A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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Politics in the 1830's
Although in parliamentary elections the opposing party had usually been able to return one member during the first three decades of the 19th century, the city, and in particular its corporation, was generally regarded as a whig stronghold. (fn. 1) The first elections to the reformed corporation, held in January 1836, saw a predominantly whig corporation emerge, with 21 'reformers' as opposed to 15 tories. This body promptly elected 10 reform aldermen as opposed to 2 tories and thereby further increased whig preponderance. The radical newspaper the Yorkshireman saw it as 'a most satisfactory commencement of the new municipal system'. (fn. 2) Within less than two years, however, this whig stronghold had been breached and the balance had changed by November 1837 to 25 tories opposed by 23 whigs. The Yorkshireman now complained, 'the ancient whig city of York is to be delivered bound hand and foot to the tories'. (fn. 3) In the following year the whigs slipped further down to 21 against 27 tory members and remained the minority party in the corporation until 1850.
This sudden change in the political composition of the corporation, and, indeed, in much of the city's political history in the mid-1830's, was the result of the activities of one man. George Hudson entered local politics in 1832 and quickly became the treasurer of the local tory party. (fn. 4) Three years later his influence was sufficient to obtain the return of J. H. Lowther, the tory parliamentary candidate. The return was immediately disputed, however, two petitions being returned against the result, one from the liberals, the other from York Quakers. The committee of inquiry which followed did nothing to unseat Lowther, but its findings provided an insight into the conduct of York's politics which reflect credit on neither party, the tories being castigated for bribery and the whigs for intimidation of voters by hired rowdies. It was established that the payment of polling money was customary in York to those 'who will vote for anybody they can get anything by' (fn. 5) —£3 for plumpers and £1 for split voters. Hudson denied the existence of polling money. In 1832, however, he had disbursed £1,050 'to pay messengers and runners, body guardsmen, billstickers and different men about the committee room for the protection of Mr. Lowther and his friends'. (fn. 6) It is noteworthy in the light of their subsequent careers that, on this occasion, Hudson's money had gone to protect his candidate against a whig mob led by George Leeman.
Thus, at the outset of his career as a public figure, Hudson was directly opposed to those who were eventually the immediate cause of his downfall—Leeman, the liberals, and the Quakers. For the time being, however, his influence was paramount. His candidate had been returned to Westminster; he was one of the two tory aldermen elected on the new corporation in 1836; and in 1837, when he was lord mayor, his party had gained control of that corporation. His growing political power was accompanied by growing economic power—part-proprietorship of the Yorkshire Gazette, directorship of the York Union Banking Company, in which Lowther was one of the principal depositors, and later of the York Union Gas Light Company. All these, however, were subordinate to and were, indeed, part of the raison d'être of Hudson 'The Railway King'. It was Lowther who helped to pilot the first York and North Midland Railway Company Bill through Parliament and the company's first board of directors reflected the interconnexion of Hudson's economic and political power. Sir John Simpson and Alderman Meek were members of the dwindling body of liberals on the corporation, Robert Davies was the city's town clerk, Richard Nicholson was Hudson's brother-in-law and prominent in the affairs of the Gas Company, James Richardson was Hudson's legal adviser. Baker, the railway company's secretary, was soon on the council, as were Cabrey, the company's engineer, and Andrews, who built many of the largest stations on the company's lines. It was symbolic of this mobilization of York's political life behind the Hudsonian railway empire that the first of the York and North Midland Railway Company's engines was named 'The Lowther'.
Thus, before the physical linking of York with the growing railway network of the country, the city's political life had already begun to be affected by the rise of Hudson and the furtherance of his schemes. The effect of the railways upon the political life of the city continued, as will be seen, to be important during and after the rise, exposure, and overthrow of George Hudson.