Prior to the Great Reform Act of 1832 Ashburton had been entitled to two Members of Parliament. The Act reduced this to one, but the right to vote was still restricted to certain householders. Nationally, only about one man in five was entitled to vote and of course, no women. From 1832, Ashburton consistently returned a Whig as its MP, the Whigs and the Radicals being the predecessors of the Liberal Party. The town favoured men who had a direct interest in supporting its principal trade, which was the export of its woollen serge to Chinese markets via the East India Company. From 1834, the trade was under threat because the government had removed the company’s monopoly on trade to the Far East.
In consequence, the town in 1841 was happy to elect William Jardine as its MP, despite the fact that his home was in Scotland. He was chosen because he was the founder and a director of Jardine Matheson, a company which had stepped into the vacuum left by the East India Company. The company created Hong Kong for its trading base. Jardine was a leading instigator of the Opium War of 1840 between Britain and China, fought to prop up the company’s smuggling of opium into China in one of the less glorious episodes of the British Empire. When Jardine died suddenly in 1843, there was a by-election, and who should the town choose but his co-director, James Matheson. Matheson was another Scot, and the second largest landowner in Britain. He bought the whole Isle of Lewis in 1844, and although making a lot of agricultural ‘improvements ‘ there, was responsible for the forced emigration of hundreds of its people.
At the General Election of 1847, Mr Matheson stood down, but only to be replaced by his son and company co-director, Thomas Matheson. But by 1852, the latter took the opportunity of a Scottish seat and stood aside in favour of the self-described Radical, George Moffat, who was elected unopposed. Mr Moffat was a career politician who had previously been the MP for Dartmouth, and after Ashburton, went onto represent Honiton and then Southampton. When not in London, he lived in a Gothic-revival castle in Herefordshire, but was probably attractive to Ashburton electors because of his connections with the Far East through the tea trade in which he had initially made his fortune.
1859 was the year for the next General Election. The Conservatives, still split over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, had regained power under Lord Derby, but now faced serious competition from an opposition led by Lord Palmerston. This was the year the liberals, radicals and disenchanted Tories formed themselves into The Liberal Party. But the Conservatives were confident they had the right candidate for Ashburton, John Harvey Astell, because he was a director of the East India Company. Mr Astell lived near Cambridge: he had been elected as its MP in 1852, only to be unceremoniously dumped the next year by an election petition which alleged dubious election practices. Consequently the election in Ashburton was hard-fought, as the documents in the town’s museum attest. Although Lord Palmerston’s Liberals were successful nationally, Mr Astell unseated Mr Moffat by 91 votes to 90 – a close run thing. (The low numbers in a town of about 3500 people is a good reflection of the still very limited franchise.)
So the next General Election , in 1865, promised to be quite a struggle. The Liberal candidate to oppose Mr Astell was probably going to be Robert Jardine. Despite also living in Scotland, he was likely to be a shoo-in for the nomination as a nephew of William Jardine, and recently appointed head of Jardine Matheson. Then along came Thomas Eales Rogers. Capt. Rogers lived at Waye House, a late-Georgian mansion on the eastern edge of town. He had formerly been a Superintendant of the Bengal Marine, an arm of the East India Company, so he too had Eastern connections. Having, it seems, retired to Ashburton, he fancied a Parliamentary seat in the Liberal interest. He may first have sought a nomination in Liskeard, Cornwall, but to judge by the lampoon in our museum, was heartily rejected; but Ashburton was at least his home turf.
Mr Jardine’s supporters, led by his agent, the local solicitor Robert Tucker, obviously regarded this as quite a threat, and it was the jockeying for favour among the townspeople that led to the quite scabrous posters that we are still lucky enough to have. The Devon Weekly Times, a Liberal paper, thought there was a serious danger of a split vote letting the Conservative back in; it reported that Mr Jardine was buying the local Chuley estate, and it may have been his promise to provide the town with a water supply from it that won the day. In addition, Mr Jardine promised he would ‘come down once a year to give an account of his stewardship.’ No question of local surgeries then; his supporters clearly felt this was quite sufficient. In the event, and after much merriment keeping the printers busy, it was Mr Jardine who was preferred to Mr Rogers.
The election took place on the 14th July. It was an entirely public affair since voting took place in the open, and one can imagine an exuberant Hogarthian event. Hustings were erected in front of the Rising Sun Inn in St.Lawrence Lane, and the Portreeve, Mr Luscombe, was the returning officer in charge. Mr Jardine attended with his proposer and seconder. But for reasons which are not apparent there was no attendance by Mr Astell, although he had been reported in the town a few days earlier. Perhaps he had decided the outcome was a foregone conclusion, as the Weekly Times had previously suggested. In something of an anti-climax therefore, Mr Jardine was elected unopposed. He and his supporters adjourned to the London Inn for a celebratory luncheon.
It does not appear that Capt. Rogers pursued politics any further. In recognition of its tiny electorate the Ashburton constituency was abolished in 1868, and Mr Jardine simply took up a seat at Dumfries, rather nearer to home. In the meantime he did serve as Lord of the Manor of Ashburton, and as well as making good on his promise of a new water supply also promoted the construction of the current Town Hall.
Nationally, the Liberals were returned with an increased majority, but the election of 1865 was notoriously corrupt, with a Royal Commission subsequently unseating thirteen MPs on petition, largely for corrupt expenditure or fiddling the electoral rolls. In the enquiry at Totnes, a infamously venal constituency, it was alleged that Mr Tucker customarily paid voters in Ashburton £25 per vote. But Mr Tucker, and his son who succeeded to his business, continued to live and practice at The Hall in East Street quite undisturbed. Things were due to change with the enlargement of the franchise in 1867, and the introduction of secret ballots in 1872. But meanwhile, as the posters show, everyone had a lot of fun!