life stories

Samuel Carter, Chartist MP, 1814 – 1903

Samuel Carter was elected twice as the Chartist MP for Tavistock. But his brief political career was ended by claims that he lacked the property qualification to sit in Parliament.

Samuel Carter was never a significant figure in the wider Chartist movement. But twice in 1852 he successfully contested the parliamentary constituency of Tavistock in Devon, and on each occasion he was returned as an MP on a largely Chartist political platform.

Although little remembered now, Carter came from a well-established Unitarian Tavistock family who owned property in the town and had, since 1794, ran a tannery business.

Born on 11 November 1814, Samuel Carter first entered the family firm, but in 1844 he became a law student at the Middle Temple, and in 1847 he was called to the bar, returning to practice on the Western Circuit where he often served as a defence counsel in criminal cases.

Already, however, he was gaining a name as something of a maverick, refusing to join the bar mess because of his teetotal beliefs – apparently a shocking breach of etiquette and protocol. He also threw his hat into the political ring. In an 1843 by-election, the Chartist orator Henry Vincent had unsuccessfully contested Tavistock; four years later in the 1847 general election, Carter stood on a radical – even Chartist – platform.

Carter’s intervention is recorded by the Chartist historian Professor Malcolm Chase in The Chartists: Perspectives and Legacies. He notes that there was clearly some confusion about Carter’s affiliations: C R Dod, publisher of Parliamentary Facts and Parliamentary Companion variously labelled him a Tory, a Liberal and a Chartist in successive volumes.

The detail of Carter’s policies is unclear. One local historian has him seeking “the extension of the franchise, the ballot and triennial parliaments”. A second biography which focuses on his legal career says he advocated “universal suffrage, including votes for women” and “all points of the Charter”.

But whether he was a moderate reformer, as the first source suggests, or had a more radical programme, as the second indicates, Carter came last, picking up 56 of the 257 votes cast.

However, infighting among Tavistock’s liberals led to John Trelawny, who had been an MP for the constituency since 1843, standing down in 1852 to resubmit himself to the voters at a by-election. Trelawny was on the more traditionalist Whig wing of the liberal spectrum, suggesting that there was perhaps a taste for more radical politics in the town.

Three candidates came forward for the election: John Trelawny, R J Phillimore who had previously contested the seat unsuccessfully for the Tories, and Samuel Carter.

By now, Carter had begun to build himself a reputation as an outspoken barrister who was prepared to confront the judiciary in the interests of his clients, and his name was appearing regularly in the law report columns of the local press.

Whether due to his reputation, his policies or the unpopularity of his opponents, Carter out-polled both the Liberal and Tory candidates to win election as Tavistock’s new MP.

Carter’s first entry into Parliament did not last long; before he even had chance to take his seat, Parliament was dissolved. Within nine weeks of his election, he faced a second contest – this time at a general election.

The second contest of 1852 turned nasty from the start. Phillimore, the unsuccessful candidate of April 1852, stood again – and this time made clear that he would challenge Carter on the grounds that he lacked the property qualification required to become an MP.

On the day before the election, Phillimore hired the services of the town crier to present Carter with a notice of challenge and to stick posters all over the town. They could hardly have been missed by any elector heading to vote the following morning.

Despite this, Samuel Carter was again successful, winning 169 votes to Phillimore’s 104.

This time, Carter did at least get the chance to speak in the Commons – most notably in a debate on 16 November 1852 on arrangements for the funeral of the Duke of Wellington, where, amid much uproar, he complained that at £80,000 it had cost five times more to bury the victor of Waterloo than to bury Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar.

But by this time, the legal challenge to Carter’s right to sit as an MP was well advanced. It culminated in an investigation and hearing by a select committee of the House of Commons which took evidence from witnesses for four days before reaching its conclusion.

Obituary in the Western Daily Press, p.3, 4 January 1904. Click for larger image.

The committee agreed unanimously that despite owning a substantial Tavistock home, the tannery and shares in the local gas company and having a bank balance of £47 12s 8d, Carter did not meet the property qualification. He was stripped of his seat, which was given instead to Phillimore.

Samuel Carter’s parliamentary career was now over – although the repeal of the property qualification for MPs was the first of the Chartist demands to be met just six years later in 1858.

He did, however, have a long legal career ahead of him – memorable mostly for his colorfully outspoken approach to those with whom he disagreed. His final role was as a revising barrister – checking the electoral rolls for parliamentary elections. And he would eventually lose even this job in 1894, at the age of 80, after offending too many people.

Samuel Carter died on 30 December 1903 at the age of 89. He is buried at Ridgeway Park Cemetery, Bristol.


Tavistock’s Yesterdays: episodes from her history – 1, “The Bannawell Street bruiser”, by Gerry Woodcock (Tavistock, 1985).

Samuel Carter, a maverick on the Western Circuit, by David Pugsley. Western Circuit. Accessed here 26 October 2015.

Reports from Committees, Parliament 1853.

Reports of the Decisions of Committees of the House of Commons: During the Fifteenth Parliament of the United Kingdom, Parliament 1857.

Hansard, 16 November 1852, Parliament 1852.