Nostalgia: Draining the political “swamp”

Constantine Henry Phipps (1797-1863), 1st Marquess of Normanby, left, and Charles Manners Sutton, Speaker of the Commons, represented Scarborough from 1817-1834.
Constantine Henry Phipps (1797-1863), 1st Marquess of Normanby, left, and Charles Manners Sutton, Speaker of the Commons, represented Scarborough from 1817-1834.

The low-lying carrs and ings at the eastern end of the Vale of Pickering were not the only water-logged lands that needed to be drained at the beginning of the nineteenth century: two hundred years ago there was a growing realisation and conviction that the country, nationally and locally, should not be ruled and run by a minuscule minority of self-perpetuating, self-serving oligarchs. The “swamp” was political, not merely agrarian; and no where in England was that “swamp” more evident and less excusable than in the case of the borough of Scarborough.

On 4 June 1832, immediately after Parliament had passed the Great Reform Act and it had received the royal assent, a bonfire was lit in Newborough Street. That same evening another, even bigger bonfire was fired on the foreshore sands and fed with old ships’ timbers and tar barrels. The following day a unique parade passed down through the town on its way to the shore. Forty-four dolls, each dressed as a member of the Corporation, were buried in a deep hole in South Bay sands.

It was the final public demonstration against a system of municipal government that had operated for the past 500 years in Scarborough. Many previous attempts had been made to wrest control of the Town Hall from the hands of 44 self-elected burgesses and many futile efforts had been made to widen the parliamentary franchise beyond them, but all had failed to cancel or modify the royal charters which were the bases of these extraordinary privileges.

Not even when examples of gross corruption and incompetence were made public had there been a serious move to disestablish Scarborough’s borough status and statutes. For instance, when in the preamble to the Scarborough Harbour Act of 1752 it was bluntly stated: “Whereas great frauds and abuses have been committed in the execution of the several trusts reposed in [Scarborough’s] bailiffs and burgesses”, the only action authorised by Parliament was to remove the Corporation’s responsibility for the new east pier and place it in the care of an independent commission from which members of the Common Hall were excluded. The harbour still belonged to the Corporation and in 1778 the two current bailiffs were admitted to membership of the commission. If the east pier, one of the country’s finest achievements of marine engineering, had been left in the care of the notorious 44, it is very doubtful that it would ever have been built.

However, as the celebrants of June 1832 soon discovered, the Great Reform Act did not abolish or even restrict Scarborough’s Corporation. All it did was to extend the parliamentary franchise for the borough’s two seats in the Commons from the exclusive property of the 44 to all male residents owning property of annual rental value of at least £10, in effect, 508 men of 21 years and upwards.

Even by abysmal contemporary standards, Scarborough’s parliamentary record was scandalous. Between 1715 and 1831, only seven of the 36 elections held in the borough were actually contested. Scarborough’s two seats were effectively in the hands of the Treasury, and of the government’s offices in customs and ordnance, which wielded political power through the aristocratic, landowning families in the district, namely the Fitzwilliams of Malton, the Lords Carlisle of Castle Howard, the Dukes of Rutland and the occupants of Mulgrave castle.

Many of Scarborough’s MPs were not even mouthpieces: the three Osbaldestons of Hunmanby and Hutton Buscel, who occupied one of the places at different times between 1734 and 1790, were “never known to have once spoken in the House”. John Hungerford, a southern Tory lawyer, was elected eight times between 1692 and 1730, the year of his death, even though he had been expelled from the Commons for taking a bribe of 20 guineas from the East India Company. If the Osbaldestons were silent MPs, Hungerford was said to “never spare his lungs”. In 1711 he carried two bills, one for preserving game, the other for curbing excessive gambling.

From 1768 until 1832 Scarborough’s two seats were shared between two families, the Manners and the Phipps. The Manners of Belvoir castle in Leicestershire were at first represented by the Marquess of Granby, once commander-in-chief of the British army and master-general of the ordnance, who died in Scarborough in 1770. He endorsed his illegitimate son, George Manners, who was then succeeded by Granby’s son-in-law, the Earl of Tyrconnel, who held the seat for 22 years. Finally, Charles Manners Sutton (1780-1845), eldest son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who became Speaker of the Commons, “represented” Scarborough from 1817 until 1834. Arguably, he was the most distinguished MP Scarborough has ever had, though that is not the highest praise.

From 1790 until 1832 Scarborough’s other Commons place was taken by a member of the Phipps family of Mulgrave castle. Most of these men encountered no opposition to their election by Scarborough’s 44, who each had two votes. As senior naval and army officers, during the French wars they spent lengthy periods on active service abroad. Constantine Phipps (1797-1863), the last of the line, was considered too clever for the British army, and went into politics and the diplomatic service.

So by 1832 Scarborough had become a guaranteed route to the House of Commons and a stepping-stone to a ministerial career. The Manners and Phipps candidates expected no resistance to their promotion to Westminster. Even as late as 1834, Charles Manners Sutton, Speaker of the House, wrote confidently: “I have no grounds for suspecting, what has never yet occurred, at Scarborough, either opposition or petition.” Such a candid statement illustrates just how confident and complacent at least one of Scarborough’s “representatives” had become.

Nevertheless, though these walk-over candidates had pre-determined places, they were still expected and required to “treat” the town, usually with gallons of drink, not just their 44 electors. Parliamentary elections might be foregone and uncontested, but they were occasions of colossal bribery and drunken orgy. No local man, however wealthy, had hope of breaking the duopoly. John Woodall was the richest and most influential burgess in the borough, but in the election of 1802 he received a derisory seven votes.

[to be continued]