Cambridge Liberals prepare to lose another election contest – amid allegations of Tory corruption and bribery. 1865

Sir Robert Richard Torrens c1880 from the National Library of Australia here.

It was the first of several contests that the former Australian colonial premier Sir Robert Richard Torrens took part in for the Cambridge Liberals – finally winning after the Second Reform Act of 1867 expanded Cambridge’s electorate from around 1,500 to 4,000 male voters.

The fact that he spent many years in Australia in the early years of the colony – and his rise to become Premier, however short that term was, made me question what role he might have had in the subjugation of Aborigine Australians by the colonists. This is picked up by Dr Leonie Kelleher in her note on Torrens and land ownership legal changes in Australia during the mid-1800s.

His record in Australia therefore makes for interesting reading when comparing what he campaigned on when he stood for Parliament in one of the then two Cambridge Borough seats. Note this was also at the time Cambridge University had its own parliamentary representation – the latter remaining in place until Clement Attlee’s Government of 1945-50 abolished the university parliamentary seats.

This meeting reported in the staunchly Conservative-supporting Cambridge Chronicle in 1865 is just before the start of polling in the general election of that year. The issues will sound familiar to people familiar with the ongoing corruption and bribery going on in town at election time – mindful that voting by secret ballot was still a campaign to be won. Until then, the way in which the small number of electors voted was very much an issue for public record – enabling the more unscrupulous political operations to put pressure on the voters both before and after the elections.

The meeting – in the recently-completed Large Assembly Hall (still there today) took place a couple of years after Prof Henry Fawcett was beaten by Conservative Francis Powell by 81 votes in the by-election of 1863. I’ve transcribed the article from the British Newspaper Archive here.

“A meeting of the friends and supporters of Messrs. [Dr William Dougal] Christie and [Robert Richard] Torrens took place on Wednesday evening last, at the Large Assembly-room in the Guildhall. Mr. Alderman Harris took the chair, and there were present upon the platform the majority of the recognised leaders of the Liberal party.

The Chairman briefly introduced Mr. Christie the meeting, and called upon the hon. gentleman to give them an account of the success of his canvass, and added that he (the Chairman) believed with fair play that they would shortly have two Liberal candidates to represent them in Parliament.

“Mr. Christie thanked his audience for their warm and cordial reception. He said that he regretted to state that one of his political opponents, Mr. Macaulay, had been taken seriously ill, and during the day there had been numerous rumours that he (Mr. Macaulay) had retired from the contest, and that the Conservative party had telegraphed for new candidate [A Voice: No, no!). Mr. Christie continued: He knew nothing of the truth of those statements, but he trusted that the illness of the hon. gentleman was only temporary [hear, hear]; but he did not wish in the contest to derive any advantage from the misfortune of his friends [cheers]. He (Mr. Macaulay) had always been a generous opponent, although had taunted him (Mr. Christie) quite good naturedly with having come uninvited, and the cheers which now greeted him were one of the many convincing proofs that although no one had asked him to come yet hundreds had asked him to stay [cheers].

“He had staid, and he meant to stay until this day week, and he had some notion that they would then make him one of the Members of Parliament for the Borough of Cambridge. As regarded the canvass, it had been a most successful one. With respect to the system of canvassing, it was one much dreaded and abused, and several people in the course of his canvass disapproved of it; but he (Mr. Christie) thought that as long as the constituency was small enough for a personal application of votes, and the parties evenly balanced, and rivalry keen between them, that in such a case canvassing must remain a necessity.

“In the case of dubious voters, he had never suggested excursion to Yarmouth or Lowestoft. He had derived some pleasure and much good during his canvass of the Cambridge constituency, and it had displayed to him in a remarkable degree human life, human nature, and human character; and from the result of his canvass he had discerned more good than evil in human nature.

“There were some electors on whom he had called skulking and scowling, and waiting for those bribes from the Conservative party, and making frank promises of bought support; others upon whom he had called were much more frightened at imaginary fears, from the loss of custom or other pecuniary advantage; others told him that they were going to vote the side their bread was buttered, and thus were deterred from doing their duty from some nicely-calculated fear of gain or loss.

“His advice to such was to vote and fear no man [cheers]. He had seen instances of wives urging their husbands to do their duty, and he had also seen cases in which the heart and conscience of the voter was more enviable than the heart and conscience of his collegiate oppressor; no one, unless he was bad indeed, could finish such a canvass without feeling kinder, wiser, and a better man.

“A fortnight ago he had addressed them at the Theatre [The New Theatre, Newmarket Road in Barnwell – then a rapidly-growing populous district with a large slum] respecting the bribery proceedings in the Conservative party in this Borough, and he had singled out of the report of the unhappy affair the names of the bribers and the bribed who were still living. He asked them if bribery was a more un-English practice than the Ballot [no, no]; believed, nay he knew, that there was bribery at the election of Mr. Powell [cries of no, no, and great confusion].

“The hon. gentleman said that the ayes were in a large majority. so that he would try and convince the noes. Out of 35 bribers and bribed the 4 bribers and of the 23 bribed voted for Mr. Powell and not one black sheep voted for Mr. [Henry] Fawcett.

“He would tell them still further that in the early part of the day Mr. Fawcett was in a majority, but upwards of 60 who were marked doubtful in Mr. Fawcett’s canvass-book from whom Mr. Fawcett could never get straightforward answer — came up like gentlemen in flys (four in fly) [a fast-moving horse-drawn carriage] and all recorded their votes for Mr. Powell: and in these 60 were included of those whose names appeared in the Blue-book [laughter].

“Shortly after the election several of these persons paid a great many of their arrears in brand new Bank of England notes. The’ hon. gentleman thought that he was justified by a sense of public and private duty, and bound to tell them what has been done, and what was done at the last election, and to caution his supporters to watch and on their guard, and also to warn his opponents at their peril not to do it again. [Spoiler: they did it again in 1866 as well]

“As a very humble, and. he hoped, not unworthy member of Trinity College, referred with pride to the tolerance which reigned there, and he knew that there never was any case in which either senior or junior fellow interfered in any way with the votes of the servants or the tenantry of the college [hear, hear, and cheers] [A servant of the college here very excitedly stated that he had been connected with the college for 40 years, and that not a word had ever been said to any college servant]. He (Mr. Christie) wished he could say the same of St. John’s, Jesus, and Corpus. Mr. Macaulay had mentioned in one of his speeches of a case of intimidation he had met with in Christ’s Lane. Now the name of the voter alluded to was Humm, and he (Mr Humm) was extremely angry at the intentional misrepresentation of Mr. Macaulay. He (Mr. C.) had received letter from the Master of Christ’s with reference to the approaching election, in which he said, I have always expressed in the most positive terms that any servant of the college is free to exercise the franchise in any way he might wish, and I have done the utmost in my power “to protect any one who so exercises it” [cheers].

“Mr. Christie said that such a letter was good as the Duke of Wellington’s, and he wished that a notice like that of the Duke of Wellington’s was issued from every college. He had hoped to have received a similar letter from the Master of St. John’s, but he had no doubt that his (Mr. Christie’s) letter had miscarried; he, however, must tell them positively that whatever was done by Mr. Reyner, the bursar, was done without the approval or sanction of the Master.

“The servants were not actually deterred by Mr. Reyner, but they knew that if they did not vote wished them they would immediately become objects of suspicion, and would be always worried and tormented in consequence of the honest vote they had given.

“This practice of intimidation was indeed a humiliating occupation for men of learning. Were the colleges asked (Mr. C.) founded for this? Corpus Christie College, that temple of Evangelical Christianity (not that he wished on that account to throw any disrespect upon the religion) abounded with men whose looks were the looks of meekness and whose words were the words of sanctity, but whose acts were the acts of cruelty, violence and injustice.

The Cambridge Chronicle had asserted, and certainly the news was quite new to him, that he (Mr Christie) had while an Undergraduate the intention of entering the Church, but that such intention was frustrated by the college refusing him testimonials; but they (the Cambridge Chronicle) added that they had no doubt that had entered the church he would have been at that time a Bishop, or perhaps an Archbishop.

“He must say that he never intended to enter the Church, but with their permission he would give them a sermon, and address it to the Rev. the Master of Jesus, and the Bursar of St. Johns. The subject of his sermon was charity, which everyone knew was the corner stone of Christianity.

“Charity giveth to the poor but not in bribes; charity covereth multitude of sins, but does not shelter bribery or suborners of bribery; charity was a respecter of other men’s consciences, and did not interfere with other men’s votes, and did not intend that those to whom God had given a mind should use it to coerce gyps or terrify bed-makers [loud cheers].

“He did not think he was such bad hand at a sermon [laughter]. He would now refer to another circumstance, viz.: a letter which had appeared from Mr. Beamont, [Likely the Rev William Beamont, featured here] who was the secretary of a Church Defence Association, in which he advised the voters to vote against us, but he made the extraordinary admission that he has not and does not intend to read either of their addresses, [laughter].

“The cry of Church Defence which the rev. gentleman advocates was, so far as he (Mr. C.) could understand the policy of exasperating instead of conciliating Dissenters, and he thought that Mr. Beamont had much better have remained quiet than have come forward from his college to fill the columns of a local journal with his personal platitudes.

“This subject of Church defence had been treated differently by a much more distinguished man, Dr. Arnold, who proposed among other things that the services of both churchmen and dissenters should be held in the parish church, the dissenters of course having different times for their services. He (Mr. C.) had seen this plan carried out in Switzerland, and it answered most admirably, and if Dr. Arnold’s proposals had been carried out it would have been an easy matter have set the question for ever at rest.

“The Dissenters would willingly pay for the support of the church-yard if they had accorded to them the privilege of burying their dead there. The hon. gentleman then went back the time of the passing of the Reform Bill, and briefly mentioned the most important measures of progress which have been carried since that time. In speaking of the Government after an allusion to the great age and to the virtues of Lord Palmerston, the hon. gentleman, in introducing the subject of Law Reform, said that the late reforms in that branch were mainly due to the energy, zeal, and ability of one who was now in trouble, and certainly in his (Mr. C. s) opinion he was not free from, blame, but his name would always be carried down in the list of law reformers.

“It was to say that he alluded to the Lord Chancellor. In conclusion he reminded than that on that day week polling would commence; there was one clear week before them, and he begged of them to do their utmost during that time to work well and to watch well, to come early to the poll, and to use their utmost efforts to induce their friends to follow their example, and that although they could not perhaps command success they would at any rate deserve it.

Lieut.-Col. Torrens rose under great disadvantages alter the ornate eloquence of Mr. Christie. He wished to correct error which was prevalent, viz., that he was opposed to Mr. Baines’s £6 franchise bill. He was not opposed entirely to it, but felt it would not all that was required. The franchise in his (Col. Torrens) opinion should be extended to lodgers, skilled artisans, clerks, &c. None of these were relieved by Mr. Baines’s bill.

“He desired not to dimmish but to add to the measure, and he thought that every one that earned £2 a-week should have vote [cheers].

“In the course of his canvass he had lost many votes in consequence of his adherence to the Ballot [voting by secret ballot – legislated for by Parliament a few years later in The Ballot Act 1872], but he felt so strongly on that point that he could not surrender it, but he trusted that those gentlemen would not damage the Liberal cause they had a heart by not recording their votes in his favour because they differed from him on one point only.

“He thought that those who interfered with a man’s vote were guilty as those who interfered with his religious opinions; If intimidation and influence be abandoned, then and not till then would he give up the Ballot [applause]. The gallant Colonel then read the notice issued by the Government respecting the vote of the employees of the Admiralty, and he said that he should like to see every College issue a similar notice. The difference between the Colleges and the Government was immense; the government had position, place, and emolument to lose in the case of non-success; the colleges could not possibly be effected by the change. They (The Government) had abandoned all the old Tory influence, and when other parties followed their example he (Col. Torrens) would give up the Ballot.

The gallant Colonel denounced the intolerance and bigotry of the House of Lords in rejecting the Catholic Oaths Bill, [Recall Torrens was born in Ireland and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin] which, he contended, was merely introduced for the purpose of removing unnecessary religions obstruction. The object of the Conservatives was to keep up and maintain the aristocratical influence, and the Liberals wished to adapt the Constitution more to the requirements of the present time, not by pulling down that which was exalted, but by exalting that which was unduly abased.

“One argument there was in favour of the Tories, that opposition was a good thing; and it undoubtedly was so; but he did not think that should always furnish the material for her Majesty’s opposition. He hoped on the day of polling there would be no hanging back, and he felt confident that he and his friend Mr. Christie would be sent by a majority, and he hoped a large one, to represent them in the Commons House of Parliament.

“On the motion of Ald. Beales, seconded by Mr. Wetenhall, a vote of confidence was passed, and the meeting pledged itself to secure to the utmost of its power the return of Messrs.Christie and Torrens; and the usual vote of thanks the Chairman brought the proceedings to a close.”


The one part I’m unclear about is why Robert Richard Torrens is referred to as Col. Torrens by the newspaper, even though so far I cannot find evidence of him having served in the armed forces. Were they confusing him with his father, Robert Torrens who was a senior officer during the Napoleonic wars, and also involved in the colonisation of Australia, but who died in 1864?

There’s more to this strand of local history research – including why Torrens chose to stand in Cambridge.

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