Reform, Radicalism and Reaction
The unreformed parliament: background to parliamentary representation
The first tentative steps towards parliamentary democracy were ushered in, despite vehement opposition from the government, with the passing of what is often known to historians as ‘The Great Reform Act of 1832.’ Perhaps, what is surprising is the turmoil it caused in the somnolent parliamentary constituency of Lymington during its birth pangs.
In order to make sense of what was happening at this time of upheaval I need to reflect a little on the history of the Borough of Lymington as a parliamentary constituency. It was created in 1584 when Queen Elizabeth was on the throne and, like nearly all other boroughs so enfranchised was given the authority to elect two representatives. (Christchurch, although it had been called on to send members first in 1307, was not fully franchised until 1571.) Who were the voters to be? Certainly not the ordinary members of the population: it needed those of property and authority, so the burgesses were chosen to make up the electorate, sometimes numbering as many as fifty! The underlying principle was that only those with property and wealth could be trusted with such responsibility – what could hoi polloi know or care about regarding national affairs?
So Lymington, like almost all other boroughs, had a very small electorate that could be persuaded to support any individual vouched for by those who controlled the borough by means of patronage.
Political and administrative control of the borough was in the hands of great landowners such as the Wallops and later the Powletts (or Paulets) and to strengthen their local base they allied themselves to the well-established and influential Burrard family, first of Lymington and then, from 1668, of Walhampton. Paul Burrard (1678-1735) in a letter to Lord William Powlett dated 22 June 1722 stated, “that all the old burgesses now alive (except one), from the year 1686, were made by us.” [i.e. the Burrards] (Annals of Walhampton 1874, 30-1). To provide some substance let me detail just one election: it was in 1689 when five burgesses stood as candidates: John Burrard topped the poll with 26 votes, Thomas Dore came second with 15 votes and the remaining three polled between them 11 votes. You may well guess that both the election and count were conducted in a very short space of time!
Mostly, however, no poll was held, for example, there were 17 general elections between 1754 and 1831 but in Lymington none was contested. At the time of such elections usually two names, selected by a few burgesses, were announced to the mayor (who was returning officer) and then seconded and that was that. Let me provide an example in the election of 1820: “The election took place on Tuesday last (7 March) when Vice-Admiral Sir H. Neale and George Finch of Burley Rutlandshire, were duly returned. About 5 o’clock about 200 of the principal inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood, sat down to a sumptuous dinner at the Angel and Nag’s Head inns, where the wine was pushed about very briskly till a late hour. Three hogsheads of beer were also given away to the populace.” (Salisbury & Winchester Journal, 13 March).
The origins of reform
Nationally, since the mid-eighteenth century, there had been moves to make parliament more representative, particularly, but not exclusively, seen in some of the London boroughs. Most notable was the renowned and reviled John Wilkes (1727-97) who was the first to formally propose parliamentary reform in 1776; “his greatest significance lay in his role both as propagandist and first figurehead of the movement that ultimately brought about British democracy.” (US historian, Frank Baglione). Somehow there were supporters in our little Lymington backwater, seemingly so remote from great national events, for in 1817 the ‘people of Lymington’ sent a petition in favour of reform to the House of Commons. It stated: “The petitioners who have long beheld with the utmost sorrow the alarming state of the people of this kingdom, are now fully satisfied, that our existing and multiplied grievances have arisen from long protracted and unnecessary wars, in support of despotism [naming the ‘fanatical and perfidious House of Bourbon’], the wasteful and extravagant expenditure of the people’s money, useless places, pensions, sinecures and establishments…all having their source and origin in the corrupt and degenerate state of the representation, whereby all salutary and constitutional control over ministers is lost, and parliaments instead of being a control for, have become a control upon the people… deaf to their complaints…” (Hansard 11 Feb 1817, vol. 35, cols 312-321.) Perhaps rather surprisingly as most similar petitions from all over the country when they arrived in the Commons got no airing and ‘just lay on the table’, but Lymington’s was debated in a rather thinly attended House and defeated with 72 voting against and 43 in favour.
The observations of the historian, Sir Llewellyn Woodward, in his Oxford History volume, The Age of Reform 1815-70 (OUP 1962), 15, “The town and country labourers who made up the majority of the English people had little political organization of their own, and no means of stating their case, except by the cumbersome method of petition to parliament” are of interest and relevance.
The dawn of reform
A leader in The Examiner in March 1828 caught the mood of these stirring times, “The wonders of steam are not more admirable than those of opinion… [which] is advancing to parallel and equal unimagined miracles… the judgement of many, individually is vapid and despised…is yet when collected and condensed, becoming the moving power of the state…the advancement of society is indeed in sure progress.”
The defeat of Wellington’s government in November 1830 became the key turning point in this exciting time for it ushered in a Whig government, under the premiership of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), which quite quickly presented the Reform Bill to the House. Interestingly enough in its second reading on 22 March 1831, to a packed House it was passed by a single vote, 362 ayes and 361 noes. Needless to say the two Lymington members, George Burrard and William Egerton, voted against. But overwhelming opposition in the House of Lords meant it could not be passed into law. Grey resigned and the king asked Wellington to form a government but because of the national turmoil this was not possible and a general election was held in April 1832 returning Lord Grey with a large majority in favour of reform. The Bill’s principal promoter, Lord John Russell, read its seemingly revolutionary clauses to the stunned members in the Commons. It wholly disfranchised 56 boroughs, including Old Sarum, Hindon, Downton, Corfe Castle and Stockbridge (Schedule A), another 30 were reduced to a single member, including Christchurch, Wareham and Shaftesbury (Sch. B). Schedule C was revolutionary by giving 22 places such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Brighton the right to elect two members (none of these great urban centres had previously any parliamentary franchise!). Weymouth and Melcombe Regis which jointly had returned four members since the late middle ages was to be reduced to two. The act had altogether 82 clauses and 10 attached schedules. When passed to the Lords for its third and final reading it passed with vote of 106 to 27. Wellington having previously agreed that he and his supporters would absent themselves from the House. The Bill received royal assent on 7 June 1832.
Lymington by means of enlarging its borough to include a chunk of south-west Boldre, including the Burrard property of Walhampton, retained the right to return two members.
The Lymington electorate had increased to 264 and the basic qualification for being the included as a voter was owning or leasing property with a minimum annual rental value of £10, hence the term ‘£10 householder’ became the convenient way of referring to such individuals.
The local consequences of reform
Even before the Reform Act was passed numerous lampoons or squibs were being printed locally either to support or castigate the Reform Bill. Let me give just three examples from the plethora of surviving pamphlets. This one addressed ‘To the Inhabitant Householders of the Town of Lymington. Gentlemen, Sir Harry Neale has announced his Intention of “offering himself” as a Candidate, to represent you in Parliament, in the Event of the Reform Bill passing into Law; and states, that should he be returned, he would endeavour most faithfully to execute the Duties which would thereby devolve on him. This appeal to you, for your Suffrages is indeed most extraordinary, coming as it does from Sir Harry Neale, who has used his utmost Exertions, both by his Votes and Influence, to prevent your ever obtaining the Elective Franchise… You are therefore earnestly requested to withhold the Promise of your Votes, as a Candidate of liberal Principles will shortly offer himself to your Notice. Lymington, 2nd June 1831.’ Another, printed a week later, was more vituperative, I select a few phrases, ‘Some secret Enemy of Sir Harry Neale, or some equally dangerous character, a friend…has brought forward Two Benefits conferred by Sir H. Neale, on this Town, as constituting a claim to your Support at the next election. The one is giving up three quarters of an Acre of Land to the Church Yard, and the other is, the (sic) having pulled down some old Buildings near the Town Hall, which had they not been removed, would have fallen of themselves. To these two Benefits, mighty ones indeed! Spread over a period of between thirty and forty years, we may add, the making people drunk at every election…But in opposition to this, we will ask, what real substantial good has Sir H. Neale ever done for the Town?’ It goes on to accuse Neale’s supporters, ‘Shame on you, to go about, upon the strength of your purses, seducing poor tradesmen to vote against their consciences, and to prostitute those rights, which are about to be given to them, in trust for their Country! Yours is dirty work…’ [signed] ‘A Ten-Pound Householder’.
Sir Harry published a detailed response, refuting all the accusations, and concluded by stating, ‘that I shall not by answering any other address of this description, afford my opponent of any further opportunity of thus amusing himself as I think he might find more useful employment’. He signs off, ‘I am Gentlemen, Your most obedient humble servant, H. Neale, Walhampton.’ It would be possible to relate this whole story much more fully, but I must be respectful of allotted space and my readers’ time. I will briefly conclude with the outcome of the first Reformed election held on 10th-11th December 1832. Three candidates offered themselves at the poll: Admiral Sir Harry Neale, John Stewart and Capt. John Blakiston. Every elector had two votes to cast. Sir Harry, personally well-known and a very much respected figure in the community came top of the poll (he did not cast any vote himself) with 160 votes, followed by Stewart, the first mixed-race MP (as the ‘A&T’ informed its readers, 14 Oct. 2016), with 127 votes and the radical Whig candidate, John Blakiston with a rather meagre 77. The poll was in public, the Ballot Act, giving secrecy to the individual’s vote, laying 40 years in the future. A poll book was published, as it was to be for every contested election up to and including that following the passing of the second Reform Act of 1867 (effective from 1868 – Disraeli’s first government), listing every voter and printing how each vote was cast and by whom.
I hope by providing the just the merest flavour of an intensely interesting and significant event in our nation’s story I have been successful in opening the readers’ eyes to the value of trying to understand our political and social history both locally and nationally.
This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 24 March 2017.