Herring: A Dish Best Served Cold

Throwing things at elections may or may not be classed as election violence – a tomato is unlikely to do much damage, but a brick aimed at a candidate’s head could do a great deal of damage.  In this blog post, Richard Lambeth, one of our Project’s Research Assistants, shares his thoughts on one less dangerous but definitely unpleasant missile regularly employed – flying herring:

One striking feature of Victorian elections, amidst the frequent bouts of violence, was the use of symbolism by its bustling crowds. The placards and banners that Victorian crowds held aloft for all to see ranged from pro-free trade images of large and small loaves of bread side-by-side, to the near-inexplicable images of figures dressed in blue riding squirrels, or funeral processions followed by mourning donkeys! These visual aids were seemingly the memes of the Victorian period, except instead of provoking trolling in response to pithy political observations, banner-holders could end up in fist-fights, covered in mud and flour, and possibly rendered unconscious.

This short blog will discuss some instances of one particular object that appeared during Victorian elections: herring. There are two incidents I have come across (thus far) while working on the Victorian Election Violence project that include herring. The first occurred during the 1868 election for Cambridge. At the declaration of results, won by the Conservative candidate, Liberal supporters mockingly waved herring at the Conservative side of the hustings, and then proceeded to hurl them at their opponents.

Another case in Tipton, also in 1868, recounts a ‘Kenealyite’ hitting a man in the face with a herring, calling him a ‘Brogden b—–’ (I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks). Interestingly, Brogden was the Liberal candidate, and Kenealy an independent, for the Wednesbury constituency. Kenealy is notable for his role as counsel to the Tichborne claimant, a case in which a butcher’s son claimed to be the rightful heir to an aristocratic fortune. The case was unsuccessful, and cost Kenealy his legal career, but his efforts cast him as a hero of the working class.

The first conclusion one may arrive at is some connection to the ‘red herring’ metaphor. In 1807, William Cobbett explained how hounds could be lead astray from capturing hares by the strong scent of red herring, and later repurposed the term to refer to the deliberately misleading actions of politicians. We may justifiably consider this apt for describing Victorian politics, as for any other era, but please allow me this red herring of my own, as there are strong indications that the appearance of herring in 1868 signify altogether different.

Given its salience in Victorian political discussion, free trade may provide a more plausible explanation. The decades leading up to 1868 were certainly important for the herring trade. Initially, the herring market was carefully regulated. Herring products were given a government ‘Brand’ to indicate they had passed tests for quality, practice and sustainability, giving continental consumers guarantees of a good product. Free trade was clearly pertinent to the market, and from 1857 the government inaugurated discussions on the abolition of the Brand in moves to more fully embrace laissez-faire economics. So, perhaps, the herring seen in Victorian Britain indicated how its adherents felt about free trade, and its potential impact upon the market.

There is reason to doubt this hypothesis, though. While it is perfectly conceivable, given the creativity of the Victorian mob, that the appearance of herring could relate to arguments for or against free trade, I am unconvinced this is the case for 1868. Firstly, as the case in Cambridge shows, the herring was a symbol used by Liberals, ardent supporters of free trade. If anything, free trade was a threat to herring producers. The regulated nature of the herring market was a positive for its continental consumers, and free trade could risk dismantling these regulations, or undercutting the traders who adhered to the high standards of the Brand. Not only that, these regulations ensured conservation (with net sizes regulated to guarantee respawning). While free trade was certainly a rallying cry of the Liberal mobs, the herring trade does not appear to be a suitable focal point to highlight its benefits. The possibility of free trade improving the market was contrasted by the particular risks associated with a uniquely regulated trade.

The most promising clue, for my money, comes from the lips of a Tory rector. A quote accredited to E. B. Farnham (elsewhere this is blamed on Lord Salisbury), is allegedly the origin of the herring as a means of denigrating the Conservative party. This particular Tory claimed working men could ‘live on herring and potatoes alone’. One account from Loughborough recalls how a herring and potato were skewered on a pitchfork, side-by-side, when confronting Farnham at one of his speeches. In Llanrwst, in 1868, a herring, potato and small loaf of bread affixed to one pole were contrasted to a large loaf of bread and mutton on another. So, rather than an indication of free trade, this seems to be more an issue of class. The contrasting symbols indicate what the rich Tories would be consuming while the working man made do with the basics.

If we are to take this version of the Liberal herring as truth, it appears to be a truly timeless feature of the political campaign. It was essentially a political misstep, retold by the press, which revealed the political elite to be out of touch and unconcerned with the lives of regular people. Essentially, we see Liberal supporters responding to the claim that herring is good enough for the working man by saying ‘this is good enough for you’ when sending their herring flying back towards the Conservatives. Of course, the political elites of both sides were prone to making statements as to what was good enough for the lower classes, as the Whig editor of the Edinburgh Journal made a similar slip-up in 1841 when claiming ‘one shilling and three-pence a week is enough for an English working man to live upon’, which is about £35 in today’s money.

With regards to the incident in Tipton, in which a Liberal was on the receiving end of a herring, we may just have to put down to the various means of violence that the Victorians were prone to. More practical reasons may also have come into play – people might not waste fresh and edible herring, but rotten food was more common in the period given a lack of appropriate storage available.  Herring is in fact rather pungent even when fresh – might the very smelly nature of rotten herring have made it a particular choice for crowds to throw at candidates they didn’t like? If nothing else, this should remind us how lucky we are to have the freedom to attend political meetings without the risk of a rogue herring slapping us around the face.


Richard Lambeth is currently studying History and Politics at Newcastle University.  From Alston, Cumbria, his academic interests include colonialism, political philosophy and environmental politics.


(Sources: Bolton Chronicle, 24 Jul 1841, West Somerset Free Press, 21 Nov 1868, Ipswich Journal, 28 Nov 1868, Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, 1 Dec 1868, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 3 Dec 1868. Retrieved  2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED).

Further reading:

Pascal Treguer, ‘Meaning and Origin of ‘Red Herring’ [https://wordhistories.net/2017/07/06/red-herring-origin]

David Sutherland, ‘The Treasury Report on the Brand in 1857’ [http://www.scottishherringhistory.uk/1809-1881/Brand1857.html]

Alison Mott, ‘Election Hustings in Old Loughborough’ [http://www.lboro-history-heritage.org.uk/election-hustings-in-old-loughborough/]

OpenLearn, ‘Election Days: 1868 – Herring and mutton’ [http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/election-days-1868-herring-and-mutton?in_menu=3117700

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