Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Staffordshire election of 1747

In summer 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” landed in Scotland with the aim of regaining the throne of Great Britain for his father, James Edward Stuart, “the Old Pretender”, the son of the late exiled King James II. He soon captured Edinburgh and headed south, through Lancashire and towards the midlands. His supporters were known as Jacobites (from Jacobus, the Latin version of James)
This was not without preparation. France was at war with England, and Charles was hopeful that a French army would soon land on the south coast. He also expected that he would receive local support. A French spy in 1743 reported that Staffordshire was “unanimously attached to the legitimate king” (i.e. to James), and named four of the greatest landowners of the county, Gower, Bagot, Chetwynd and Wolseley, as likely rebels. All were strong supporters of the opposition Tory party against the Whig government. It was noted how they gathered every year at Lichfield races. Over the previous 30 years the county had witnessed many anti-government demonstrations, which often took the form of violent attacks on Non-conformist chapels.

On December 3rd Charles’s little army of Highlanders reached Macclesfield and sent scouts forward through Congleton as far as Talke. They surely would have preferred to continue south through Birmingham and Oxford, but they found government troops under the Duke of Cumberland and Lord Ligonier in force in north Staffordshire, so instead they moved eastwards through Leek and the moor lands to Derby. There they halted and, two days later, turned back. Charles had promised the clan chiefs that reinforcements would come, but there was no sign of the French landing, and not one prominent local potential rebel had made a move: not Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, a notorious Jacobite who owned most of north Wales, not Bagot, not Chetwynd and especially not Gower. He had committed the ultimate treachery: he had changed sides at the end of 1744 and joined the Whig government! He raised a regiment to fight against the rebels, with himself as Colonel, and was rewarded with an Earldom and a seat in the Cabinet. Charles, bitterly disappointed, withdrew into Scotland, to be defeated at Culloden the next spring. Meanwhile in January 1746 fourteen men and one woman were held in Stafford gaol on suspicion of high treason. With the failure of Jacobitism, Tory fury turned particularly against Gower, and this made itself felt in the general election of 1747.

The Staffordshire election of 1747 was held with the memories of the late revolt still fresh in the minds. It was the first contested election for the county since 1715, and would be the last before the 1830s. The county, like all the others in England, returned two M.P.s to Parliament. Earl Gower accordingly put up two candidates: his brother William Gower and his son-in-law Sir Richard Wrottesley, aged just 26. They were opposed by the old Tory Sir Walter Wagstaffe Bagot of Blithfield and by John Crewe of Crewe Hall in Cheshire. Polling began on July 9th and continued until the 14th.
The system to be followed was that five polling booths were erected in the town square, one for each of the five “hundreds” into which Staffordshire had been divided since Saxon times: Pirehill, Totmonslow, Cuttlestone, Offlow and Seisdon. These booths were manned by polling clerks, who were paid one guinea a day - good money for the time! The franchise for county elections was limited to landowners whose property had a value of at least £2 a year: the famous “Forty-shilling freeholders”. It was estimated there were at least five thousand qualified voters in the county. Any prospective voters had to come to Stafford to register their votes, and check in at the relevant booth. The sheriff of the county had had the onerous duty of drawing up a list of all the freeholds in the county, at his own expense, which he would then sell to the candidates at 2/6d (13 p.) a time (this helps us to understand why the office of sheriff was so unpopular: like all jobs in local government, it was unpaid, and the local gentry were supposed to take it in turns to fill the post). In the booths, voters would have to take an oath that they were valid freeholders, and then declare their preferences: each man having two votes, though they could not both be cast for the same candidate. The candidates and their agents kept a close eye on things to make sure there was no fraud. There was, of course, no secrecy in voting.
In the 1747 election the polling clerks achieved the impressive feat of processing an average of 200 voters a day at each booth, and so after five days the queues had ended and the poll was declared closed (In some constituencies voting might drag on for over a month). The result was then announced:-
Bagot 2,654 votes
Gower 2,602
Crewe 2,433
Wrottesley 2,421
and so Bagot and Gower were declared elected. The Gower interest had retained one seat, but the Tory Bagot had topped the poll, reflecting the county’s Tory-Jacobite tendencies. This was not necessarily the end of the matter, because Wrottesley then demanded a scrutiny; meaning that the qualifications of every suspect voter would have to be examined, and bring the sheriff documentary evidence of his freehold; and as a last resort a losing candidate could even petition Parliament to have the result overturned on the grounds of fraud and corruption. Wrottesley brought together witnesses to challenge the validity of several hundred voters, but in the end he gave up. Realistically he could only ever hope to replace Crewe for third place; a somewhat meaningless triumph. In any case, the extensive electoral influence of Earl Gower soon led to his being compensated by being returned as M.P. for Tavistock in Devon. In August the Staffordshire result was declared valid.

As well as the two M.P.s for Staffordshire, four towns in the county also elected two M.P.s each: Stafford itself, Lichfield, Newcastle and Tamworth. There was no poll in the election of the two M.P.s for the borough of Stafford. William Chetwynd and a lawyer, John Robins, were put up as candidates, and no-one cared to undertake the trouble and expense of standing against them. But this did not mean there was peace in the town; quite the contrary. On election day a hostile mob of about 150 people, led by a certain Mr Loxdale, in the words of the “Morning Advertiser”, “Broke into, defaced and demolished Mr Chetwynd’s house” and beat up supporters of the Whig government. 18 people were arrested for this outrage, but rioters threatened to pull down the town gaol if any of their people were locked up! The rioters were eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey, but, in the words of the writer, “Mr Chetwynd forgave them, which was probably wise”. There were disturbances elsewhere in the county. In Lichfield, Gower found the voters “insolent to a degree you cannot conceive”, and appealed to the government to send in troops. In Burton, twelve men beat up a soldier, but were acquitted at their trial. Huge riotous demonstrations by Jacobite supporters marked the Lichfield races that year, with many wearing tartan to show sympathy with the Scots rebels: Gower’s son was beaten up, and the Duke of Bedford was attacked with a horse-whip. Great play was made of having a fox, dressed in a miniature army coat, hunted by hounds in tartan. Trouble continued in Stafford: locals jeered at the soldiers, calling them “monkeys”, and in June 1749, soldiers in the town attacked people wearing the Jacobite badge of a white rose; swords were drawn and shots fired. One local man badly beat up a government excise officer: he was arrested, but acquitted at his trial.
Lichfield’s most famous son, Dr Johnson, was a Tory and a Jacobite. When, many years after these events, James Boswell expressed his surprise at meeting a Whig in Staffordshire, Johnson replied, “Sir, there are rogues in every county”. Discussing his great dictionary, where he defined the word “renegade” as “one who deserts to the enemy”, Johnson said, “I added, “Sometimes we say a Gower”, but the printer struck it out!”

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