Explore Your Archive

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The now annual UK and Ireland Explore Your Archive week, co-ordinated by the National Archives and the Archives and Records Association, falls this year on 14-22 November. In  2015, Explore Your Archive takes democracy as its theme, chiming in with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta and Parliament in the Making 2015.

Explore your archive: democracy

Westminster City Archives is rich in records of representative politics in Westminster, at parochial, metropolitan, and national levels. We hold the records of the Westminster parish vestries, the organs of local government prior to 1900, and those of their successors the metropolitan boroughs of Paddington, St Marylebone, and the City of Westminster. The three boroughs were incorporated as the new City of Westminster in 1965.

The Common Garden Orator by Isaac Cruickshank, 1800. Image property of Westminster City Archives

“The common garden orator – or aut Caesar aut nullis [either Caesar or nothing]  …, My Dear Friends & Constituents, had I not possessed Principles suited to all occasions I never could have sat so long in the House as I have done …”, by Isaac Cruickshank, 1800, a satire on Fox’s alleged opportunism and lack of integrity. Image property of Westminster City Archives

During the late Georgian period the parliamentary seats of Westminster were the most important in the country, carrying great prestige and influence. Voting patterns and public debates in the borough were viewed as a barometer of national political opinion and temper. Given the importance of the seats and that they were largely the preserve of the aristocracy and family favour, Westminster became the home of several veins of radical politics, challenging the old oligarchy and the commonplace corruption, bribery and intimidation that accompanied elections.

The Westminster elections of the period are illuminated in an engaging and entertaining way by the fine collection of contemporary political caricatures and cartoons held at the Archives Centre. The prints depict those occupying or aspiring to Westminster borough parliamentary seats variously as wild and dangerous revolutionaries/courageous reforming statesmen, brazen rogues/ heroes of the people, dishonest charlatans/righteous tribunes – all depending on who the satirical artist was attacking or promoting.

A Great Man in Distress, or how to grow rich... by William Dent, 1793. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

“A great man in distress or, How to grow rich & avoid becoming chargable to the Parish.  A subscription experiment” by William Dent, 1793, a satire on Fox’s fund-raising. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Prominent among the Westminster reformers was Charles James Fox, by far the most caricatured figure of his age and a favoured victim of the graphic satirists James Gillray, Isaac Cruickshank, William Dent and others. Fox was a powerful orator, an advocate of parliamentary reform, opponent of the transatlantic slave trade, rake, gambler, hairy, corpulent – and the butt of countless satirical prints.

A selection of satirical prints together with other drawings, photographs and documents revealing the city of Westminster’s representative politics over the centuries is currently on display at the Archives Centre. Do come and explore!

Explore your archive

[Rory]

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