Politics, parties and voters in parliamentary elections 1835-1862
See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings
1. Historiographical context.
Although this subject is treated separately for the sake of thematic clarity, holistically it is inseparable from the social networks and divisions treated in Chapter III, and should be interpreted with that in mind. Following the example of J.R. Vincent in the analysis of pollbooks historians have tended to concentrate mainly on the question of the political behaviour of presumed social classes derived from pollbook evidence of occupation, slightly fogging the image as it developed (1). More recently Dr Joyce, shifting the emphasis to the second dependent variable given in the pollbooks, the residence of the voters, has proved that, for cotton towns at least, that information may be at least as useful (2). As far as I know the only attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the individual social identity of voters has been that of D.G. Moore, whose work concentrates on rural society (3). In the economic circumstances of the inhabitants of compact and tightly-knit Victorian towns, especially those of small and middling size, man was likely to be more of a social than a political animal, especially before the 1872 Ballot Act. Fragments of evidence, such as T.B. Addison’s rejection on political grounds of John Taylor’s application to the magistrates to take an apprentice in 1832 (cited above p.106), suggest that research on this aspect of urban political behaviour would be rewarding. Preston’s initially universal (manhood) suffrage and subsequently large working class electorate, whose behaviour, occupation and identity are recorded in an unbroken series of poll lists from 1832 to 1868, presents the historian with an exceptional opportunity.
The themes treated in this chapter are the changing size and emergence and occupational character of the electorate; the emergence of short-lived ascendancy of the Liberal party; the personnel and methods of political leadership; and voting behaviour analysed to a limited. degree (4).
2. The Electorate between the Reform Bills of 18521 and 1867
The effect of the 1832 Reform Act on the Preston electorate is shown in the graph (5).
The yawning divergence between the adult male population and the number of registered voters fulfilled the predictions of Cobbett, Hunt and Mitchell. Whereas in the election immediately following the Act ‘every Male Person of full age’ could vote, by 1859 only a one in five could do so.
Joseph Mitchell’s warning that Preston’s voters under the old franchise ‘would be cut off as they fell into their graves’ is shown by the graph to have been over-optimistic. Under clause 31 of the Act existing voters retained the franchise: qualification under the old franchise in Preston was six months residence in the borough prior to 7th June 1832. By 1857 only 8% of those so qualified in 1832 remained on the register, but by far the biggest loss had occurred within ten months of the Reform Act. After the Barristers Court of Revision in October 1833 the number of voters under the old franchise had been almost halved: of the 6,291 registered in 1832 only 3,412 (54%) were left (6). Did the missing 2,937 fall or were they pushed? Both, probably. The Chronicle ascribed the reduction to apathy accentuated by the cost of registration: ‘… to the poor man who reckons his earnings by pence… a shilling is a very serious and important amount.’ (7) But the Vestry politics of 1832 and 1835 (see Chapter 2 and 5) suggest that voluntary political suicide on such a large scale was unlikely in 1833. Another explanation might be the reaction in 1833 against the Radical Vestry, when the middle classes recovered control over the Overseers, to whom belonged the duty of compiling the register. Perhaps many of those on the first register were rate defaulters or became paupers, but more likely is the possibility that the approach of the Overseers to an exceptionally arduous task was to presume voters on the first register missing unless they proved otherwise by personal representation either themselves or by proxy,. Nothing would be more natural for Overseers wishing to close the doors behind Hunt, Kimball and their like than for them to make no particular effort to protect the constitutional rights of their supporters. Six months after the 1833 register was completed the magistrates requested the mayor ‘to convey (their) thanks to the Overseers for their conduct…’ (including forming the register of electors) ‘and to confer the freedom of the borough on the two who were not freemen’ (8).
The table below shows how the size of the electorate and the proportions of voters under the old franchise and the £10 qualification changed between 1832 and 1862 (in six of the nine elections).
The balance between the old franchise and the new – the ‘people above corruption’ – tilted in the late 1840s; but still a large number of old (and ageing) voters remained to the end of my period.
The occupational composition of the electorate in 1832 and 1838 (by which date the decline of the old franchise had become gradual and even) is shown in Appendix 1. The ‘working classes’ lost most, both relatively and absolutely. Mechanics – ‘the Black Fleet’ who boasted their independence – had also shrunk proportionately much more than the electorate as a whole. The shopkeeping groups (including clothing and drink trades), on the other hand, had been reduced less than averagely, their share of the whole electorate rising from 14% to 17%. Building trades (shown on the graph as ‘joiners’ who were the majority of them), together with ‘crafts’ (which are not shown on the graph as theirs is the least satisfactory of the groups), remaining at just under 8% of the electorate, are probably too small a sample of a wide variety of miscellaneous urban occupations listed to be useful. In any case, pollbook occupations mask the important distinction between masters and servants. Nevertheless, these and the shopkeeping people were the main elements of the ‘one publicly recognised body which occupied a medium between… the employers and the employed… the body of tradesmen and shopkeepers (9). (see Chapter 3) A quarter of my sample in 1838, augmented to an unknown degree by the ten pounders (whose occupations are not given in the pollbooks), the ‘medium’ group was probably a clear majority of the electorate by 1850.
The upper crust of employers, lawyers and merchants had numerically increased their relative share of the electorate from 3 8% to 5.99% by 1838; but given the political leverage which some of them certainly used, it is perhaps more illuminating to express this increase as 57%.
3. The emergence and ascendancy of the Liberal Party
The period in which the electorate was thus composed, between the first and the second Reform Acts, coincides with the only Liberal successes in parliamentary elections in the 19th century. The Whig Stanley-Tory Corporation coalition won all elections in the first quarter of the century and the Conservative Party won every election in the last forty years. There were seven elections between 1832 and 1859, and although the Liberal or Reformist challenge was at first very weak, its leadership and organisation soon became clearer. The ‘hungry forties’ turned out to be the Liberal heyday, for they won both seats in 1841 and 1847; but consequences of the Liberal Government’s response to ‘Papal Aggression’, and of James Garden’s flight of Icarus, drove wedges into the natural faults within Preston Liberalism; Conservatives took one seat at each election in 1852, 1857 and 1859.