DEMOCRACY IN BARWICK IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. Back to the Main Historical Society page
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Barwicker No 13
March 1989

At the beginning of the 19th. century, the House of Commons was made up of representatives of boroughs and of counties or shires. Each county including Yorkshire elected two "knights of the shire" and each borough two burgesses. In the shires, the electors were freeholders owning property worth two pounds or more a year, the so-called "forty shilling freeholders".

The Yorkshire boroughs were the City of York, Kingston-upon- Hull, Malton, Scarborough, Beverley, Hedon, Knaresborough, Thirsk, Northallerton, Pontefract, Richmond, Aldborough and Boroughbridge. The rest of Yorkshire, including the large towns of Leeds, (adford, Halifax and Sheffield, and not forgetting the township of Barwick, elected only two member. Reform of the system was long overdue.

Two political parties had emerged in the previous century: the Tories, who represented the landowning classes, and the Whigs, who had the support of the factory owners. Party rivalry was not as developed as now and the knights of the shires were often returned unopposed without the expense of an election. There had been no contest for the Yorkshire seats since a by-election in 1741.

William Wllberforce, a Tory, who introduced the bill for the abolition of the slave trade, represented Yorkshire from 1784. In 1796, the Hon. Henry Lascelles, another Tory, who later succeeded his father as Earl of Harewood, was returned as the other M.P. In the election of 1802, Wilberforce and Walter Fawkes, esq. of Farnley Hall, a Whig, were returned unopposed.

In 1807, Parliament was dissolved and a general election was called. Wilberforce was proposed as one candidate and Lascelles decided to attempt to regain his seat as another Tory candidate. Fawkes declined to stand again "because of the duty I owe to a numerous and increasing family". The Whigs found a candidate in Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam (Viscount Milton), the heir of Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth House in West Yorkshire. Milton had only just come of age. Three candidates meant that there would be an electoral contest in the shire for the first time for 66 years and few in the county could remember the previous one.

At that time there was no secret ballot and the names of the voters and how they voted were published. The voters were listed by place 0f residence and the results show that only 17 men of Barwick township voted in this election. The table below lists these electors, their occupations, where their qualifying property was situated (other than Barwick)and how they cast their votes.

Votes for:
Armitage Thomasminer 1
Bramley Christopher gentleman 1
Bell John yeoman1
Clapham John yeoman 1
Dutton Robert farmer (Poppleton)11
Gough William carpenter1
Gill James miller (Marton-cum-Grafton)11
Hodgson James clerk11
Halliday James maltster 11
Jolly Ephraim yeoman 11
Knapton William yeoman 1
Lumb John sawyer 1
Marshall James gentleman (Seacroft)1
Sparling Joseph labourer (Marton-cum-Grafton)1
Stoner Thomas miller 1
Scoles Joseph yeoman (Swillington)1
Whitehead John maltster 11
TOTALS 7 6 10

What manner of men were these 17 voters, out of a total population in Barwick township of about 1400 at that time? The occupations of the voters indicate a surprisingly wide social range, from the Rector, James Hodgson, and the gentry, through the farmers and craftsmen to the labouring classes. By no means all rich and privileged!

The 17 electors were not then the most influential and powerful men in the village. Apart from the Rector, none of the big landowners who introduced the Barwick Enclosure Act of 1796 is included in the list. These men registered their votes in the townships where they lived: Sir Thomas Gascoigne at Parlington, Sir William Mordant Milner at Nun Appleton, James Fox, esq. at Bramham. And what of those men who were leading the religious revolution in Barwick marked by the rapid growth of the Methodist Society at that time? None of the five men from Barwick township who were trustees of the Chapel in 1804, appears on the list, except Thomas Stoner, the miller.

Edward Baines published a book about the election containing speeches, articles and letters, together with several dozen poems which were recited and sung during the "Great Yorkshire Contested Election" as it was described. On 5 May 1807, Milton and Lascelles were to speak at the Leeds Cloth Hall, but although Milton was well received by the Leeds clothiers, Lascelles, the local candidate, was subjected to what he described as "hooting and hissing proceeding from a parcel of hired disaffected ragamuffins", and he had to retire from the hall.

On the 13 May, the candidates were nominated at the County Court in the Castle Yard in York. On a show of hands, the High Sheriff declared Milton and Lascelles elected, but Wilberforce demanded a poll. This began on 20 May and lasted 15 days. One of the issues in the election was the recently abolished slave trade. Both Milton and Lascelles declared their support for the move, although the Lascelles family had been long involved in the trade. Baines said it was "one of the most celebrated contests in the history of electioneering. The real struggle was between Milton and Lascelles for Wilberforce was an old servant in whose election all parties concurred. During the 15 day poll, the county was in a state of the most violent agitation, party spirit being wound up by the friends of the two noble families, and everything being done that money and personal exertion could accomplish; the roads in all directions were covered night and day with coaches, barouches, curricles, gigs, fly-waggons and military carts with eight horses conveying voters from the most remote parts of the county."

Baines also reports that "Richard Bramley, the Mayor or Leeds, imprudently seized a boy who had offended him by crying "Milton for ever", but the populace soon rescued the lad, and so "hustled" the Mayor that he immediately read the Riot Act, called out a troop of horse soldiers and ordered them to scour the streets".

If the electors had voted the straight "party ticket", the Tories would have cast their two votes for Lascelles and Wilberforce, whilst the Whigs would have used one of their votes in support of their candidate only and it would have been said that they had "plumped" for Milton. In fact the good voters of Barwick showed a surprising independence of mind and freedom from party shackles. Ten only of the electors voted along strict party lines; seven voters plumping for Milton and three voting for both Lascelles and Wilberforce. Three others plumped for Lascelles and only one, Thomas Stoner, the Barwick miller and leading Methodist, voted for Wilberforce only. Wilberforce however received more cross party support as three electors voted for him and for Milton, the Whig candidate. The result in Barwick then was Milton ten votes, Wilberforce seven votes, and Lascelles, in spite of or because of his local connections, was bottom of the poll with six votes. Milton and Wilberforce were the choices of Barwick.

In the county as a whole, 23,007 electors voted: Wilberforce polled 11,806 votes, Lascelles 10,989 votes and Milton 11,177 votes. It was a close run thing, but Wilberforce and Milton were the choices of Yorkshire, as well as of Barwick.

After the result was announced, the victorious Milton was carried in an elegant decorated chair three times round the Castle Yard. Baines reported that "Opposite the George Inn, some wretch threw a tile or brick with excessive violence which had very nearly struck Lord Milton's head, and a vast number of ruffians who foolishly imagined that they could honour Mr Lascelles by disgracing themselves, rushed out of their lurking places in the neighbourhood, and attempted to throw his Lordship out of the chair; in this attempt they fortunately did not succeed, but they did succeed in completely dismantling and stripping the chair of its ornaments ... Lord Milton's friends rallied and the cowardly assailants fled in all directions and sought refuge in their former hiding places."

The contest is supposed to have cost the Earl of Harewood and Earl Fitzwilliam upwards of £100,000 each. Wilberforce had little money at his disposal and had to appeal to his supporters to aid him by transporting his voters to the poll. And so Milton and Wilberforce were elected. Dare we suggest that a good deal of trouble and expense would have been saved and the same result obtained had only the 17 eminently representative voters of Barwick been consulted!

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