It’s May 1865 and someone professing to be a ‘photographer’ is out capturing images of Bridgwater for the first time with his ‘camera’. As he walks down the traffic-free St.Mary street to where it meets the newly built Taunton road he notices someone has daubed ‘Westropp for ever’ on the wall of the old Workhouse opposite the Holy Trinity Church and takes a ‘photograph’. Shortly, Mr Henry Westropp would be elected Conservative MP for Bridgwater
It’s five years later and ‘hardly ever amused’ monarch Queen Victoria is signing the Royal assent for the disenfranchisement of the town of Bridgwater due to proven allegations of corruption going back for 30 years after learning of the findings and recommendations of a major commission of enquiry in the Bridgwater town hall as a result of the challenging of Henry Westropp’s election. ‘Good’ she thought, having never liked the place and having famously pulled her blind down on the train as she passed through. ‘That’ll teach them for declaring the Duke of Monmouth King back in 1685’.
For the next 15 years the people of Bridgwater were denied a vote in every general election that shaped the politics of Victorian Britain.
But how did this sorry state of affairs come about?
So now we’re back to May 3rd 1831 and newly elected Whig MP for Bridgwater Lt.Col Charles Kemys-Tynte (the ‘old Colonel’) of Halswell House is addressing his ‘electors’ from the Guildhall balcony (roughly where the town hall balcony is today but maybe several feet lower). “To the truly free and independent electors of the borough, gentlemen and friends, the triumphant manner in which you have this day done me the honour of returning me for a fourth time to parliament by the pure and independent exercise of your unsolicited votes renders it difficult for me to find words (not very difficult it would seem..) sufficiently strong to express my deep sense of gratitude for the continuance of your unbounded confidence in me..etc etc…”. You think to yourself – hang about, what’s he got to hide?
Well, quite a lot. The 1870 enquiry into electoral corruption in Bridgwater traced the illegal voting scams directly back to the 1831 election where Lt.Col Kemys-Tynte was elected for the 4th time (the previous 3 times unopposed) alongside his fellow MP (Boroughs had 2 in them days) William Astell (6 times elected unopposed).
So how did these 2 seemingly normal ‘all in it together’ Eton educated, freemasons with high ranking military backgrounds, manage to retain the trust of the people of Bridgwater for so long? Well, of course the answer was you simply bought it.
19th Century Electioneering in Bridgwater
In 1831 Bridgwater had a population of 7,800 and of them only 568 could vote anyway. Votes weren’t secret , so you could see how people voted. Intimidation was rife. 565 MP’s in Parliament broke down as 122 County members and 436 Borough members – 2 from each borough. Some ‘rotten boroughs’ such as ‘Old Sarum’ (an empty hill near Salisbury) could still send 2 members and whoever owned it could basically choose who.
Elections took place over the space of a couple of weeks and hustings involved the candidates riding around town in their finery on horsedrawn carriages decked in party colours – Blue for the Tories and Buff for the Whigs, variants of the same becoming the colours of the Conservative and Liberal parties that succeeded them.
But more than this the hustings actually, it transpired, involved luring ‘voters’ to the back rooms of public houses (of which Bridgwater was always amply supplied) where they could meet an ‘independent’ if ‘mysterious’ stranger –known as ‘the Man in the Moon’ for anonymity (although in subsequent reports he was identified as a Londoner named Mr Croucher) and where he would receive their ‘tokens’ (promises to vote) in return for ‘bags of tea’ (money). This practice went on from 1831 until 1868 and involved both parties, Conservative and Liberal, in equally corrupt measure.
The Tories (Conservatives) were the party of the landed gentry and the Whigs(Liberals) the party of the rising Merchant classes. Capitalist Britain in the 19th century was the world’s leading Imperial power and various Government’s only fell out about exactly how many gunboats to bombard how many foreign ports for how long – while at home the Nation was divided between town and country and the rising power of the urban boroughs meant a tilting of that power to the Liberals and a resulting desperate resistance by the Tories especially in smaller towns dependent on the surrounding agriculture such as Bridgwater.
Growth of Liberal power in the towns
Bridgwater had a Corporation and a Mayor since 1468 but the feudal origins of this system meant that a small group of richer families could control the merchant life of the town while preserving the town and country power balance with a couple of nominated ‘Reeves’ drawn from the landed gentry and a group of ‘burgesses’ drawn from the community (albeit the richer merchant community). It was this balance of shared power that prevailed until the 19th century but with industrialisation, a growing urban population, the rise of a working class and consequent demand for a say in the running of their communities by this progressive class, meant that the ruling class were on the defensive and sought every means (short of letting ordinary people vote) to prevent the march of democracy.
Kemys-Tyntes tearful ‘hura!’ in 1831 was a time defining moment as within a couple of years local politics and elections were to change forever in Bridgwater.
In 1832 the Great Reform Act sought to change the representation of the people – without giving away too much power to the commoners. Now male householders in properties worth more than £10 a year could vote. This meant 1 in 7 of every male adult.
However, in it’s wake came the 1835 ‘Municipal Corporations Act’ which swept away the old Bridgwater Corporation and replaced it with 18 elected councillors in 2 wards- north and south. 6 of these would then be elected by their fellows as ‘aldermen’ and one as Mayor. The first elected mayor of modern Bridgwater being Thomas Inman. The new council then set up committees to run local government including a ‘watch committee’, ‘finance’,’port and navigation’ and (a lot later than everywhere else) a ‘public health’ committee. The political balance in the town was now knife edge as the two major Parties struggled to wrest and keep control from the other….and in an economic system based on the accumulation of fabulous amounts of wealth, money had a role to play.
Tories try to cling on to their influence
The leading Tory player in this period was one John Trevor – formerly the Town Clerk under the cosy old system but kicked out by the new Whig council of 1835 and immediately outed as a Tory sympathiser so now back in there and above board to lead the underhand manipulations. On the Whig side was Benjamin Lovibond- equally implicated in organising the Liberal end of the shenanigans.
This whole scenario panned out election after election with the people looking forward to the hustings as ‘elections is good cos there’s money to be made’. Well of course by the Middle Classes and FOR the Middle classes. For the lower orders it was outbreaks of cholera and a failure by the Corporation to even consider a proper water supply until 30 years after other Somerset towns.
That of course didn’t stop them spending a shedload of money on building themselves a brand new Town Hall ‘in the splendid Italian style’. And it was here in 1865 when it opened to the public that Henry Westropp arrived as a ‘Tory stranger’ parachuted in (although they didn’t really have parachutes in them days) from elsewhere , and in the process donating an authentic 17t century portrait of Admiral Blake to establish his ‘credentials’.
Corruption reaches it’s peak
By 1865 Bridgwater’s population had increased to 12,000 with the docks and the railways opening up the industrial opportunities provided to draw in outside labour. The increased workforce had , of course, no involvement in the election and the battle for the 2 Parliamentary seats went on ‘in the time honoured way’ with Westropp (328 votes) topping the Poll but the 2nd seat going to Liberal historian Alexander Kinglake (257 votes).Trouble was the 3rd candidate – a Liberal called Sir John Villers Shelley was not happy and complained. The initial enquiry showed that corruption had taken place and in 1866 Westropp AND Kinglake were declared unseated and a by election called. At this election Mr George Patton (an incoming Scottish conservative) defeated famed Liberal economist Walter Bagehot 301-294 whilst Philip Vanderbyl (a Liberal) was also elected.
Accusations flew thick and fast but political life was changing. In 1867 the Gladstone Government had brought in the Reform Act which- in yet another attempt to build up the power of the middle classes for fear of empowering the working classes – extended the vote to male householders. This extended the vote to over a million men for the first time in British history and put three times as many electors onto the rolls than previously. In Bridgwater there were now 1,500 electors – all still middle class and eager for a fast buck.
In Bridgwater, however, increased scrutiny was putting the MP’s that had been elected in ‘time-honoured’ (read ‘dodgy’) fashion. George Patton was first to crack and ran for the Highlands where he appointed himself to the bench as Lord Glenalmond – largely to avoid the subsequent inquiry into the charges of bribery and corruption he’d got himself caught up with by choosing Bridgwater as his route into Parliament. To avoid the charges he sadly threw himself into the river Almond in 1869 and drowned.
The Commissioners step in
In 1868 the final (we hope) ‘corrupted’ Bridgwater election, the Liberals Kinglake and Vanderbyl defeated Henry Westropp and Charles Gray. This time the Tories complained and the whole thing imploded.
In 1868 a Royal Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate electoral corruption in Bridgwater. It sat in the Town Hall from 23 August to 16 October under Mr Justice Blackburn, dealt out 46,500 questions to 515 people, produced a report of over 1,000 pages and found the town incredibly guilty. 25 people were guilty of bribery and 173 guilty of being bribed. Mr Benjamin Humphreys Tromp-a solicitor-admitted to going to Bridgwater to act as ‘the stranger’ on behalf of Mr Westropp and paying 1,500 soveriegns in bribes on his behalf. He further admitted acting as ‘stranger’ for George Patton and for the Tories at 3 seperate elections.
Phillip Vanderbyl, one of the wealthiest and most influential merchants in London with substantial interests in shipping around the Empire was unseated. This didn’t worry him too much though, as within a year he’d bought the massive estate of Northwood Park near Winchester and in 1885 became the MP for Porsmouth.
Alexander Kinglake, son of a banker, Eton educated, friend to Lord Raglan (he wrote the definitive History of the Crimean War) went back to ‘travel writing’. And travelling.
Walter Bagehot, son of a banker, journalist, economist, had’t been elected anyway but still made a point of admitting his guilt. Thus implicating the others. In 1867 he reassessed his politics, wrote ‘the English Constitution’ and in particular stressed his reverence for the House of Lords which he thought ‘..maintained the respect of the English people at large for the influence of wealth and culture and to prevent hungry and ignorant men from dictating foolish revolutionary measures to hungry and ignorant crowds of followers!”
Henry Westropp was 54 when he was elected. And 54 when he was unseated. Coming from a line of Irish Peers, with a private education at Harrow and Dublin , he gave his address during the Bridgwater election as Green Park, Bruff,co.Limerick, to where he promptly retired after his unseating for corruption. It’s unsurprising that with his great knowledge of legal practices he became a Magistrate.
On 1st January 1870 the commission recommended the disenfranchisement of Bridgwater as punishment saying “We find that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed at every election since 3rd May 1831”. Bribery was described as “the chronic disease of the place” and doubts were even expressed going back to the 1820’s during the period of office of Astell and Kemys-Tynte when “the town had always enjoyed a good share of the good things of India”. Surely no reference to the fact that Astell was a Managing director of the East India Company nor that the gifts of money were refered to as ‘packets of tea’.
Bridgwater’s disgrace was on the one hand a reflection of the reality of 19th century politics. Society was changing and the power to change society was shifting swiftly towards the working class while the ruling class twiddled their pounds, shillings and pence while tinkering at ways to keep their ill gotten gains.
The Workers fight back
As the minority Merchant classes gained power in the cities and boroughs the unfairness was apparent to the vast multitudes of the workers. In the 1820’s and 30’s they formed Trades Unions, often secretly for fear of reprisal and often with dread consequences such as the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in nearby Dorset when 6 farm labourers were sentenced to transportation to Australia for forming a Union. But in every setback the working class rebounded with great leaps forward and the fast organising labour movement helped campaign to bring them home. At the same time working people launched a ‘People’s charter’ demanding votes for all adult men, secret ballots, equal sized constituencies, annual elections and an end to the property qualification of MPs so that ordinary men could equally be represented.
The Chartist’s fought for nearly 30 years and while they failed during the time of their existence their members inspired others to take up the fight in Trades Unions, Friendly societies, the Co-Operative movement and eventually voting reform which led to an organised Labour Party to represent the working people of the land.
In Bridgwater Trades Unionists were especially militant – and hardly surprising with an elitist ruling middle class that ignored their plight. A predominantly unionised workforce, successful strikes in the brickyards, on the railways and on the docks, saw the growth of influence in the town of the working class through organised Labour, standing the first Labour Party candidate in 1918 and eventually by the 1950’s the Borough council was in the hands of the Party bringing about the major reforms, slum clearance and building programmes of the 1960’s.
The Bridgwater Borough authority as set up in 1835 existed until local Government re-organisation in 1974 which saw the introduction of Sedgemoor District Council and the end of Bridgwater being master of it’s own affairs.
Bridgwater was disenfranchised from 1870 until 1885 when it was revived as as a parliamentary seat but as part of a wider ‘County Division’ .It’s first election saw the Conservative EJ Stanley (husband of Mary Stanley) win narrowly against the Liberals – and then retain his seat until 1906, by which time the twentieth century had arrived and Victorian Lib-Con corruption and dismissal of the interests of the working classes a thing of the past and banished forever…..or was it…..