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The Carlton Club

Carlton Club, Pall Mall

The Carlton Club, Pall Mall

One of the reasons for the electoral success of the Conservatives was that they were quicker off the mark than the Whigs in strengthening their party organisation following the passing of the 1832 Reform Act. In 1831 Joseph Planta, William Holmes, J.C. Herries, Lord Ellenborough, Charles Arbuthnot and Sir Henry Hardinge set up an ad hoc committee at the home of Joseph Planta in Charles Street to provide a central party organisation and to supervise Conservative electoral arrangements. It was set up independently of Peel. The aim of the Committee was to defeat reform proposals, which had been put before parliament by the Whigs.

Peel was no good at handling men and had limited interest in the detailia of party management. He had little to do with the "Charles Street Gang" or the Carlton Club. The great stimulus to party organisation came with the fall of Peel's 1834 ministry - the party fought the 1835 election.

By 1832, Planta's home had become too small for the group, so the Conservatives set up the Carlton Club as Conservative headquarters to deal with electoral matters. Annual subscriptions were £10. Francis Bonham emerged as the Conservatives' chief electoral expert, although independent MPs wanted nothing to do with central funding. By the end of March 1832, 500 Conservatives had agreed to join; by 1833 the membership was 800.

On 4 May 1835, Bonham wrote to Peel saying that electoral management should be placed on a regular, permanent footing and

'For myself, I am ready to devote my whole time out of the House of Commons to this work and with a very small Committee hardly more than seven composed of G. Somerset (above all others), Lord Lincoln, Clerk, Fremantle, and any others whom you might wish to recommend...'

Bonham's advice was taken and he became the first full-time party agent. Bonham also was given the services of Sir Henry Hardinge, Charles Ross, Sir James Graham and Lord Rosslyn: all were close to the party leadership.

The powers of the Carlton Club were restricted because constituencies kept control of registration, the selection of candidates, canvasses and payment of expenses. The effectiveness of the Club was restricted by a dislike of centralisation and therefore because of lack of funds. The Carlton Club did keep a list of candidates that it could send to constituencies on request.

Bonham made his mark in the 1835 General Election and then suggested to Peel the formation of a permanent committee to deal with electoral matters. In 1841, Sir James Graham wrote to Bonham, saying

'Thanks to you and your indefatigable industry, no party out of office ever before possessed such sources of intelligence and such means for active war'.

In 1832 Conservative Associations began to be set up throughout the country, although this was more due to local initiative and enthusiasm than to the Carlton Club. The Conservative Associations founded throughout parliamentary constituencies after the passing of the Reform Act dealt with registration and canvassing, and sometimes selected and financed candidates. Solicitors were the backbone of constituency organisation, especially for registration.

In the county constituencies, would-be electors had to pay a once-and-for all registration fee of 1/- but in the boroughs the fee was a 1/- registration fee for each election. The onus of proving that one was qualified for the franchise fell on the person himself and those who wished another Party to win the constituency only had to question a man's right to the vote. Consequently the process could be very expensive. The Conservatives ensured that potential Conservative voters registered easily and had their registration fees paid by the Association. They also encouraged Conservative voters to question would-be Whig voters' rights to the franchise. These tactics increased the number of Conservative voters and helped them to win elections at the expense of the Whigs.

NB Constituencies kept control of their independence from the centre until 1998; until that point constituencies were entirely independent. Indeed there was no such legal entity as 'The Conservative Party' of which to be part. (I am grateful to the Carlton Club for this information. Its web site is to be found here.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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