Manuscripts and Special Collections

South Nottinghamshire Election 1846

Diary entry for 9 Feb 1846 (Ne 2 F 7, p. 240)

[...] To my infinite surprise I have learnt this day that Lincoln has accepted the appointment of Secy to Ireland vacates his seat, & will be at Newark this evening - there never was any thing so ill advised, & as I am driven to do so - I shall oppose him with all my means - Mr Hildyard comes forward to oppose him

View an image of this diary page

The South Nottinghamshire by-election of February 1846 was an important event in the political history of mid-nineteenth century Britain. It was also an interesting case study of how elections and electioneering were conducted in the period between the First and Second Reform Acts.

The contest was fought in dramatic political circumstances. At the end of 1845 it became clear that disease had seriously damaged the Irish potato crop. This was a basic foodstuff for a large part of the Irish population and the crop failure threatened them with starvation. In these circumstances the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, argued that the government could no longer maintain the Corn Laws. These had given farmers economic protection from free-trade on agricultural goods such as corn and wheat. In January 1846 Peel announced his government's decision to introduce a bill which would repeal these laws.

Peel's decision led to bitter opposition amongst his followers in the Conservative Party. The party regarded itself as the defender of economic protection. Many M.P.s felt that this was a betrayal of the promises they had made at the general election of 1841 to maintain the Corn Laws. Peel refused to call a new election to test public feeling on the issue.

Several ministers resigned following Peel's decision. This meant the Prime Minister had to make several changes to his cabinet. In February 1846 the Earl of Lincoln was appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland. When ministers were appointed to a new office they immediately had to fight another election to secure the support of their constituents. Peel's offer, and Lincoln's acceptance of the post, created the need to fight a by-election in South Nottinghamshire.

The contest was made more interesting because South Nottinghamshire was a constituency in which the property, influence and power of the aristocracy and gentry was considered to be particularly important. It was also a constituency based on agriculture and rural occupations.

The 4th Duke of Newcastle under Lyne was one of the principal sources of power, wealth and influence in the constituency. He had attracted bitter public criticism throughout his lifetime in the press and political cartoons for his strongly held conservative views and for the manner in which he promoted them . As an aristocrat with extensive landholding interests in Nottinghamshire, the duke was able to exercise influence over those of his tenants who had the right to vote. His social position as a duke, the range of property he held in the county and his political views could not be ignored. He was one of the people whose support would be necessary if his son, Lord Lincoln was to be re-elected.

However, at this time, Newcastle and his son were on poor personal terms. In part this was because Lincoln was a well-known supporter of Peel's government and its measures of reform. Whilst some disagreement between father and son was always likely, the fact that Lincoln had accepted a major public office in the government increased the potential for personal rivalry during the by-election.

Newcastle's diary entry (shown above) for 9 February 1846 [Ne 2 F 7, p. 240] makes this point very clearly and sets the scene for what was to follow. The duke's statement that he would oppose Lincoln 'with all my means' is not an idle threat considering the power and influence he continued to enjoy in the constituency. 


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