Mr Sergeant Atcherley and his Conservative candidacy – Part 1

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given that Victoria was heir to the throne; the first was required under a rather arcane piece of legislation which was repealed in 1867.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:

At the last election a Tory (J. H. Lowther, Esq.,) and a Liberal (the Hon. J. C. Dundas,) were returned, and it was supposed that the parties were so nearly equally balanced, that no attempt would be made to disturb the existing order of things. The Liberals were certainly blameable for not bringing forward a second candidate at an early period, inasmuch as they might have inferred from the pacific professions made by the Tories (whose professions are always to be understood by contraries), that it was their fixed intention to attempt to deprive the Liberals of all share in the representation.
In the uncertain state of affairs, the Tories were unable to prevail upon any one to visit York purposely to stand as a candidate; but the Assizes occurring immediately before the election, they began to cast about, in the hope of discovering some Learned Gentleman, who, without appearing to visit York for this ostensible object, might serve the purpose of a cat’s paw, to prevent the election passing quietly over, without any expense being incurred. Guided by what fatuity we know not they pitched upon Sergeant Atcherley as their man, his great wealth, no doubt, forming the leading qualification in their eyes. Accordingly a requisition as got up in a hurry, and signed by a few hundred freemen, who were thoroughly dismayed at the prospect of having no chance of bartering their invaluable birthright or a sovereign or two.
It was presented in due form, about the commencement of the Assizes, but the Sergeant, who is versed in the history of York elections, demurred about accepting it. After coquetting with the “worthy and independent freemen” upwards of a week, so lately as Friday night last the Learned Gentleman suffered himself to be wheedled into a reluctant assent to be put in nomination, but accompanied that assent with the appalling announcement that his election should be conducted on principles of the strictest purity. On Friday and Saturday he made a rough canvass of the city, and expressed himself perfectly satisfied with the assurances of support he had obtained.

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:

The announcement of Mr. Serjeant Atcherley of his intention to commence early canvass was eagerly received by the electors on Thursday morning. It was at first proposed to begin canvassing yesterday morning, but arrangements were made by the Serjeant’s friends to begin earlier; and accordingly he proceeded with a numerous escort to canvass the freemen of Walmgate ward, on Thursday afternoon, there he was received with every demonstration of popular favour; and the greatest animation was excited without the aid of either music or banners. The contrast between his reception and that of Mr. Dundas in the morning was very remarkable. […]
After having canvassed a large portion of Walmgate ward, Mr. Atcherley with his friends repaired to the committee-rooms, in St. Helen’s Square, about nine o’clock, for the purpose addressing the electors; and the flattering success of the day was discernible in the countenances the party. A large committee was now assembled within the rooms, and a great throng of adherents had congregated in front of the house, and in the square. The windows of the committee-room being thrown open, Mr. Blanshard, as chairman of the committee, presented himself, and was warmly greeted.
William Blanshard, Esq., introduced the learned Serjeant to the electors in a brief and suitable speech. He could assure the freemen and electors, that if they elected Mr. Atcherley as their representative, they would choose one whose anxious study it would be to maintain the institutions of the country, protect their civil and religious liberties, and promote the welfare of his constituents in particular. In introducing Mr. Atcherley, he did it with the greatest good feeling towards their valuable and efficient representative, Mr. Lowther, who had proved himself a gentleman worthy of the support that he had received. That gentleman was quite safe, and the freemen and electors would do well to return, in conjunction with Mr. Lowther, a gentleman embracing the same views and disposed to act with, not against, that gentleman. (Cheers.)

Walmgate Bar.

D. F. Atcherley, Esq., next presented himself, when the burst of applause was most enthusiastic, and was some time before it subsided. When he could obtain a hearing he made the following observations. The honour of representing this ancient city of York, was not of his own seeking; though the honour of representing the second city in the empire was one to which it was impossible for him to be insensible; yet it was an honour unsought by him. He was called forward as a candidate by a large portion of the elective body this city, and in compliance with that call, he had come the determination to canvass electors, to ascertain the feeling the majority.
In the course of his canvass that day he had had strong proofs of the desire there existed amongst the citizens of York to return two men of Conservative principles. He never before had the honour of appearing in the character he then bore, that of a candidate for the suffrages of an elective constituency, yet he had [frequently] been engaged professionally in elections, but on no occasion had he ever witnessed such unanimity as on that day; he could not have formed any conception of the feeling he met with, or the reception he experienced.
He disclaimed all intentions of injuring Mr. Lowther’s cause; that gentleman had high claim to their suffrages, and it only required union to obtain high claim the success of which they were so sanguine. The learned serjeant next observed that he was not a man to advocate extreme opinions; he could allow every man the same liberty of opinion which he was prepared to ask for himself; but having formed certain opinions, it was the duty of every man to maintain them with firmness and decision. (Cheers.)
The next subject alluded to was the new poor law bill. He observed it might be said by some that his opinion of the new poor law amendment bill, as some had christened it, was adopted to serve an electioneering purpose; he could assure them that if he formed a private opinion that the bill was good, and that he could support it, he would quit the town that night, and impose upon the large an influential body of electors in this city, by false representations; but he was determinedly, and had always so been, opposed to the obnoxious clauses in that that bill; for when he saw that that bill interfered with the domestic circle in families, and when, particularly in old age, it destroyed those tender endearments of our nature, which were necessary to the full enjoyment of human life, he could not but give his uncompromising opposition to such a measure. (Loud cheers.)
He was much exhausted with the fatigues of the day which was then far spent, and would not trespass longer upon their time; but in conclusion would inform them that his canvass during the day had been most satisfactory,—far exceeding the sanguine expectations of himself and his friends, and he was quite confident that at the termination of the contest they would be victorious. (Loud cheers.)

> 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.


[1] Yorkshire Gazette, 15 Jul 1837, page 2, column 7. “MEETING OF THE CONSERVATIVE FREEMEN AND ELECTORS.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[2] 1837 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[3] Historic figures: William IV (1765-1837). At: BBC website (accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[4] 1830 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[5] 1831 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[6] Reform Act 1832. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[7] Whig government, 1830–1834. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[8] Introduction. At: The Workhouse (website, accessed 29 Nov 2019).
[9] Second Melbourne ministry. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[10] 1832 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[11] 1835 United Kingdom general election. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[12] Whigs (British political party). At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[13] 1833 Factory Act. At The National Archives website (accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[14] William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Nov 2019).
[15] Leeds Mercury, 19 Jul 1837, page 7. “YORK CITY ELECTION.—Monday.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[16] Yorkshire Gazette, 22 Jul 1837, page 3, column 4. “YORK CITY ELECTION.” Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive.