Much of the election violence which plagued the UK in the nineteenth century was connected in various ways to Ireland and Irish-related policy issues; in this blog post, Zara Kesterton, one of our Project’s Research Assistants, discusses her own surprise at finding such links in seemingly-unlikely places:
Reading through newspapers for incidences of election violence provides a fascinating insight into the everyday preoccupations of those living in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the 1886 election, reports of disturbances linked to the Irish Home Rule movement featured prominently in newspapers across Great Britain.
Carn Brea Castle overlooks the village of Brea in Cornwall
That year, Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced a bill providing for Irish Home Rule, but it fell 30 votes short. The political importance of the issue caused a split within the Liberal Party, with those opposing the bill going on to become Liberal Unionists. Unfolding events in Parliament roused strong feeling in Ireland (where there were riots in Belfast), but also among Irish populations in England. Tensions often ran high in the large cities of Victorian England, as the Great Famine had resulted in high rates of Irish immigration to already-crowded and poverty-stricken urban areas. It’s not unusual to read of an Irish connection to riots occurring in this period.
Most of these disturbances, however, took place in the prominent industrial centres. Therefore, I was struck by a snippet article in The Evening News, published on 7 July 1886, which recorded ‘a disgraceful riot’ by ‘a large force of Irishmen’ at a political meeting. At first glance, I assumed the Celtic-sounding place name ‘Brea’ referred to an Irish town, and was about to dismiss the article as irrelevant to the Election Violence Project (which restricts its geographical focus to England and Wales). Yet a quick Google search revealed that Brea is actually a tiny Cornish village, near the town of Camborne. This begged the question of why this ‘large force of Irishmen’ found themselves in rural Cornwall fighting (in a literal sense) over the question of Irish Home Rule.
In fact, the historical links between Ireland and Cornwall stretch back into its medieval past. The patron saint of Cornwall, St Piran, is even thought to have been born in Ireland. By the time this article was written, Camborne had the largest Irish population in Cornwall. Cheaper house prices in the surrounding villages meant that they received the majority of Irish immigrants, sometimes becoming known as ‘Little Irelands’. Physical conflicts between the Irish and Cornish populations had appeared in preceding years, such as in April 1882 when Irish homes and a Roman Catholic church were attacked in the area.
With this knowledge, I began to understand the reasons why the 1886 election provoked an Irish-centred riot in tiny Brea. The presence of a Liberal Unionist candidate, Mr Drew Gay, arguing against Irish Home Rule was almost guaranteed to provoke local aggravation. The results of the election show that Gay was unsuccessful, losing to the Liberal candidate, Charles Conybeare, who took 61.6% of the vote. Yet the fact that a Liberal Unionist candidate still received 38.4% suggests a community split by their respective opinions on the issue. The incident underlines that the Irish Question was not an abstract one for those living in areas far removed from Ireland – it was immediate and tangible.
Zara Kesterton is about to start her final year studying English Literature and History at Durham University. As well as holding an academic interest in the material culture of the Victorian period, Zara’s family connections to South Africa mean that the problem of election violence has a personal relevance.
(Sources: Evening News, 7 July 1886. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Image of Carn Brea Castle © 2000-2014 CastleUK.Net)
Roger Swift, ‘Historical Notes: “Little Ireland” riots in Cornwall’, The Independent, 6 December 1999, <www.independent.co.uk>, last accessed 8 August 2018.