Pitt the Younger to Catholic Emancipation - 1780 to 1830

                Lord Rockingham repealed the Declaratory Act of 1720 in 1782.   The Act had established the right of Westminster to legislate for Ireland.   This period of independence did not last for long, or solve the Irish problem, which kept coming to the surface and was to resurrect itself under Pitt.

The first entry into public life of William Pitt – the son of a Prime Minister, is characteristic of the easy mode of procedure in 1780, when a great man had merely to name his friends and his tenants elected them.   In November 1780 Pitt wrote to his mother:


“I can now inform you that I have seen Sir James Lowther, who has repeated to me the offer he had before made, and in the handsomest manner.   Judging from my father’s principles, he concludes that mine would be agreeable to his own, and on that ground – to bring me in.   No kind of condition was mentioned, but if ever our lines of conduct should become opposite, I should give him an opportunity of choosing another person.   On such liberal terms I could certainly not hesitate to accept the proposal, than which nothing could be in any respect more agreeable.   Appleby is the place I am to represent, and the election will be made (probably in a week or ten days) without my having any trouble, or even visiting my constituents.   I shall be in time to be spectator and auditor at least of the important scene after the holidays.   I would not defer confirming to you this intelligence, which I believe you will not be sorry to hear.”

  This confidence discloses that such a thing as a contest, let alone a defeat, was not for a moment entertained.

  During his entire time as Member of Parliament for Appleby, in Lincolnshire, William Pitt the Younger never visited his constituency.   From 1785 onwards his main home was at Holwood near Bromley in Kent, although he also had use of the Cinque Ports as he had been made the Warden.

  Sir James Lowther seated William Pitt in parliament.   When the youthful Pitt became Premier, one of his first acts was to acknowledge his obligations to Lowther who was raised to the peerage as Earl Lonsdale.   Pitt was only 24 when after careful consideration; he accepted George III’s invitation to lead the country.   The offer was made just before Christmas in 1783.   The new government’s nickname, “the mince-pie administration” indicates how long it was expected to last.   In fact, Pitt went on to win one of the most dramatic election victories the following year.   He went on to serve as Prime Minister for 19 years, although they were not consecutive.

  On 23 January 1781, William Pitt the Younger took his seat in the House of Commons:

  The floor of the House would have been busy, as it was around the end of January each year that Members were required to answer the “call of the House”, an actual rollcall of the Members who could in theory suffer a penalty for failure to attend.   Looking around him Pitt would have seen an all-male legislature, younger in its average age than we would expect to see today, with around a hundred Members, more than one in six, being aged under thirty (compared to four Members out of 659 under thirty after the 2001 General Election).   He would have recognised among the Members a large slice of the youthful aristocracy – sixty-seven sons of Peers, often the younger sons, were elected to the Commons in the election of 1780. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

The Army, lawyers and country gentlemen would be there in force:

Scattered among them he would have seen several dozen senior officers of the army and navy, including General Burgoyne, who had surrendered at Saratoga in the American War of Independence, and the celebrated Admiral Keppel, who had lost his seat but immediately been given another one.   He would have seen the legal profession in force, with around eighty trained lawyers on the benches on both sides of the House.   It being winter, the country gentlemen would also be in town and taking their seats in large numbers, although most of them would take a great deal of persuading to stay any later than Easter.   Some of them would have worked for their financial independence by climbing the ladder of government offices and Crown appointments. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

 At the end of the eighteenth century about a quarter of MPs had contracts with the government and/or loaned money to the Treasury.   The perks of being an MP were worth having.   Today an MP cannot hold a remunerated public office outside Government.   That is why, if an MP wishes to resign he takes the position of Warden of the Chiltern Hundreds. 

On 7th May 1782 William Pitt, in a crowded House of Commons, set out the case for parliamentary reform.   He was not advocating universal suffrage but was harking back to what he saw as the ideal Constitution:

“That beautiful frame of government, which had made us the envy and admiration of mankind, in which the people were entitled to hold so distinguish a share, was so far dwindled and departed from its original purity, as that the representatives ceased, in a great degree, to be connected with the people.   It was the essence of the constitution, that the people had a share in the government by means of representation; and its excellence and permanency was calculated to consist in this representation, having been designed to be equal, easy, practicable and complete.   When it ceased to be so; when the representative ceased to have any connection with the constituent, and was either dependent on the Crown or the aristocracy, there was a defect in the frame of representation, and it was not innovation, but recovery of constitution, to repair it.” "The speeches of the Right Honourable William Pitt in the House of Commons" by W.S. Hathaway

 Pitt’s motion was lost by 161 to 141. It was the closest that Parliament came to reforming itself for the next fifty years.

 His own cousin Thomas Pitt of Bocconoc opposed Pitt’s motion.

 "Appropriately enough for someone who elected himself as Member for Old Sarum, Thomas pointed out that equality of representation never was nor could have been the basis on which their ancestors meant to erect the liberties of England, or they would never have allowed “the little county of Rutland to send as many members to that assembly as Yorkshire or Devon”. "The Historical and Posthumous Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall" by N. Wraxall

 About three years after becoming MP for Appleby, William Pitt, by that time the most conspicuous statesman of his day, and already Prime Minister of England by the royal will, on the downfall of the coalition offered himself successfully for the University of Cambridge.   In order to enter for this distinction Pitt had declined two seats, voluntarily placed at his disposal and when he was nominated, without his knowledge or consent for the City of London, as usual the first election in point of time, the show of hands was declared to be in the young statesman’s favour.   When apprised of the fact he declined the poll.   Such were the honours heaped upon this proud juvenile Premier.   The idea of an individual having a choice of seats in today’s House of Commons would be laughable, yet it was not regarded as unusual at the end of the eighteenth century.

 The Whigs, who had used patronage to maintain themselves in power for over fifty years, now found George III employing it against them.   Hence, led by Burke, they began to demand reform.   In 1780 a “Commission of Enquiry into the administration of public business” was set up and this directed its criticism in particular to the administration of finance.   From 1782 a number of reforms took place.   A blow at patronage was struck in 1782 when customs, excise and postal officials (who formed one-sixth of the electorate), were dis-enfranchised.   It was also required that outstanding accounts be settled, and that henceforth all monies should be paid into the Bank of England, the Consolidated Fund being instituted by Pitt in 1787.   Customs officials operated like self-employed businesses rather than servants of the Crown.   Corruption was rife.   They had to be brought to account.   The National Debt was in danger of running out of control.   The Consolidated Fund was aimed at stabilising the debt.

 Pitt once again turned to parliamentary reform in 1783.   He had proposals to try and tackle the problem of corruption and to redistribute seats in a fairer way.   Specifically he wanted to disenfranchise any borough, which was found guilty of corruption, and to increase the representation of London and the counties by adding 100 new Members.   In his speech Pitt rejected:

 any idea of universal suffrage and stressing that he only wished to correct “a deviation from the principles of that happy constitution under which the people of England had so long flourished”. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague 

The majority against reform was a huge 144, by 293 votes to 149.

Disenfranchising an entire borough for corruption was a fairly drastic action to take.   It was not unprecedented and was used later in the nineteenth century, but proved to be a step too far for Pitt.   There was a sense at this time that Parliament was not working, but there was no consensus as what had to be done to put it right.

That autumn Pitt decided to visit France where he was invited to the Palace of the Archbishops.   In a lively discussion with the French Abbe Pitt told him:

"that the first part of the British constitution to decline would be “the prerogative of the King and the authority of the House of Peers”. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

The prerogative of the King did decline over the years, only for it to be transferred to the Prime Minister, giving the Prime Minister enormous power.   Pitt was right about the House of Peers, although he would probably be surprised at how much authority they still had two centuries later.

"Faced with the power of Pitt, the King of Great Britain was reduced to making an impotent protest, like a naughty child.   Pitt was able thus to humiliate the king, not only because he was uniquely successful, but also because he had a new sort of power.   He had been called to office, he asserted, “by his sovereign” – which was conventional – and “by the voice of the people” – which was a radical and bold claim". "Monarchy from the Middle Ages to Modernity" by D. Starkey

In a debate on the India Bill of 1783 the libertarian in Pitt came out when he said:

"Necessity was the plea for every infringement of human freedom.   It was the argument of  tyrants; it was the creed of slaves. "The speeches of the Right Honourable William Pitt in the House of Commons" by W.S. Hathaway

The General Election of 1784 provided one of the most expensive contested seats in history in the City of Westminster where one of the candidates was Charles Fox, who had been the most formidable opponent of the coercive measures of the Government during the American War of Independence.

"Modern politicians are used to the idea that an election campaign runs for four or five weeks, and is followed by a single day of polling and results.   An eighteenth century election was almost exactly the other way round, with only a few days interval after the Dissolution before polling took place, and results flowing in over a five-week period.   The poll would be open in some constituencies for a few hours, while in the City of Westminster in this election it would be open for forty days.   Voting was often brought to a halt by the withdrawal of the candidate who lost heart, since the open voting (the ballot was not secret) allowed running totals to be continually assessed, or it might last until everyone who could vote or was likely to vote had cast his ballot.   There was no national campaign in the sense of politicians travelling around the country.  

For a Member of Parliament who was unopposed or who enjoyed a safe majority, elections were therefore a time of extended leisure. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

The General Election of 1784 was fought very much as a national campaign around the questions of the fall of the Fox-North government and whether or not Pitt should continue in office, rather than a series of local campaigns.

Thanks to a combination of patronage and bribes paid by HM Treasury many small pocket boroughs returned Pitt-supporting MPs as widely expected. Additionally, in the constituencies decided by large electorates there was massive support for Pitt-supporters.   Over £30,000 of Treasury money was spent in trying to secure nineteen seats, a third of which was spent trying to unseat Fox at Westminster.   It failed in its objective.   Surprisingly the amount of Treasury money used was less than that used in 1780 when £62,000 was spent trying to secure thirty-three seats.    Many of Fox's supporters were forced to either withdraw or make deals with their opponents to avoid election defeat.   In the county constituencies only one Fox supporter was elected in a contest, though others returned due to local electoral pacts.   Those MPs, who had remained in opposition, refusing to go over to support Pitt, and who failed to return to the House of Commons as a consequence became known as "Fox's Martyrs".

 The first day's polling, March 30th, saw 13 government supporters and four opponents returned.   By the conclusion of the fifth day (April 3rd), there were already more than 150 government MPs and a lead of 50 over supporters of the coalition. The government achieved an overall majority on April 15th.

The contests involving both Pitt and Fox attracted particular attention. Pitt had long wished to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge and had failed to be elected when he stood for the seat in the 1780 General Election.   Now he was returned at the top of the poll and would hold the seat for the rest of his life.

Fox was one of the two sitting members for the constituency of Westminster, which had the largest electorate of any in the country and a great deal of prestige.   His position there was central to his claim to be representing the people. He stood against two Pitt supporters for the constituency's two seats; both sides spent heavily, campaigned bitterly, allegedly libelled and slandered their opponents relentlessly and resorted to all kinds of tactics, including Geogiana, Duchess of Devonshire touring the streets and kissing many voters to induce them to vote for Fox.   Even George, Prince of Wales campaigned for Fox.

At the conclusion of polling on May 17, Fox had narrowly succeeded with 6,233 votes to Sir Cecil Wray's 5,998.   However Pitt's supporters then demanded a scrutiny of the votes and the Returning Officer therefore did not make the return.   A scrutiny in a constituency as large as Westminster was an enormously time-consuming process; Fox, suspecting this may happen, had already arranged for his return for the Northern District of Burghs on (April 26) so that he would not be out of the House during the scrutiny period.   The scrutiny did not show specially large numbers of illegal voters and eventually began to look like a political tactic; on March 4, 1785 the House of Commons finally put an end to it by ordering the Returning Officer to declare the result.

Less than a third of the seats were contested in the 1784 election.   This was not due to a lack of intensity in political debate but rather more to the financial costs of fighting elections.   Where there was a clear winner the loser dropped out of the contest.   Finance played a big part in politics.   No less than 140 MPs held offices of profit under the Crown – a situation later forbidden.
In 1785 Pitt once again tried to initiate parliamentary reform.   This time he proposed a small extension of the right to vote, but his main proposal was once again an attack on corruption.   He proposed that 72 seats in 36 rotten boroughs be abolished and the seats be reallocated to London and the largest counties.   He proposed to compensate the patrons of the rotten boroughs financially.   He felt that this modest proposal had a good chance of success.   In spite of the attempt at bribery he underestimated the opposition.

Pitt outlined his plans for reform on 18 April 1785.   He revered the constitution:

 “but all mankind knew that the best institutions, like human bodies, carried in themselves the seeds of decay and corruption... “If we looked back to our history, we should find that the brightest periods of its glory and triumph were those in which the House of Commons had the most complete confidence in their Ministers, and the people of England the most complete confidence in the House of Commons.   The purity of representation was the only true and permanent source of such confidence".. .Nothing was so hurtful to improvement as the fear of being carried farther than the principle upon which a person set out”. "The speeches of the Right Honourable William Pitt in the House of Commons2 by W.S. Hathaway

  Once again Pitt faced disappointment.   He was refused leave to introduce the Bill  by 248 votes to 174, a majority of 74.   The majority was just over the 72 seats, which were to be abolished, where presumably the members had no desire like turkeys to vote for Christmas.   The King was known to be hostile to Pitt’s proposal so Pitt made no attempt to claim the Bill was the collective responsibility of Ministers.   Corruption continued.

  In the debate on Pitt’s motion, Edmund Burke supported the reactionary majority.   “Universal representation is a mere delusion,” he said.

  Throughout Pitt’s attempts at parliamentary reform he never advanced universal suffrage and his motives were more to do with reducing or eliminating corruption rather than creating equal representation.   He was keen to eliminate the more glaring anomalies rather than undertake a wholesale reform.

  In 1788, during a temporary period of illness of the King, and without a care for the prospects of his political faction in the Commons, Charles Fox argued for the automatic regency of his friend, the Prince of Wales, thus denying the right of Parliament to debate anything regarding the Prince, and in the process destroying his Party’s credibility as the defender of the rights of Parliament - even to this day Parliament is barred from debating the monarchy – a privilege that is overdue for reform.

   Further reform, however, was delayed by the shock which the French Revolution gave to the ruling classes in Britain, and Burke joined with them in defending traditional institutions. Britain looked on with interest at the French revolution of 1789, but the cost of the ensuing war with France focused attention on the way the country was governed and the way public monies were being spent.

 Many Britons, including Wordsworth, at first applauded the principles of liberty and equality of the revolutionaries.   However, as matters got out of hand and the King was sentenced to death for acts of treason against the republic, the mood changed and Pitt the Younger who had been derided by Charles James Fox for his Tory policies, gained supporters for his stand on the Rights of Kings and the privileges of Parliament. The History of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland" by E. Swinglehurst 

                The poet William Wordsworth believed in social justice but became disillusioned about the French revolution.

 Before Lord Grey’s Reform Bill of 1832 altered the constituencies, the representative system of electing parliaments was purely theoretical, a certain number of territorial magnates held about half the constituencies between them.   The aristocratic patrons, trafficked in the seats in exchange for “honours” for themselves, or lent their boroughs to support ministerial influence in return for places and pensions, or offices in which to provide for their less opulent relations; thus in the old lists of place-holders may be traced the younger sons and cousins.   Influence was obtained by corruption.   Lord Grey joined the Whig opposition in the House of Commons in 1786 and succeeded his father to the Earldom in 1807.

 This condition of affairs produced a mechanical majority as long as the Prime Minister in power could command wealth and influence sufficient to secure a larger number of seats than the opposition.  

In February 1792 Thomas Paine, who had been dismissed as an exciseman for agitating for an increase in pay, published the second part of his Rights of Man, calling for revolution and the end of all hereditary government.   In a short time, sales of up to 200,000 copies were in circulation, available at sixpence each.   Rights of Man” exploded in the public’s consciousness, terrifying the Pitt government with the possibility that “the French disease” might well be infectious.   His pamphlet insisted that the people had the right to alter any existing government at their pleasure.   These democratic views found many supporters in England.  

In a devastating critique of the monarchy – “Hereditary succession is a burlesque on monarchy….   It requires some talents to be a common mechanic, but a King requires only the animal figure of man – a sort of breathing automaton”, of the Lords “The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician or an hereditary wise man” and of the constitution itself “All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny… To inherit a Government is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds”.   Paine argued that as “the Nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty,” and that as every man was a “proprietor in society”, it followed that the constitution of a country was not the act of its government but of “the people constituting a Government”.  

In London, radical Whigs such as the young MP Charles Grey formed an association called the Friends of the People to push for immediate parliamentary reform.   They secured a debate in the Commons for 30 April. William Pitt the Younger by William Hague

The conservative Whigs declined to support Grey’s motion.   It was opposed by Pitt and was lost.

Henry Fox, nephew of Charles James Fox, spoke to the Commons on 11 May 1792:

"Toleration is not to be regarded as a thing convenient and useful to a state, but a thing in itself essentially right and just.   I, therefore, lay it down as my principle, that those who live in a state where there is an establishment of religion [i.e. the Established Church] can fairly be bound only by that part of the establishment which is consistent with pure principles of toleration.   What are those principles?   On what were they founded?   On the fundamental, unalienable rights of man”.

The execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793 was the flashpoint for war against France to be declared.   War meant that Pitt put aside whatever ideas of liberty he had ever held.   Something very like panic seized the rulers of England.   Throughout 1793 and 1794 there were several cases of men imprisoned for advocating “representative government”.   Two men, Thomas Muir, a prominent Scottish reformer, and a Mr. Palmer were sentenced by the Scottish judge Lord Justice Braxfield, to transportation to Botany Bay for holding such opinions, in making seditious speeches and circulating The Rights of Man.   The presiding judge, the hard headed, hard hearted, hard drinking Lord Justice Braxfield, was in no doubt that advocacy of parliamentary reform was in itself seditious.   In his view: “ The British constitution is the best that ever was since the creation of the world, and it is not possible to make it better”.   He clearly did not believe in under-stating matters.

Braxfield, who was known for his bad temper bellowed out in court:

“Government in this country is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented; as for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation of them?   What security for the payment of their taxes?   They may pack up all their property on their backs and leave the country in the twinkling of an eye…” Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations.

Thomas Muir had received strong support from a huge crowd both in the courtroom and outside, but it did not do him any good.   Lord Justice Braxfield sentenced him to transportation to Australia for fourteen years.

In 1794 the Government, in a state of panic over the effect of the French Revolution, suspended the Habeas Corpus Act. Any suspected “Jacobins” could be seized and kept in prison without trial.   “Jacobins” became a term to describe the enemies of England and the Government linked it to those calling for reform.   Thus liberty gets destroyed.

With the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act a number of prominent radicals were detained and charged with high treason.   They were not accused of plotting to kill George III but by calling for universal suffrage and a Convention they had issued a challenge to him.   This might jeopardise his life.   This extraordinary prosecution did have legal precedent, but perhaps not surprisingly it failed.   The first three charged were acquitted and the cases against the remaining nine were then dropped.   What an indictment of the government and of Pitt, but three cheers for the judiciary!

In spite of the Government’s hesitation, reform was still needed to abolish religious discrimination against the Catholics which excluded them from political power.   This was particularly so in Ireland where the Catholics formed an overwhelming majority of the population, about 90%.

All parties had agreed on the previous year’s Catholic Relief Act of 1793 which had admitted Catholics to the holding of various civil and military posts and given them voting rights akin to those of Protestants based on property ownership (which in practice gave the vote to only a small minority).   Fitzwilliam and other Whigs favoured building on this by giving Catholics the right to sit in the Irish Parliament – not that very many of them would be elected on the existing franchise.   Pitt himself had always taken a liberal view of Irish affairs and sought to accommodate Catholic concerns. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague 

The irony within the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 which gave Catholics with a forty shilling freehold the right to exercise a county vote was that they were now allowed to choose an MP but not be an MP – a step forward.

Earl Fitzwilliam, Irish Peer and founder of the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge, had a liberal view of Catholic Emancipation and had joined Pitt’s Cabinet on the clear understanding that he would become the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.   In early January 1795 he set off for Ireland.   Within days he sent a despatch to Pitt suggesting that Catholics should sit in the Irish Parliament.   Pitt’s low-key approach to the subject was blown apart.   Now he faced Protestant outrage, an Irish Parliament which had received a petition with 1.5 million signatures on it demanding the admission of Catholics and George III raging that he would not countenance it complaining that it would be “overturning the fabrick” of the 1688 Revolution.   He went on that it was “beyond the decision of any Cabinet of Ministers”.

Fitzwilliam was brought home and replaced by Lord Camden.   A large riot occurred at Camden’s swearing in.   Nevertheless Camden persuaded the Irish House of Commons to defeat the Bill.

Pitt had made a concession to Irish feeling by granting the vote to Catholics in 1793, but in 1795 a horrible civil war broke out.   Once again ugly passions were aroused in the name of religion; both sides committed murders and other outrages.   When the uprisings were stamped out, Pitt at last giving some attention to Irish affairs, now decided to bring about a union of the Parliaments.   Lord Castlereagh, who was Secretary to the Viceroy, was charged with putting the Bill of Union through the Irish Parliament.   Castlereagh was to become a great Foreign Secretary but in the end committed suicide believing he was being blackmailed for homosexuality.   He was intensely disliked and a shout of joy was heard when his coffin was carried into Westminster Abbey.

Two methods were employed to induce the Irish Parliament to vote for its own abolition.   One was the usual method – bribery.   Money was poured out to members of the Dublin Parliament; lavish promises of peerages were made.   Pitt’s second method was to hold out the promise of Catholic Emancipation to Ireland, Catholics were to be allowed to sit in Parliament, and the remaining laws against them repealed. "A History of Britain Section 5 1688-Present Day" by E.Carter & R Mears

The Irish Parliament, which was more against Catholic Emancipation than the English Parliament were not influenced by the promise of Catholic emancipation, but educated Catholic opinion was influenced.   They had never been in favour of the rebellious Irish leader, Wolfe Tone.   He was later tried and condemned to hang as a traitor, but cut his throat in prison.

Before the parliamentary dissolution of 1796, England was in an agitated state, for distress was prevalent among the poorer classes, the expenses of the continental wars were impoverishing the country, and there was a general outcry for peace; bread riots were common at the time, and the price of provisions in general was exceptionally high; political agitators were taking advantage of these circumstances to fulminate against the king and his ministers; while the various societies, called “seditious” by the Tories in office, received encouragement from the Whig party, whose prospects of succeeding to power were not encouraging.   A meeting of an enthusiastic nature, with a large attendance, had been held in St. George’s Fields to petition for annual parliaments, and for universal suffrage, theories which at that time were regarded hopefully, and which would, it was anticipated, redress existing grievances.

After two enormous meetings in London in October 1795, the Home Secretary, a Whig called William Windham, introduced the repressive Seditious Meetings Act which made it a criminal offence to take part in any meeting of more than 50 people without prior notice.

The Seditious Meetings Act, together with the Treasonable Practices Bill became known as Pitt’s “gagging Bills”.   They were a repressive response to discontent.   Severe penalties were imposed on anybody who attacked the constitution or gave support to the nation’s enemies.   Freedom of speech was effectively curtailed.

Liberty was under attack.   Fox stated that the measures would

prohibit all public discussion, whether in writing or in speaking, of political subjects”. ..  “if you silence remonstrance and stifle complaint, you then leave no other alternative but force and violence”.   Speeches of Charles James Fox in the House of Commons, Vol. VI by Wright(ed)

He then called another huge public meeting in November at which he said:

 “Say at once, that a free constitution is no longer suitable to us; say at once, in a manly manner, that an ample review of the state of the world, a free Constitution is not fit for you…   But do not mock the understandings and the feelings of mankind by telling the world that you are free – by telling me that if out of the House, for the purpose of expressing my sense of the public administration of this country, of the calamities which this war has occasioned, I state a grievance by petition, or make any declarations of my sentiments which I always had a right to do; but which if I do now, in a manner that may appear to a magistrate to be seditious, I am to be subjected to penalties which hitherto were unknown to the laws of England”. Parliamentary History, Vol. XXXII

For Pitt the argument was whether Parliament was supreme.   He explained:

 The sole object of the Bill was, that the people should look to Parliament and to Parliament alone, for the redress of such grievances as they might have to complain of, with a confident reliance of relief being afforded them, if their complaints should be well founded and practically remediable”. The Speeches of the Right Honourable William Pitt in the House of Commons, Volumes III by W.S. Hathaway

The “Seditions Bill, 1795” was passed for the protection of the king’s person and speaking against it the Duke of Norfolk took occasion to warn those who valued the liberty of the subject that they must not be misled by the specious titles of the bill.

I dare say,” he observed, “if the High Priest of the Spanish Inquisition was to come among us to introduce his system of inquisition here, he would call it an act for the better support and protection of religion; but we have understandings, and are not to be deceived in this way.”

In the House of Commons on 22 May 1796 Charles James Fox stated:

Opinions become dangerous to a state only when persecution makes it necessary for the people to communicate their ideas under the bond of secrecy.

It was in the session of 1797 that Mr. (later Earl) Grey first moved “for leave to bring in a bill to reform the representation in the country.”   The motion, seconded by Thomas Erskine, who had a great forensic skill and an acute legal mind, was debated until three o’clock in the morning – an exceptional sitting in those days – when it was rejected by a Government majority of fifty-eight votes.   Although the system of representation was notoriously corrupt, at least half the seats being in the patronage of interested persons, it was thirty-four years before Earl Grey’s measure for reform could be carried, and then only in extraordinary circumstances.   After Grey’s defeat, it was felt that in a House of Commons completely submissive to the ministerial dictates, and which resisted amendment, the opposition leaders could make no impression, and they accordingly announced their intention to take no further part in its proceedings; the voice of Fox was scarcely heard in the House till the century closed.

 Over the years Charles Fox and William Pitt clashed many times but their sparring came to a head on Fox’s forty-ninth birthday on 24th January 1798.   Fox celebrated it with some 2,000 people at the Crown and Anchor tavern in The Strand, London.   Amid much drunkenness and merriment the Duke of Norfolk proposed a toast to “Our Sovereign’s health: The Majesty of the people”.   Today these words would hardly cause a ripple but in the aftermath of the French revolution the establishment were highly sensitive.   Any reference to “the people” conjured up all the fears of revolution.   Norfolk, one of the most senior Dukes in the Kingdom was immediately dismissed as the Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire.   When it came to the actions of Charles Fox, William Pitt was in a quandary and sought advice from his drinking companion and reliable colleague Henry Dundas, who was Pitt’s ablest helper and at the time the Secretary of State for War.   When Charles Fox then went on to declare “Our Sovereign Lord, the People” he was dismissed from the Privy Council.

Controversy was in the air and in spite of the treatment of Norfolk and himself Fox repeated the toast at another dinner in May.   This was too much, but Pitt was hesitant and sought the advice of Dundas as to whether Fox should be reprimanded by the Speaker.   Pitt asked Dundas:

“If after a reprimand he offers a new insult, he might be sent to the Tower for the remainder of the Session.” "Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt" by Earl Stanhope

This would have really put the cat amongst the pigeons.

In the end wise counsels prevailed and it was decided merely to remove him from the Privy Council, an act performed by a delighted George III, who had personally struck Fox’s name from the list.   Fox had now seceded from the political system; refusing to attend the House of Commons, he sold his house in London and went into temporary retirement, leaving Pitt’s domination of the domestic landscape even stronger. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague


During the last years of the eighteenth century Pitt’s view of liberty and freedom changed.   He had come to the conclusion that now restrictions were necessary in order to defend traditional liberty.   What a change from the days during the passage of the India Bill when he said, “Necessity was the plea for every infringement of human freedom.   It was the argument of tyrants.   It was the creed of slaves.”    It was in this changed frame of mind that in April 1799 Pitt introduced another Bill to suppress radical organisations like United Scotsman and United Englishmen.   It regulated lecturing and printing.   Pitt’s case was that although the press was:

the most invaluable bulwark of liberty, we have seen the liberty of the press abused in a way most calculated to pervert and mislead the lower orders”. The Speeches of  the Right Honourable  William Pitt in the House of Commons Vol IV by W.S. Hathaway

The Bill traced all publications to their publishers.

The perception of great threats like the French Revolution and the circumstances of war are often used by politicians to reduce our freedoms.   In current times, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Iraq War has been used by the Blair (Prime Minister 1997 –2007) government to erode freedom.   These things tend to go in cycles.   As the threat diminishes the people resume their demand for freedom.

Ireland and Catholic emancipation were to dominate Pitt’s thinking during 1799.   Pitt linked the two issues in his mind and tried to bring them together, recognising the Catholic's demands whilst trying to overcome Protestant intransigence.   His solution was the Union of Ireland within the United Kingdom.   A union in which the Catholics would sit in Parliament, where they could not dominate because they were in a minority and yet, they would be there as equals.   This was a laudable aim and if it had been successful would have been a significant step on the road to democracy.

This was Pitt’s vision; an Ireland in which Catholics could be given full rights of citizenship, including the right to sit in Parliament, because Protestants need not fear a local Catholic majority if the Irish representatives were seated at Westminster, and the Catholics need not fear Protestant oppression if the affairs of Ireland were subject to the vote of all MPs. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

He developed this argument for Union with Ireland throughout 1799.
Pitt was prepared to do whatever was necessary to bring about the Union with Ireland and to secure the Union with a majority vote not only at Westminster but also in the Dublin Parliament.   He and his henchmen Cornwallis, who crushed the rebellion in Ireland in 1798, and Castlereagh briefed and cajoled on an unprecedented scale.   £1.5 million was spent on buying seats in the Dublin Parliament, pensions given, appointments made, peerages promised, all done in order to ensure a victory when it came to be voted upon.

the project of ramming the Union through the Dublin Parliament was gathering pace.   The specific plan involved adding one hundred seats to the 558 in the British House of Commons, paying £7,500 per seat to the proprietors and patrons of the abolished Irish boroughs.   This and every other form of eighteenth-century persuasion was applied to the final debates of the Irish House of Commons.   Votes were said to change hands at four thousand guineas apiece, while later that year twenty-one new peerages or elevations in the peerage involving those who had voted on the measure revealed the liberal deployment of patronage.   Recently published evidence suggests that some £30,000 of secret service money was deployed to promote the Union in 1799 and 1800, and that part of it was used to provide secret annuities for Irish MPs.   While the Protestant legislators were bribed to support the Union, Catholic opposition was neutralised by the implication (but not specific commitment) that their emancipation would inevitably result.   How this was to be accomplished, given the intensity of opposition to it, was not clear. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

  George III was implacably opposed to any change in the situation of the Roman Catholics.

  Meanwhile in the midst of the debate on the Act of Union Habeas Corpus was restored in 1800, but this did not stop repression from continuing, although the memory of the French revolution was beginning to fade.

 In July 1800 the Act of Union with Ireland was passed in both the Dublin House of Commons and at Westminster.   George III described it as:

 “the happiest event of my reign.” Parliamentary History, Vols. XXV 1800

  The Dublin Parliament came to an end.   The Union began on 1 January 1801.   Ireland was represented by 100 members of the House of Commons at Westminster bringing the total number of members up to 658, and by 28 peers and 4 bishops in the House of Lords.   The number of seats added at Westminster was less than the number of seats in the Irish parliament.   The representation of the counties was unaffected but a considerable number of boroughs were disenfranchised.   Dublin University like Oxford, Cambridge and some other universities also had representation.

As a result of the increase in members, the Commons became so cramped that wall panelling had to be removed and alterations made so that all the members could be accommodated.

Pitt’s vision of having Catholics sit at Westminster was not realised with the Act of Union.   The restrictions and disabilities on Catholics sitting in the House of Commons were not repealed.

The Union might have worked if the promise of Catholic Emancipation had been carried out, but the promise was broken so there was no chance of success.   Pitt had fully intended to carry out his promise, but when he found that George III considered that to give Irish Catholics their political freedom would be to violate his coronation oath, he gave way.

In 1801 Pitt put forward that:

Both Catholics and Protestant Dissenters would be admitted to public office by the repeal of the Test Acts.   At the same time the bitterly hated tithe payments to the Irish Church would be commuted into rents, while the Church of England would benefit from better pay for some of the clergy.   A new oath for office holders would recognise that revolutionary Jacobism rather than Catholicism was now Britain’s enemy, and would require a specific rejection of revolutionary doctrine.   It was a package to create Cabinet unity and political saleability to the wider political nation. "William Pitt the Younger" by William Hague

  Pitt’s proposals were rejected by the House of Commons prompting his resignation as Prime Minister after seventeen years in office.   Perhaps it was the strain in his relationship with George III over Catholic emancipation, which prompted his resignation for few thought that Pitt felt so strongly about the issue.   He may also have made the common political miscalculation that he was indispensable.

George III was relentlessly opposed to Catholic emancipation.   Pitt stood up to the King and lost.   The monarch still had sufficient influence to stop a constitutional change.   His power was waning but had not yet waned far enough.   Generally George III kept his views to himself but his semi-public comments on Catholic Emancipation had more resonance than might otherwise have been the case.

Sydney Smith, Canon of St. Pauls, with a reputation as a preacher and an accomplished witty speaker took up the cause of Catholic emancipation in his Letters of Peter Plymley:

You say the King’s coronation oath will not allow him to consent to any relaxation of the Catholic laws. – Why not relax the Catholic laws as well as the laws against Protestant Dissenters?   If one is contrary to his oath, the other must be so too; for the spirit of the oath is to defend the Church establishment, which the Quaker and the Presbyterian differ from as much or more than the Catholic…. Nothing would give me such an idea of security, as to see twenty or thirty Catholic gentlemen in Parliament, looked upon by all the Catholics as the fair and proper organ of their party.

The first Parliament after the Union with Ireland met on January 22, 1801, and was marked by the election of John Horne Tooke, who had the patronage of the rich William Tooke and whose name he had taken, for the borough of Old Sarum through the influence of Lord Camelford.   The return of one who had been in holy orders involved a great constitutional question; his admittance was opposed on the ground of his clerical profession, and it led to a bill making clergymen incapable of sitting in parliament.   Tooke occupied his seat until the next dissolution, which occurred the year following, when he was no longer eligible.

In 1807, the philanthropist and abolition of slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce found himself plunged into the most expensive election contest on record, one in which it was alleged half a million pounds was squandered.

At this time candidates often paid their elector’s travelling expenses (and these were in the high range, averaging, for example, from London to Hull, ten pounds apiece for freemen, the recognised tariff). The “other side” resorted to sometimes-curious manoeuvres; one of these was to buy off the persons who had the responsibility of delivering these expensive cargoes safe and in good voting order at the end of their expedition.   Among these anecdotes, it is related that, when those Berwick freemen who happened to reside in the Metropolis- “were going down by sea, the skippers, to whose tender mercy they were committed, used to be bribed, and have been known in consequence to carry them over to Norway.”

In 1807, in the Letters of Peter Plymley, Sydney Smith said:

When a country squire hears of an ape, his first feeling is to give it nuts and apples; when he hears of a Dissenter his immediate impulse is to commit it to the County jail, to shave its head, to alter its customary food, and to have it privately whipped.

"Although, as he points out, there were even then some forty-five Dissenters in one House of Parliament, and sixteen in the other, sitting for Scotland, there were no Catholic members of the Commons.   Both in formal enactment and in popular prejudice Papists were still, after Waterloo, regarded as too dangerously disloyal to be admitted to any post of power or responsibility". "England in the Nineteenth Century" by D. Thomson

Usually the Lords managed to work in harmony with the Commons.   Several factors contributed to this.   First the eighteenth-century system of government was essentially based on the holding of property and here both Lords and Commons represented the same interest, the great landowners.   Second, the leading personalities of both parties were frequently peers, and the highest posts, including that of Prime Minister, were often filled from the Lords.   Third, as a result of the electoral system, many members of the House of Commons were nominees of the Lords.   Hence there was little difference in outlook between the persons who sat in the two Houses.   Lastly the patronage system enabled the Government to control both Houses.

By the end of the eighteenth century there were over 16,000 officials in the Civil Service.   Appointment to office was by patronage.   Since there was no proper audit of accounts, posts were frequently sources of considerable profit and so could be used by the ruling party to reward supporters.   The system was even applied to the appointment of subordinate officials and clerks, control coming under the head of department.   The result was that persons sought political power in order to enjoy the spoils of office.   Sinecures were created to provide opportunities for further patronage, and corruption was widespread.   Posts not used as political rewards were often sold and offices “farmed out” to deputies.   It is said that this practise even extended to the charwomen!   Edmund Burke with his Establishment Bill and Lord Rockingham’s government took action to try and curb these excesses.

 In 1802 the practise was inaugurated of preparing an annual survey of the nation’s finances.   Other improvements, such as the use of the English language and Arabic numerals were introduced in 1823 to simplify the keeping of accounts.

 Such reform as was achieved came only slowly, since corruption and the patronage system were useful weapons by which Governments could control the House of Commons at a time when there were no disciplined parties.

 "the central policy departments which formed the main instruments of government were minute.   In the early 1820s, after the post war economies had taken place, the Home Office had a staff of seventeen, including the secretary of state, but excluding porters and cleaners.   The Colonial Office, responsible for more than thirty colonies scattered round the globe, was even smaller, with an effective staff of fourteen.   Even the Foreign Office, with its daily mass of diplomatic and consular correspondence, had a staff of less than three dozen". "Aristocracy and People" by Norman Gash

  Compared to the numbers employed in tax and customs gathering the numbers employed in the policy departments were tiny.   By the 1840s the number of Foreign Office staff had risen to 45, an establishment which sufficed the Foreign Office for the rest of the century.   Wars came and went, diplomatic activity escalated but the Foreign Office remained steadfast with its 45 staff.   Other departments kept their numbers low.   It was not until the 1840s that the Home Office increased its numbers to 22.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century various factors were beginning to undermine the structure of Parliament.   George III, by using patronage against the Whigs, had united them in demanding the reform of the out-of-date electoral system which made this possible.   Moreover the House of Commons was becoming inefficient, manifest in the loss of the American colonies, and was falling out of touch with the wishes of the people.   Above all the old House of Commons had been successful only because, as an assembly of great landowners, it conformed to the general structure of an agrarian society.   When the Industrial Revolution caused that society to pass away, its collapse was certain.   The middle classes became increasingly dissatisfied with their exclusion from political power; the workers, suffering from the wretched conditions of employment and home, began to realise that the reform of Parliament was a necessary step towards legislation for improving their lot.   There were many people in the expanding northern towns such as Manchester that did not have the vote.

Democracy was not accepted as an ideal, indeed it was often regarded with suspicion as being close to mob rule; even Burke considered that Parliament should not represent the people but rather “property and intelligence”.

The War against France came to an end in 1815 with Napoleon’s defeat by Wellington at Waterloo.   With the end of the War the pressures of increasing government expenditure and tax to pay for it were eased.

By 1815 the House of Lords consisted of some 360 members.   No longer was it just the landed gentry but now included in its ranks Generals, Admirals and businessmen.

By now the parties’ views on democracy were beginning to settle into a familiar pattern.   The Whigs wanted a reduction in patronage, particularly Crown patronage, and reform of the voting system, although they were rather vague as to what that system should be.   On the other hand, the Tories were conservative in outlook preferring the status quo regarding the power of the Monarch and the Established Church.   They strongly opposed any reform of the voting system.   The Tories believed that they had more influence with the Monarch and the Established Church so why change?

The Government faced continuous criticism.   In 1816 William Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet.   He now sold the Political Register for only 2d.   It was known as Twopenny Trash and it soon had a circulation of 44,000.   He advocated universal male suffrage and a general election every year, in order to keep parliament in touch with the people.   Cobbett's journal was the main newspaper read by the working class.

William Cobbett spent two years in prison for his strictures on flogging in the army, but the spread of his and other radical pamphlets stirred the people into action for their sense of grievance was increasing.   It led to a series of meetings at Spa Fields in London in 1816 at which there were some disturbances.

There were three separate meetings (15 November , 2 and 9 December) the second of which ended in a riot.   The main speaker was Hunt who urged the need for a reform of parliament, universal suffrage, voting in secret (by ballot) and annual elections.   However,  the organisers of the meeting were more extreme than the Radical Hunt; they included Arthur Thistlewood and Thomas Preston who wanted the eventual overthrow of the monarchy.   They believed the army was on the verge of mutiny and hoped to excite the crowd into attacking prisons, the Bank of England and the Tower.   Even before Hunt began to speak, a section of the crowd had rampaged through the streets and ransacked a gunsmith’s shop.   It was only dispersed by troops after several hours’ rioting. Mastering Modern British History by N. Lowe.

Henry Hunt was a staunch radical with a quick temper.   Arthur Thistlewood was later convicted of treason and hanged, he was then publicly decapitated.   Francis Burdett, son-in-law of the famous banker Thomas Coutts, planned a protest meeting challenging parliament to interfere: Whether the penalty of our meeting will be death by military execution, I know not; but this I know, a man can die but once, and never better than in vindicating the laws and liberties of this country”.

The effect on the Government of the disturbances was one of panic.   Like many Governments when faced with possible terrorism or riots repressive measures are brought forward.   This was no exception.   Once again the collective fear of the French Revolution reared its head – the mob was powerful in the mind of those in power.   Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1817 from June until January 1818, demonstrating once again how vulnerable our freedoms really are.   Stamp duty on pamphlets and periodicals was increased making them very expensive – they now cost at least six pence, a large sum at the time.   The Government’s hope was that this would reduce their circulation.   The Seditious Meetings Act was passed which made compulsory licensing of rooms used for political meetings or meetings of over 50 people illegal.   There was a prohibition put on federation of societies and the death penalty would be imposed for inciting members of the armed forces to mutiny.   Hundreds of prosecutions followed the passing of the Act and violence gradually died away.   In the event the Act lasted five years before it was abolished.

The philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, who believed that the aim of legislation should be socially useful:

 found that many laws ought to be abolished, and many institutions reformed.   His Catechism of Parliamentary Reform (1817) exposed the absurdities of the existing system of representation, and argued that a more democratic form of government would help to produce the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”.   This book had a considerable effect on thinking people; and Bentham’s arguments, did much to bring about the gradual reform of English institutions. A History of Britain Section 5 1688-Present Day by E. Carter & R. Mears.

 Bentham’s Catechism, first written in 1809, but not published until 1817, demanded equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, household franchise (not universal suffrage), and reform of electoral procedures.

 Within the British political context Bentham believed that only the Whigs, represented in both Houses of Parliament, could secure parliamentary reform. He once declared that he watched the manoeuvres of popular Radicals like Hunt and Cobbett with “much the same eye as the visitors of Mr. Carpenter—the optician—contemplate the rabid animals devouring one another in a drop of water” (that is, through a microscope).

The Regulation of Parish Vestries Act passed in 1818 set rules for the conduct of meetings. It disenfranchised persons who had not paid their rates and gave votes to non-resident occupiers.

The Act set up a plural voting system in a parish vestry, depending on the rateable value of property.   A landowner of property worth £50 was eligible for one vote; for every further £25 a man was given another vote up to a maximum of six votes.   This scale was used later by the Poor Law Amendment Act for the election of Guardians of the Poor.   This was an appalling set back for democracy.   Once again wealth bought favour.   But there was some consolation in that non-resident occupiers could now take part.

The following year, the Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor was passed.   Together these two pieces of legislation are known either as the Select Vestries Acts or the Sturges-Bourne Acts after the MP who was responsible for them.

In 1819 one of the most infamous acts in the history of democracy in the United Kingdom took place.   It came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre.

In March 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Manchester Patriotic Union Society.   All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of this new organisation was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it was decided to invite Major Cartwright, known as the Father of Reform, Henry “Orator” Hunt and Richard Carlile, who was imprisoned for publishing Thomas Paine’s works, to speak at a public meeting in Manchester.   Cartwright was unable to attend but Hunt and Carlile agreed and the meeting was arranged to take place at St. Peter’s Field on the 16th of August.   The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot.    The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting.

This included four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars (600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (400 men), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery and two six-pounder guns, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (120 men) and all Manchester's special constables (400 men). At about 11am. on 16th August, 1819 William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter’s Field. Although there was no trouble the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd.   Estimates concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people in St. Peter’s Field at midday.   Hulton therefore took the decision to send Edward Clayton, the Boroughreeve and the special constables to clear a path through the crowd.   The 400 special constables (the modern police force had to wait until Sir Robert Peel known as “orange peel” for his strong anti-Catholic sentiments, was in office before they were formed) were therefore ordered to form two continuous lines between the hustings where the speeches were to take place, and Mr. Buxton’s house where the magistrates were staying.

The main speakers at the meeting arrived at 1.20pm.   At 1.30pm. the magistrates came to the conclusion that "the town was in great danger". William Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest Henry Hunt and the other leaders of the demonstration.   Nadin replied that this could not be done without the help of the military.   Hulton then wrote two letters and sent them to Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange, the commander of the military forces in Manchester and Major Thomas Trafford, the commander of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.

Major Trafford, who was positioned only a few yards away at Pickford's Yard, was the first to receive the order to arrest the men.   Major Trafford chose Captain Hugh Birley, his second-in-command, to carry out the order.   Local eyewitnesses claimed that most of the sixty men who Birley led into St. Peter’s Field were drunk.   Birley later insisted that the horses being afraid of the crowd caused the troop’s erratic behaviour.

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry entered St.Peter’s Field along the path cleared by the special constables.   As the Yeomanry moved closer to the hustings, members of the crowd began to link arms to stop them arresting Henry Hunt and the other leaders.   Others attempted to close the pathway that had been created by the special constables.   Some of the Yeomanry now began to use their sabres to cut their way through the crowd.

When Captain Hugh Birley and his men reached the hustings they arrested Henry Hunt, and others.   They also arrested the newspaper reporters.

Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange reported to William Hulton at 1.50pm.   When he asked Hulton what was happening Hulton replied: "Good God, Sir, don't you see they are attacking the Yeomanry?   Disperse them."   L'Estrange now ordered Lieutenant Jolliffe and the 15th Hussars to rescue the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.   By 2.00pm. the soldiers had cleared most of the crowd from St. Peter's Field.   In the process, eleven people were killed and about 400, including 100 women, were wounded.

Richard Carlile managed to avoid being arrested and after being hidden by local radicals, he took the first mail coach to London. The following day placards for Sherwins Political Register began appearing in London with the words: 'Horrid Massacres at Manchester'.   A full report of the meeting appeared in the next edition of the newspaper.   The authorities responded by raiding Carlile's shop in Fleet Street and confiscating his complete stock of newspapers and pamphlets.   Carlile was later imprisoned for publishing this story.

James Wroe was at the meeting and he described the attack on the crowd in the next edition of the Manchester Observer.   Wroe is believed to be the first person to describe the incident as the Peterloo Massacre.   Wroe also produced a series of pamphlets entitled The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events.   The pamphlets, which appeared for fourteen consecutive weeks from 28th August, price twopence, had a large circulation, and played an important role in the propaganda war against the authorities.   Wroe, like Carlile, was later sent to prison for writing these accounts of the Peterloo Massacre.

When John Edward Taylor, who in 1821 founded “The Manchester Guardian”, discovered that John Tyas of The Times, the only reporter from a national newspaper at the meeting, had been arrested and imprisoned, he feared that this was an attempt by the government to suppress news of the event.   Taylor therefore sent his report to Thomas Barnes, the editor of The Times, who believed that a newspaper should not be the servant of the state.   The article, that was highly critical of the magistrates and the yeomanry, was published two days later.

After the Peterloo Massacre, Viscount Sidmouth, the Home Secretary and former Speaker of the House of Commons, sent a letter of congratulations to the Manchester magistrates for the action they had taken.   As Henry Addington, Sidmouth had been Prime Minister from 1801 to 1804.   He was created a Viscount in 1805.   Parliament also passed the Six Acts in an attempt to make sure reform meetings like the one at St. Peter's Field did not happen again.

The trial of the organisers of the St. Peter's Field meeting took place in York between 16th and 27th March 1820. The men were charged with "assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent".   Henry Hunt was found guilty and was sent to Ilchester Gaol for two years and six months.

Major Cartwright, the advocate of universal suffrage, who had the misfortune to live before the times were ripe for reform to be carried, addressed a petition to parliament in 1820 showing that “97 Lords usurped approximately 200 seats in the Commons, while 90 wealthy commoners for 102 pocket boroughs brought in the House 137 members;” Ministerial patronage returned another twenty, thus giving according to the petitioners statistics, “a total of 353 members corruptly or tyrannically imposed on the Commons in gross violation of the law, and to the palpable subversion of the constitution.”   At that time the Earl of Lonsdale commanded eight seats.

  Higham Ferrars was:

 “in the hands of the corporation – which consisted of the Mayor (who was also the returning officer), seven aldermen, thirteen capital burgesses, plus freemen, being householders not receiving alms, these latter in a permanent minority since the total electorate did not exceed 40”. "The Member" by J. Galt

  There were only five seats with a single member.   They were Higham Ferrars, Abingdon, Bewdley, Banbury and Monmouth;   Weymouth had four members but the norm was two.   We had to wait for another 65 years before single seat constituencies became the norm.

  The historian of parliamentary representation T.H.B. Oldfield claimed in his book Key to the House of Commons published in 1820 that over 70 per cent of the House of Commons were “sent to Parliament by private nomination, and through the influence of Peers and opulent Commoners."

 The borough of Grampound was disenfranchised for corruption in 1821 and the county of Yorkshire received an extra two members.   Thus the House of Commons had the same number of English and Welsh seats since 1674.

By 1821 the population of the United Kingdom had reached 14.5 million of which Scotland’s share was just over 2 million and Wales with half a million.

The Bribery and Corruption in Elections Act of 1827 stated that persons employed by candidates at elections were to be disqualified from voting; and that cockades and ribbons were not to be given to voters by candidates.   In democratic terms this was not justified.   The problem lay in the fact that there was no secret ballot so the employer could see how his employees voted.   By disqualifying them embarrassment was saved all round.   The answer of course would have been to have a secret ballot but we still waited for this.   So a small set-back for democracy.

Wellington became Prime Minister in January 1828.   The following month Lord John Russell introduced a Bill to repeal the Test Act of 1633 and the Corporation Act of 1661.   This put the cat amongst the pigeons.

Peel consulted his old tutor Charles Lloyd, now Bishop of Oxford.   In England as a whole Anglican privileges were mainly symbolic, but they meant something at Cambridge University, where only subscribers to the Church of England could graduate, and they meant even more at Oxford, where non-Anglicans could not even matriculate.   A scholarly High churchman, Lloyd proffered several pedantic seventeenth-century arguments such as that of Bishop Sherlock (1678-1761), who denied that Nonconformists were disqualified from office for religious reasons, since their failure to pass the sacramental test was merely the evidence of their lack of qualification and not the cause of it. "A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People" by B Hilton

Peel disagreed with this view.   It was only valid if you were sure of winning the vote.   His view was that: “If you are beaten, the higher the tone you take, the more creditable it may be to the individual or the party who takes it; but… the more complete is the triumph over the party on whose behalf it is taken.”

If you argued that the survival of the Church of England depended on the Test and Corporation Acts, then their repeal might make the destruction of the Church a self- fulfilling prophesy”.

The votes in favour of repeal comprised a disparate number of groups.   Some voted in favour because they thought it would open the doors to Catholic emancipation.   Some Tory MPs disliked Dissenters, but disliked Catholics even more and voted in favour of repeal in the belief that it would prevent Catholic emancipation.   Some voted against the motion even though they agreed it in principle.   This dog’s breakfast of prejudices resulted in Russell’s motion being carried by forty-two votes.   The House of Lords did not bother to vote against it.

In 1828 The Test Act of 1633 and the Corporation Act of 1661 were repealed, thereby removing the necessity of receiving the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a qualification for certain state and municipal offices.   The Dissenters were no longer debarred from such offices.

In May Burdett’s motion for emancipation passed the Commons by six votes, only to be flung out in the Lords by 44.   Peel flew his Protestant colours for the last time, but his speech contained a “get-out” clause, when he said in a low-key way that he “would do all in his power” to bring emancipation about if he could be persuaded – which he was not at present – that it would tranquillise Ireland. "A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People" by B Hilton

In 1810 Sir Francis Burdett sent a letter declaring the conduct of the House of Commons was illegal for imprisoning a radical orator.   He was sent to the Tower of London.   No wonder he was a radical.

But Catholic emancipation was not the only issue before the Cabinet in May and June of 1828.   Electoral matters produced a Cabinet split:

It had already been decided to suppress the constituencies of Penryn and East Retford on account of gross electoral corruption, but there was disagreement over whether the vacant representation should be given to Manchester and Birmingham, or whether the seats should be “thrown into the hundreds”, i.e. made larger by incorporating adjacent parishes.   The former course would concede the case for parliamentary reform, while the latter would resist it, especially as the parishes around East Retford were owned by the Ultra Tory Duke of Newcastle, who was soon to outrage reformers by evicting some tenants for political disobedience and demanding contemptuously; “Is it not lawful for me to do what I please with mine own?”   The Cabinet decided in favour of expanding the constituencies. "A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People" by B. Hilton

 With the turn of the century the gulf between the two Houses of Parliament had steadily widened.   The Lords were against change.   Roman Catholic emancipation was delayed until 1829, first by the opposition of the King and then by the Lords but its passing enabled Catholics to sit in the House.   The Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) was passed amid tremendous controversy, which ruined Peel’s popularity with the Tories.  

Ever since the resignation of William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister the demand for Catholic emancipation had been growing.   George III believed that he could not support it because to do so would violate the Coronation oath, which he had taken, so he positively opposed it.   George IV following his father’s thoughts on the matter acted likewise in upholding the Protestant religion.

Daniel O’Connell, an Irish barrister and orator, led the campaign for Catholic Emancipation.   He wanted the Union to be dissolved and Ireland to conduct its own internal affairs.   He was quite happy for external affairs to be conducted by the Westminster Parliament.   In 1823 he set up the Catholic Association.    All Irish citizens were encouraged to join.   They paid a 'Catholic rent' of one penny per month, collected after Mass on Sunday, which financed the Association's activities and was used as an insurance fund for members who were evicted for being members of the Association.   Roman Catholic priests were won over and churches became a propaganda vehicle for the Association and many people joined it.   In its first year of existence the Association had an income of £1,000 per week (960,000 pennies a month) and at the end of the year it had £10,000 invested.   O'Connell realised that a successful campaign needed money to pay for speakers, pamphlets and so on.   This was one of the first mass funding exercises conducted by a politician.   Lord Woolton did it for the Conservatives in the late 1940s and Barack Obama fought the United States Presidential election in 2008 by using a similar technique.   At elections the Association backed Protestant candidates who were pledged to vote for emancipation.   Anti-Catholic candidates were defeated in two by-elections.  

Matters came to a head with a by-election in County Clare.   At this time when a Member of Parliament was appointed a Government Minister he had to resign his seat and fight it again in a by-election.   The Member of Parliament for County Clare was Vesey Fitzgerald.   He was appointed President of the Board of Trade, thus triggering off the by-election.   The fact that Vesey Fitzgerald was both popular and in favour of Catholic Emancipation didn’t matter once Daniel O’Connell had decided to fight the seat on principle.   As a Catholic he knew that if he won the seat he would not be allowed to take his seat in Parliament, but nevertheless it would demonstrate the strength of feelings of the Catholics in Ireland.

In spite of the minimum qualification for the franchise of ownership of land worth £2.00 per annum there were enough Catholics to give victory to O’Connell.   The pressures on the Government were enormous.   They now faced the prospect of having dozens of Catholics fighting the next General Election.   The excitement caused in such a situation could easily turn to violence, riots or even civil war if the successful Catholics were then excluded from the House of Commons.

Faced with this dilemma Peel and Wellington had no choice but to give way.   Catholic emancipation had long been a Whig demand but it had always been bitterly resisted by Tory ministers, who saw it as a breach in the privileges of the Church of England.

It was Sir Robert Peel’s job to take the Catholic Emancipation Bill through the House of Commons.   However he had a major problem.   His constituency was the university seat of Oxford and the university was totally opposed to Catholic Emancipation.   In an honourable gesture Peel resigned his seat so that a by-election could be called.   In the by-election on 27 February 1829 he was defeated by 755 votes to 609.   He was due to present the Bill to Parliament on 5 March.   There was only one thing he could do and that was to use corruption as a means to get back into the House of Commons.   The Member of Parliament for Westbury was Sir Manasseh Lopes and was known to be corrupt having already been fined twice and imprisoned for electoral bribery.   He was approached and found to be amenable.   His nephew wanted a job in government.

Sir Manasseh resigned his seat and it was offered to Peel.   Together, they set out for Westbury and the by-election.   At the same time a Protestant opponent of Peel set out from London to oppose him.   Fortunately by the time Peel’s opponent had arrived the Mayor had declared the result of the by-election with Peel elected.      On 3 March Peel took his seat in the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Westbury.   There were just two days to go before the Catholic Emancipation Bill had to be presented to Parliament.

Sir Manasseh’s nephew was appointed His Majesty’s Consul in Pernambuco.

Peel introduced the Catholic Emancipation Bill into the House of Commons, Wellington guided it through the Lords, and at times exerting great pressure on their Lordships to accept it.   It was only Wellington’s extraordinary influence, which enabled it to pass the Lords.   George IV after many arguments reluctantly accepted it.   The King held out for several months.   Eventually Wellington was called to Windsor where the King, who was still saying, “I will never consent”, consented.   It was a great step forward in reducing religious discrimination in our democracy.

The Catholic Relief Act 1829 allowed Catholics to have a seat in parliament. This condition was crucial as Daniel O'Connell had won the by-election in County Clare but under British law he was forbidden (because of his religion) to take his seat in Westminster. Peel, who had for all of his career, opposed emancipation (and had, in 1815, challenged O'Connell to a duel) was forced to conclude: "though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger." Peel feared a revolution in Ireland. The Catholic Relief Act was a compromise, however, and effectively disenfranchised the Catholic peasants of Ireland, the so-called Forty Shilling Freeholders. The act raised fivefold the economic qualifications for voting.   Starting in 1793 in Ireland, any man renting or owning land worth at least forty shillings had been permitted to vote.   Under the Catholic Relief Act, this was raised to ten pounds.

Catholics could now sit in both houses of parliament and hold important offices of state except monarch, regent, Lord Chancellor and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.   As a parting shot the government forced O’Connell to fight the County Clare election again and raised the property qualification to £10 so that the 40-shilling freeholders no longer had the vote (this did not prevent O’Connell winning again.)   The results of emancipation were important: Peel and Wellington could claim to have averted civil war in Ireland; but their treatment of O’Connell and the 40 shilling freeholders lost the government most of the goodwill that emancipation should have won for them from the Irish Catholics.   The Protestant Tories, especially the Irish landlords, never forgave Peel and Wellington for their “betrayal”.   Peel resigned and a bitter joke circulated that he had changed his name from Peel to Repeal; Wellington was so incensed at one of his critics, Lord Winchelsea, that he challenged him to a duel, which took place in Battersea Park (neither man was wounded). "A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People" by B. Hilton
In spite of progress on Catholic emancipation The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 asserts that no Catholic can offer counsel to the monarch on ecclesiastical matters.   Catholics were still excluded from the monarchy.   They could not be a Lord Lieutenant, and were excluded from other positions.   Discrimination continued but Peel paid a heavy price for the progress that had been made.

The results were catastrophic to the entire system of Irish representation, especially in the north.   In the largely Protestant county of Antrim, 6,246 voters were reduced to 700, in Tyrone, 6,600 to 364.   In all Ireland the county electoral register was reduced from 216,000 to 37,000 voters, removing 34,000 in Galway and 10,000 in Dublin.   What was called an emancipation was in fact a disenfranchisement of enormous proportions.   The richer Catholics got the vote while poorer Protestant voters summarily lost it.   This measure rankled deep in the Protestant communities and helped to fan sectarian hatred and violence for the next century and a half. "The Vote" by Paul Foot

In the latter part of 1829 Lord Blandford called for the abolition of rotten boroughs in order to prevent wealthy Catholics from purchasing seats.   The battle over Catholic Emancipation was the forerunner for the biggest battle over democracy, which was about to take place.

Expansion of the Upper House gathered pace. From 195 peers in 1784 it went up to 372 by 1830.   Patronage was alive and well.

By now where had we got to on the road to democracy?   The Westminster Parliament was all-powerful – its powers now surpassed the Monarch’s, but it was not democratic.   Parliament was answerable to no one.  It was sovereign.  The House of Commons was elected – the House of Lords was not.   The franchise for the House of Commons was still restricted to men – women for all intents and purposes did not have the vote.   Wealth was the criterion in determining which men or women had the vote.   There was widespread corruption – seats were bought and sold.

It is an irony that in the early nineteenth century when Britain had become the world’s greatest industrial power its parliamentarians were primarily landowners and agriculturists.   Votes did not have an equal value.   Great cities like Birmingham and Manchester, where manufacturing had increased as a result of the industrial revolution with its consequent increase in population, had no Members in the House of Commons.

On the positive side great steps forward had been taken in reducing religious discrimination by Catholic Emancipation.   Discrimination still existed but on a smaller scale.   There were no Jewish members of Parliament.   They were still barred from Parliament.  Sexual discrimination was still rampant and would continue to be for a long time to come.

There was no secret ballot.   Votes were bought, often on a massive scale.   There was much still to do before we had democracy.

When the Duke of Wellington attended the opening of the new Manchester and Liverpool Railway in September 1830, he witnessed an event as important in its own way as the Battle of Waterloo, which he had won fifteen years before.   It symbolised the conquest of space and of parochialism.   “Parliamentary Reform must follow soon after the opening of this road”, wrote a Manchester man of the time, “A million of persons will pass over it in the course of this year, and see that hitherto unseen village of Newton; and they must be convinced of the absurdity of its sending two members to Parliament, whilst Manchester sends none.” "England in the 19th Century" by D. Thomson.


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