By Mary O’Connor
In the early 19th Century Shoreditch Vestry became dominated by radicals. It was an open vestry where all ratepayers were entitled to attend: from the end of the Napoleonic Wars onwards the vestry increasingly took positions on national, radical issues, opposing income tax and the corn laws and campaigning for parliamentary reform. Not all of this went unchallenged and responding to those challenges led the vestrymen to articulate their understanding of the vestry’s right to speak on behalf of the parish. The vestry’s support for Queen Caroline during 1820-21 and the efforts of loyalists in the parish to undermine to undermine that support illustrates these themes.
The outline events are well known: George IV finally became King after years of being Regent and wanted to rid himself of the wife he had always disliked. He insisted that his government organise a trial against Queen Caroline on allegations of her adultery – proceedings which attracted criticism from a wide range of people across the nation who campaigned on behalf of the Queen. The voluminous historiography on these events shows that Queen Caroline’s cause was useful to any group critical of a dissolute and extravagant King or of the ministers who did his bidding while ignoring the wishes of the public and this cause could be adapted to suit a variety of voices.
Shoreditch vestry met six times to discuss the Queen’s situation and the vestry men competed to give long, sentimental paeans in her support. Amidst the flowery language, however, are wide critiques of the political system: the means used ‘to destroy the happiness of our Queen and the liberties of the people were dishonourable, tyrannical and unconstitutional’ (16 Aug 1820); the action against the queen was the product of ‘an imbecilic and tottering system of government’ (28 Dec 1820); the Queen’s enemies were ‘hostile to freedom and reform’ (2 Aug 1821).
Cruikshank, 1820. ©Trustees of the British Museum
In December 1820 a secret meeting was held in the vestry room to agree a ‘loyal address to the monarch’, weighing in on the side of the King. The signatures gave the individuals concerned official designations (curate, churchwarden, overseer) creating the appearance of a formal address from the parish. When this was discovered a properly convened vestry meeting was held on the 28 December (in the church, not the vestry room, presumably because of the numbers attending) which condemned this covert and ‘unconstitutional’ act by a group too ashamed or afraid to meet in public. ‘Constitutionalism’ was the dominant political rhetoric of the day, used by radicals in their critical analysis of the corruption of the constitution which could only be restored by parliamentary reform. But the vestrymen also used constitutionalism as an internal principle, both to enhance their own standing and denounce their opponents. The procedures for calling vestry meetings provided the foundation for claiming that the decisions of such meetings represented the views of all parishioners and the vestry activists were assiduous in ensuring the procedures were correctly followed. This secret meeting, therefore, undermined the legitimate vestry. The vestry resolved:
That while we yield to no man or set of men on constitutional loyalty this vestry feels indignant at the recent [attempt] … to palm an ultra-loyal address upon the public as expressive of the sentiments of this great and populous parish without offering it to the consideration of the parishioners at large in vestry assembled.
Alert to the political opportunity presented, the vestrymen decided that part of their response to this attempt should be to defend themselves to the King, an address that included the statement:
That we want a full, fair and free representation of the people in the Commons house of Parliament, is to be attributed to the continuance of the present system of excessive taxation and the consequent poverty of the people, the lavish expenditure of public money, the increase of military barracks, the continuance in time of peace of a large standing army, and the enlargement of our gaols and workhouses to raise the criminal and suffering victims of fiscal excess and oppression.
Three of the five men reported as speaking at this meeting were Dissenters, and they were particularly critical of the curate’s role: one, Samuel Blackburn, ‘condemned the interference of the clergy in political matters and lamented the too general subserviency’ of Anglican churchmen. The vestry was open to all ratepayers, regardless of their religion, and from time to time even the churchwarden was a dissenter (Mr Pearce, discussed below, was one).
One of the advantages of using the vestry as a platform was that it gave radicals access to the funds necessary to organise petitions and to publicise their opinions in the newspapers. This use of parish money was also challenged, unsuccessfully as the vestry decided that the parish funds could be used for ‘any costs and charges which this vestry may determine’ (20 February 1819). In November 1820 the churchwarden (Mr Jennings) was authorised to pay four guineas to advertise the vestry resolutions in support of the Queen in The Statesman, but refused – unsurprisingly as he was part of the ‘ultra-loyal’ clique. He was required to vacate the chair and was replaced by the under-churchwarden (Mr Pearce).
Shoreditch vestry’s meetings (and those of many other vestries) were increasingly reported in the press, sometimes by very distant newspapers, and the vestrymen often resolved to publish their resolutions. The 1810s are considered the heyday of public opinion and the vestry’s resolutions were aimed as much at the wider public as at parliament. The battle was for the meta-political public opinion, and the more ‘conservative’ elements in the vestry felt obliged to positively oppose the more radical vestrymen, and thereby adopt and debate political positions, rather than rely on vestry resolutions being disregarded by parliament, as they generally were.
Much of the opposition to vestry radicalism was organized from the board of the trustees of the poor: trustees were also vestrymen but most made no recorded appearance at vestry meetings and they were on average wealthier. In July 1821 the board of trustees resolved that they ‘most highly disapprove[d]’ of the upper churchwarden’s failure (by this time Mr Pearce was churchwarden) to have the church bells rung for the King’s coronation (connected to the Caroline furore): this time the chair was Mr Pearce, and when he refused to put the resolution to the vote, he was removed. The vestry (disputing that the bells had not been rung) was furious: ‘an insult to the parish, an outrage upon society and a base, cowardly and malicious attack upon an individual’ by a ‘political junta’ - their language had become stronger as their confidence in the legitimacy of the vestry as the voice of the whole parish grew.
1. Dror Wahrman, 'Public opinion, violence and the limits of constitutional politics', in James Vernon (ed.), Re-reading the constitution: new narratives in the political history of England's long nineteenth century (Cambridge, 1996), 83-122, provides a useful summary of the historiography on the Queen Caroline affair.
2. The politicization of vestries in this period was noted by the Webbs in English local government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act: the parish and the county (London, 1906) and touched on by others since, but rarely explored in detail: see an unpublished MRes dissertation by Mary O’Connor, ‘Shoreditch vestry, Parliament, politics and the vestry: St Leonard’s Shoreditch, 1793-1833’ (2014).