When Disraeli stood for Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 16:42 19 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:12 20 February 2013

When Disraeli stood for Shropshire

When Disraeli stood for Shropshire

Sally Bevington looks back on a General Election marred by violence, slander and racism, where the people of Shrewsbury returned an MP who would go on to be Prime Minster and one of the great figures of British politics

The Right Honourable Member for Shrewsbury

Sally Bevington looks back on a General Election marred by violence, slander and racism, where the people of Shrewsbury returned an MP who would go on to be Prime Minster and one of the great figures of British politics

Bribery, insults, racism, street violence, scandal the 1841 General Election in Shrewsbury had it all. When it was over the town had a new MP who was to go on to climb the greasy pole, becoming Prime Minister twice and gaining a lasting reputation as one of the greats of the Victorian age. Yet Benjamin Disraeli, a contemporary of Darwin, has somehow been airbrushed out of Shrewsburys history. The local Conservative Club bears his name but there are no plaques or statues to him and he barely gets a mention in local history guides.True he was not a local boy, but the election he fought is a fascinating one and the bitterest of his career, in a town which had a reputation as one of the notoriously corrupt boroughs of 19th century England. A contest in 1796 was said to have cost the candidate 100,000 a vast sum. After a year of parliamentary expenses, duck houses, and hiding behind parliamentary privilege, culminating in a General Election, perhaps it is time to re-examine this forgotten period in Shrewsburys history.
For Disraeli, Shrewsbury offered the springboard he desperately needed. Having been elected to Parliament in 1837, he had broken with his Maidstone constituency and needed a safe seat incurring little expense. His friend Lord Forester of Willey Park, Broseley, suggested Shrewsbury saying: All the chief people are prepared to receive you with open arms.
With a population of 18,000, the town traditionally returned two MPs and both seats had become vacant. This was the opportunity he had been looking for. He was not, however, an obvious candidate. Skeletons abounded in his cupboard and his early career had given no indication of future greatness. Jewish by birth, he was only able to enter politics because he had been baptised as a Christian aged 12. Anti-Semitism was deep-rooted and until 1858 practitioners of Judaism were excluded from Parliament. Disraelis education had been rudimentary. He hadnt attended a major public school or been to university. His father had articled him to a solicitor but the Law held little attraction and he gained a reputation as a philanderer, a gambler and a dandy. In an era of sombre dress he wore his hair in long black ringlets, revelled in exotic and flamboyant clothing, donning shirts with laced cuffs, canary yellow waistcoats, green velvet trousers, silk stockings and shoes with silver buckles. He frequented fashionable London salons with his various and often married mistresses. He was dismissed as a tinselled coxcomb whose attire resembled that of an Italian dancing master. He had speculated wildly on the Stock Exchange and in South American mining and lost heavily. He had published a daily paper which failed and in 1827, aged 23, a novel, Vivian Grey. Originally published anon by a so-called man of fashion, it caused a sensation in London society and exposed Disraeli as a man pretending he was more socially connected than he was. He was pilloried by those he hoped to impress. Humiliated, he wrote: I was ridiculous. It was time to die. He had a nervous breakdown and travelled around Europe for three years returning in 1831. Politics now beckoned but it was an ignominious start. He failed four times gain a seat, standing first as a Radical and then as a Conservative before finally gaining Maidstone in 1837. His maiden speech was a disaster. His unorthodox clothing and theatrical delivery were greeted with shrieks of derision. Corruption was rife and with no secret ballot until 1872, voters expected to be recompensed for their support .The election had been expensive and Disraeli had failed to pay his bills. They did not want him as their candidate in the next election. It was at this moment that Disraeli was offered, along with George Tomline, the Shrewsbury nomination. He gratefully accepted it on 27 May 1841.

But if Disraeli expected to ease himself comfortably into the seat, he had a rude awakening. The campaign soon became bitter with both sides accusing the other of unfair tactics. Anonymous election posters appeared, crowds hurled abuse and missiles at meetings, heavy muscle was hired to intimidate and vitriol dripped from the pages of the countys papers.

Disraelis financial problems came back to haunt him. His opponents accused him of an abuse of parliamentary privilege, standing for Shrewsbury only to avoid bankruptcy and imprisonment. MPs were exempt from prosecution. Broadsheets appeared on doors over town accusing him of being 20,000 in debt and of being: Morally and politically dishonest, the doer of dirty work, the scavenger of the least honest, most worthless and degraded of the Tories. Lists of creditors appeared: Tailors, hosiers, upholsterers, Jew moneylenders, splurging housekeepers, anyone foolish to trust him.

The Liberal-supporting Shrewsbury Chronicle published a long, condemnation by a local solicitor, William Yardley proclaiming: Who is this Benjamin Disraeli? Why everybody knows him. Jews and gentiles. Saints, sinners and creditors know him and he has once been trusted but not more than once. So were these accusations true? Disraeli seems to have privately admitted they were while publicly denying them. He had been plagued for years by financial difficulties; he was accustomed to a style of living beyond his means. His exotic clothes, his London social life, his European travels and the estate he bought at Hugenden did not come cheap. He had no income apart from what he could derive from his writings or borrow from his father or moneylenders. MPs received no official salary unless they were members of the cabinet, yet bribery, free drinks at the public houses and public dinners were an expected expense for a politician. Disraelis father had on at least three occasions paid his debts and his marriage to the wealthy widow Mary-Anne Lewis helped considerably, but even she was unaware of the extent of his problems.

But Disraeli was on a mission and no inconvenient revelations were going to stop him winning the seat. He had his own broadsheet produced, declaring the claims to be: Utterly false. Gentlemen, he went on, this is my clear and unequivocal answer to the dastardly attack which has been made upon me. An attack, I should think, unprecedented for its malignity and its meanness, even in electioneering circles. A furious Yardley now challenged Disraeli to a duel. At a time when the press was free from the laws of libel, a duel was often the only way to achieve satisfaction, a practice which though illegal was frequently indulged in. On this occasion peace between Yardley and Disraeli was only restored when the mayor intervened and bound them both over to keep the peace.
Anti-Semitism, always just below the surface, also raised its ugly head as it had at Taunton and Maidstone; the displays were crude and vulgar with shouts of Shylock and Old Clothes. Hostile members of the crowds waved pieces of roast pork on sticks and one heckler drove up to the hustings in a cart announcing I have come to take you back to Jerusalem.

Some political balance was provided by the archly Conservative Salopian Journal, it rallied round its candidate, accusing the opposition of: Infamous means to annoy and injure. It claimed that Disraeli had more than adequately defended himself and that: The friends of Mr Disraeli are satisfied that he is not in debt that he is a gentleman and a man of honour.

Each side accused the other of encouraging physical violence and intimidation. Disraelis political opponents were accused of hiring ruffians, bargemen and colliers and factory men, added to by a horde of scoundrels belonging to the town who were paid to heckle and throw rotten eggs when the Conservatives where addressing the electors outside the Lion Hotel and to throw stones at them at a meeting in the Square.

The Liberals meanwhile were incensed by a violent attack in Barker Street on their supporters. They claimed a band of thieves and bullies from Birmingham had been hired especially for the occasion and indiscriminately set about attacking Liberals and innocent onlookers with bludgeons and life preservers. The Shrewsbury Chronicle revelled in describing the violence and chaos that ensued. When their victims were on the ground, blows and kicks were inflicted without regard to life. The street became covered with blood, similar to a slaughter house, whilst from the adjacent windows raised the shrieks of agonised females, who witnessed the sanguinary attack. Several persons were taken up half dead.

There must then have been some relief when Polling Day arrived on the 29th of June. The Conservatives were confident they were on the eve of a great triumph. Disraeli proclaimed: I tell you that not withstanding every art which has been used to lower me in your esteem, I shall be your member tomorrow. By the afternoon it was clear both Conservative candidates had won. It was the high point of Disraelis career so far. He had the seat he needed, had overcome all the attacks against him, his wife had won the hearts of the electorate and Peel was about to form a new Conservative government, which Disraeli had high hopes of joining. Even the news, as he dined with Sir Baldwin Leighton at Loton Park, that an immense mob of opposition blackguards were assembled at Frankwell to attack him on his return left him unperturbed. He merely stayed on at Loton a few more days and then returned to London to be congratulated by his friends.

But the knives were still out for Disraeli. Election petitions to unseat candidates were a frequent tactic at this time and in the past Shrewsbury had had several Members unseated due to bribery and illegal practices. The defeated Liberals turned on Disraeli and Tontine, accusing them of intimidation and the lavish expenditure of Tory gold. For nine months things looked uncertain but at Gloucester two Liberals were in the same position and a gentlemans agreement caused both petitions to be dropped. Disraeli and Tontine kept their seats.

Disraeli now envisaged a glorious career. But when Peels full list went to the Queen on September 3, Disraeli reported bitterly: I have nothing. It was a devastating blow. Still seen by many as a mountebank he had powerful enemies in the cabinet who declared they would not have him at any price.

History shows he did prevail, becoming a favourite of Queen Victoria and a Prime Minister that gave the country: Six years of excitement, of enchantment, of felicity, of glory and romance. It was remarkable achievement given his unconventional background. The people of Shrewsbury remembered his six years as their MP fondly and on his death in 1881, the towns flags flew at half mast and its tradesmen closed their doors.

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