Admiral Lord Hood wins the Battle of Westminster – 17 May 1784
In the spring of 1784 the popular Rear-Admiral Lord Hood, a holder of an Irish peerage and thus eligible to sit in the House of Commons, contested the election for the country’s most liberal borough, that of the City of Westminster, in order to support William Pitt’s bold attempt to gain an overall majority in the House of Commons. Hood’s opponents in the election were the champion of the people, Charles James Fox, and Sir Cecil Wray, an ex-Foxite who had chosen to campaign with Hood in the Pittite cause. The two highest polling candidates would be elected to parliament from a seat that was unique, in so much that all seventeen thousand ratepayers in the borough were entitled to a vote.
Charming, eloquent and dissolute, the 45 year-old Fox was already the leading politician of his age and about as radical and colourful a figure as it was possible to be. The son of the politician Henry Fox, he was as bitter an opponent of Pitt the Younger as his father had been of Pitt the Elder, yet despite what would be this life-long enmity Fox’s greatest adversary was the King himself. During the American Revolutionary War Fox had taken every opportunity to support the rebel colonies, and he had become notorious for appearing in public wearing the colours of the Colonial army’s commander-in-chief, George Washington. In 1782 he had entered government as the foreign secretary in the Marquess of Rockingham’s administration, and a year later had sensationally formed a government with the King’s long-time prime minster and steward of the war with the colonies, Lord Frederick North. This move had been regarded as opportunistic and unprincipled by the country at large, and unsurprisingly the King had quickly taken advantage of the discord to ease Fox and North out by manipulating the House of Lords against them. Their removal had led to the installation of the 24 year-old Pitt the Younger as prime minister, and the election of 1784 was Pitt’s attempt to unseat Fox’s supporters and gain a majority in the House of Commons.
At 59 years old, Hood was seeking to enter parliament for the first time. When his superior officer and the then M.P for Westminster, Admiral Sir George Rodney, had been ennobled following his victory at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, Hood, whilst still serving in the West Indies, had unknowingly been nominated to replace him in the Westminster seat. Upon hearing that his son had then withdrawn his name as a candidate Hood had written to his fellow officer, Captain Sir Charles Middleton, expressing his delight at his lucky escape, stating that he would rather have forfeited £500 than enter parliament, and even going so far as to label it ‘an employment derogatory to the true character of a sea officer’. Yet after returning home in 1783 familial ties to Pitt through the marriage of his brother had evidently persuaded Hood that it was his duty to stand in opposition to the establishment’s arch-enemy, Fox.
The third candidate, 49 year-old Sir Cecil Wray, was a wealthy Lincolnshire landowner who had first entered parliament in 1768, and who on the instigation of Fox, and as a result of Hood’s refusal, had been elected unopposed as the M.P for Westminster in succession to Admiral Rodney in June 1782. However, as soon as Fox had aligned himself with Lord North to form a government in 1783 Wray had withdrawn his support of the Whigs in disgust, and had instead accepted the support of the Tories in order to defeat Fox at the coming election. Rich though he was, Wray would be vilified by his opponents for an apparent tendency to parsimony, and not surprisingly the contrast between his preference for low-alcohol beer and Fox’s famous attachment to intemperance would become a theme of the campaign.
On Thursday 1 April the contest for the seats opened with the drama of the hustings. By 10 a.m. a large crowd had gathered before the large stage-like timber structure in Covent Garden where flags in favour of Hood and Wray proclaimed ‘No Bribery! No Receipt Tax!’ in deprecation of Fox. A banner with the words ‘Ville de Paris’ celebrated Hood’s role in the momentous victory at the Battle of the Saintes, and his supporters carried a large St. George’s flag and other emblems. Fox’s supporters were also flying banners which attacked Wray’s favoured policies, reading ‘Fox and the Constitution’, ‘No Tax on Maid Servants’ and ‘May Chelsea Hospital Stand forever!’ Nearby at Woods’ Hotel a band was playing ‘Britons strike Home!’ in honour of Hood, whilst the battle ensigns of the Spanish and French ships taken at the Battle of the Saintes were on display in the windows.
At noon Hood and Wray together with their followers took the stage to a cacophony of cheers and boos, exhortations and catcalls. Hood was roared on by scores of followers dressed in sailors’ rig, although some doubted whether these were actually seamen or simply just riff-raff that had been hired to disrupt the Whig campaign. Fox’s retinue emerged from St. James’ Street a short time afterwards preceded by a band, and with his followers bearing more flags and banners. Once all three candidates were on the hustings the noise and temper of the crowd was such that the high baliff could barely make himself heard, and it was in this febrile atmosphere that the candidates were introduced and speeches opened.
The first man up was a Mr Baker who spoke in favour of Fox, to be followed by a Dr. Jebb for the other two candidates, although this speech was cut short by the vitriol of the crowd. Next up was Fox whose speech was punctuated by so much acclaim and applause that many could not hear what he said, although those closer to the stage reported that he was in his element – the ‘black animal, blowing and sweltering and scratching his black behind’ as he poured forth invective against the government. The naval hero Hood was heard in a respectful calm as he explained that his wish was to serve his country, and that if the electors chose him he would consider it one of the greatest honours of his life. Not so reverential was the reception accorded the alleged turncoat Wray, who struggled to make himself heard above the tumult and was eventually obliged to give up.
By 2 p.m. the speeches were over, and when the traditional show of hands settled in favour of Hood and Fox the outcome was immediately challenged by Wray. Accordingly the polls were opened for an hour, by the end of which Fox had taken an early lead with 302 votes, to be followed by Hood with 264 and Wray with 238. The opening skirmishes then ended with Fox’s supporters destroying the flags that supported Hood, and the sailors responding in kind. It was a sign of the violence and disorder that would come over the next six weeks, during which period anyone entitled to vote was required to appear before the high bailiff at the hustings in order to identify himself and cast his votes.
Throughout the first week of the campaign the battles around Covent Garden continued. When seven hundred supporters of Wray and Hood left the Guildhall at Westminster and undertook a procession to Covent Garden Fox’s supporters took possession of the hustings and prevented the majority from casting their vote. On a given signal supporters of Wray and Hood were attacked and two seamen were reportedly killed, one in St. Martin’s Lane and another in Covent Garden itself. Many more people were injured in clashes between the seamen and what were described as a ‘Body of Chairmen’, these being local Hackney coachmen and sedan-bearers. A gentleman was reported to have had his arm shattered and a boy lost three fingers. When the sailors descended on St. James’ Street to ambush the chairmen they were soundly beaten back, and it appeared for the moment that Fox’s metropolitan mob were having the better of the battles.
Even so, during the early weeks of the campaign Fox lagged behind his adversaries in the poll, and by 6 April Hood was leading with 3,936 votes, Wray was in second place with 3,622 votes, and Fox was bringing up the rear with 3,413 votes. It was only when the beautiful and charming 27 year-old Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, arrived to canvas for Fox that his campaign really took off. Moving through the streets from dawn to dusk she wooed votes for her hero, and although the Pittites put up Lady Salisbury to glamorise Wray’s campaign she was no match for the apparently most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Dressed from head to foot in the buff and blue worn so provocatively by Fox during the American War of Revolution in honour of George Washington’s uniform, the duchess soon began to make an impact. Yet things did not always go her way. One tale, probably apocryphal but typical of the contest, said that upon learning that the guests at a dinner party were intending to vote for Hood and Wray she invaded the house and gave a kiss to all in exchange for their promise of a vote for Fox, only to learn that the men had voted already. On another occasion she gave a voter a lift to the hustings in her coach, only to discover that once he arrived at Covent Garden he voted for Hood and Wray
Fox’s charisma, natural bonhomie and ‘man of the people’ persona also brought many neutrals to his side, and even when his canvassing fell on deaf ears he was able to enhance his roguish reputation with a suitably jocular riposte. One trader advised him ‘I admire your abilities but damn your principles’ to which Fox responded ‘my friend I applaud you for your sincerity but damn your manners’. When another shopkeeper dangled a halter in front of Fox and claimed that he was ready to use it, Fox replied ‘I return your thanks, my friend, for your intended present, but I should be sorry to deprive you of it, as I assume it must be a family piece’.
Throughout the weeks of the campaign the nation was gripped by daily reports which appeared in the newspapers detailing the latest position in the polls and relating the tales of violence and celebrity activity. Pamphleteers and cartoonists had a field day, and not only the characters of candidates but also those of their supporters, most particularly the Duchess of Devonshire, were blackened remorselessly. The Royals too became involved, with the King throwing his weight behind Hood and Wray whilst his son, the Prince of Wales, supported the campaign of his old drinking and gambling companion, Fox. Prominent naval officers also got a mention, it being reported that the staunchly Whig Admiral Hugh Pigot, Rodney’s successor as commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands, had entered his vote for Fox and Hood.
On Saturday 17th a deathly pale Fox, who had been fighting a sickness complaint for several days, was seen touting for votes amongst the crowds in St Martin’s le Grand, but come the following Tuesday his accumulation of 5,443 votes was still lagging behind those of Hood on 6,174 votes, and Wray on 5,574. It now seemed beyond question that Hood, who was no doubt buoyed by the election to the seat of Bridgwater of his brother, Rear-Admiral Alexander Hood, would be elected, and as the month drew to a close rumours circulated that he was to be appointed the commander-in-chief of the East India station and raised to the English peerage. This prospective appointment appeared to be no more than some unsophisticated chicanery to get Wray elected with Fox, yet it was the first hint of a possible division in the Hood – Wray campaign. In any event the engineering came to nought when the attorney-general stepped in to stipulate that as the polls were open the returning officer would have to return a victorious Hood, regardless of his possible elevation to the peerage.
Come 27 April the majority of the votes had been cast, with Hood well out in front on 6,468 votes, Fox on 5,827, and Wray just twenty-one behind on 5,806. By now the hustings in Covent Garden represented little more that a betting stall, and odds were being laid on Fox coming out at the head of the poll. The champion of the people certainly appeared to have the momentum behind him, and when he appeared at the Covent Garden theatre he was clapped all the way to his seat.
As the voting entered its final days the campaign became even more violent. Hood’s sailors intimidated the other candidates’ supporters, particularly those of Fox, but also of his own ally Wray. A constable amongst those sent from Wapping to police the disturbances was killed. Stink bombs were thrown over all the parties, dying men were wheeled out to cast their votes, and when Woods’ Hotel was invaded by a mob Wray’s men took up their swords to defend themselves with one man even firing a blunderbuss. Fraud was evident, bribes flowed freely, and there were allegations of grave robbing, the mechanism whereby votes of dead electors were cast.
On 17 May the final count saw Hood top the poll with 6,694 votes, Fox in second place with 6,233 votes and Wray in last place with 5,998 votes. Yet across the country as a whole, and as an illustration of how London politics would so often throughout history buck the trend, Fox’s supporters lost their seats by the score. That seemed to matter little to their leader who celebrated his victory over Wray with a procession across the Westminster constituency, his supporters smashing windows in their orgy of excitement. Upon reaching Devonshire House Fox was met by the Prince of Wales on a platform especially erected for the day, and here the ‘black animal’ addressed his loyal supporters. On the following day, as the traditional royal procession made its way to open parliament, George III was greeted by the unedifying sight of the Prince of Wales hosting a party, one in which the revellers did not let up until the next midday.
Yet the tension was in fact far from over, as following the declaration of the result Wray’s friends had plotted to seize the poll-books and demand an inspection of the votes. Officially a petition was lodged against Fox and a scrutiny was ordered, with the consequence that when parliament reconvened it did so without a member for Westminster. The matter then took a further forty weeks to sort out, but as Fox had already taken the precaution of having himself elected for the Orkneys and Shetland constituency he was already sitting in parliament when it was finally resolved that the Westminster result should stand.