Liberal Tradition in Honiton

Who says that Honiton does not have a Liberal tradition? Admittedly it is going back a bit to the 18th century but Honiton did have a radical and liberal leaning MP then, Stockton born Brass Crosby.

It was in the days of Rotten Boroughs, so you may say nothing to be proud of there, but that was the system that there was then, and to his credit, he was part of a group of leading City of London politicians that were calling for constitutional reform that included ending Rotten Boroughs. In 100 years’ time it could be said that politicians of today had no mandate from the people as they were elected under the undemocratic first past the post.

This is an extract from the book I wrote, “Bold as Brass?” helpfully published by Christine Headley after reading about him in an LDV post!

A number of radical Whig Aldermen who were passionate about preventing the erosion ofrights and liberties of citizens stood in parliamentary elections. These were times of “Rotten Boroughs” and in 1768 he became the MP for Honiton “a small town in Devon with a comparatively liberal franchise”,37 which he continued to represent until the dissolution in September 1774.38 After the founding of the Campaign for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, there were anti-slavery meetings and petitions in Exeter and many Devon towns including Honiton. Joseph Sturge, a successful businessman there founded the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society in 1839, the forerunner of today’s Anti Slavery International (ASI) which recently campaigned successfully for the Modern Slavery Act.So it appears that over two centuries ago Honitonians not only campaigned against the British slave trade but were also involved in the campaign to end slavery throughout the world.39 There is no record of Brass Crosby ever actually visiting the town, as was common in the rotten boroughs of the day. A visit to local libraries and reference archives shows no
information of the happenings in Parliament other than regurgitating what the London press was saying about the events. The only other reference to Honiton and Parliament that has turned up is that the lace-making town sent a lace jabot to Bernard Weatherill when he was Speaker of the House of Commons.

37 Brown, Alba Theodore Grant, 1933. Half Lights on Chelsfield Court Lodge, Liverpool.
38 http://www.histparl.ac.uk/volume/1754-1790/constituencies/honiton
39 Midweek Herald, Honiton, 5 May 2017. Honiton history: What has the slave trade to do with us?

Brass Crosby’s actions are those that we Liberals should be proud of.

It is because of Crosby’s bold actions, as Mayor of London at the time that the proceedings of parliament are allowed to be printed in the press. Up until 1771 they were not allowed to be, and it is because Brass Crosby, in what is called “The Printer’s Case”, was sent to the Tower of London for his actions, that such recording was allowed, and Hansard began some years later. Without a doubt, a huge contribution to our democracy.

Before that Brass Crosby halted the Press Gangs in the Port of London that blighted the lives of many men and were ineffectual too. This was followed by similar actions in other great ports.

He was one of the founders of the Constitutional Society, campaigning for constitutional and other reforms. It was from that society that William Wilberforce started his campaign against slavery.

About time we had another Liberal MP for Honiton to campaign for what we hold dear in our freedoms and democracy.

* Suzanne Fletcher was a councillor for nearly 30 years and a voluntary advice worker with the CAB for 40 years. Now retired, she is active as a campaigner in the community both as a Lib Dem and with local organisations and author of "Bold as Brass?", the story of Brass Crosby.

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5 Comments

  • And a Liberal, the first, Prime Minister held the other seat way back when I think…

  • nvelope2003 3rd May '22 - 3:31pm

    In 1997 the Liberal Democrats came within 1653 votes of winning Tiverton and Honiton and there was also a Liberal candidate who polled 635 votes. Should be an interesting result. Certainly worth an effort.

  • Excellent stuff Suzanne. :<)

  • Margot Wilson 4th May '22 - 10:12am

    Just enjoyed your book, Suzanne. Interesting that the City of London stood up to Parliament to champion ordinary people’s rights. Gives perspective on today’s conflict between the PM and the Mayor of London and the GLA.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 4th May '22 - 10:25am

    Glad you enjoyed the book Margot. Yes it struck me as I did the research that it was (some of) the undoubtedly well off in the City of London that were campaigning for peoples rights and freedoms. Today it is the House of Lords battling against the nasty right wing erosion of such (elections bill, nationality and border bill for example) and actually winning on votes for such before being voted down in the Commons.

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