Cambridge Tories nominate slave-owner as MP-candidate – gets heckled by crowds on Parker’s Piece protesting against slavery. May 1840.

The individual concerned was Sir Alexander Grant, who according to research by University College London into slave ownership, owned a number of plantations in the West Indies. He received over £13,000 ‘compensation’ in 1838 following the legal abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire. You can work out how much this equates to today via the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.

What makes this election interesting is that it is one of the few elections in Cambridge Borough where the Slave Trade was a high profile issue in which one of the candidates had a direct interest in, and who had benefited substantially from the compensation given to slave owners that the tax payer had borne the burden of. Given the wealth & compensation awarded to the candidate, you can get a feel for how angry at least some of the crowd was as to the man being presented as one of the candidates.

Cambridge the stinking rotten borough

Even after the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Cambridge Conservatives still refused to give up their corrupt ways. The reason for this campaign was because the Conservative Candidate who had won the initial contest was found guilty of breaking electoral law, and his election was voided by Parliament! Again, note that the franchise was ***extremely limited*** for this election. For a start, women were banned from voting. Until the Second Reform Act of 1867, only 1.43 million could vote out of a total population of 30 million could vote. So the number of people eligible to vote in this election in Cambridge Borough would have been very limited. The right to vote were only increased in the Second Reform Act of 1867, the Third Reform Act of 1884, the Representation of the People Act 1918 (which brought in Universal Male Franchise, but only limited Female franchise), and finally in 1928 the equalisation of the franchise between Men & Women over the age of 21. It was reduced to the age of 18 in the 1960s.

Damning: A report from the Bradford Observer of 07 May 1840 in the British Newspaper Archive.

The above reads”

“When the Commons met on Wednesday, Sir Charles Lemon reported the decision of the Cambridge Election Committee, declaring the election of Mr Manners Sutton to be void; that neither the petition nor the opposition to it were frivolous or vexation ; that Mr Sutton had, by his agents, been guilty of bribery and treating ; and that an extensive and corrupt system of treating prevailed on the part of many influential members of the constituency of Cambridge.”

Bradford Observer: 07 May 1840. In British Newspaper Archive, accessed 31 Dec 2020.

Parade to Parker’s Piece to meet The Mayor

Representatives of the candidates made their way from their various meeting points to Parker’s Piece to meet The Mayor and take part in a public debate on the Piece. I’ve transcribed part of the article on the nomination – the preliminary & nomination speeches for the Conservative candidate Sir Alexander Grant from the British Newspaper Archive here.

*Content note. Newspapers of the time transcribed the exchanges and included the heckles as well. They sometimes read awkwardly as the remarks are written up in the past tense rather than as delivered.

“On Thursday the Nomination took place on Parker’s Piece. The Reformers [i.e. the Whigs/Liberals] proceeded from the Hoop Hotel, in the procession, accompanied by a band. The Tory procession went from the Eagle, preceded by a band and flags. The preliminary proceedings were gone through at the TOwn Hall by the Mayor and authorities. The Reformers arrived first on Parker’s Piece in a long line of three deep; the Tories a few minutes after; and each party having taken their stations on the hustings.

“The Mayor presented himself and said that the previous proceedings had been gone through at the Town Hall, where also the Act against bribery had been read, (loud cheers); and they were now called upon to proceed to the election of a gentleman to represent them in Parliament. This was a most valuable and important privilege, and he hoped that their good sense would dictate the necessity of carrying on the proceedings with quietness and good nature. He trusted that they would concur in giving all parties who might address them, a patient, attentive, and candid consideration. He then called upon any gentleman who had to propose a candidate to proceed.

“George Hemington Harris, Esq, (who from the continued roar of indignant reproach which accompanied his speech) but was very imperfectly heard, presented himself to propose Sir Alexander Grant. He said, in coming forward for the first time to take part in a public duty, he requested their kind indulgence.

(Cries of “Much you need it!”)

“He considered they were then met under the most unparalleled circumstances, after a gentleman had been returned, a few months since, by so large a majority.

(Cries of “Bribery; silence, turncoat! &c)

“He did not stand before them as the advocate of bribery and corruption; he was anxious, and had long been so, for reform, but not such as they had been compelled to submit to of late. He must think that those parties who promised so much, altogether failed in carrying out their pledges. They had been promised that one effect of the Reform Bill would be, that each party should be represented, instead of which the Whigs took all to themselves.

(Cries of: “That’s what the Tories are aiming at!”)

All he asked for, was a fair representation.

(Cries of “The slave-driver’s the man for you!”)

“He should like to know, as men of business, what they had obtained in the shape of pounds, shillings, and pence; the government had not only spent upwards of ten millions, but had been compelled to levy additional taxes.

(Cries of: “Yes, to compensate Sir Alexander Grant and the slave-owners!”, and considerable uproar).

“Mr Harris concluded by proposing Sir Alexander Grant as a fit person to represent the town of Cambridge in Parliament. (Much disapprobation).”

“S.T. Bartlett, Esq. then came forward (amidst great confusion, and cries of “Go to Warwick, we want Fisher; where is he?” ) to second the nomination of Sir Alexander Grant. He said, the party to which he belonged, had, at different times, brought forward three candidates to solicit their suffrages. Those gentlemen had varied in name, person, and character, but in one respect they were all assimilated.

(Cries of “And that’s in bribery!”)

“…and that was in the consistent Conservative principles which they advocated – principles upon which they were ready to stand or fall – principles which had been well defined, and which were well understood. They were not a mixture of Whiggism and Radicalism combined together to forward every new-fangled scheme that might be proposed.

(Cries of: “Oh, oh, go to Warwick!”)

“…but the Conservatives rested their claim to support upon those who could value and appreciate their principles

(Cries of “No, no, on such as they could buy!”)

…But what a different picture was presented to them by their opponents [Hisses, laughter, and cries of “Yes – very different, thank God!”]

They had brought forward three candidates, but where was their uniformity of principle? The first gentleman, Mr Spring Rice, had always voted against the Ballot, but he was always crammed down the throats of the electors. The other at first voted against it, but he was induced to change, and now voted for it. Where, he would ask, was the uniformity of principle of their third candidate? He was “everything by turns, but nothing long!” [Loud laughter and cries of “Where is Sam Long?!”]

…whose mind seemed acted upon by some vertical movement, a kind of demi-semi-rotation; could be everything at different times. He, in the short space of two months, went from one extreme to the other! He was now an advocate of the Ballot – the repeal of the Corn Laws – the Government scheme of National Education, and all other Radical measures. They had now brought forward a gentleman against whose abilities and character nothing could be said, and whose opening address was so temperate, that Conservative as he (Mr B) was, he would not have the slighted objection to have attached his name to it [Hear, hear!] – An opportunity would that day be afforded to the hon. gentleman of delivering his opinions upon the great questions of the day, and they would then see whether, for the sake of catching a few straggling votes, he was the advocate for The Ballot, the Abolition of the Corn Laws, and all wild and visionary schemes that had been suggested by the radicals.

[Great uproar here ensued, caused by some individuals coming in front of the hustings with a placard, having two negroes in chains upon it, and in the act of supplicating for mercy ; in allusion to the cruel system of slavery maintained by Sir A. Grant and other slave owners, and cries of: “We won’t have him!”]

“Mr B. then said, that he remembered that at the last election, when an individual belonging to Mr Sutton’s party was mounted upon the shoulders of some of the party, the Mayor ordered the Police to take him to the station house; he thought that course ought to be pursued upon the present occasion. After a lapse of some minutes [during which loud cries of “No Slavery!” reiterated from the multitude,] Mr B. said that, having gained that small triumph, he hoped tomorrow they would work well together in the achievement of a greater. The gentleman whose nomination he begged to second, was an individual well worthy of the support of the electors of Cambridge,

[Cries of “He would disgrace us!”]

“…He had been nearly twenty years in Parliament and during the whole of that time he had never changed his principles.

[A cry of “The more’s the pity”]

“In conclusion, Mr B. said, he begged to second the nomination of Sir Alexander Cray Grant, as a fit and proper person to represent the borough of Cambridge in Parliament. [Groans and cheering] And he called upon the electors to remember the glorious majority of one hundred [Cry of “How were they got??”] by which they conquered at the last election. [Mr.B. then retired amidst great uproar, and cries of “Where’s Fisher?”]


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