Family Lessons 8: Election Fraud

I have always had an interest in politics, once chairing my party’s local association. Furthermore, I was an election agent in the 2010 general election, taking the responsibility for our candidate’s conduct and our campaign’s legality. I accounted for every penny, every bill, every leaflet. It was not just decent scruple which made me so careful- a prison sentence was not an unrealistic prospect if I was found to be dishonest. Imagine my horror then, when I found that a relative of mine had voted for the highest bidder in the 1865 general election. Here are the results for the Lancaster constituency:

Liberal   FENWICK, Edward Matthew         713         34.5%   

Liberal   SCHNEIDER, Henry William         687         33.3%   

Conservative     LAWRENCE, Edward         665         32.2%   

As you can see, Schneider the Liberal had only a majority of 22.

Accusations of corruption were made. A Royal Commission was established to investigate what had happened. So bad was the bribery and scandal, that Parliament scrapped the Lancaster Borough constituency altogether, dissolving it into the larger, county seat. It was discovered that an whopping 64% of Lancaster’s voters either took or gave a bribe that year.

My third-great, great uncle Thomas Airey was a member of that majority who accepted a bribe to switch his vote. He received 7 shillings for abandoning the Conservatives for the Liberals. In today’s money, that is about £44. Not a huge sum, but it was more easily earned than from his cattle dealing at Bowerham Farm. The transcript of his interview by the Commission is available for study. During his time in the limelight, he clearly suffered from acute memory loss. When formally cross-examined by the Commission, a dozen times he claims he could “not recollect” the information requested.

The 7 shillings had been paid to him after he voted Liberal by one James Whiteside, the innkeeper at the Wheatsheaf in Lancaster. He admitted to Mr Barstow, his examiner, that his family usually voted for the ‘Blues’ but Mr Coulston, his landlord, had asked him to vote for Schneider the Liberal. He said that Coulston could not have evicted him from his leased farm, but that he could have made things ‘awkward’ for him.

It is not clear from the testimony whether Uncle Thomas voted Liberal because he was afraid of his landlord or the bribe money was too tempting a prize. Maybe it was a bit of both. Furthermore, Thomas himself does not come across as particularly trustworthy. Take this example:


You are a Farmer?


How much do you farm?

-About 50 acres.

What rent do you pay?

-A little more than £200.

How much over £200 is your rent?

-It is very near £250.

Why did you not say so at once? How much is it?

-It is £250.

What did you mean then by saying just now it was a little over £200, when you knew very well that it was £250?

No answer.

A slippery fellow indeed. This is the only record of his voice which has been preserved by history- and it exposes him as a liar.

He left this world a year later, from alcoholism, judging by his death certificate which says he died of ‘congestion of the liver’ and ‘Delirium Tremens’. I think we can be pretty sure where his ill-gotten shillings ended up- back at the Wheatsheafe. What a waste of money. What a waste of a life.

Furthermore, the two successful Liberal MPs for Lancaster, whose agents had greased so many palms, were out of jobs. Parliament’s official record, Hansard, states the following for Monday 23 April 1866:

House informed, that the Committee had determined,—

That Edward Matthew Fenwick, esquire, was not duly elected a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Lancaster.

That Henry William Schneider, esquire, was not duly elected a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Lancaster.

That the last Election for the said Borough is a void Election.

And the said Determinations were ordered to be entered in the Journals of this House.

House further informed, That the Committee had agreed to the following Resolutions:—

1. That Edward Matthew Fenwick, esquire, and Henry William Schneider, esquire, were, by their Agents, guilty of bribery at the last Election for the said Borough.

Within two years, the Reform Act of 1867 was passed, giving most urban, working-class men the vote. Not only did this give many more folk a say in the running of their nation, but it meant power was not concentrated in the hands of better-off drunks like my Uncle Thomas. Corruption too often seems to be impossible to expunge, but the God of heaven will see to its unravelling.

He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house, But he who hates bribes will live. Proverbs 15:27

Image: Punch, 1847.