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Old Elections in Northampton

Between 1920-21, James Ward (1847-1925), a Northampton nonconformist, social campaigner and journalist wrote a series of six articles for the Northampton Daily Echo describing life growing up in the town in the 1850s and 60s.

Charles Gilpin, MP (1815-1874)
Charles Gilpin, MP (1815-1874)

We are hearing rumours of a general election, which may come any day that suits the purposes of the Government. In all honesty, it must be said that in these days the Government we have or the one which will follow was or will be the people’s choice for good or ill. That was not so in the days of which I propose to write. Then and until 1867 the great majority had no vote.

The earliest election I remember was that of 1857 when the Rt. Hon. R. A. Smith (afterwards the first Lord Lyveden) and Charles Gilpin1 were the Liberal candidates, and George Ward Hunt the Tory candidate. The voles cast were: Smith, 1079; Gilpin, 1011; Hunt 815. The population at that time was about 36,100.

I had been sent to Bostock’s2 with some closing and found my way to the Market Square. Opposite the then “Mercury” office (where the Arcade now is) had been erected what was known as the hustings with three compartments. The centre one occupied by the Mayor, Mr William Hensman, and his satellites, including the Town Crier in uniform and with bell to call order. On the right of the Mayor were the Liberal candidates; on his left, the Tory. I don’t remember much of the speeches except that I heard Mr Gilpin advocate political reform, abolition of Church Rates, and the institution of the ballot, but the scene is still clear in memory.

When the Liberals rose to speak the Tories yelled, the Liberals returning the compliment when the Tory rose. At times there was a real pandemonium, and several free fights took place between the retainers of the two parties. Finally, the Mayor rose and the Town Crier rang his bell for order. The Mayor submitted the names of the candidates to the vote, and the declared Smith and Gilpin elected. This was followed by the demand for a poll of the electors, which took place with the result already indicated.

It may be of interest to state here that the first contest under the Ballot Act took place at a by-election at Pontefract in 1872. Another early memory is of an election for South Northamptonshire when the Earl Spencer (then Lord Althorp) was the Liberal candidate, the Tory nominees being the late Sir Rainald Knightley and Colonel Howard-Vyse. Lord Althorp was elected with Sir Rainald as colleague.

The event which most impressed itself on my memory was a procession of some 1,500 mounted men who escorted Lord Althorp into the town. The procession was mainly composed of electors in the South of the county. I can still see Lord Althorp standing on the balcony of the Peacock Hotel, then a recognised Liberal house, addressing the large crowd beneath, and afterwards hearing the Tory speak from the balcony of the George, which, in all my recollection, was the Tory headquarters.

Electors of today can hardly conceive the conditions then prevailing. Public houses and hotels were practically the only places available for political meetings, and every publican was an active partisan of one side or the other. Ward and other meetings were nearly always held in the large room of the favoured public house. At that time as suggested by a correspondent in the “Echo” of March 26th last, there were more Radical than Tory publicans in Northampton. The explanation very simple. At that time neither party troubled about what afterwards was known as the temperance question. We had not heard the catchphrase, “Our Trade. Our Politics.” That came at the time of Bruce’s Act and earlier closing. After that, the majority of drink-sellers became Tory, and when the Liberal party made temperance reform a plank in its platform the opposition became still more pronounced. In the earlier days, it was well understood that the candidates or their friends would liberally refresh (or otherwise) the free and independent elector who attended.

Bruce’s act worked great changes in political life. Previous to that public houses practically kept open as long as they liked. If a meeting was prolonged the landlord would shut the front door at the closing hour. A policeman might perhaps tap at the door and have a drink. The business would be finished and home with the milk in the morning!

Then came the Corrupt Practices Act, which much curtailed the liberty of holding election meetings in public houses. Both these Acts did very much towards the purification of political life. It is no libel to say that many of the early days – on both sides – were hotbeds of political corruption: there are many old political workers who can remember receiving on the morning of an election a sum of money to spend on setting men to the polls somehow.

There were candidates even in those days who would have nothing to do with bribery. The late Alderman Joseph Gurney3 was one. In 1881 he was a candidate for the East Ward, and I can hear a well-known man saying to him: “Mr. Gurney, you must spend more money or you will be defeated.” The answer was “Well, I will be defeated. 1 have never yet bought a public position and I never will.” There are others I could name who would have said the name.

Another bad custom of the old days is suggested by a word I have already used “retainers.” It was that of hiring “chuckers out” for public meetings. Each side did it, but the Tory party, having the most money, at that time were probably the worst.

I remember one Liberal meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute at the then Corn Exchange. Not far from where I sat was one of the most brutal specimens of humanity I had ever seen. He had a black eye and a bloated face. Every now and then he would rise and look menacingly round as much as to say. “Mum’s the word, or out you go.” I was told he was there as the “peace keeper.” This was about fifty years ago. Every time he rose, my desire was to suppress him forcibly, for I detest bullies, paid or unpaid.

On another occasion, I remember the Tory party giving offence to their usual peace-preservers in Northampton by ignoring them and engaging some from Birmingham, including a well-known prize fighter. The home contingent, feeling dishonoured by this treatment, “went for them,” and there were wigs on the green at a well-known public house not far from the bottom of Kingswell Street. A local costermonger possessed the prize-fighter’s hat as a trophy of victory. This happened, I think, about 35 years ago.

Happily, better times were coming. In addition to the Town Hall and Temperance Hall, the Board Schools became available for political meetings. In. years gone by, whenever there was talk of holding meetings away from the public houses the retort was “Why don’t the Temperance party or the religious bodies find us rooms?” So seeing one day in the paper that the Birmingham School Board were giving facilities, I promptly wrote to the late Mr. Schnadhorst4, secretary of the Birmingham Liberal Federation, for a copy of the rules and regulations, which I placed before the Executive of the then Liberal and Radical Union, and moved a resolution requesting the School Board to give permission under proper regulations.

“We can’t do that,” said my old friend, the Clerk (the late Mr. J. B Hensman) “Well,” I said, “the School Board election is coming and I shall make it my business to attend every meeting to ask why not.” In brief, being well supported by the executive, and, especially by the late Sir Philip Manfield and the late Alderman Thomas Adams, permission was obtained; and I doubt if anyone would like to go back to the old system.

James Ward
15 August 1921

  1. Charles Gilpin (1815-1874) was a Quaker, orator, politician, publisher and railway director. He was Liberal MP for Northampton from 1857-74.
  2. Frederick Bostock Ltd, Victoria Street
  3. Joseph Gurney (1814 – 1893), councillor and Mayor, Gurney founded the Northampton Freehold Land Society, enabling working men to own their homes. This was a predecessor of the Nationwide Building Society. Gurney was a leading radical who championed parliamentary reforms and was Charles Bradlaugh’s foremost supporter.
  4. Francis Schnadhorst (1840–1900) was a Birmingham draper and Liberal Party politician. He briefly held elected office on Birmingham Council, and was offered the chance to stand for Parliament in winnable seats, but he found his true vocation in political organisation and administration both as secretary of Birmingham Liberal Association, 1867 to 1884 and the National Liberal Federation, 1877 to 1893.

© Copyright : Graham Ward. All rights reserved.