A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1957.
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PARLIAMENTARY HISTORY SINCE 1832
Wiltshire, with an electorate of approximately 1,200 returned 34 members to Parliament in 1831; in 1951, with an electorate of approximately 247,000 it returned five members. (fn. 1) Most of the representation in 1831 came from boroughs, the right of nomination being in the hands of a proprietor or a corporation of a borough—those Vile rotten holes' as Cobbett called them; in 1951 the representation was based, including the borough of Swindon, on broad divisions of from 47,000 to 53,000 electors in each division. In outline these figures reflect the changes which have taken place in the history of parliamentary representation during the past 120 years; changes common to the nation as a whole and not peculiar to Wiltshire, such as the extension of the franchise and the more equitable distribution of seats. It would be very difficult and most unwise to attempt a parliamentary history of Wiltshire without giving full weight to the effect and the movement of great national events, but the background of such events need not be overemphasized. Wiltshire's own contribution to the history of the 19th and 20th centuries is a distinctive one. It is the story of a long and sustained struggle on the part of its people; of farm labourers against the indifference of farmers and landowners; of artisans against the unequal pressure of economic circumstances beyond their control; of men and women whose voices were all too rarely heard by those who represented them in Parliament; of the levelling down of great wealth, political power, and privilege; of the gradual improvement of standards of living for labourer and artisan from conditions of misery and despair, and of a growing co-operation where once there had been hatred and mistrust between the owners of wealth and the users of it. If the parliamentary history of Wiltshire has a story worth telling in its own right, it must of necessity be made to stand out boldly against this background of profound social and economic change.
Not all of the great Wiltshire landowners were anti-reformers; not all of the farmers nor all of the mill-owners were bad employers. Even John Benett, of Pythouse, one of the most hated men in the county by 1830 because of his uncompromising attitude to the poor, was capable of winning popularity by his energetic promotion of parliamentary reform, (fn. 2) and gaining Cobbett's approval for his opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act and for his ability as an estate administrator. (fn. 3) Though opinion was sharply divided in the county as to the necessity and the extent of parliamentary reform, there was on the part of the mass of the population the chief desire to see the abolition of an economic and social structure which perpetuated evils of which the inequality of parliamentary representation was an important though by no means the only cause of discontent. Popular resentment against individuals such as landowners, farmers or mill-owners or members of Parliament, such as John Benett, was apt, therefore, to be directed in proportion to the privilege or the economic power wielded. Yet even so, such resentment was not always clear cut, and in order to understand the crosswinds of opinion which fanned it to a flame, it is necessary to begin with a comparison of forces which led to the revolt of the labourers in 1830 and those which prompted the parliamentary reform agitation in 1831–2.
No one who has read A Shepherd's Life, by W. H. Hudson, can fail to be moved by the intense and vivid picture which he drew of the sufferings of the agricultural labourers in south Wiltshire in 1830. Wages were 7s. a week and it was the practice of farmers to pay off the men after harvest leaving them to find whatever employment they could during the winter months. (fn. 4) One primary source of income during winter had always been threshing with the flail. The threshing-machines which landowners and farmers were installing abolished this source of income and brought the labourer a stage nearer starvation. Put this against a background of the high price of bread, the landlord's exactions of high rents from farmers, the payment of tithes, which could always be made a reason for not increasing wages, and the economic causes of unrest and revolution are determined. The utterances of John Benett about the poor, (fn. 5) the conviction of Henry Cook, (fn. 6) and the nature of the sentences passed at the Salisbury assizes merely served to underline the inequalities between rich and poor, between privilege and complete non-representation.
The nocturnal fires which burned in the country-side around Salisbury during November 1830 had their counterparts in Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire; (fn. 7) but in Wiltshire the mob violence which smashed threshing-machines at Hindon and Pythouse, and which forced farmers to increase wages and parsons to reduce their tithes was something more than blind protest. The result was, however, misguided as an attempt to make living conditions better. This was the over-riding motive which prompted the mob to attack Salisbury for the purpose of destroying the foundry where the hated threshing-machines were made. (fn. 8) At Wilton the farm labourers uniting with the textile workers broke into Brasher's cloth mill and destroyed cloth and machinery worth £500; (fn. 9) at Whiteparish and Idmiston machines were destroyed, and elsewhere wherever the material causes of misery and poverty were thought to exist, they were attacked and destroyed. (fn. 10)
The Reform Bill agitation in Wiltshire was dominated fundamentally as much by economic as by social and political motives; but whereas in 1830 the unrest had assumed the proportions of a general class struggle, in 1831 and 1832 it was much more a collaboration of men and women of all classes, united in an effort to undermine the exclusive right to power of a very small and privileged minority. The issue of redressing the balance between the representation of the agricultural and the manufacturing populations, which was so important to the country as a whole, was, in Wiltshire, an unreal issue; but the political power of the great landowner, the corporation and the borough monger was real indeed.
Between 1830 and 1870 the pattern of land tenure in Wiltshire did not change very much. There were, during those years, some 14,000 landowners in the county. Ten men each holding more than 10,000 acres owned 23 per cent, of the land from which they received an estimated rental of £246,000—representing 15.4 per cent, of the total county rental. (fn. 11) Twenty owners, each with a holding of between 5,000 and 10,000 acres held 16 per cent, of the land with a total rental of £150,000 representing 9–3 per cent, of total county rental and 19 owners each having between 3,000 and 5,000 acres held 87 per cent, of the land with a rental of nearly £99,000 representing 6.2 per cent, of total rental. In all, 49 owners held 386,823 acres—477 per cent, of Wiltshire's total acreage, with a rental of £493,895 being 30.9 per cent. of Wiltshire's total rental.
Translated into terms of political power these figures make significant reading. Apart from the two county members, who, as in the period from 1689 to 1832, were drawn from among the Wiltshire landowners, the great landlords with estates of more than 10,000 acres controlled 13 of the 32 borough seats in Wiltshire in 1831. Another 5 were controlled by landowners whose estates ranged from 3,000 to 10,000 acres. The other seats were controlled by landowners whose estates were not in Wiltshire, by corporations and by jobbers who had purchased the right to make nominations. It would be unfair to suggest that all of these landowners desired to maintain the status quo or that they were all solidly opposed to reform. As we shall see there was a fair division of opinion even among those who wielded the political power.
To turn to certain aspects of the Reform Bill agitation in Wiltshire. On 29 November 1830 when the revolt of the farm labourers was still in progress a petition was circulating in the county stating that 'the Petitioners have viewed with apprehension and alarm the many encroachments upon the rights and liberties of the people by the undue and unconstitutional influence exercised by the Aristocracy arising principally from their possession of Rotten Boroughs'. (fn. 12) By 20 December many thousands of signatures had been attached to this petition in the principal towns of the county. During the following month (January 1831) the mayor of Devizes was asked to call a public meeting of inhabitants and 'persons rated within the borough'. On this occasion the wording of the petition was rather different from that contained in the county petition. It was drawn up 'for the purpose of taking into consideration and determining the propriety of petitioning for reform in the representation of the people of the Commons House of Parliament, and for retrenchment of the national expenditure in support of the declared intentions of His Majesty's ministers'. (fn. 13) The householders of Devizes were undoubtedly prepared to accept the pledges given by the whigs and to work within the framework of such pledges for reform. The county petition, on the other hand, was less constitutional and more social in content.
In the boroughs generally there was much uncertainty about reform amongst those who held political power, and discontent amongst those who did not. In Devizes the mayor and most of the corporation were solidly opposed to any change in the parliamentary representation—refusing to call or be present at any meetings of householders. Meetings were nevertheless held at the Bear Inn at which the constitution of the corporation was published. Of the 35 members, 15 were non-resident, others were not householders and these men had the right to nominate and to elect members to Parliament representing a borough consisting of 900 householders. (fn. 14) A petition for reform was, therefore, ordered to be deposited for signature in various places in the borough. Similar meetings were held during the months of February to April 1831 in Salisbury, Marlborough, Calne, Warminster, Malmesbury, and county meetings at Devizes.
The petitions which were sent forward from these meetings were indicative of a state of feeling about existing abuses and of a desire for reform to be carried out by constitutional methods. John Benett presented such a petition signed by 14,000 Wiltshire persons in the House of Commons on 10 February 1831, and again on 19 March he presented another from the corporation and burgesses of Calne. (fn. 15) This last expressed the 'delight with which the petitioners hailed the measure which His Majesty's Ministers had proposed to the House, and which they, the petitioners looked upon as affording the only effectual means by which the country could be saved from anarchy'. (fn. 16)
In the months of February, March, and April 1831, the time of the debates in Parliament preceding the dissolution on 22 April, excitement mounted in Wiltshire. Apart from the county meeting called at Devizes on 22 February, (fn. 17) there were meetings and demonstrations in favour of the Bill in many of the boroughs and towns, and at Calne, Salisbury, Marlborough, and Warminster there were unmistakable outbursts of popular feeling. Meetings were held in Salisbury in the reading-room of the Salisbury and Wiltshire Society and subsequently in the council chamber where it was proposed to send an address to the king expressing 'the delight with which we view the wise and salutary plan of reform'. (fn. 18) Not a single hand was raised against the resolution in favour of reform which was passed at Warminster. (fn. 19) At Marlborough the mayor called a meeting 'to obtain the real sense of the town' on the subject of reform in spite of the fact that several petitions in favour of the Bill had already been presented from the inhabitants. The meeting as one might have expected ended in uproar. (fn. 20) The most hostile public expressions against reform in the county were undoubtedly those which were carried by the mayor and corporation of Devizes and presented in Parliament by their member, John Pearce, on 18 April. (fn. 21) This petition from the corporation praying that they might not be deprived of the privilege which they had held by prescription and by several royal charters of electing a burgess to serve in Parliament, was in sharp contrast with the petition from the inhabitants of the borough presented on the same day by John Benett.
Popular enthusiasm for reform and corporate supplication against were, however, merely uncertain indications of the general agitation; they were not manifestations of the real sources of power. Rights of nomination were vested in a small group of principal landlords and election in a limited number of privileged persons. The first draft of the Reform Bill had proposed the complete disfranchisement of the boroughs of Great Bedwyn, Heytesbury, Hindon, Ludgershall, Malmesbury, Old Sarum, and Wootton Bassett under schedule A, and the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, Downton, Marlborough, Westbury, and Wilton under schedule B. (fn. 22) The boroughs under schedule A were those which had a population of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants and those under schedule B with a population of fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. The total loss of seats to Wiltshire under these schedules amounted to 19. The prevailing influences were as follows: Lord Ailesbury controlled the boroughs of Great Bedwyn and Marlborough; Lord Heytesbury, Heytesbury; Lords Grosvenor and Calthorpe, Hindon; Sir George Graham and Mr. Everett, Ludgershall; Mr. Joseph Pitt, Malmesbury; Lord Caledon, Old Sarum; the Earl of Clarendon, Wootton Bassett; Joseph Neeld, Chippenham; Lord Radnor, Downton; Sir E. A. Lopes, Westbury; Lord Pembroke, Wilton. (fn. 23) In subsequent amendments to the Bill determined by population and householder qualifications, Downton was completely disfranchised. Calne and Malmesbury were included in schedule B to return one member each and Chippenham was removed from schedule B and restored to its right of returning two members. With the addition of two county members the over-all reduction in Wiltshire's representation in Parliament in 1833 therefore amounted to sixteen seats.
The division of opinion for and against the Reform Bill among those who wielded political power in Wiltshire was plainly discernible in the election returns of 1831 and in the debates on the Bill in June and July of that year. Of the large landowners Lord Ailesbury, Lord Heytesbury, Lord Pembroke, and Joseph Neeld were among those anti-reformers whose nomination boroughs were to be wholly or partially disfranchised. Among the advocates of reform were Lord Radnor, who in 1826 had offered his borough of Downton to Southey on condition that he would vote for its disfranchisement; and who again in 1831 successfully supported its disfranchisement although it had been scheduled to lose one member only (fn. 24)—thus Lord Radnor with other members of his family formed an effective and a most powerful stimulus to reformist opinion among the wealthier classes in the county. (fn. 25) Lord Lansdowne, President of the Council in Lord Grey's 1830 administration, and owner of the borough of Calne, was much less whole-hearted than Lord Radnor but whatever his innermost views about reform he was in no position to offer resistance to the proposal to reduce the representation of his borough. (fn. 26) Whatever views he may have expressed in the privacy of the cabinet room to Lord Grey he could scarcely hope to escape the consequences of having nominated Thomas Babington Macaulay for Calne in 1830 and 1831—a choice which at this precise time in the history of parliamentary reform must stand as token of his political judgement if not as a true indication of his inmost beliefs.
In the general election of 1831 the views of the anti-reformist landowners and borough-mongers were clearly indicated in the speeches of their nominees and in the protests which accompanied their election to Parliament. At Devizes a 'numerous and highly respectable' meeting was held which passed an address to the king thanking him for his magnamity in dissolving Parliament, and 'a fairly mixed representation of nearly every class' proposed to send a deputation to the corporation requesting them nct to elect anyone as their representative unless pledged to reform. In spite of this two antireformers were elected amid 'interruption and uproar'. (fn. 27) At Marlborough antireformers—nominees of Lord Ailesbury—were elected with much opposition; charges of intimidation were brought against Lord Ailesbury's agent and of corruption against the corporation. Chippenham on the other hand, though it returned two anti-reformers, did so peacefully, but at Malmesbury the election of anti-reformers by the borough's thirteen voters took place amid 'hooting, gibes and taunts almost beyond endurance'. (fn. 28) Similarly, in Salisbury great uproar attended the election of one reformer and one antireformer. The 'Great room' was crowded to excess; speeches were inaudible and the mayor had to mount the table to call for order. At one point in the proceedings a dog was placed on the table 'to catch the rats'. (fn. 29) In Cricklade the two seats were contested by three reformers and the poll lasted for five days. The total number of votes polled was 1,138 and the number of borough voters was 78. (fn. 30)
It was, however, on the third reading of the Bill that the division of opinion among Wiltshire representatives was shown to be much less directly opposed to popular feeling than the results of the 1831 election would suggest. In addition to the avowed reformers —the nominees of Lord Lansdowne, the Earl of Radnor and Sir E. A. Lopes, representing Calne, Downton, and Westbury, there were the two members for the county and for Cricklade, and one member each for Salisbury, Hindon, Ludgershall, and Wootton Bassett who voted for the Bill. (fn. 31) Fourteen Wiltshire members therefore voted for the Bill, seventeen against and three members—one for Wootton Bassett, one for Heytesbury, and one for Old Sarum abstained. The opposition drew its main strength from the influence of certain landowners, Lord Ailesbury (Great Bedwyn and Marlborough), the Earl of Pembroke (Wilton), Joseph Neeld and Henry George Boldero (Chippenham), Lord Heytesbury (Heytesbury), Lord Caledon (Old Sarum), together with the two members for the corporation of Devizes. It would, however, be a complete misrepresentation of facts to suggest that all landowners with political influence in Wiltshire brought undue pressure to bear upon their nominees. As the above analysis shows quite clearly there was the exercise of freedom of choice and the opinion of the member on fundamental issues could, and often did, run contrary to that of his patron. The action of many Wiltshire members in the Reform Bill debates was governed by high motives and by a disinterested appraisal of events; no fewer than nine Wiltshire members voted in favour of the measure which was to disfranchise the boroughs which they represented. Although some large landowners and many of the corporations resisted popular feeling this was only to be expected; but this resistance was less general in Wiltshire than in some other counties. Finally, with the passing of the Reform Bill, Wiltshire lost sixteen of its seats in Parliament, leaving a total of eighteen instead of thirty-four. The county was represented in the Reformed House as follows: northern division of the county (2 members), southern division (2 members), Wilton (1), Westbury (1), Marlborough (2), Malmesbury (1), Devizes (2), Cricklade (2), Chippenham (2), Calne (1) and Salisbury (2).
During the next 80 years the parliamentary history of Wiltshire was shaped by a variety of influences, some of which were peculiarly local in character, others of which were either national or world-wide in scope. The growth and migration of population, the decay of long-established industries and the rise of new ones, the serious decline in agricultural prices and in the value of land were major factors underlying the changes in the structure of Wiltshire's political life. It is necessary briefly to indicate the extent of these changes as the economic and political factors in Wiltshire's history were so closely related and the nature of their interaction must be examined if the parliamentary history of the county is to be rightly understood.
Between 1851 and 1911 the total adult population of Wiltshire (i.e. all persons over 15 years of age) increased by 47,079. The percentage rate of increase of population between 1801 and 1901 shows that as compared with other counties predominantly agricultural, Wiltshire lagged behind. For example, in the period 1801 to 1811 the county had the lowest rate of increase of ten agricultural counties, (fn. 32) and in the next decade when a general and substantial increase was recorded, Wiltshire had an increase of 14 per cent, as compared with Cambridgeshire's 21 per cent., Dorset's 16 per cent., and Somerset's 17 per cent. Between 1841 and 1861 there was a decrease of population partly caused in all probability by the increasing facility for migration caused by the building of the Great Western Railway. (fn. 33) Thereafter until 1901 the county just about held its own though the decennial rate of increase never rose above 3 per cent.
These declining trends in the rate of increase of the population—and Wiltshire was the first county in England to report a general decline (fn. 34)—were the result of a concatenation of economic factors—low profit margins in arable farming; the decline of rural industry and the increasing attractiveness of wage rates in skilled and semi-skilled occupations in the industrial towns; improved methods of transport, and the unequal incidence of local forms of taxation. Some of these factors tended to cancel out: the railway which enabled the underpaid farm labourer to travel farther afield in search of more lucrative employment also widened markets and cheapened costs for the dairy farmer; and the decline in handloom weaving, over a limited period, increased the supply of cheap labour to the farmer. The pattern of the population trend was therefore nowhere consistent, and continued to show signs of wildly fluctuating intensity to the end of the century.
As long as the holding of land continued to be remunerative to landowner and farmer —and it continued to be so until 1873—the political influence exerted by landowners was considerable. Their support and influence still counted strongly in the nomination and in the election of members. As compared with 1832 they had to woo an increasingly diverse electorate and this necessitated changes in tactics and in methods of approach; but they usually succeeded, irrespective of party distinctions in having members of their own class returned. It was not always possible, however, to secure the return of members of their own particular choice. In 1837, for example, in the north Wiltshire county division Walter Long and Paul Methuen were the favoured candidates, both maintaining the position of political influence held by their families, in the case of the Longs since the early years of the 18th century, in that of the Methuens since approximately a hundred years later. (fn. 35) They had sat for the division since 1833; Walter Long was a tory and Paul Methuen a whig. A second tory in the person of Sir Francis Burdett suddenly appeared and not only captured the seat from Methuen but was returned at the head of the poll. The Wiltshire Independent expressed unqualified disapproval of such conduct. 'A candidate who opposes an old and tried representative has a double dye of blackness attached to his character. To the tyranny of Toryism he adds the infamy of an apostate.' (fn. 36) One suspects that the views of the landowners who supported Paul Methuen were just as powerful as those of the Independent though they would have been expressed for a different reason. Again in the Cricklade election of 1859 Sir John Neeld and A. L. Goddard the sitting members were proposed by local landowners.
Lord Ashley was a third candidate. A show of hands after the election speeches had been made on Friday, 29 April 1859 declared in favour of Sir John Neeld and Lord Ashley. A poll was called for by the supporters of A. L. Goddard, and this took place on the following day. The result of the poll reversed the decision obtained by the show of hands. A. L. Goddard and Lord Ashley were elected and Sir John Neeld by his defeat ended an association with the division which had lasted for twenty years. (fn. 37)
In general, however, the will of the great landowner still dominated the electoral scene. Mr. G. S. R. Kitson Clark has likened the electoral structure of 1841 to that of the 18th century. (fn. 38) As far as Wiltshire was concerned the analogy can be extended until 1870. The more open forms of bribery had been discontinued; but the influence of the landowner as Thorold Rogers complained in 1867 was very difficult to circumvent. (fn. 39) Apart from the payment of election expenses, which in the 1850's and 1860's averaged £5,800 per election, a large landowner could and did, influence voters to vote for the 'right' candidate. One fairly common method in Wiltshire took the form of offering precarious but beneficial tenancies. This made it almost impossible for a farmer to vote independently as he was under the constant fear of losing a good farm should he vote contrary to the wishes of his landlord. Of the 76 members who represented Wiltshire between 1835 and 1880, 60 were either local landowners or sons of local landowners— many of whom sat fairly continuously for their borough or division during the period, (fn. 40) and by so doing upheld an established family tradition of supplying the representative for Parliament. (fn. 41) For example, Walter Long represented north Wiltshire for 30 years (1835–65), Sidney Herbert represented south Wiltshire for 28 years (1833–61) and John Benett for 33 years. Henry Bingham Baring and Ernest Charles Bruce sat for Marlborough for the whole period between the first and second Reform Bills, 35 years (1833–1868). The representation of Cricklade by Sir John Neeld has been mentioned but this division also returned two members of the Goddard family—Ambrose Goddard and his son Ambrose Lethbridge for a total period of 31 years. (fn. 42) Chippenham returned Joseph Xeeld for a period of 28 years (1830–56; 1857–9) and Henry George Boldero for 24 years (1835–59). Finally Calne was represented by members of the Fitzmaurice family from 1833–6, 1837–56 and 1868–85. (fn. 43) All these men owned land in Wiltshire or in neighbouring counties or were the sons of landowners. It was not until the last quarter of the century when land ceased to be a profitable investment for capital, when arable farming had ceased to be a remunerative occupation and when thousands of farm labourers were driven from the land into the towns (fn. 44) that the balance of political power and influence began actively to change.
While, in a general sense, it was true that the balance of political power remained in the hands of the landowning class between 1832 and 1880, it was equally true that during this period powerful forces were being set in motion for the purpose of changing that balance. Largely as a result of forces which sprang from economic causes the initiative in the promotion of legislation, which for so long had been vested in the political consciousness of the landed classes now began to pass to the town populations. This was not exceptional. The towns whose prosperity had formerly depended on the woollen industry, had to deal with an increasing problem of distress and poverty as that industry perished; the structure of the town populations changed; thousands of handloom weavers migrated with their families and it was not until comparatively late in the century when other forms of employment had been established that this drift was checked. (fn. 45) All towns did not suffer to the same extent. The building of railway lines, locomotive works and repair shops, the establishment of light engineering works had brought new sources of employment to some towns after 1850, and immigrants began to move in from other parts of the country. (fn. 46) Whatever the cause which may have changed the structure of the populations in the towns, however, the factor common to all towns was that their populations became more vociferous as the century advanced. The towns became the centres of organized opposition to an economic system which had no solution to offer for the alleviation of poverty and distress among skilled craftsmen; and to a political system which had as yet no immediate solution for the education, the enfranchisement, and the improvement of the living conditions of the mass of people.
The Chartist movement in Wiltshire was a first expression of this relative change in the political life of the county. Disappointed with the ineffectiveness of the Reform Bill and angered by the harshness of the new poor law, the unemployed artisans of the Wiltshire towns were greatly influenced by Chartist ideas with their fundamental points for the transference of political power to the masses. In 1839 and 1840 the movement was attracting a great deal of attention. (fn. 47) The main centres of disturbance were in Trowbridge, Westbury, Bradford, Holt, Devizes, and Salisbury where Working Men's Associations were in existence. There were torchlight processions, fiery speeches, threats to resort to arms and some forceful levying of subscriptions from tradesmen, and in Devizes indiscriminate rioting twice took place during 1839. Though the magistrates were undoubtedly alarmed by the unruliness and specially by the union of farm and town labourers, (fn. 48) they acted on the whole with restraint; the use of troops was kept to a minimum and only on occasions when the peace seemed to be seriously threatened.
The whole Chartist movement in Wiltshire seems to have been directed and mainly organized from Bath. Such leaders as the county produced—William Carrier and William Potts, John Andrews and Samuel Harding of Trowbridge and William Tucker of Westbury—were overshadowed by the more powerful personalities of leaders from outside such as Charles Bolwell, W. P. Roberts, and Henry Vincent; (fn. 49) Carrier was sent as delegate to the National Convention in London; it had adjourned and gone to Birmingham but he had not followed, and on 7 June he was arrested in Lambeth. In March 1840 the ringleaders of 1839, who had been indicted in the preceding summer assizes, were brought to trial. They were charged with conspiracy by causing unlawful assemblies with intent to disturb the peace. Carrier, Potts, and Roberts were found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment, Carrier with hard labour; the charges against Harding, Tucker, and Andrews were dropped.
So militant Chartism ended in Wiltshire, apart from a minor flare in 1848 which was centred mainly on the new industrial town of Swindon. After 1843 Chartism had become respectable and had confined its activities to debating societies, educational activities, and mutual improvement societies. Reviewing the course of the movement as a whole in Wiltshire, there can be no doubt that it had constituted a grave threat to the queen's peace, but that the magistrates of Trowbridge, Bradford, and Westbury had, by wise action, kept the riotous elements under control. Finally, it is significant that the movement had its impetus in Trowbridge, Bradford, Westbury, Warminster, and Salisbury and such of the villages as were within easy reach of these towns. There was evidence of sporadic outbreaks in Devizes, Chippenham, and Swindon, and none at all at Calne, Malmesbury, and Marlborough. Four of the five main centres were within striking distance of Bath whence came ideas and organization, and perhaps, most significant of all, these four towns were those whose economic fortunes were at low ebb because of the rapidly declining cloth trade. The leaders were townsmen and their political faith had in the long run failed to capture the enthusiasm of the countryman.
During the 1840's the great debates which centred on Peel's reform of the tariff and on the crisis which led up to the repeal of the corn laws had apparently much less impact upon opinion in Wiltshire than might have been expected. On tariff matters generally there was general support for Peel's policy from the artisan population in the towns, though among the larger landowners and farmers there was a strong feeling that the tariff reductions were too sweeping and that as a result, the position of the landowner might become imperilled. (fn. 50) On the issue of repeal public opinion was much more clearly defined. In the cloth towns there was strong support for the repeal of the corn laws, but in the south-east, the wheatland country, which had much to lose by repeal there was much less enthusiasm for the measure. (fn. 51) Lord Ashburton had much support for his anti-league activities from all classes of tenants on his land in Wiltshire and was himself high in the councils of the Anti-League Society. (fn. 52) In the debates in the House of Commons the two viewpoints were strongly expressed: against repeal and on behalf of the wheat farmers by John Benett, for repeal and on behalf of the labourer by Sidnev Herbert. Benett stressed the smallness of the return on the landowner's capital and argued that repeal would not only bring ruin to the owner of capital, but would also by reducing the demand for labour bring starvation to the labourer. (fn. 53) This conclusion, which was fairly generally accepted in southern Wiltshire, was based on the supposition that repeal would, by reducing prices, automatically reduce wages and lead to widespread unemployment on the land. (fn. 54)
An alternative view was put forward by Sidney Herbert. He had been converted to free trade by Peel's powerful arguments and claimed to be expressing the views of his tenants and constituents when he declared that though agricultural interests might suffer by repeal, the competition from imported grain would not be great. He interpreted the feelings of his tenant farmers by saying that if losses occurred they would fall on the landowner and not upon the occupier, and that as far as the labourers were concerned repeal would in no way make their lot any worse than it was. As agricultural wages did not rise as much as prices neither would they fall in the same proportion if prices were to fall. Consequently if repeal were to be carried and were to be followed by a fall in prices the labourer would in relative terms gain rather than lose. (fn. 55) He condemned 'slovenly agriculture' as a cause of low wages and distress—an attribute of a protective system. In view of what happened later in the century it is of interest that in 1845 Herbert was convinced that he was interpreting public opinion in his part of Wiltshire when he said that apprehension on the repeal issue arose not from fear of being unable to withstand foreign competition, but from the threat of shortage of food. (fn. 56) Contrast this with John Benett's view of public opinion that the people of Wiltshire would have nothing to do with repeal 'except some half dozen lazy fellows' (fn. 57)—an estimate which contained a germ of truth amid gross misrepresentation. In the final discussion on the third reading of the Bill for the Repeal of the Corn Laws only three Wiltshire members voted for the Bill, there were ten who voted against it. (fn. 58) Strange as it may appear, Herbert was on this occasion much less an interpreter of Wiltshire opinion than John Benett.
These debates throw light on the mid-century party divisions in Wiltshire as well as on the gradually changing relationship between landlord and labourer. In the vital matter of parliamentary enactment regarding agriculture not only does the political division between conservative and liberal, protection and free trade become discernible, but on the social plane the interests of landlords, farmers, and labourers become more closely identified. In the acceptance of such a view it must be made quite clear that up to 1850 the changes were neither well marked nor wide in extent. There was still much ignorance and prejudice abroad and as the speeches of the Wiltshire members show, a lack of objectivity in the approach to agricultural problems. The economic arguments were in the main specious; the great diversity of the county's agricultural structure was ignored. In fact the impression is that the lessons which Cobbett had taught seem to have gone unheeded and that the mass of the population, depressed and apprehensive were apparently unable to distinguish clearly between the issues raised, and so were never in a position to adopt anything more than a passive attitude to events which so nearly concerned their well-being. This would be an erroneous picture of the situation. The meetings of the Anti-Corn Law League in Wiltshire were largely attended and on the whole conducted in an atmosphere of earnest controversy. When Cobden visited Salisbury in the summer of 1843 he had to face much opposition, some of it probably engineered, but a good deal of it from small farmers and labourers who had a real fear of what might follow were protection to be lifted from agriculture. (fn. 59) Many of the opponents of repeal among the countrymen of Wiltshire had a better insight into the economics of the corn law controversy than their representatives in Parliament, and foresaw much of what actually did happen later in the century; but the deep bitterness and resentment of 1830 had now been softened and the labourer, the farmer and the landowner found themselves drawn into a common bond of partnership in face of an external threat to their livelihood. (fn. 60)
Among the causes, which had undoubtedly led to better relations between employer and employed on the Wiltshire farms in the 1840's, had been the removal of age-long grievances by the abolition of the game laws and by the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act in 1836; a second reason lay in the support given by the whig landlords to the apparently hopeless fight in Parliament against corrupt practices, (fn. 61) and a third in the determined attempt which was made by the more enlightened landowners to improve housing conditions for the labourers. In the report on the employment of women and children in agriculture of 1843, (fn. 62) an attempt was made to prove that agricultural labour was not detrimental to the health of women and children. The documentary evidence more than supported the conclusions onthis point but in doing so unwittingly drew a horrifying picture of housing conditions in the Wiltshire country-side. There was much improvement, however, after 1848 through the stimulus of the action taken by local authorities in applying the Public Health Act, (fn. 63) and by local landowners in building new cottages and in renovating old ones. Sidney Herbert was intensely interested in the movement to build model cottages for farm labourers and had some constructed at Wilton; Lords Lansdowne and Ashburton improved housing conditions on their estates, and by the end of the 1860's practically every large owner in Wiltshire had sunk capital into improvement schemes; so much so that the commissioners conducting inquiries into housing conditions in 1867–9 were able to report that the cottages which landlords built 'and they are building a great many, are almost universally good'. (fn. 64) Insanitary houses were pulled down, drainage schemes were put on foot, sewers were built—very often at private expense. There was some complaint that the greater landlords had set impossible standards of excellence so that small squires by reason of their much smaller outlay of capital had become indicted for their poverty. (fn. 65)
The election of 1852 demonstrated the widespread interest of Wiltshire's growing electorate in the issues of no popery, free trade versus protection and in housing improvement, sanitary reform, and public-health matters generally. In this election for Salisbury and for south Wiltshire these issues were hotly debated. In Salisbury the free traders and pro-reformers had as their candidates W. J. Chaplin and C. B. Wall. (fn. 66) Opposing them in the conservative interest were Sir F. Slade and H. Burr. In south Wiltshire Sidney Herbert was opposed by W. Wyndham and R. P. Long. (fn. 67) It is of interest that the causes of sanitary reform and of free trade were triumphantly vindicated at the polls on 29 July by the return of Chaplin, Wall, and Sidney Herbert.
Another powerful influence ultimately affecting the improvement of relations between landlord and tenant in Wiltshire is to be found in the growth of facilities for the education of the people. This was part of a general movement towards universal education and included not only the provision of schools for children but also, through the initiative of the working classes, the creation of mechanics institutes or literary institutes in all the chief towns of the county. (fn. 68) In this context the great and growing influence of the local press must not be overlooked as a powerful instrument in the shaping of public opinion. Wiltshire has had a local press dating back to the beginning of the 18th century, but the period of its greatest development was between 1830 and 1911. Thirty- five newspapers were started in this period and, of this number, 28 appeared between 1830 and 1885; seventeen of them appeared between 1850 and 1870. Conditions of publication were made much easier after the repeal of the stamp duty in 1855, but the measure of the growing demand for news and for political commentary must, to a large extent, be judged by these figures. Public opinion in Wiltshire, as every political candidate knew, was rapidly becoming a well-informed public opinion, capable of strong loyalties and forceful in its expression. The constant desire was for cheap newspapers which could be circulated as widely as possible among the working classes. It is not surprising therefore that a good many of the newspapers which were started in this period had strong whig or liberal leanings.
The tory and conservative interest was strongly supported in the earlier period by the Wiltshire Mirror and the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette and later by the Marlborough Times, the Trowbridge Chronicle, the Wilts. and Gloucestershire Standard, and others. (fn. 69) On the liberal side there was a more diverse range from the radical to the progressively conservative. The Salisbury Journal under the management of W. B. Brodie was extremely whig in outlook, but later under James Bennett assumed a policy of dignified neutrality on political matters. Chief among the liberal newspapers were the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, the Salisbury Times, the Wiltshire Independent, the North Wilts. Herald, the Trowbridge and North Wilts. Advertiser, the Devizes Advertiser, and the Swindon Advertiser. Their circulation covered a wide area and their importance in guiding opinion on vital political issues must not be under-estimated. Two examples may suffice to illustrate this point. In 1876 leading liberals in Wiltshire realized that it had become necessary to co-ordinate liberal opinion in the county and a newspaper, the Wiltshire Times was founded for this purpose. Its shareholders were the Marquess of Lansdowne, Lord Fitzmaurice, Sir Thomas Grove, the Rt. Hon. E. P. Bouverie (chairman of the North Wilts. Liberal Association), and G. P. Fuller. (fn. 70) The Wiltshire Times incorporated the Wiltshire Independent and the Trowbridge Advertiser and through its appeal to all classes of the community over a wide area was able to exert great political influence. In 1890 the conservative party decided that it was of some urgency to control and publish a newspaper in the west Wiltshire division. A syndicate of members was formed and the Trowbridge Chronicle was purchased and placed under the management of J. M. Brindley, a former conservative agent for the division. In this way the party had a ready-made public for the reception of its more advanced views on imperialism and tariff reform. In 1895 the title of the newspaper was changed to the Wiltshire Chronicle with which is incorporated the Trowbridge and Westbury Gazette: in 1899 Swindon was brought within the range of its distribution. It was one of the largest newspapers in Wiltshire and, like the Wiltshire Times, was an extremely powerful local element in the shaping of public opinion.
The collective influence of the growth of educational facilities and the creation of an informed public opinion by the press had a profound influence on the movement for parliamentary reform in the years between 1865 and 1867. Robert Lowe, (fn. 71) member for Calne, Adullamite and opponent of reform was well aware of the connexion between reform and an educated and enlightened electorate. 'If this Bill (the 1867 Reform Bill) must pass', he said, 'if power must be given to the working classes, then it is imperative that they must be educated. You must take Education up the very first question and you must press it on without delay for the peace of the country.' (fn. 72) It is now possible to see that his fear that an extension of the franchise without an extension of educational facilities for the masses was possibly based on a misreading of the situation. The people of Wiltshire no less than the members of the Birmingham League had already taken active steps in the promotion of their own education long before the passing of the Education Act in 1870. When the franchise was extended to include the town artisan in 1867 it was Lowe's own party which was returned to power in the following election, to be followed by a conservative not a radical government in 1874. It was perhaps not surprising that Lowe and many other politicians should have so misjudged the popular temper at this time. The ameliorating influence of better economic and social conditions had within a dozen years lessened the possibility of revolution. Where there had once been disorganization and despair there was now a growing sense of freedom and responsibility. Lowe's judgement might perhaps have been more sensitive had he taken the trouble to understand what was going on in the minds of the Wiltshire people whom he claimed to represent.
The 1867 Reform Bill altered the pattern of Wiltshire's electorate as well as its representation in Parliament. As compared with the events preceding the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill the excitement over reform between 1865 and 1867 was less intense and much less bitter. This difference was the undoubted result of the ameliorating influences outlined above, and can perhaps best be expressed by reiterating the nature of the change in personal relationships which had taken place during these years. Whereas in 1832 John Benett's quite genuine efforts on behalf of reform had been mistrusted because of his uncompromising attitude towards the working classes, Robert Lowe's views in 1865–6, which in some respects were just as uncompromising as those of John Benett, were listened to without undue prejudice. Both men were whigs but Benett had become the embodiment of the most reactionary elements in an acutely class-conscious world; Lowe, in spite of his attitude towards reform was accepted by Wiltshire in a spirit of toleration which could never have found expression in 1830. (fn. 73) The answer to the difference in the reactions of popular feeling towards the two men lies in the breaking down of barriers between classes and in the growing belief that in both political and economic activity exclusiveness and privilege were harmful to the individual, to the class, and to the nation.
In his picture of Victorian England, Mr. G. M. Young has expressed the opinion that the political events of 1874 and 1880 lend some colour to the view that the electors never vote for a party but only against one. (fn. 74) Taking the country as a whole this may well have been true; looking at the small unit of Wiltshire's fifteen seats it is only partly so. In the 1874 election changes took place in five seats, Salisbury, Westbury, north Wiltshire, south Wiltshire, and Wilton; except for Westbury, which in spite of the influence of the Lopes family voted for Gladstone, the other four seats were gained by conservatives. In the 1880 election only two seats changed, Salisbury from conservative to liberal, and Westbury back to conservative. Taking a longer view it is possible to see that Wiltshire has been, over the past 85 years, predominantly conservative in outlook. In the 21 general elections which have taken place between 1867 and 1951 the county has returned no fewer than 93 conservative and conservative unionist members to 46 liberal and 5 labour members. (fn. 75) This in itself is significant when one remembers that within this period there have been four major extensions of the franchise and three major redistributions of seats.
The agitation in Wiltshire for parliamentary reform in 1866 and 1867 was a counterpart of the agitations in Birmingham, Manchester and London. The talk about revolution in the event of the Bill passing was unreal and the people of Wiltshire, no less than the inhabitants of Manchester and London, were more than ready to demonstrate that the agitation for reform was in no way inconsistent with loyalty to the Crown. When, therefore, Sir Thomas Bateson, member for Devizes, reiterated the view that if political power were to pass into the hands of the working classes it would 'Americanize the English Constitution', and presumably lead to a republic, he did not get a sympathetic hearing from his Wiltshire audiences. (fn. 76) The meetings which were held at Salisbury, Devizes, and Chippenham were not diverted from their purpose by any bogey of revolution.
It is not necessary to trace the course of this agitation in detail. In one sense the Reform Act of 1867 left the political background of Wiltshire strangely undisturbed. The old influences were left very much alive though in some cases reduced in scope. The Lansdowne influence at Calne, the Ailesbury influence at Marlborough, and the Pembroke influence at Wilton remained as something of a safeguard for liberal interests. (fn. 77) The Neeld influence at Chippenham—ultra-tory in origin—was left with one seat and a safe one for the conservative cause. Old party allegiance was at first not seriously impaired. The division of the county seats and those at Cricklade and Salisbury between the liberal party and the conservative party remained very much as it had been since 1857; Chippenham and Devizes continued to send conservative members to Parliament. A superficial view of the effect of the Reform Act of 1867 in Wiltshire might therefore reveal nothing of a startling nature and record the main changes as a result of the loss of three seats. (fn. 78) Fundamentally, however, the political changes were much greater than at first sight appear to have been the case and were linked inseparably with the long-term movement with all its political and economic implications for the more equitable distribution of seats and for the wider enfranchisement of the population.
Consider first the further redistribution of seats. The 1867 Act reduced Wiltshire's total representation by three seats and did something, but not very much, to redress some of the more flagrant discrepancies in the relationship between members, registered voters and population. Before the Act, Calne, Chippenham, Malmesbury, Westbury, Marlborough, and Devizes were boroughs with roughly the same sized population; Chippenham with 300 electors, Marlborough with 271 electors, and Devizes with 373 electors, each returned two members; Calne with 160 electors, Malmesbury with 309 electors, and Westbury with 314 electors each returned one member. After the Act they all returned one member but the extension of the franchise did very little to produce uniformity. Calne's electorate was increased by approximately 600, Malmesbury's by 700, Westbury's by 780, Chippenham's by 650, Marlborough's by 570 and that of Devizes by 600. (fn. 79) A much better readjustment was made in 1884 when the county seats were disfranchised and Wiltshire's total membership was reduced to six based on approximately equal divisions of from 9,000 to 10,000 voters, Salisbury alone excepted. On this occasion Calne, Malmesbury, and Marlborough as well as the county divisions lost their representation and the last of the two member boroughs, Cricklade and Salisbury, each had their representation reduced to one member. (fn. 80) The final redistribution of seats for Wiltshire in 1918 reduced the total to five by the disfranchisement of Cricklade and Wilton, and by the creation of a new seat for the growing borough of Swindon. There was a vast extension of the franchise due to the inclusion of women voters over the age of 30. The reduction of this age-limit in 1928 to 21—the 'flapper's vote'—gave equality to men and women voters and ended a long period of struggle for parliamentary and electoral reform. Long before this, however, the direct family influence had ceased to play its part in Wiltshire elections. In a period of just under 100 years the political power of Wiltshire had been reduced far beyond the wildest fears of the magnates of 1832, and it is impossible to speculate on what Lord Lansdowne, Lord Ailesbury, and Lord Heytesbury might have thought could they have seen the present broad basis of the county's representation; among all those who wielded power in 1832 perhaps Lord Radnor alone might be the least surprised by the change.
Looking at the picture from another point of view—namely, that of the proportion of electors to total population—it is possible to underline the extent of the changes in Wiltshire's parliamentary history since 1867. In the election of 1868 there were just under 12,500 registered voters in Wiltshire—roughly 3.5 per cent, of the total population. The extension of the franchise to farm labourers in 1884 increased the electorate by approximately 36,000. Set against a decline in population since 1870 of 80,000 the 1884 total of registered voters was about 18 per cent, of the total population of the county. The additional number of voters in 1918 including women voters was 85,000 bringing the total electorate to 134,000 or just under 50 per cent. of the population; in 1928 the increase over the total for 1918 was 58,000. Today, the number of registered electors in Wiltshire is just over a quarter of a million. (fn. 81) These figures not only reflect the success of the national movements for the broadening of parliamentary representation, they also mark the stages in a long process of readjustment between political power and economic power. As the relative importance of Wiltshire's major industries declined, so too did the county's political power; as its agriculture fought its losing battle with industry, so too did privilege bow before the onslaught of democracy. In some respects Wiltshire's contribution to this bloodless political revolution was far greater than that of the more active and more insistent industrial cities of the north.
A final assessment must be made of personalities in relation to the political background of Wiltshire's history. A county which included among its representatives such names as Macaulay, Creevey, Henry Lytton Bulwer, Antony Ashley Cooper, Sidney Herbert, and Robert Lowe, (fn. 82) and among the peers, Radnor, Lansdowne, and Pembroke might be expected to show a strong tendency towards advanced liberal opinions. These men were all men of affairs, most of them holding high office and able through their office to exert great influence in the national council. Opposed to them on the conservative side was a long line of less distinguished names in public affairs, but who nevertheless were imbued with a strong local patriotism. Most of them were Wiltshire landowners; a few of them were ultra-tory in outlook, a few held moderately advanced views, but for the majority they voted with the party, taking very little active interest in debate and consequently making little personal impression on the course of events. In the 'ultra' group must be included Sir Joseph Neeld and Sir Thomas Bateson; (fn. 83) typical of the moderates—the genial conservative squire—was Walter Long, (fn. 84) while of those with moderately advanced opinions, Sotheron Estcourt and Sir Massey Lopes were perhaps the most outstanding of a group of members dubbed by Buckle as 'politicians of worth but hardly of distinction'. (fn. 85)
After 1884, the swing of the political pendulum in Wiltshire was governed much less by the traditional influence of local landowners and much more by national policies which had a strong appeal to local interests. The extension of the franchise in 1884 increased the strength of the radical element in the electorate, and in the election of the following year the divisions of Chippenham, Westbury, and Wilton changed from conservative to liberal representation, making a total of five liberal members to one conservative for the county as a whole. The conservative member W. H. Long sat for Devizes and maintained the almost continuous record since 1832 of tory and conservative domination there. He was a member of the Wiltshire landowning family of Longs of South Wraxall. (fn. 86) Through his local interests, through his control of the local conservative party organization, through the local press, which he used to disseminate imperialist principles, (fn. 87) he wielded great influence. In office he had the reputation of a sound administrator and a man of judgement. (fn. 88) He stands as something of a link between the old and the new in political life, between the landowning politician of the 19th century and the professional politician of the 20th.
In the year of crisis, 1886, when the election was fought on the Home Rule issue, the strength of the new farm labourer vote for Gladstone was demonstrated in a striking manner. Chippenham and Salisbury returned conservative members, Lord Henry Bruce and E. H. Hulse, by relatively small majorities; but Cricklade, Westbury, and Wilton returned liberal members, T. H. Grove being returned unopposed for Wilton. In Cricklade two Gladstonian liberals, B. F. C. Costello and Sir D. Bennett, who supported the Home Rule Bill opposed another liberal, N. Story-Maskelyne, who did not. (fn. 89) Story-Maskelyne was returned with 3,401 votes against 2,930; but in Westbury a Gladstonian liberal G. W. Pargiter Fuller took the seat from a dissentient liberal with a majority of nearly 1,000. (fn. 90) Out of a total of 30,130 votes cast in Wiltshire in this election Gladstonian candidates received 12,117 as against 8,974 for liberals and 9,039 for conservatives. The 1886 election brought into sharp relief the division of opinion between the towns and the country districts on the Irish question. Generally speaking the votes of the newly enfranchised farm labourers were recorded in favour of Gladstone's policy; the town voters gave their support either to Lord Salisbury or to dissentient liberals. (fn. 91)
In the confused political issues of the period from 1886 to 1892 the divisions between the liberals who supported Home Rule and the liberal unionists led by Hartington who did not, became sharper. The liberal unionists held the balance of power and supported Lord Salisbury. Any chance of reconciliation between the liberals and the unionists was made increasingly difficult by the growing antipathy between Gladstone and Chamberlain over imperial questions and, when in 1891 Chamberlain succeeded Hartington as leader of the unionists, the rift between the two parties became unbridgeable.
In Wiltshire the reflections of these changes in party politics took no very unusual form. Liberals as a whole in the country districts remained true to Gladstone, but there was nevertheless some evidence of an increasing trend in the towns towards Chamberlain. (fn. 92) In the election of 1892 the voting strength between liberals and conservatives including unionists was almost equal and the seats were equally divided between conservative and liberals. (fn. 93) Two results are alone worth noting. In Devizes, so long the fortress of conservatism, a liberal member C. H. E. Hobhouse supported by the votes of those who feared that Salisbury's policy might lead to a clash of European powers over the partition of Africa, won the seat from W. H. Long. In Cricklade, too, StoryMaskelyne, who had committed himself to support Chamberlain, was defeated by a liberal, J. Husband. (fn. 94) As between Gladstone and Salisbury on other issues, however, the Wiltshire electors seem to have been guided by purely local patriotisms. On such questions as Disestablishment and the reduction of hours of labour the country districts in general supported Gladstone, whereas in the towns the majority of the opinion was in favour of Salisbury. (fn. 95) After Gladstone's retirement in 1894 the trend of opinion assumed a more traditional form, Chippenham, Devizes, Wilton, and Salisbury returning conservative or unionist members and Cricklade and Westbury returning liberal members.
The election which proved to be an exception to the rule was that of 1906, when liberal opinion in Wiltshire, as indeed elsewhere in the country, rallied in opposition to Chamberlain's campaign for tariff reform. The county was not prepared to abandon free trade as a policy even though some sections of the town populations found themselves in agreement with the imperialist views of the time. (fn. 96) The election of 1906 gave clear expression to the views of the majority, all the divisions returning liberal members. (fn. 97) Since 1886 the conservative party in Wiltshire had profited by the split in the liberal ranks; they had received less votes than the liberals as a whole. In 1892 and 1895 the conservative strength had been between 16,000 and 18,000 votes, whereas the liberal and liberal unionist vote had been between 24,000 and 25,000 votes. In 1900 the county returned four conservatives and two liberal members although the conservative party had a majority of only 899 in a total poll of 42,329. By 1906, however, the liberal vote increased by nearly 7,000 while that of the conservatives remained approximately the same. (fn. 98)
Some indication of the determination of the Wiltshire electorate to reject tariff reform and to support measures of social reform can be seen from the result of the 1906 election for the Chippenham division. The seat had been held since 1892 by Sir J. Dickson Poynder, a conservative with a reforming turn of mind. In 1905 he crossed the floor of the House and joined the liberal party, but the strength of his position in north-west Wiltshire was such that he could be nominated as a liberal for the Chippenham division in 1906 and win the seat for that party with a majority of nearly 2,000 votes over his conservative opponent. (fn. 99) His conservatism, however, was proof against a too radical interpretation of social reform and he attacked the land tax proposals of Lloyd George's budget of 1909 with considerable vigour. (fn. 100) In this he was supported by F. E. N. Rogers, member for Devizes, who saw in these proposals a serious threat to agricultural recovery. (fn. 101) Dickson Poynder was created Lord Islington in 1910 and afterwards held office as Governor-General of New Zealand.
The extent and implication of the liberal social reforms from 1906 to 1910 coupled with the increased activity of the women's suffrage movement, labour unrest over judgements against the trade unions and a worsening of Anglo-Irish relations caused a swing in the opposite direction. Westbury was the only division to return a liberal member in 1910, the sitting member J. M. F. Fuller being elected with a majority of 754 votes over his conservative opponent Mr. R. C. C. Long. The local press undoubtedly played an important part in this election and the weight of its support was on balance in favour of unionist candidates. (fn. 102) In the following year (January 1911) Westbury and Cricklade returned liberal members, but thereafter, apart from the election of 1922 when Chippenham and Westbury elected liberal members and the election of January 1924 when Wiltshire sent four liberal members to Parliament on a free trade issue the county has returned conservative members for every division in every election between December 1924 and October 1951, the borough of Swindon alone being excepted.
In absolute terms, however, the eclipse of the liberal party in Wiltshire was not at all apparent; nor in view of the strength of the liberal electorate was the result of the 1924 election a surprising one. After 1924 the local party organizations remained strong and active and, of the votes cast in the 1929 election approximately 35 per cent, went to liberal, 22 per cent. to labour and 43 per cent. to conservative candidates. In the 1931 election the liberal vote dropped to less than 20 per cent. of the total votes cast and remained at this level in the following election of 1935. Since the Second World War the labour party has gained heavily at the expense of the liberal party and this perhaps can only be explained by reference to many extraneous factors. It has been the result of many causes such as the changing structure of the population, the rise of new economic forces, the achievement of a large measure of social equality through a redistribution of the national income, and of political equality through electoral and parliamentary reform.
The triumph of liberal ideas has brought about the extinction of the political party which fostered them. That is a truism which has deep implications when it is applied to a county such as Wiltshire. Once social evils had been eradicated—and the 1906 Parliament had given vital impetus to the movement for social reform which had been progressively gathering momentum since the middle of the 19th century—there remained only the economic side of liberalism which could possibly appeal to a farming community. In 1923 and 1924 the issue of free trade versus protection was still one on which political parties could manœuvre; but the end of laissez-faire was in sight and world events were soon to be responsible for a revolution in political thinking. Today, the Wiltshire farmer knows that his prosperity must depend not on a national policy of free trade or protection, but rather upon a complex of factors of an international character and governed by the over-all limitations of the balance of payments position. A century old whig-liberal tradition may still linger on in some parts of Wiltshire, but for the purpose of present effective action the farmer has been forced back upon his own innate conservatism. (fn. 103)
Most of the old radical opinion has now been diverted from the liberal cause by the rise and growing power of labour party organization in the northern part of Wiltshire. The first election in which labour candidates appeared was that of 1919 when R. George (fn. 104) contested Chippenham; J. Compton, Swindon; and E. N. Bennett, Westbury. Together they polled just under 15,000 votes or approximately 17 per cent, of the total cast. By 1929 this figure had been increased to nearly 35,000–22 per cent, of the total —and Swindon returned the first labour member for the county, Christopher Addison. (fn. 105) In the subsequent election of November 1931, Swindon returned a conservative member R. Mitchell Banks who had formerly held the seat, but in a by-election in 1934 the seat was again won by Addison. Since 1945 Swindon has been held for the labour party. Some measure of the present political trends in Wiltshire may be obtained from the returns of the general election in 1951; in round figures 102,500 electors voted for conservative candidates, 94,500 for labour candidates and 7,600 voted for the only liberal candidate in Wiltshire, Mr. H. B. Richardson, who was contesting the seat at Westbury— so long the traditional stronghold of liberalism. These figures suggest that the margin between conservative and labour representation for Wiltshire is becoming a narrow one and that although the county has so far maintained its majority of conservative members, the future may see a change in membership. In this respect the present (1952) balance of strength in Wiltshire between the two main parties is not unlike that which existed between 1868 and 1896.
The rise of a local labour party in Wiltshire owed much to the individualism of men like Reuben George and Alfred Williams. George with his radicalism and his high educational ideals and Williams with his intense idealism gave fire and purpose to the more prosaic work of building up the strength of a local party organization. Although Williams could not bring himself to vote for the labour party he admitted its necessity and the good that it could do. (fn. 106) His Life in a Railway Factory was not only a fine piece of writing; it was a social document with an inspiring message. This, together with his other work gave an intellectual stimulus to the growth of radicalism at a time when party organization was weak and in its infancy. (fn. 107) Gradually the machine was created. In 1929 labour candidates contested all the Wiltshire divisions and, from that time to the present (1952) the power of the labour party in both its intellectual and its material attributes has continued to increase.
It would, however, be unwise to attempt any further comparison of the changes in Wiltshire's parliamentary history. What has happened during the past 120 years can only be appreciated if it is considered as a part of many other forms of historical development, social, economic, legal, agricultural, and administrative. The picture is complex and closely interwoven. On the broad canvas there are both bright and sombre hues; the decline of age-long sources of livelihood; the rise of new industries; the breaking down of privilege falsely based on a decaying economic foundation; the attainment of individual rights; the record of oppression, of violence, and of ceaseless agitation; the constant levelling process in the social structure through the reform of abuses and the spread of education and above all the realization, quickened by the flame of economic adversity, that the various classes in society are dependent upon each other: these are fundamental to the pattern of Wiltshire's parliamentary history and as such they form a small, though none the less important, part of the greater design that is our national heritage.