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A Sample of Coercive Landlordism

History Department, University College, Swansea

This article has been reproduced on this website with the kind permission of David Howell.

Throughout the centuries of aristocratic and gentry dominance of English and Welsh society landowners looked to their tenants to support them in parliamentary elections. They felt that they were quite happy to follow their lead and when Welsh owners discovered from the middle of the nineteenth century that this assumption was certainly no longer true they experienced a deep sense of disappointment and let-down. It was held among landowning circles that landlords had a perfectly legitimate influence over their tenants and that this was merely one aspect of the ideal of a united, harmonious estate. Dr Olney in his important study of Lincolnshire politics quotes as testimony of this sentiment the contents of a letter of Sir Charles Monck, a Whig, of Belsay Castle, Northumberland, to his North Lincolnshire tenants in 1852:

"Nothing is more agreeable to the Constitution, and to all ancient usages of the Kingdom, or more advantageous to true liberty, than that landlords should endeavour by all fair means to lead their tenants. The Queen leads the Nation, and landlords in a similar manner lead their tenants. But there is a common interest between the Queen and the Nation: so also between landlords and their tenants . . . I expect of my tenants that they shall not engage their votes before they have communicated with me and come to know my wishes . . . If it shall after that appear that my wishes and yours are in contrarity there then ought to be the fullest explanation and consideration between us . . . I promise you that to the opinion of the majority I will submit. But . . . if I am bound to set an example of submission to the majority, the minority must be bound to follow that example, that the estate might not be divided, but act with its full weight for the benefit of all."1

On the other hand, English landowners seem to have been opposed to bringing any kind of coercion to bear on their tenantry.2

Such legitimate influence countenanced by English landowners took the form of informing tenants either directly or through an agent of the way in which their landlords desired they should vote. For Welsh landowners the matter did not rest there, however, as those few tenants who were bold enough to defy their landlords' wishes found to their discomfort. They were often evicted from their holdings. Writing to Lord Mansel in 1740, Watkin Jenkins alluded confidently to the Margam/Penrice tenants' behaviour at a forthcoming election: "all persons that holds any lands under your lordship is safe and will obey your directions for they dare do no otherwise."3 A certain landowner in north Wales wrote in the same year to the owner of Chirk Castle, John Myddelton, that although he was happy to engage his tenants in the Chirk interest he was unwilling "to give any authority for any violence towards them."4

The possibilities for landowners' unjustified interference at elections in England and Wales increased with the enfranchisement of tenants-at-will in 1832, for such farmers were not at the same time given any protection against unwarranted landlord pressure. That a measure of coercion could be brought to bear against tenants-at-will was shown clearly in the case of the Carmarthen County election of 1837. Intimidation was not new in Welsh politics but in the "Reform" atmosphere of the 1830s the whole episode became widely discussed in political society. The passions of the radicals were roused, the press publicised the affair and it was finally brought to the notice of the House of Commons.5

On 12 June 1838 Mr. Warburton rose in the House of Commons to draw attention to a petition from the county of Carmarthen, presented on the 29th. of May 1838, which complained of the improper interference of Lord Cawdor's steward, R. B. Williams, with the way that tenants of the Cawdor estate voted at the last election for the county. This had taken place in August 1837 when the two county seats (one had been added in 1832) had been closely contested and won by the Tory candidates, the Hon. J. R. Rice-Trevor (2,469 votes) and John Jones of Ystrad Lodge (2,155 votes), who had pushed one of the previous members for the constituency, Sir James H. Williams of Edwinsford, into third place with 2,076 votes.6 Mr. Warburton explained that as such interfering conduct by Earl Cawdor, a peer, would have been improper in a commoner he therefore felt obliged to bring the matter before the House as a breach of the privileges of the Lower House.

He admitted from the outset that the two petitioners had been firm supporters of the defeated Sir James Williams. One was Mr. Adams, junr., the son of Edward Hamlyn Adams of Middleton Hall, who had been an M.P. for Carmarthenshire in a former Parliament, and the other was a Mr. Hall, a provincial barrister. There can be little doubt that the latter was the young, radical heir to the Cilgwyn estate, Edward Crompton Lloyd Hall.7 The petition alleged that misconduct had taken place in the two polling districts of Newcastle Emlyn and Llandeilo and details were provided of what had gone on in the latter. Mr. Warburton drew the attention of the House to the important fact that for the whole period of the election and of the matters complained of Earl Cawdor was absent on the Continent. The first piece of interference alleged to have occured at Llandeilo polling district was the writing of three letters by R. B. Williams, Earl Cawdor's agent, to Thomas Tobias, William Jones and David Hopkins, tenants of the Earl. The letter to Tobias was dated the 27th July 1837 and written from Stackpole Court in south Pembrokeshire, Earl Cawdor's residence. It read: "Mr. Thomas Tobias, I shall depend upon you to plump for Colonel Trevor at the coming election, who is the only candidate supported by your landlord, and I have no doubt that you will do so. Your well wisher, R. B. Williams." The petition claimed that in consequence of this communication Tobias gave his support to Colonel Trevor alone. The two other letters were worded along similar lines.

Mr. Warburton conceded that if the interference with the tenantry of the noble Earl had rested there he was not certain whether he would have taken the matter up. But there were letters which prompted him to proceed with the affair, one of which was a letter written by R. B. Williams to one Thomas Evans. He was a tenant of the father of Mr. Adams, junior, one of the petitioners, for his land, and of Earl Cawdor for his house. It appears that he had built an inn on the lands of Earl Cawdor, and relying on the good reputation which the Earl had in the area as landlord he had not bothered to take a lease of the land concerned. Adams, the petitioner, had canvassed Evans to vote for Sir James Williams and had been told by Evans that he had been directed by R. B. Williams to plump for Colonel Trevor. Nevertheless, Evans did assure Adams that he would write to R. B. Williams asking permission to split his vote between Colonel Trevor and Sir James Williams. R. B. Williams had replied to this request as follows: "Sir, Your noble landlord's interest is given to Colonel Trevor, and all support has been withdrawn from Sir James Williams; so I cannot comply with your request, and I shall hope to find that you shall have plumped for the Colonel. Your well wisher, R. B. Williams." Mr. Warburton asked the House to accept that such a letter revealed the kind of influence which Williams, as agent, exercised over at least one tenant of Earl Cawdor.

The next piece of evidence which Mr. Warburton presented concerned the joint behaviour of Daniel Rees, a sub-agent or under-steward of Earl Cawdor, and R. B. Williams. The petition complained that Rees had been extremely busy on behalf of Colonel Trevor at one of the polling stations. Thus he had made various applications to Earl Cawdor's tenants to plump for the Colonel. Furthermore, at a meeting of the Earl's tenants at an inn in Llandilo on the first day of the poll he called for four of the tenants into a private room and read out to them a letter from R. B. Williams. The letter was written from Stackpole Court on the 2nd August 1837 and read as follows: "Mr. Daniel Rees, You had better see Evan Evans, of Llandybie Mill, David Stephen, smith, Stephen Griffith, of Bryngwynne, and William Morris, of Abertrinant, and tell them, that as they are so very independent, and so very ungrateful for the indulgence and favour shown to them by their landlord, that I hope to receive their rents to Ladyday last on my return to Llandilo, and then I shall see what further is to be done in the matter. I am glad that the other parties are safe, and I am very much pleased with Mr. Daniel Thomas's exertions, who can tell the parson that he had better attend to his own concerns, and leave the Earl's tenants alone. We wish every man to plump for Colonel Trevor ... Be sharp and very careful on the days of the polling. In haste, Your well wisher, R. B. Williams.

The foregoing instances of interference formed the basis of the petition against Earl Cawdor as a peer. Mr. Warburton concluded his address to the House by stating that the only effectual remedy against such malpractice as this on the part of a landowner lay in the protection of the ballot. The 1830s had witnessed a growing campaign in Britain for the ballot system of voting, a development which was wholly understandable given the bitterness of feeling which divided politicians over issues like Nonconformist disabilities. A Carmarthenshire landowner, Mr. Abadam, who confessed himself "a loyal reformer and a friend to the Nonconformist and farmer", thus issued in 1835 a Welsh address advocating the ballot.8 It is clear that the misconduct of Earl Cawdor and his agent in Carmarthenshire in 1837 did much to underline the case of the protagonists. This was so not only from the standpoint of what actually happened but also from the claims of those who rallied to Earl Cawdor's defence in the House.

Sir James Graham, M.P. for Pembroke (1838-41) rose in the House to defend Earl Cawdor against the charges. He claimed that the 'immediate promoter" of the petition was Sir James Williams. Earl Cawdor had supported Sir James in the 1835 election upon receiving assurances from him that he would not require vote by ballot nor an extension of the election franchise and that he was ready to maintain the Church as a national establishment in opposition to the voluntary principle. With Earl Cawdor's support, Sir James Williams had been elected in 1835 but his conduct following that election in supporting the voluntary principle so upset the Earl that he personally informed Sir James before the 1837 election that he could never again support him for the County of Carmarthen. Earl Cawdor had thereupon instructed his tenants to plump for one of the opposing candidates in order to secure the defeat of Sir James Williams. Sir James Graham informed the House that Earl Cawdor had directed him to state that at the time he desired that his tenants should know that he had ceased to support Sir James Williams and that "every influence which he could consistently with his character exercise with his tenantry" should be employed to help towards the defeat of Sir James Williams. Sir James Graham went on to state that the Earl, having given instructions to his agent how to act, went abroad. However, the Earl wished it to be stressed that he "by no means withdrew himself from the responsibility of any act on the part of the agent which might not have been in strict accordance with those instructions." Sir James Graham proceeded to assert that he himself defended the influence of rank and wealth in elections and that he supported the idea that landlords might appropriately guide the judgement of their tenants. Such express recognition of the legitimacy of landlord influence at elections was fodder indeed for the cause of the secret ballot. The ticklish problem of the letter of the 2nd. August was dealt with by Sir James Graham in his stating that it contained "expressions of a very unguarded nature . . . . It alluded to a threat respecting rent; but .. Lord Cawdor was not in England at the time. Besides, most improper means had been resorted to, to swerve the judgment of Lord Cawdor's tenantry, and it became indispensably necessary, in order to counteract that interference, to take steps of a stronger nature than were usually resorted to. But what had been the result? Had any parties suffered? It was admitted that the tenants were in arrears of rent; they continued so still; they were tenants at will. Had they been ejected? No such thing. One of them .... had not only been deprived of what he possessed, but had been successful in acquiring what, at the period of the election, he was not led to expect. He had been made an officer of excise in a neighbouring town." Lord Erbington, who followed Sir James Graham, again asserted that there was a "certain legitimate influence attached to property" but that landowners should not abuse their position by unjust interference, by threats or intimidations. He, too, admitted that the letter of 2nd. August was "most improper and unjustifiable" but suggested that Earl Cawdor would not have sanctioned it had he been consulted on the subject.

Mr. Warburton finally withdrew his motion, but, as Lord John Russell pointed out, he had achieved his aim in getting the letter avowed, in Earl Cawdor's acknowledgement of the acts of his agent and in the admission of the fact of the universality of the practice of peers and other landowners interfering in elections. Nevertheless, it was made clear by members that Cawdor's agent had overstepped the mark. There was innuendo in Sir James Graham's report that Earl Cawdor wished it to be known that he "by no means withdrew himself from the responsibility of any act on the part of the agent which might not have been in strict accordance with those instructions." Was the agent unilaterally going too far as was here being suggested, I think, or was it a case that Earl Cawdor was determined to line his tenants up into voting against Sir James Williams? There were precedents for this brand of coercive interference within the Welsh context.

It is also interesting to note that in the letter to Daniel Rees on 2nd. August R. B. Williams mentioned his particular satisfaction at Daniel Thomas' telling the nonconformist parson to mind his own business as to the way that tenants voted in elections. The rapid spread of nonconformity in this area as well as elsewhere in Wales at this time was the vital force straining the old harmony of Welsh rural society. Landlords and their sympathisers were sure by the late 1830s and the early 1840s that nonconformist chapels were the breeding grounds of political radicalism and social disquiet.

By the late 1830s, however, resentment towards the landowners as the 'natural' political leaders of Welsh society was mainly confined to the nonconformist leaders of the community as the preachers and the journalists writing in the pages of the nonconformist press. One suspects that down to the 1840s tenants took very little active interest in politics and were prepared to follow their landlords' lead. They were certainly prepared to take their farms on the understanding that they voted in the landlord's interest. There are thus extant a number of letters in the Chirk Castle papers which contain guarantees given by applicants for farms in the early eighteenth century that they would vote in the landlord's interest.9 The writer in Yr Efangylydd in 1832 was drawing attention to this state of affairs when he stated: "In the past there have been instances of electors giving their votes away on the condition of having farms for their children, and consequently honest and thrifty tenants with families have been turned away, and their means of livelihood ruined by this cursed trafficking in voting".10 Nor, seemingly, did tenants in general object to the actual pressures brought to bear on them at election times. Rather than feeling resentment at any infringement of their liberties they were ready enough perhaps eager in most instances to respond to the known wishes of their landlords.

By the 1850s the reasonable harmony hitherto prevailing was visibly breaking down. For by the middle of the century the Welsh nonconformist press and puplit and the work of the Liberation Society were fast channelling traditional nonconformist grievances into a radical and distinctly Welsh political programme.11 It was now that strife between Nonconformist, Welsh-speaking tenants and their English-speaking, Tory, Anglican landlords became unavoidable. Landlords, to counter the Nonconformist influence on tenants, resolved to make crude use of coercion which had hitherto been necessary in a few isolated instances only. E. C. L. Fitzwilliams of Cilgwyn wrote with feeling to Lord Emlyn in 1852 concerning the parliamentary election for the Cardigan Boroughs: "Mr, Richard Jenkins, writes me that the preaching influence was exerted to the utmost at every place. If all Landlords do not unite as one man to repel the invasion in these Counties, by making their displeasure felt in the unmistakeable way of putting a termination to the connexion of landlord and tenant . . ., and dealing only with (i.e. supporting) those tradesmen who will support the landlords and their interest, they will he acting with great folly from a present feeling as to what is the natural course of proceeding for self preservation."12

The 1868 evictions of tenants from their holdings in Carmarthenshire and elsewhere in Wales were the inevitable outcome of such an attitude.
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