Books on Hertfordshire

 

The Story of the English Towns

St Albans

by William Page

Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920

 

 

 

Pondyards - The House of Sir Francis Bacon

Political Corruption

The scandals regarding the parliamentary elections at St. Albans which became so notable a feature in the later history of the borough seem to have had their origin in the seventeenth century. For over a hundred years the parliamentary representation was mainly in the hands of two families: the Jennings of Holywell House, St. Albans and Water End, Sandridge, and their descendants the Churchills and Spencers on the one side, and the Grimstons of Gorhambury on the other. In 1628 Sir John Jennings, a strong puritan, and Robert Kirkham were returned members for the borough, and Jennings continued to serve with Edward Wingate, a parliamentary soldier, all through the Long Parliament. Jennings' place was taken in 1659 by his son Richard who sat for St. Albans until his death in 1668. Richard was the father of the celebrated Sarah who married John Churchill, afterwards Duke of Marlborough, Queen Anne's great general. Sarah Jennings was born on 5 June, 1660, probably at Holywell House, St. Albans, and was baptized at St. Albans Abbey church twelve days later. She spent most of her girlhood at Holywell House or Water End and was frequently there after her marriage. It was to Holywell House that she and her husband retired after his imprisonment in the Tower on an unproved charge of conspiracy against William III in 1692; and here on the day after their arrival Prince George and Princess Anne of Denmark drove down to visit them. The Prince and Princess were so charmed with Holywell House that they spent some time there with the Malboroughs a year or two later. The Duchess was sincerely attached to St. Albans and was never tired of praising its air. In 1714 she wrote that however ordinary Holywell House might be, she would not part with it for any house she had seen in all her travels.

During the early years of their married life the Churchills were too much occupied with intrigues at court to give any attention to local affairs, so that the Whig interest of the Grimston family prevailed at the parliamentary elections and Samuel Grimston succeeded Richard Jennings as member for St. Albans. On the accession of James II. a great endeavour was made by the Crown to capture the municipalities in the Tory interest. The town charters were surrendered under pressure, and the members of the corporation, usually with Whig leanings, were disfranchised and in their place Tory mayors and corporations were nominated under the new charters. At St. Albans the charter was surrendered in 1685 and under the new one, John Sellioke, the ardent Tory innkeeper of the Red Lion, was reappointed mayor, and the aldermen were selected for their adherence to the Tory party. It was apparently difficult to find inhabitants with this qualification as the majority of the new aldermen thus chosen lived outside the borough and had no interest in it. Viscount Churchill, as John Churchill had become, always on the side where his interest lay, was made high steward of St. Albans in the place of Sir Harbottle Grimston and stood as Tory parliamentary candidate with Thomas Docwra, a local landowner, against Sir Samuel Grimston, son of Sir Harbottle, and Sir Thomas Pope Blount, the Whig candidates. There was great excitement in the town over this election, the Whigs being apparently the favourites. The mayor threatened that if his fellow innkeepers did not support Lord Churchill their licences would be revoked and Lord Churchill's dragoons would be quartered on the town. On receiving the new charter from Lord Churchill, the new aldermen retired to a tavern and lighted a bonfire to attract the attention of the people. Shouts were raised 'Who dare cry a Grimston or a Blount' and those who did were promptly locked up. On the day before the election the mayor started to pack the electorate with new freemen, a practice which for a long time brought discredit on the town. He made forty-six freemen on whom he could depend and refused to admit other townsmen to their freedom under King James' charter, telling them 'that in good time if they behaved themselves well they might be made free.' On the day of the election Lord Churchill's place was taken by his relative George Churchill, and he and Docwra were declared duly elected on a poll of under 100 votes, half of which were given by strangers, instead of a very much larger poll. Lord Edward Seymour, when the House of Commons met, called attention to the corruption which had been generally practised at the elections, but so enthusiastically loyal were the members that he could not find a seconder to his motion. The members soon began, however, to distrust James, and his demands for the employment of Roman Catholic officers having received a flat refusal, parliament was prorogued and later dissolved.

With the ascent of William and Mary to the throne the charter of James n. was annulled. Churchill, who had become Earl of Marlborough, had deserted James and joined the then popular Whig party. Thus the interests at St. Albans of the Churchills and Grimstons were united and George Churchill and Sir Samuel Grimston were returned in the Whig interest to the Parliament of 1689 and continued to represent the town until the death of the latter in 1700. At the election of 1701 the Churchills had again become Tory and in order to procure the election of George Churchill and John Gape, the Earl of Marlborough induced the mayor, Edward Seabrook, to make a number of freemen without the consent of the aldermen. The mayor, no doubt trusting to be exonerated from blame by the Earl's influence, did as he was desired. Unfortunately for him, however, the Earl went abroad and Lady Marlborough, having leanings towards the Whigs, left him to be prosecuted and convicted for his unlawful action, and later to be removed from the office of alderman. In 1705 Sarah, now Duchess of Marlborough, who seems to have taken up the management of the electioneering campaign, went down to St. Albans especially to support George Churchill and Admiral Kelligrew and to oppose the return of John Gape, the Tory candidate. In this she was unsuccessful, although Gape was shortly afterwards unseated for bribery and corruption. He in turn had the satisfaction of unseating his opponent on a like charge in 1714. Although it was thought there would be no real opposition to the election of Mr. Lomax in 171O, the Duke of Malborough wrote to the Duchess begging her 'not to be at St. Albans neither before nor at the election fearing you might meet with some insult, which would be a mortification to me.' At the election of 1722 it appears that the mayor, William Carr, had promised his influence to Lord Grimston and Joshua Lomax, the Whig members of the previous parliament, but the Duchess of Marlborough, who now lived much at Holywell House, seems peremptorily to have ordered him to give his interest to the Tory candidates William Clayton and William Gore. Knowing that Lord Grimston and Lomax were gentlemen 'that deal much in the town and pay well' the mayor despaired of 'putting up two strangers with any success.' At the same time he felt himself compelled to obey the commands of the Duchess. He held a court at midnight a few days before the election to take counsel what could be done, and, as a result, being postmaster he sent post horses into the adjacent counties and towns to bring in any who were willing to vote for the Tory candidates, to be made freemen gratis. By this means a large number of voters was secured. Further he threatened the Whig partisans by men armed with clubs and staves who assaulted and knocked down good subjects, crying "Down with the Rumps! Down with the Roundheads! No King George's Justices!" The aldermen declared that the inhabitants should no more have the liberty of electing burgesses, they boasted they had made about 300 honorary freemen and would make a thousand more if necessary. These tactics, however, were soon found to be dangerous as parliament would be compelled to acknowledge their illegality. At the last moment therefore a direct form of bribery was instituted and every inhabitant and legal freeman who would promise to vote for the Tory candidates was offered a sum to be agreed upon, varying apparently from ten to eighteen guineas. The bribery was all done openly, a public office of bribery being fixed at the town clerk's house and the sums agreed upon paid by the Duchess of Marlborough. Although Lord Grimston and Lomax endeavoured to unseat their opponents they were unsuccessful. It was probably about this election that a story is told of the Duchess taking a somewhat ungenerous advantage of a poetical weakness of Lord Grimston. In early life he had written a play called "Love in a Hollow Tree," which Pope and Swift satirized mercilessly. Lord Grimston withdrew the play from sale but the Duchess reprinted it with a frontispiece showing an ass wearing a coronet and an elephant dancing on a tight rope, which she dedicated to the Right Sensible the Lord of Flame. This she distributed among the electors of St. Albans bringing her opponent into considerable ridicule in a manner that was typical of the time.

The system of bribery once started naturally increased in costliness, and in 1727 Sarah Duchess of Marlborough declared that as without spending and bribing to the amount of a thousand pounds she could not expect her grandson to be elected, she was determined to have no more to do with the election. Two years later, however, she proposed' to set up' her grandson John Spencer, who afterwards became Earl Spencer, and contended that if Lord Grimston 'set up' his son it would be very hard upon her family as both families at the time were running the Whig interest. At all these elections the practice was continued of packing the constituency with freemen admitted gratis for the purpose of the election.' This system reached its height in 1743 when a hundred or more strangers were thus admitted. Considerable indignation and outcry were raised by these tactics and it was considered advisable to abandon them in future. The more direct method of bribery was adopted as the alternative at the election of 1743 for the parliament which sat under Pelham's 'Broad Bottom Administration' during the anxious time of the Jacobite Revolt of 1745.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Tory or later the Conservative party at St. Albans settled down under the leadership of the Grimston family while the Whigs or Liberals put themselves under the Spencers. The electors, independent when there was no question of bribery, would have no truck with the peerage. At the political dub, apparently in the Whig interest, the members boasted in 1785 that their club, being established on true constitutional principles,' refused to admit Lords Salisbury, Spencer, Fairford or any peer into its society. The members however were not, it appears, averse to drinking a peer's health when he provided the means for doing so.

Notwithstanding the closer touch between members of parliament and their constituents bribery increased rather than diminished. In 1796 one Waddington spent, it is said, 5000 in trying to win over the constituency to the newly formed radical party. His method, after the custom of the time, was to meet the mayor and about a hundred and fifty of the electors at dinner at the Bell and Red Lion Inns, where it is said he had a very good reception. Every three weeks afterwards for some time supper was provided at these inns for all the electors who cared to regale themselves at his expense. But his efforts were of no avail and he apparently lost heart and retired from the contest.

Party feeling ran very high at the election of 1807 which brought in the long Tory administration under Lord Liverpool. Upon the return of James Walter Grimston and Joseph Ralsey, the Tory candidates, Earl Spencer and Viscount Althorp immediately resigned their offices of aldermen and Earl Spencer that also of high steward. Bribery as usual was rampant, one elector was in expectation of the whole twenty pounds' for opening his house: the term used for giving his vote, which he was prevented from doing 'by his own neglect or absence,' but Lord Verulam hoped he would consider a gratuity of fifteen pounds as 'an ample remuneration for his friendship.' Both parties continued to bribe openly and without shame. It became so much a part of the electioneering campaign that it was difficult to recognize political parties, the inhabitants being almost solely influenced by pecuniary motives and 'split their votes between candidates of opposite political opinions. '

The influence of the Spencer family declined as the nineteenth century advanced, but the liberals were still strong and comprised some of the gentry and most of the nonconformist tradesmen. On the other hand the conservative interest of the Verulam family was maintained and continued to return one member at each election up to the Reform Act of 1832. There was however no strict party discipline bodies there was another of no fixed politics called the Third or Contest Party which was invariably bribed. The practice of these electors was at the time of an election to hang out keys in different parts of the town as a sign that a candidate would be brought down 'to open the borough.' There was a settled price for each vote which was recognized by both parties. 'A plumper received two guineas and each split vote one guinea,' which was paid openly as a matter of course by the political agents who took round a bag of money from house to house doling out its contents. At the election of 1841 the bribery oath, it is stated, was taken by every voter who came to the poll and yet it was estimated that upwards of 4000 was spent in bribery.

This corrupt state of affairs continued through the first half of the nineteenth century, but it could not long survive the Reform Act of 1832, which gave the right of election to some 63 freemen, 66 inhabitants paying scot and lot, and 354 10 householders, thus making bribery more expensive and more difficult. Things came to a head at the election of 1850 when bribery was so flagrantly committed by the agents of both parties that a petition was presented to the House. The election committee to which the petition was referred was unable to make due inquiry owing to the absconding of some of the principal witnesses. They came to the conclusion however that bribery was the result of a system which had been the ordinary accompaniment of every political contest. A Parliamentary Commission was subsequently appointed which sat from October, 1851, to the end of January, 1852. It appears from the Report of the Commission that some of the electors 'had been up in London hawking the borough about for sale.' They approached Alderman Carden who declared he would only consent to stand on 'purity' principles and stipulated that no money should pass for the purpose of influencing votes. The alderman himself seems to have adhered to these principles, but not so his committee. Mr. Jacob Bell, the successful candidate, on the other hand, knew that money was being advanced on his behalf for the purpose of bribery and that he owed his election to bribery. The cost of the elections since the Reform Act, it was stated, was more than 37,000 of which two-thirds or about 24,600 was spent in bribery. The com­ missioners concluded their report by declaring' that the practice of bribery at election of members to serve in Parliament for the borough of St. Albans hath long prevailed in the said borough and that bribery to a great extent was systematically com­ mitted there at the last election for a member to serve in Parliament.' As a result of the finding of the Commission, St. Albans was in 1852 disfranchised as a borough and attached to the western division of the county in which it has since remained.

 

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