It seems strange now to think of Saltash as a clog in the wheel of Westminster politics; yet between 1552 to 1832 – around three hundred years – it had the prestigious power in electing two MPs to sit in the House of Commons. This thought reminded me of my dissertation project from 2009 in which I outlined the range of opposition in Cornwall to the 1832 Reform Act which abolished a multitude of rotten boroughs such as Saltash. Sometimes I almost persuade myself to return to the dissertation in order to publish it more widely, but in the meantime I will content myself with a blog-post about some of the noteworthy and eccentric MPs which represented Saltash during his existence as a parliamentary town.
Perhaps Saltash’s most illustrious member is in the form of Edward Hyde (1609-1674) – more prominently known to history as the first Earl of Clarendon. He was sitting for Saltash at the moment of outbreak of the Civil War between King Charles and the rebellious members of Parliament: famous struggle between the Cavaliers against the Roundheads. He served in the King’s council throughout the conflict, despite being an earlier critic of monarchical tyranny. Despite early gains, the Royalists were routed throughout the country. Edward Hyde would flee to Jersey, and then onto to France, with the young Prince of Wales: the future Charles II. They remained within the safety of the continent whilst Cromwell rose to prominence in England and whilst Charles I lost his head. Both he and the monarchy would return in 1660, from which point Hyde intertwined with royalty, becoming the grandfather to two future British monarchs: Mary and Anne. His name was further cemented to posterity with his historical writings on the Rebellion (whilst “enjoying” yet another enforced absence back on the continent after making many enemies in Parliament).
Hyde was a contemporary of Edmund Waller (1606-1687), MP for Saltash when old in the tooth in his long life, in the 1680s. His was a long parliamentary career, being the young, pubescent age of sixteen whilst sitting for Amersham; he would represent St Ives in Cornwall during the time of Civil War troubles. He initially struck for the Roundheads, yet whilst undercover he cunningly plotted to present London (then a Parliamentarian stronghold) to the hands of the King. This plot was discovered, the result being the execution of more than thirty of Waller’s friends. He himself was excused due to his frantic testifying against all others; instead he was fined a massive £10,000 (an absolutely massive sum in 1643), before being released and banished from the “realm”. Like Hyde, Waller sought refuge in Europe, writing poems and selling his wife’s jewels when in financial straits. He would return to England when under the rule of Cromwell, writing shameful tributes to the Lord Protector, and then managing to switch his tune to pledge allegiance to Charles II when the monarchy was restored.
The eighteenth century would see its fair share of eccentrics. Sir Cholmeley Dering (1679-1711) represented the borough in 1708. He achieved notoriety by arguing with Richard Thornhill in a London inn; it came to blows resulting in the loosening of several of Thornhill’s teeth. An understandably aggrieved Thornhill offered to fight Dering in a duel outside Westminster, in which Sir Cholmeley was shot, dying soon after. A more successful career was that of Edward Boscawen (1711-1761) who achieved fame for his feats at sea, notably beating the French during the Seven Years War. He earned the nicknames Old Dreadnaught and Wry-Necked Dick.
Yet beneath such lives was the tight control of the Buller family. Saltash was rotten in the truest sense, in that the Bullers had the largest say on just who was to be elected. The family rose to prominence during the time of Cromwell and became firmly established in the borough by the eighteenth century (whilst also amassing power in the East and West Looe boroughs). Mostly, MPs were returned to Westminster who had no connection or love for Saltash; and most, also, had none of the eccentricities of those described above. The corruption of the old system is shown nowhere more clearly than in counting Cornwall’s total representation: 44 MPs. Today’s count is a mere 5.
Saltash representation was ended in the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832. The “borough-mongers” were brought to account by a public which had achieved a growing and ever greater political consciousness. During the heated 1831 Cornwall County election, a local townsman called out to his fellow voters ‘to do your duty, and as Patriots to make the noble sacrifice of your private Interest to the Public welfare’ by refusing to elect the supporters of the rotten system. It was needed, so he said, in order ‘to save your Constitution from violence – your family from Revolution – and yourselves, your children, and your property from impending ruin and destruction’.
The townsman got his wish. Cornwall elected two pro-reforming candidates, and by 1832 the worst evils of the system were destroyed: and along with it went Saltash’s claim to representation in the House of Commons. All of this brought to an end three centuries of history, and despite the overall public support for changes of 1832 there remained many who opposed, derided and mourned the ending of the old system. My dissertation of a decade ago used the title ‘Imminent Danger’, coming from a quote from a contemporary who believed that everything that made Britain “Great” was coming to an inglorious, bloody end. Of course, it did not, but this feeling was one that interested me: the reformers are celebrated and praised by historians (and rightly so), whilst those who resist change are usually derided and forgotten. All of this gets me excited once more for my earlier study, and perhaps one of these days I will return to it to see if it grips as it once did as a stressed, tired, wide-eyed student all of those years ago!