Though it’s undoubtedly true that a few of our ancestors entered politics to improve wealth and status, most did so with a genuine desire to change the social or political conditions of their time. Finding records of these ancestors isn’t usually a difficult task.
Lists of councillors, aldermen and mayors are kept by every town hall in the land. Indeed, many will have one or more boards displaying lists of past officials in their main entrance hall. Similarly, the names and careers of members of Parliament and high-ranking politicians are well-documented in the parliamentary publication Hansard, as well as in the pages of the biographical book, Who Was Who.
The problem facing our ancestors in the early 19th century was that few felt they could have any real influence on politics, which they regarded as the sole domain of the wealthy. There was, however, a growing discontent among working-class people, particularly those who were skilled artisans and self-employed workmen. From their general disenchantment grew a working-class movement known as Chartism that not only changed British politics forever, but came perilously close to igniting a serious civil war.
In 1836, the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) was set up to fight for the political and civil liberties of skilled workers, including their right to represent their community in Parliament. The LWMA’s first secretary was a Cornish cabinetmaker, William Lovett, who was an Owenite – a member of a Utopian socialist group of thinkers who believed that social happiness couldn’t be achieved by self-interest alone.
In May 1838, Lovett and his colleagues drew up The People’s Charter, with six radical demands that included a call for annual elections and the right of all men to vote. It’s interesting to note that women’s votes were originally to be included in their demands, but the idea was dropped at the last minute because it was thought too radical, and that it would lose the movement more support than it gained.
Though the Chartists eventually gathered well over one million signatures in support of their Charter, in 1839 the House of Commons crushingly rejected the proposals with a vote of 235 to 46. The defeat was totally unexpected and led to riots throughout Britain. Activists threatened a national strike and many were arrested. In Monmouthshire, 24 demonstrators were shot dead by troops and another 40 were injured. Though the Chartists’ efforts proved futile, they had made ordinary people politically aware, and in doing so laid the foundations for many of the human rights that citizens of Britain enjoy today.
You can find genealogical details on the Chartist movement on The Chartist Ancestors site here. This web page also provides some very useful links to records of conventions held throughout the country together with actual lists of delegates that attended. If a Chartist ancestor doesn’t appear on this site, try searching the GENUKI website, using the word ‘Chartist’, to see if records survive for your own area.
Local government procedures in most towns developed on similar lines, with power being taken away from the parochial vestry committees following the introduction of the Local Government Act of 1894. Finding minutes of main council and sub-committee meetings is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair and you’ll need to visit town hall or local authority archives to find out what material has survived. If you do find minutes and reports, they can sometimes turn up unexpected aspects of our ancestors’ personalities and lifestyles, such as prolonged sickness, records of angry outbursts, personal biases and sometimes even references to family births and deaths.
The internet’s full of resources that are useful for tracing politicians. For instance, the website www.parliament.uk provides some very useful aids to researching Parliamentary records. Its guides include Hansard records from 1803, committee reports and Government archives. Look out for sites listing mayors, sheriffs and city bailiffs, as these are particularly common.
You can also track the course of a relative’s political career more easily by using reports of local elections in newspapers. These often provide atmospheric descriptions of the day’s events and give details of candidates. Accounts such as this usually reveal the candidate’s home town and party. Armed with this information and with a little bit of detective work, you can find further information using local resources such as early poll books. Before the days of secret ballots, these listed voters and the candidate they had voted for. Official records of elections can sometimes be more difficult to find. Where they survive, they’ll often have made their way to county record offices. A good shortcut to track down older records of this kind is the British History Online website, which details British elections back to the 1600s and includes other useful documents, such as political diaries.
Article by Colin Waters