4 December 2012

'James Britton the Radical', by Robert Hughes

We often see the 'secret ballot' as an inalienable part of the tradition of British democracy.

The Chartists in the great agitation of 1848 had this innovation as one of their six aims, and although it was rejected at the time it was eventually provided for by the Ballot Act of 1872 when Gladstone and his Liberals had supremacy in Parliament.

Among the reasons for the failure of the Charter, quite apart from the widespread fear of its revolutionary nature, were the pages and pages of signatures in the same handwriting, and the many patently absurd names such as 'Victoria Regina'.

Whilst it must be noted that the demands of the Charter have all subsequently been enacted, it would be too easy to dismiss the concerns of those who opposed it at the time.

The 'secret ballot' was seen by its opponents as un-British in its furtiveness, and a gift to revolutionaries and malcontents. In particular, it robbed an employer, a customer or a landlord of the opportunity to exert a direct sanction on respectively his employee, supplier or tenant: pressure of course to vote in accordance with his wishes rather than those of the voter.

It can certainly be argued that the extension of the franchise to independent-minded voters, exercising their ballot in secret, broadened the political freedom held by Englishmen. Others indignantly disputed this however, as their own traditional freedoms were clearly curtailed.

A good ‘A’ level or even Degree level question might then be: “Ballot Secrecy in public decisions is a mixed blessing. Discuss.”

A series of records recently released on Ancestry.com shows electoral registers for certain areas, and occasionally polling records which tell us for whom our ancestor actually voted.

There is just one example to hand at the moment for my own ancestors of the relevant period: James Britton was the great-grandfather of the interesting 1930s writer Lionel Britton, featured frequently on this blog.

He seems to have been a leathercutter and manufacturer of gunpowder pouches, working in the Jewellery District of Birmingham as it is now known. Family legend has him as ‘an ironmonger, but a gentleman ironmonger!’

His only known son John James Britton describes him as ‘Gentleman’, (marriage certificates in 1858 and 1882).

James married a Quaker girl, Ruth Catherine Waddams (1798-1862), but in the Parish church of Handsworth. What this suggests is that he had some strong adherence to the Anglican faith, and his son John James not only is baptised at the same place at the unusually late age of 16, (was it his own choice?), but is buried with very pronounced Anglican symbolism at Halford in Warwickshire, in 1913. (See other parts of this blog).

Religion and politics correlated hugely in the early nineteenth century, (remember when the Church of England was supposed to be the ‘Tory Party at prayer’?), but manufacturers in the rapidly growing cities of the North and Midlands were notably Radical as their voice was neglected in the old system where some hilltop in Wiltshire with no actual voters gave the owner two seats in Parliament while a huge city like Birmingham had none. What about James then?

He voted for Sir Gray Skipwith and Charles Holte Bracebridge.

Skipwith was born and raised in Virginia, where Sir Grey Skipwith, the 3rd baronet of Prestwould, Leicestershire, had settled after selling his English property to a follower of Cromwell in 1652, and he was descended through his mother from Pocahontas the American Indian Princess.

One of the first Indians in Birmingham?


Other references:




It might be a stretch to suppose that these guys were the wild foaming Radicals…but what about the opposition? It seems pretty clear that they were the Tories.

James Britton might have voted according to what he had for breakfast and whether he liked it, or whether it was raining as he went to the polling place: we have all heard of ‘floating voters’!

Also note that of the two Cadburys on the same page as James, one split his vote across what appear to have been party lines. We expect Cadburys to be straight-down-the-line Radicals in that era, so this is one for Cadbury scholars.

The Cadbury family were prominent Quakers and here is a gentleman in trade, apparently an Anglican, but married to a woman from a Quaker family. Was his decision finely balanced as was that of one of the Cadburys? Or was he firmly of one persuasion?

If anyone should find further evidence of James Britton’s voting record or any clues as to his sympathies in general, please post it here!

Note that this was a poll for the County Constituency of North Warwickshire, and it was won fairly narrowly by the Tory pair.

Presumably there was also a poll for the new constituency of Birmingham, which would have been won handily by the Radicals. Also, we would logically assume that Birmingham voters had two votes in the same General Election. Plural voting was not addressed until considerably later.


Snatch51 said...

James Britton, leathercutter and manufacturer of gunpowder pouches, was born in Birmingham in 1789 and died there, in the suburb of King's Norton, on 21 Nov 1864. He is buried at Kenilworth, presumably next to his wife Ruth Catherine, whose stone is prominent to this day although no memorial is apparent for James himself.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

British 'Democracy' is a delusion perpetuated by the ruling class. It's an example of the kind of contradiction that Orwell called 'Doublethink' :)