THE THORESBY SOCIETY
Notes from the Library (No. 10 , February 2019)
THE 1832 ELECTION SCRAPBOOK AND PETITION
In 1832 the great Reform Act gave Leeds the power to elect two representatives to parliament: the first time the Borough would have its own MPs and play its part in government. The election that followed proved to be one of the most contentious and dramatic of the century. The Society’s archives have two significant reminders of this critical event. One is a battered scrapbook filled with printed election pamphlets, handbills, satirical ‘squibs’ and ‘crackers’, summoning up the fevered atmosphere of the time. The other is the original scrolled petition from over 1400 Leeds voters, begging John Marshall Jnr. from the mighty flax-spinning family to stand for the Whigs (Liberals) in this unprecedented election. (He accepted)
Two seats but three candidates: two Whigs, John Marshall Jnr., wealthy, influential and local, and Thomas Babington Macaulay, a distinguished London writer and career politician; and one Tory, Michael Thomas Sadler, a Leeds merchant and former MP who had fought for factory reform with his Ten-Hour bill – Richard Oastler’s emotive factory reform movement against ‘Yorkshire slavery’ became an integral part of his campaign.
Those eligible (men with houses worth £10 or more p.a.) had two votes: they could either split their votes between two of the candidates or ‘plump’ for one. It was of course in Sadler’s interest to persuade them to plump for him rather than split their vote with one of the Whigs. He favoured a more personal approach to canvassing, derided by the Whigs who favoured mass meetings.
The local newspapers played a major propaganda role in the battle: Edward Baines’s Mercury for the Whigs, and the Leeds Intelligencer for the Tories, with the Radical Leeds Patriot in support on behalf of factory reform. The scrapbook illustrates the vicious insults traded, and the mutual accusations of lies and more lies. There were no barriers of taste: an anonymous flyer hinted that Sadler had grown a beard to please Jewish electors and maybe had adopted other ‘rites’: a suggestion the Intelligencer condemned as ‘beastly obscene filth’!
There were reported incidents of intimidation of shopkeepers, and threats of violence, with gangs of unsavoury characters armed with bludgeons being called in to disrupt meetings - blood was running high. There were tales of bribery too, of free beer and gin. Again the newspapers whipped up feeling and presented their own very different versions of events.
There was a lighter side too: plenty of satirical humour to enjoy or endure – the scrapbook has lyrics galore, songs and posters, mocking the candidates in equal measure.
In the event the Whigs won the day and Sadler was defeated, but the new MPs Macaulay and Marshall still had to face jibes and mockery.
It’s not clear who owned the scrapbook or how or when it was acquired by the Society. While both sides – the Tory Blues and the Whig Oranges – are represented in the material included it’s possible to speculate that the owner was Tory in sympathy. In any case, this unique collection of election ephemera, which otherwise would have been unlikely to survive, offers a pungent flavour of that ground-breaking election.
As for the great petition to John Marshall Jnr. to stand in the election, this was given to the Society in 1924, housed in a glass and mahogany case, by ‘Mrs Marshall’. It can be wound round so that the 1436 signatures of the newly enfranchised Whig supporters can be read, with their location (what a labour to collect!). These have been transcribed and are searchable.
In addition to the scrapbook and the petition the Society has an outstanding collection of political cartoons, posters and handbills and other ephemera from the 1807 Yorkshire election onwards. This is currently being listed and the catalogue will be available shortly on the Society’s website. It is hoped to digitise some of the material in the near future so that images can also be shown on the website.
© E J Bradford / The Thoresby Society, The Leeds Library, 18 Commercial Street, Leeds LS1 6AL. www.thoresby.org.uk