Mr Sergeant Atcherley and his Conservative candidacy – Part 2

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On Friday, the learned Serjeant renewed his canvass, and we are extremely happy to learn that the success with which he met was very great. In the evening he addressed the electors in a very able speech, in the course of which he stated that the promises of support which he had received were such, as fully justified his determination to proceed to a poll. This announcement was received with tremendous cheers. Mr. Blanshard, (the chairman of Mr. Atcherley’s committee,) also addressed the electors, and entreated them not to forget their old and tried friend, Mr. Lowther, but to give their first vote for Lowther, and their second vote for Atcherley. Such was his intention and the intention of those who composed Mr. Atcherley’s committee. – Yorkshire Gazette, 22 July 1837.

As we have seen, the British parliamentary elections which took place in the later years of David Francis Atcherley’s life bore some similarities with those taking place in modern times: partisan press reporting and canvassing by candidates being part of the scene then and now. That said, canvassing practices have changed somewhat, with considerably less in the way of music, banners, and corruption! In many respects though, elections in the 1830s (and for quite some time afterwards) were very different to those of today. The electorate was very limited (and all male), ballots were not secret (leaving voters open to threats and bribery) – and in those constituencies which returned more than one MP to Parliament, each elector had two votes.

Historical researcher Gary W Cox, writing in 1984, noted that between 1832 and 1867 (the years in which the first and second Reform Acts were passed), 193 English constituencies – 76% of the total – were “double-member districts” with a further eight (3%) returning three or four MPs each. The majority of electors therefore had two votes to cast at parliamentary elections. They could use those votes in any way they wished (or in some cases, in any way they were told to by those with leverage over them), so long as they did not cast both for the same candidate.

Could the Tories of York (the city’s coat of arms is shown here) persuade enough of the city’s electorate to vote for both Lowther and Atcherley, instead of voting for Lowther alone, or for Dundas, the Whig, or for one of the Tory candidates and Dundas? Not without a fight by the opposition, and if the Yorkshire Gazette of the time is to be believed, the fight was a dirty one. To continue the report from the Gazette of 22 July 1837:

This gentleman commenced his canvass on Thursday morning, but we are informed that there was a [woeful] falling off in his former friends; in Walmgate and other popular parts of the city his presence could be hardly endured, and he met with very severe rebuffs from many of the freemen. In the afternoon he left his canvassing party to pursue their vocation without him, Sir John Simpson officiating as his locum tenens. Finding the peril in which this young gentleman is placed, of being rejected, his committee are resorting to every manoeuvre. When they meet with a flat refusal—“I won’t vote for Dundas;” then comes the impudent solicitation—“will you oblige us by plumping Mr. Lowther?” or “Will you do us the favour to promise a plumper for Atcherley?” This game has been played to a great extent, but it will be fruitless; the conservatives are not to be entrapped by any such means.

Faced with the possibility of their candidate losing out to two Tories, it appears that the Whigs were encouraging ‘plumper voters’. These were not, as the term might suggest, the more generously proportioned members of the electorate, but voters who cast only one of their two votes. Hence the alleged requests for “plumping Mr Lowther” or for “a plumper for Atcherley”. The Gazette went on:

The two conservative candidates stand on independent grounds—each relying on his own qualifications and sentiments, for the support of the electors; and every voter who wishes to see the city of York represented by two able and zealous conservatives must split between Lowther and Atcherley. By that means, and that means only, can the glorious victory be achieved.
On Friday, Mr. Dundas continued the unpleasant task of canvassing a disaffected constituency, and in the evening, he addressed a small party of radicals from the window of his committee-room. During the day, several abusive attacks were made upon Mr. Serjeant Atcherley, in hand-bills which were circulated from Mr. Dundas’s party, who are evidently soured by the dread of defeat which stares them in the face. […]

For the purposes of balance, I will now return to the Leeds Mercury’s report of events. On the subject of canvassing, the Mercury maintained that “Mr. Dundas […] waited upon every elector, and obtained the assurance, so far as it can be obtained from the promises of York electors, of the most triumphant success. Mr. Lowther, apparently relying on his exertions of another kind made subsequent to the last election, was less anxious as to the result of the contest, and only issued one single bill in the course of the whole fortnight.”

After the canvassing of electors came the official nominations of the candidates, which took place on Monday 24 July at the hustings erected for the purpose on the north-west side of St Sampson’s Square in York (the location of which can be seen in the map below, at the top of Parliament Street). The day was, in the words of the Leeds Mercury, “remarkably fine,” and “there was a very large attendance, probably between three and four thousand” (the Yorkshire Gazette estimated at least 8,000). The Mercury went on to state that “Every window in the vicinity of the hustings was crowded with ladies, most of whom displayed Orange favours.”

Hustings have remained a feature of elections in Britain to the present day, giving members of the electorate then and now an opportunity to hear the views of the candidates seeking their votes. These days they are usually civil and polite affairs, taking place some time before election day and acting as a forum at which “election candidates or parties debate policies and answer questions from the audience.” Back in the day, things were rather different, and those differences started with the pre-hustings parades. Here’s the Leeds Mercury again:

Before proceeding to the hustings each of the candidates rode around the town, accompanied by his friends in procession, and attended by music and banners. Orange banners were displayed from a number of private houses in almost every street, and applause greeted the liberal candidate at the turn of every corner. The Sergeant, who was mounted on a tall, square-built Rosinante, and equipped in a formidable cocked hat, endeavoured all in his power to “do the agreeable,” and made sundry smirks and bows to the ladies who bestudded almost every window, in the hope of eliciting some note of approval; but, despite his gallantry, scarcely a single kerchief waved to bid him “good cheer.” Mr. Lowther looked extremely ill—in ill health, we mean; he and his cortege distinct from the Sergeant; and of all men in York, he was probably the least inclined to look favourably on the pretensions of his learned rival.

The description of Sergeant Atcherley’s horse as a “square-built Rosinante”, incidentally, was an unflattering  reference to the horse of Don Quixote, which like Quixote himself was “awkward, past his prime, and engaged in a task beyond his capacities”! Naturally, the Yorkshire Gazette painted a rather different picture of these events, providing details which both supplement and contradict the report emanating from Leeds:

At an early hour the bands of the various candidates paraded the town. The Dundas party appeared resolute in having the largest show of hands, and large bodies of men were hired for the purpose; the more respectable part of his friends were also pressed into his service by means public breakfast! which was bountifully supplied to all who went to the White Swan. None of these corrupt practices were resorted to the other candidates; Mr. Lowther did not so much as appoint constables for his own personal protection from the violence of the orange mob, numbers of whom came to the hustings all the worse for the drink which had been poured down their throats. He relied entirely upon the spontaneous and honourable support which his name alone would command, and well was he repaid by so doing, for his supporters far exceeded those of Dundas in respectability, if not in numbers. Mr. Atcherley was also attended by a vast number of good men and true.
At nine o’clock, Mr. Lowther set out from the George Inn, mounted on a very spirited horse, richly caparisoned. He was preceded by a number of blue silk banners, inscribed—“prosperity to the City of York;” “Lowther, the Freemen’s friend;” “Lowther and Independence;” “Lowther and Victory;” “Lowther and Freedom of Election.” These were followed by Bean’s excellent band of music, then came Mr. Lowther horseback, surrounded and followed by his unbought friends in great numbers, who cheered him most enthusiastically, as the procession moved onwards. Another band of music brought up the rear. In this order the procession went by way of Micklegate, Walmgate, Goodramgate, and Bootham, and entered St. Sampson’s square by Davygate, where the candidate took the station assigned him by Sheriff on the extreme right of the hustings.
Mr. Atcherley also followed the ancient custom of riding the town. At nine o’clock the procession moved from his committee-room, preceded by blue silk banners, inscribed “Atcherley, the Friend the Poor;” “Freemen’s Rights;” four small flags, inscribed “Atcherley;” “Protection to the Poor;” then following two banners of very large size, richly emblazoned with gold—the one was inscribed—“The Queen and the Constitution;” and the other “Atcherley and Independence,”’ surmounted with the city arms. There were also a number of flags without any inscription. A band of music then followed, after which came Mr. Atcherley, mounted a very fine horse, decked with blue trimmings. He was surrounded by a large body of stavemen, (which was deemed absolutely necessary, in consequence of the violent conduct of the liberals,) and was followed by a great host of friends wearing the blue favour. The procession moved by way of Bootham, Monkgate [Monk Bar is pictured below], Walmgate, and Micklegate, and entered St. Sampson’s square from Parliament-street. The learned Serjeant took up his station on the extreme left of the hustings, amidst deafening applause. During the progress of the candidates through the streets, the windows of most of the houses were graced with the presence of ladies, waving blue favours, and demonstrating in every possible manner their attachment to the conservative cause.

It is tempting to think that the saying “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers” was coined in response to press coverage of politics. Certainly, you would hardly believe that the Leeds Mercury and the Yorkshire Gazette were reporting the same events. I find it unfortunate, to say the least, that the same can be said for many of today’s media accounts of events relating to politics.

If the York Gazette’s version of events is correct, there was some serious crowd trouble before the official business of the day was begun (although thankfully not the full-scale riot that reportedly took place at the Yorkshire West Riding hustings at Wakefield that July).

Mr. Dundas did not arrive at the hustings until after eleven o’clock, and the foreground was then occupied by a dense crowd of blues. The orange party attempted by a bold manoeuvre to dislodge the blues from the position which they had taken, but the attempt was abortive, and it was some time before Mr. Dundas could get to the hustings. The crush at this time was tremendous; a section of the oranges […] were very violent, and appeared determined at all hazards to kick up as great a row as possible. The consequence was that several fights ensued, and from the freedom with which the staves were used, we should imagine that there would be some broken heads. At least half hour elapsed before the respective parties became tranquillized, and order could obtained.

Embed from Getty Images

Prior to all of this, at 10 o’clock, Mr Sheriff Lockwood had already attended York’s Guildhall and opened the Electoral Court, before adjourning it to the hustings. With the proclamation against bribery and other preliminaries having been carried out, all the candidates present, and the crowd settled, it was time for the nominations to be made and for the prospective MPs to make their addresses to the assembled voters.

To be continued.

Picture credits. York city arms: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Map showing location of St Sampson’s Square and the Guild Hall, York: Extract from Ordnance Survey six-inch map Yorkshire 174 published 1853 (surveyed 1846-1851), Crown Copyright expired; reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. Monk Bar, at Monkgate, York, early 1800s: Public domain image from York Museums Trust. Covent Garden with election hustings, circa 1790: Image from Getty Images / Hulton Archive, embedded with code provided for that purpose.


(See also references 15 and 16 from Part 1 of this story.)

[1] 19th century elections. At: (accessed 26 Nov 2019).
[2] Gary W Cox (1984), The Development of Party Voting in England, 1832 – 1918. In: Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, No. 31, pages 5-6. Copy viewed at JSTOR (account – free – needed to view).
[3] Are you holding a hustings? At: The Electoral Commission website (accessed 28 Nov 2019).
[4] Rosinante. At A.Word.A.Day (website, accessed 28 Nov 2019).
[5] Rocinante. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 28 Nov 2019).
[6] The Champion and Weekly Herald, 7 Aug 1837, columns 404-408. Great Riot at the Yorkshire (West Riding) Election. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[7] Leeds Times, 9 Jul 1837, page 3. “YORK CITY ELECTION.” Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive.