Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Staffordshire M.P.s in the 18th century; part 4: Sheridan in Stafford

After the 1780 general election there were no longer any Bagots or Chetwynds in the House of Commons, instead Stafford was represented by a complete outsider. Richard Brindsley Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751, the son of minor literary figure remembered only for being roundly insulted by Dr. Johnson. Richard received a traditional education at Harrow, but from his early years was fascinated by the theatre. He married an opera singer, Elizabeth Linley, in 1773, after fighting two duels with a rival suitor. His first great success was “The Rivals” in 1775, followed by “School for Scandal” in 1777 and “The Critic” in 1779; and in 1776 he bought a share of Drury Lane theatre on the retirement of David Garrick. This brought him in touch with smart society, where he was an immediate success, especially with the Whig leader Charles James Fox and with young Prince of Wales. But the king, George III, quarrelled with the prince and hated Fox and Sheridan, whom he blamed for leading the prince astray into a wild, immoral and extravagant lifestyle. (The king was certainly right in this suspicion!)
At the 1780 general election, with Britain slipping to defeat in the War of American Independence and Fox leading the opposition to Lord North’s government, Sheridan was keen to get into Parliament; and first considered Honiton as a constituency before settling upon Stafford. A contemporary biographer of Sheridan described Stafford as:-
“A place free from all suspicion of ministerial influence, and where the arts of corruption had ever tried, without effect, to undermine the independence of the electors”,
- which sounds good, but then he added:-
“A certain degree of expense, which has for a long time blended itself with the purest proceedings of the electoral system in this county, was found unavoidable”
In other words, it would be necessary to bribe the voters! Sheridan needed the “moderate sum of £1000” to get in. He didn’t have this much money; but fortunately the other opposition candidate, Edward Monkton, was a much richer man, and offered to work alongside Sheridan (remember thatStafford elected 2 M.P.s). The rest of the money he presumably borrowed from his rich friends - and probably never paid them back: he seldom did; because although a man of great and varied talents, Sheridan was by any definition an utter rotter in his personal life!

The Stafford electors knew nothing of Sheridan, but he impressed them with his friendly manners and by “enabling them to indulge their sensual inclinations for a moment” - in plain terms, buying them loads of drink! Monkton and Sheridan were duly elected. Their opponents petitioned to have the result overturned on the grounds of bribery, but in the Commons Sheridan was strongly defended by Fox, and the move failed.
In Parliament, Sheridan at once emerged as a brilliant orator and major personality, but in terms of governmental ambitions he had joined wrong side, because after some political confusion William Pitt the younger became Prime Minister at the end of 1783, and Fox’s Whigs were out of power for the next 20 years. This also meant that Sheridan, having given up writing plays and having no access to government money, was in financial trouble for the rest of his life. He and Monkton continued to represent Stafford through to the end of the century, despite a big nationwide swing towards Pitt in the 1784 election.
Politics was an expensive business. Sheridan’s election expenses for 1784 show that he paid the 248 burgesses of Stafford 5 guineas each, having promised to pay them whether they voted for him or not! This cost him £1,302: a huge sum for the time. Over the years until the next election, he spent £57 a year maintaining his house in Stafford, and another £86 a year on various other local expenses, charity subscriptions and so forth: the biggest single item being “ale tickets” (that is, free drinks for his constituents) at £40 a year: the voters of Stafford were clearly a thirsty bunch!
After the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789, Fox and Sheridan came in for wildly libellous attacks on their sympathy for the French. It was even suggested that they planned to execute King George III! Monkton by contrast became a supporter of Pitt’s government. In the end, inevitably, Sheridan went bust, had to abandon Stafford, and died a bankrupt in 1816. But at least he had added colour to the political scene, both in Stafford and nationally, and is unlikely ever to be forgotten.

(This is Chetwynd House in Stafford, which Sheridan rented during his time as Member of Parliament for the town. The house had been ransacked by a mob in a riot during the election of 1747. In the 20th century it became a Post Office, and is now a restaurant)

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