On Tuesday evening a very respectable meeting of the freemen and electors of this city was held at the Merchants’ Hall, to consider the further steps necessary to be adopted to secure the return of a second conservative candidate at the ensuring election. John Bulmer, Esq. was called to the chair, and in opening the business of the meeting, he observed that they all appreciated the good which Mr. Lowther had done for the city, and he believed that they would all cheerfully again support him. (Cheers.) At the same time he thought they ought to return another candidate along with him of the same political sentiments, and he had no doubt, if unanimity existed among the conservatives they would be successful. (Cheers.) A requisition to Mr. Sergeant Atcherley had been very numerously signed, requesting him to come forward as a candidate, and they were now met to adopt the proper steps for its presentation. – Yorkshire Gazette, 15 July 1837.
David Francis Atcherley, Sergeant At Law, known professionally as Mr Sergeant (or Serjeant) Atcherley, was a strong supporter of the Conservative cause. Yet, despite being a true-blue Tory and a prominent public figure, he did not attempt to become a Member of Parliament for his party until the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837.
These two events – David’s candidacy and Victoria’s ascendancy – were not unconnected. The general election of 1837 and the crowning of Victoria both resulted from the death of Victoria’s uncle, King William IV (pictured here in the year of his death), on 20 June that year. The second of those two results is easy enough for us to understand given that Victoria was heir to the throne; the first was required under a rather arcane piece of legislation which was repealed in 1867. Under the Succession to the Crown Act 1707, Parliament had to be dissolved six months after a “demise of the Crown”.
In contrast to the long reign which Victoria began in 1837, the monarchy of William IV had lasted just seven years. He succeeded to the throne in June 1830 following the death of George IV, and Tory divisions after the ensuing general election saw the Whigs form a government under the premiership of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. A further election 1831 fought mainly on the issue of electoral reform gave the Whigs a majority in the House of Commons, and they successfully delivered the Representation of the People Act of 1832.
The stated aim of this legislation, which was also known as the Reform Act, was to “take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament”. It removed parliamentary seats from the infamous “rotten boroughs” and “pocket boroughs”, granted seats to large cities which had grown in size during the industrial revolution but which lacked representation, and extended the franchise so that the electorate grew from about 400,000 to 650,000 men. This Act applied only to England and Wales, but similar legislation for Ireland and Scotland was also passed in 1832.
With the exception of a brief period in 1834-5 (when, following the King’s dismissal of the PM, there was a short-lived Tory caretaker government), the Whigs remained in power for the rest of William IV’s reign, winning further elections in 1832 and 1835. With that power came more reforming legislation – for a while at least. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the Factory Act 1833 (which improved conditions for children working in factories), and the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (which brought in Poor Law Unions and Union workhouses) were all passed under the leadership of Earl Grey. However Grey’s successor, his Home Secretary William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (who took over as PM in 1834 and returned to power after his dismissal by the King in 1835) was an aristocrat who preferred the status quo to change. He had been opposed to the Reform Act, was a supporter of slavery, and initiated no great reforms as Prime Minister.
This is not to say that the Whigs under Melbourne did not make or propose any further legislative changes. They did, and as we will see the Tories were very much opposed to their policies, especially in the wake of the 1835 election when the Whigs formed an alliance with the Radicals and the Irish Repeal Association.
The House of Commons, 1833.
This, then, was the backdrop to the general election of 1837, an election which the Tories, after making advances in the polls in 1835, were very keen to win. Fielding two candidates at York, which sent two MPs to Parliament but which had been represented by a Tory and a Whig, was a gambit which they thought might help tip the balance of power in their favour. Here’s how the Leeds Mercury of 29 July that year presented the situation – see if you can guess which side the paper favoured:
York Minster gargoyles.
Media bias was evidently as much a part of the world of politics then as it is now! While the Leeds Mercury supported the Whigs, the Yorkshire Gazette was clearly pro-Tory in its reporting. Notice the contrast not only in the tone of its reported, but also in the information presented relating to the timing of David Francis Atcherley’s entry into the contest for York, in the following extract from its edition of 22 July 1837:
> On to Part 2.
Picture credits. King William IV: Image © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 5917), used under a Creative Commons licence. The House of Commons, 1833: Image © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 54), used under a Creative Commons licence. York Minster gargoyles: Photo by Rachel Clarke, taken from her Flickr photostream and used under a Creative Commons licence. Walmgate Bar: Photo by Tim Green, taken from his Flickr photostream and used under a Creative Commons licence.
 Yorkshire Gazette, 15 Jul 1837, page 2, column 7. “MEETING OF THE CONSERVATIVE FREEMEN AND ELECTORS.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
 1837 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 Historic figures: William IV (1765-1837). At: BBC website (accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 1830 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 1831 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 Reform Act 1832. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 Whig government, 1830–1834. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 Introduction. At: The Workhouse (website, accessed 29 Nov 2019).
 Second Melbourne ministry. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 1832 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 1835 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 Whigs (British political party). At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 1833 Factory Act. At The National Archives website (accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
 Leeds Mercury, 19 Jul 1837, page 7. “YORK CITY ELECTION.—Monday.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
 Yorkshire Gazette, 22 Jul 1837, page 3, column 4. “YORK CITY ELECTION.” Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive.