Politics in Great Linford
We take for granted our ability to vote and that both men and women have secured this most fundamental of rights, but things have not always been as democratic, with strict custom and law restricting who could vote, so for instance Henry VI set the bar at, “knights and such notable esquires and gentlemen as have estates sufficient to be knights, and by no means of the degree of yeoman.” As the name implies, Henry’s Forty-Shilling Freeholder Act of 1430 set a stiff financial hurdle for the would be voter, requiring that they own a freehold property that returned a rent of at least 40 shillings a year. Such rules meant that even by 1780 when a survey was conducted, the country could only count 214,000 eligible voters out of a population of 8 million!
The cut and thrust of politics was also not as we now know it, with the modern concept of distinctly identifiable parties, loyalties and policies evolving slowly over time. The two “parties” that had long dominated political life in the country were the Tories and the Whigs. The Tories were associated with the landed gentry and the Churches of England and Scotland, while the Whigs drew support from the aristocratic dynasties most committed to the ideal of only allowing a protestant to sit on the throne. However, the loyalty of individuals to either cause was not always assured and individual members could be independent and vote along personal rather than party lines. The concept for instance of a “whips office” tasked with ensuring parliamentary party discipline did not begin to assume any kind of formality until the early 1800s.
Elections often stretched over a number of days or even weeks, allowing time for the electorate to make their way to the county polling place over often poor roads. For Buckinghamshire, this meant a journey from Great Linford of some 20 miles to Aylesbury. The electorate for the entire county numbered for many hundreds of years in the low thousands, such that in 1705 the Great Linford tally of qualified voters stood at a paltry 5; all of course men as women had no right to vote.
The names of these qualifying electors can be found recorded in Poll Books, which were compiled and maintained to verify the eligibility of persons to vote. These often include additional nuggets of information such as whom the electorate had voted for, as the concept of a secret ballet was entirely unknown. In fact. local politics in general was conducted in a vastly different way to modern times, with corruption endemic, such as the infamous rotten boroughs where a tiny number of voters could be bought or coerced into returning MPs to parliament. Great Linford cannot be counted amongst this shameful tally, but as a small village with a population largely beholden to the squire for a roof over their head and food in their belly, one might suppose that it would have been a brave or foolhardy man who did not tow the party line, yet there appear to have been some examples of independence. For instance in 1837 the vast majority of the Great Linford electorate voted for the Tories, but the farming vote went entirely to the Whig party. Conversely in the 1722 poll, the Lord of the Manor Richard Uthwatt voted for the two Tory candidates, as did every other voter in the village.
Voting was finally made secret in 1872, which one would hope have reduced coercive pressure on the electorate, but unfortunately the situation does not seem to have improved greatly, with a number of reports in newspapers complaining of political dirty tricks in the county, several of which related to events in Great Linford, though of course it would be well to also remember that then as now, newspapers took sides and there was far less oversight of the press to ensure their impartiality and accuracy.
A level of control we would now find extremely perturbing was however exercised over the lists of qualifying voters. Taking 1832 for example, we find a John Boscawen Monro and Frederic Gunning, Barristers, have been appointed to revise the lists of voters in the election of Knights of the Shire for the County of Buckingham, and that at 9am on the 23rd of October they were scheduled to attend a court at the Swan Inn at Newport Pagnell to revise those lists. The Knights of the Shire is an old name for members of parliament, and though It is not clear how exactly these yearly meetings were conducted, it would have been an inquiry of sorts into the qualification of persons to vote, based upon the worth of their property, it’s location and the length of time they had lived in the parish.
Later accounts carried in newspapers reveal that the principle political parties sent representative agents to argue over the lists. The deliberations over the 1910 list is a particularly relevant one to Great Linford, as we find that the Lord of the Manor William Uthwatt was the one who appears to have responsibility for presenting the tally of names. A barrister is still present at the proceedings to adjudicate, as are the agents of the Conservatives and “The Radicals.” The Radicals were a loose parliamentary political grouping who drew inspiration from earlier ideas of radicalism and helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party. The 1910 meeting was reported on in detail in Croydon's Weekly Standard of October 1st, and as it provides a fascinating and detailed insight into the tactics employed and the attitudes prevailing, it is reproduced in full below.
Mr W. Uthwatt presented the Great Linford lists. The Radicals objected to Robert Kemp, Herbert Charles Smith and another whose names appeared on the lists of occupiers. The ground for objection in each case was that the occupation did not come with the qualifying period. Mr Young said his information was the mothers of the men voted in March last – The Revising Barrister: What an interested woman tells you is what interests herself – Mr Uthwatt, who happens to be the owner of the property in question, was prepared to state that the men were tenants and they had occupied the qualifying period – The Revising Barrister inquired of Mr. Young if he took the evidence of a woman before that of the owner who appeared in court. Hearsay was no evidence at all – In Reply to the Revising Barrister, Mr Uthwatt said he fully understood that be could be put on oath. – Mr. Young was proceeding to argue when the Revising Barrister interposed: If you want to make this man out a liar ask me to put him on his oath and prosecute him for perjury. – The three objections failed.
A similar case came from Great Linford, when again the radicals objected on grounds of short occupation against a claim of a coachman in the employ of an army officer. Mr. Young said he had been informed that the house was taken but that the man did not occupy until after the qualifying period. In this case also Mr. Uthwatt happened to be the owner, and he stated that the qualification was a good one – Mr. Young: Did the man go into occupation on the same as he brought the horses down? Mr. Uthwatt: I don’t know what he brought with him. – The Revising Barrister: I will ask you quite a relevant question: Did the horses take up their residence in this dwelling-house as the man (laughter). Here, said the Revising Barrister, they had direct evidence that the man was in occupation. The objection could not be sustained.
NOT SHARP PRACTICE
The Conservatives claimed for an occupation vote for a man at Great Linford, but here also Mr. Young raised an objection, which Mr Hook combatted by saying that the objection reached the overseer two days late – Mr. Uthwatt said that was so. He should have had notice of the objection on the Saturday whereas it did not reach him until the following Monday morning. – Mr. Young: I enquired when I posted the objection at Bletchley if it would be delivered in Great Linford the same night and I was informed that it would be – The Revising Barrister said he knew it was the game to leave these things to the last moment in order that it should give one agent no chance against the other. It was not sharp practice but smart work. – The objection failed. Charles James Archer, Newport Pagnell, was successful in his claim for a lodger’s vote.
Aside from the antiquated attitudes on show toward women, the above account raises a troubling question about the truthfulness of William Uthwatt’s testimony concerning his tenants and their eligibility to vote. Robert Kemp was a house painter on the 1911 census and Herbert Charles Smith a coach painter, but both men were living in the households of their widowed mothers. Since they were not actually the respective heads of their households, they may not actually have been qualified voters! But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this account is that it states that the mothers of the 3 men in contention had voted in an election in March of that year. This may seem surprising, but the local Government Act of 1888 had in fact allowed women to vote in elections for county and borough councils (though not general elections) and indeed there was such an election in March. However, direct evidence of women exercising this right to vote is scant, making this account quite significant.
The account of the meeting also contains what might reasonably be judged to be several blatant conflicts of interest; as not only does it appear that William Uthwatt was the parish overseer at this time, with whom voting objections were to be lodged, but he also owned the houses in which the disputed voters were resident, and if he wasn’t also liable to be sympathetic to the Tory cause, it would be very surprising indeed, as he also chaired the Great Linford Conservative and Unionist Association. Did he in fact receive the letter of objection on time, or was the Barrister right in accusing the Radical agent of smart business in waiting until the last moment to post his letter. Whatever the case, it is hard to escape the notion that a temptation to disenfranchise each other’s voters most have been a distinct possibility.
Buckinghamshire was long known as a marginal seat, and by the time in 1885 that the Buckingham Division (otherwise known as the North Bucks constituency) was formed, the county’s representation had been swinging back and forth between Conservative and Liberal on wafer thing majorities for many years. Perhaps because it was one of the most marginal constituencies in the country, this explains the particular passion of the electorate in the run up to polling days, which as Sir Frank Markham describes in his History of Milton Keynes volume 2, often degenerated into fist fights, egg throwing and vandalism, the sort of ruckus that also spread on occasion to Great Linford.
The Labour Party was established in 1900 but in its early years struggled to drive a wedge between the dominant Conservative and Liberal party political machinery in the county. Judging by an absence of newspaper stories, Great Linford was a Labour free zone, and certainly within the village, there appears to have never been a comparable local Labour organisation to challenge the well-established and popular Conservative association. The village does have one Labour Party claim to fame however, as in 1922 George Middleton was elected to serve as Labour MP for the city of Carlisle. Though he was not born in Great Linford, he lived for a time with his parents at Station Terrace.
The Uthwatts meanwhile continued their political pursuits, with the County Council elections of 1904 seeing William Francis Edolph Andrewes Uthwatt, the leading light in the Great Linford Conservative Association and described as a “landowner”, standing against David Edward, a Baker of Glyn Street, New Bradwell. Edward was already it appears a sitting councillor, and soundly defeated William Uthwatt by 477 votes to 110, a majority of 367. The result provides an interesting commentary on the shifting political balances in the county and country at large, with the power clearly having shifted from men of entitlement like the Uthwatts, to a welcome and more classless political system.
The last big electoral changes to impact Great Linford was the introduction of universal suffrage, when in 1918 the parliamentary vote was finally extended to woman, though only those over the age of 30; younger women would have to wait until 1928 to achieve equality with men. The 1918 electoral register for Great Linford is therefore a watershed document, as we finally see the names of women in the village treated as equals with their menfolk, though it should not also be forgotten that in 1918 a great many more men had also been added to the rolls, and so a total of 210 persons were now eligible to vote in the village, a far cry from the 5 men who qualified in 1705. Of those 210 persons, 106 were women, a remarkably welcome advance, though no evidence has been found so far to suggest there was any kind of suffragette movement or sentiment active in the village at the time, though they were certainly active in the county, with one protester succeeding in chaining herself to a tree at Bletchley Park when the PM Herbert Asquith visited in 1909.