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‘In former times ….very great corruption existed in the town’[1]

1868 was a General Election year in Britain and Ireland.  The main political argument during the campaign was Gladstone’s proposal to disestablish the (Protestant) Church of Ireland. It was to be part of his ‘mission to pacify Ireland’ but the Tories – and quite a few Liberals – violently opposed it. Because of the Irish dimension the Liberals had every incentive to mobilise Irish Catholic and Non-Conformist voters in their favour. Conversely, the Tories’ goal was to get its Anglican and anti-Catholic supporters to the polls.  It was inevitable, then, that the election would be hotly contested, and in Stafford it proved to be yet another corrupt and violent poll in the borough’s long history of electoral malfeasance. This blog post describes the events of 1868/9 in Stafford and the minor but nevertheless significant role played by local Irish people.

The 1868 General Election was the first to be held after the passing of the 1867 electoral reform act and the last before the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. The 1867 reform gave many working class men the vote, but defining the right to claim that vote was complicated and open to challenge. Stafford was a borough where Freemen (Burgesses) had had the vote since medieval times and they retained this right even after the 1867 Act. The attraction of this was not any idealistic belief in the virtues of democracy – far from it. A good part of the electorate was composed of working class Freemen – ‘bare-breeched burgesses … in rags’. [2] They were lured by the prospect of material reward and every Freeman’s vote therefore had its price. It was an open invitation to corrupt practices.[3] Just over 1000 Burgesses were qualified to vote in 1868.[4]

The admission rules meant that almost no Irishmen qualified as Freemen in 1868, but some did get the vote through the provisions of the 1867 Act which enfranchised rate-paying house owners or sole tenants and also lodgers paying at least £10 rent unfurnished. In both cases this was as long as they had occupied the premises for at least one year.[5] It was therefore in each party’s interests to get their supporters registered and, conversely, to challenge the registration rights of their opponents.  The Poll Book for 1868 shows that 58 Irish-born men were registered and they comprised around 2.8% of the householder voters and 2.4% of the total voters list.[6] At that time Irish-born people formed 2.5% of Stafford’s population so the Irish voters were more or less a representative proportion of the electorate. The number of householder and lodger voters was estimated as 2070 or 2124 in 1868/9, an increase of around 227% over the pre-1867 reform number.[7]

In the system of open voting that then operated candidates had every incentive to maximise their vote by treating or bribing potential supporters and by intimidating likely opponents.  In 1865 Stafford had returned a Liberal, Arthur Bass from the brewing family, and Col.  Walter Meller, a Conservative. In the succeeding years both sitting MPs kept their supporters sweet by distributing money, coal, blankets and the suchlike at Christmas. In 1867 Bass spent £720 (equivalent to nearly £74,000 today) on such gifts whilst Meller spent £250 a year (£25,700) every Christmas after his election. It was alleged that his voters got 5s (£25) each if they had split their vote in 1865 but ‘plumpers’ who had only voted for Meller got 10s (£51).[8]

The main way in which the Meller and his agent Fernie kept his working class supporters happy was by setting up a ‘Working Mens’ Conservative Association’. This body operated through ‘committees’ based at 36 or more public houses in the town. Their main activity was drinking. The committee members, who were supposed to be Tory supporters, paid a contribution of 4d (£1.72) and that entitled them to a shilling’s worth of drink, just over £5’s value in today’s money.[9]  In other words, two thirds of the cost of these social gatherings came from Tory funds. The publicans were reimbursed by Meller and Fernie for the drink they supplied and also made money directly by hiring their rooms to the Tory committees.

By 1868 the Tories therefore had a body of mobilised (but probably drunken) voters ready to turn up at the polls when the election was held. The Liberals, influenced by Non-Conformity and the temperance lobby, maintained their support more by direct political activism rather than cheap drink, though at least one drunken session took place in a private house where the resulting damage was  paid for by the Liberal agent, Redwin. Their supporters also colonised some of the town’s pubs although there were no organised committees like those of the Tories. When the election arrived the Liberals proved well able to mobilise the mob into battle against their Tory enemies.

The ‘magic hat’

Hugh Woods Gibson was by origin an Ulsterman. His father was a prosperous Presbyterian farmer from Co. Down but Hugh came to Stafford as a young man in 1840 and got a job with one of the leading shoe and leather manufacturers, Thomas Benson Elley.[10]  By the 1860s Gibson had become a partner in the firm and been elected to the Borough Council. He was a Liberal and in 1868 had risen to be chairman of the local Liberal party, very much the local kingmaker. He was a strong temperance advocate and a leading light in the local Congregational chapel but he showed no public signs of sectarianism and was willing to work with anyone, even Catholics, to further his political and business aims. He galvanised the local Liberal party into support for Irish Disestablishment and at a public meeting in August 1868 clearly went for the Irish Catholic vote by inviting the priest, Fr. Fanning, on to the platform with him.[11]

In 1865 Gibson had nominated Henry Davis Pochin, a Welsh coal and iron entrepreneur and alderman on Salford town council, as one of the Liberal candidates but he had lost to Meller the Tory. Gibson nominated him again in June 1868. Arthur Bass seems to have been out of sympathy with the radical disestablishment views of Gibson’s Stafford Liberals and in October 1868 departed for the East Staffordshire constituency. Gibson therefore proposed R.C. Chawner, a magistrate from Lichfield, as Bass’s replacement.[12]   The Tories, meanwhile, had re-adopted Meller as their candidate.

Henry_Davis_Pochin._Etching_by_L._Nassard._Wellcome_V0004726 03

Henry Davis Pochin, Liberal candidate, 1865 and 1868. Unseated for intimidation, 1869

By now the election campaign was up and running.  In August 1868 Meller held a public meeting at which he denounced the Liberals’ disestablishment policy, but he got an angry reception and there were disturbances in the body of the hall.[13]  He thereafter retreated to private gatherings amongst his supporters. In October the Working Men’s Conservative Association committees were transformed into Meller’s local election committees, each one organised by agents and canvassers. These men were paid a total of £572.12s (£59,460) during the campaign whilst £417.12s (£43,376) was spent on ‘committee rooms’. Large amounts of this money were in fact spent on food and drink to treat Meller’s supposed supporters. The 4d payment was abandoned. Instead, there was a system called the ‘magic hat’. When the drink was being handed round a collection was made in a hat. It was alleged that ‘halfpence and bits of tobacco-pipe’ found their way into the hat and the whole thing was a blatant pretence. Meller was reported to have said at one meeting that he was not allowed to treat the men to beer when all the while jugs of his beer were staring him in the face ‘which caused considerable amusement’.[14]

In practice closet Liberal supporters were able to infiltrate the Tory drinking sessions. John Arnold, a cordwainer (shoemaker) went to the Abercrombie Inn on a number of occasions. One night he had two free quarts of ale and on another sat down to a free hot supper with fifty other people. Thomas Gerard went to Meller’s committee room at the Rose and Crown. There was plenty of eating and drinking and ‘everything that was good. All sorts of liquors, rum, gin and brandy. Nothing to pay’. It was even alleged that a Liberal, George Machin, established a ‘sham committee’ at the Unicorn which took the Tory money, handed out free drinks but betrayed Col. Meller by canvassing for Liberal votes. Machin, who was paid £15 (£1557) by Meller as a canvasser, denied the charge but said ‘I was not particular as to the persons I put on [the committee]. [15]

All the while canvassers were getting their supporters registered to vote. Liberal Registration Association workers went door-to-door hunting for eligible householders and lodgers and in October it was said 285 persons had made new claims to vote, though the Tories objected to many of them. There was nevertheless ‘a gain of about 80 to the Liberals’ and many of the objections were described as ‘frivolous’.[16] The Tories, of course, were doing the same, primarily by attracting potential voters to their free drinking sessions. The stage was set for the poll.

Election day

Polling was on 17 November 1869 and it proved to be a torrid affair. The Liberals’ command headquarters was at the Swan Hotel and also at Hugh Gibson’s house. The Tories were primarily based at the Vine Hotel and, of course, at all their other client pubs in the town.  During the day the pubs filled up with drinkers being primed to turn out for the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals. Both parties now resorted to direct bribes to get their votes. ‘No tip, no vote’ was the common demand by those being canvassed and the going rate was alleged to have been anywhere between ‘a sovereign and a piece of pork’ to £6, £8 and even £10 (£1037) per vote.[17] At the Fountain voters got their free meal and drink and were promised £5 if they plumped for Meller. They were given a printed card and the secretary wrote the voter’s name on the back. It acted as an IOU and they were told to claim their money after the election.[18]  Meller’s declared expenses came to more than £100,000 in today’s money and were probably even more. It is small wonder that the Tory withheld his election accounts until forced to reveal them by the judge at the petition trial in May 1869.[19] At these hearings each side accused the other of bribery and tried to deny doing it themselves but it is clear that payments were rife.

The Liberals probably bribed less but their weapon of choice was mob violence. They had already set up a so-called Vigilance Committee to watch the Tory pubs where treating and bribery was going on. Meller’s supporters had now to get from the pubs to the polling booths and for many this was a hazardous trip. It was alleged that a Liberal mob of 2-300 men and boys was marauding around the centre of town, breaking the windows of Tory supporters, threatening Tory voters and in some cases assaulting them. They were incited by Fallows, a Liberal agent, who was reported as shouting, probably with justification, ‘All as comes up to vote for Meller …. is bribed. I’ll tell you what to do, make them vote pure; don’t let them give a bribed vote. Stop ‘em’. The Rev. Vincent, chaplain at Stafford Gaol and a known Tory, was abused by Fallows – ‘we’ll give you political parsons something today; you have had your day, it is ours now’, a clear reference to the religious issue in the election. Vincent was hit over the head, pulled off his horse and badly injured.[20] The mob stopped a man named Smallman from going to the poll booth in Browning Street. When he went back with two other voters under police escort he was struck over the head with a stick. On leaving the booth he was knocked down and badly kicked. Henry Woollams was too scared to vote, having been threatened as ‘a ____ Tory’ and that if he voted for Meller they would ‘break his ____ neck’. [21]

All day the running battle went on and the violence was by no means confined to the Liberals. Oiled-up Tories were also in a fighting mood and ‘numerous pugilistic encounters occurred.’ One elector who had his windows broken retaliated by firing on the crowd, though it seems no-one was injured. The local police gave up the streets to the mob and spent the rest of the day hiding inside the Shire Hall.[22] The situation was out of control but the authorities turned a blind eye to what was going on. The Mayor, Richard Podmore, a shoe manufacturer and a Liberal, subsequently said he ‘did not think it was necessary to swear in special constables’ despite agreeing that ‘there was some disturbance on election day.’[23]  The Chief Constable claimed to the magistrates that ‘nothing of a serious nature occurred in the town during the day.’[24]

The result

The declared result of the election was:-

Alderman Pochin (Liberal)                       1189 votes

Colonel Meller (Conservative)                  1124 votes

Richard Croft Chawner (Liberal)             1107 votes

This meant that Pochin and Meller were elected but Chawner had missed out by just seventeen votes. In this tight poll the Irish vote proved very significant for the Liberals. Of the 58 Irish-born voters 45 (78%) voted Liberal and nearly two thirds of these (64%) were labourers of one sort or another who had been newly-enfranchised by the 1867 Act.[25] The rest were an assortment of manual workers apart from Hugh Gibson, the Liberal supremo. Another eleven Liberal voters were either second generation Irish or were English men married to Irish women. The Liberals had, therefore, mobilised the Irish working class and largely Catholic vote and without it Pochin would have been topped the poll by just nine votes. It was a result that was bound to spark recriminations and challenges.

The aftermath

The Liberals immediately alleged the Tories’ victory came from bribery whilst the Conservatives claimed intimidation of their voters had prevented many of them from voting. Within two days of the election various people were up before the magistrates on charges of assault including two young Irishmen, Hubert and Martin Malley. Their case was dismissed when they counter-claimed that the ‘Mellerite’ had knocked Martin down ‘without provocation’ using a poker.[26] A week later John Coghlan, along with five English youths, was found guilty of breaking the windows of a Tory pub landlord’s house. They claimed Meller’s committee at the Boot Inn had prevented Liberal voters getting to the polls.[27] In the first week of January 1869 the Tories initiated grand jury proceedings at the Quarter Sessions alleging riot, unlawful assembly, carrying of weapons and assault against fifteen Liberal supporters, five of whom were from Irish families. Although the jury found there was a case to answer, none of these men was in fact committed for trial.

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Bribery and violence: the opening of the petition hearing on the Stafford election. Extract from the Birmingham Daily Post, 5 May 1869

Meanwhile, supporters of both parties had submitted legal petitions contesting the return of Meller and Pochin.[28] Before the proceedings began the Liberals objected to 912 of Meller’s voters, alleging, amongst other things, that 66 had been bribed, 465 treated and that 118 people were guilty of treating. The Tories claimed 497 of the Liberal voters were invalid, with 251 treated, 31 bribed and 31 acting as treaters.[29] The trial finally opened on 4 May 1869 and lasted ten days. A parade of witnesses provided evidence and allegations of illegal practices before the judge, Mr Justice Blackburn. Although both sides denied point blank most of the accusations made against them, the proceedings laid bare the squalid electioneering that had taken place. They have provided much of the evidence for this blogpost and there is little reason to doubt the truth of much of what was said. The judge was, however, clearly looking for excuses to dismiss the petitions but in the end he was forced to declare Meller’s election invalid specifically because the printed cards with voters’ names handed out as IOU’s were clearly documented bribery. Although he felt Pochin ‘had honestly endeavoured to make the election pure’, he nevertheless had to lose his seat because of the intimidation and violence directly encouraged by his agents.[30] The third candidate, Chawner, couldn’t benefit because his election campaign had been totally tied to the misdemeanours of Pochin’s.

Stafford was therefore left with no Parliamentary representation and a by-election had to be held on 7 June 1869. The town’s electors were fed up with the whole business and the political parties had had a sharp warning about illegal conduct, so the second poll was a dull affair. The Liberals succumbed to in-fighting and their vote dropped by over 200 whereas the Tories saw a slight increase for their two candidates. The result was that the Borough sent two Tories to Parliament for the next five years.


The bribery, corruption and violence of Stafford’s 1868 election were commonplace in the nineteenth century and throw a dark light on the workings of supposed parliamentary democracy in that era. The similarities between then and now are instructive, however. In the 2017 we had a Prime Minister who more or less hid from the wider electorate and only talked to favoured supporters, just as Meller did in 1868. There were clear differences in economic and social policy between the parties, just as there were over Irish church disestablishment in 1868. Money from big business and off-shore funds paid for a battery of propaganda to influence voters in the 2010s much as Meller and Bass’s money did more openly in the 1860s. While election day attacks were thankfully absent in 2017, violent events beforehand and politicians’ reactions to them may have influenced the result just as the violence and intimidation very directly did in 1868 Stafford. The recent election also saw the re-emergence of public campaigning before massed crowds, a return to former times when politicians like Gladstone – and even Pochin and Meller – could directly move and influence voters by their speeches. Big efforts were made in 2017 to get all eligible voters registered which undoubtedly affected the result just as the Liberal and Tory campaigns to register new voters did in 1867/8. And finally, Britain’s relationship with Ireland was central to the 1868 election and to the politics of that period – and it remains so today.

[1] Mr Justice Blackburn during his judgement on the Stafford election petitions, The Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1869.

[2] A report during a by-election in 1826 in the Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 27 December 1826 which quoted a  London Globe story that ‘upwards of one hundred bare-breeched burgesses appeared in rags to poll’.

[3] A Freeman was admitted either ‘by birth’ as the son of a Stafford burgess or ‘by servitude’ after serving an apprenticeship in the Borough. J. Kemp, The Freemen of Stafford Borough, 1100-1997, (Stafford, the Author, 1998).

[4] The actual number was estimated at 1043 in August 1868 and 1017 in June 1869. SA 8 August 1868 and William Salt Library, 7/140/00 Poll Books, Stafford … for the poll …. 8 June 1869.

[5] The Representation of the People Act, 1867, with explanatory notes by R. Wilkinson (London, Stevens and Haynes, 1868).

[6] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D5008/2/7/11/1, Borough of Stafford Poll Book, Elections of 1868 and 1869.

[7] Calculated from figures quoted in SA, 8 August 1868.

[8] The Times, 10 May 1869; Birmingham Daily Post, 13 May 1869. Much of the evidence for electoral corruption comes from reports of the judicial hearing into events at the Stafford election that was held in the town between 4 and 13 May 1869.

[9] The Times, 10 May 1869.

[10] For more details of Hugh Gibson’s history see J. Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), pp 268-273.

[11] SA, 15 August 1868.

[12] SA, 12 September 1868 and 24 October 1868.

[13] SA, 15 August 1868.

[14] The Times, 5 May 1869.

[15] The Times, 11 May 1869.

[16] SA, 17 October 1868.

[17] The Times, 11 May 1869 and 6 May 1869.

[18] Manchester Courier, 12 May 1869.

[19] The Times, 5 May 1869.

[20] Birmingham Daily Post, 13 May 1869.

[21] Birmingham Daily Post, 7 May 1869.

[22] SA, 18 November 1868.

[23] The Times, 10 May 1869.

[24] Birmingham Daily Post, 7 May 1869.

[25] SRO, D5008/2/7/11/1, Borough of Stafford Poll Book, Elections of 1868 and 1869.

[26] SA, 18 and 21 November 1868.

[27] SA, 5 December 1868.

[28] SA, 5 December 1868 and 20 February 1869.

[29] SA, 1 May 1869.

[30] Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1869.