The waggonway leading to Parliamentary reform

Kensington Cottages are on the line of the waggonway linking Morpeth to Netherton.
Kensington Cottages are on the line of the waggonway linking Morpeth to Netherton.

THE death of George IV in 1830, the accession of William IV, the subsequent General Election, and the excitement aroused in England by a revolution in France, all created a climate favourable to reform.

The Duke of Wellington continued as Prime Minister for several months, but resigned in November after losing a vote in the House of Commons.

The King called upon Earl Grey to form a ministry, and the reform of Parliament suddenly became a practical possibility.

A Reform Bill was drafted and introduced in the Commons in March 1831.

The freemen of Morpeth were appalled to find that it reduced their representation from two members to one.

The bailiffs called a meeting of the burgesses and petitioned Lord Melbourne that ‘the privilege of returning Two members to the Commons House of Parliament be continued to the Borough, and that the privilege may be continued to their successors by birth or servitude.’

This Bill passed the Commons, but was defeated in the House of Lords. A General Election resulted, and in June the Northern Political Union was founded in Newcastle to press the demand for reform.

It was an uneasy coalition of moderates and radicals. Robert Blakey, a prosperous Morpeth tradesman, was a founder of the NPU and a member of its governing council. Prosperous he might be, but he was not a freeman of Morpeth. On the contrary; being an ardent reformer, he heartily despised them.

A second Bill was introduced in the new Parliament. In April 1832, faced with yet another crisis, William Cobbett, the great English radical, wrote to Blakey from Bolt Court:

‘Lord Grey in his speech of last night said that the Ten pound suffrage was not the principle of the Bill; that he did not think Ten pounds too low a suffrage; but that the decision on that point would depend on the House, and not on him.

‘Now I am of the opinion that he means to raise the qualification, and that he will do it, unless petitions pour in immediately from public meetings in the great and populous towns, stating, that to raise the qualification of voters would be to destroy that efficiency of the Bill which the Minister stands pledged to preserve; that, even according to the provisions of the Bill, the main body of the industrious classes is shut out from all share in the representation; that the Bill, as it now stands, greatly diminishes the number of freemen and other working men entitled to vote; and that, if the qualification, narrowed as it has been in the Bill, be raised, the working classes will be shut out altogether; that they will be placed at the mercy of upstart aristocracy of money, and will, in fact, be slaves as complete as the Blacks in the Colonies, who are represented by their masters, who have a direct interest in the passing of laws to keep them in slavery; that the reformers, who know well that every man, who is of sane mind and unstained by indelible crime, has a right to vote, did, for the sake of peace, and in the hope that the Ten pound suffrage would bring the voting within the influence of the working people, give their assent to this Bill; but that, if the suffrage be raised, … they will see no hope of any cause of redress of their manifold grievances, but will consider it as a fraudulent scheme for perpetuating the existence of those grievances, and as a breach of pledges repeatedly given them.

‘That, therefore, we pray that no addition whatever may be made to the amount of the qualification specified in the present Bill.

‘Now, if petitions from public meetings do not instantly pour in, I am convinced that Ministers mean to raise the suffrage.

‘I have thus warned you. I have done my duty, and I hope you will do yours. WILLIAM COBBETT.’

Blakey responded with a handbill calling a meeting of the reformers of Morpeth – “not a very numerous body” – and sending a petition to the House of Commons.

Grey persuaded the King to create, if necessary, enough peers to carry the Bill in the upper house, and in this, its third manifestation, it finally passed.

Both petitions were granted — up to a point.

The freemen kept their vote, but it was worth so much less now.

They lost the perks they used to get from the second member, the Act gave the vote to £10 male householders, and all constituency boundaries were to be reviewed.

Until then, boundaries had been irrelevant. No matter where you lived, if you were a freeman of Morpeth, you could vote there.

Commissioners were appointed to carry out the review. Those for Northumberland were H.W. Tancred, a barrister, and John Wrottesley, a Staffordshire land owner.

They found the old borough too small for parliamentary purposes and recommended that it be enlarged to include the adjoining parts of the parish of Morpeth, and the whole of Bedlingtonshire. Their report makes interesting reading:

‘The Limits of the Borough comprise about one half of the Township of Morpeth, and a very small part of that of Newminster Abbey. These limits do not comprehend the whole of the town; …

‘The parish of Morpeth consists of eight Townships, Morpeth, Buller’s Green, Newminster Abbey, Catchburn, Hepscott, Tranwell with High Church, Twizell and Shilvington, and the parochial chapelry of Ulgham.’

Twizell, Shilvington and Ulgham, they point out, were completely detached from the rest.

‘Morpeth is a small and ancient country town, situated on the bank of the Wansbeck.

‘This stream is shallow and rapid; and as it flows over a rocky bed, it is very improbable that it will ever be rendered navigable.

‘The neighbourhood of the Town is purely agricultural.

‘There are no manufactures carried on in Morpeth; but it is famous for its great cattle fairs, which are held within it weekly.

‘The whole of Bedlingtonshire is a coal field, and the coal raised at Netherton is of a most excellent quality.

‘At the same place very fine freestone is found. This parish contains four collieries, and an iron foundry.

‘The Town of Bedlington is a neat and well-conditioned place, built entirely of stone, and many of the Houses are of a very good description.

‘A Rail-way is already established, and in use between Netherton and Morpeth; and that Town is almost entirely supplied with coal from Netherton; and Bedlingtonshire receives its supplies of cattle and other commodities from the market and shops of Morpeth.’

There were, say the commissioners, about 240 voting freemen.

The proposed borough contained 446 houses of £10 annual value, including 171 in Bedlingtonshire.

They conclude: ‘Considering the connection which at present subsists between Morpeth and Bedlingtonshire … we are of opinion that the union of the six connected townships of Morpeth Parish above enumerated, and the whole of the Parish of Bedlington, is the most eligible course of proceeding.’