These letters graciously have been shared with the Victorian Web by Eunice and Ron Shanahan; they have been taken from their website. The letters give an insight into the daily lives and concerns of 'ordinary' people without whom history would not exist. The letters are a wonderful example of how much history may be gleaned from such sources.

FREE postage for a Member of Parliament.

This "Letter from the past" is one to James Crowdy - one of half a dozen in our collection to and from members of the Crowdy family. Another letter may be found here. The Wiltshire County Archivist advised that James and William Crowdy were members of a long established firm of solicitors in Swindon and Highworth. Neither was a Member of Parliament but they would have acted as parliamentary agents.

The letter is dated Salisbury fifteenth February 1820, and addressed to:-

James Crowdy Esqre
Highworth Wilts.

There are only two postal markings : a smudged SALISBURY date stamp,(on the back) and, in manuscript on the front, in the bottom left hand corner, ‘FREE John Benett’

In 1820 John Benett was one of the two members of Parliament representing the County of Wiltshire. He had been elected at a bye-election in 1819 following the retirement of Paul Methuen on the grounds of ill health. As a Member of Parliament he was entitled to the Free postage. This privilege applied to mail to/from Members of Parliament but because of the huge expense involved as a result of the abuse of the system, safeguards were added at various times.

At the time this letter was written - in 1820 - they included such rules as:

It was the Postmaster’s responsibility to ensure that the Franking was correct. Also since 1795 when further pressure had been applied to stop abuse of the franking privilege, the numbers were restricted to 10 letters per day sent and 15 received. In 1795, Britain was fighting the French Wars and Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister. He needed to reduce government expenditure on items like franking privileged to make the money available to fund the war effort.

Another restriction was that the mail had to be posted during a sitting parliament for the MPs to claim the free postage. This particular Parliament was from 4 August 1818 until 29 February 1820 ( a leap year), so that this letter dated 14 February was just within the time frame. The government of the day was headed by Lord Liverpool. The Postmaster General who would officially oversee the franking privilege at this time was the Earl of Chichester, who held office from 1807-1823.

The letter begins :

"Bythorne 14 Feby 1820.

My Dear Sir,

I have been so much engaged in writing and other matters regarding the threatened contests that I have not had time to inform you how assurances are in respect to it.

I have not attempted a personal canvass for two reasons, first because my parliamentary duty would not allow me time to compleat it, and secondly I did not consider it quite correct to do so till after the royal funeral."

Note : This was for King George III who died on 29 January, 1820. His funeral took place on 16 February.

"My agents and friends have however canvassed the whole county most actively and it appears that my interest is being much increased.

The manufacturing towns are now almost wholly with myself or Mr. Astley as far as I can learn. Mr. Astley’s canvass has been and continues to be carried on with much activity, but I cannot hear of anything being done for Mr Wellesley, though some of his agents I find have declared his intention of again offering himself."

Note: John Dugdale Astley of Eveleigh House, Wilts, was the successful nominee for the other county seat at the 1820 general election. In fact, William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley who was elected as a county member at the 1818 general election, did not offer himself again in 1820. The manufacturing towns he referred to would have been Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon, Melksham and Westbury. Although Wiltshire is mainly a rural and agricultural county, there were pockets of light industry - for instance there was a feather factory in Melksham, and also a rope factory.

"I shall certainly stand alone, and not interfere in regard to either of the other parties. I shall even be very cautious how I trust any one in election matters.

There cannot be any doubt as to the result of this election, though it would be much better to have a quiet one."

Note: It turned out that there was no doubt, as Benett was re-elected, one of the two county members at the 1820 General Election. He was part of the returned government of The Earl of Liverpool who had been Prime Minister from 1812. This government saw a successful end to the Napoleonic wars which ran from 1803-1814. However, their record of ruthless suppression of free speech and of the press, aroused such opposition that between 1815 and 1820 revolution seemed imminent. John Benett’s comment about having a quiet election is a reference to this general dissatisfaction of the masses with the government and the push to change the system which culminated 12 years later in the Bill to Reform central government, which rectified inequalities in voting rights and resulted in the redistribution of seats.

He then continues:

"I shall go to London tomorrow to No.7 Cleveland Row, St. James. The moment Parliament is dissolved, which I expect will be within a month, I shall return and will then wait on my friends at Highworth who have in two contests already supported me so nobly.

I hope they will excuse me till that time, and believe me, my dear sir,
I remain your faithful and obedient servt.
John Benett
I beg you will give my best regards to all your family."

In 1995, when I had to vote in Australia for local, State and Federal elections, the topicality of this 175-year old letter from a Member of Parliament to his agent seemed very appropriate. It also shows that electioneering has not changed all that much in the past 175 years.

I am indebted to the County Archivist of Wiltshire K.H. Rogers for the information concerning the Crowdys and the election of 1820.

Last modified 17 December 2002