X marks the spot

Prime Minister from Liverpool to May

I have featured this coin before. These pictures were the first I took with a new lens that acts as a short range telephoto (90 mm) and macro, or close-up. But what was going on when it was minted two centuries ago?

As mentioned in my blog about the year without a summer, 1816, the country was suffering. Wages were in decline, harvests failing, the price of grain rising and with it the cost of daily bread. There remained a surplus of labour following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

The men and boys (and perhaps some of the girls) in the Dennis family were busy burrowing beneath the close-knit coal mining community of Moira, Leicestershire. The Browns were doing much the same in Ketley, Shropshire. The rest of Andrew’s Kindred were labouring in the fields of the English Midlands, finding scarce employment where and when it was available.

So what political views did they have?  The Dennises were Wesleyan Methodist and therefore non-conformist, or anti-establishment, at least in terms of worship, but, as coal miners they were probably anti-establishment in a broader sense:  the latest in a long line of downtrodden working class folk.  That probably applied to the rest, too.

Whatever their views, one thing is for sure:  they never voted in a general election.  Even if there had been an election in 1817, they would have had no say.  Nor even in 1917.  The people who made the decisions were the wealthy, social elite.

Their “choice”

The monarch was King George III.  His prime minister was Lord Liverpool.

Our choice

In just two days’ time almost everyone of 18 years or older will be able to vote in a general election. Some may think, especially those voting in a safe seat, that it will make no difference, but two hundred years ago, my third great grandparents would have jumped at the chance:  Henry and Dorothy Dennis, William and Phoebe Eagles, William and Mary Carter, Thomas and Sarah Onion, and so on.

Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, born into nobility and a privileged life, became PM following the assassination of Percival in 1812, and held that position for 15 years. He led the Tory Party by virtue of the votes of the wealthy minority and the patronage of the king. I don’t mean the 40% or so of the vote won by modern governments, but the tiny minority of the wealthy, the aristocracy, and their cronies. Unlike today, when the leader of the largest party is invited by Her Majesty to form a government, the king back then actually selected the prime minister. That is like the Queen overlooking Mrs May (assuming the Conservative Party is the largest party come Friday) and asking her favourite MP to run the country instead!

There were “rotten or pocket boroughs”, where an MP could be returned by just one or two electors. Perhaps the most notorious was Old Sarum, an uninhabited hill in Wiltshire that returned two MPs; a bit like the Iron-Age Castle Ring sending two MPs to Parliament now. Three university constituencies returned five MPs. About a quarter of seats were decided by fewer than 100 electors (in my constituency the lectorate is more tha 60,000).  Some people had more than one vote. The Browns, Carters, Dennises and Evanses, and the rest of Andrew’s Kindred had no vote. No voice. No choice.

castle_ring_dad (360x206)
Dad inspecting the mythical parliamentary constituency of Castle Ring, Staffordshire.

The right to vote was hard won through decades upon decades of sacrifice, struggle and strife. Although the suffragettes are rightly celebrated as crucial to the cause of votes for women, they were but one part of a much larger picture of gradual transition from absolute monarchy to the democracy we have today. In the UK it was not until 1918 that men of 21 years or older became eligible to vote, irrespective of wealth, literacy or social status (those that came back from France and Flanders). For women it was 1928, the year my mother was born. Voting age was only reduced to 18 years in 1969; that is in my lifetime.

In my constituency, where Conservative MP Wendy Morton is defending a 20,000 majority, my vote, whichever party I choose to vote for or against, is unlikely to have any real impact on the outcome (as I explained to the fresh-faced activist who rang my doorbell the other week).  But I will be voting because I owe it to all those who fought for this fundamental human right that is still denied the majority of people around the world, especially women. If you are eligible to vote and don’t do so, then you fail them, one and all.  And you fail those killed, wounded, bereaved or inconvenienced by acts of terrorism, such as happened in Manchester and London recently.

In Aldridge-Brownhills, there are candidates for Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Monster Raving Loony. Voting is on Thursday, 8 June.

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4 thoughts on “X marks the spot

  1. Hi Andrew, i always remember visiting Auntie Lizzy and Uncle John in the house in Howdles Lane, i was only a young lad, but i can remember a picture hanging up on the wall of William Gladstone and his wife, having a cup of tea in a garden , as you know William Gladstone was a Liberal and became Liberal Prime Minster, so i suppose at some time the Dennis Family were Liberal, my Mother told me the little story that Walter Dennis was visiting , and said, will they ever finish them cups of tea, funny how you remember these little things, no use to you and the things you should remember you don’t that’s life.

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    1. Thanks, Martin. Sorry I have not replied sooner to your reply about voting, but I have had other matters on my mind. My instinct is that when Gladstone was PM there was only the choice of Conservative or Liberal (or independent), and before that Tory or Whig. On that basis I guess they supported the Liberals, if only to oppose the Tories, but transferred their allegiance to the Labour Party when it became available. I don’t know this, but I wonder if great granddad John Dennis having a lease from 1877 meant that he was able to vote.

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  2. Not sure on that one, my Mother told me my Granddad John Dennis was not very politically motivated, never discuss politics, this may have been because grandmother, Edith (Birch) Dennis was very strong Conservative, they had come from a Farming Family Birch, Cooper, so he probable went the easy way to keep the peace.
    But as you say the Dennis were strong Labour, which my Uncle Jack Dennis was, it make life very interesting.

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