Election Fever

35

William Hogarth – Polling Day

Elections of one sort or another have been constantly in the news for the past few years and the prospect of yet more hangs above our heads like the sword of Damocles. So, as my genealogical side took over, I decided to look back at the voting record of my ancestors and try and discern what were their motives or priorities in the way in which they cast their ballots.

Of my immediate forebears I can say little, other than than guess how they voted and why; I’m fairly sure I know how my parents cast their vote from conversations with them; my grandparents less so. Beyond that all is a mystery caused by the secret ballot which was introduced in the UK in 1872. Of course, prior to the 1920s my female ancestors did not have the vote, and few of my male ones did either before the Second Reform Act of 1867. However, when the ballot was not secret, the lists of voters and for whom they voted were printed and published for all to see. In many cases, no doubt, many voted with this in mind; it did not go unnoticed that one’s employer, landlord or creditor would discover where your vote was cast.

The constituences of the pre-Reform Act Parliament which existed until 1831 were vastly different to the ones we know today. Everyone has heard of the “Rotten Boroughs” where the franchise was exercised by a handful of people; in the notorious case of Old Sarum in Wiltshire there were at one time just 7 electors, controlled by the local landowner who owned all the houses by which they exercised their voting rights. There were many others, all returning two members to Parliament. In addition though, there were the free boroughs where the franchise was extended to all freemen or burgesses. Some of these, like Westminster or Bristol had very large electorates indeed, Bristol usually recording a total of over 5000 votes in any election. As well as the boroughs, each county returned two “Knights of the Shire” who were elected by a land-owning or renting franchise. Quite often in the 18th century at least, elections in the shires were not contested as the Tories or “Country” party normally took all the seats.

William_Pitt_addressing_the_House_of_Commons_on_the_outbreak_of_war_with_Austria_(by_Karl_Anton_Hickel)

William Pitt the younger addressing the House

The Parliament these conditions gave rise to were again very different to that of the post-Reform Act assemblies. The core of the house was the “Tory” knights of the shires who generally voted according to their own consciences or desires. They did not necessarily back any particular line, whether government or opposition. There were also many placemen, usually elected from seats where the government could control elections; naval ports were the main ones, but there were others. These MPs always voted with the government. Finally there were the “professional politicians” who are the ones we have usually heard of; Pitt Fox and Burke for example. They normally sat for rotten or pocket boroughs, nominated by the patron of the seat, although some, like Burke, sat for the free boroughs and took their chances at election time. One must remember that the government of the day was very much the King’s government. No ministry could survive without the royal patronage, if not always the royal approval. The King appointed his ministers, but generally understood the need to have some chance of them securing a majority in the House of Commons when required. In the 18th century, it should be noted, no government ever lost a general election.

Although we still use the labels “Tory” and “Whig” for the factions in Parliament, they do not really mean very much; what was required to govern was the confidence of the King and a majority in the House. Some have preferred the labels “Ins” and “Outs” as being more realistic.

I am lucky in having several ancestors who were enfranchised at one time or another. There are one or two who appear on a voting list where I cannot find a Poll Book with the votes cast, but in two cases my forebears were freemen of boroughs where the data for every election survives.

1721 Bristol Poll Book

The published Poll Book for the 1721 election in Bristol

John Harwood (sometimes spelt Horwood) was a house carpenter and merchant of Bristol. At the time of the 1721 election he is listed in the Poll Books as a Freeholder of St James parish. Other records show that he purchased property there in the early years of the century and his will (1744) makes mention of freehold houses he owns in St James’ Square and Merchant Street. His vote is recorded in three elections; 1721, 1734 and 1739.

John Horwood Poll 1721

John Horwood’s votes recorded in the Poll Book

In 1721 there were three candidates for the two places as MP for the City and County of Bristol: Sir Abraham Elton, Joseph Earle (John cast his vote for these two; every voter could choose one or two candidates) and William Hart. The final result was Earle 2141, Elton 1869 and Hart 1743, Elton and Earle being returned. Both the new MPs were prominent local men, Elton a previous Mayor and Earle a Sheriff of Bristol, and both are described as Whigs, whereas Hart was a Tory, but it seems that local considerations were uppermost in the voters’ minds – who would do best for Bristol and its trade. The election of 1727 saw the return of Abraham Elton (son of the winner of 1721) and John Scrope who was another Whig and Secretary to the Treasury. William Hart had decided to stand again, but was bribed by Elton to the sum of £1000, and did not proceed to the poll.

The mention of direct bribery, which in this case was denied, but expressed as a reimbursement to “offset election expenses”, reveals how rotten the system was even in the nominally “free boroughs”. As well as other candidates, voters were usually offered inducements, from free food and liquor to outright cash payments. A letter of the time records that at this 1727 election “The people who sold their votes have received from one to five guineas per man”, which shows how expensive campaigns could be.

In 1734 Elton and Scrope stood again, this time against the Tory Thomas Coster, but Scrope was beaten into third place, mainly because he had voted in Parliament for an Excise Bill (which as a government placeman he would have to) against the wishes of the Bristol Corporation. John Harwood again voted for the two Whigs. Thomas Coster died in 1739 and a by-election was called to replace him. On this occasion, a non-partisan, Henry Combe, a Bristol merchant stood against Sir Edward Southwell, a Whig country gentleman with no particular connection to the City. John Harwood voted for Combe but the establishment Southwell won by a narrow majority. Seemingly John Harwood voted for the local candidates who stood for the interests of Bristol merchants and trade, rather than strictly partisan party issues. The following election was unopposed and John died in 1745.

 

Several of my Bumstead ancestors, confusingly all called Stephen, were freemen of the town of Ipswich, and as such were entitled to vote in both the elections for the two MPs for Ipswich and the two Knights of the County MPs for Suffolk. The latter, however were virtually never contested and the only record I have of voting was in 1790 when Stephen Bumstead (1751-1831) voted for the successful Tory candidates Sir John Rous and Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury. Stephen is recorded as voting at all the Ipswich elections from 1784 until 1826; he is often referred to as “senior” after his son Stephen (1778-1841) became a freeman and acquired voting rights in 1800. Three of Stephen’s sons in turn became freemen and voted from the 1826 election onwards. In this latter election the three Stephens are recorded as “Stephen Bumpstead, Stephen Bumpstead junior and Stephen Bumpstead (London), my great great grandfather having moved to the capital sometime in the mid 1820s.

1826 Electoral Poll Book Ipswich copy

The 1826 Ipswich Poll Book

There is little point in listing the results of the many elections the family took part in, but they always voted for the Blue candidate. Party politics in Ipswich was a fiercely divisive matter and the parties were usually referred to as the Blues and the Yellows. The former were the “Country” party standing for the landowning interest, but also the upholding of the established church and establishment in general; they were generally coalescing into the Tory party whilst the Yellows adhered to the Whigs and represented a more radical outlook. Election time was noisy and often violent with gangs of dockers and others terrorising the town and trying to persuade voters one way or the other; as in Bristol in earlier days, bribery and coercion were common. The open ballot and the time taken (elections were often spead over four or five days) presented plenty of opportunity for pressure of one sort or another to be applied. For the voters though there were good pickings, if one was careful. It is interesting that the three Bumstead brothers all travelled from London to Ipswich to vote in the late 1820s and 1830s, which meant a couple of days travelling and time off work – could they really have been such sincere party adherents?

14

Mr Pickwick at the Eatanswill Election Hustings

A wonderfully satirical glimpse into contemporary elections is seen in Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” when Mr Pickwick and his companions visit the town of “Eatanswill” at polling time; Eatanswill is actually Sudbury in Suffolk and the atmosphere must have been very similar to nearby Ipswich. All the corruption and fraud around elections necessarily produced results that were challenged. In Ipswich, both the 1820 and 1826 results were overturned on appeal, the first resulting in the two Blue candidates being disqualified and the Yellows triumphing; in 1826 exactly the opposite was the case.

Tory ad 1823

1823 Ipswich newspaper advertisement

Apart from election time, at least one of the Bumsteads took an active role in political matters. Two newspaper advertisements give an indication of this. One lists a Stephen Bumstead amongst the signatories protesting at the invitation (by the Yellows no doubt) made to Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Nationalist to speak in Ipswich in 1836 and another dated 1823 indicates the establishment of a constituency group to advance conservative principles. Again Stephen Bumstead is one of the names listed. With the deaths of all three bearers of the name in the period 1831-46, this stage of my forebears political life draws to a close. The next generation (yet another Stephen 1844-1903) had to wait for the later 19th century reform acts before he appeared on a list of electors in Bristol in 1897.

1897 Stephen Bumstead electoral roll copy

 

Advertisements

Another alias, alas

Hailey Chapel copy

 

In researching family history one continuously comes across the problem of “how much proof do I need” to be sure one is making the correct connections and relationships. This is particularly true the further one delves back when the only source of information are often parish registers with perhaps the occasional will or other document to help. Even the registers cannot be relied upon as they were frequently copied up once a year from notebooks (if you’re lucky) or even scaps of paper notes made by a clerk or sexton. There are many omissions and mistakes in them which can rarely be checked. All these problems lead to an increasing number of “brick walls’ where one may have an inkling as to the truth, but no real proof. Which brings me to the Godfrey family of Hailey, near Witney in Oxfordshire.

My ancestor, Edward Flexney married Mary Godfrey at St Marys, Witney on March 12, 1815. They had a family of ten children and, following Edward’s death in 1853, several of them moved to Bristol where Mary is also found in 1861; she died in 1878 and was buried at St Mary Redcliffe. Mary was the illegitimate daughter of Merlin Godfrey and her baptism is recorded at Witney in August 1796. We can be confident that this is correct baptism as Mary named her eldest daughter Merlin and the name is used by other members of her family. It is a rare name, occurring just a few times in the 17th century in Oxfordshire and more often in the 18th. It is variously spelt Marlin, Merlin or Marlyn and is probably a pet-form or diminutive of Mary; it is the forerunner to the more recent Marilyn.

Merlin was the daughter of William Godfrey of Hailey and baptised at the chapel of St John in Hailey on June 25th 1780. This record and the baptism of her daughter Mary are the only records I can find of Merlin. So far I have not been able to discover a marriage or a burial for her. It is with her father, William Godfrey that we start to encounter problems. Several children are baptised in Hailey or Witney to a William and Elizabeth Godfrey and the confusion with names begins with what appears to be their eldest son who was baptised as John-Godfery son of William and Elizabeth Smith of Hailey. There is also presumably an elder sister, Tabitha baptised the previous year as Tabitha Smith. This led me to a marriage on August 13 1776 between Elizabeth Leveridge and William Smith alias Godfery at St Marys, Witney. William signed the register as William Smith. All their other children were baptised as either Godfrey, Smith Godfrey or some form indicating an alternative name of either Smith or Godfrey. Not finding any earlier form of the alias or double-barrelled name, and there being several possible baptisms for either a William Smith or a William Godfrey I let my research lapse for many years.

Making contact recently with someone else looking at this family, I resumed my efforts in trying to take this line further back and finding out why the alias might have come into use. Life has been made a little easier in recent years as the parish registers and wills for Oxfordshire have now come online. Searching the latter for Godfreys and Smiths I came across the will of John Godfrey, yeoman of Hailey who died in October 1782 (for a transcription see here). In it he leaves some cash bequests to various nephews and nieces, mostly named Godfrey but the bulk of his estate is left to two brothers who are rather uniquely described as “Thomas the son of Ann Harris (heretofore Ann Smith Spinster) which she had before her Intermarriage with her present Husband John Harris the younger of Hailey aforesaid Yeoman” and “William the Son of the said Ann Harris which she likewise had before her Intermarriage with her said Husband the said John Harris”. William was to receive all John’s property, buildings and land in Hailey as well as all his personal possessions and money, whereas Thomas was to be paid £500 within one year of John’s death. This sum was to come from the estate and William was appointed sole executor. What does this lead us to conclude? To begin, William the executor at probate, swore an oath as “William Harris”, but it may be that was what was required owing to the wording of the will, which gives neither brother a surname. Could this therefore be William Smith alias Godfrey; if so it would provide an obvious solution to the problems with his surname.

From here on we are in the area of conjecture, but there are other pointers that may help. There is will of a Thomas Smith Godfrey made in 1809 and proved at London (in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury {PCC} – the highest probate court in England) on June 10th 1820 (for transcription see here).Thomas looks a good fit for the man mentioned in the will of John Godfrey. He was a butcher of Witney and the reason for the probate being granted at the PCC rather than Oxford was that he held government securities, Consols, which were deemed to “reside” in London; should an estate hold property in more than one diocese, probate could only be granted in the higher court. This Thomas left his estate to his wife, Elizabeth and son Daniel, but with the proviso that if both predeceased him it should go to his “reputed brother William Smith Godfrey of Woodgreen near Witney”, and failing that to William’s children. So it would appear even more likely that we are looking at the the two sons of Anne Smith/Harris named in John Godfrey’s will as the surnames fit the situation – the use of an alias can often indicate illegitimacy – and Woodgreen in Witney was at the time in the parish of Hailey rather than Witney itself, thus tying in with the location of John Godfrey’s farm.

In due course research into the manorial records of Hailey may help to provide further information and possibly proof of all these supposed connections, but to summarise, I will lay out what I consider the most likely narrative to explain the history of the Smith Godfrey family:

Baptism William Smith 1757

Baptismal record of William Smith in 1757

John Godfrey, the son of Daniel Godfrey of Hailey was born in 1707 and no record of his marrying exists. At some point he contracted a relationship with Anne Smith also of Hailey resulting in the birth of three children, William baptised 1757, Mary 1763 and Thomas 1765. The first two are shown in the register as “base born” but I think Thomas was the child baptised in June 1765 as Thomas Harris, the son of John and Anne. This marriage is the one referred to in the will of John Godfrey and took place in April 1765. My belief is that Thomas had already been born before the marriage but was baptised shortly afterwards as John Harris’ child. What the latter thought of this one can surmise, but it was not uncommon for men to marry a wife who was pregnant by another man and perhaps there was some financial inducement by John Godfrey; John Harris was a labourer when he married Anne Smith but is later described as a yeoman. I think both brothers would have normally been referred to as Smith (or possibly Harris in Thomas’ case) and nothing would have changed until possibly the point when William found out about his origins and was told he would inherit John Godfrey’s estate. This may have been at any time before John’s death in 1782, but I’m inclined to think it was in the late 1770s and was the cause of William beginning increasingly to use the Godfrey name. I can find no positive trace of Mary, the sister of William and Thomas. She may be the Mary Smith Godfrey buried at Hailey in 1796, but then it would be unusual for her not to be mentioned in John Godfrey’ will – unless of course she was not John’s daughter after all.

William Godfrey and his wife Elizabeth had a large family, twelve children in all including Merlin, and it may be that his social position declined in time. He looks likely to be the William Godfrey who was buried in Hailey in 1821 where he is described as a labourer. Possibly he was not a good farmer, or that the £500 he had to pay his brother in 1783 saddled the farm with debts it could not service. Agricultural depression following the Napoleonic Wars would not have helped. Thomas however prospered. There is no knowing what his estate was valued at in 1820 when he died, but it sounds substantial and his only son, Daniel went on to become a very prosperous solicitor.

 

Note: transcriptions of the wills of John Godfrey and Thomas Smith Godfrey are now  available on the Oxfordshire FHS site of transcribed wills (here) along with those of the ancestors of John Godfrey.