Thursday, 17 December 2009

The History of Parliament

The last seven volumes in the monumental History of Parliament series, History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1820-1832, edited by D.R. Fisher, were published yesterday, December 16th, by Cambridge University Press. The volumes contain biographies of the 1,367 Members of the House of Commons from 1820 to 1832 and surveys of the elections and politics in the 383 constituencies of Great Britain and Ireland which sent them there.

The period encompassed four Parliaments and general elections in 1820, 1826, 1830 and 1831 and saw a series of crises which brought an end to Tory political dominance and the Old political system. Among the major issues of the times were the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline in 1820-1; the demands for reform and retrenchment in the costs of government led by the Whig Joseph Hume and backed by many Tories angry at agricultural depression; the campaigns of Daniel O’Connell for Catholic emancipation, and its final concession in 1829 splitting the Tory party; and the final crisis of 1831-2 over Parliamentary reform, which saw the Lords browbeaten into accepting the measure.

The constituency articles provide a comprehensive picture of electoral politics in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland on the eve of reform: the influence of the aristocracy, the challenge of radical agitation and the venality in many boroughs. They catalogue the tens of thousands of pounds spent in county elections in England, including the £30,000 spent by Thomas Macqueen in Bedfordshire which contributed to his ruin.

Biographies include those of political giants of the period, such as the Tories Lord Castlereagh, Robert Peel and Lord Palmerston, and the Whigs Henry Brougham, George Tierney, Lord John Russell and Lord Althorp. The volumes also shed new light on many of the workhorses of Parliament: men as varied as Henry Goulburn, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1828 to 1830, and ‘Black Billy’ Holmes, chief Tory whip. Among the more obscure characters whose lives have been illuminated for the first time are men at opposite extremes of fortune: James Morrison, the son of a Wiltshire publican who emerged as a silk merchant on a grand scale, went into merchant banking and was probably the richest commoner of the 19th-century; and the Newfoundland merchant and gambler Christopher Spurrier, who was reputed to have wagered and lost his last silver teapot on a maggot race.

For further information, visit the History of Parliament website.

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