1883 Reform Act

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An early political cartoon from Punch, showing how elections were viewed are corrupt.

The two-member Parliamentary constituency of Chester, at first solidly Liberal and still much influenced by the Grosvenors, was riddled with bribery until events at the election of 1880 brought matters to a head - possibly being a contributing factor to electoral rules which are still with us today. Hugh Grosvenor's payments to inn-keepers in Chester (the largest of which was a little over £109 to Matthew Gardener of the "Dublin Packet" - about 5000 pints given the price of beer at the time) and his employment of two men to collect bills and check stock at inns show that he was clearly involved in electoral corruption. However, his election speeches reveal a genuine attachment to a ‘great extension of the franchise’ as well as also showing his horror at the growing influence of the Liberal Radicals on setting a too rapid reform agenda. His views brought him into conflict with his near-neighbour Gladstone and eventually led him to support a Conservative candidate in Chester against Gladstone's sitting Liberal MP.

Political Background

Votes in Chester were being freely "bought for beer" by both the Liberal and Conservative parties. Through the middle half of the 19th Century records kept by the candidates as elections approached show large sums being paid to local inn-keepers. There was a further source of corruption:: vast sums were also spent on "ribbons, cockades and favours" which signified voting intent, and which voters were often bribed to wear. Although freemen retained their parliamentary votes until 1918 and were already a significant proportion of the electorate before 1867, many (such as small shopkeepers) were too poor to qualify under the £10 householder franchise, and party agents on both sides paid admittance fees and a day's wages when they took up the freedom. There were almost 1,000 freemen voters in 1880 with many showing by cockades &c which side had bought their votes.

The Grosvenors had held at least one of the two Chester seats since 1715 and Hugh Grosvenor held the seat from 1847 until 1869 when he succeeded to the peerage. A speech of his reported in the Cheshire Observer possibly indicates that he was against the concentration of political power in a small group (as was the case in the Corporation of Chester) but did not agree with complete emancipation of "the lowest orders, without property or money":

  • "If you go at once for manhood suffrage, you go by numbers and population only, by which means you take into the constituency numbers of men of the lowest orders, without property or money … who would follow any demagogue … I hold that the whole of the classes in the country should be represented, property, land, intelligence, wealth and numbers, and not numbers alone … And labour too … There is a large class of wage receiving working men who ought to be admitted to the franchise … I shall be prepared to see the franchise extended in counties and boroughs … and a fair redistribution of seats, without which any reform bill would be imperfect. (Cheshire Observer, 23 Apr. 1859)"

Urging the need for some form of ‘final settlement’ to prevent years of future agitation, Hugh Grosvenor called for a cross-party solution and proposed the appointment of a cross-party committee to bring in a moderate measure of reform that would ‘conciliate all interests’. It was these long-held beliefs, expressed on the hustings and at constituency meetings, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, which propelled Grosvenor to act as he did in 1866 and help bring about the defeat of Gladstone's Liberal reform bill, and as a consequence, the resignation of the Liberal ministry and the formation of a Conservative government. In the political turmoil of the 1880's Grosvenor (by then the Duke of Westminster) would intervene again.

Reform

There had been calls for reform of the "Rotten Boroughs" for years. The introduction of the Secret Ballot in 1872 certainly reduced the level of corruption in parliamentary elections. However, some politicians still spent large sums of money persuading people to vote for them. Prime Minister William Gladstone believed this was unfair and in 1883 his government introduced proposals to stop candidates using their wealth to win elections. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 specified how much money candidates could spend during election time and banned such activities as the buying of food or drink for voters. The Corrupt Practices Act even stated the number of conveyances that could be used for bringing voters to the polls.

Events in Chester had a direct influence on the passage of the act - particularly as Gladstone's son was an MP for Chester. William Henry Gladstone (3 June 1840 – 4 July 1891) was born at the Gladstone home in Hawarden. He was the eldest son of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and his wife Catherine née Glynne, and, MP for Chester from 1865 to 1868. In that election the Conservative, Chester-born Henry Cecil Raikes (his grandfather and namesake was buried under a literally "over-the-top" monument in Overleigh Cemetery), came fourth after vigorous interventions for W. H. Gladstone, by his father. The elder Gladstone was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his intervention was against the normal understanding (at the time) that cabinet ministers did not campaign outside their own constituencies. The 1867 Reform Act more than doubled the Chester electorate to some 6,000, adding more natural Conservatives than Liberals among the newly enfranchised working men, though also boosting support for Earl Grosvenor (especially given the beer he was buying for voters). Of the two candidates who stood in both 1865 and 1868 the Earl put on 900 votes, but Raikes added 1,600. Again in 1868 the second Liberal vote was divided between the Radical Liberal Enoch Salisbury and a Whig Liberal, as a cosequence Conservative Raikes got in. Raikes died in 1891.

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, namesake of the Norman Earl of Chester Hugh of Avranches. The painting is in Chester Town Hall. One of his horses may have been the model for "Silver Blaze" in the Sherlock Holmes story of the same name, first published 1892.

The Grosvenors withdrew from the Chester seat in 1874, when the Liberal candidates were the senior party politician J. G. Dodson and one of the local party leaders, Sir Thomas Frost (of the mill-owning family: see Industrial Revolution), but in 1880 the Grosvenors came back, partnering Dodson with the first duke of Westminster's nephew Beilby Lawley. In 1874 Raikes, who was building up a strong local following, cleverly chose to run alone and won narrowly. The local Liberal party determined to organize better for the 1880 election through a Liberal Association established in 1879; on the model of those elsewhere, it comprised a large representative (but nominal) ruling body, the '300', and a small executive committee. Sir Thomas Frost was its president, but the key figures were two of the vicepresidents, Enoch Salisbury and A. O. Walker, and William Brown (of the department store family), who was chairman and treasurer of the finance committee. Salisbury is a local character worth noting: he collected books relating to Wales and the border counties, and his library went to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire by purchase, in 1886. He died at his house, Glen-aber, Saltney, near Chester, on 27 October 1890, and was buried at Eccleston.

Gladstone's son William Henry as parodied in Vanity Fair. William played for Scotland in the first unofficial England v Scotland Football International in 1870. He was one of two sitting Members of Parliament to play for Scotland in this match, the other being John Wingfield Malcolm, MP for Boston.

Bad Press

After the April 1880 election, the Conservatives immediately petitioned against the result. A short hearing in Chester uncovered much evidence of corruption and the MP's were unseated in July 1880 pending the oucome of a royal commission.

The press reports at the time were very sparse and mostly in non-Chester newspapers, perhaps in view of the politicisation of the press. Of the few provincial papers which covered the story in any detail some were in areas with an embryonic Labour movement and the opportunity could be taken to cast scorn on the corrupt activities of the landed gentry and business owners. Others had a clear Conservative agenda. These included The Western Mail which was founded in Cardiff in 1869 by John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute as a Conservative penny daily paper designed to promote the Marquess' political aspirations. The Conservative papers were distinctly anti-Liberal:

  • "CHESTER ELECTION PETITION: Information reached Chester on Monday that the commission of inquiry into the oorrupt practices at the late election, when the Right Hon. J. S. Dodson, President of the Poor-law Board, and the Hon. Beilby Lawley were unseated, will oommence at the Town hall on the 6th of October. The Seoretary of the Commission, Mr Coleridge, son of Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, arrived at Chester on Saturday. and is already actively engaged preparing evidence." (The Western Mail: 21st September 1880)
  • "CHESTER. CHESTER, Saturday — The examination of Mr Moss, the Liberal agent, was continued today. He admitted that a sum of £7,000 odd had been spent, which, by counsel's advice, was not included in the election account. He also admitted that a sum of £170 odd was expended by the Liberals in the payment of out-voters, that public-houses were kept open, that railway servants were treated at the refreshment rooms, and that captains of canvassers were paid. Beyond that, he was not aware of bribery of any sort on the Liberal side." (South Wales Daily News: 11th October 1880)
  • "THE CHESTER ELECTION COMMISSION. This, as may be supposed, monopolize all attention here [at Chester] now. The court is crowded daily, and as one thing after another is brought to light which was previously hidden, the interest spread. Nothing escapes the penetration of the three commissioners. They must (say they) have the whole truth in connection with the corrupt practices which took place during the election. Some dark deeds have already been revealed, and we fear they are but a foreshadow of more to follow. Up to the present, the blues are very "black". The authority by which the commissioners are backed is very extensive, and they do not forget to remind every witness, so that the result is that the truth is brought to light wonderfully under the circumstances. Hitherto the Liberals are far in advance of the Tories in the matter of purity.— Correspondent in Y Golewad (Oct. 16)." (The North Wales Express: 22nd October 1880)
  • "It was elicited, at the resumed inquiry before the Chester Election Commissioners on Monday, that several of the persons who had been concerned in illegal proceedings in connection with the general election were, On the 1st November, elected members of the Town Council." (The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard: 3rd December 1880 )
Dodson as parodied in Vanity Fair. Late in life he became concerned about the fate of the African elephant, whose salvation he mooted, in letters to The Times, could come through domestication.
  • "THE CHESTER ELECTION PETITION. The Chester Election Commission was resumed on Tuesday. Father Pacificus, head of the Catholic body ia Chester, said Mr Raikes called on him five months before the election, and urged that by supporting the Conservatives their schools would be free from secular teschings, but no pecuniary advantage to the schools was promised. He knew his men would vote for the Liberals, and hearing that his name was being used by the Couservatives, he issued a contradiction. Mr Salisbury, the Liberal agent, was examined at length as to the receipt of £1400 from Lord Richard Grosvenor as part of £2000 expended. On Thursday Mr Moss, the Liberal agent, was recalled at his own request. He gave an explanation as to a letter written by Mr Salisbury to Lord Richard Grosvenor, with reference to several sums of money. He said he was not present when tbe letter was written, and he knew nothing about the amounts until a month afterwards. He was unable to give any account of how a specific sum of £300 was expended in connectinn with the election, nor could be say why Mr Salisbury wanted a large sum of money in sovereigns. Tbe inquiry was again ajourned." (The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality: 26th February 1881)

The "Mr Salisbury" mentioned above in connection with the £300 in sovereigns is the Chester ex-MP Enoch Salisbury.

  • "THE CHESTER ELECTION INQUIRY - REPORT OF THE COMMISSIONERS, The Chester Election Commissioners' report was published on Tuesday. The dissolution found the two political parties at Chester in bitter hostility - Conservative festive excursions and Liberal candidates' personal canvass while Mr. Raikes was detained in Parliament by official duties having intensified the irritation. Some interesting correspondence is included between the Liberal candidates and their agent in reference to the latter's claim for reaimbursement of election expenses. The Commissioners state the greatest eiectoral weapon at Chester is beer. They find that corruption extensively prevailed in 1874." (The Western Mail: 23rd March 1881)

Another edition of the fervently Conservative "Western Mail" went so far as to describe Beilby Lawley as "a singularly feeble-minded young man" (he inherited his peerage later in the year after the election and was elevated to the House of Lords):

Raikes as parodied in Vanity Fair. Raikes is one of the earliest British politicians to have had their voice recorded. George Edward Gouraud recorded him on behalf of Thomas Edison on the evening of 5 October 1888
  • "The Chester Election Commissioners have issued their report, and a very instructive document it is. The report, like others of a similar character, is eminently suggestive. It illustrates one of the puzzling featureiot electoral corruption in a very striking manner, namely, the rather low political morals of cathedral towns. At the last election political feeling ran high, and the Radicals, long before the dissolution tool place, resolved to leave no stone unturned, or for that part of it, no barrel of beer full, to turn the election. The city was literally mapped out for systematic electoral corruption; and when the tug of war started, the work went merrily on. The Radical candidates, were victorious, but subsequently unseated on petition. The Commissioners, in their report, state that "the great electoral weapon at Chester is beer." The inquiry has revealed also the characteristic unscrupulousness of Radical agents, and the frugal liberality of Radical candidates. In this case the candidates were Mr. Dodson, President of the Local Government Board, the great apostle of small-pox propagation at a guinea a-head," and the Hon. Beilby Lawley, a singularly feeble-minded young man, whom Mr. Gladstone championed because he had long known and respected his father. Both these worthy gentlemen repudiated the expensive dodgery of their agents, after thy discovered that their return was to be petitioned against" (23rd March 1881)

One of the longest reports appeared in that well-read document the "The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales: (25th March 1881)". Notably, in years to come, Merthyr was one of the first two seats won by the Labour party:

  • "THE CHESTER BRIBERY COMMISSION. The report of the Commissioners who recently enquired into the existence of corrupt practices in the city of Chester has been issued as a Parliamentary paper. There is a population of 38,390 at Chester, of whom about 6,900 are voters, including 987 free-men. The result of the last election was the return of Mr. J. G. Dodson (Liberal) and Mr. B. Lawley (Liberal). Mr. H. C. Raikes (Conservative) was one of the defeated candidates. After setting forth at great length the several results of the enquiry, the Commissioners report that the constituency, as a whole, is not corrupt. About 2,000 voters were open to be influenced by corrupt practices. The Commissioners reported that corrupt practices did extensively prevail in Chester at the general election of April, 1880, and that corrupt practices did prevail in Chester at the general election of February, 1874. Amongst those whose names are scheduled aa bribers are the following magistrates: Mr. Charles Brown (mayor of the city), Mr. W. M. Williams, and Mr. E. R. G. Salisbury. Of the members of the City Council, the names of the mayor, four aldermen, and eight councillors appeal in the schedule lists. The expenditure by the Liberals amounted to £4,448 7s. 10d., and by the Conservatives to £3,900."
Beilby Lawley as parodied in Vanity Fair. The "Western Mail" went so far as to describe him as "a singularly feeble-minded young man". He later laid the foundation stone for a solar observatory at Kodaikanal, India

The result was suspension of elections:

  • "BRIBERY AT ELECTIONS. Under the new Act, "to suspend for a limited period, on account of corrupt practices, the holding of an election of a member or members to serve in Parliament for certain cities and boroughs," the following places are mentioned in the schedule: Boston, Canterbury, Chester, Gloucester, Macclesfield, Oxford, and Sandwich. An election in any of the places is to be suspended until the expiration of seven days after the meeting of Parliament in the year 1882." (Monmouthshire Merlin: 9th September 1881)

Musical Chairs

Although both recently elected Chester members were ejected from their seats neither did badly as a consequence.

In 1880 Dodson had been appointed President of the Local Government Board, with a seat in the cabinet of Gladstone's second administration. According to the rules at the time, Dodson was then forced to contest his Chester constituency again. Dodson was duly re-elected, but shortly after (in July) the original election was declared void on petition. This caused him to seek re-election for another constituency. By the end of July he was returned for Scarborough, a seat he would hold until 1884. On 4 November 1884 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Monk Bretton, of Conyboro and Hurstpierpoint in the County of Sussex.

Beilby Lawley (Hugh Lupus Grosvenor's nephew) inherited his peerage later in the year 1880 and was elevated to the House of Lords as 3rd Baron Wenlock. In 1890, Lawley was appointed Governor of Madras by the Conservative (Unionist) Party which had come to power in the United Kingdom. Beilby Lawley served as the Governor of Madras from 23 January 1891 to 18 March 1896. Lawley laid the foundation stone for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway which was begun in August 1891 while he was Governor.

Municipal Elections

The corrupt parliamentary election of 1880 also affected municipal politics. Its immediate impact was to boost the Liberals, who had a net gain of five seats in the four wards contested in November that year. One Liberal supporter boasted:

  • 'We've fought 'em with beer and licked 'em, and now we've fought 'em without beer and licked 'em.

The Chester constituency was suspended after its M.P.s were unseated and the matter was referred to a Royal Commission which exonerated the candidates but imposed a seven-year disqualification from voting on 914 individuals who had given or received bribes or treats. The main issue now became the domination of the mayoralty by Liberals William and Charles Brown. Their uncles had been prominent councillors after 1835, and from the 1870s the huge success of their department store gave them the leisure and the money to secure great influence within the Liberal party and the council. Both brothers were scheduled for bribery at the 1880 election.

However, before the Royal Commission reported, Charles was nominated as mayor and beat off a challenge from a fellow Liberal but a non-briber, nominated by the Tories. He was mayor again for two terms in 1883-5 when no-one else was willing to serve at a time of much pressing business over the Chester Improvement Bill (to become an Act of 1884) and the abolition of the lucrative tolls on the Grosvenor Bridge. After only a year's interval William was elected mayor in 1886, then re-elected the following year in order to carry through the public library extension in St John Street: his gift to the town (he chaired the council's library committee from 1880 to 1900).

Charles Brown, Mayor of Chester from the Town Hall. He lived at "The Folly", Flookersbrook where he died in April 1900.

Only two years passed before Charles was again made mayor in 1890. Opposition to the brothers' 'perpetual mayordom' was not limited to those with scruples about handing over the office to men struck off the parliamentary register for bribery. Even the Liberal Chester Chronicle had misgivings. There was, moreover, unpleasant squabbling in 1891 between Charles Brown as mayor and the bishop and dean, and allegations in 1892 that he wished to serve yet again because he hoped to be knighted if still in office when the Royal Agricultural Show came to Chester during the ensuing year. Particular resentment was voiced at the way that both Charles and William had turned the mayoralty into almost a full-time job and spent their own money lavishly on public projects, making it difficult for men with business or professional responsibilities, or less money, to aspire to the position.

Return to Parliament

Chester was left unrepresented in parliament until 1885. The redistribution of 1885 left Chester with one seat, for which the electorate grew steadily from 6,300 to 8,100 by 1910. The first new MP elected was Radical Liberal Walter Foster but he was unseated by the "faggot votes" of the duke of Westminster's tenants at the Liberal defeat in the 1886 election. A "faggot voter" was a person who qualified to vote in an election with a restricted suffrage only by the exploitation of loopholes in the regulations. Typically, faggot voters satisfied a property qualification by holding the title to a subdivision of a large property with a single beneficial owner. Faggot voting was a common electoral abuse in the United Kingdom until the electoral reforms of the late 19th century. Faggot voting was abolished by the Representation of the People Act 1884.

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, now the Duke of Westminster, not only refused to endorse the new Liberal member, Walter Foster, but lent transport to the Conservatives during the election, and made two powerful Unionist speeches in Chester. Partly as a result, the Conservative, Robert Yerburgh, won by a narrow margin of 66 votes. Both Gladstone and the Liberal leadership in the county bitterly condemned the duke's 'interference', which they believed had cost them the seat.

William Brown, Mayor of Chester.

The broader political background is that the 1885 General Election had left Charles Stewart Parnell's Irish Nationalists holding the balance of power, and had convinced Gladstone that the Irish wanted and deserved reinstatement of Home Rule for Ireland. The Liberal Unionist Party formed in 1886 by a faction that broke away from the Liberal Party. Led by Lord Hartington (later the Duke of Devonshire) and Joseph Chamberlain, the party formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long, coalition Unionist Government 1895–1905 but kept separate political funds and their own party organisations until a complete merger was agreed in May 1912.

Robert Armstrong Yerburgh, DL, JP (17 January 1853 – 18 December 1916), was a British Conservative Party politician and the next MP for Chester. The son of Reverend Richard Yerburgh and Susan Higgin, he was educated at Rossall School, Harrow School and then University College, Oxford. After he was elected to the House of Commons for Chester in 1886, he held the seat until 1906 and again from 1910 until his death in 1916. The Conservatives would hold Chester until 1997. Yerburgh had links with the early co-operative movement (see: Chester Co-operative Society). As reported in the Chester Courant (26th January 1907), Yerbergh's views (having visited various boot and corset factories in Leicester) seem pro Co-Op:

  • "Workingmen who are interested in the friendly society movement and in thrift problems generally will read with deep interest Mr. Yerburgh's pregnant speech on the subjeot of "Friendly Societies and Co-operative Credit", to the members of the Hearts of Oak Benefit Society, on Wednesday evening. In his speech at the Music Hall also, Mr. Yerburgh touched on the question of co-operative produotion. His views with regard to tho workers themselves being the owners of industries in which they are engaged may be seen in practical application in various industries in Leicester, such as boot factories and corset factories, and, we believe, in some cotton mills of Lancashire."
Robert Yerburgh as parodied in Vanity Fair: he was interested in boots and corsets, something that might have brought about the downfall of other MP's.

Interestingly Raikes had improved the Conservative Party's organization in Chester, using the existing Constitutional Society to spawn a Constitutional Friendly Society in 1873 as a front for channelling private funds into an annual treat for Conservative supporters. In September 1879 the Friendly Society sent some 2,287 "day-trippers" on a junket to the seaside at Rhyl (some versions claim around 5000 trippers): four large special trains were engaged for the purpose.

And Yerburgh is clearly no Socialist:

  • "Mr. Yerburgh uttered a warning against another grave national peril, the peril of the spread of Socialism, and shewed how the industrial classes of this country will be affected by that undesirable development. If it is true, as many thinking observers helieve, that the next great struggle in this country will be between the forces of Capital and Labour, let not the working men fancy that they have no stake in the contest. As Mr Yerburgh pointed out, the capital held by the working-classes in industrial and provident societies represents the enormous figure of more than four hundred millions of money. This sum represents the thrift of the wage-earning classes, and, be it noted, it is capital, against which the Socialists have declared war. When the property of the wealthy man is attacked by the cupidity of the Socialists, this tempting sum of four hundred millions, the property of the working-classes, will not escape. Workingmen, therefore, who have a stake in any of the friendly and provident societies had better bo forewarned against the pitfall into which their Socialist friends would lead them. When war against capital is declared, the artisan who has an interest in a provident society to which in his prudence and wisdom he has contributed, will find that little nest-egg as directly endangered as the millionaire's hoard."

His wife, (Elma Amy Yerburgh née Thwaites, 30 July 1864 – 6 December 1946) was a member of the Thwaites family who was owner and then chairman of the Thwaites Brewery company (of Blackburn, England) from 1888 to 1946. She was the daughter of Daniel Thwaites, M.P. for Blackburn. At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Elma's husband, Robert, was suffering from heart trouble and the couple were in the spa town of Bad Nauheim in Germany. The couple were not allowed to leave immediately and were initially placed under curfew before being detained as prisoners of war under the orders of the military governor of Frankfurt. Nine weeks later, they were allowed to leave and were sent to Switzerland where they were required to stay for three weeks before returning to England. Robert's health continued to deteriorate and he died in December 1916, aged 63.

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