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Identifying “The Duke of Northumberland's Piper”

Some readers may be familiar with the following image.

It appears, for example, in George Charlton’s The Northumbrian Bag-Pipes (1930) where he describes it inconsistently as from both “an early eighteenth century broadside” (p. 140) and “a political squib from the [nineteenth century which] shows the Duke of Northumberland’s piper” (p. 141)1. That the piper is meant to be associated with the Duke is clearly indicated by the Percy crescent on his forearm; the same crescent which is seen in depictions of the notorious Northumbrian gypsy piper James Allan (1734-1810). The “early eighteenth century” date, however, cannot be correct; not only did the position of “ducal piper” not come into existence until some time after the middle of the century (Butler, 2004), the style of clothing clearly precludes such an early period. In fact, a much more accurate date can be found in the Souvenir Guide of the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum which includes the nearly complete etching (it is missing its title) from which the above has been extracted. The illustration is captioned:

A political squib issued during the election of December 1832 when Hugh Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, was standing for office. His piper, playing the Border half long pipes, is shown leading a cart full of the Duke’s tenants and ‘supporters’. (Bibby- Wilson & Moore, 2003: 23)

Fig. 1, below, shows the copy of the (complete) etching, March of the Per-y Tenantry or the Dukes Own, as held in the British Museum collection (George, 1954: 705).

Although the date of late 1832 is probably correct2, there are a number of errors in the rest of the Chantry Museum description. For example, although it is indeed the 3rd Duke who is depicted driving the cart, identified by the Garter star dangling on a ribbon from his neck (he had been made a Knight of the Garter in 1819), he was not a candidate in the 1832 election; indeed, he had stood down as the MP for Northumberland in 1812 when called to the House of Lords. Note also that the ‘supporters’ are either glumly or angrily enclosed in a prison-like cage with one of them shouting “Let us mutiny! we will not be driven to the Poll like Sheep”. Meanwhile the Duke is urging the piper “Play up Matthew they are turning unruly, give them the Conservative Rant”. There is no record, however, to a Ducal Piper named Matthew – indeed, in 1832 the Duke’s piper was William Green. In fact, the “piper” is not intended to represent the Duke’s piper but rather one Matthew Bell – the British Museum copy of the print has “M Bell” pencilled under the piper3 – who, to the best of my knowledge, was not a piper at all. What is going on here? To unravel the meaning of the print requires exploring the febrile atmosphere surrounding the first Reform Bill which eventually became law in June 1832 and a particular incident involving the Duke of Northumberland in 1831 in which Bell was caught up.

Matthew Bell (Fig. 2) was born in 1793

at Woolsington, a village just to the NNE of

Newcastle. The family was well-known in the

area having provided, amongst various public

officers, a mayor of Newcastle, a colonel of

the Northumberland Militia and a High Sheriff

of Northumberland. His father, also a

Matthew, has some minor lasting fame in

having provided Thomas Bewick with the

stuffed King Duck which he used as a model

for his illustration in the History of British

Birds (Bewick, 1885: 324). Matthew was

educated at Eton and Oxford before inheriting

his father’s “goodly estate” on his death in

  1. His marriage to Elizabeth Reay, the only offspring of Henry Uttrick Reay of Killington, in 1816 further consolidated his fortunes becoming “an opulent land and coal owner, a popular country squire, and a good ‘all round’ public man” (Welford, 1895: 306). In the same year as his marriage, Bell was made High Sheriff of Northumberland (a post which his father had similarly held in 1797); he was also a magistrate and, on the death of his uncle Charles Brandling in 1826, became the lieutenant-colonel of the Northumbrian and Newcastle Yeomanry Cavalry, a command he retained for the next forty years.

Being an MP, the death of Brandling resulted in a by-election for the County constituency of Northumberland and his nephew was persuaded to stand as a candidate. At that time, Northumberland returned two “knights of the shire” to Westminster; the other sitting member was Thomas Wentworth Beaumont (Fig. 3), originally a Tory but by this period “an advanced Liberal”; Beaumont will turn up again later in the story.

The by-election was fought between Bell and Henry Thomas Liddell (later to become the 1st Earl of Ravensworth) both standing as Tories.

Elections were very different affairs in those days: not only were there opposing candidates from the same party, only adult males owning land valued at 40 shillings or more were franchised, votes were declared in public, and voting only took place in a single location (Alnwick for the Northumberland constituency) and often over a considerable period (13 days in this case, from February 21st to March 7th)4. Although behind on virtually every one of the days of voting, by the final count Bell had managed to gain 36 more votes than Liddell (1186 to 1150) and was duly elected. The campaign had been rather ill-natured from the start – partly because Liddell had insensitively started to campaign the day after Brandling’s death5. The bad feeling continued after the declaration of the result with Liddell insinuating that Bell had only won by buying votes; addressing his supporters later he claimed “I am greeted by no bought voice; my feelings find echo in no purchased heart” (italics in the original, Poll Book, 1826: 234). Before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, bribery and coercion was standard fare in any election process – recall Hogarth’s painting Canvassing for Votes in his 1755 The Humours of an Election series – and it is this, in effect, which forms the subject matter of the March of the Percy Tenantry6.

The late 1820s was a period of considerable political upheaval mainly driven by growing calls and public support for electoral reform but also including the questions of Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery (Erskine May, 1861). The issue of electoral reform came to a head in 1831 when, after decades of Tory governance, The Duke of Wellington resigned and the Whig Charles Grey, who was strongly committed to reform, became Prime Minister. His proposed Reform Bill aimed not only at removing the various “rotten boroughs” and introducing new seats for the growing industrial cities but also proposed widening the franchise. The Bill, however, satisfied very few; it did not go far enough for the more radical reformers and greatly alarmed the, mainly Tory, opponents of reform. As a consequence it soon became apparent that it would be extremely difficult to push the Bill through the House of Commons and Grey, “in one of the most critical days in our history” (Erskine May, 1861: 352), decided to call a General Election in order to let the people decide the issue. The King, unusually, went to the House of Lords in person and prorogued Parliament on April 22nd 1831.

Two days before the dissolution Matthew Bell had presented a petition to the House on behalf of the county of Northumberland against the proposed Reform Bill. Hansard reports him saying that:

It was signed by two right rev. Prelates, the Bishops of Exeter and Durham, by ten Peers, by sixty Gentlemen in the Commission of the Peace, and by a very large number— he would say about 2,700—of the Freeholders of the county of Northumberland. This petition, so numerously and respectably signed, formed a convincing proof, in his opinion, that the unanimity throughout the country, in favour of this measure, was not so complete as many people believed to be the case. The petitioners prayed, that this Bill should not pass into a law, because they were of opinion, that if it did so pass, it would be subversive of the best interests of this country. In their prayer, and in the propriety of their opinion, he perfectly concurred. [Hansard Commons Sittings of 20 April 1831, Reform Petitions, vol. 3 cc 1720-5] At this point Thomas Beaumont, the other (and Whig) MP for Northumberland, stood up and questioned whether the petition truly represented the views of the people of Northumberland. The problem was that, as had been widely reported in The Times newspaper, the petition had been accompanied by a letter addressed to the tenants of the Duke of Northumberland asking them to sign it “if they think fit”. Beaumont noted, however, that the letter included the somewhat chilling line: “The Duke requires the names of tenants who do not sign, and hopes that they will not embark rashly in politics”. Given the implied threat behind this sentence, Beaumont claimed that “the petition spoke not the sentiments of the county, but those of the Duke of Northumberland”. Some slightly heated debate followed as to whether the letter originated with the Duke or, somewhat more fancifully, whether it was written by his Commissioners without his knowledge. Whatever the truth of the matter, Hansard laconically concludes with “Petition to be printed.”

This apparent act of ducal coercion was clearly a publicity disaster for the anti- reformers and it is this which is being satirised in the March of the Percy Tenantry and accounts for why the Duke’s tenants are imprisoned in a padlocked cage made to follow his every whim. To the right of the cart stand Beaumont – who is exclaiming “I see O— d we’ll catch a few of the lean ones” – and John Bull, the personification of the country, applauding those who are

managing to escape the Duke’s

clutches. Bell’s role as the

Duke’s Parliamentary

mouthpiece accounts for why

he heads the procession to the

hustings. That he was

perceived as very much the

Duke’s man (and set against

any form of political reform) is

indicated by another satirical

etching of 1831 (Fig. 4)

(George 1954: 470). Here the

Duke is depicted wearing a bell

-shaped hat with Bell’s profile

whilst exclaiming “If I can

support this Bell, it shall ring a

Reform change or two yet, they

shall have another Peal in the

House”. Again John Bull

stands in the background

saying “D—me I’d walk a

hundred Miles at my own

expence for Howick &

Beaumont, for the King & for

the People”. The signpost

pointing to Alnwick Castle, the

Duke’s seat, is labelled “To

Rotten Borough Castle”.

Both Bell and the other Tory candidate, Sir Henry Hardinge, eventually withdrew from the 1831 election, Bell saying that this was in order to save the county from “the disturbance of a contest”; the Duke’s petition notwithstanding, both Tory candidates must have known that the forces of reform were now unstoppable and they faced certain defeat. The unopposed pro-reformers Beaumont and Viscount Howick were duly returned as part of an overwhelming national Whig majority and, following a series of struggles with the House of Lords, the Reform Act eventually received Royal Assent on June 7th 1832.

The country went to the polls again in December 1832 under the new electoral system and this time Bell stood for one of the two seats in the newly created constituency of South Northumberland. Clearly his ultra-Tory, anti-reform sentiments were still held against him by some as is shown in another satirical print from the period (Fig. 5) (George, 1952: 704-5). Here Bell is the right-most of the three candidates standing in front of John Bull (notice the sideburns) who addresses him: “as for you Master B—l let me tell you Sir! I do not keep a Military school, and since you will play at soldiers go & serve under that Gentleman you have upon your Slate [i.e. The Duke of Wellington] for Im (sic) determined you shall not serve under me, as you will not reform and be a good Boy, I discharge you! go home to your friends & I hope they will never attempt to return you.” John Bull’s hopes were not realised, however, since Bell, even though he “stood upon the old lines and distained to catch voters by swerving an inch from the direct path in which his political course ran” (Welford, 1895: 307), was sensationally returned (beating the Whig William Ord into third place by 90 votes) even though nationally there was another Whig landslide.

Bell continued to represent South Northumberland for the next twenty years until his retirement in 1852. He died in November 1871 and was buried at Dinnington just outside Newcastle. Welford summed him up some years later in the following terms:

Straight and upright in every relation of life, Mr Bell exemplified the patriotic spirit and the chivalric bearing of an English country gentleman. Though his political contests impoverished his estate, he sought no office and accepted no preferment. He died as he had lived “Honest Matty Bell. (Welford, 1895: 307)

Given some of the details of his political life, it is unclear that we would want to award him the sobriquet of “Honest” so willingly but, perhaps, times have changed.

Although, as previously noted, there is no reference to Bell actually being a piper7, there is one mention of him in relation to music which may be of interest. The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend for October 1888 has a short item by John Stokoe (of Northumbrian Minstrelsy fame) on the well- known tune The Bonnie Pit Lad. With a somewhat disapproving tone, he writes that the tune had a history of being “appropriated” by Parliamentary candidates “who have been connected with the coal trade”. More particularly he recalls how “at the great election contest … in 1826, the tune of ‘The Bonnie Pit Laddie’ and the dark blue banners and favours were the distinguishing marks of the late Matthew Bell, of Woolsington” (p. 460). Unfortunately the Poll Book (1827) for this election makes no reference to this, so we can only guess whether the tune was ever played on the bagpipes at these meetings.


  1. It is, perhaps, this source which also informs the apparently composite description of it as “from any (sic) early nineteenth century political broadside” which accompanies the same image in a more recent article by Ray Sloan (Sloan, 1996: 11).

  2. This is the date found in the British Museum catalogue. However, since, as will be outlined later, the events depicted relate to an incident which occurred early in 1831, it would seem more likely that the print relates to the April-June General Election of that year rather than the December General Election of 1832; after all, by that time the incident being satirised was of little relevance.

  3. Bell is also recognisable by his distinctive sideburns, something which is used to identify him in a variety of prints from this period in which he appears (see Fig. 5 for an example).

  4. Consistent with the public declaration of votes, “poll books” were published following an election which not only contained the major speeches during the campaign but also recorded the names of those who voted and their chosen candidate (see Poll Book (1826) for the 1826 by-election)

  5. That said, the campaign was not quite as bad-tempered as during the General Election held later in the same year when Thomas Beaumont accused John Lambton (later to become the first Earl of Durham) of prompting one of Beaumont’s rivals (Lord Howick) during a speech. As minor as this accusation might seem, the argument must have escalated since it resulted, somewhat romantically, in a duel by pistol on the sands beneath Bamborough Castle. Luckily both men’s shots missed their target and, with honour duly preserved, the incident was held to be closed. The British Museum possesses an anonymous print of the event entitled “Election duel” showing the combatants and their seconds engulfed in plumes of gun smoke (George 1952: 595).

  6. The cost of elections was borne by the candidates themselves at this time. It was said that Bell spent £42,000 during the by-election and a further £30,000 at the General Election later in the year, vast sums of money (Bean, 1890: 479). Whether this included the costs of bribes is unclear.

  7. Unlike his Irish contemporary Joseph Myles McDonnell (1796-1872) (Donnelly, 1999).


Bean, W. (1890). The Parliamentary Representation of the Six Northern Counties of England. Charles Henry Barnwell: Hull.

Bewick, T. (1885). Memorial Edition of Thomas Bewick’s Works, Vol. II: A History of British Birds, Vol II: Water Birds. Bernard Quaritch: London.

Bibby-Wilson, K. & Moore, A. (eds.) (2003). Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum: Souvenir Guide.

Butler, R. (2004). The Ducal Pipers of Alnwick castle. Common Stock, 19.2, 30-35. Charlton, G. (1930). The Northumbrian Bag-Pipes. Northumberland Press: Newcastle

upon Tyne.

Donnelly, S. (1999). A piping MP: Joseph Myles McDonnell (1796-1872), Doo Castle,

Ballaghadereen, County Mayo. Seán Reid Society Journal, 1.

Erskine May, T. (1861). The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of

George the Third 1760-1860. Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts: London.

George, M. (1952). Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, Vol. X: 1820-1827. British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings: London.

George, M. (1954). Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, Vol. XI: 1828-1832. British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings: London.

Poll Book (1826). The Northumberland Poll-Book; Containing a List of the Freeholders who Voted at the Contested Elections for the County of Northumberland in the Years 1747-8, 17774, and in Feb. and March, 1826. W. Davison: Alnwick.

Poll Book (1827). The Poll-Book of the Contested Election for the County of Northumberland from June 20th to July 6th, 1826. W. Davison: Alnwick.

Sloan, R. (1996). What’s in a name? Northumbrian Pipers’ Society Magazine, 17, 5-11. Stokoe, J. (1888). The Bonnie Pit Laddie. In The Monthly Chronicle of North Country

Lore and Legend, pages 460-461. Walter Scott: Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Welford, R. (1895). Men of Mark ’twixt Tyne and Tweed, Vol. 1. Walter Scott: London.