To mark Parliament Week (13 -19 November) Abbey House Museum is teaming up with Leeds Libraries to host a session exploring how parliamentary elections in Leeds have changed over the last three centuries, looking at some of the interesting political items in our collections.
Today, the right to vote is something that some may take for granted. However, in the 19th century the franchise was very limited, and hard fought for. Reform Acts in 1832, 1867 and 1884 gradually expanded the number of adults who were eligible to vote. Women had to wait until 1918 to vote, and even then had to be aged 30 or over!
Leeds did not have a sitting MP until after The Great Reform Act of 1832. By then, the town was growing in economic importance. This had been demonstrated in the 1826 election when the prominent Leeds industrialist John Marshall stood for Yorkshire under the patronage of the Whig party. A handbill on display at Leeds City Museum shows how Marshall’s aristocratic opponents attempted to paint this Unitarian and son of a linen draper as an enemy of the Established Church who owned ‘not 20 acres of land in this County!’. His investment of wealth in Foreign Funds was even portrayed as unpatriotic. Marshall’s victory showed how important industrial towns like Leeds were becoming.
In 1832, Leeds gained two MPs for the first time. Following the 1867 Reform Act, this went up to three MPs, and then in 1884 to five MPs. During the 19th century great industrial cities often elected Liberal MPs, and Leeds was no different. In 1880 the town even elected William Gladstone as their MP. As he was also elected for Midlothian, however, he sent his son Herbert instead to represent the Liberal interest in the town– a fact reflected in a commemorative vase produced by Doulton, which is in the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries. The following year, William Gladstone himself received a raucous reception when he visited the town’s Mixed Cloth Hall (now the site of City Square).
Conservative MPs who sat for Leeds included one with a very strong connection to Abbey House Museum: George Skirrow Beecroft, a partner in Kirkstall Forge, who lived at Abbey House in the 1840s and 50s before becoming a Leeds MP in 1857.
Politics excited strong feelings in Victorian Leeds. In common with other big towns and cities, there were agitations by Chartists in Leeds in 1848. Many of their demands would seem reasonable to us today: for example, they demanded universal suffrage (albeit only for men!) and the payment of MPs – but some would have to wait up to 70 years.
One key Chartist demand was the secret ballot. It wasn’t until 1872 that people had the right to keep who they voted to themselves. The prevailing mood was that secretly casting your vote was cowardly. However, in reality, having to declare an allegiance left people open to bribery and intimidation. One fascinating object in the museum collections is a poll book dating from 1841. Poll books listed voters by name, including not only who they’d voted for but also their address and occupation, a very different practice to today!
Some of the most interesting items in the collections of Museums and Galleries and Leeds Libraries are a series of political cartoons from elections held in 1868, 1874, 1880 and 1886. Many of their meanings have been lost in time. Often they caricature the candidates who were standing, playing on personal characteristics or names. In the 1868 election George Meek Carter, a Liberal candidate and former Chartist, is portrayed as a coal merchant (his former occupation), while Admiral Duncombe, the Tory candidate, is often depicted in a nautical setting! Candidates are often shown as prize fighters, or as turns at a show or circus, selling quack medicines and pills.
Other candidates feature as tragic figures. Sir Andrew Fairbairn, who stood down as Mayor of Leeds in 1868 to stand in Parliament not only failed to win but was accused of splitting the Liberal vote. He is depicted in one cartoon as Coriolanus, turning his back on the people of Leeds who have rejected him.
By Patrick Bourne, Assistant Community Curator at Abbey House Museum.