A General Election is a transcendent act in the conduct of our National Government, but there is, to say the least, some insinuation that it is not unfrequently degraded by accessories that will not bear the light.
There is one principle which ought to guide the conduct of those to whom is committed the management of the coming Elections. It should be their first care to get them over as soon as possible.
The Times, Friday November 13th, 1868.
The origins of parliamentary representation in Leicestershire date back to the days of Medieval England. Simon de Montfort, a great landowner whose properties included Hinckley and whose shield is incorporated in the town’s coat of arms, is often credited with being a founder of Parliament. The idea of two knights representing each county and two burgesses or citizens each borough certainly had its origins in Simon de Montfort1 s Parliament of 1265. Over the centuries the process of electing Members of Parliament developed in a rather random manner.
By 1832 there were pressures for reform and indeed some 7|000 persons in Leicestershire signed a petition supporting a reform of Parliament. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was the first of three such acts in the nineteenth century. As a result of the 1832 Act, 56 corrupt English boroughs were deprived of their M. P.s, their seats being redistributed and in general terms the bulk of the middle class was enfranchised.
In Leicestershire the redistribution of seats divided the county into two constituencies, then called divisions, each with two M.P.s. Leicester as a borough had its own M.P.s. The South Leicestershire division included Hinckley although the results of elections were declared in Leicester and until 1872, when vote by ballot was introduced; all voting was open and the declaration of a voter's support for a candidate to the poll clerk was public. Only in 1918 did elections take place on a single day and in the nineteenth century elections might be conducted over a period of weeks, polling taking place in different parts of a constituency on successive days with the number of votes so far given for each candidate being available to the public on a daily basis. It was this situation which allowed the violence and riot to develop in South Leicestershire when elections were contested although in many cases because of the power of local land-owners to influence tenants many candidates were, until the 1860s, elected unanimously without the need for a campaign.
In 1832 the South Leicestershire Division according to the new polling registers established by the Reform Act contained 4,125 voters out of a population according to the 1831 census of 112,924. The Hinckley Journal of May 7th, 1859 in a 'political biography’ of the constituency added to the details already described by noting that in an election in December of 1832 Mr. Henry Halford was elected as a Tory and Mr. Dawson as, ‘The only Liberal Member that has sat for this division of the county’. The divided political loyalties of the South Leicestershire Division did not remain for long. In the General Election of 1835 Mr. Halford was again returned and Mr. Dawson was replaced by Mr. Frewen Turner who only briefly held his seat and then retired. Mr. C.W. Packe now became the second Tory member and both he and Mr. Halford were returned at the General Election of 1837, the last to be held on the accession of the monarch. The Tory dominance of South Leicestershire in the new Victorian age would remain for more than twenty years and be only briefly and successfully challenged in the 1860s. A permanent Conservative Society was organised in South Leicestershire, acknowledging Peel’s new leadership and name for the Tory Party. The Victoria County History in its account of politics in Leicestershire attributed the Tory strength in South Leicestershire to fa hatred of free-trade' and a fear of the undermining of the power, presumably spiritual and temporal, of 'the Established Church'.
In the 1840s Chartism became a vital force in Leicestershire and certainly received a measure of support in Hinckley with various meetings in the town. The General Election of 1841 brought Sir Robert Peel, M.P. for Tamworth, to power as Prime Minister for his second term in office. It was a 'contest of great severity' in Hinckley according to the Journal article of 1859. The results were as follows;
Clearly a convincing Conservative victory following which, according to the Journal of 1859, 'there has been no attempt to disturb the division’. This in essence meant that in the succeeding elections of the 1840s and 1850s the Tory or Conservative M. P. s were elected unopposed. One benefit of this was certainly a lack of riot in the area although many residents of Hinckley regarded the dominance of Tory landowners as undemocratic as well as unchallengeable’.
In 1842 the 'List of Persons Entitled to Vote in the Election of a Knight or Knights of the Shire, for the Southern Division of the County of Leicester, in respect of Property situate in the Parish of Hinckley’, contained some 216 names not including the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor. The list began with Samuel Argent, qualified by possession of freehold houses and concluded with Jonathan Wright, owner of freehold property in Castle Street. Many names prominent in Hinckley in the Victorian Age are included such as Joseph Date, John Eales, John Estlin, Thomas Harrold, Joseph McEwan and John Ward. Most held a freehold house or houses in Hinckley as a qualification to vote but some outsiders such as George William Dyke of Devizes and Thomas Rice Estlin of Liverpool also qualified by tenancy or property ownership. Only three voters qualified as £50 tenants-at-will, a special clause in the 1832 Reform Act devised by Lord Chandos to win over Tory waverers and increase the power of the landlord.
The politics of the area remained, in electoral terms, undisturbed until 1857 when Lord Curzon replaced Mr. Halford as a Tory M. P. As an Irish Peer, Curzon was entitled to sit in the Commons and had a local connection as the heir to Lord Howe of Gopsall Hall near Congerstone. Curzon inherited this property in 1870 necessitating a by-election. In 1851 the population of the South Leicestershire Division had increased to about 139,000 persons with only 5,131 entitled to vote and none of these were of course women. This represented an increase of about 1,000 voters in 20 years when the population had increased by over 25,000. It was hardly surprising that further pressures for change and reform would soon be stirring!
After the 1859 Election, Charles William Packe in a letter to the voters who returned him unopposed, expressed his thanks:
I cannot sufficiently express to you my thanks for that renewal of unabated confidence which has this day resulted in my being again unanimously returned to Parliament, now the seventh of my serving you in the House of Commons. Unanimity in such an important and independent constituency adds much to the sense of obligation 1 feel towards every voter in the Division.
Mr. Packe enjoyed another benefit which he did not express. He had not faced the costly process of a contested election’.
Lord Curzon, Mr. Packe’s fellow Tory M.P., was more succinct in his letter, both letters being printed in the Hinckley Journal of May 7th 1859:
Allow me to return you my sincere thanks for the high honour you have done me in again electing me one of your representatives and be assured 1 will faithfully watch over your interests in Parliament.
Your obliged and faithful servant,
The Hinckley Journal noted in passing on the same pages.
The present members have always been supporters of Lord Derby's (Conservative leader) administration, and we fancy there is not much chance of their being disturbed at present.
Real political disturbance was to come in the next decade!
After the tranquility of the 1850s, the 1860s saw a rebirth of intense political activity and in 1867 a Reform Act giving the artisans (skilled workers) in the town the vote. There was also a limited redistribution of seats but this did not affect South Leicestershire to any extent. Elections became more frequently contested, often accompanied by considerable violence and rioting and indeed fear of insurrection had played a part in the Conservative Reform Act of 1867, largely the work of Disraeli, who had opposed a Whig-Liberal Reform Bill in 1866.
Growing support for the Liberals in South Leicestershire in 1865 resulted in a Liberal challenge to the Conservatives in 1867 when a by-election was necessitated by the death of C.W. Packe. The Tory candidate was Mr. A. Pell, a property owner in East London and to challenge him the Liberals supported Mr. Thomas Tertius Paget of Humberstone Hall, a prominent local Leicester banker.
The Victoria County History records Paget1 s comment that, 'The whole energy of the Tory party has been called forth from Burbage Wood to Easton's lonely vale’. One hesitates to draw any modern parallels1. The election was, according to the Victoria County History, 'The first county election which has in any way a modern air’. It was certainly a close run result with the Liberal candidate, Paget beating Pell by 39 votes and securing the first successful challenge to the Tories since the year 1832. Ironically perhaps the Tories expressed indignation because many residents in Leicester qualified as voters by owning property in South Leicestershire. Previously the dominance of the landlord had secured South Leicestershire for the Tories.
Only a year later in 1868 a new General Election gave a further opportunity to contest the South Leicestershire seat. This was the last open General Election before the Ballot Act of 1872 and was characterised by some of the worst violence of a political nature that had been seen in the area, not least in Hinckley. The county occupation franchise of £12 in the Reform Act of 1867 had favoured the Tories and although Lord Curzon was returned unopposed the contest between A. Pell and T.T. Paget was resumed in earnest. The result was as follows:
The Liberal challenge of the previous year had been overthrown but only after considerable violence. The Times in particular made reference to the Hinckley Riot although no mention was made of Burbage!
The Times of November 23rd 1868 recorded how Lord Curzon addressed the electors in front of Leicester Castle:
He was received with loud cheers from his friends, and some hissing in the midst of which several dead rabbits, a hare, & some broken blue screws were held up by the crowd.
The exhibits were a reference to Curzon’s attitude to the game laws but despite this opposition, he was again cheaply and unanimously elected. The same did not apply to the second South Leicestershire seat where events were reported on in detail in the Times, Thursday November 26th 1868:
The contest which has just terminated in this division has created an unusual amount of excitement all over the district. When the defeat of the recently elected Mr. Paget became clear attacks were made in Leicester on the Committee Rooms of Lord Curzon and Mr. Pell... At Hinckley (the most populous part of the division) the feeling was very strong in favour of Mr. Paget and as soon as that gentleman's success appeared to be doubtful stones were thrown through the windows of the chief supporters of Lord Curzon and Mr Pell and their Committee Rooms.
These far from peaceful political protests were however only a prelude to a full scale riot later that day. In anticipation of greater disturbance the Chief Constable of Leicestershire, Mr. Goodyer, took charge of the situation and all public houses in the town of Hinckley were closed by the magistrates.
The Times of Thursday November 26th continued its account:
Towards dusk a riot commenced, stones and brickbats were thrown about in all directions and the police, who were assisted by a number of Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire officers, several times charged the mob, on whom they inflicted severe punishment.
The pugnacious politics of the 1860s ended later that night in South Leicestershire although violence on an even greater scale was recorded in the Election Riots column of the Times, such as that in Monmouthshire where a crowd of 2,000 seeking the freedom of forty-four arrested rioters were only dispersed by the Welsh Fusiliers.
In 1870 Lord Curzon succeeded as Earl Howe and became a resident of Gopsall Hall with a seat in the House of Lords as a hereditary English peer. The by-election which took place resulted in a contest between Mr. Paget, standing as a Liberal at a time when Gladstone was Prime Minister, and Mr. Heygate as a Conservative. Heygate secured a majority of 712 over Paget’s 2,570 votes at a time when there was far less political violence. This was the last occasion in South Leicestershire when open voting took place in a parliamentary election and although there were disturbances in the 1874 General Election which brought Disraeli to power the Times does not record any particular unrest in South Leicestershire. The politics of the 1880s, closely linked with the Irish Question, saw the end of South Leicestershire’s existence as a constituency. Following the 1884 & Reform Act which gave agricultural workers the vote, the Redistribution Act of Gladstone's Government in 1885 created single member constituencies in most parts of the country. An earlier piece of legislation in 1883 had dealt with bribery and corrupt practices and established the rules that generally apply in this area relating to parliamentary elections today. New constituencies in Leicestershire at Melton Mowbray, Loughborough, Bosworth and Market Harborough, replaced the old North and South Divisions in the county.
The political history of Bosworth and Hinckley in the present century has seen all three major political parties holding the seat with the Conservative dominance of the nineteenth century being re-asserted after 1970. It is perhaps appropriate to reconsider the comments of the Times of Friday November 13th 1868 in concluding this article and to compare them with two twentieth century comments. Sidney Webb, in a letter to H .G. Wells in 1907, expressed the view that, 'Elections are quite subordinate - even trivial - parts of political action! In contrast C. Northcote Parkinson in’ Parkinson's Law’ has said of the selection of government and Minister, 'The modern method is to trust to various methods of election with results that are almost invariable disastrous’. The verdict of the twentieth century on elections is for the reader to decide - contrasted with the experiences of South Leicestershire and Hinckley over a century ago.
List of Persons Entitled to Vote in the Election of a Knight or Knights of the Shire, for the Southern Division of the County of Leicester, in respect of Property situate in the Parish of Hinckley - 1842.
The Hinckley Journal, May 7th 1859.
Harrod's Postal & Commercial Directory of Leicestershire 1867.
The Times 13th November 1868, 23rd November 1868, 26th November 1868, 4th February 1874.
Victoria County History of Leicestershire Vol.11, (Editors - W. G. Hoskins & R. A. McKinley - University of London 1954).
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine