General Elections were every 7 years in 1816, unless the death of a monarch intervened. There was no such election in 1816 but there was a by- election in the City of Liverpool. The incumbent, George Canning, later to be Foreign Secretary and briefly Prime Minister, was obliged to seek re-election because he had taken on a new post as President of the Board of Control which oversaw the East India Company

The population of Liverpool was approaching 100,000 and the city was run by a small oligarchy of men who had made money through trade. There were about 3000 men- Independent Burgesses- who had a vote. This was a very high number in comparison to other areas, but it did not mean that it was more democratic, at least from a modern perspective

Canning’s reluctant opponent in 1816 was Thomas Leyland, one the richest men the city of Liverpool had produced. He gave an indication of his reluctance by sending the Clerk, William Statham, a note on the first morning of polling that he would not be standing, despite already having the written support of 577 Liverpool burgesses. Leyland’s supporters, fully aware of the opportunities that Leyland could offer them from his extensive trade in the East Indies, decided to go ahead with his nomination anyway. Leyland himself was unaware that he had been nominated, and it became more of an attack on Canning than an argument in favour of Leyland. “He is an adventurer, whose father is unknown” said one pamphleteer, making a comment on Canning’s pedigree that was commonplace in 1816.

Leyland’s supporters started their campaign with against placeman and in favour of reform. From a modern point of view he seems a little hypocritical, as Leyland had been a slave trader who has enslaved thousands of Africans by taking them to Jamaica in his ship “The Lottery”, and yes, he had got the money by winning £20,000 on the lottery. Canning’s new position was a cabinet level post which administered India but was also regarded as a sinecure by some members of Parliament. When the previous incumbent the Earl of Buckinghamshire died in February, some MPs asked for the post to be abolished. This explains Leyland’s supporters focussing on placemen; while at the same time envying the influence it gave the holder.

Canning had kissed the hand of the Prince Regent a week before, and this was enough to create hostility from the anti-Tory part of the country. Leyland’s supporters also queried the amount of time he had been in Liverpool, and Canning replied quite reasonably that he had  been the King’s Ambassador in Portugal for 18 months. The fact that Canning was about to spend a lot of money to get an unpaid job to replace one that paid him £8000 a year ( plus £6000 in expenses) tells you a lot about the wealth and power available to those MPs close to the establishment

Leyland’s supporters spent a lot of  money, legally,  on inducements to voters, bribes to journalists and food and beer for the stone throwing mobs that followed Canning around for the four days of the election.

The violence was worse than average, and was reported in the newspapers. Samuel Holme, born in Liverpool in 1801 was a witness to the events (A Victorian Entrepreneur by Samuel and David Holme, Kindle 2011)

“When, during the exciting contest of 1816, Canning was speaking from the balcony of Col Bolton’s house, the opposite party tore up the paving stones at the corner of Slater Street and hurled them at him, the windows of the house were smashed in and the crowd listening to him were in a great state of agitation…many persons were seriously injured during the riots and several persons lost their lives”

To our eyes, this election was undemocratic. A small number of people at the time thought so too. Perhaps the most shocking part was that the election was not particularly noteworthy, except for the rather large numbers of voters and the fact that it was a government minster that was being attacked. It was reported in the newspaper that Canning had spent £10,000 on re-election; it was reported in a couple of lines, with no sense that it was any kind of problem

At the same time that Canning was elected with an electorate of 3000, in the Surrey borough of Gatton, even then no more than a large hillock, Mark Wood was elected unanimously. The electorate consisted of 3 people; Mr Wood; his father and his father’s butler. The family had purchased the seat 1802. They clearly believed in was £90,000 well spent, as did the Lord Monson in 1830 that paid exactly twice that; Gatton was abolished 2 year later as an early victim of Parliamentary reform.

George Canning was duly elected as MP and paid for a carnival performance for the distraction of the poor. However, he had no answer to the distress that was making the people of Liverpool suffer. In response to a plea to help he wrote to his local paper, the Liverpool Mercury (9 August 1816) with his non solution.

“The crisis of any great change in the situation of a country, even a happy change from war to peace, is generally productive of temporary difficulties in many classes of the community. I trust in God that these dificulties may prove temporay, and that in the future the petitioners may find employment and remuaration which their industry and their patience so emiminently deserve….”

Canning was a politician with a reputation as being on the moderate and compassionate side of the Tory party. However, his attitude to the appalling poverty of 1816 was a mixture of prayer, hope and inaction. Does that sound familiar?

Please consider my three books on the Georgian and Victorian Era

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here

Radical Victorians – Some women and men who dared to thing differently. Details here 


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