I’ve been re-writing my family history website. It’s currently hosted by my ISP, which means I’ll lose it when I come back to the UK next year. Because of the hassle of re-creating it, I was thinking of letting it go, but in the meantime it has become a resource for a university lecturer, a regional museum and a county genealogy society, I have a regular stream of enquiries from people who have found the site useful for their own family history research, and now I’ve got a TV producer doing a proposal to the Beeb for a documentary (I know — I’m as gobsmacked as you are).
So, I started writing a new site it a few weeks ago, thinking I’d just give the pages a wash and brush-up, but then realised that I have so much material to add that it needs a major overhaul.
Among the new details I’m adding are my early Liberal ancestors:
The story starts with draper James Watkins of Devizes (my great x4 grandfather), who was a Congregationalist Dissenter and who was enfranchised by the Great Reform Act of 1832. The electorate in Devizes went up from an oligarchy of 15 to 315. The following year the Devizes Literary and Scientific Institute was founded and before long James became the librarian, presiding over a library of 1,000 volumes and a small museum of ‘specimens from the animal and mineral kingdoms’.
Devizes was a double borough and the parties generally avoided contested general elections to avoid the uncertainties created by voters plumping and splitting, but James got the opportunity to vote in 1832 and then in two more by-elections in 1835 and 1838, both of which were between a Tory and a Radical. In 1835 there were allegations of foul play by both sides, but in the election of 1838, when the Tories were determined to oust Radical MP Captain Dundas the harassment became extreme. On the day of the hustings a mob of thousands of farmers and their peasants marched in from outside the Borough, hundreds of them on horseback, to harass the Devizes Radicals. They also threatened a boycott of the Radicals’ businesses and to aid the boycott the local Tory supporting paper — the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette — published the names and occupations of the electors and how they voted, which is how I know that James was a Radical unintimidated by the mob. Dundas lost the election by eighteen votes (and went on to become MP for Greenwich).
Despite the fact that Dundas had emphasised that he was not in favour of extending the suffrage, the Gazette labelled his supporters ‘Universal Suffrage men” (by that time the People’s Charter had been published).
More harassment was to come: In 1839 a peaceful Chartist meeting in Devizes was violently broken up by masked Tories shouting “Down with Dissenters, Whigs and Radicals”. I don’t know whether James was a Chartist or not, but either way he must have felt threatened. In 1840 his name was published by the Gazette again, this time because he had voted against setting a Church rate in his parish. In the same year the Tories tried to get his name removed from the electoral register. They did not succeed, but there must have been some humiliation for him in undergoing what amounted to a means test.
By now the Tories had both Devizes seats and felt, not only that the seats belonged to them, but that they’d established the principle that elections should not be contested. The leading Whig in Devizes was solicitor George Anstie, and when he introduced a Whig candidate in 1848 he was condemned as ‘evil’ by the Gazette, showing that the paper had become completely rabid (Anstie’s candidate was a Mr Temple, but whether of the Cobham or Palmerston Whig families I can’t discover).
In 1848 George Anstie fell out with James Watkins and tried to get him sacked as librarian of the Literary and Scientific Institution. The minutes don’t make it clear what the dispute was really about, but reading between the lines, I think that by this time Anstie was a Whig/Liberal while Watkins was a Liberal/Chartist. The Anstie project had always been to get a Whig candidate of standing and renown who’d stand a chance of getting elected. In the 1830s he’d tried to persuade John Cam Hobhouse to stand. In the 1840s the Institution, which had been non-party political, became a refuge for the town’s liberals and the Tories accused its committee of blackballing their supporters, and of rowdyism. I suspect that Anstie was trying to damp down the more extreme members of the Institution as part of his project to make liberalism more palatable to the electorate.
Whether I’m right or wrong, the dispute proved too much for James Watkins. The committee overruled Anstie and James kept his job, but he decided to retire the following year, and also decided to move away. He was sixty-six years old, he’d lived in Devizes all his life and several generations of his family had lived there before him, so his decision shows the effect of the harassment he’d experienced in the previous decade. He and his wife went to London where their third son James had made a career as an excise man (he was my great x3 grandfather).
But, I was pleased to discover that the baton was then taken up by James’ oldest son William (my great x4 uncle) b.1807. He was a bootmaker who’d done well enough to retire in his early fifties, possibly as a result of judicious investment in railway stocks. The Liberals in the town regrouped and throughout the fifties and sixties William’s name appears on committees to support Liberal candidates. At one point an angry letter in the Gazette denounced his efforts to get Tory supporters removed from the electoral list, which suggests to me that he was at least partially motivated by a desire to avenge his father.
This story goes some way to explaining why the principal family value I was taught as a child was that being an atheist does not mean that if you vote Tory you won’t go to hell.