Brentford Elections In The Past
‘scenes of riot, disorder and tumult’
Whatever the result, Election Day on May 6th is unlikely to be as eventful as some of those held in Brentford during the 18th century.
Before 1700 elections for the two MPs for Middlesex had been held on Hampstead Heath and then the hustings or meetings for the ‘candidates to set out their stalls’ were transferred to the Butts at Brentford. For each election this lasted for 15 days. Only freeholders were allowed to vote (this was about 2,000 men in the whole of Middlesex) and they had to attend in person and vote in public. This could lead to some intimidation of voters and people with no vote trying to have an influence on the outcome. Bribery was also practised and is beautifully illustrated in William Hogarth’s series of four pictures called ‘The Election’.
In the middle of the century John Wilkes was a Middlesex MP and a journalist. He was described as ‘unprepossesing’ and a cartoon of him by Hogarth was said to be a good likeness. His portrait by Johan Zoffany in the National Portrait Gallery shows him looking sideways at his daughter to hide his squint and a rhyme of the time says ‘The devil at Lincoln climbed up the steeple, as Wilkes did at Brentford to squint at the people.’
In April 1763 in edition 45 of his publication, The North Briton he attacked the weakness of the Government and the character of King George III and a General Warrant was issued for his arrest for seditious libel. As a result of this Wilkes was committed to the Tower.
He claimed privilege as an MP and sued the Government for wrongful arrest and damage done to his property and proved that the principle of the General Warrant under which no one was named was illegal. He was released but fled to France after fighting a duel and another warrant was issued and he was expelled from the House of Commons.
‘Wilkes and Liberty’ became a slogan for those dissatisfied with authority and attempts to stifle free comment. His picture was used on punch bowls and other crockery and carved on the handles of walking sticks. After being freed he stood as MP again twice and was elected but each time was expelled. At one election he gained 1143 votes and his opponent Colonel Luttrell only 246 but it was Luttrell who became the Member of Parliament.
The electorate and the general public were not happy with this situation. Wilkes was obviously an orator easily able to rouse the crowds, the majority of whom had no vote and no concept of the Liberty they were calling for. The elections became ‘scenes of riot, disorder and tumult’. At one election the poll books were destroyed and a man was killed. No tolls were able to be charged on the roads as there was no chance of being able to collect from rowdy hooligans and troublemakers travelling from other parts of Middlesex.
John Wilkes was appointed a City Magistrate and in this capacity acquitted a printer who had been charged with printing Parliamentary debates. He refused to appear before the House of Commons and the Government, realising the mood of the country let the matter drop. He became Lord Mayor of London and eventually, in 1774 took his seat in the House of Commons where he continued to criticise the King and ‘the Kings Friends’ party until 1790 when he retired.
It seems he was a lively, witty man without any morals and with a talent for stirring up trouble for its own sake but he was identified with a popular cause and established the right of the Press to report Parliamentary debates, for an elected member to take their seat in the House of Commons against any opposition offered by a ruling clique and that anyone being arrested must be named on the warrant.
We take a great deal for granted nowadays!
April 30, 2010