Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Bribery and corruption

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Yes, sir, I do object to smoking,” said the pudsy little man; “and so the sooner you and your friend there throw away those filthy cigars, the better.”

Charlie Davis and I had taken some pains to secure a carriage to ourselves, and had tipped the guard half-a-crown not to allow us to be disturbed; when, just at the last moment, as we had made ourselves comfortable, and settled down for a quiet smoke all the way to Z——, in pops this puffy old fellow, with his Counterblast against tobacco, delivered in the offensive form above set forth.

The appearance of our persecutor was “podgy”—emphatically “podgy.” He had no neck; his waist was the broadest portion of his person; he stood five feet five in his square-toed boots. His hair was aggressive and defiant; his face very red; his eyes very black and bright; the brim of his hat curled up in an insulting manner; and such was the supernatural stiffness and ferocity of his shirt collars, that I wondered they did not slice his ears off each time he moved his head.

Away went the train: Charlie and I put out our weeds, and resigned ourselves to our fate; whilst our companion sate bolt upright, glaring savagely out of the window at nothing at all.

“Wonderful thing steam, sir!” said Charlie, with a wink at me. He was a bit of a wag was Charlie, in his way, and wanted to draw out the “old bird,” as he subsequently designated our fellow-traveller. “Thank you, sir, for the information!” replied the old gentleman, suddenly throwing his body forward, and staring Charlie full in the face: “I’ll take a note of it. And in return, allow me to give you a piece of news—Queen Anne’s dead.”

Charlie collapsed.

“Would you like to see the paper, sir?” said I, perceiving that our companion was not to be chaffed, and offering him my “Times,” deferentially.

“No, sir!” was his reply, turning round so sharply upon me, that I winced, half expecting a blow. “I read everything worth reading in the ‘Times’ four hours ago—before you were out of your bed, I’ll be sworn—it took me just ten minutes.”

Having given utterance to this polite speech, he sate bolt upright again, and glared as before.

Giving up the attempt to engage him in conversation as useless, Charlie and I moved to the other end of the carriage, and read our newspapers in silence.

“By Jove, Charlie!” said I, after a while, “just read the evidence given yesterday before the Wakefield Election Commission—there’s bribery and corruption for you.”

“Bribery and corruption!” exclaimed the old gentleman, in a tone compared with which his former observations were calm and courteous: “don’t talk to me about bribery and corruption!”

“Excuse me, sir, I did not talk to you at all,” was my rejoinder. I intended this withering sarcasm should crush the old fellow, but it didn’t.

“Bah!” he exclaimed, excitedly, not heeding me. “Bribery and corruption, indeed! Do you call the miserable huxtering for votes you are reading about there, bribery and corruption? Boys shouldn’t talk about what they don’t understand.”

I was about to make some angry reply to this fresh piece of impertinence, when Charlie gave me an admonitory kick on the shin. He saw that by accident we had mounted the old boy on his hobby; and that, with a little tact, he might be made to perform a rapid piece of horsemanship upon it for our especial amusement. Charlie was right.

“I perfectly agree with you, sir,” he said, looking as grave as a judge: “such trumpery proceedings do not deserve those good old titles, ‘bribery and corruption.

The old gentleman was delighted. “Permit me to shake you by the hand, sir,” he cried; “allow me to make your acquaintance: my name is Minkinshaw.”

“What the Minkinshaw?” asked Charlie, in a mysterious tone. (The rogue had never heard the name before in the whole course of his life.)

Our eccentric companion smiled blandly. “You have read my pamphlet upon the necessity of re-establishing rotten boroughs, as a means of supplying statesmen and orators for Parliament, then?” he whispered in his ear.

“Admirable!” Charlie replied, throwing up his head, and frowning, as in duty bound, when speaking of so recondite a work​—​“admirable!”

“We shall never be able to govern the country without them.”


“Never, by Jove! never!”

“And so little is known about them by the present generation!” said Charlie, with a sigh.

“They are as ignorant as pigs upon the subject,” replied Mr. Minkinshaw, indignantly. “They indulge in some parrot’s talk about Gatton and Old Sarum, just as if those were the only rotten boroughs! Who knows now of Corfe Castle, a borough in the Isle of Purbeck, which consisted of twelve thatched cottages, eight of which belonged to one landlord: of Northallerton, which returned two members to Parliament, to represent the chimneys of Lord Harewood’s cow-houses, which were once on a time what the lawyers call ‘burgage tenures:’ or of Midhurst, which had not house nor inhabitant, but one hundred and eighteen stones, marking where so many of such tenures had stood: or of Launceston, in Cornwall, where the Corporation, consisting of fifteen members under the thumb of the Duke of Northumberland, would have returned his black footman, had he given them the order: or of Wilton, in Wiltshire, which would have done the same for another noble lord: or of Lymington, in Hampshire, the absolute property of one Sir H. B. Neale at the time of the passing of the Reform Bill: or of the old boroughs of Liskeard, Lyme Regis, Droitwich, Thirsk, New Ross, Calne, Portarlington, and others, which did as they were told by their owners, and asked no questions? When I was a boy, sir, if a person wanted to get into Parliament himself, or to send his son or brother-in-law there, he did not go chaffering and pettyfogging amongst a set of butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers for their votes; no! he bought them and their borough up bodily, and was returned respectably, like a gentleman.”

“What was a ‘burgage tenure,’ Mr. Minkinshaw?” I asked.

“A ‘burgage tenure’ was—ahem! a ‘burgage tenure’ means a tenure that is—well! I don’t exactly know what it means; and if I did, it would take too much time to tell you,” replied Mr. Minkinshaw, rubbing his red double chin thoughtfully. “A barrister friend of mine once tried to tell me, but, confound him! he was so prosy, I could not make him out. All I know is, that they were certain plots of land, on which there was, or had been, some building, and whoever was the tenant of one of them, had a vote. So you see, when a nobleman had a ‘burgage tenure’ borough—like Old Sarum, for example, where the right of voting was in respect of the foundations of a ruined wall—he kept these tenures in his own hands, and just before the election conveyed them to his friends, or servants, who of course returned him to Parliament as their representative, and when the election was over gave back the deeds into his hands. It never would have done for him to have parted with them out and out, running the risk of the tenants being bought up by some one else and turning upon him. No! no!”

“In many of the boroughs,” I observed, “the franchise was held by the freehholders.”

“Lor’ bless you,” replied Mr. Minkinshaw, “that made no difference. Now I’ll tell you what happened in the village where I was born—Haselmere, in Surrey, I mean. This was, down to the year 1832, a pocket-borough of the Earls of Lonsdale. There were about sixty-seven freeholds in it altogether; forty of them belonging to the Earl, twenty to Lord Gwydir, and the remainder to independent persons. Did the Earl trust his freeholds to the Haselmere people? Not he. He knew a trick worth two of that. Seats in Parliament were worth something in those days, I can tell you. A nobleman who could command the votes of half-a-dozen members, had not to ask the minister twice for a rich sinecure for his younger son, or a bishoprick for his daughter’s husband. No! Seats in Parliament were worth having, and worth keeping: so he sent for forty labourers from his collieries in the north, built cottages for them, and allowed each man half-a-guinea a week, besides what he could earn, for being ready to vote for him, and they did vote for him, returning his nominee in the general elections of 1780, 1784, 1790, 1796. Well, the old Earl died in 1802, and his successor, thinking that the seat was quite safe, and not caring to be at the expense of keeping the forty freeholders any longer, sent them about their business; the consequence of which was, that at the general election in 1812, which came somewhat suddenly upon the country, he found himself without a single qualified elector in the borough! Lord Gwydir was no better off, and there were two opposition candidates in the field! Here was a pretty fix to be in!”

“Well,” said I, “The seven independent freemen, I suppose, returned the popular candidates?”

Minkinshaw contemplated me with an air of lofty compassion. He looked me down my fore- head, nose, and chin—down the line of my shirt-studs, and waistcoat buttons—down the seams of my trowsers, till he came to my boots—and then he looked me back again, over the same route, up to my hair, when, throwing up his red double chin in silent scorn of my ignorance and presumption, he proceeded with his narration to Charlie, ignoring my existence and observations altogether.

“Well, sir, the day of election came. The returning officer was the bailiff appointed by the Earl of Lonsdale. He was told to adjourn the poll to the following morning, and he did so. In the meantime we got together all the attorneys’ clerks that were to be had within fifty miles, and set them at work to draw up conveyances of my lord’s freeholds. By polling-time the next day, fourteen deeds were engrossed, signed, sealed, and delivered, and an equal number of bran-new electors voted for Charles Young and Robert Ward, Esquires, his lordship’s nominees, and, having so done, returned the deeds, like free and independent electors and good tenants. The gentlemen I have named were elected, and Admiral Greaves and his son were sent about their business!”

Now, methought, I have you on the hip, Mr. Minkinshaw. “I think you said this took place in the year 1812?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir; I am always exact as to dates.”

“No doubt, then,” I replied, “you will remember that the Act forbidding splitting of votes, and requiring six months’ residence in a borough before a vote could be gained, was in force at that time?”

“Of course it was. What then?” demanded the Minkinshaw, fiercely.

“According to your own showing, all the freeholds belonged to Lord Lonsdale, immediately before the election, and also immediately afterwards. Admiral Greaves should have petitioned against the return.”

“He did petition, and was beaten.”

“Then,” I urged, somewhat nettled, “you have not acquainted us with all the circumstances of the case. If he proved what you have stated, he must have succeeded!”

"If he proved it—ay! It was all as notorious as noon-day; but he couldn’t prove it with legal evidence. First of all, he called Lord Lonsdale’s steward as a witness that all the freeholds belonged to his master; but the steward was objected to, being a confidential agent, and was not allowed to give evidence. Then the petitioner tried to examine my lord’s rent-collector, to prove that the freeholders (?) had paid rent before and after the election; but his evidence was held to be inadmissible, for the same reason. No man can be called upon to disqualify his own vote, therefore none of the freeholders who voted could be witnesses. Mr. Disney was counsel for the petitioners, and jawed away sixteen to the dozen, I can tell you, but it was of no use. The committee rejected his witnesses, and the petition was dismissed.”

Mr. Minkinshaw, whose gestures throughout were, to say the least of them, lively, emphasised this triumph of corruption with a wave of his arm that sent my hat flying in Charlie’s face.

“What do you call splitting votes?” asked Charlie, dabbing his handkerchief on his excoriated nose.

“When the owner of a freehold gave a portion of it to some one, so as to enable him to vote,” replied Minkinshaw. “In a famous contest at Weymouth, not so many years ago, two hundred freeholds were split into ten thousand. Fellows were brought there on purpose to vote, and so fine was the splitting, that some of them voted in respect of the thirteen hundred and sixtieth part of a sixpenny freehold.”

“In many counties and boroughs though,” added I, “all those who paid scot and lot—that means rates and taxes, Charlie—were electors.”

You see, I did not want to let my friend think that old Minkinshaw monopolised all the information upon the subject in discussion.

“Yes! you are right—for once!” remarked Mr. Minkinshaw, with insolent condescension. “And now I’ll tell you a little history about these sort of voters. In the borough of Seaford, the franchise belonged to all inhabitant housekeepers paying scot and lot. The Duke of Richmond had chalk-pits near at hand, and he brought twenty-seven of his labourers into the borough as taxpayers, so as to make them electors. Some of them were rated as occupying houses really tenanted by widows, or revenue officers, who could not vote. One lived under a boat turned upside down; another was taxed in respect of a stable; and a third of a cottage that had been pulled down and never rebuilt. Of course, the Duke paid the rates. Well! the general election of 1790 came on eighteen days before these voters had resided there six months. Here was a fix again! But the returning officer, who was a dependent of the Duke’s, put off the poll till the eighth day after the proclamation, as he was entitled to do, and then the ministerial candidates—nominees of his Grace—made long speeches against the admissibility of every vote that was tendered against them—there were no registers of votes in those days—and got the returning officer to administer to each elector the six oaths of allegiance, abjuration, supremacy, declaration of test, residence, and bribery. Spinning it out in this way, it took one whole day to poll four votes. Thus the election was tided over the remaining eight days, and then, their term of residence being completed, the chalk-diggers were marched up in a body, their votes given and accepted, and the poll was closed—smack! That was something like corruption, sir! There is something great about a ‘dodge’ of that sort. It is true that the House of Commons declared the election void: but what of that? The charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava was not successful, sir; but it was dashing, grand, heroic—something to talk about—and so was my Lord Duke’s chalk-diggers’ dodge!”

Saying which, Mr. Minkinshaw brought down his brass-ferruled umbrella perpendicularly upon my instep, inflicting thereupon an injury, the mark of which I shall carry with me to my grave. I writhed in agony, and the exclamation “Infernal!” rose unbidden to my lips.

“Bah!” cried the Minkinshaw, still purple with excitement, “that’s nothing!”

“Really, sir, you must allow me to be the best judge of my own feelings,” said I, angrily. “You have hurt me severely.”

“Pooh! pooh! pooh!” rejoined my tormentor. “I was not talking of your foot. Why, the deuce, did you stick it in the way of my umbrella?” Then, turning to my friend, he continued, “I repeat that what I have just told you is nothing to what the returning officers of pocket-boroughs did to put down opposition. They were usually the stewards or attorneys of the patron, and acted as they pleased. Now, at Beeralston, in Cornwall, the election used to be held without any electors being present! In the year 1816 there were but two qualified voters in the borough, and these determined to oppose the candidate of the Earl of Beverley, its proprietor. The port-reeve, who was returning officer, but had no vote, set out from Plymouth, where he lived, with an attorney’s clerk, and met the voters under a great tree, where the election had been usually held. He began to read the Acts of Parliament, which at that time it was the custom to read, and one of the voters handed him a card, on which was written the names of the candidates he wished to propose. The clerk told him he was too soon. Before the reading was ended, the other voter tendered another card, when he was informed that he was too late. Then away went the port-reeve and his clerk to a neighbouring public-house and cooked up a return of the Earl’s nominees, which was not signed by a single elector!”

“But were the returning officers never called over the coals for such work as this?” inquired Charlie.

“Sometimes they were,” replied the Minkinshaw. “In 1623, the Mayor of Winchilsea, having been convicted of threatening some of the voters, and improperly excluding others from the poll, was sentenced by the House of Commons to be committed to prison, and afterwards to make submission on his knees at the bar of the House, and also in his native town before the jurats and freemen. In 1702, another mayor of the same place received the same punishment, in spite of the utmost efforts of the Government—whose tool he was—to save him. You see they had not learnt to manage these little affairs discreetly in those rough times. Later on, they contrived better. A Mr. Nesbitt was once the principal landowner in the borough just mentioned, and upon one occasion—when opposed by a nominee of the Earl of Egremont, in the Tory interest—the town-clerk, who was the Treasury agent, pawned the charters and all the records of the corporation to raise funds to carry on the campaign (in plain English, to bribe the freeholders), and afterwards the Treasury redeemed the pledge. They could not do such a thing now-a-days,” added our companion, with a sigh, “not even to turn out a ——; Mr. Williams would be down upon them, for the sum was too large to be stuck into the miscellaneous expenses. Well, Mr. Nesbitt’s son afterwards sold the borough, for 15,000l., to the Earl of Darlington and Mr. Barwell, the nabob and millionnaire, who, by the way, lived to want half-a-crown, and whose four daughters received 80,000l. a-piece after his death, when his claim against Government was paid. Every freeman of Winchilsea was paid 100l. for his vote.”

“That was something like ‘bribery,” replied Charlie. “Why, 5l, in these degenerate days, is almost as much as a man can get. Now, what is the largest sum you ever heard of, as having been given for a single vote, Mr. Minkinshaw?”

“Well!” replied he, solemnly; “this I know—an elector of Scarborough received 1000l. for his vote. There were only forty-four electors in all; forty-two of them had polled—the numbers were equal, and the forty-third man was at sea, but the voter I speak of did not know it. He’d have asked 5000l. if he had, and, by Jove, sir!” exclaimed the old gentleman, this time venting his superfluous energies upon his own thigh, “he’d have got it!”

“The elections that were contested must have cost something, if people were bribed at that rate,” said Charlie, who had taken upon himself the office of ring-master to Mr. Minkinshaw and his hobby.

The Performer shook his head severely, and then winked. He next took a long breath, and spoke as follows:

“The election for the county of York, in 1807, lasted fifteen days, and cost the three candidates half a million of money! The expenses of Mr. Wilberforce, the philanthropist, who stood at the head of the poll, were defrayed by public subscription, and those of Lord Milton (afterwards Earl Fitzwilliam), created an annual charge of 17.000l. on his estate. The unsuccessful candidate, the Hon. H. Lascelles, a son of the Earl of Harewood, and a Tory, spent even more than that. Never was there so vigorously contested an election, either before or since. The roads in all directions were crowded each day with every description of machine that could go on wheels, from my lady’s barouche down to the tanner’s tax-cart,—some with eight horses to them, taking voters up to the poll. You may judge how hard the work must have been, when I tell you, that upwards of 23,000 votes were recorded, and that a hundred and twenty horses were found dead upon the roads during the polling! Two thousand electors a-day came into York City, and provisions, that would have lasted its inhabitants for twelve months, were consumed in a fortnight! Another famous election was that of Shrewsbury, in the year 1797. It was contested between the late Lord Berwick, and Sir Richard Hill, of Hawkestone,—their brothers being the candidates. It cost them more than one hundred thousand pounds—all spent in bribery and corruption of one kind or another.

“You think, I dare say,” continued Mr. Minkinshaw, addressing Charlie, “that the proceedings of the fellows your friend there (contemptuously indicating me) was reading about just now, are new election dodges. Lord bless your innocence! they are as old as the hills. We’ve had ‘Pedlars,’ and ‘Punches,’ and ‘Men in the Moon,’ dropping down into a county or borough, with their pack filled with bank notes for circulation amongst the electors, at any general election since the year 1724, when the first Parliament of King George the Second was elected. ‘Punch’ was old in 1774, when an alderman of Shaftesbury, dressed up in a mask and hump, and hidden in a dark room, bribed the electors with twenty guineas a man, paying the money through a hole in the door. Some blundering of outsiders led to an election petition, and in consequence of the disclosures that were made, Mr. Mortimer, the unsuccessful candidate, brought actions against a Mr. Sykes—a supporter of his opponent—for twenty-six distinct acts of bribery, committed previously to the election. The causes were tried at the assizes at Dorchester, on the 27th of July, 1776, before Sir James Eyre, when the plaintiff obtained a verdict for twenty-two penalties, amounting altogether to eleven thousand pounds!

“That was paying for his whistle,” said Charlie.

“Served him right, for acting so clumsily,” replied Minkinshaw. “Millions of money have been spent in bribery and corruption, and who can say—except those whose interest it is to keep the secret—how it went, or to whom? I tell you, men were bought and sold, like sheep, in the pocket-boroughs, and sold themselves to the highest bidder in the counties and boroughs that were open to the contests. A drunken tinker might have ridden to the poll in the carriage of a Duchess, if the time were short and the numbers equal. During the polling for some northern county,—I forget exactly which now,—one of the candidates found out that two of the freeholders were living away in Cornwall. He sent for them, and they were brought in two post-chaises (each would have his own), a distance of two hundred and ninety miles, at an expense of above a hundred pounds, for they lived like fighting-cocks on the road. They were paid a hundred and fifty each besides, for coming; but the best of the joke was, that when they arrived they were so drunk that they both voted against the very man who had brought them!”

“That was a sell!” exclaimed Charlie. “You told us just now, that the Government of the day redeemed the archives of Winchilsea. Was public money often expended in bribery for the Ministerial candidate?”

“Not often in the present century, but previous—”

The train began to stop.

Bletchley! Change here for the Bedford Line,” shouted the porters. Our “podgy” friend started to his feet, caught up his coats and hat-box, and dived down to the platform, knocking over a policeman, and nearly annihilating a fat lap-dog led by a very tall lady, who poked the Minkinshaw with her parasol, angrily called him a wretch, and demanded to know if he intended to be her death. From the crest-fallen manner in which my tormentor permitted himself to be captured and led away by that gaunt un-crinolined lady, I concluded that she was his wife, and I feel certain that I am avenged.

“An amusing old party,” said Charlie, lighting his cigar. “One may give a guess now why he interdicted smoking. Had his coat borne presumptive evidence of his having indulged in the noxious weed when he encountered the strong-minded lady—that would have been a state of things—eh? Poor old Minkinshaw! No ‘bribery’ would have mollified her.”

“Talking of ‘bribery,” said I, musingly, “I should not wonder if, when we are old fogies, we shall be able to tell of things that will count just as outrageous to the rising generation as Old Minkinshaw’s tales of bye-gone Bribery and Corruption, do to us now.”

“I wonder if we shall ever meet him again?” replied Charlie.

Time will show.

Albany Fonblanque, Jun.