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Monday, 26 April 2010

Election Fever III

As the election race hots up, we should perhaps be grateful that electioneering has calmed down somewhat since Regency times. In Chester, the Exchange was often the focus of ‘disgraceful scenes’ in which ‘all the low ribaldry, coarse wit, and vulgarism’ of the populace was vented on respectable citizens. The hustings for the city elections were erected at the Exchange. Chester historian Joseph Hemingway commented that :‘many a broad and uncourteous joke has been played off, by our city wits of the lower grade, during those scenes of ardent conflict, when every tinker and cobler (sic) thinks himself of as high consequence and importance as any lord of the manor.’ Food and drink flowed freely at election time. The corporation and parliamentary elections were characterised by shameless bribery as rival candidates ‘treated’ the electorate to help win their votes. Edward ‘Teddy’ Hall, an ‘immoveable’ foe of the Grosvenor faction, was completely overcome by the excitement of the 1812 election, and became well known in Chester for his drunken antics.
Image: Plan of the city of Chester, c. 1828. Stranger’s Companion in Chester, 4th edition, c. 1828.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Election Fever II

In Regency Cheshire, I discuss the fight for parliamentary reform in northwest England and look forward in time to the Great Reform Bill crisis. Working class support for parliamentary reform received a great setback following the unsuccessful march of the Blanketeers and the Peterloo Massacre, but pressure for reform continued.
A Reform Committee was set up early in 1831. The extent of the planned reforms, kept top secret until their publication on 1 March, stunned even Whig supporters like the Grosvenors of Eaton. Sixty rotten boroughs were weeded out; over forty boroughs with few voters but several seats had their number of MPs curtailed. Unrepresented towns such as Manchester, Stockport, Macclesfield, Leeds and Stockport were enfranchised. The momentous 1832 elections went ahead with the usual allegations of bribery and vote-rigging. The Chester papers were up to all their old tricks. The Whig Chronicle rallied support for the Grosvenors and their friends; the Courant supported the Tories. Each editor used scurrilous invective against his rival, while supporting his favourite candidates with stomach-churning partiality. (The Chronicle, in a special election supplement, said Lord Richard Grosvenor was like ‘a lion roused from his lair that rises in his might’ while addressing the voters. (Supplement, 14 December 1832.) ) To their eternal credit, the Grosvenors supported reform, even though the demise of pocket boroughs greatly reduced their political influence. You can find out the result of the hard-fought Cheshire election campaigns in Regency Cheshire!

Image: Macclesfield, early 1900s. Etching by Roger Oldham (1871-1916) for Picturesque Cheshire (Sherratt & Hughes, 1903.)

Friday, 16 April 2010

Another book signing for Regency Cheshire!

I am very pleased to announce that I will be signing copies of Regency Cheshire at the Waterstone's store in Knutsford on Saturday 22 May from 11am until 1pm. Knutsford is a lovely historic town and I can't wait to visit it once more.  Look forward to seeing you all on the day!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Book signing for Regency Cheshire!

I'm very pleased to say I will be doing another book signing for Regency Cheshire at Waterstone's on Eastgate Row in Chester on Saturday 29 May, from 2pm until 4pm. I look forward to meeting you all there and having a chat on the day!
Photo of the author © Nigel Wilkes

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Holiday Highlights

We enjoyed a trip to Somerset over the Easter weekend. On our way down we stopped at Ludlow, a beautiful historic town with an interesting castle. It also has many lovely Georgian buildings, including Dinham House, where Lucien Bonaparte stayed during the Napoleonic Wars. In Somerset, we enjoyed a breezy walk to Brean Down Fort, which was built in the 1860s following a French invasion scare.
Another highlight of our visit to the West Country was the Secret World wildlife centre open day, where we saw baby badgers (very noisy!) and some tiny baby squirrels enjoying a bottle feed.
It was nice to get away from the computer for a few days, as I am currently doing lots of work on Stolen Childhoods. Oh, and a reminder for family historians tracing their Liverpool forebears – my feature on Liverpool ancestors has just been published in Discover My Past England.

Images: Dinham House, Ludlow. A ruined searchlight post at Brean Down fort, Somerset. A baby squirrel at Secret World. Photos © Nigel and Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Chester Races

It’s almost time for Chester Races, one of the highlights of the city’s social scene. Sports-mad Regency gentlemen pursued the pleasures of the ‘fancy’ - cock-fighting, boxing, the turf, the chase and so on - with great relish. Horse-racing was immensely popular. The Prince Regent bred horses, and one of his successes was ‘The Smoker,’ a famous Cheshire racehorse run by Sir John Fleming Leicester of Tabley.

Races have been held at the Roodee since about 1539, except during the Civil War and Interregnum. The Stranger’s Companion described the scene at the Roodee in the 1820s: ‘The annual races…commence the first Monday in May, and continue five days, during which all is bustle and gaiety. The ground…is extremely well adapted for the diversion and convenience of the spectators …The races are kept up with true sportsmanlike respectability…when the sport is once begun, nothing can equal the interesting effect which it gives. The people …range themselves one above another on the bank, and give an appearance very like an immense theatre, whilst the wall is surmounted by a large assemblage of fashion and beauty, collected from all parts of the city and neighbourhood.'
One larger-than-life character often seen at Chester Races was 'Mad Jack' Mytton (1796-1834), who lived on seven bottles of port wine a day. Mytton also ran horses at Tarporley Hunt Races, over a new course near Cotebrook in the Delamere Forest. (Tarporley Hunt races, founded c.1776, were held at Crabtree Green until 1815, when Delamere Forest was enclosed). Horse races also took place at Macclesfield, Nantwich, Northwich, and Sandbach; Farndon held flat races until 1803. In Regency times, Knutsford races were ‘remarkable for being honoured with a more brilliant assemblage of nobility and gentry than any other in the county; not excepting even Chester.’ (Cowdroy’s Directory, 1796). You can find out more about the county’s racing scene and ‘Mad Jack’ and his amazing career in Regency Cheshire.
Image: Chester Grandstand (designed by Thomas Harrison) at the Roodee. Stranger’s Companion in Chester, 4th edition, c. 1828.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Election Fever!

The date of the general election has been fixed at last, and no doubt for the next few weeks we will be inundated with political analysis and comment on every TV and radio channel.

Election campaigns in Regency times were positively bloodthirsty affairs. Vote-rigging, bribery, and fistfights between rival supporters were the order of the day. The electoral system was rotten to the core and ripe for reform. Very few people had the vote, only ‘forty shilling freeholders,’ that is, those with property worth forty shillings or more. Parliamentary seats were bought and sold; they were even advertised for sale in the newspapers. There was no secret ballot, so a would-be MP could check whether his money used for ‘treating’ electors was well spent.

Cheshire had four parliamentary seats: two for the county as a whole, and two for the city of Chester. The Cheshire parliamentary seats were carved up between eminent county families. Between 1785 and 1829 Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, John Crewe of Crewe, Davies Davenport of Capesthorne, Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal and the Egertons of Tatton shared the honours pretty equally. Cotton and Crewe were Whigs; Davenport an Independent; Cholmondeley and Egerton were Tories. The all-powerful Grosvenor family of Eaton Hall held at least one but more typically both Chester city seats between 1780 and 1830. The Grosvenors spent over £20,000 on drinks alone for voters during the contentious 1784 city election to grease the wheels for their candidates Wilbraham Bootle and Thomas Grosvenor. 

Chester was notorious for its political in-fighting, and there were frequent riots on its streets during election time. You can read more about election fever in the county during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and some of the colourful characters involved, in Regency Cheshire.
Image: Section of map of planned Parliamentary Divisions for Chester in 1832 by Lt. Robert K. Dawson