In the first decade of the 19th century, Radical politician Sir Francis Burdett played the leading role in a pair of hotly contested and violent parliamentary elections for the county of Middlesex. The events highlighted an ideological gulf – between an appallingly corrupt establishment and an increasingly educated but disenfranchised working class. The great journalist William Cobbett described the resulting riotous events as a battle ‘between the magistrates and the thieves’.
Radicals and Spies
During the early 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, radical societies sprang up across England. Their members agitated for universal suffrage and, in more extreme cases, a revolution of their own. In the London suburbs an increasingly paranoid government backed the astonishingly corrupt Middlesex magistrates to suppress these societies.
The London Corresponding Society (‘LCS’) was foremost among the radical groups. Established in 1792, the LCS attracted over 2,000 members in six months, fed by ideas propagated by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. When war broke out against France in 1793, the Home Office set up an extensive spy network, focussed on high risk areas such as London’s East End.
The Middlesex magistrates, chaired by William Mainwaring, a banker and Tory MP, recruited and controlled the spies. In doing so, Mainwaring encouraged the corrupt antics of his fellow justices including Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’.
In 1794, as a result of information received from an East End spy, several prominent LCS radicals, including politician John Horne Tooke, were tried for treason. Weaknesses in the government’s case, however, led to their acquittal.
Over the next couple of years, trade disruption, a severe winter and successive poor harvests resulted in increasing food prices, heightening tensions and civil unrest. Eventually, sparks flew. In the autumn of 1795, a stone-throwing mob shattered King George III’s carriage windows as he travelled to open Parliament. In response, Prime Minister William Pitt launched his own ‘reign of terror’. He introduced laws forbidding public assembly or the publication of ‘seditious writings’. Pitt applied these ‘Gagging Acts’ with increasing severity, while the Home Office spies busied themselves in infiltrating the Radical societies.
In the spring of 1797, several dozen sailors and Radical activists were arrested after mutinies at the naval bases at Spithead and The Nore. Home Secretary the Duke of Portland ordered the men to be imprisoned. They were held without trial at London’s Coldbath Fields Prison, under the somewhat unwilling supervision of Mainwaring, Merceron and their cronies.
The magistrates ignored and even encouraged the abuse these prisoners suffered at the hands of the prison governor, Thomas Aris. But some well-connected prisoners, including the former army officer Colonel Edward Despard, complained to the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett.
Sir Francis Burdett
Burdett was a fifth generation baronet and scion of an ancient Midlands Tory political family. In his early 20s he had married into the spectacular wealth of the Coutts banking dynasty and become the willing protégé of John Horne Tooke.
He was also very close to the Irish revolutionary politician Arthur O’Connor,. This relationship almost resulted in Burdett’s arrest for treason, when O’Connor was caught conniving with the French earlier in 1798. But Burdett remained an MP, with a growing reputation for opposing injustice whenever he encountered it.
When Burdett revealed the prisoners’ treatment in Parliament, it led to a national scandal that rocked the Pitt government and severely damaged the credibility of the Middlesex magistrates. The scandal peaked in 1800 when Burdett exposed the case of 13-year-old Mary Rich, a rape victim imprisoned for a month on bread and water pending her testimony at her rapist’s trial.
The English Bastille
Burdett’s accounts of his visits to the prison, which he repeatedly likened to the Paris Bastille, led an embattled and embarrassed Duke of Portland to ban him from all prisons in England. This led Burdett almost to the point of withdrawing from politics altogether. But in 1802 there came an opportunity for revenge.
When the exhausted Pitt stood down as Prime Minster in 1801, his successor Addington made a temporary peace with France and called a general election. Horne Tooke and his allies saw their chance and persuaded Burdett, backed by all his family wealth, to stand against William Mainwaring in the Middlesex constituency.
Parliamentary elections before the 19th century reform acts were very different to today’s. In each of the 40 county constituencies, two seats were allocated via a franchise typically based on a property qualification worth £2 per year. Seats were rarely contested but occasionally elections produced bitter battles that lasted for days.The large, shifting and radicalised Middlesex electorate had given rise to some of the fiercest contests. In 1768, the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ election had lasted a week. Now, 34 years later in a battle that took twice as long to resolve, the cry was “Burdett and No Bastille”.
‘Burdett, and no Bastille’
The election was played out at hustings in Brentford. Burdett journeyed there daily from his home in Piccadilly, accompanied by a drunken crowd led by a band and a gang of butchers’ boys banging marrowbones and meat cleavers, the traditional instruments of street processions.
The second day of the election was July 14th, Bastille Day. Burdett made the most of it, his speeches accusing Mainwaring and his magistrate friends of cruelty, torture and murder. A pattern emerged as Burdett, trailing Mainwaring by several hundred votes but refusing to concede, was acclaimed by drunken crowds back to London who pelted Mainwaring’s coach with stones and dirt.
The contest continued like this for a fortnight until, on the penultimate day, a mysterious block of votes from the shareholders of a factory all went to Burdett – not a single one polled for Mainwaring. It was enough to win the seat for Burdett. He was carried back to London in a triumphal procession of 300 carriages waving his purple campaign colours. ,
A protracted dispute arose over the validity of the mysterious block vote that had swung the election. In the summer of 1804, Parliament ruled Burdett’s election invalid and called a by-election. Mainwaring was declared ineligible to stand as a result of his excessive ‘treating’ of electors. The Middlesex magistrates now persuaded Mainwaring’s son George to stand in his place against Burdett.
The 1804 election
The 1804 election was almost an exact re-run of the 1802 campaign. Each evening, Burdett reminded the cheering crowd of Mainwaring’s links to corruption and Coldbath Fields. In turn, Mainwaring was drowned out as he denounced Burdett’s friendship with the traitor Despard, executed for treason the previous year.
The race was neck and neck. At the close, three sets of poll books called the result differently. True to form, Burdett repeated his triumphal procession to London but two days later the sheriffs called the result for Mainwaring and it was Burdett’s turn to protest in vain.
George Mainwaring and his father, together with Joseph Merceron and their corrupt associates, went on to dominate the local government of Middlesex for a further decade until their frauds caught up with them.
Sir Francis Burdett, still sponsored by Horne Tooke, turned his attention to the more radical seat of Westminster following the death of Charles James Fox in 1806, retaining it until after the Reform Act of 1832. By this time, however, his firebrand politics had matured into something more like the mild Toryism of his ancestors.
An earlier version of this post was published in the London Historians members’ newsletter in December 2016.