Thursday, 29 August 2013

A Notable Newry Election.


ISAAC CORRY of Newry was for thirty years the representative of his native town -- a record membership. Seven times he was elected, first to the Irish, afterwards to the Imperial Parliament. He was a member of one or those old commercial families of high standing of which there were several in our town in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and at an early age obtained the admiration and confidence of his fellow-townsmen by his abilities, charm of manner, and his patriotic principles.

In 1776 there was a general election to the Irish Parliament, and Isaac Corry was after a contest elected with Robert Ross as his colleague, for in that Parliament the borough had two members. It may be remarked that in this Isaac Corry succeeded his father Edward, who sat for Newry for a couple of years prior to this date.

In those old times most of the towns which had Parliamentary representation were what were called "close boroughs." The power of voting was confined to a few individuals, members of the corporation or favoured freemen. In general, too, the local landowner exercised a predominant influence over the electors, and was styled the patron of the borough. The patronage was openly sold and bought in the same manner as any other species of property. In such towns the members were merely the nominees of the patron or of a very limited number of persons. Often they did not come into communication with the inhabitants at all, and in fact knew nothing of the places they were supposed to represent. The election was a mere formality. The handful of electors were generally unanimous, and if not, their differences could easily be settled in a small room. Such were the 117 boroughs of the Irish Parliament, with the exception of about twelve.

Newry, however, was not one of these close places; it was an open borough, with a wide and extensive franchise which admitted almost every householder. In it an election was a very genuine proceeding, which aroused the most intense interest and excitement. If contested, it lasted for several days and some hundreds of electors voted. The men who sought to be elected required to have a strong hold on the popular affections. Even the Nedhams (the owners of the greater part of the town), so far from having any predominating influence, had to fight hard for themselves (if candidates), or any others whom they favoured, and on one occasion Mr. George Nedham won his election by only a small majority. In truth, the townspeople showed at this period a greater amount of independence than many of them did at a later date. From the number of cases in which the elections were followed by petitions to the House of Commons complaining of unfair practices, and from statements in these petitions, it is clear that no stone was left unturned to obtain success, and that a seat for the borough was very much valued. It must also be remembered that the town enjoyed at this time a very high degree of commercial prosperity, which probably conduced to its political activity.

Such was the bright and energetic community which chose Mr. Isaac Corry as one of its representatives, and which contented itself with him for such a lengthened time, and it cannot be said that this was so because there was a stagnation in public affairs, for the period of his membership embraced stirring events and great changes, the declaration of the Legislative Independence of Ireland, the rise of the United Irishmen, the Insurrection, and the Union.

When Corry entered Parliament, he attached himself to the Patriotic or Anti-Government Party, took an active part in the debates of the House of Commons, especially on questions connected with finance, and went far to justify the proud anticipations which the Newry folk had formed of their brilliant young townsman's success.

After the lapse of seven years, Mr. Corry was again, in 1783, after a strongly contested election, returned, and this time at the head of the poll, with Mr. Ross again as his colleague. Again almost seven years elapsed, and another general election was in 1790 impending, but just before it a change took place in the Parliamentary position of Mr. Corry. The Marquis of Buckingham, the then Viceroy, considered it desirable in the interests of his Government to attach to it some of the more prominent members of the Opposition, and amongst those on whom his favours fell was the senior representative of Newry, whom he appointed Surveyor-General of Ordnance. This was probably a sinecure office, or almost so. It carried with it a salary, and of course the acceptance of it detached Mr. Corry from the ranks of the Parliamentary Opposition. After this the General Election came on, but, although other candidates presented themselves, Messrs. Corry and Ross were again returned. It thus seems that the electors of the town did not resent Mr. Corry's acceptance of office. It is remarkable how often constituents reconcile themselves to the abandonment by their representative of an independent position. They probably expect that those representatives, when turned into office-holders, even if they be less useful to the country, will be able to confer material benefits on those through whose favour they occupy their seats in Parliament.

Another seven years pass, bringing us to 1797, and another General Election. Mr. Corry is again elected, with the same faithful colleague -- on this occasion without opposition; had there been a contest, it would have been the first election (except the one to James II.'s Parliament) at which the Catholics of Newry could have voted, as their disabilities for the electoral franchise were only removed in 1793.

Having been advanced a step in the official ranks by being appointed Surveyor-General of the Royal Lands and Manors, Mr. Corry again appeared before his constituents in January, 1798, and was again re-elected unopposed. The strong active spirit which had prevailed at the elections some time before, and which led to so many contests, seemed to have entirely fled -- in fact, the people were at this period looking to other means than parliamentary action for redress of their grievances.

In 1799 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer and re-elected for the sixth time. Want of space compels here the omission of several matters of interest following.

At the election of 1806 Mr. Corry was opposed by Lieut.-General Francis Needham, (William Nedham had died, leaving his property in Newry to Robert Needham, Viscount Kilmorey) brother of the new Lord of the Manor. Elections at this period and for a considerable time after were held at the Market-house in Castle street (Many readers will remember this building as it appeared before the alterations made some years ago. It had four large open arches in front, and a wide space within those arches, on the level of the street; it formed a very suitable place for an election) and the presiding officer was the Seneschal of the Manor of Newry. This officer owed his appointment entirely to the Lord of the Manor for the time being. At this election, therefore, the Seneschal was placed in the invidious position of having to decide all the questions raised in a contest, one party to which was the brother of his own employer.

Amongst a number of poll-books which have been preserved is that for this election of 1806. (This election took place after the Union (1801), when representation was reduced to one member.) It has been transcribed by the patient industry of Dr. Crossle, and from his transcript the portion of this article dealing with the election has been compiled.

The election opened in the "Boat Street" (The Market-house was then accounted part of Boat Street.) Market-house, on Monday, 10th November, 1806, Robert Thompson was Seneschal, and in that capacity read the precept from the Sheriff of the County of Down, requiring him to hold the election.

Proclamation being made for the electors "to come forward and proceed to an election," Matthew Russell proposed the Honourable Lieut.-General Needham. Daniel Jennings seconded him. The latter was a Catholic, and resided in Mill Street. (There were several families of this name in Newry, each related to the others.) William Beath proposed the Right Honourable Isaac Corry. This was seconded by James Reilly. Mr. Beath had also proposed Mr. Corry at the election of January, 1798. He appears to have been a great friend of the Corry family, and was probably also a neighbour. So far back as 1767 he was mentioned asa merchant of "Custom House Quay."

There was a laneway off Castle street, occupied until some years ago, called Beath's Alley, which probably formed part of his property.

James Reilly, the seconder, was a Catholic, and resided in Castle Street. This shows us that there was a cross division in the constituency, and that each candidate was anxious to make it clear that he had supporters in each portion of the electorate.

"The Seneschal having required all the electors who thought the said Francis Needham a proper person to represent the borough of Newry in Parliament to hold up their hands, the same was accordingly done, and in like manner required all the electors who thought the said Isaac Corry a proper person to represent the said borough in Parliament to hold up their hands, and the same was accordingly done, and thereupon the Seneschal being unable to determine a majority by such show of hands, a poll was demanded by James Bell, an elector, and agreed to by the Seneschal."

Mr. George Atkinson, a Justice of the Peace for the County of Down, administered the oath to the returning officer, by which he swore to honestly, impartially, and without favour to any candidate take the poll, not to take any fees above the lawful amounts, and to return such person as should appear to the best of his judgment at the close of the poll to have a majority of legal votes. (Mr. George Atkinson was grandfather, to Dr. Crossle.) Then, as considerably more than 200 electors had polled at former elections, the Seneschal appointed Mr. Atkinson as his Deputy to take the poll in the adjoining Court in the same building, and he administered the Deputy's oath to Mr. Atkinson. As a matter of fact, at the election of March, 1774, at least 597 electors voted, at that of 1783, at least 543, and at that of 1790, at least 384.

Next was an elaborate arrangement, that voters were to be produced by "tallies" of five on each side alternately, General Needham coming first. This voting by "tallies" was a plan adopted when constituencies were not so large as they are now. Electors still go to the tally-room to obtain their numbers on the register, and to indicate on which side their sympathies are; but they do not proceed to the polling place in squads of five as in old times.

The Seneschal declared that he would open the Court at nine o'clock each morning, and keep open till four in the evening, unless when the candidates consented to the contrary.

All preliminary arrangements having been completed, both parties agreed to adjourn for an hour, probably for dinner, as it was now past eleven o'clock, and they were early diners in those times. When the Court re-opened, the real business of the election began. It is clear each candidate knew the fight would be a severe one, and that to win every device must be used. Mr. Corry saw he had to fight a singular and formidable combination. General Needham, on the other hand, was in a district of which he knew nothing, and had to break down an old local influence of great strength.

The Poll Book apparently only gives the names of voters who tendered themselves in the Seneschal's own Court. This we gather from a comparison of the number recorded in it as being valid and the number on the gross poll declared at the close of the election.

One quaint circumstance is that, as the houses in the streets were not then numbered, the voter usually identified his by giving the names of his next-door neighbours.

Now all was ready, the Seneschal presiding in one Court, Mr. George Atkinson in the other. The Churchwardens were present with the books containing the Affidavits of Registry of qualification, sworn by the electors, the making of which was one condition of the franchise. Mr. Corry's principal agent appears to have been Mr. Jameson, and General Needham's were Mr. Bell and Mr. Ogle.

The first voter who presented himself was John Whaley of Ballinlare; he was met by 8 objections, made by Mr. Jameson on behalf of Mr. Corry -- 1st, that he had not been a resident for twelve months past; 2nd, that he had not registered his residence twelve months before the vacancy in the representation of the Borough; 3rd, that he was not a householder, but had been an inmate or lodger with some other person; 4th, that he had not paid the usual taxes and cesses in the Borough and was not liable for such taxes and cesses; 5th, that he had divided his house and outhouses so as to multiply votes; 6th, that his house with the office-houses and yard, but exclusive of land, was not worth £5 yearly rent; 7th, that being a Catholic, he was not duly qualified pursuant to the Statutes 13th. 14th, and 33rd George III.; 8th, that although he lived in the County Armagh part of Newry, he had registered in the County of Down. Overwhelmed by this avalanche of objections, Whaley was withdrawn till the following day, and does not appear again till the end of the election, and then apparently only to be rejected.

There was not at this time any Register of Electors as there is now; each man was liable to have his right to vote challenged by any other elector on all sorts of objections, both material and technical. At this election the right was most liberally availed of. There are 154 names of electors in the book, and as there is one duplicate these represent 153 persons. Of these only fourteen were allowed to vote without objection. The grounds of objection are always set out and sometimes at great length, the result being that the poll proceeded with surprising slowness -- at the close of the first day only five votes for each candidate had been recorded!

It is amusing to note that many persons of good position were deprived of their votes (which must have somewhat diminished their self-importance), and often for very trifling reasons. Mark Devlin, Castle Street, because being a Catholic he had not set forth his description in his certificate. Charles Henry Courtney, "Ballybought," because in his registry affidavit one of his neighbours was described as "widow" without giving her Christian name. James Bowden, also "Ballybought," because his registry certificate had been altered. Terence Fegan, Mill Street, because one witness to his registry affidavit had only subscribed the initial letter of his Christian name. Thomas Brady, Castle Street, and the Rev. Charles Campbell, High Street, for same reason. Richard Guy, "Ballybought," Isaac Glenny, Boat Street, and John Melling, "Low Ground," for verbal errors in their affidavits.

Matthew Russel, Sugar Island, and William Beath, Castle Street, the proposers respectively of the candidates, were both objected to. Mr. Beath, who has "Esq." affixed to his name, got through, but it seems Mr. Russel did not, although "rejected" is not written opposite his name. One objection to Mr. Beath was that his house was stated to be in Castle Street, and was in fact in Boat Street. James Reilly, Castle Street, Mr. Corry's seconder, was also rejected. Three Ogles -- Samuel, John and George -- consecutively presented themselves, but apparently only the first succeeded in running the gauntlet. Patrick O'Hanlon, Hill Street, is the only person in addition to Mr. Beath who had the affix "Esq.," which then meant a good deal more than it does now. Mr. O'Hanlon, one of the most prominent Catholics in the town, was met by several objections, and as he would not produce his certificate his vote was rejected.

In those days an elector had to go through a great deal of swearing before he was allowed to vote. After six months' occupation of his house, he could at the Quarter Sessions swear to an affidavit of registry, giving his qualification. This he had to sign in presence of two witnesses. Any slight informality in the affidavit nullified the registry. Even then he could not vote till the expiration of twelve months from the registry. At the election too, he had, if required, to take the elector's oath, and might be also compelled to take the bribery oath. If a Catholic, he had in addition to take two oaths, one of allegiance and one of abjuration, either at one of the Courts in Dublin before a Judge of Assize, or at the General Sessions. He had to obtain a certificate of these oaths and produce it at the election.

It will thus be seen that the elector had (and more especially if he were a Catholic) to go through an elaborate procedure before he could exercise the franchise, and that these preliminaries created great opportunity for the exercise of dilatory tactics, and in many cases for defeating the franchise altogether. All these were taken full advantage of at the election of 1806. The majority of successful objections were technical. Very few were of a substantial character, and when so they do not seem to have been regarded. Several were charged with having been bribed. Others that they had not entire houses, or that their houses were not worth £5 yearly.

The vote was in one case rejected because the elector stated that his neighbour was "Mabel" O'Hanlon, whilst in his affidavit she was called "Mave."

It is recorded in a note at the end of the poll book, signed apparently by General Needham's agents, that "on the second day of the polling, the opening of the Court was delayed for forty-one minutes on account of the absence of Mr. Bryans, one of the Churchwardens." At the end of this day General Needham's total stood at 18, and Mr. Corry's at 15. At the end of the third day Needham had 46, Corry 39. Fourth day Needham 68, and Corry 57. The fifth day's work saw General Needham's poll 75, and Mr. Corry's 63. Then came Saturday, the 15th November, which was to settle this remarkable election. Mr. Corry had evidently exhausted all his available force, for on this day he did not poll any votes whatever, and he saw with poignant feelings that his long Parliamentary connection with his native town was about to terminate.

The Poll Book records the close of the election as follows -- "First proclamation made 18 minutes before 12 o'clock, requiring all persons claiming a right to poll at this election to come forward and offer themselves. Second proclamation made at 18 minutes after 12 o'clock. Third proclamation 20 minutes before one o'clock. The Seneschal declared after totting up that the Honourable Lieut-General Needham was duly elected, the numbers being as follows -- Needham 85, Corry 63."

So by less than one hundred and fifty votes was this important election decided. (It is curious that in some of the earlier elections in which the Catholics could not vote, almost four times as many electors voted as at this election, at which they could vote. This must have been caused by the introduction of the statutory preliminaries, which were only made a condition in 1795.)

Mr. Corry's friends seem to have been astonished at the result of the election. As they knew the strength of the forces arrayed against him, they must indeed have rated his influence highly. Even in his defeat they showed their devotion to him. They entertained him at a banquet, and presented an address which certainly has a very genuine ring. Some extracts will throw a vivid light on the result : It refers to "the unexpected event of your failing to become for the eighth time our representative in Parliament, the depriving many of us of our rights as electors under pretences which we consider to be frivolous and unjust." It then significantly goes on, "We lament that you, our countryman, our townsman, and our friend, should have been deserted by some for the paltry consideration of temporary advantage or the private gratification of ill-founded resentment. We regret that your spirited exertions and important services during the troubles of the year 1798, though marked by humanity and forbearance, should have produced the event which we now lament" (Mr. Corry's failure to exert his influence on behalf of a number of his supporters who got entangled in the troubles of 1798s is here referred to.) It speaks of Mr. Corry as "the friend of 30 years in which you represented us," and with charming naivete it says, "In several official situations, terminating in the high and honourable situation of Chancellor of the Exchequer, we have experienced uniform attentions as well to our individual as to our public interests,"

Materials are not available to enable us to learn what reply Mr. Corry gave to his faithful friends whilst he still felt keenly the sting of his defeat

The opposition to Mr. Corry was, on public grounds alone, quite justified, apart from the personal considerations which may have entered into the minds of some; but the effect of the result was most regrettable. A predominant territorial influence was created, quite different in its characteristics from the influence which had been held by Mr. Corry. All free political life seemed to be almost extinguished in the borough for nearly half a century. Out of fourteen consecutive elections, at no less than ten there were returned members or relatives of the Kilmorey family, in seven cases without opposition. Even when the great Curran came to inspire the spirit of freedom into the constituency, he came in vain. In only one instance during this period was there a successful assertion of independence.

The influence which produced this state of affairs does not now prevail; but the influence was great, the state of affairs was long continued. Therefore, not only in its own circumstances, but still more from its ultimate results, the contest of 1806, between Mr. Corry and General Needham, may well be considered a Notable Newry Election.


[We regret that exigencies of space render it necessary to omit part of above article. The writer, therefore, is not entirely responsible for it in its present form.]


This article was originally published in "The Open Window Illustrated - Literary Annual and Year Book of Local Annals" in 1900 which was centred on the Newry area. 

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