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Thursday, 7 May 2015

The general election of 1784

The Devonshire, or most approved method of securing votes  by Thomas Rowlandson, published by William Humphrey (1784)  © British Museum
The Devonshire, or most approved method of securing votes
by Thomas Rowlandson, published by William Humphrey (1784)
© British Museum
The background to the election

After the resignation of the loyal Lord North in 1782, George III appointed the Whig Lord Rockingham in his place, but he died within a few months of taking office. Perhaps the most obvious successor for leading the cabinet was Charles James Fox, but George III hated Fox and so appointed his rival, Lord Shelburne, as his Prime Minister. Fox formed a coalition with his previous enemy, Lord North, to force Shelburne’s government to fall.

For a while, the Fox-North coalition was in control, nominally under the leadership of the Duke of Portland. But George III was determined to be rid of Fox. The King announced that he would count as his enemies any who voted in favour of Fox’s East India bill in the House of Lords. By this means, the government was defeated and George III appointed the youthful Tory William Pitt the Younger as his new Prime Minister in December 1783.

In March 1784, as support swung in favour of Pitt’s government and away from Fox, a general election was called.

Read more about the two parties, the Whigs and the Tories, here.

Left: Charles James Fox from The Historical and Posthumous Memoirs   of Sir Nathaniel Wraxall (1884)  Right: William Pitt the Younger from Memoirs of George IV by R Huish (1830)
Left: Charles James Fox from The Historical and Posthumous Memoirs 
of Sir Nathaniel Wraxall (1884)
Right: William Pitt the Younger from Memoirs of George IV by R Huish (1830)
The 1784 election

The electoral system in 1784 was very different from what it is today. The country was not split into areas each returning a single Member of Parliament. Rather, it was a motley system of counties and parliamentary boroughs—towns which had been granted a royal charter which allowed them to elect two Members of Parliament. Changes in population over time had led to some boroughs being in the control of a very small electorate. These became known as rotten boroughs—controlled by a very small electorate—and there were also pocket boroughs, which were effectively controlled by a single landowner. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge even had their own Members of Parliament!

On top of this, very few adults had the right to vote. You had to be male, Protestant and eligible according to the varying criteria of your particular borough.

It was expected that both parties would use their patronage and wealth to influence the electorate to vote for them. Canvassing in 1784 was not merely about going from door to door encouraging people to vote in your favour; it was about patronage and bribery on a big scale. Even the great abolitionist William Wilberforce started off his political career in 1780 by ‘buying’ the votes of the electorate of Hull at the expected rate of two guineas each.

The Westminster Election

The Westminster hustings in front of St Paul's Church, Covent Garden  from Covent Garden its romance and history by R Jacobs (1913)
The Westminster hustings in front of St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
from Covent Garden its romance and history by R Jacobs (1913)
The most controversial constituency in the 1784 election was the borough of Westminster. This was a borough with a large electorate—an electorate where the votes of the people really counted. Three candidates were standing for the two places in Parliament: Lord Admiral Hood, a popular hero from the American war who supported Pitt; Sir Cecil Wray, who had deserted the Whigs to support the Tory government; and Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig Opposition.

The polling opened on 30 March and closed on 17 May (1). The hustings were set up in Covent Garden, adjacent to the polling booths. Fox and a few associates remained on the platform whilst the rest split up and went out into the area to canvas the voters. It seems that they counted the votes that were placed each day and so there was a running tally as to which candidate was in the lead.

A picture of Covent Garden

An excerpt from a letter written by Hannah More to her sister in 1784 gives a glimpse of the prevailing atmosphere in Westminster:
“A propos of elections – I had like to have got into a fine scrape the other night. I was going to pass the evening at Mrs Cole’s in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I went in a chair; they carried me through Covent Garden: a number of people, as I went along, desired the men not to go through the Garden, as there were a hundred armed men who, suspecting every chairman belonged to Brookes’s, would fall upon us. In spite of my entreaties, the men would have persisted; but a stranger, out of humanity, made them set me down, and the shrieks of the wounded, for there was a terrible battle, intimidated the chairmen, who at last were prevailed upon to carry me another way. A vast number of people followed me, crying out, “It is Mrs Fox: none but Mr Fox’s wife would dare to come into Covent Garden in a chair; she is going to canvass in the dark.” Though not a little frightened, I laughed heartily at this, but shall stir no more in a chair for some time.” (2)
The ladies of the election

From left to right: Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire;
Henrietta Ponsonby, Lady Duncannon, later Countess of Bessborough;
Anne Seymour Damer (7)
Many of Fox’s friends were canvassing in their own constituencies and so much of the weight of his campaign fell on the shoulders of his female supporters. His canvassing team included a number of notable ladies: Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire; her sister, Harriet, Lady Duncannon; Anne Seymour Damer; the Duchess of Portland; Lady Jersey; Lady Carlisle; Mrs Bouverie; the three ladies Waldegrave; Mary Robinson. The canvassers dressed in the party colours of blue and buff with foxtails in their hats.
“Several ladies of rank and fashion stood forth as Fox’s friends—at their head, Georgiana, the eldest daughter of Earl Spencer, and the wife, since 1774, of the fifth duke of Devonshire. Of great beauty and unconquerable spirit, she tried all her powers of persuasion on the shopkeepers of Westminster. Other ladies who could not rival her beauty might at least follow her example. Scarce a street or alley which they did not canvass in behalf of him whom they persisted in calling 'the Man of the People', at the very moment when the popular voice was everywhere declaring against him.”  (3)
The Duchess of Devonshire

Female influence; or the Devons-e canvas  published by William Wells (1784) © British Museum
Female influence; or the Devons-e canvas
published by William Wells (1784) © British Museum
During the canvassing, the Duchess of Devonshire was famously accused of exchanging kisses for votes:
“It was at this election that the beautiful Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, successfully wooed the electors for the great Whig leader by her smiles and her kisses. ‘Your eyes are so bright, my lady, that I could light my pipe by them,’ said an Irish labourer to her at Covent Garden. She is said to have valued that compliment more highly than any she received during a long and brilliant career  in social and political life. ‘The Duchess having purchased the vote of an impracticable butcher by a kiss is said to be unquestionable,’ says Earl Stanhope.” (4) 
Dr Cornwallis wrote:
“The Duchess of Devonshire is indefatigable in her canvass for Fox; she was in the most blackguard houses in Long Acre by eight o’clock this morning.” (5)
'Woman of the People'

There is no doubt that the Duchess threw herself into the election with considerable fervour. The Tory press tried to turn public opinion away from the Whigs by ridiculing Fox’s reliance on ladies to run his campaign and in particular, they targeted the Duchess, making derogatory comments about her unladylike involvement. It was one thing for Fox to be the ‘Man of the People’, but a ‘Woman of the People’ was a prostitute and unsavoury prints rushed to make the lewd connection.

Ride for ride or secret influence rewarded published by Edward Shirlock (1784) © British Museum
Ride for ride or secret influence rewarded
published by Edward Shirlock (1784) © British Museum
Pitt wrote to Wilberforce on 8 April:
“Westminster goes on well in spite of the Duchess of Devonshire and the other 'Women of the People'; but when the poll will close is uncertain.” (3)
Disillusioned by the polls which suggested that Fox was going to lose and worn down by both the physical exertion and the mental torment of the hateful press, the Duchess left Westminster on 12 April and went to stay with her mother. But the tide was beginning to turn in Fox’s favour and the Whigs begged her to return, believing that her charismatic presence was winning people over. Refreshed, the Duchess returned to Westminster and continued to canvas for Fox.

Fox is victorious

The final result was: Lord Hood 6,694 – Fox 6,234 – Sir Cecil Wray 5,998 (6). Fox had held onto his seat – a significant victory for the Whigs. Led by horsemen in blue and buff with foxtails in their hats, Fox and his supporters marched in triumph from St Paul’s to Carlton House and onto Devonshire House where the Duchess of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales greeted them. There followed a succession of dinners and balls at Carlton House, celebrating Fox’s victory.

Procession to the hustings after a successful canvass  by Thomas Rowlandson, published by William Humphrey (1784)  © British Museum
Procession to the hustings after a successful canvass
by Thomas Rowlandson, published by William Humphrey (1784)
© British Museum
The Whigs are defeated

Fox might have won his seat in Westminster, but around the country, the results for the Whigs were disastrous. 89 Whigs lost their seats and became known as Fox’s Martyrs. Pitt was returned as MP for the University of Cambridge—the seat that he had failed to win at the previous election. The Tory government was secure and the Opposition became a shadow of what it had been before the election.

To make matters worse, a scrutiny of the Westminster election was instigated, suggesting that there was some irregularity in the voting. Until the scrutiny was completed, Fox was barred from taking his seat. This was seen as a stalling tactic by Pitt’s government to keep Fox out of the House. Fortunately Fox had a back-up plan. He had been elected for Tain Burghs in April and sat for them until the election scrutiny was finally resolved in his favour—in March 1785!

Notes
(1) The Book of Parliament gave the dates for the election as 1 April to 17 May. Some sources stated that the poll closed on 10 May, but The Gentleman's Magazine stated 17 May.
(2) In a letter from Hannah More to her sister in Memoirs of the life and correspondence of Mrs Hannah More by William Roberts (1834).
(3) From Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt by Earl Stanhope (1861) p208-9.
(4) From The Book of Parliament by Michael Macdonagh (1897).
(5) In a letter from Dr Cornwallis, 9 April 1784, in Covent Garden, its romance and history by R Jacobs (1913).
(6) Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (1998) recorded the vote for Fox at 6,234 but some other sources say 6,233. The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1784 stated the two different figures in the same article!
(7) The sources of the pictures in the collage:
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough (c1785-7) at Chatsworth
Countess of Bessborough - from La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Anne Seymour Damer - from La Belle Assemblée (1810)

Sources used include:
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998)
Jacobs, Reginald, Covent Garden, its romance and history (1913)
Macdonagh, Michael, The Book of Parliament (1897)
Roberts, William, Memoirs of the life and correspondence of Mrs Hannah More (1834)
Stanhope, Philip Henry, Earl, Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt (1861)
The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle (1784)
Walpole, Horace, The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, in six volumes (1840) Vol 6

The History of Parliament online

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