Religion played a prominent role in Victorian politics, and religious figures enjoyed a special (and precarious) position in relation to party politics. In looking at a non-violent mass disruption which followed election property damage, Research Assistant Sam Holden explores the religious dimension to partisan rivalries:
Election violence generally involved damage to persons and/or property – the Causes and Consequences project also records the explicit and immediate threat of violence in order to examine events which never quite boiled over into outright violence. How such near-violent situations were resolved is, after all, indicative. The following event was never likely to descend into violence, but does illustrate that violence was merely one extreme in a spectrum of activity which encompassed remonstration, disobedience, and disruption.
On Friday 7 August 1847, the Liberals won the constituency of Taunton during a General Election. That Sunday, at St. Mary Magdalene Church, the Reverend Dr. Cottle was surprised to observe that there were over two hundred extra people in his congregation than was normal, many of whom he had never seen before.
Cottle, a known Liberal supporter, may well have been suspicious rather than pleased to see so many new faces. Conservative ‘ruffians’ had attacked the Liberals on Friday night, during their victory procession. Well-equipped with bludgeons (not to mention gin and beer), they proceeded to attack, steal and break the Liberals’ banners.
While highly unusual by modern standards, this kind of political property damage not an uncommon feature of Victorian elections. What happened on Sunday when Dr. Cottle began his sermon, however, was somewhat unusual even by the standards of the time.
As Cottle began to speak, a man at the door held up his hat as a signal, at which point over 200 men and women stood up and began to walk out, loudly and deliberately shuffling their feet so as to drown out his voice and the choir. The reporter in Bell’s New Weekly Messenger described as a ‘lamentable exhibition of petty malice’.
The Reverend was seemingly unfazed by the organized protest and continued his sermon, being supported, the reporter thought, by ‘a friend above’.
During the evening service that day, a similar protest took place, perpetrated by working class supporters of the Conservatives, though this appears to be have been on a smaller-scale and more spontaneous in nature.
These incidents highlight a number of features of Victorian politics. Such acts of planned or unplanned disruption were carried out by anyone, regardless of class, party affiliation, gender, and enfranchisement.
The article also highlights the deep religiosity of the Victorian age, and that clerical figures were not above the partisan fray. Indeed, their influence over society put them in an especially sensitive position, as the content of their sermons might influence (or be perceived to influence) the voting choices of parishioners. We know that Dr. Cottle voted for the liberals, but did he also urge his congregation to?
The writer of the article certainly seems to hold Reverend Dr. Cottle in high esteem, praising his ‘most eloquent and impressive sermon’. Was the writer merely outraged by the impropriety of such activity, or a Liberal himself?
Was this incident the last of the trouble for Cottle?
Was such ‘revenge’-type intimidation a common experience for influential public or religious figures who backed the ‘wrong’ party?
Was it sanctioned or tolerated by the party elites or was it the result of spontaneous action by partisan supporters?
Were these tactics, though widely condemned, effective in altering electoral outcomes?
Sam Holden is a politics graduate, of the Universities of Newcastle and Utrecht. Originally from Clitheroe, Lancashire, his academic interests include British political history, political philosophy and, more recently, electoral violence during the Victorian era.
(Source: Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, 8 Aug 1847. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)