Alongside biographies of 2,591 MPs, the House of Commons 1832-68 project is also researching and writing articles on the 401 English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh constituencies in existence during this period. This blog takes this constituency as an example to explain some of the key features of our constituency articles, and how they might be of use to those interested in the history of a particular locality. This blog post is cross-posted from the History of Parliament local history blog series. History of Parliament will be participating in History Day 2020.
Like most English boroughs in our period, York elected two MPs. Our constituency articles begin by setting out some of the key statistics relating to a constituency: the size of its electorate; its population; its boundaries; its area; the qualification required for the franchise; and what form its local government took. York had long been a parliamentary borough and its electorate after 1832 therefore included not only the £10 householders, who had been given the franchise by the 1832 Reform Act, but also a significant number of ‘ancient rights’ voters who retained the franchise, provided that they continued to live within seven miles of the polling place. In York’s case, these ‘ancient rights’ voters were the freemen, who significantly outnumbered the new £10 householders: in 1832 there were 531 £10 householders and 2,342 freemen in the electorate. Even as late as 1862, freemen made up 56% of York’s electors. This helps to explain why it was among the constituencies with the highest proportion of working-class voters: more than a third in 1865-6. Freemen were often blamed for the corruption which was prevalent in York’s elections in the 1830s, but an 1835 inquiry found that the new £10 householders were far from immune to bribery.
All our constituency articles provide an overview of the economic and social make-up of the constituency. Although York’s population continued to expand, the commissioners who advised on its future parliamentary boundaries in 1831-2 noted that, with neighbouring towns growing rapidly due to the textile industry, it was ‘no longer a northern metropolis’. There was, however, some manufacturing, including of linen, iron, chemicals, glass, combs, carpets, gloves and lace, as well as a product for which York became renowned: confectionery. There were three major firms in existence during this period, two of which remain familiar names today: Joseph Terry and Co., Rowntree’s, and M. A. Craven and Son. A small proportion of York’s population was employed in agriculture and market gardening, including 400 people in chicory farming in 1851.
York remained significant as a market town and administrative centre, being the home to Yorkshire’s general assizes (although assize business for the West Riding was transferred to Leeds in 1864). It also had a focal position in England’s railway network, being at the junction of the York and North Midland railway and the Great North of England railway. The so-called ‘railway king’, George Hudson, played a prominent part in York’s municipal and parliamentary politics on the Conservative side, although he was himself MP for Sunderland, 1845-59. Our articles also give details about the different religious groups within each constituency. In York’s case, the 1851 religious census showed that Anglicans made up 43.7% of adult attendances at church or chapel, with Nonconformists slightly less (42.5%) and Catholics comprising 9.2%. Our economic and social profiles conclude by listing the newspapers published in each constituency: their reports are a key source for our research.
After looking at what might be termed the ‘anatomy’ of the constituency, our articles then examine its electoral history, looking at the nine general elections which took place during our period, as well as any by-elections. In York’s case, there were two by-elections, both caused by the death of an MP: Samuel Adlam Bayntun died of scarlet fever in 1833 after less than a year in the Commons, while Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke, one of the small number of non-white MPs in our period, committed suicide in 1848.
York’s election results indicate how closely balanced the parties were, with one Liberal and one Conservative being elected for the borough at every general election from 1835 onwards. Such ‘shared representation’ was not unusual in the double-member seats which made up the bulk of England’s constituencies during this period. The Conservatives – whose MPs were drawn from Yorkshire’s landed gentry – were generally happy with this state of affairs, only putting forward a second candidate on two occasions. On the Liberal side, however, it prompted divisions between those willing to share the representation and those who thought the party should try to win both seats. This also reflected a fault-line within the local Liberal party between Whiggish or ‘moderate’ Liberals and the ‘advanced’ or Radical wing. The latter were keener to challenge the Conservatives for the second seat, but performed less strongly at the polls.
A key source of disagreement between these two sections was parliamentary reform, and a Chartist candidate, Henry Vincent, stood in 1848 and 1852, polling almost 900 votes on each occasion. Not until 1859 did the Liberals put aside their differences to field two candidates standing together in coalition, but they still failed to win the second seat. Like the Conservatives, their candidates mainly came from outside York. In our period, it was not until 1865 that York elected one of its own townsmen, George Leeman, as an MP. Our constituency articles explore in detail the factors which influenced the choice of candidates and the outcome of each election, and end with a brief summary of the constituency’s history after 1868.