In March, 1820, Robert Blakey, a young tradesman in Morpeth, wrote to the notorious radical paper, the Black Dwarf, about electoral corruption here:
“One of the most disgusting scenes of perjury and corruption was exhibited here this day that was ever witnessed, yet so familiar are the performers with such vices, that no one starts at their perpetration....About two hundred borough-voters assembled to return two members to the honourable house.
“The two bailiffs took the bribery oath without shaking, and swore that they had neither received nor expected to receive, either money or favour for their votes, and the whole herd of virtuous freemen assented to the same.
“Now what do you think, Mr Dwarf, is the result? Why, as soon as the oath was bolted, each resident freeman received two guineas; and the non-residents four guineas. The two bailiffs are paid 50l. each, some say more: the town’s serjeant 10l. and the constables two guineas each for preserving order amongst the rabble.
“The wages of corruption would be trifling did they stop here: but there are pensioners at from 4 to 8 shillings per week.
“Others enjoy a profit by sub-letting fields and farms of from 10l. to 30l. a-year. Besides, one has a milliner’s bill, and now and then something pretty for miss or master....No wonder then that a Morpeth freeman should be an advocate ‘for things as they are’.”
The general election of 1820 was unexpected, having been called because of the death of George III. But it gave Blakey the chance to take up a theme he had begun in 1818 in the Tyne Mercury.
There was an ordinary general election in that year and the editor ran a campaign against electoral corruption in boroughs.
Blakey wrote a series of letters exposing how the system worked in Morpeth. He did not sign them in his own name, but we know who wrote them because he revealed the fact many years later in his Memoirs.
On February 20 he described to the editor how the Members employed a few leading freemen to procure the votes of the rest:
“I will present you, Sir, with one of these vote agent’s commission, it was written in February, 1801, it is as follows:–
“Sir,– I intend to offer myself as a candidate for your borough in the ensuing election. You’ll endeavour to procure me as many votes as you possibly can. No expense will be spared on my part. I am of opinion your two farms are over dear; I have enclosed you a London bill for 200l., which will help to lower them a little. I have sent this letter by Mr –, who has a small present for Mrs –, and also one for Miss –, who was a fine little prattling creature the last time I saw her. I remain, &c.”
The vote agents set to work at once:
“Well, Thomas, I have been speaking to my lord about ye; I have now some prospect of doing something for ye now.– Ye are still hearty in the good old cause yet, Thomas, I suppose; I’ll tell ye, I say, here, I’ll tell ye something, but you must not say nothing about it. Mr Lackrent (I can see as far into a millstone as any body) is likely to lose his field; and you know, Thomas, I will do something for ye....we will see ye, I hope, at Mr Surloin’s at dinner on Friday.”
“This,” says Blakey, “is exactly the way the poor freemen are gulled; instead of bringing their votes to market themselves, they...go and sell it to the Members’ agents for six shillings, when they might just as readily get twenty pounds a year for it.”
The freemen actually got 42/- for their vote, but since general elections normally occurred only every seven years, the average was 6/- p.a.
On June 30, he wrote:
“The present price of a Morpeth vote is two guineas certain....Formerly, however, when the landlord (Lord Carlisle) held the borough in his own hands, the price was still higher; and 10 gs. was not deemed more than sufficient....In these good old times, the vote was called ‘Jemmie Carr’...after his lordship’s steward, who was their paymaster. But the change of price has been coeval with the name — and ‘Willy Carr’ is now the author of the freemen’s Sunday coat.”
On July 28, a letter appeared over his own initials R.B. The members, he says: “let their land out to the freemen so very low, that if a person has the good fortune to get 10 or 12 acres of it, he can clear upwards of £30 a year by it. But this is a trifling sum to what several of them get. There is a privileged class, who are distinguished from their poorer brethren by their big bellies and haughty demeanour, and who have an income of not less than from two to three hundred a year...(etc.)”
Early in 1819, he drew a moral from local history:
“In the year 1801 there happened to be a contested election for the borough....Some (freemen) were very well rewarded for their trouble and votes,...and some got nothing at all. One of this last description...was provoked at last to send the following pithy letter to the Earl of –’s steward:– ‘If Mr.– cannot tell me the reason why I am not noticed...perhaps some member of parliament can’.
“The fact is, this man intended to write to the late Mr Whitbread to see if he would intimate to the house that bribery and corruption could be proved against the members for this borough. However, the man got by this letter a house and garden, with £– a year, all of which he holds to this day. This example of success, will, I hope be of use to the rest of the freemen.”
In reality, the 1801 election was uncontested. It was in 1802 that William Ord Esq., who owned the Newminster lands and could therefore compete on equal terms, defeated Lord Carlisle’s second nominee.
There are more letters, but not many that can be firmly attributed. The last appeared in January 1821. In it, ‘W.’ says he hears that Mr Ord has raised his rents by 10/- an acre, and has let it be known that there will be no more pensions. The significance of this would have been obvious to people at the time.
If true, it meant he no longer wished to represent Morpeth in Parliament.
The freemen of Morpeth were undoubtedly corrupt, but no more so than the majority of borough electors.
They played their part in a system to which their betters had at best an ambivalent attitude.
For instance, although it was unlawful to sell a vote, until 1809 it was perfectly lawful for the proprietor of a borough to sell a seat.
And a reform bill of 1785, though it never became law, actually set the compensation for disenfranchised rotten boroughs at over £7,000.