‘Peace for our time’: opposing the Munich Agreement

Tomorrow is the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, the now infamous meeting where Britain and France agreed to hand over part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in order to avoid war. Yet despite the cheering crowds greeting Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his ‘piece of paper’ that guaranteed ‘peace for our time’, the deal was not without opposition, as described by our Assistant Director, Emma Peplow

The Munich Agreement, and the British government’s ‘appeasement’ policy that led to it, has become a byword for spinelessness in international affairs. As with many things in history, it was perhaps more complicated than this narrative suggests, and a policy not without opposition at the time, including stridently from the HPT’s founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, who we are commemorating this year.

By 1938 Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was re-arming fast and beginning to expand. High on Hitler’s list of targets was the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia – a strategically important region with a high proportion of ethnic Germans in the population. The small state knew that it would be unable to stand up to German pressure on its own, so looked to Britain and France for support. As pressure mounted in early September, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Germany to try to resolve the crisis.

Chamberlain’s solution was to extract concessions from the Czechoslovakian government to give Hitler what he wanted – concessions that the Czechoslovaks had little choice but to accept. Returning once again to Germany on 22 September, Chamberlain was horrified when Hitler demanded even more. This was too much for both the Czechoslovak government and the British cabinet, who refused to concede any more to Hitler. All sides prepared for war.

At this moment, however, Hitler changed his mind – historians believe this was in part due to his attendance at a military parade in Berlin where the crowds were subdued, not cheering for war as he expected. A further conference was arranged – at Munich on 29 September 1938 – and Hitler accepted a deal. It was a deal that handed over large areas of Czechoslovakian territory to Germany without a shot being fired. In hindsight it appears strange that Hitler was unenthusiastic, whereas Chamberlain was greeted by cheering crowds, treated as a hero for averting the war that seemed imminent just a few days before.

Despite perhaps a more complicated historical narrative than we are used to, history proved to be a hard judge on Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement. Within months the Munich agreement was in tatters and Nazi armies marched in to what remained of Czechoslovakia. Historians continue to argue whether the extra year before war broke out was crucial to British and French rearmament efforts, leaving them better prepared to fight in 1939. Yet it seems likely that Chamberlain acted in good faith: he felt Hitler would stop when his – in some eyes – ‘legitimate’ demands had been met and Germany was restored to its pre-First World War position. In this Chamberlain made a serious error and his historical reputation has to live with that.

Chamberlain’s policy was criticised at the time, and for the very reason history judged him so harshly: that he did not correctly anticipate Hitler’s expansionist agenda or understand the threat of the Nazi regime. By Munich opposition to his policies was growing – from Winston Churchill, of course, Anthony Eden, many in the Labour movement – but also Josiah C. Wedgwood, then Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Wedgwood had been a long-standing opponent of fascism and Nazism, and was horrified by the treatment of Jews in Nazi territories in particular. He believed that liberal democracy was under real threat, and that the parliamentary tradition so long fought-for in Britain was being risked by a reluctance to fight this threat. He campaigned passionately for the rights of refugees, and in vain called for a relaxation of British immigration laws.

Munich horrified Wedgwood as another opportunity lost to stand up to fascism and defend liberal democracy. He spoke against the deal at Labour rallies across the country, and forcefully in Parliament. Although in many ways Wedgwood was an idiosyncratic and controversial figure, with some opinions (particularly towards the Catholic community) that do not stand up to modern scrutiny, in this instance history has proved considerably kinder to him and his judgement:

The important thing is that the British people should not think it wrong to fight for their rights, because we are getting to a time now when we have got to make up our minds whether or not there is something worth fighting for, and to my mind the freedom of this country, the democracy of the world, is something that is worth fighting for. I think we may turn over the page that has recently been written, and turn it over with some shame, with some fear, as to what history will say of the course taken by the British Government in the last three weeks. But let the past be past and let us look towards the future. The future sketched out by those who trust Hitler is the [Munich] Pact. The future as envisaged by those who do not trust him is the reconstruction of some form of league of the people who are opposed to Hitlerism in order to enforce the rule of law instead of the rule of force.  [Hansard, October 4 1938]


This year we are commemorating our founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, on the 75th anniversary of his death with a HLF-funded project based in Staffordshire. This includes a touring exhibition on Wedgwood’s campaigns in the 1930s and a set of Key Stage 3 schools materials currently available to schools in the local area (and later to be added on the HPT website). For more information about our events or for schools materials please contact Sammy Sturgess at ssturgess@histparl.ac.uk.

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An Artist in the Attic: Women and the House of Commons in the Early-Nineteenth Century

Excellent piece from Amy Galvin Elliott – it was great to hear about her research in the flesh at the ‘A Century of Women MPs’ conference earlier this month.

The Victorian Commons

In this guest post, Amy Galvin-Elliott from the University of Warwick looks at how women were able to witness debates in the House of Commons from the ‘ventilator’, a space used until the fire of October 1834 destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. Amy is undertaking a PhD as part of an ESRC funded project between the University of Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. She is supervised by Dr Sarah Richardson, Dr Laura Schwartz and Dr Mari Takayanagi. Her thesis is titled ‘From Suffragette to Citizen: female experience of parliamentary spaces in long nineteenth century Britain’. She recently presented her research at the Century of Women MPs conference organised by the Vote 100 project, the History of Parliament Trust and the University of Westminster.

In February 1778 a fateful incident saw women banned from the public galleries of the House of Commons. Prior to this, in spite of their lack of an…

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Life before Parliament: the formative years of Josiah C. Wedgwood, 1872-1904

hlfhi_blkLast night at the new Newcastle-under-Lyme Library the History of Parliament’s Sammy Sturgess and Emma Peplow, along with British Academy / Wolfson Foundation Research Professor Paul Seaward, gave a talk about the life of Josiah C. Wedgwood to local history enthusiasts. They were graciously introduced by Zagham Farhan, the Member of Youth Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme and Moorlands. This event launched our exhibition tour in North Staffordshire as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, Commemorating Josiah C. Wedgwood. The exhibition is currently being displayed at Newcastle Library, but will move onto the next leg of its journey on Monday (25 Sep) at Stoke City Central Library. To celebrate this event and accompany her last blog about Wedgwood’s campaigns in 1930s – including fundraising to begin his History of Parliament project – our Public Engagement Officer Sammy Sturgess sheds a little light on Wedgwood’s formative years…

exhibition at Newcastle Library

‘Josiah Wedgwood and the defence of democracy’ exhibition at Newcastle-under-Lyme Library

Josiah Clement Wedgwood was born in Barlaston, Staffordshire on 16 March 1872, the second son of Clement Wedgwood and Emily Rendel. He was the great-great grandson of his namesake and founder of the Wedgwood pottery dynasty, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). He did not align himself to a career in the pottery business – unlike his grandfather, father and brothers. Josiah the younger took an interest in history, the military and politics from an early age, winning a school prize for the former and engaging with both the latter outside of the classroom whilst at Clifton College, Bristol.

SH-17-08839 Image 1 Josiah Wedgwood (C) The Brampton Museum & Art Gallery

Josiah C. Wedgwood (c) Brampton Museum and Art Gallery

In 1890 after sixth form and following a failed army medical (due to a hernia), Josiah opted out of university and started work at Armstrong’s Elswick military ship building works, Tyneside; following in the footsteps of his maternal uncle Hamilton Rendel with whom he stayed during his time in the North-East. Through his uncles there he began to rub shoulders with the local Liberal elite, and under his own volition attended political meetings. In Tyneside he led an active social life and nurtured his military propensity by volunteering with the 1st Northumberland Voluntary Artillery, less formally known as the Elswick Battery, where he held the rank of second lieutenant. He won a scholarship to the Royal Naval College Greenwich and commenced his studies in London in 1892.


Shortly before his studies began during a visit home to Barlaston, young Josiah met his would be first wife, and cousin, Ethel Bowen daughter of Lord Justice Bowen. Despite their scandalous divorce trial in 1918, during which Josiah falsely claimed he had an adulterous affair in order to ensure the divorce would be granted, he still wrote fondly of Ethel in his Memoirs (Memoirs of a Fighting life, 1941)

It would be quite impossible to write any memoirs of my life which left out my first wife, and I see no reason for the taboo. I owe to her seven children and twenty halcyon years. If one could repeat, I would do it again with eyes open, knowing the end; and what, is more, I believe she would, too.

After a short, intense courtship the pair married in July 1893, against the wishes of Josiah’s mother who wanted her son to wait until after his graduation from Greenwich. Nevertheless the newlyweds set up home in Greenwich and soon thereafter began to welcome their children – their first daughter, Helen was born only a year and a day after the wedding. The next three children came in quick succession, and Josiah still managed to graduate from the Royal Naval College with a second-class pass in the autumn of 1895.

He worked for a year as Assistant Constructor in the drawing office in the naval dockyard in Portsmouth before returning to the Tyneside to resume work at the Elswick shipyard (this time as a qualified architect). Ethel and Jos slotted into society well in the North-East reconnecting with old acquaintances from Josiah’s previous time there. Ethel’s friends, ‘chosen with great care’ included the Trevelyans and ‘Miss Ella Pease of Pendower…close friend of Sir Edward Grey’ (Memoirs, p. 41). With Josiah’s increasing political radicalism and his growing inclination towards the Liberal party, he began to disassociate himself from the Fabians, with whom he had been affiliated since his time in London. He formally resigned his membership in 1897 due to a disagreement over which side to support in an engineering industry dispute (according to Wedgwood’s biographer, Paul Mulvey).

When the Boer War broke out in 1899 Wedgwood finally got his chance to fulfill his ambition of active military service. The Elswick Battery was deployed to South Africa in April 1900 – along with Ethel! She worked in the local Red Cross for a time to help the war effort whilst Josiah’s mother took care of the children. The couple made the acquaintance of the Cape Governor, Sir Alfred Milner, who kept Wedgwood in mind for a position in the civil service after the war. When nothing was available immediately Josiah reluctantly went home in 1901 having enjoyed army life in South Africa – despite his distaste for some of the British military policy and practices during the campaign.


Paul Seaward talking about Josiah C. Wedgwood and the History of Parliament Trust

An opportunity to take part in Milner’s vision for governance in post-war South Africa arose in 1902, so Wedgwood moved the family to South Africa. After two months he was offered the position as the resident magistrate of the Ermelo-Carolina district. He threw himself into his career and enjoyed life in South Africa immensely, but by 1904 Ethel was in ill health and homesick. After a visit back to the England for her health, on the journey back to South Africa the family got as far as Gran Canaria and Ethel refused to go any further. The Wedgwoods returned to Staffordshire where Jos lived the ‘life of an idle country gentleman’ (Memoirs, p. 58) and pined for his beloved South Africa. To busy himself he began work researching Staffordshire medieval history and found a renewed interest in politics, which was quickly nurtured by local ex-Liberal MP Alfred Baillson.

Josiah achieved and experienced a lot before he was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme in the 1906 Liberal landslide election. He would continue to be known as an exceptionally active person both in his political campaigning and in his extra-parliamentary activities, including his fervent enthusiasm for history.


For further information on our HLF funded project, including the exhibition tour in North Staffordshire, our events at Keele University and our free KS3 study pack, please contact Sammy Sturgess at ssturgess@histparl.ac.uk

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Women behind the polls: the electoral patronage of Anne St John, countess of Rochester

Earlier this month the History of Parliament Trust with partners UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project and the Schools of Humanities at the University of Westminster held a conference to mark the centenary of the passing of the 1918 legislation that formally accorded women the right to sit in Parliament. It is in this context, and as a follow-up to her previous blog on female voters in the 17th century, Women at the polls, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at Anne St John. She exemplifies how, in the early modern period, a well-connected and determined woman of property might exert influence over elections...

In late February 1660 there was excitement among those who now saw the restoration of the monarchy as an imminent and welcome possibility, at the prospect that the Long Parliament would finally be terminated and a new ‘free’ Parliament called. Elections were expected for a Convention to commence sitting that April. Among those who scrambled to exert influence at the polls to promote the return of the king was Anne, dowager countess of Rochester. In her person she illustrates several of the usually hidden ways in which women of high social status might exercise power before the age of fashionable political hostesses.

Anne St John (1614-1696) was one of those early modern women who, through a combination of their own longevity and the gender imbalance in susceptibility to prevailing epidemics, found themselves outliving their husbands and sons, gaining control of extensive estates during the minorities of their children and grandchildren, and deploying the patronage that went with it. Among the elder surviving children of Sir John St John of Lydiard Tregoze in north east Wiltshire, in October 1632 she married 16-year-old Sir Francis Henry Lee, 2nd bt., of Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire, and Ditchley, Oxfordshire. When Lee died suddenly from smallpox in July 1639, Anne was left as guardian of their 18-month-old son Sir Henry Lee, 3rd bt., and his even younger brother Francis (later Francis Henry), and as custodian of extensive but encumbered estates. In her mid-20s, and fighting to secure her sons’ inheritance, she could still engage with politics. In November 1640 she confidently informed Edward Hyde, a sitting MP and the future earl of Clarendon, that the king’s need for money would ensure the continuance of the recently-assembled Long Parliament. Enquiring whether William Pleydell, her sister’s stepson and MP for the St Johns’ pocket borough of Wootton Bassett, had yet made any learned speeches, she claimed he would have been a good choice as Speaker of the Commons.

When the civil war broke out, unlike their kinsmen the St Johns of Bletsoe [see for example, Sir Oliver St John I], the St Johns of Lydiard Tregoze became royalists. Anne married as her second husband Henry Wilmot, who had been expelled from the Long Parliament in 1641 for his involvement in the ‘Army Plot’ and who went on to become a controversial commander of royalist forces. Defeat drove the couple into exile on the continent, where Wilmot was created earl of Rochester by Charles Stuart, the future Charles II. Having been involved in royalist insurrection, he eventually died at Ghent in 1658. Meanwhile, his widow, already returned to England with their young son, John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, the future poet and libertine, continued the struggle by other means.

In 1655 Anne arranged the marriage of her eldest son, Sir Henry Lee, to one of the two daughters and co-heirs of the very recently deceased Sir John Danvers, a regicide who had covertly given succour to royalists. Not only did she vigorously assert her daughter-in-law’s claims to the Danvers estates in Wiltshire, but – as effective lord of the manor – in the elections of December 1658 she prevailed on the 13 voters of Malmesbury to choose her son for the parliamentary seat once held by Sir John. Sir Henry Lee joined Danvers’ other son-in-law, Robert Villiers alias Danvers, and his uncles (Anne’s younger brothers) Sir Walter St John and Henry St John (MP for Wootton Bassett) among a sizeable number of covert royalists in the Parliament of Richard Cromwell. However, partisan hopes were dashed when Lee also succombed to smallpox, and died in March 1659, aged only 21, leaving two daughters, one as yet unborn.

By the spring of 1660 Anne, countess of Rochester, controlled as executor or guardian the Danvers inheritance of her granddaughters, the Lee inheritance of her younger son Sir Francis Henry Lee, 4th bt., only just coming of age, and the Wilmot inheritance of her youngest son the earl of Rochester. This potentially conferred wide electoral patronage. Staying in London, she enlisted the help of Thomas Yate, an executor of Sir John Danvers who was to be an important figure in Restoration Oxford, to secure seats for her relations and friends in several boroughs in north Wiltshire and elsewhere which were open to her influence. Her priority was to get places for her son Francis Henry and for Sir Ralph Verney, ‘whose own merits is such, as it will bee a happinesse to the place and they will have cause to give us thanks for him’, but who, as she explained to Yate, ‘obliges me to doe him any service hee shall command’ because of his support to her, as a Lee family executor, over ‘the children’s business’. Indeed, ‘if my brother St John be not chosen, I shall rather have him disappointed than Sir Ralph Verney’ [M. M. Verney, Memoirs of the Verney Family (1894), iii. 465].

The countess soon found her power a mixed blessing and was led to scale down her aspirations. She told Verney she had been ‘soe trobeled with solicitors, for those [burgesses’] places in the children’s estate’, that she had had to ‘put them all off with telling them that I am alredy promised as far as my interest goes’. The places for Verney and Sir Francis Henry Lee ‘will bee as many as wee can compass’. Malmesbury corporation informed Lee that ‘if he would come in person they did hope to chuse him’, despite there being a dozen other candidates; probably because he obliged ‘for fear of the worst’ they duly elected him, as they did again in 1661 [ibid. 467]. But at Great Bedwyn, where the countess nominated both Verney and her brother Sir Walter St John, despite an initial undertaking by electors to ‘do their duty to their Country and their young lande ladyes to serve Sir Ralph therein’ [ibid. 464], after a double return neither of her candidates succeeded in securing their seats.

However, this was by no means Anne’s final opportunity to influence the polls, or indeed wider society. Later in 1660 she petitioned the Commons over the Lee estate and submitted ‘a very effectual letter’, read in Parliament, advocating mercy for John Hutchinson, former MP for Nottingham and a regicide, in return for the help he had previously given her [Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1863), 412]. Surviving her sons Francis Henry Lee (d.1667) and John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester (d.1680), and her grandson Charles Wilmot, 3rd earl of Rochester (d.1681), she lived to raise her grandson Edward Henry Lee (1st earl of Lichfield) and marry him to an illegitimate daughter of Charles II, and to preside over the upbringing, estates and attendant patronage of her Wilmot granddaughters as she had over those of their Danvers-Lee cousins.


Additional reading:

  • Elsie Corbett, A History of Spelsbury (1962)
  •  Journal of the House of Commons, viii. 185b
  • Among MPs mentioned here, the House of Commons 1640-1660 section are preparing for publication biographies of Sir John Danvers, Robert Danvers alias Villiers, John Hutchinson, Edward Hyde, Sir Henry Lee, William Pleydell, Henry St John, Sir Walter St John, Sir Ralph Verney and  Henry Wilmot.
  • History of Parliament: The House of Lords 1660-1715 has already published in print biographies of John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, Charles Wilmot, 3rd earl of Rochester, and Edward Henry Lee, 1st earl of Lichfield.
Posted in 17th Century history, Early modern history, Elections, James I to Restoration, Women and Parliament | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

‘He chose the forefront of the battle’: Lord Alexander George Thynne (1873-1918)


Lord Alexander Thynne

Here’s the next instalment from Dr Kathryn Rix (Assistant Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project) in her series commemorating those MPs who died during the First World War. You can see the rest of the series here

On 14 September 1918 Lord Alexander Thynne became the final serving Member of Parliament to be killed in action during the First World War. A Conservative, he had sat since January 1910 for Bath, the city which gave its name to his family’s title. Thynne was the third and youngest son of the fourth Marquess of Bath, of Longleat House, Wiltshire. One of his brothers, Lord John, died in 1887, but the oldest son, Thomas Henry, Viscount Weymouth – who was Conservative MP for Frome, 1886-92 and 1895-6 – succeeded their father as the fifth Marquess in 1896.

The Thynne family had a long tradition of parliamentary service, and his brother’s accession to the House of Lords provided Thynne, who was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, with his first opportunity to try to win a parliamentary seat. He stood in his brother’s place as the Conservative candidate for Frome, but lost to a Liberal at the by-election in June 1896. It would be almost ten years before he made another attempt to enter the Commons.

In the meantime, he spent several years in South Africa. He had joined the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry as a second lieutenant in April 1897, and was subsequently seconded for service with the 1st battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry during the Boer War. He was involved in ‘a great deal of fighting’ in South Africa and was awarded two medals. After the war ended, he served as private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Orange River Colony. In 1903-4 he accompanied the Somaliland Field Force as a special correspondent for Reuter’s news agency.

Having returned home, Thynne stood at Bath at the 1906 general election, but was among the many Conservative candidates defeated in the Liberal landslide. He was more successful as a candidate for the London County Council (LCC). He had represented the City of London from 1899-1900, and in 1907 was elected as a councillor for Greenwich. In 1910 he changed seats again, becoming a councillor for East Marylebone. He chaired the LCC’s Improvements Committee from 1909 until 1912. This fuelled his interest in social reforms, a question he also spoke on after his election to the Commons.

Thynne topped the poll at Bath at the general elections of January and December 1910. He asked several questions of ministers in his first Parliament, but it was not until 2 March 1911 that he made his maiden speech, which ‘created a very favourable impression’. He denied that the general election result had given Asquith’s ministry a mandate to reform the House of Lords, arguing that

at the last election we saw an expression of gratitude, and of a profound gratitude, [from voters] for the old age pensions which they had received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was coupled with the desire for another helping from the same dish.

In contrast, Thynne argued,

these questions of procedure, these subtleties of constitutional reform, this adjustment of electoral machinery, which are of so much interest in this House, leave the man in the street comparatively cold.

As well as being an able speaker, Thynne was noted for his good looks. One newspaper report observed that

if you were to ask any M.P. who was the handsomest man in the House he would tell you that (after himself) Lord Alexander Thynne was an easy first.

He was said to have inherited ‘much of the sober sense and business ability of his late father’, together with ‘a certain brilliance’, prompting suggestions in 1916 that he would be a useful addition to the government.

Thynne was, however, already actively engaged on military service. When the war began, he was training with the Wiltshire Yeomanry, holding the rank of major. He then went to France as second in command of a battalion of the Worcester regiment, before being transferred to command a battalion of the Gloucestershire regiment. On 30 July 1916 he was seriously wounded during the battle of the Somme. Having been shot in the chest, he took several months to recover, but returned to France at the end of the year, taking command of a battalion of the Wiltshire regiment.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, making him one of the most highly decorated MPs to serve. He also received the Croix de Guerre and was mentioned in despatches several times. He was wounded again in April 1918, this time in the arm, but was soon back in France. Sir Donald Maclean, one of his Liberal opponents at Bath, wrote that

it would have been easy and honourable for him to have taken in these later years of the war a post in the Army where his life would not be constantly at hazard. But he chose the forefront of the battle.

On 14 September 1918 Thynne, by then a lieutenant-colonel, was killed at Béthune in northern France when a shell exploded as he and other officers were on their way to take over fresh headquarters. He was buried at Béthune town cemetery. His death marked a second blow for his brother, whose heir, Viscount Weymouth, had been killed in action in 1916, aged just twenty.


Although Thynne was the last sitting MP to die while serving in the forces during the First World War, this does not mark the end of our blog series, as we will be commemorating the death of a former MP, Charles Lyell, next month.

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Medieval MP of the Month: Robert Hill (c.1391-1444) of Shilston, Devon.

Today’s blog is the second installment from our new series ‘Medieval MP of the Month’ – the precursor to the History of Parliament’s forthcoming set of volumes relating to the reign of Henry VI that will be published in 2019. In this post we hear from Senior Research Fellow Dr Hannes Kleineke  about landed gentleman Robert Hill…

While clashes over fishing stocks in the Seine estuary have of late made the news, this month’s sneak preview of the History’s forthcoming fifteenth-century volumes serves as a reminder that fish has always formed an important part of our diet, all the more so in the period before the Reformation when the Church forbade the consumption of meat during substantial parts of the year.

Robert Hill came from a family of important men-of-law of Devon origins. Both his father, Sir Robert (d.1425), and his maternal grandfather, Sir John Wadham (d.1412) were justices of the court of common pleas, in the middle ages one of the two principal royal law courts based in Westminster Hall. Robert himself did not actively practise the law, but was instead able to use the wealth he had inherited from his father to live the life of a landed gentleman. He cut his military teeth in the French wars in 1423, serving under Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, and went on to hold office as sheriff of his county for a term of 15 months in 1428-30, before representing Devon in the Commons in 1442.

Not long before taking his seat, Hill had become embroiled in an acrimonious quarrel over fishing rights in the river Erme between Ugborough and Ermington. Another legal acquaintance, the future Chief Justice John Fortescue, had acquired a 20-year-lease of these rights, and had sub-let them to Hill. Their monopoly was not, however, recognised by one of the most powerful landowners in the vicinity, Sir William Bonville. By custom, the proprietors (or lessees)  of the fishery were entitled to access it across the landholdings of the tenants of the manors on either side of the river, but on 23 November 1440 Hill found his access blocked by a party of Bonville men, headed by Walter Raleigh, (an ancestor of the better-known Elizabethan seafarer) who claimed to be protecting their master’s property, and had helped themselves to Hill’s fish, said to have included 100 salmon, 200 bass, 200 trout and 200 other fish. Their exchange grew heated, but Hill and his men retained the upper hand, succeeded in disarming Raleigh and his followers, and – to add insult to injury – unceremoniously pitched Raleigh head-first into the river. The dispute exercised the royal law courts for a number of years, but it is likely that Hill sought election to his only Parliament precisely with the intention of seeking an outcome there.

Eventually, the matter was put to arbitration, but it is possible that from prior experience Hill had mixed feelings about this way forward. A few years earlier, in 1435, he himself had been asked to arbitrate in a dispute between two of his neighbours, but on this occasion the agreement of the parties to submit to his verdict had carried the curious stipulation that should no other evidence be forthcoming, the arbiter should examine a certain soothsayer over the matter. This soothsayer would be brought to Shilston for this purpose, and in such a way as to prevent the parties from influencing him beforehand. If there had ever been any notion of involving similar practitioners over the question of the Ermington fishery, it came to nothing, since Hill died apparently suddenly in the spring of 1444, and aged not much over 50.


Full biographies of Hill and Raleigh will appear in 2019 in The History of Parliament: The Commons 1422-61 ed. L.S. Clark.

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“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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