Britain is entering the build up to our next General Election (7 May 2015), so we are bracing ourselves for the usual onslaught of rhetoric, banter and campaigning. In comparison to the experience of the first LDS missionaries to Britain our modern political scene must seem quite tame.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) had just been proclaimed queen on June 20 1837, and following her ascension to the throne a general election was called for all members of Parliament. A month later, when the first missionaries arrived in Preston, the election campaigns were in full swing.
Heber C.Kimball recorded the following spectacle:
“I never witnessed anything like it in my life. Bands of music playing. Flags flying in all directions. Thousands of men, women and children parading the streets, decked with ribbons characteristic of the politics of the several candidates. Anyone accustomed to the peaceable and quiet manner in which the elections in America are conducted, can scarcely have any idea of an election as carried on in England. One of the flags was unrolled before us, nearly over our heads, the moment the coach reached its destination, having on it the following motto: ‘Truth will Prevail,’ in large gilt letters. It being so very seasonable, and the sentiment being so very appropriate to us in our situation , we cried aloud, ‘Amen! Thanks be to God, Truth will Prevail!’ ”
Heber C. Kimball, Saturday 22 July, 1837. 4 PM
Orson Hyde confirms this event:
“While standing in Preston by our luggage, on the sidewalk, having sent one of our number to find lodgings, we were casting over in our minds what might be the result of our mission in this country. Thus lost in silent meditation upon the future, a very large banner was at that moment brought out of the hotel near where we stood, carried into the middle of the street before us, and then unfurled in the breeze, displaying upon its brilliant and dazzling folds, in large golden letters, “Truth Will Prevail.”
“…an election as carried on in England.”
So, how was an election carried on in England?
Preston’s very own Houses of Parliament
On Church Street in Preston stands a famous old coaching inn established around 1654 when it was called the White Bull. On the opposite side of the street is another coaching inn called the Red Lion.
It could have been here that the Elders saw the Truth Will Prevail banner as both inns featured prominently in Preston’s electoral history. The Bull Hotel was the centre of Tory activity, and the Red Lion was used by the Liberals. Candidates would address the large crowds from the upstairs windows thus creating Preston‘s very own parliament. This section of Church Street has been likened to the ‘Floor of the House’ and the two Inns represent the front benches mirroring the set up of the House of Commons in London.
The rivalries between these two main parties created many a lively scene among the jostling crowds. For instance in the 1847 election the Liberal supporters came up Church Street and clashed with Tories outside the Bull. Liberal flags were torn down by the Tories who carried them in triumph to the Bull. In protest the cobbles of Church Street were torn up and used in a general attack on the Bull. Shutters and windows were smashed, and furniture inside were damaged.
During the 1780s and 1790s the schism between the two political parties was so intense they held separate horse races and separate hunting meetings with distinct Whig and Tory packs of hunting hounds (the P.U. or ‘Preston United’ pack and the U.P. or ‘United Preston’ pack). When there was the threat of French invasion separate forces were raised to defend the town – the Tory Royal Preston Volunteer force and the Whig Loyal Preston Volunteers Force. Even the sedan chairmen displayed their loyalties by wearing collars in their party colours.
The Saturday LDS missionaries arrived was the last day candidates could use banners to promote their party in the 1837 election. This restriction on displaying banners was a measure aimed at preventing violence. The election nominations were due to be made public on Monday 24 July followed by elections on Tuesday 25th.
Despite such restrictions the campaigning still got out of hand:
“The proceedings were again disgraced by much drunkenness and rioting especially between some “bludgeon-men” and a party of Irish labourers. Several persons were seriously injured, and some property destroyed. The mayor was necessitated to call in the aid of the military to protect the peace of the borough. Bludgeon men or “roughs” armed with staves and decorated with ribbons, whose ostensible occupation was the protection of the flags and banners of their respective parties; but who not infrequently themselves created the disturbance they professed to oppose. Much of the rioting might have been prevented if the candidates had mutually consented to the abolition of processions during the contest. They served little purpose, except to congregate the most intemperate and lawless of the population in the public streets, and bring them in to collision, when liquor, music, and party zeal had excited their worst passions, and blinded the limited rationality or sense of decorum which they previously possessed.”
A local teetotaller recorded his election memories:
“On some of these occasions monster processions, accompanied by numerous bands of music, large banners, and flags, paraded the streets between 7 and 10 o’clock in the evening when a number of burning tar barrels were introduced into the processions, illuminating the public thoroughfares in the darkness of the night. Bludgeon men were organised, and trained to do the fighting. Violence, rioting, bribery, and corruption were rampant. The authorities appeared powerless to restrain the reckless enthusiasm of the populace”
The Preston Candidates…
There were four candidates running for the Preston seat:
The sitting member: Whigs (Liberals): P. Hesketh Fleetwood, esq. (who won again with 2,726 votes)
Conservatives: R. Townley Parker, esq of Cuerden. (1,821)
Radical: Jno. Crawfurd, esq. (1,562)
and Chartist: Feargus O’Connor (?)
And boy did they have a fun time at each other’s expense. There is a delightful little book called Addresses, Squibs and Speeches, Songs, & C. at the Preston Election – July 1837, which has collected all things pertaining to this event. There was a lot of poetry printed including cutting rhymes like:
If these things you wish and much more that is darker
Bow your necks to the yoke, and elect Townley Parker; –
But, by Heaven! If you do – you’re a mean venal crew,
And deserve to be starved, – aye, and soundly flogged too…
An honest observer, July 12, 1837
Another observer remarked some candidates were “Selling the truth for pounds, shillings and pence”. The speeches and songs also contain a lot of name-calling with endearing terms such as “mad dogs”, “foul fiend”, “blunderhead” “Why you immense almighty blockhead”, “half civilized Orangutan”, “Numscull”, “nincumpoop” and “thy poor shallow skull”.
The sweet sounds of politics!
Preston’s Unique suffrage
The Great Election of 1768 had created an unusual precedent for Preston. The Whigs claimed that due to a 1661 parliamentary judgement “all of the inhabitants of Preston have voices in the election”. In 1661 the Mayor and the Corporation of Preston wanted to elect their candidate to Parliament, but a large portion of the merchants of the town disagreed and wanted to send a different candidate.
The dispute was forwarded to the House of Commons who upheld the right that all ‘male’ inhabitants were granted a vote. In 1661 that judgement was only used by the relevant merchants to get their candidates into London, but in the 1768 election the Whigs contested that unless you were a lunatic, pauper or other unworthy you were an ‘inhabitant’ and entitled to vote. Once again the dispute was taken down to the House of Commons who upheld the Whig’s claim.
A local leader recalled, “Our borough had the singular privilege of ‘universal suffrage’. Every man of 21 years of age, and so many week’s residence, not being a pauper and untainted with crime, was entitled to vote…”
A local historian, David Hunt, pointed out that:
“The implications were immense: seven years before the Declaration of Independence, 22 years before the French Revolution, and 150 years before the Act of 1918, universal manhood suffrage had been established in Preston.”
In 1832 the Electoral Reform Act appeared as it if might put an end to this. Voting was restricted nationally to borough residents who owned or rented property of at least £10 per annum. However, the Act upheld the “ancient rights” of Preston which meant that as long as a Prestonian continued to reside and register in Preston they could continue to vote for the rest of their life regardless of the value of their property or rent.
David Pickup (my Stake President!) found in his research that:
“In 1837, 2,809 out of the 3,782 registered electors, three-quarters of those entitled to vote, were those claiming the privilege under “ancient right”.
The Workers had witnessed the power of their votes in 1831 when they were able to elect the radical agitator Henry ’Orator’ Hunt, but in the long run the 1832 Act meant this unusually wide franchise was doomed as the working-class voters died or moved away.
It is intriguing to consider the possible implications of these rights. Candidates were compelled to consider the vote of the lower classes. Working class voters were given a voice – a very unusual privilege in early Victorian Britain. Did this empower Preston’s working class? Did it encourage independent thought? Was this sense of independence a contributing factor towards the reception of the missionaries? The author admits he has no answer to these questions, but nonetheless thinks it worthy of noting.
Truth Will Prevail
The 1837 and 2015 elections will be very different animals. However, when the campaigns end, when the promises are re-shelved, when bruised egos are healed, and when life gets back to some normality there is still one thing that remains the same as then… Truth will Prevail.
Excerpts of this story are from the tour LDS Preston found on www.obelisktours.co.uk