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A Year of Two Elections

By Ellie Jones, Cathedral Archivist

This satirical broadside was one of a series produced in 1868, a year of two elections in Exeter, just as in 2024.

The Reform Act of 1867 had significantly increased the voting population – particularly the working class population – by giving adult male heads of households (and lodgers paying rent of £10 a year or more) the right to vote. The number of votes cast at the 1868 General Election exceeded two million, nearly three times the total at the 1865 election. The General Election in 1868 was won by the Liberal party’s William Gladstone with 60% of votes, against the Conservative’s Benjamin Disraeli with 40%. Disraeli, who had been Prime Minister for nearly 10 months, resigned as a result (he would be Prime Minister again from 1874-1880).

A few weeks after the General Election, Exeter also held a By-Election. This was as a result of one of the city’s two Liberal Members of Parliament, John Coleridge, being appointed Solicitor General for England and Wales. Coleridge – the great nephew of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge – was a lawyer and politician, who eventually became Lord Chief Justice of England.

The city’s other MP was Edgar Alfred Bowring. Bowring was a civil servant, translator of German literature, and Registrar of the Board of Trade. He was the son of Exeter-born John Bowring, a political economist, traveller, and former Governor General of Hong Kong.

This broadside – produced by the Tories in the lead up to the Exeter Election – is a dig at perceived nepotism and opportunism behind Bowring’s election to the seat. It begins with a quote from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Let me have men about me that are fat; yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He talks too much! Such men are dangerous.”

In the main image, the lean and hungry-looking Bowring is cast as Little Jack Horner. Little Jack Horner was a nursery rhyme which had been popular since the 18th century. The proverbially opportunistic Horner – usually represented as a small fat child – here is a thin adult man, hunched over a pie bearing the words “Board of Trade”, and peering at a plum with the words “£400 pt annum” written on it. The verse beneath is a play on the traditional lines:

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating his Christmas pie;
He stuck in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “Oh, what a good boy am I!”

Both Exeter MPs retained their seats; Coleridge until 1873, and Bowring until 1874.