Government and Reform, 1800 – 1850

Government and Reform, 1800 – 1850

In 1800 Northumberland was represented in Parliament by two members, usually from leading county families, elected by a very restricted franchise. Newcastle also had two M.P.s elected by the burgesses (freemen), but in practice they were members of the oligarchy. Morpeth also had two M.P.s, who were nominees of the Howards, Earls of Carlisle. Party labels of Whig and Tory often meant little until election time, and then there was frequently no contest and the seats were split. The 1826 election showed the costs of a contest: in the Northumberland county constituency nearly £250,000 was spent, and T. W. Beaumont of the lead family was said to have spent £1 1,000 in the public houses of Alnwick Ward alone. Two politicians, J. G. Lambton (later first Lord Durham) and T. W. Beaumont, fought a duel on Bamburgh sands after heated words at Alnwick. Law and order in the county was controlled by the magistrates, headed by the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Northum­berland, and responsible to the Home Secretary in London. Newcastle was a separate entity with its mayor and magistrates, who also controlled the river Tyne down to its mouth.

This political structure gave little voice to the middle-class and professional groups who were becoming more significant, and none at all to the working man, and after 1815  a reform movement grew, aided by the economic recession of the post-war years. On Tyneside radical societies of Political Protestants were formed and the Tyne Mercury expressed radical opinion. Although there was much popular support, the leaders were middle-class, with varied ideas on reform. James  Losh, barrister and Tyneside industrialist, was for limited franchise reform, but against the secret ballot, and others of similar outlook included Dr. Headlam the wealthy physician, Turner the Unitarian minister, and Charnley the bookseller. More reformist was John  Fife, a dynamic young surgeon and founder of the Newcastle Eye Infirmary, and on the radical wing, advocating the vote for all men and the secret ballot, were Thomas Doubleday, soap-maker and political economist (now perhaps best remembered for his Coquetdale Fishing Songs), Charles Attwood the industrialist, and the publisher W. A. Mitchell.

The fear of the government, ever mindful of the French experience, Silhouette of Dr. Headlam was that working-class groups would support the radical movement with force. On Tyneside the main working groups with economic bargaining power were the pitmen, the keelmen and the seamen working the colliers, and there was a long history of disputes over wages and conditions of work. There was a major coal strike in 1765 over the annual bond or contract, seamen’s strikes in the 1790s and in 1815,  and numerous keelmen’s strikes over overloading and the employment threat of the new spouts, notably in 1809, 1819, and 1822. There was, in fact, little connection between political activity and these industrial disputes. There were, of course, supporters of radicalism, but there was no organised connection, and for the most part, as Professor N. McCord has said, ‘far from acting for the transformation of existing society, their eyes were fixed on more immediate and more practical concerns’. Government figures like the Newcastle mayor and the Lords Lieutenant usually recognised this, though alarmist magistrates bombarded the Home Secretary with warnings. Extra troops and a naval presence on the Tyne were normally requested during disputes, but the authorities did not simply side with employers and repress strikers. Rather they tried to mediate. Their sympathy was, of course, strictly limited: they tolerated no inter­ference with property, were inclined to prosecute strike-leaders after some disputes, and were willing to use force if no agreement could be reached, as in the 1815 seamen’s strike.

The crisis year of 1819 illustrates these relationships. On 16 August 1 1 people were killed by troops and many injured in a radical demon­stration in Manchester, which became known as the ‘Peterloo massacre’. There was widespread protest, and in Newcastle the local radicals planned a big meeting on the Town Moor for 1 1 October. This unrest coincided with the keelmen’s strike, and 300 ships were idle on the Tyne. The Newcastle mayor, Archibald Reed, called for extra troops and ships, but the mass meeting, chaired by Eneas MacKenzie the bookseller and publisher, went off peacefully, even though Reed estimated 40,000 were there in total. The strike was virtually ignored by all radical speeches. Even the Tory Newcastle Courant thought it had no political content, whilst the Mercury was actually against strikes as restraints on free trade. Reed came under pressure from coal-owners, and so on 14 October he sailed on the steam-packet Speedwell to North Shields with some naval boats, escorting some blackleg keels. When he was in the Northumberland Arms on the New Quay  at Shields, a crowd stoned the keels and packet. Two marines fired and killed a man. The crowd erupted and attacked the inn, and Reed had to escape by the back door. That evening dragoons from Newcastle cleared the streets, but the authorities still tried for a negotiated settle­ment and the strike ended on 22 October. In December, however, the Northumberland and Newcastle Volunteer Cavalry were formed ‘for local protection of property and in aid of the civil power’.

With economic improvement and slightly more liberal policies after 1820, popular support for reform declined until the end of the decade, when the Whig government of Earl Grey, himself a Northumbrian, came into office pledged to moderate reform, and was vehemently opposed by Wellington and most Tories. In Newcastle there were many public meetings to press for reform and an uneasy alliance of Whigs, liberals and Radicals was formed in the Northern Political Union in June 1831, with Losh, Headlam, Fife, Doubleday, and Attwood, but not conservative Whigs like Sir Matthew Ridley. Feelings ran high, and the tension was increased by a bitter miners’ strike that year, and the bitter reaction of employers the next. Opponents of reform like the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Londonderry were vilified, and there was great rejoicing when the Reform Bill was finally passed in 1832. Grey became a hero in the north. The Bill gave the vote to £10 householders in boroughs, and to most farmers in the counties. The constituencies were re-drawn: Northumberland was split into north and south constituencies, each with two members. Newcastle continued with two members, but Morpeth was reduced to one, and a new constituency was created at Tynemouth (as at Gateshead and South Shields).

Many Whigs and moderate reformers had now achieved their Parliamentary goals, and as soon as the Reform Bill was passed, the uneasy alliance of the N.P.U. broke up. John Fife resigned within a week of the new Act. Some reformers now turned their attention to Newcastle’s town government, where a running battle between the oligarchy and wider group of burgesses had been going on since 1829. The burgesses wanted a greater say, and there was a series of riotous guild meetings. In the Christmas 1831 guild meeting they protested against Grainger’s corn market proposals and the ‘interests of a private speculator’ and implied Clayton had a corrupt interest, and the proposals were dropped. In 1832 the burgesses put up a rival mayoral candidate, but the manoeuvres of the oligarchy managed to defeat them. Fife, steward of the   Barber-Surgeons’ company, attacked the ‘vile and corrupt’ corporation and its new Peelite police as ‘the mere tools of a political oligarchy, the instruments of tyranny, and the panderers of corruption’. Fife was given to extreme language, though there was some evidence of leading men like Robert Bell and Clayton getting advantageous leases of town property. Many reformers and Radicals did not join this campaign, however, since they did not think the burgesses a representative group The resident freemen numbered 1,500 to 1,700, and after the Reform Bill 365 were £10 householders, compared with 2,811 non-freemen. At national level there were moves for municipal reform and after a royal commission, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 brought in the household franchise to town government. The Whigs and reformers won town office that year, though Clayton remained as town clerk and symbol of the old system until 1867.

In the late 1830s Tyneside radicalism revived with the national Chartist movement for further Parliamentary reform based on the secret ballot and manhood suffrage. Doubleday revived the N.P.U. in 1838, and though the Chartist movement had wide working-class support, the main Tyneside leaders (apart from Hepburn, the pitmen’s leader) were middle-class radicals, though there was no Whig or liberal support this time. Many meetings were held, addressed by national speakers like Feargus O’Connor. Through the winter into 1839 the Chartist voice became more strident, and especially after the Chartist Petition was rejected in July, there was talk of violence, and a general strike or ‘Sacred Month’ was called for August. Many Chartists were arming, and the North Shields magistrates’ clerks reported later ‘several pikes have been taken from the Chartists and 60 more have been given up voluntarily’. Troops were strengthened in Newcastle and 500 special constables sworn in. When John Fife (ironically the mayor this year) banned a meeting at the Forth ground on 30 July many still turned up, and clashed with the authorities in central Newcastle. Colonel Campbell told the crowd to disperse or ‘his grenadiers would fire upon them’, and Fordyce later wrote ‘the cavalry galloped along the streets, up passages and lanes (around St. Nicholas’s Square), the affrighted people rushing in all directions to find shelter’. The ‘battle of the Forth’ ended in 30 arrests, but not a single serious injury. The August strike (reduced to a few days) was a fiasco and only a few collieries came out. There was no readiness to use force to gain political change and Chartism on Tyneside rapidly declined.

The political reforms since 1800 were in some ways very modest. They gave the vote to the middle-classes and professions in the towns and to the tenant farmers in the county, but nothing to the wage-earners and farm workers. In the county constituencies the same landed families became M.P.s—the Ridleys, Beaumonts, Percies, Liddells, Greys, and Lambtons. Many elections remained uncontested, and Morpeth’s single seat remained in Howard control and saw no election from the Reform Bill until 1874.

The new House of Commons did, however, give some political power to the manufacturers and industrialists who already controlled con­siderable economic power (the new Tynemouth constituency, for example, was largely created to represent the shipping interest), and if there had been no 1832 Bill, men like Fife and Headlam may have been on the side of revolt in 1839. The limited reforms opened up the road to gradual extension of the franchise, and the most remarkable achievement of these years that saw tremendous economic and social change (very visible on Tyneside) was that society managed to avoid polarisation and absorbed change with so little conflict or bloodshed.