- Dickens and the City of London Conservatives
This paper provides a transcription of and commentary on a previously uncollected letter and an unrecorded press notice written by Dickens while working as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle in 1836.
I am obliged to go to Covent Garden Theatre, to the Conservative Dinner to-night, but if you will look in, and play a Rubber1 with the girls and their Uncle, I shall be as glad to hear you were here, as they will be to see you.
The letter can be dated relatively easily. Dickens stayed at Furnival's Inn between 1834 and 1837, and lived there with Catherine and his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth (the "girls" of the letter) after his wedding on 2 April 1836. In the letter, he evidently refers to a reporting assignment for his newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, from which he resigned in November 1836. Inspection of newspapers between April and November 1836 shows that the Anniversary Dinner of the City of London Conservative Association at Covent Garden occurred on Wednesday 13 April 1836. Dickens appears to have returned from his honeymoon in Kent to Furnival's Inn by 14 April (Letters 1: 145). The letter was therefore written on 13 April 1836.
Around this time, Dickens wrote letters beginning "Dear Tom" to both [End Page 197] Tom Mitton, a fellow-clerk during 1828–29 and later, for a time, Dickens's solicitor, and Tom Beard, a family friend, fellow Chronicle reporter, Dickens's best-man and, in 1837, godfather of his first-born child. The recipient of the letter was apparently the former: written on its reverse side, seemingly in Dickens's hand, is "Thomas Mitton Esq."
The identity of the girls' "Uncle" is unclear: he was perhaps Robert Hogarth, whom, in 1835 Catherine referred to as "my dearest Uncle" (Letters 1: 68 fn) or William Thomson, for whom Dickens checked page proofs of a travel book in the same year (Letters 1: 69 fn, 70).
The Political Context and the Rise of Conservative Associations
In 1836 the Whig party had been in government almost continuously for some six years. Carried into power on the strength of its reforming policies, it had won three consecutive general elections, and was to win a fourth in 1837. Its Reform Act of 18322 transformed the parliamentary electoral franchise. Thereafter, other liberal, reforming legislative measures were introduced. In reaction, the rival Tories, historically an authoritative, traditionalist, nationalistic and monarchist party fiercely defensive of the Established (that is, Anglican Protestant) Church, became transformed into a body occupying a more central political position and actuated by more progressive views. These had been expressed in Robert Peel's Tamworth manifesto of 1834, which declared an intent to reform ills while conserving the worthwhile.
The Reform Act required that those potentially eligible to vote register annually in order to qualify to do so. In the years immediately after the Act, not all did.3 Local activists of both parties consequently took it upon themselves to maximize registration of their respective supporters. Members of Peel's reconstructed right-of-center party, now increasingly being referred to as "Conservatives,"4 were especially anxious to build and maintain support in the country. Consequently, "Conservative Associations" proliferated, being concerned primarily with voter registration,5 and secondarily with [End Page 198] the propagation of the views of the parliamentary party.6 Highlights of their activities were "Dinners," during which speakers assured the constituency faithful that, in an era of reform, the party would strive to conserve what was often referred to as "the constitution in church and state." As one historian expressed it: the whole country suddenly
resounded with the noise of Conservative dinners, with the clink of glasses, and the clatter of knives and forks, the hubbub of dinner-table conversation now and again to be hushed for fiery denunciations of O'Connell7 and the [Whig] Ministry, and praise of the Peerage.(Clark, George Kitson 332)
Unsurprisingly, such bodies and occasions were viewed with suspicion by political opponents. Thus, in...