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Harry Edwards

Posted on: 11th September 2015 By: Michael Barton

In the autumn of 1851 St Albans was brought into the national spotlight as three parliamentary commissioners descended on the town to look into accusations of bribery in the town’s elections. As St Albans’ most well-known and well-respected individuals were forced to admit their crimes, public life in the town was dominated by the bribery commission, " the interest taken by the inhabitants of the town in the revelations daily made before the commissioners is so great as to exclude, for a time, every other topic which, under ordinary circumstances, would possess local interest " wrote the Hertford Mercury. Yet the figure most instrumental in the bribery network was a little-known farmer from Bricket Wood.

Harry Edwards had formerly been a clerk and manager at Messrs Musketts’ bank in St Albans but had left St Albans in the 1840s for Bricket Wood.  This move meant that he could no longer vote in St Albans elections.  Crucially he was also the Liberal Party’s election agent for the town.  In this role he would take money from the party’s candidate in order to win the seat on the candidate’s behalf.  Edwards and his Conservative counterpart Thomas Ward Blagg, the town clerk, essentially ran the town’s elections through a network of bribery which involved 308 of the town’s 483 electors, money was handed to electors or middle men such as wives or other family members in Sovereign Alley in return for the promise of support for the party’s candidate. The Commission’s most remarkable moment was arguably when Edwards went through the town’s electoral register one by one and stated how each person had voted and whether money had been involved.

Blagg and Edwards were more co-conspirators than rivals as the town had two MPs at this time, meaning both could get a candidate elected. Indeed the two were friends with Edwards’ fourth son working as a clerk for Blagg in his dealings as a solicitor.  Their carefully constructed bribery business only collapsed because Blagg agreed not to oppose Edwards in the 1850 by-election following the death of the town’s Liberal MP. This brought William Gresham onto the scene as the new Conservative agent, the man whose petition prompted the commission’s creation.

Edwards was regarded as a commoner by the town and national elite, The Spectator’s report of the trial noted “Mr. Edwards is a very commonplace specimen of his class: obliged to confess his own shame to which he does not appear especially sensitive, he consoles himself by unmasking as many of the more prudish sinners of the borough as he can.”  Yet Edwards’ networking and numerous businesses including supplying coal and breeding roses allowed him to elevate his family in St Albans society despite his often questionable methods. When Edwards’ old friend Blagg died in 1875, it was Edwards’ son Isaac Newton Edwards who replaced him as town clerk and replicated his father’s corrupt tactics.  Edwards is not only a colourful character in his own right but his later successes also illustrates that the corruption he was at the heart of was not seen as the source of shame it perhaps would be today.

To find out more about the St Albans Bribery Commission you can read the report the Commissioners produced in 1852.  There are copies held by the Maltings Library, SAHAAS's libary. Brian Moody's article ‘Westminster Lodge’  in SAHAAS's Newsletter No. 168, May 2008, pp. 8-9 and Derek Roft, The 1851 Vote Rigging Scandal, 6 May 2010.

This blog was written by Michael Barton, who conducted research into the St Albans bribery commission as a volunteer during the summer of 2015.

The sketch above is by St Albans based artist John Henry Buckingham (1800-1881). 

Read previous blogs about the Buckingham sketches and this period here and here>.