Admiral Gardner and the Battle of Westminster – June 1796
In the summer of 1796, the Tory prime minister, William Pitt, faced a General Election, and although the Whig opposition was regarded as posing little threat to his continuance in government, the election of the two members of Parliament for the most famous constituency in the land, that of Westminster, was sure to generate a great deal of excitement, not least because one of the long-term sitting members was Pitt’s arch-enemy and the darling of the unenfranchised mob, Charles James Fox,
The Westminster constituency was almost singular in the fact that all male inhabitants paying a local property tax were eligible to vote, thereby making it the borough with the highest level of suffrage in the land. At the previous General Election in 1790, Fox had won a narrow victory over a Tory, Vice-Admiral Lord Hood, with another Whig, John Horne Tooke, coming a distant third. Since then, and after commanding the fleet in the Mediterranean, Hood had fallen out with the first lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, and in March 1795 had resigned his membership of the Admiralty board. With the election in 1796 approaching, he decided to step down and accept an English peerage in lieu of the Irish peerage that had allowed him to sit in the House of Commons.
No doubt concluding that by previously voting in Admiral Sir George Rodney and Lord Hood the Westminster electors loved a naval hero, Pitt sought another senior officer to fight in the ministerial cause, and his eyes alighted upon Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Gardner, the sitting M.P for Plymouth; a man who could lay claim to being the only officer of note to have fought in what were at the time regarded as the last four great sea battles, those of Quiberon Bay in 1759, the Saintes in 1782, the Glorious First of June in 1794, and Groix in 1795. Gardner had in fact been planning to continue in his Plymouth seat, but his loyalty to an administration which had seen him sit as a lord of the Admiralty for five years up to March 1795, saw him accept Pitt’s challenge. Accordingly, his name was added to the ballot along with that of Fox and the defeated candidate from 1790, the Whig firebrand, John Horne Tooke.
From the outset there was little doubt that the mighty Fox would be elected, and so the battle for the second membership of Parliament would be between Gardner and Tooke. The latter gentleman had been imprisoned, tried, and acquitted of high treason in 1794 after calling for Parliamentary reform, and with his political views slightly to the left of Fox, he not only enjoyed the support of radicals such as John Wilkes, but more pertinently, as far as the Westminster election was concerned, he enjoyed the overwhelming support of the unenfranchised mob;, indeed early reports suggested that Tooke would be able to field two thousand five hundred canvassers, of whom two thousand were householders eligible to vote. Painting Gardner as a government toady, Tooke cleared for action and unfurled his revolutionary colours.
On 27 May the three candidates took to the Hustings, where following his nomination, Fox made a brief speech outlining his past service and was warmly applauded. Next up came Sir Thomas Turton, who had received his baronetcy just four weeks previously, and whose task it was to nominate Gardner. His long rambling speech solemnized the admiral’s forty years’ service to King and Country, and then Gardner stood up and briefly declared that it would be the pride of his life to serve the electors, and that he would do so with honour and fidelity. As he took his seat he was saluted by the cries of ‘Gardner and Victory!’ Tooke then rose and declared that as Turton had spoken enough for all three candidates, he would not suffer the audience to be detained for another minute. A show of hands was requested by the High Bailiff which declared Fox and Gardner to be the winners, whereupon Tooke demanded a poll which commenced at noon. Come the end of the day, the votes cast in favour of the candidates were Fox 232, Tooke132, and Gardner 129.
Presenting himself as a bluff honest seaman, in itself no exaggeration, and modest too, but probably neglecting to mention his characteristic anxiety and tendency towards irascibility, Gardner had a better second day, and by the third day he was a hundred and sixty votes ahead of Tooke. Unsurprisingly, given his participation in the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, the two-year anniversary of that action saw him receive a surge in the polls which carried him some one hundred votes ahead of Fox and over five hundred and fifty ahead of Tooke. Unfortunately, the mob around the Hustings at Covent Garden showed less appreciation for the anniversary than the electors, and their persistently hostile behaviour towards the admiral produced his declaration that ‘he found himself more comfortable in the action of the first of June 1794 with the foreign enemies of his country, than he did in the contest of the first of June 1796 with the domestic enemies which infected the coast of Covent Garden’.
Over the course of the election the candidates generally addressed the crowd from the Hustings at the end of each day. Fox always enjoyed a good reception, Gardner regularly endured hostile treatment, and the mob revelled in Tooke’s spirited invective. Quite early in the contest the latter affirmed that the opposing views of Fox and Gardner would leave the electors virtually unrepresented, for it would be similar to a man harnessing one horse to the front of his carriage and one at the rear to pull in the opposing direction. As the days passed his speeches became more ferocious, and he withheld nothing in his articulate degradations of the Ministry, in particular labelling the influential Henry Dundas as ‘that scoundrel secretary of state’. With the politics becoming dirtier tempers began to fray, and a sign of the troubles to come saw Gardner’s carriage surrounded by a mob in Portland Place on 3 June and its windows and lanthorns smashed. Reportedly, the admiral and a companion named as ‘Captain Hood’* got out to confront the rioters and desired any two ‘with spirit’ to come forward, whereupon the mob dispersed after leaving Hood ‘almost buried with mud’.
On the evening of Monday 6 June matters took a turn for the worse when upon leaving the Hustings and heading for St. Martin’s Lane in a hackney coach, Gardner was surrounded by a mob of boys. Taking to foot and walking down the Strand, he entered a carriage which was then ‘smashed to pieces’ by the mob in Oxford Road, and he had to take refuge in a fruit shop, reportedly nursing several injuries including one to his leg after it had been hit by a stone. The Guards arrived an hour later and escorted him to safety. On the next evening, both Fox and Tooke rebuked the mob for the assault, with the latter claiming that his invective was to ‘inform, not inflame’. Most appositely, two of the most persistent ruffians were hauled before a magistrate who ordered them to be pressed into the navy with a recommendation that they be posted to Gardner’s flagship.
Although the physical assaults on Gardner relented thereafter, threats that he would be murdered come the end of the poll were still reported. The mob also did not refrain from targeting his followers, for his servant, Peter Gibson, was knocked down and attacked when passing though Holborn on 9 June and was only rescued when a hackney coachman hauled him to safety up onto his box.
By 10 June Fox had regained the lead over Gardner, with Tooke a distant third, and come the end of the poll on Monday 13 June, Fox had accumulated 5,160 votes, Gardner 4,814 votes, and Tooke 2,819 votes. A cheer from what was described as the respectable part of the assembly greeted the High Baliff’s announcement of Gardner’s election with ‘Gardner and Victory’, but his supporters were soon drowned out by the mob crying ‘Fox for ever!’ Whilst Fox was chaired from Covent Garden down Southampton Street, along the Strand, Cockspur Street, Pall Mall, St. James Street, and up to Devonshire House in Piccadilly, Gardner was escorted to his residence in Portland Place by a body of constables whose presence prevented a large crowd from any further misdemeanours. Back at Covent Garden, the Hustings were torn down as was the custom, and after overcoming the twenty or so constables, the mob began insulting the ‘respectables’ and breaking windows. Eventually the military were called in to control the mayhem and the Riot Act was read.
Both Fox and Gardner would be re-elected to Westminster in 1802, despite the admiral facing criticism for the few appearances he had made in the House of Commons, this being in no small measure due to his naval service with the Channel Fleet, and from late 1800 as the commander-in-chief on the Irish station. Meanwhile Tooke eventually found a seat in 1801 when the manic and maniacal loose cannon of the Pitt family, Captain Lord Camelford, returned him for the rotten pocket borough of Old Sarum on the basis that it ‘would annoy government most’.
*It is not clear from the newspaper reports, but the ‘Captain Hood’ was possibly Lord Hood’s much younger cousin, Captain Alexander Hood, who was on sick leave at the time. This officer’s younger brother, Captain Sir Samuel Hood, would later win the Westminster election in 1806.