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CASE OF EAST RETFORD-STATE OF PARTIES.
The Clare Election and the “East Retford Question" are minute causes from which unexpected and remarkable political consequences have resulted. By the first event Catholic Emancipation has been unquestionably prematurely, though in good time, brought about; by the second, an administration was broken up, and Cabinet measures imposed on the king, which ultimately accomplished the settlement of a great national agitation originating in the unjust and antiquated disabilities of his Roman Catholic subjects.
It does not require the gift of prophecy to foretell that the East Retford Question, now again adjourned to the next session of parliament, is destined to be the causation of other important political events; and it will infallibly revive the public attention, and more especially that of the populous and wealthy unrepresented towns of the United Kingdom, to the state of the representation, and to the possibility of amending the House of Commons, by the extension of the elective franchise to such towns as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, and Glasgow.
An intellectual revolution is in active progress and operation, which no monarchies or aristocracies can extinguish. Knowledge is the great principle of ignition, which, combining with wealth and population, illuminates the political atmosphere of England and Europe. Political institutions will receive the benefit of the light, however the incumbents of places, pensions, and sinecures, may vainly try to shut their eyes to it, for they can no more resist it than the midnight owl by his screams can prevent the dawn of the rising sun. PUBLIC OPINION has become a fourth estate of the constitution; we live to see John Lord Eldon (as Er-Chancellor) lamenting and exposing the abuses of the Courts of Equity, and Lords Winchilsea and Chandos praying for parliamentary reform!
The little borough which gave birth to the “East Retford Question” (which involves the right of the large unrepresented towns to the elective franchise) has thus gained a notoriety which will justify a few antiquarian researches into its political origin and conduct.
East Retford is a borough, market town, and parish, in the hundred of Bassetlaw, in the county of Nottingham. It is situated near the river Idle, 145 miles from London, and contains about 450 houses and 2000 inhabitants. Its representative history informs us that it first sent members to parliament in the 9th of Edward II., but never returned again till the 13th of Elizabeth, when representatives were a second time summoned, though by the Journals (April 6, 1571) the legality of the writ appears to have been questioned. The usual misdemeanours were soon commenced at the succeeding elections of its members. In 1700, the bailiffs of the borongh, partisans of two can
. didates, in a severe contest, began the system of disfranchising many legal voters and enfranchising for present purposes many not entitled to vote, which with other “undue practices” brought their worships before a committee of the House of Commons. An election committee JUNE, 1829.
on that occasion reported that the right of election was in the burgesses being freemen, including non-resident as well as resident burgesses, and thus established at once the nucleus of future and incurable corruption and expense. This determination in favour of the cause of non-resident voters was come to by the House of Commons, notwithstanding the following custom and ordinance of the borough, made in 1624_" for disabling the burgess to vote at any election
or elections whatsoever within the borough, who shall remove his dwelling out of the borough, and continue so for one whole year, provided in case he did return again, and live within the borough, he should vote, while he lived therein."
Many succeeding elections were the costly and corrupt scenes of severe local contest and disputed returns. The municipal government of the town is vested in that excellently adapted machinery of an English election and close borough—a corporation. The component parts of this patent machine consist, in the present case, of twelve aldermen, from whom the senior bailiff must be annually chosen ; the junior bailiff from amongst the freemen, who is an alderman during his year of office, makes the golden number of thirteen. Such an establishment, in England, necessarily creates a demand for a Patron-in other words, a purchaser of elective franchises. The demand usually finds a supply, which, in the case of East Retford, has been provided by the “ NEWCASTLE FAMILY,” the three last Dukes of that name having been successively High Stewards, and the corporation basking of course « under the influence of their Graces.
A century since, the number of freemen, “ honest and true," did not exceed 50. When the numbers were thus limited, the machine was neither very troublesome nor extremely costly. Woe then to the poor opponent of a noble patron. But in the passage of time the free commonalty quadrupled, and its “ political character" became essentially changed ; in plain language, the freemen discovered their intrinsic value, they went to market themselves. This period, in the life of a political borough of small dimensions, is eventful and anxious. Great and violent are the struggles between the patron and dependents; the slave bursting his manacles is not more to be dreaded, than the infant resolution of the freemen to shake off the yoke of patronage.
The first effort of independence was made by the freemen in 1768, who invited Sir Cecil Wray, a neighbouring country gentleman, and a member of the Bill of Rights' Society to represent them; and he was returned in opposition to the Duke of Newcastle and the corporation. In 1790, the worthy old Major Cartwright was invited, and would have been returned by the majority of voters, but his stern commonwealth principles would not submit to the ad valorem practice, which even with independent members was the consideration of a seat. Sir John Ingleby, a gentleman of less scrupulous peculiarities, was returned in the Major's interest. In 1796, the “independent party," (or salesmen in their own right) for the first time returned two members. This offence against the hereditary right of the Dukery required a cunningly devised remedy, and thereupon the creatures of the Corporation had recourse to the expedient of manufacturing thirty-eight honoráry freemen to restore the majority of his Grace at future elections. The bailiff, aldermen, and leet juries, were all selected from this new body of freemen. Long and expensive law proceedings were the result, under the aid and protection of Mr. Bowles, the London Banker. The question of the legality of the creation of honorary freemen was brought before the court of King's Bench, by Quo Warranto; they were adjudged to be illegal, and five aldermen, and the whole body of honorary freemen were dispossessed of their usurped honours and privileges. At the succeeding election of 1802, Mr. Bowles, the champion of the civil rights of this rotten borough, was a candidate with Mr. Bonham, when the base ingratitude of the electors returned the nominees of the Duke of Newcastle, or rather of the Duchess of Newcastle,– Mr. Robert Crawford, the brother of her Grace's husband, Colonel Crawford, being returned with Mr. Jeffray. The price of votes now rose from the maximum (of sixty years' custom) of forty guineas to one hundred and fifty! The return was unsuccessfully disputed. In 1807, the “independent" party again accomplished a moiety of their independence, that is to say, the right of selling themselves; and in 1812, they finally worked out their political freedom, and have been ever since notoriously purchased by the highest bidder, or the most accomplished electioneers, who could contrive to obtain their plebeian graces. A hand bill concerning £10,000 in the house of Coutts and Co., or rumours of a letter of credit to the Retford Bank, were always sufficient introductions to any who aspired to the honour of representing East Retford. Strangers never heard of before, were alike acceptable with wealthy neighbours, and if returned and never heard of afterwards, was a matter of no moment to the worthy electors, provided all accounts were settled, and opulent successors, to the number of four, presented themselves at the next dissolution of Parliament.
Such was the ancient character of this immaculate borough to the period of the last election in 1826. It appears by the Journals of the House of Commons, that the committees of that House have been occupied no less than seven times for several weeks together, within the last century, in determining what constitutes a freeman in this little borough, and have left the question at last as much open to contention and litigation as they found it. It is not yet decided whether the son of a freeman born out of the borough has an equal right to be admitted with the son of a freeman born in the borough, upon a claim of birth-right (the septennial annuity of forty guineas); nor whether the apprentice to a journeyman shoemaker, which description of persons constitutes a majority of the electors, has the same right to his freedom as the apprentice to a master shoemaker, upon a claim of servitude. To the empire this is a legal question of little moment; “like master like man,”—the leaven pervades the whole body.
It is thus our political Pharisees canvass : My good fellow I will not talk about money; I come here to do that which is right and just*.” It is a singular proof of the fanaticism of religion, by Hume described
a principle the most blind, headstrong, and ungovernable, by * Canvass conversation of Sir Henry Wright Wilson. See Minutes of Evidence, No. 2, p. 55.
which human nature can possibly be actuated,” that this universal corruption was never suspended in East Retford, except by a party who under No Popery excitement absolutely, resisted the bribes of a Pro-Catholic candidate! We wonder that this remarkable argument in favour of Catholic disabilities escaped the observation and logic of the new convert to parliamentary reform, Lord Winchilsea.
To return to the “ East Retford Question,” our readers will probably remember that at the last election in that borough, Sir Robert Dundas and Mr. Wrightson were the successful candidates, against Sir Henry Wright Wilson; the respective numbers on the poll being 118, 120, and 53. Sir H. W. Wilson petitioned against the return; the seleet committee appointed to try and determine the merits of which reported, May 1, 1827, a void election; and that the sitting members had been guilty of treating. A voluminous report of the evidence was subsequently communicated to the Commons, and printed, consisting of one hundred and ninety-five closely printed folio pages. It is tolerably well known that election commiitces of the House of Commons are extremely finical in their admission and discrimination of evidence, and equally delicate in their reports, when the verdict is a Scotch one, not proven. The record of the evidence above alluded to, proves, to men of common understandings, that the whole body of East Retford electors, was, with an occasional exception, tainted from its birth; that it inherited corruption, and that its chronic complaints were incurable. Mr. Peel, the most fastidious judge of the House, in his “judicial character," denounced the impurities of the Nottinghamshire shoemakers; nor do we think that the wit of Sheridan with all his predilections for his Staffordshire Crispins could have justified this last transaction.
The frailties of this sinful borough were specially brought under the notice of the House of Commons by the following two resolutions in the Report of the Select Committee ::
Resolved, That the Committee consider it their duty to direct the serious attention of the House to the corrupt state of the borough of East Retford. It appears to the Committee, from the evidence of several witnesses, that at elections of burgesses to serve in Parliament for this borough, it has been a notorious, long-continued, and general practice for the electors, who voted for the successful candidates to receive the sum of twenty guineas from each of them, so that those burgesses who voted for both the members returned, have customarily received forty guineas for such exercise of their elective franchise. It further appears to the Committee, that an expectation prevailed in the borough, that this custom would be acted upon at the last election, although they have no sufficient proof that such expectation was encou-raged by the candidates then returned."
Resolved, That the chairman be requested to move, that this Report, with the evidence taken before the Committee, be printed ; and that the Speaker do not issue his writ for the return of two burgesses to serve in parliament for the said borough of East Retford, until the same shall have been taken into the consideration of the House."
Mr. Western, was the Chairman of the Select Committee on the peti
tion, but Mr. Tennyson, who had taken a particularly active part in the Committee, was deputed, we believe, to call the special attention of the House to the consideration of the above report, and introduced it by an excellent speech on the 11th of June, 1827*. We shall now proceed to lay before our readers a short recapitulation of the various motions and divisions, which have followed the debates in the House of Commons on the “ East Retford Question.”
On the 11th of June, 1827, the order of the day “for the consideration of the special report from the East Retford Election Committee!' being read, -Mr. Tennyson moved, and, after discussion, the House of Commons resolved—“That the corrupt state of the borough of East Retford required the serious attention of the House.” On the same day, Mr. Tennyson obtained leave to bring in a bill“ for excluding the borough of East Retford from electing burgesses to serve in Parliament, and to enable the town of Birmingham to return two representatives in lieu thereof."
On the 22nd of the same month, this bill was read a second time, but in consequence of the approaching prorogation, the subject was postponed to the next session; and on the 29th of June, the issue of the writ to East Retford was suspended accordingly.
On the 31st of January, 1828, the bill was again brought in; and on the 25th of February was read a second time and ordered to be committed : several witnesses were then summoned to attend the committee on the 3d of March.
On the 3rd, 4th, and 7th of March, the committee examined evidence in support of the bill, and heard counsel against it.
On the 10th of March, the committee went through the bill, pro formâ, and reported it to the House.
On the 21st of March, Mr. Tennyson, having stated and commented upon the evidence, moved,—That the bill be recommitted, on the ground that the case against the borough had been established. The House agreed to the motion ; but on the question, that the Speaker should leave the chair, Mr. Nicholson Calvert moved, “That it be an instruction to the committee, that they have power to make provision for the prevention of bribery and corruption in the election of Members to serve in Parliament for the borough of East Retford, by extending the right of voting to the forty-shilling freeholders of the hundred of Bassetlaw.” After debate, the House agreed to the instruction, Ayes
36 Mr. Tennyson afterwards moved the postponement of the committee from time to time, on the ground that,-several Members having agreed to the instruction voted on the 21st of March, because it was proposed by the bill in progress for disfranchising the borough of Penryn, to transfer the elective franchise from that borough to Man
* Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, New Series, Vol. XVII., p. 1200.