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Local history: The road to Oakham Gaol

23rd August 2020

Caroline Aston recounts the fascinating story of Mr Henry Vincent, who was a leader in the Chartist Movement, fighting the fight for electoral reforms for working-class men… a tale with an Oakham connection

In an episode of  ‘Blackadder the Third’, a scheming Blackadder puts Baldrick up for election in Dunny-on-the-Wold, a so-called ‘rotten borough’ where the only residents were three cows, a dachshund called Colin, a hen in its late forties and just one voter who accidentally brutally cut off his head while combing his hair, leaving the way clear for Blackadder to become the only voter in a rigged election that gave Baldrick a landslide victory with 16,472 votes cast in his favour!

Brilliant scriptwriting – but there is a very real grain of truth in that story. Places such as the fictional Dunny were wide open to corruption with would-be electoral candidates buying votes, effectively purchasing a seat in Parliament.

Reform and riots

It was glaringly obvious that something needed to be done, and in 1831 a Reform Act was passed by the Commons but rejected by a Tory-dominated House of Lords. Violent riots broke out across England, including in Leicester, while the disturbances in Bristol were some of the worst recorded in 19th-century Britain with 31 people sentenced to death as a result.

Reluctantly King William IV, though personally opposed to reform, agreed to create enough new peers in favour of change to carry the day. Rather than see that happen, the Tory peers gave in and ultimately passed the Act in 1832. All the old rotten boroughs disappeared, and emerging new towns and large cities got representation, though constituency sizes were uneven. Crucially, at this time only men could vote and the Act kept a property qualification in place: a voter had to own property worth at least £10 (roughly £1,130 today), so virtually all working men were debarred, while candidates had to be able to afford to stand for election.

Progress, yes – but not nearly enough for some agitators… which brings us to the Chartist movement…and ultimately to Oakham!

The development of Chartism

In 1837 Francis Place, William Lovett and Henry Hetherington, three men who felt strongly that the skilled working man deserved the vote, held a meeting in London and drew up a charter containing six basic demands.  Today these seem totally fair and sensible – they included votes for all (men!), a secret ballot, equal electoral districts and payment for MPs – but in the 1830s these men and their ideas were seen as dangerously radical, smacking of revolution. ‘Chartism’ and its followers had to be crushed and made examples of.

Henry Vincent

Born in 1813 Henry Vincent was a printer and leading Chartist. He gained a reputation as one of the movement’s best speakers and toured Britain helping to establish Working Men’s Associations. The year 1838 found him in the West Country and South Wales, though not everyone welcomed him: he was knocked unconscious by a mob in Devizes, while his suggestion that the Chartists might have to use physical force to gain universal suffrage led to government spies shadowing him.

Things came to a head in May 1838: he was arrested and charged with using inflammatory language, ultimately standing trial at the Monmouth Assizes in the following August. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a year in jail. The terms of his prison sentence were deliberately tough: banned from having writing materials he was also forbidden to read anything other than religious texts.

Following release, he was re-arrested almost immediately for using ‘seditious language’ and was committed to the grim Millbank Penitentiary in Westminster, where the food and living conditions were appalling. But Vincent was not a criminal in the usual sense of that word, rather a political prisoner, and his health, physical and mental, was suffering. After much public debate it was decided to transfer him to a less gruelling prison and the choice fell on Oakham Gaol!

Oakham incarceration

Today Oakham School’s art block on the corner of Station and Kilburn roads occupies part of what was then a relatively new prison, having opened in 1810. It was light years away from Millbank, and as well as ‘enjoying’ an improved diet and living conditions Vincent was able to study and receive visitors, the most important of these being Francis Place. He visited regularly, instructing Vincent in French, history and political economy and helping the long days pass more quickly.

Release came in March 1841, and, with his bundle of books and belongings, Henry Vincent left for London, where a  dinner was held for him at the long-vanished White Conduit House tavern in Pentonville. Mr Henry Vincent’s return from Rutland was right royally celebrated. He went on to stand unsuccessfully in several elections, lecturing all over Britain and in the USA, where he supported the anti-slavery campaign. This famous temporary Oakham resident died on 29 December 1878, mourned by all who supported him and his commitment to electoral reforms.

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