A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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The two-member constituency, at first solidly Liberal and still much influenced by the Grosvenors, was riddled with bribery until 1880, votes being freely bought for beer by both parties. There was a further source of corruption. Although freemen retained their parliamentary votes until 1918 and were a significant proportion of the electorate before 1867, many were too poor to qualify under the £10 householder franchise, and party agents on both sides paid admittance fees and a day's wages when they took up the freedom. There were almost 1,000 freemen voters in 1880 and still over 700 in 1914. (fn. 1)
By abandoning their hotly disputed claim to both seats in 1829, the Grosvenor family strengthened a widely acknowledged right to one of them, which was unchallenged by Liberal factions and Tories alike. (fn. 2) Lord Robert Grosvenor sat from 1832 to 1847, when he was replaced at an uncontested byelection by his nephew Hugh, Earl Grosvenor. The latter remained M.P. until he succeeded his father as marquess of Westminster in 1869, when in another uncontested byelection he was followed by his cousin Norman Grosvenor. The family's first partner at Chester was the lawyer John Jervis, knighted as attorney-general in 1846, who left the Commons in 1850. He was succeeded by W. O. Stanley, son of Lord Stanley of Alderley, who sat until 1857, when he was replaced by a local businessman, the Radical Enoch Salisbury. (fn. 3) The Conservatives did not always bother to fight Chester and when they did (in 1837, 1850, and 1857) they were beaten heavily, receiving only 350- 800 votes to the Liberals' 1,000-1,300 from an electorate which grew slowly from 2,000 in 1832 to 2,500 in 1865. The Chester Tories had a chance only when the Liberals fell into disarray in 1859, Salisbury being defeated for the second seat by a popular local man, Philip Humberston, who had the support of Whigs unwilling to give their second vote to a Radical. (fn. 4) A worse Liberal split took place in 1865, when the Whig and Radical factions each ran a candidate alongside Earl Grosvenor. The Conservative, Chester-born H.C. Raikes, nevertheless came fourth after vigorous interventions for the Whig, W. H. Gladstone, by his father, the chancellor of the exchequer, against the normal understanding that cabinet ministers did not campaign outside their own constituencies. (fn. 5)
The 1867 Reform Act more than doubled the electorate to some 6,000, adding more natural Conservatives than Liberals among the newly enfranchised working men, though also boosting support for Earl Grosvenor. Of the two candidates who stood in both 1865 and 1868 the earl put on 900 votes, but Raikes added 1,600. Again in 1868 the second Liberal vote was divided between Salisbury and a Whig, and Raikes got in. The Radical vote had been falling as a share of the total: from 38 per cent in 1857 to 28 per cent in 1859 and 1865 and only 21 per cent in 1868. Although in 1859 Salisbury drew some support from across the social spectrum, more of his voters were qualified as freemen than as £10 householders, and well over half were small shopkeepers, tradesmen, and labourers. (fn. 6) In 1868 he made special efforts to target Welsh-speaking electors, (fn. 7) but the new votes of railway servants probably largely went to Raikes in 1868, (fn. 8) and it is doubtful that any second Liberal candidate could have beaten him. Raikes later claimed that he failed to head the poll only because his party agents were so fearful of the consequences for Chester of displacing Earl Grosvenor that late in the day they instructed their supporters not to plump for Raikes but to give their second vote to the earl. (fn. 9)
Raikes also improved the party's organization in Chester, using the existing Constitutional Society to spawn a Constitutional Friendly Society in 1873 as a front for channelling private funds into an annual treat for Conservative supporters. In September 1879 the Friendly Society sent some 2,287 trippers to the seaside at Rhyl. (fn. 10) He was probably also behind the large and successful branch of the Primrose League established in the 1880s. (fn. 11)
The Grosvenors withdrew from the seat in 1874, when the Liberal candidates were the senior party politician J. G. Dodson and one of the local leaders, Sir Thomas Frost, but in 1880 they came back, partnering Dodson with the first duke of Westmin ster's nephew Beilby Lawley. In 1874 Raikes, who was building up a strong local following, cleverly chose to run alone and won narrowly. (fn. 12) The local Liberal party determined to organize better for the 1880 election through a Liberal Association established in 1879; on the model of those elsewhere, it comprised a large representative (but nominal) ruling body, the '300', and a small executive committee. Sir Thomas Frost was its president, but the key figures were two of the vicepresidents, Enoch Salisbury and A. O. Walker, and William Brown, who was chairman and treasurer of the finance committee. (fn. 13)
Extensive treating and bribery were undertaken by both parties in 1880 in a campaign also marked by mob violence in the streets, directed especially against an Independent candidate. Salisbury, Walker, and the candidates resigned from the Liberal Association in order to conduct it more discreetly. (fn. 14) The result of the election was a comprehensive Liberal victory. (fn. 15) The Conservatives immediately petitioned against the result; after a short hearing in Chester had uncovered much evidence of corruption, the M.P.s were unseated and the matter was referred to a Royal Commission which exonerated the candidates but imposed a seven-year disqualification from voting on 914 individuals who had given or received bribes or treats. Chester was left unrepresented in parliament until 1885. (fn. 16)
The redistribution of 1885 left Chester with one seat, for which the electorate grew steadily from 6,300 to 8,100 by 1910. (fn. 17) National issues played an increasingly important part in the city's parliamentary elections, (fn. 18) especially the immediate matter of Irish Home Rule, over which the duke of Westminster broke decisively with Gladstone and the Liberal party. Both Gladstone and the duke were influential in Chester, (fn. 19) and Home Rule had many supporters in the city, (fn. 20) but Grosvenor's weight may have been critical. In 1885 the LiberalRadical, an Anglo-Irish Home Ruler, beat the Conservative by 300 votes, (fn. 21) but the following year the duke refused to endorse the new member, Walter Foster, lent transport to the Conservatives during the election, and made two powerful Unionist speeches in Chester. (fn. 22) Partly as a result, the Conservative, Robert Yerburgh, won by a narrow margin. Both Gladstone and the Liberal leadership in the county bitterly condemned the duke's 'interference', which they believed had cost them the seat. (fn. 23) Chester was thereafter a relatively safe Conservative constituency: Yerburgh won it in 1892, 1895 (unopposed), and 1900, and was defeated only in the Liberal landslide of 1906, regaining and then holding it in the two elections of 1910. The number of Conservative voters grew from 2,400 in 1885 to almost 4,000 in the very high turnout of January 1910; the Liberals mustered 2,400- 2,700 in elections between 1885 and 1900 and 3,500-3,700 in 1906 and 1910.
The Grosvenor family's direct influence over the corporation was broken by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and the first council elections at the end of the year. More revealing than the success of only 5 Tories against 35 Liberals (fn. 24) was the pattern of former political allegiances. Twelve of the 40 had voted against the Grosvenor candidates in the 1826 general election and a further six had split their votes, which amounted to the same thing. There were only six out-and-out Grosvenor supporters. A large group, who had not voted at all in 1826, had presumably been uncommitted in the earlier struggles. (fn. 25) They included some of the larger businessmen new to the council, several of whom served for many years, such as E. S. Walker of the leadworks and the banker William Wardell. (fn. 26) There were thus many new faces in the council chamber. The only man with long service was the banker Thomas Dixon, a councilman since 1811 and an alderman since 1827, who received the largest number of votes in any of the wards and, with Walker, headed the new list of aldermen. Another seven had entered the old corporation between 1823 and 1830, five of them in the Grosvenor camp, though they only just secured their places in 1835. They were balanced by five of the Independents who had served as sheriff since 1822. The first mayoral election was contested, and Dixon as Grosvenor candidate lost to a former Independent, (fn. 27) but was elected unopposed the following November.
There was initially a high turnover of councillors and aldermen: of those elected to the first council only 16 still sat in 1841. (fn. 28) At no time was the council dominated by a single economic interest. Rather it represented the diverse sectors of the city's economy. Professional men and the biggest shopkeepers and merchants were always well to the fore, and became more numerous by 1914; smaller retailers and craftsmen retained a presence; the drink trade was present throughout; and there were normally a few large manufacturers and industrialists. (fn. 29)
The size of the municipal electorate fluctuated from year to year but in general grew with the rise in population from 1,400-1,800 in the 1840s to 3,500- 4,000 in the 1860s, then leapt to over 6,400 when the residency qualification was reduced to 12 months in 1869. Thereafter, as the population increased more slowly, it crept up to 7,400 in 1914. Those figures represented about 9 per cent of all inhabitants before 1869 and 18 per cent afterwards. (fn. 30) There were thus considerably more municipal voters than parliamentary ones before 1867, but afterwards up to 1,000 fewer.
Even in the heightened party politics of the period after 1880 only about half of ward elections were contested, either because one party was impregnably dominant or because the parties tacitly or openly agreed to divide the representation. Byelections were contested more often than the main November elections. The turn-out reached 76 per cent in the exceptional year of 1893, when all five wards were contested. (fn. 31)
Party political divisions on the council mattered little before the 1870s, (fn. 32) but local issues were often highly contentious, personal rivalries were involved, and corruption was extensive. By the 1850s election managers, known locally as 'Bashi-Bazouks', were said to be able to return any candidate for a price, mainly by treating voters in the pubs. A later chief constable attributed the corruptibility of the electorate in part to widespread apathy about council elections. (fn. 33) Certainly in 1856 it was evidently normal to bribe voters with drink. (fn. 34) In the same decade a Whig caucus was based at no. 86 Watergate Street, the premises of William Shone, who as collector of the improvement rate held the only complete list of ratepayers eligible to be registered as burgess voters. (fn. 35)
The Whig caucus excluded the Radical wing of the Liberal party, but Radical politics in Chester were galvanized by the arrival of Enoch Salisbury in connexion with the new gas company in the early 1850s. A self-made Welsh businessman and barrister and a teetotal Congregationalist of advanced Radical views, he was a contentious figure for over twenty years, both in politics and in his business dealings. (fn. 36) A public split between Whigs and Radicals seemed likely as early as 1852 but was averted apparently by a rallying call to their common political principles. (fn. 37) In 1857, however, Salisbury denounced the caucus, and went on to disrupt the Liberal machine over the four general elections to 1868, then briefly united the factions in a short-lived Liberal Association (which he himself called a 'dead-alive thing'), and finally joined the council for the first time in 1873. (fn. 38)
In the meantime a variety of local issues which cut across party and even factional lines had come and gone. In the later 1830s and the 1840s, a time of economic stagnation, there were bitter disputes over whether the council should back those who wished to bring new industries to the city. Most plans which required the release of council-owned land were turned down, with the exception of direct railway access, over which a pro-railway lobby won the day. The chairman of the Chester and Crewe Railway Co., John Uniacke, who lived in Chester, was brought on to the council in 1838 and was immediately voted in as mayor, serving for the crucial two years while the lines to Crewe and Birkenhead were opened. Industrial development faded as an issue as the local economy revived in the 1850s. (fn. 39) In the 1840s and 1850s the council was instead preoccupied with stabilizing its finances, extending its powers, and improving public health. In the 1860s attention turned, still in a non-partisan way, to street improvements and reforming the police and fire brigade. (fn. 40) Cross-party co-operation among the élite was exemplified by the establishment of the Grosvenor Club in 1866, which drew its early membership from the leaders of both parties and indeed from non-party figures; the first two presidents were the Whig Earl Grosvenor and the former Tory M.P. Philip Humberston. (fn. 41)
Other issues began to come to the fore in council elections during the 1850s and 1860s. One of the longest-lived was temperance, in the movement for which a leading part was taken by William Farish, a self-educated working man and former Chartist who prospered in business after settling in Chester in 1850. Chester's numerous and varied nonconformist chapels provided a firm basis for the movement. Farish polled 100 votes as a temperance candidate in St. Oswald's ward in 1856, and, after a publicity coup when the mayor refused to hold a public temperance meeting, he and a colleague defeated two liquor merchants in the same ward in 1860. Unopposed in 1863 and 1866, and sheriff in 1868-9, he was then harrassed by the drink interests within his own party, who unsuccessfully ran a brewer against him in 1869, prevented his election as mayor in 1873, held him back from promotion to alderman, and actively excluded him from the Chester Liberal Association in 1879. Temperance had some powerful friends, however, including the duke of Westminster, and Farish served as mayor in 1877-8, but attempts from 1876 to obtain pledges from voters to support only temperance candidates were undone in the beer-sodden election of 1880. (fn. 42) Temperance was afterwards mostly overshadowed by party politics. (fn. 43) The Irish voters of Boughton may have formed another special interest group: the popular Tory W. H. Churton, who occupied one of the ward's seats 1871-80 and 1882-95 certainly credited his success in part to their support. (fn. 44)
Most municipal elections were fought on party lines after 1868, (fn. 45) but it was not until the 1880s that party allegiance dominated the conduct of council business. Many issues were already being decided on party lines when Farish stood down from the council in 1881; on returning in 1887 he found the chamber transformed into a wholly party-political arena. (fn. 46) On some matters of local importance, such as education after 1866, the natural fault lines in any case lay between the parties, (fn. 47) but other issues could still cut across them. Party differences were laid aside in some wards in 1882, for example, over the Improvement Bill: in Boughton one Tory and one Liberal hostile to the Bill were returned with much cross-party voting. (fn. 48)
The corrupt parliamentary election of 1880 also affected municipal politics. Its immediate impact was to boost the Liberals, who had a net gain of five seats in the four wards contested in November that year. One Liberal supporter boasted 'We've fought 'em with beer and licked 'em, and now we've fought 'em without beer and licked 'em. (fn. 49) The main issue now became the domination of the mayoralty by William and Charles Brown. (fn. 50) Their uncles had been prominent councillors after 1835, and from the 1870s the huge success of their department store gave them the leisure and the money to secure great influence within the Liberal party and the council. Both brothers were scheduled for bribery at the 1880 election, but before the Royal Commission reported, Charles was nominated as mayor and beat off a challenge from a fellow Liberal but a non-briber, nominated by the Tories. He was mayor again for two terms in 1883-5 when no-one else was willing to serve at a time of much pressing business over the Improvement Bill and the abolition of the bridge tolls. After only a year's interval William was elected mayor in 1886, then re-elected the following year in order to carry through the public library extension, his gift to the town. Only two years passed before Charles was again made mayor in 1890. Opposition to the brothers' 'perpetual mayordom' was not limited to those with scruples about handing over the office to men struck off the parliamentary register for bribery. (fn. 51) Even the Liberal Chester Chronicle had misgivings. There was, moreover, unpleasant squabbling in 1891 between Charles Brown as mayor and the bishop and dean, and allegations in 1892 that he wished to serve yet again because he hoped to be knighted if still in office when the Royal Agricultural Show came to Chester during the ensuing year. Particular resentment was voiced at the way that both Charles and William had turned the mayoralty into almost a full-time job and spent their own money lavishly on public projects, making it difficult for men with business or professional responsibilities, or less money, to aspire to the position.
After the 1881 municipal elections the Liberals had 28 seats and the Tories 11, with 1 Independent. (fn. 52) More important than the Browns as an influence on party strength in the council was the secession of the Liberal Unionists in 1886, which was led by the head of the other great local dynasty, Sir Thomas Frost, partner with his brothers in F. A. Frost and Sons, a highly successful milling business. The Frost brothers had already been mayor almost as often as the Browns, Thomas being knighted when the prince of Wales visited Chester to open the new town hall in 1869, and serving a further two terms in 1881-3. (fn. 53) Among the councillors the Unionist converts included George Bird, perhaps the most prominent working-class Liberal, who when he came up for re-election in St. Mary's ward in 1888 stood as a Liberal Unionist with full Conservative support and beat two Liberals. By 1889 four aldermen and three councillors sat as Liberal Unionists, but some of them never took the Tory whip and in any case the Liberals at first still commanded a clear majority. (fn. 54) Feeling was heightened by the public split between the duke of Westminster and Gladstone and by rallies on both sides. (fn. 55)
The tide of council election results ran steadily against the Liberals in the early 1890s. The only two wards contested in 1890, for example, both saw a prominent Liberal, William Farish in St. Oswald's and the staunch Home Ruler Henry Stolterfoth in St. Mary's, pushed into third place by new candidates, closet Conservatives standing as Independents. (fn. 56) The Conservatives and Unionists finally achieved a majority on the council in 1894, (fn. 57) which they reinforced in 1895 by purging two Liberal aldermen, also claiming a majority on all the committees. (fn. 58)
Chester was the sort of town 'rich in strong-minded, single, and affluent ladies' who pioneered women's involvement in local politics in the late 19th century. (fn. 59) After 1869, when women were allowed to vote in municipal elections, (fn. 60) the temperance leader William Farish made special efforts to cultivate their support, and claimed in that year to have had the votes of 47 of the 60 women on the electoral roll for his ward. (fn. 61) When he sought to return to the council in 1887 he was nominated solely by women voters, (fn. 62) who were especially numerous in his ward (St. Oswald's) and Boughton. (fn. 63) Conservative women of the Primrose League were active canvassers in the 1886 municipal elections. (fn. 64) Women were voted on to the board of guardians in the 1880s but the only woman who stood for the council after it became possible in 1907 was very poorly supported in Trinity ward in 1912. (fn. 65) The new education committee co-opted the headmistress of the Queen's school (Beatrice Clay) and the manager of the Anglican public elementary schools' foundation (Rachael Joyce) in 1904. (fn. 66)
There were only small beginnings for the Labour movement in Chester before 1914. A branch of the Independent Labour Party - apparently not a very vigorous one - existed by 1896, (fn. 67) and the Chester Socialist Society opened a meeting room between 1906 and 1910. (fn. 68) The United Trades and Labour Council put up its secretary William Carr in St. Oswald's ward at a byelection in 1894, on a platform which included council housing, an eight-hour day for corporation employees, electric lighting, and a new public baths. He polled 466 votes to the Tory's 610. In 1900 he took second place in the ward as an overtly Labour candidate, beating a sitting Liberal, and the next year a colleague joined him in Boughton, both men remaining on the council in 1914. (fn. 69)
At the other extreme of Chester's political spectrum a Ratepayers' Association was formed soon before 1904 and lobbied against all increases in council expenditure, whether on teachers' salaries, mayoral expenses, subsidized rents for the handful of council house tenants, or the employment of a lady sanitary inspector; its secretary in 1904 was an estate agent, Beresford Adams. (fn. 70)
The Fenian Plot of 1867
On 11 February 1867 an audacious plot by the Liverpool Fenians against Chester castle was put into action. (fn. 71) The plan was to infiltrate Chester with up to 2,000 men from all over the North of England under the command of Irish American officers who had military experience in the American Civil War, led by John McCafferty. After night fell, the few armed with revolvers were to seize 300 unguarded rifles stored for the Volunteers at the old cockpit near the city walls. The Fenians would then use those arms to storm the castle, which was garrisoned by only 60 regular soldiers of the 54th Regiment and where there were kept almost 10,000 rifles and 900,000 rounds of ammunition. Other gangs of Fenians were to isolate the city by cutting the telegraph wires and sabotaging railway lines. The main force was to commandeer a train, load the arms, and take them at gunpoint to Holyhead. There they would hijack a steamer and head for Wexford to raise rebellion in Ireland. Rumour, never substantiated, added that the waterworks was to be sabotaged, the town set on fire, and the shops looted.
The plan, however, was betrayed on the night of 10 February by a police informer among the leadership at Liverpool, John Carr alias Corydon. When the Americans (Corydon among them) reached Chester the following morning, they found that the authorities had been forewarned by the Liverpool police. The city's chief constable, the deputy mayor, the Volunteers' Major Philip Humberston, and the head constable of the county police had already moved the Volunteers' rifles to the greater safety of the castle, mustered the police, militia, and Volunteers, and brought another 70 regular soldiers from Manchester.
Although the Fenian officers slipped out of Chester and made frantic efforts to turn back their men, an estimated 1,300 Fenians reached Chester by evening, in small parties from Manchester, Preston, Halifax, Leeds, and elsewhere. Overnight they abandoned what weapons they had and made off, but the emergency went on through the night. Five hundred Household troops arrived by train from London the next morning in time for a tumultuous reception and breakfast at the hotels. Only one arrest was made. The Manchester Guardian joked that 'the excitement seemed to be welcomed by many as an agreeable relief to the oppressive monotony of ordinary Chester life', and even in Chester it was the topic of satire. (fn. 72) It may have fomented anti-Irish feeling in the city, even though only a handful of the resident Irish population had been involved in the plot, and certainly helped to turn the duke of Westminster, who as lord lieutenant was commander of the militia and Volunteers, against granting Home Rule. (fn. 73)