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August 2019 Item of the Month

The 1826 elections in Northumberland

This bitterly fought election in Northumberland took place before the Reform Act of 1832 which makes it a very interesting study of pre-reform politics. At the time, Northumberland returned two members of Parliament voted for by the 40 shilling freeholders. (Newcastle, Morpeth and Berwick boroughs also each elected two MPs.) It was unusual for the county seats to be so bitterly contested. Campaigning was so expensive that there was usually an agreement that the Whigs would return one candidate and the Tories would return another, but this agreement broke down in 1826.

In February 1826 the sitting Tory MP, Charles John Brandling, died occasioning a by-election. Henry Liddell (eldest son of Lord Ravensworth) announced he would stand for election and it was commonly thought that his opponent for the Tory seat would be the Whig Lord Viscount Howick, the eldest son of Charles 2nd Earl Grey. However, the young Howick withdrew having made a non-competition pact with Liddell for the coming general election. Liddell presumed he would be returned unopposed but another Tory candidate put his name forward. This man was Matthew Bell, nephew of the late MP. Polling began on 21 February and continued until 7 March. Bell received 1,186 votes and Liddell received 1,150.

Four candidates stood in the June general election:

  • Thomas Wentworth Beaumont – the sitting Whig MP
  • Matthew Bell – the newly elected Tory MP
  • Henry Liddell – the Tory candidate defeated in the February by-election
  • Henry George, Lord Viscount Howick – Whig candidate defeated in February and elder son of 2nd Earl Grey

As soon as the list of voters had been published, the local committees of each candidate began to canvass. Voters were visited and promises of support extracted; the candidates made speeches and attended dinners held in their honour; handbills were published and circulated; songs composed; bands hired etc. Evidence of all such activities can be traced in account books such as the one illustrated above. Much of the material circulated would be considered libellous today but was the norm in the 19th century. Key issues of contention were Catholic emancipation which would follow in 1829, and anti-slavery which was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1833.

Polling began on 20 June and continued for the full 15 days. Voters were only allowed to cast their votes at Alnwick and the election agents had to arrange transport and accommodation for all their supporters. This cost a huge amount of money.

Howick resigned on the twelfth day of the poll and advised his supporters to vote for the Tory Bell. This proved decisive as can be seen from the election results – Beaumont lost by just 45 votes, and the Tories took both seats.

  • Liddell 1562
  • Bell 1380
  • Beaumont 1335
  • Howick 977

The election expenses were colossal. It has been estimated that £250,000 (nearly £20m today) was spent, including flags, printing, transport, bands and providing voters and supporters with refreshment - £33 on wine at a single public dinner in Newcastle for example, as shown in the page of accounts above. The Earl Grey Papers and our local printed collections are a rich source for historians of this contest, and include election ephemera such as watch ribands in each candidate’s colours, cartoons, ballads, as well as election accounts, candidates’ correspondence, and canvass and poll books.

The twists and turns of the campaign, including a bloodless duel between Beaumont and Lambton on Bamburgh sands, are described in detail by Margaret Escott’s article on the History of Parliament’s website. Perhaps reading of the disorganisation, rancour, vast campaign expenses, and strange pacts that characterised this campaign will prepare us for the generally anticipated coming general election?

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.