[This essay, which was adapted, with the kind permission of the editor, from an article in Total Politics magazine, 23 (May 2010): 76, is intended solely for readers of The Victorian Web and must not be copied without the express, prior written permission of the author.]

Thomas Hughes was an active social and political reformer, involved in causes such as trade unionism, Christian Socialism and the co-operative movement. For more than eight years, Hughes was also a Liberal Member of Parliament.

When he was 40, with many years of activism already behind him, Hughes was considering a parliamentary career. By 1862, he wrote to Lord Ripon that he thought he was by then “sufficiently before the world . . . professionally and otherwise to risk it” (Mack & Armytage, Thomas Hughes, 144). Initially he looked at the Finsbury constituency but was eventually convinced in 1865 to go for the twin-seat constituency of Lambeth, with an electorate of nearly 28,000.

He campaigned in favour of the working classes, with strong Radical and unionist backing. His fame as a novelist also helped. He was often described during the campaign as ‘Tom Brown’, with one of his handbills urging voters to “vote for a distinguished writer and raise the character of metropolitan constituencies” (Trory, Truth, 143). At the 12 July 1865 poll, he surprisingly came top, beating both the sitting Liberals (despite their advantage of being local employers of many of the electors, in these days before the secret ballot) and a Conservative.

In Parliament, Hughes took an independent path, regarding himself as neither his constituents’ delegate nor a docile party loyalist. For example, though a supporter of wider democracy at a time when extension of the franchise was a central political question, he did not favour the imposition of a secret ballot at elections. He did, however, strongly champion better housing, urging public grants for urban housing projects, an approach denounced as ‘communist’ by a fellow Radical MP. At a time of party flux, Hughes, with Radicals like John Stuart Mill, was part of a pro-workers faction in the Liberal Party that would eventually evolve into the Labour Party.

As the 1868 general election approached, Hughes realised that his position at Lambeth was precarious, especially his championing of strict licensing laws and what we would now call consumer protection, which alienated the many small shopkeepers and publicans in the local electorate. The lure of a much smaller and potentially quieter rural seat was strong, and when the sitting Member for Frome in Somerset, Sir Henry Rawlinson, had to stand down on accepting a post on the Indian Council, Hughes “at once and with marvellous agility transferred his affections to the latter locality” (J Ewing Ritchie, British Senators, 153).

Frome was not a Liberal stronghold, but the Gladstonian victory in 1868 gave Hughes a comfortable majority of 95, 571-476. In the new Parliament, Hughes continued promoting his social and economic causes, but gradually became more isolated and ignored, as the pro-labour tide among Radical politics became too extreme for his liking. His establishment-leaning views on Church matters also jarred with the non-conformist wing of the Liberals.

Hughes had also become increasingly unpopular with his constituents, so yet again he resolved to find another seat for the 1874 general election. However this time the transition was far from smooth.

The local party at Marylebone did not welcome his arrival, and in late January 1874 resoundingly chose another candidate, Daniel Grant, to defend the second Liberal seat in the constituency, partnering the sitting Member, Sir Thomas Chambers. Standing as a third Liberal, Hughes had the further disadvantage of being out of sympathy with Chambers’ politics, and so faced being crowded out for the Liberal vote.

With a split vote likely to let in a Tory, Hughes’s faction, led by the novelist Anthony Trollope, tried to heal the wounds by seeking ‘arbitration’ from the party leadership. Unfortunately, Grant was preferred over Hughes, and, as feared, not only did a Tory top the poll, but Hughes received a derisory 294 votes to the other three candidates’ 8,000-10,000.

It was a humiliating end to his parliamentary career, and though he led an active public and private life for the next two decades, and even tried to secure the Liberal nomination for Salisbury for the 1880 general election, he never returned to Parliament.

Hughes had demonstrated that he was incapable of being a party loyalist, either inside or outside the Commons. Recognising the impact of the more organised and disciplined parties of the era, he wrote in 1878 that politicians were “at the mercy of a party organisation with a cut-and-dried bundle of pledges to be swallowed on pain of party ostracism” (Hughes, The Old Church, 9). He also admitted that his views on the Church alienated Liberals in the North of England and his co-operative views were too unpalatable for southern voters. His final break with the Liberals came over Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule policy in the 1880s.


Hughes, Thomas. The old church; what shall we do with it? London: Macmillan and Co., 1878

Mack, Edward & Armytage, WHG. Thomas Hughes: The Life of the Author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. London: Ernest Benn Ltd. 1952

Ritchie, J Ewing. British Senators. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1869

Trory, Ernest. Truth Against the World: The Life and Times of Thomas Hughes. Hove: Crabtree Press. 1993


Last modified 10 May 2010