him, which he perceived by a Diziness [sic] that he used to have before such fits came on… that he had one of his fits 6 months before, but had no one to prove it.’

To support his testimony of being subject to fits Rufane was able to produce a former employer, a linen draper, who deposed that Rufane had been apprenticed to him around 16 years before but that he ‘was obliged to part with him on account of his fits, being sent home once having a fit in the street’. Another witness, Honorius Combauld, a London merchant who had known Rufane for some time, swore that he had advised Rufane to quit lodgings he had had in Charing Cross ‘on account of the Noise in Parliament time’, which had clearly played on the man’s nerves. Rufane also insisted that although Brett reprimanded him immediately after the action, once he had explained his predicament Brett ‘heartily forgave me’ and assured him ‘if my people did not discover it he never would’. And so he continued for two or three days a free man until the arrival of the Augusta commanded by Captain Hamilton, whereupon he was put under arrest.

Such statements appear to suggest two solutions for Rufane’s problem. The most likely seems to be that he suffered from epilepsy – both Rufane and witnesses speaking on his behalf deposed that he had suffered fits from childhood, and that there was a predictability to the way they manifested themselves. Rufane’s own description of his condition underscored the extent to which he was paralysed when in the grip of a seizure:

for several years of my life [I have] been afflicted with violent fits, the effects of which I have always been subject to feel in my head at times, in such a manner, as would for some hours render me Incapable of acting or thinking properly.

However, it seems possible that he also suffered from some form of stress-related mental illness, whether or not this was related to an underlying condition as an epileptic. Lieutenant Joseph Darby said that he found Rufane ‘a very odd sort of man in his understanding but could not say he was foolish, though at some times he acted like one’. Combauld’s testimony echoed this. Having not seen Rufane for 15 years, he said that he had met him again in 1745 and found him ‘as wild and frantic in his behaviour as ever, that everyone took him to be unfit for any business.’

One very obvious question is how a man with such an apparently well-documented history of ill health had managed a role in the marines without previously drawing attention to himself? Another, is how he came to be able to call upon the mediation of so prominent a figure as Lord Vere Beauclerk? Personal connections may well be the key for both and the result of the appeal appears to have gone well for Rufane, who it seems was not executed. We probably catch a further glimpse of him in a will proved in February 1761 of ‘Captain Henry Rufane of Southampton’, who was able to bequeath to his mother, Margaret Rufane, £100 and his brother Francis £50, but which also made telling reference to a brother, Major William Rufane – who was likely the far more successful soldier who rose to become a general and governor.

In an age when it is generally assumed that military discipline was harsh and unyielding, the Rufane case is an intriguing example of someone whose condition was considered seriously and who was consequently saved from the fate originally assigned him. As for the other players in the drama, Piercy Brett became MP for Queenborough, was knighted and became a lord of the Admiralty, while Lord Vere Beauclerk was promoted to the House of Lords as Lord Vere of Hanworth.


Further reading:

  • Christopher Duffy, The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite rising (2003)
  • The National Archives, SP 42/29 (Naval records)
Posted in 18th Century history, Early modern history, military history, Royal family | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 1868 Boundary Act: Disraeli’s attempt to control his ‘leap in the dark’?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Boundary Act. As Martin Spychal of the Commons 1832-68 Section discusses in today’s blog, the oft-neglected story of the Act provides several key insights into Britain’s second Reform Act and, in particular, the intentions of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister in 1868…

Leap in the Dark

The 1867 Reform Act, or Disraeli’s leap in the Dark

It is often forgotten that Benjamin Disraeli intended to mitigate the democratising impact of the 1867 Reform Act’s borough householder franchise through boundary changes and the redistribution of seats. For Disraeli, boundary reform also offered an opportunity to increase Conservative influence over the English electoral system, and the chance to put his increasingly ambitious electoral intelligence network to the test.

The 1868 Boundary Act provided new boundaries to 59 English boroughs as well as 10 Welsh borough districts, and altered the temporary limits that had been assigned to 9 of the 10 new English boroughs by the 1867 Reform Act. It also made additional changes to three of the thirteen counties that had been divided by the 1867 Reform Act and modified the names and nomination towns of several county divisions. Minor amendments to Scotland and Ireland’s boundaries were made via their respective Reform Acts.

Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG

Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG

The English and Welsh boundary settlement of 1868 had a protracted history. For Disraeli, boundary reform offered a means of settling scores dating back to the Whig reform legislation of 1832. In public Disraeli had repeatedly condemned the 1832 Reform Act as partisan legislation, although in private he appreciated how boundary reform in the counties and small boroughs had actually been beneficial to the Conservative party. By 1859, however, he was deeply concerned that the expansion of urban populations outside of borough boundaries was starting to hamper Conservative electoral fortunes in the counties.

This was in stark contrast to the two-time Liberal Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who had been a pivotal figure in the Whig government that passed the 1832 Reform Act. One of Russell’s major regrets concerning 1832 was that boundary changes had led to a distinct divide between MPs who represented the urban and rural interests in the Commons. For Russell, this divide reached its zenith during the 1840s when the movement for the repeal of the corn laws dominated the political landscape. Russell’s 1852 and 1866 governments introduced reform legislation which intended to address this divide by deliberately leaving borough boundaries unchanged. Urban expansion, Russell hoped, would gradually lead to an increase in the influence of urban (usually Liberal) voters over the Conservative dominated counties.

An 1866 pamphlet by Disraeli's favourite psephologist, Dudley Baxter's

An 1866 pamphlet by Disraeli’s favourite psephologist, Dudley Baxter

For Disraeli, the Liberal government’s deliberately lackadaisical approach to boundary reform was one of its chief weaknesses when it introduced its 1866 reform bill. As a result, Disraeli instructed his chief statistician, Dudley Baxter, and the rising electoral agent, Markham Spofforth, to gather masses of electoral data to demonstrate to parliamentarians why wholesale boundary reform was vital.

Throughout the country Conservative agents saw widespread borough boundary extension as doubly advantageous. It would temper the forces of radical Liberalism in the boroughs, which Conservatives generally felt was focused around urban dwellers at the centre of towns, rather than in the newly forming suburbs – an early incarnation of the theories behind ‘Villa Toryism’. Furthermore, by ‘taking a larger number of town voters out of the counties’, Baxter advised Disraeli that the counties would be secured for the Conservatives for a generation. Disraeli and Baxter were also alive to the power of cartography, and Baxter’s presentation in the Commons lobby of a raft of maps showing the extent to which many boroughs had outgrown their bounds by 1866 was retrospectively considered by Baxter’s wife to have been a pivotal moment in the downfall of the 1866 reform bill.

When the Conservatives formed a government in June 1866, Disraeli tried repeatedly to establish a boundary commission prior to the introduction of another reform bill. In doing so he hoped to delay the reform process, ensure the creation of voting requirements that would mitigate the democratising extent of any extension of the suffrage, and allow for boundary reforms that provided a clear party advantage to the Conservatives. He didn’t quite get what he wanted, however, as the then Prime Minister, Lord Derby, rejected his initial proposals for a forestalling commission in September 1866, and the Conservative government’s ‘reform resolutions’, of which a commission formed a major part, received a lukewarm response in the Commons in February 1867.

To Disraeli’s dismay, the question of franchise reform had to be settled via the 1867 Reform Act before a boundary commission could get to work. While the eventual timing of a commission prevented Disraeli from delaying reform and establishing stringent evidence-based franchise requirements, he wasted little time in ensuring its conservative bias. He did so by appointing sympathetic commissioners and providing them with guidance that would create boundaries thought to be favourable to Conservative candidates.

Public notice of a meeting in Ravensthorpe over the parliamentary Dewsbury (NA/T96)

Public notice of a meeting in Ravensthorpe over the parliamentary boundary of Dewsbury (NA/T96)

One of the most interesting things about the commission, which visited every English and Welsh constituency during the autumn of 1867, were the public boundary hearings that they held. Most of the working papers and ephemera (maps, local proposals, petitions and records of public meetings about boundaries) gathered at these hearings are held by the National Archives, and provide a rich untapped resource for understanding mid-Victorian constituency politics.

The commissioners, however, were generally dismayed about the tenor of discussion at these public meetings – particularly as they revealed that many men were unenthusiastic about being granted the right to vote. Local rivalries between villages and suburbs on the periphery of a parliamentary borough often proved so strong that voters expressed a desire to remain unenfranchised rather than return a member of parliament with their neighbours. In the new borough of Dewsbury for example, an artisan from nearby Batley, Joshua Taylor, told the commissioners that he

would rather be without the franchise than that Batley should form part of the parliamentary borough of Dewsbury … when parties went to be married some affection ought to exist.

Furthermore, despite telling members of the public that parliamentary boundary changes would have no bearing on local municipal boundaries, voters threatened with inclusion in a parliamentary borough repeatedly complained that parliamentary enfranchisement would lead to them having to pay municipal rates, or losing the right to ‘compound’ their rates by paying them as part of their rent to their landlord.

One of several proposals presented to the commissioners for the division of the Wast Riding of Yorkshire

One of several proposals presented to the commissioners for the division of the West Riding of Yorkshire (NA/T96)

The commissioners also repeatedly encountered obviously partisan boundary proposals, as political factions in each borough – supported by emerging national party machines – plotted to design boundaries in their favour. When the commission published its proposals in March 1868, it was clear to many that the Conservatives had benefitted most from this highly co-ordinated scheming between local and national election agents. In response Liberal MPs secured a select committee to review the commission’s proposals, which successfully amended fifteen of the commission’s most controversial boundary proposals.

While not ideal, Disraeli still remained upbeat as the majority of the commission’s proposals were passed intact. Following the changes he reported to Queen Victoria that while the boundary bill had been ‘somewhat curtailed of its excellence’, it was still ‘a very good measure’. As a warning note to future psephologists, however, it transpired that the electoral intelligence provided to Disraeli between 1866 and 1868 had been somewhat optimistic. Under Britain’s reformed electoral map at the 1868 election, the Liberals, led by a resurgent Gladstone, swept to power.


Be sure to follow @TheVictCommons on Twitter; you can also read more from the Commons 1832-1868 Section on their blog site.



Posted in 19th Century history, Elections, Electoral Reform | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar – The Victorian Palace of Science: scientific knowledge and the building of Britain’s Houses of Parliament

Today’s blog ahead of our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this evening, is from Dr Edward J. Gillin. Edward is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, working in the history of the science of sound in the nineteenth century. He gave his paper at our previous PPP seminar on the Houses of Parliament and their significance in the emerging scientific world of Victorian Britain…

The Palace of Westminster, home to Britain’s Houses of Parliament, can in many ways claim to be the world’s first industrial legislature.  Constructed following the terrible fire which destroyed the original medieval palace in 1834, the new parliament was a place from which to govern an increasingly urbanized society and a rapidly mechanizing economy, built on iron and coal.  Though it may appear Gothic (indeed it is something of a feudal fantasy) the building was intended to be something quite recognizably modern to Victorian audiences.


To get a sense of this, one need only think of St Stephen’s Tower (the Elizabeth Tower since 2012), popularly, if incorrectly, known as ‘Big Ben’.  In Victorian Britain, questions of measurement were taking on increasing significance.  James Joule’s production of a mechanical equivalent for heat in the 1840s took place in the context of growing concerns over the nation’s coal reserves and the importance of efficient steam engines for its industrial economy.  Likewise, the calculation of accurate electrical standards was crucial to realizing submarine telegraphy communication.  And of course following the loss of Britain’s national set of weights and measures in the fire that destroyed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, much labour went into the construction of a new Imperial system of measures, passing in to law in 1855.  It is significant then, that in the 1850s the newly built Houses of Parliament came to physically embody two crucial forms of measurement.  In St Stephen’s Tower a clock, asserted to be of unparalleled accuracy, projected time as recorded at Greenwich.  Less prominently, within the walls of Parliament, a set of Imperial standards for weight, distance, and volume were deposited.  Parliament was thus within a few short years constructed as the political centre of British measurement, both of time and space.  Yet these measurements were immensely controversial and secured contrasting degrees of national acceptance: while the clock became a national icon, by 1863, while radical Free Traders campaigned for the metric system, few MPs could even remember exactly where Parliament’s Imperial standards had been bricked up.

Image 39

It was not just measurement, but science more broadly that was embodied within the architecture of the new parliament.  Chemists were appointed to regulate the building’s air; mechanics and engineers employed steam-powered cranes and industrially-produced iron for the structure; mathematicians oversaw its internal time-keeping; optical specialists regulated new gas lighting; and geologists selected stone for the Palace’s exterior.  Much of this work can only be fully understood by considering the political context of the new parliament.

Between the 1820s and late-1840s Britain witnessed rapid political change.  Among other reforms, Catholic emancipation came in 1829, followed by the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, and the 1832 Great Reform Act extending the franchise to increase the electorate from 500,000 to 813,000.  Within this crucible of social reform was an awareness among Britain’s political elites that government, and specifically Parliament, had to appear legitimate with a population with which it seemed increasingly disconnected, and for many, this was best achieved with science.

Image 10.JPG

In the 1830s there was an increasing desire to make politics scientific.  Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill believed that scientific methods could be employed for social problems.  Whigs were equally eager that politicians cultivate knowledge and approach their work in an objective and empirical manner.  This had architectural ramifications which were realized at Westminster.  The construction of Parliament was guided by a commitment to a broad conception of ‘being scientific’.  Throughout the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, efforts were made to ensure that the Palace of Westminster utilized, embodied, and reflected the latest learnings in British natural philosophy.

Sarah Image Lab and Parl.jpg

‘Parliament and the Laboratory’, (artwork by Sarah McAuliffe, 2017)

Historical comparisons are always risky and to be avoided, but it is hard not to feel that now is an appropriate time to revisit the mid-nineteenth century with a focus on the new parliament building.  Built in an age of great social and political uncertainty, where existing institutions struggled to survive in the face of radical and popular pressures, this was a time when both the physical form of Parliament and the British state were recast.  And at the centre of all this turmoil was the problem of knowledge.  With religious teachings and aristocratic powers challenged, new bodies of scientific knowledge, such as geology and chemistry, provided alternate cultural authorities.  If 2016 was the year in which substantial elements of society ‘had enough of experts’ and the Oxford Dictionaries opted for ‘post-truth’ as their Word of the Year, then the 1830s was a time when purveyors of science worked hard to fashion their knowledge as ‘truth’ and build cultural authority for themselves.  In The Victorian Palace of Science, it becomes clear just what a central role Britain’s new parliament building played in forging this new relationship between science and state.


Click here for the full Parliaments, Politics and People seminar series schedule at the Institute of Historical research.



Posted in 19th Century history, Conferences/seminars | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘A noble sight’: the Prince’s Chamber and Royal Lyings in State in the Eighteenth Century

In the latest post for the Georgian Lords, we are delighted to welcome a guest blog from Dr Rachel Wilson, Research Fellow for the Leverhulme Trust funded Sheridan Project at the University of Leeds, who considers the ceremonial uses of the Prince’s Chamber in the old Palace of Westminster, the venue for lyings in state throughout the eighteenth century

For the majority of the eighteenth century, the Prince’s Chamber (also known as the Old Robing Room) adjoining the House of Lords was the setting for almost the last ritual a member of the royal family would take part in before their burial; their lying in state. Between the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and Prince Henry, duke of Cumberland in 1790, over a dozen royals were brought to this room and their sealed coffins publicly displayed before being interred in Westminster Abbey. Some are well known to history, such as George II (d. 1760) and his consort, Queen Caroline (d. 1737). Others are less familiar, including Princess Caroline (d. 1757), Princess Elizabeth (d. 1759), Prince Frederick (d. 1765), Prince Edward, duke of York (d. 1767) and Princess Louisa (d. 1768).

The exact space in which they and others lay was demolished in 1823, however its exterior appearance and location within the Palace of Westminster may be seen in contemporary prints and maps.

John Roque, 1746 map detail, Palace of Westminster, Wikipedia

[Detail of John Roque’s 1746 map, via Wikipedia]

Writing in the 1830s Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton recorded that its foundations dated to the time of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), but ‘the superstructure, from the style of its lancet windows, &c. was generally assigned to the reign of Henry Third [r. 1216-1272]’. Others noted that it was handsomely designed and originally boasted ‘five beautiful windows on the South side, three on the Eastern, and probably as many on the western side’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, xciii, part 2, p. 99).

John Thomas Smith, Antiquities of the city of Westminster, p. 38 detail

[J.T. Smith, Antiquities of the City of Westminster (1807), via]

The Chamber was relatively small at only ‘about 45 feet long by 20 feet wide’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, xciii, part 2, p. 99) and for that reason may seem a surprising venue for royal lyings in state, however its diminutive size was advantageous in an era when comparatively quiet, low-key royal funerals were preferred, while its proximity to the Abbey allowed funeral processions to be kept similarly modest (Schaich, pp 436-7).

Despite the brevity of a royal lying in state (which lasted only a day), considerable efforts were made to ensure that the Prince’s Chamber was suitably decorated for the occasion and the corpse was attended and protected by a cluster of high-ranking servants and guards. A lump sum of £6,458.8.6 paid by the Treasury to tradesman William Barnsley after Queen Anne’s demise gives some indication of the expense and arrangements. Among other things it covered the cost of:

purple-ingrain cloth for a canopy of state set up in the Prince’s chamber for the body to be deposited under and to cover 12 high stands; fine purple-ingrain cloth to cover the floor of the said Chamber at Westminster; superfine black cloth to cover an armchair, and two backed chairs for the Chief Mourner and her two supporters two large stools for the two Duchesses that supported the Chief Mourner’s train, 16 stools and two benches for the Assistants etc. of the late Queen’s Bedchamber (Calendar of Treasury Books, vol. 29, 1714-15).

The Chamber looked much the same during the lying in state of George II and was, according to Horace Walpole, ‘absolutely a noble sight’ being ‘hung with purple, and a quantity of silver lamps, the coffin under a canopy of purple velvet, and six vast chandeliers of silver on high stands’. The emphasis on purple (the colour of monarchy) denoted Anne and George’s position at the pinnacle of the royal establishment and more minor members of the family were usually mourned with black furnishings only, though Queen Caroline’s coffin was draped in crimson (Read’s Weekly Journal, 17 December 1737). One detailed description of the lying in state of a lesser royal is the official Ceremonial issued before the funeral of Princess Amelia in 1786. It decreed that she be:

placed a little before the Canopy; the Room being hung, and floored with Black, and lighted with Wax Candles; and on each Side of the Canopy are to be placed five high Stands, with large Wax Tapers. At the Head of the Coffin is to be an Elbow Chair for the Chief Mourner, and another Chair on each Side for her Two Supporters. On either Side of the Corpse, close to the Wall, are to be five Stools, placed for the Ten Assistants; and below them, two Forms for the Ladies of the Bedchamber. The Coffin to be covered with a Sheet, and black Velvet Pall adorned with eight Escutcheons; and, on the Head of the Coffin, the Princess’s Coronet, upon a black Velvet Cushion (Ceremonial for the private interment of her late royal highness, Princess Amelia-Sophia-Eleanora … (London, 1786)).

As a comparison between Anne, George and Amelia’s send-offs show, the lying in state of a sovereign was a considerably more impressive sight than that of an elderly Princess, with more servants and wax tapers on display and the body beneath the canopy rather than positioned in front of it. Nevertheless, the opportunity to view the coffin of even a lower ranking royal could prove a popular attraction, albeit one which the Prince’s Chamber was ill-equipped to handle. Its spatial limitations and the short time the body lay there meant that it was not always possible to accommodate all those who wished to attend and in September 1790 gaining access to view the duke of Cumberland’s coffin was reportedly ‘very difficult’, with ‘multitudes’ of people queuing around the building ‘without any hopes of admission’ (Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 29 September 1790).

As the eighteenth century came to an end so too did the practice of using the Prince’s Chamber for royal lyings in state. This change was precipitated by the death of Prince William, duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh in 1805, who directed in his will that his remains be buried in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor where his infant daughter had been interred in 1775 (Range, p. 213). Perhaps in recognition of the fact that Westminster Abbey was also running out of space (Range, p. 214) future burials then followed suit, with the Chapel and later the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore becoming the most common places for royals to be laid to rest. With interments now taking place outside of London the Chamber was an impractical site to keep the deceased before their funerals and various royal residences and even the Chapel itself soon became the favoured locations. This pattern was not to last, however, and more modern times have witnessed a return to Westminster, though not to the current incarnation of the Prince’s Chamber which dates to the reign of Queen Victoria. Instead it is the much older and grander Westminster Hall in which senior members of the royal family now repose, and it is there that we may expect future lyings in state to take place.



Further Reading:

Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton, The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (London, 1836). The quote given above is from p. 421.

Matthias Range, British royal and state funerals: music and ceremonial since Elizabeth I (Woodbridge, 2016).

Michael Schaich, ‘The Funerals of the British Monarchy’ in Schaich (ed.), Monarchy and Religion: the Transformation of Royal Culture in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Oxford, 2007), pp 421-50.

Correspondence of Horace Walpole with George Montagu (3 vols, London, 1837). The letter quoted above is Horace Walpole to George Montagu, 13 Nov. 1760 and is taken from volume 2, p. 48.


Georgian lords 2

Posted in 18th Century history, Georgian Lords, Royal family, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment