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New Sources and Methods In the Study of the Nineteenth Century Parliament*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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The study of the nineteenth century British Parliament cannot be limited to the institution itself, nor to the constitutional relations of its par ts. The great electoral reforms of the century increased the importance of the electorate in political decision-making. Coupled with these changes, the vast transformations of economy and society altered the very functions of Parliament. Thus nineteenth century parliamentary history requires an understanding of the whole political system, as well as the events within the House. Many of the recent works bearing on the history of Parliament reflect these facts. While good narrative history of parliamentary events continues to be needed and produced, the most innovative recent work raises different kinds of problems entirely and is not limited to affairs at Westminster. The newer types of work can be viewed as coming in two waves: first, a detailed analysis of political structure, utilizing traditional kinds of sources; and second, a proliferation of analytical approaches, using new sources and methods. Both waves are basically analytical, but they differ in questions asked and in routes to the answers.

The analysis of political structure has been inspired by the questions, if not the methods and interpretations, of Sir Lewis Namier. The best of many examples are still Norman Gash's Politics in the Age of Peel and H. J. Hanham's Elections and Party Management. The main questions asked in such works are: What was the real, as opposed to the theoretical, framework of politics? How were politics actually conducted outside the House of Commons? How did the various reform acts affect the functioning of the electoral system? These works stress, in Gash' terminology, the “medium” in which the ordinary politician operated. In each case, they seem to emphasize continuity rather than change, and the enduring power of bribery, corruption, and influence. They have added a great deal to what the narratives tell us about Victorian politics, especially in regard to the realities of constituency operations, the origins and workings of party machinery, the problems of party finance, and the cost of elections. Structural investigations of parties, like Conor Cruise O'Brien's Parnell and His Party and E. J. Feuchtwanger's Disraeli, Democracy and the Tory Party have given a new dimension to party history. Perhaps most important, the structural studies have established the crucial significance of local factors and the comparative inconsequence of national issues in most elections.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 4 , Issue 2 , Summer 1972 , pp. 67 - 81
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1972

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Paper read at the Conference on British Studies Sessions, American Convention, New York, December 1971.


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3 Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Gash and Hanham for not doing what they did not set out to do. In his Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, and Mr, Secretary Peel (Cambridge, Mass., 1961)Google Scholar, Gash deals with many of these topics. And Hanham says, in the preface to Elections and Party Management, that he is writing a volume on the politicians themselves and their pressure groups.

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7 Ostrogorski, M., Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, Vol. I (New York, 1902).Google Scholar

8 Beales, Derek, “Parliamentary Parties and the ‘Independent’ Member, 1810-1860,” in Robson, Robert, ed., Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain (New York, 1967), 119Google Scholar. See also: Foord, A. S., “Whigs into Liberals,” Government and Opposition, Vol. 3 (Spring, 1968), 243–48 —CrossRefGoogle Scholar a review article of Mitchell's Whigs in Opposition. Robbins, Caroline, “‘Discordant Parties:’ A Study of the Acceptance of Party by Englishmen,” Political Science Quarterly, LXXIII (December, 1958), 505–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Aspinall, Arthur, “English Party Organization in the Early Nineteenth Century,” English Historical Review, XLI (July, 1926), 389411CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Large, D., “The Decline of the ‘Party of the Crown’ and the Rise of Parties in the House of Lords, 1783-1837,” English Historical Review, LXXVIII (October, 1963), 669–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Close, David, “The Formation of a Two-Party Alignment in the House of Commons between 1832 and 1841,” English Historical Review, LXXXIV (April, 1969), 257–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Aydelotte, W. O., “Parties and Issues in Early Victorian England,” Journal of British Studies, V (May, 1966), 95114CrossRefGoogle Scholar. There is, however, nothing as yet to match Jackson's, R. J. study of the years from 1945 to 1964: Rebels and Whips: An Analysis of Dissension, Discipline and Cohesion in British Political Parties (New York, 1968).Google Scholar

9 Beales, , “Parliamentary Parties and the ‘Independent’ Member,” pp.10, 11Google Scholar; Berrington, , “Partisanship and Dissidence in the Nineteenth Century House of Commons,” pp. 344–46.Google Scholar

10 See notes 18 and 19.

11 H. J. Hanham, Elections and Party Management, Chap. 7; Barry McGill, “Francis Schnadhorst and Liberal Party Organization,” passim; McKenzie, R. T., British Political Parties (London, 1953), Chaps. IV and VGoogle Scholar; E. J. Feuchtwanger, Disraeli, Democracy and the Tory Party.

12 Fraser, Peter, “The Growth of Ministerial Control in the Nineteenth-Century House of Commons,” English Historical Review, LXXV (July, 1960), 444–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cromwell, Valerie, “The Losing of the Initiative by the House of Commons, 1780-1914,” Transactions of The Royal Historical Society, 5th Ser., XVIII (1968), 123CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also: Hughes, Edward, “The Changes in Parliamentary Procedure, 1880-1882,” in Pares, Richard and Taylor, A. J. P., eds., Essays Presented to Sir Lewis Namier (London, 1956), 289319Google Scholar. Hanham, H. J., “Opposition Techniques in British Politics, 1867-1914,” Government and Oppposition, Vol. 2 (January, 1967), 3548CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Thornley, David, “The Irish Home Rule Party and Parliamentary Obstruction, 1874-1887,” Irish Historical Studies, XII (March, 1960), 3857CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Chester, D. N. and Bowring, Nona, Questions in Parliament (Oxford, 1962)Google Scholar. Leys, Colin, “Petitioning in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Political Studies, III (February, 1955), 4564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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14 Foord, A. S., “The Waning of ‘The Influence of the Crown,’English Historical Review, LXII (October, 1947), 484507CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Pares, Richard, King George III and the Politicians (Oxford, 1953)Google Scholar. This theme is explored brilliantly in Norman Gash, Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, Chap. 1.

15 Roberts, David, Victorian Origins of the British Welfare State (New Haven, 1960)Google Scholar. MacDonagh, Oliver, A Pattern of Government Growth, 180060: The Passenger Acts and their Enforcement (London. 1961)Google Scholar; Delegated Legislation and Administrative Discretions in the 1850's: A Particular Study,” Victorian Studies, II (September, 1958), 2944Google Scholar. Macleod, Roy, “The Akalai Acts Administration, 1863-84: The Emergence of the Civil Scientist,” Victorian Studies, IX (December, 1965), 85112Google Scholar; The Frustration of State Medicine, 1880-1899,” Medical History, XI (January, 1967), 1540Google Scholar; Social Policy and the ‘Floating Population’: The Administration of the Canal Boats Acts, 1877-1899,” Past and Present, No. 35 (December, 1966), 101–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

These works are a part of a larger controversy over the Victorian “revolution in government,” some aspects of which shed light on the changing function of Parliament: MacDonagh, Oliver, “The Nineteenth Century Revolution in Government: A Reappraisal,” Historical Journal, I (1958), 5267CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Parris, Henry, “The Nineteenth Century Revolution in Government: A Reappraisal Reappraised,” Historical Journal, III (1960), 1737CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hart, Jennifer, “Nineteenth Century Social Reform: A Tory Interpretation of History,” Past and Present, No. 31 (July, 1965), 3961.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Heasman, D. J., “The Emergence and Evolution of the Office of Parliamentary Secretary,” Parliamentary Affairs, XXIII (Autumn, 1970), 345–65Google Scholar. Willson, F. M. G., “Routes of Entry of New Members of the British Cabinet, 1868-1958,” Political Studies, VII (October, 1959), 222–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Elton, G. R., “Studying the History of Parliament,” British Studies Monitor, II (Summer, 1971), 414.Google Scholar

18 Guttsman, W. L., The British Political Elite (London, 1963).Google Scholar

19 Woolley, S. F., “The Personnel of the Parliament of 1833,” English Historical Review, LIII (April, 1938), 240–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Aydelotte, W. O., “The House of Commons in the 1840's,” History, XXXIX (October, 1954), 249–62.Google Scholar

20 Thomas, J. A., The House of Commons, 1832-1901: A Study of Its Economic and Functional Character (Cardiff, 1939)Google Scholar. Also: Thomas, J. A., “The House of Commons, 1832-1867: A Functional Analysis,” Economica, V (1925), 4961.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 For the political conflict between Anglicanism and Dissent, see: Gash, Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, Chaps. III and IV. Clark, G. Kitson, The Making of Victorian England (Cambridge, Mass., 1962)Google Scholar, Chaps. VI and VIII. R. T. Shannon, Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation. For other works bearing on collective biography see: Judd, G. P., Members of Parliament, 1734-1832 (New Haven, 1955)Google Scholar. W. O. Aydelotte, “The Business Interests of the Gentry in the Parliament of 1841-47,” Appendix to G. Kitson Clark. The Making of Victorian England. Hanham, H. J., “Some Neglected Sources of Biographical Information: County Biographical Dictionaries, 18901937,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, XXXIV (May, 1961), 5566CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Laski, H. J., “The Personnel of ihe English Cabinet, 1801-1924,” American Political Science Review, XXII (1928), 1231CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Punnett, R. M., “The Parliamentary and Personal Backgrounds of British Prime Ministers, 1812-1963,” Quarterly Review, 302 (July, 1964), 254–66Google Scholar. Pumphrey, R. E., “The Introduction of Industrialists into the British Peerage: A Study in Adaptation of a Social Institution,” American Historical Review, LXV (October, 1959), 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Francis, Wayne L., “The Role Concept in Legislatures: A Probability Model and A Note on Cognitive Structure,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 27 (August, 1965), 567–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Moore, D. C., “The Other Face of Reform,” Victorian Studies, V (September, 1961), 734Google Scholar; Concession or Cure: The Sociological Premises of the First Reform Act,” Historical Journal, IX (1966), 3959.Google Scholar

23 For other attempts to relate sociological analysis of the M.P.'s to voting in the House, see: W. O. Aydelotte, “The House of Commons in the 1840's”; The Country Gentlemen and the Repeal of the Corn Laws,” English Historical Review, LXXXII (January, 1967), 4760CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Clark, G. Kitson, “The Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Politics of the Forties,” The Economic History Review, 2d Ser., IV (1951), 113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 W. O. Aydelotte, “The Business Interests of the Gentry in the Parliament of 1841-47”; “The House of Commons in the 1840's”; A Statistical Analysis of the Parliament of 1841: Some Problems of Method,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, XXVII (November, 1954), 156–89Google Scholar. In his article, “The Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Politics of the Forties,” G. Kitson Clark studies the reverse of economic determinism — i. e., the influence of party politics upon economic thought and policy.

25 For reconsiderations of the influence of constituencies on their M.P.'s: Wahlke, John C., “Policy Demands and System Support: The Role of the Represented,” British Journal of Political Science, I (July, 1971), 271–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Aydelotte, W. O.. “Constituency Influence and the Parliament of the 1840's,” unpublished paper delivered to the Conference on British Studies, Chicago, October, 1971Google Scholar. For class ideology: Perkin, Harold, The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780-1880 (Toronto, 1969).Google Scholar

26 Vincent, J. R., Pollbooks: How Victorians Voted (Cambridge, England, 1967)Google Scholar. For a brief critique, see: Nossiter, T. J., “Recent Work on English Elections, 1832-1935,” Political Studies, XVIII (December, 1970), 525–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Vincent is more successful with The Electoral Sociology of Rochdale,” The Economic History Review, 2d Ser., XVI (August, 1963), 7690Google Scholar. Other good uses of pollbooks are in: Guttsman, W. L., “The General Election of 1859 in the Cities of Yorkshire,” International Review of Social History, II (1957), 231–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Drake, Michael, “The Mid-Victorian Voter,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, I (Spring, 1971), 473–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Moore, D. C., “Social Structure, Political Structure, and Public Opinion in Mid-Victorian England,” in Robson, Robert, ed., Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain, 2057.Google Scholar

28 Tholfsen, Trygve, “The Transition to Democracy in Victorian England,” International Review of Social History, VI (1961), 226–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 For other good sociological analyses, see: Briggs, Asa, “The Language of ‘Class’ in Early Nineteenth Century England,” in Briggs, Asa and Saville, John, eds., Essays on Labour History (London, 1960), 4373CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Middle-Class Consciousness in English Politics, 1780-1846,” Past and Present, No. 9 (April, 1956), 6574CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Jones, I. G., “The Election of 1868 in Merthyr Tydfil: A Study in the Politics of an Industrial Borough in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Modern History, XXXIII (September, 1961), 270–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also notes 36, 37, 38, and 39.

30 Cornford, James P., “The Parliamentary Foundations of the Hotel Cecil,” in Robson, Robert, ed., Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain, 268311Google Scholar; The Transformation of Conservatism in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Victorian Studies, VII (September, 1963), 3566.Google Scholar

31 Vincent, John R., Formation of the Libeial Party, 1857-1868 (London, 1966).Google Scholar

32 Trygve Tholfsen, “The Transition to Democracy in Victorian England”; The Origins of the Birmingham Caucus,” Historical Journal, II (1959), 161–84Google Scholar. Harrison, Royden, “The British Working Class and the General Election of 1868,” Parts I and II, International Review of Social History, V (1960), 424–55, and VI (1961), 74-109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

33 Southgate, Donald, The Passing of the Whigs, 1832-1886 (New York, 1962).Google Scholar

34 Glaser, John F., “English Nonconformity and the Decline of Liberalism,” American Historical Review, LXIII (January, 1958), 352–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 Heyck, T. W., “British Radicals and Radicalism, 1874-1895: A Social Analysis,” in Bezucha, R. J., ed., Modern European Social History (Lexington, Mass., 1972), 2858.Google Scholar

36 Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London. 1963)Google Scholar. Rudé, George, The Crowd in History (New York, 1964)Google Scholar; Wilkes and Liberty (Oxford, 1962)Google Scholar. Williams, Gwyn A., Artisans and Sans-Culottes (New York, 1969)Google Scholar. Also: Rudé, George, Hanoverian London, 1714-1808 (Berkeley, 1971), Chaps. 8 and 9Google Scholar. Rose, R. B., “Eighteenth-Century Price Riots and Public Policy in England,” International Review of Social History, VI (1961), 277–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Briggs, Asa, “The Background of the Parliamentary Reform Movement in Three English Cities (1830-2),” Cambridge Historical Journal, X (1952), 293317CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomas Attwood and the Economic Background of the Birmingham Political Union,” Cambridge Historical Journal, IX (1948), 190216Google Scholar. Rudé, George, “English Rural and Urban Disturbances on the Eve of the First Reform Bill, 1830-1831,” Past and Present, No. 37 (July, 1967), 87102.Google Scholar

38 Briggs, Asa, ed., Chartist Studies (London, 1959)Google Scholar. Wilson, Alexander, The Chartist Movement in Scotland (Manchester, 1970).Google Scholar

39 See note 32. Also: Harrison, Royden, Before the Socialists (London. 1965).Google Scholar

40 Thompson, Paul, Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London, 1885-1914 (Toronto, 1967).Google Scholar

41 Pelling, Henry, The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900 (Oxford. 1965)Google Scholar; Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain (New York. 1968).Google Scholar

42 A point emphasized by Epstein, Leon D., “British Class Consciousness and the Labour Party,” Journal of British Studies, I (May, 1962), 136–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

43 McCallum, R. B., “The Study of Psephology,” Parliamentary Affairs, VIII (Autumn, 1955), 508–13Google Scholar. The latest example is Butler, David and Pinto-Duschinsky, Michael, The British General Election of 1970 (London, 1971).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

44 Lloyd, Trevor, The General Election of 1880 (London, 1968).Google Scholar

45 Some of these criticisms are made by Nossiter, T. J. in “Recent Work on English Elections,” 525–26.Google Scholar

46 Other psephological studies: Lloyd, Trevor, “Uncontested Seats in British General Elections, 1852-1910,” Historical Journal, VIII (1965), 260–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Dunbabin, J. P. D., “Parliamentary Elections in Great Britain, 1868-1900: A Psephological Note,” English Historical Review, LXXXI (January, 1966), 8299CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sanderson, G. M., “Swing of the Pendulum in British General Elections, 1832-1966,” Political Studies, XIV (October, 1966), 349–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

47 Kinnear, Michael, The British Voter: An Atlas and Survey Since 1885 (London, 1968)Google Scholar. Pelling, Henry, Social Geography of British Elections, 1885-1910 (New York, 1967)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Morgan, Kenneth O., Wales in British Politics, 1868-1922 (Cardiff, 1963)Google Scholar, might also be included in this category. Others: Morgan, Kenneth O., “Cardiganshire Politics: The Liberal Ascendancy, 1885-1923,” Ceredigion, V (19641967)Google Scholar. Jones, I. G., “Cardiganshire Politics in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Ceredigion, V (19641967)Google Scholar. McCord, Norman and Carrick, A. E., “Northumberland and the General Election of 1852,” Northern History, I (1966), 92108CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Howarth, Janet, “The Liberal Revival in Northamptonshire, 1880-1895: A Case Study in Late-Nineteenth Century Elections,” Historical Journal, XII (1969), 78118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

48 This statement is true even though comparative politics is a flourishing field. The best examples of comparative parliamentary and political studies bearing on the nineteenth century are: Williams, Gwyn A., Artisans and Sans-Culottes (New York, 1969)Google Scholar. Kelley, Robert, The Transatlantic Persuasion (New York, 1969)Google Scholar. Lipset, Seymour M., “Value Patterns, Class and the Democratic Polity: the United States and Great Britain,” in Lipset, Seymour M. and Bendix, Reinhard, eds., Class, Status and Power (2d ed.; New York, 1966), 161171Google Scholar. Lipset, Seymour M. and Rokkan, Stein, eds., Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives (New York, 1967)Google Scholar, especially Chaps. 1 and 3. Almond, Gabriel A. and Powell, G. Bingham, Comparative Politics: A Developmental Approach (Boston, 1966).Google Scholar

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