The Honourable Craven Berkeley

The Honourable Craven Berkeley, Cheltenham’s first – and first Liberal – MP. Portrait reproduced by kind permission of the Wilson Art Gallery & Museum.

Whig/Liberal

1832-1847, 1848, 1852-55

Cheltenham’s first MP could politely be called a bit of a character.  The eleventh (or perhaps twelfth) child of the high-living Fifth Earl of Berkeley and a former maidservant Mary Cole, Craven reached the rank of captain in the Life Guards and was brother to four other Gloucestershire MPs.  In 1836 he was accused of guarding the door of a London bookshop alongside a hired heavy while his brother Grantley horsewhipped the Tory proprietor for publishing a venomous review of his novel Berkeley Castle which was particularly insulting about their mother’s background. Craven also fought a duel against the Tory MP for Chippenham but, mercifully, both missed twice.

Craven was first elected as MP for Cheltenham unopposed after the town won its own parliamentary representative for the first time in the Great Reform Act of 1832.  He was re-elected in 1835 against token opposition from a Radical candidate.  His election campaigns were boisterous affairs involving entertainment, marching bands decked out in his orange and green colours and several small riots.

Craven repeatedly crossed swords with ‘the Pope of Cheltenham’, the formidable evangelical Anglican and arch-Tory Francis Close. Craven certainly didn’t share Close’s disapproval of racing, theatre and drink, especially on the Sabbath, and accused him of slander after Close called him ‘an atheist, an infidel and a scoffer at religion’.  Close must have felt vindicated when Craven opposed Sunday trading restrictions and proposed an amendment to Sunday pub opening hours which would have removed the closing times! A passionate liberal, Craven couched these Commons contributions in terms of solidarity with working people and was a consistent supporter of extending the vote to more of the population.  Perhaps he always had his own mother’s modest origins in the back of his mind.

He defeated serious Tory opponents in 1837 and 1841 but was defeated by Sir Willoughby Jones in 1847 – the only Tory ever to beat him at the polls.  Craven had recently drawn attention to the mortality rate in Cheltenham during a parliamentary debate on public health – potentially devastating for the spa town’s tourist trade – but a bigger issue on the 1847 hustings in Cheltenham seems to have been his determined opposition to the Seduction and Prostitution Suppression Bill.  This was guaranteed to further incense religious opinion in the town but Craven believed it to be “a bill for the grinding down of the women of the industrious classes” which “would only increase the evil which it was intended to remedy”. He had personally used every trick in the procedural book to torpedo its parliamentary progress.

Re-elected again in 1848 after Jones was unseated on petition for bribing and treating, Craven was promptly unseated himself for the same reason. Barred for one parliament, he was re-elected for the last time in 1852.

One of his last parliamentary interventions in 1855 was to question the orders given at the disastrous charge of the light brigade during the Crimean War. He died in Carlsbad in Germany in 1855, still an MP but aged just 50.

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The generous Berkeley Banquet held at the Pittville Pump Room in May 1841 to celebrate Craven’s fourth consecutive election.  The banners read ‘Berkeley – No Corn Laws’, ‘Civil and Religious Liberty’, ‘Berkeley and the Ballot’ and (ironically) ‘Berkeley and the Liberty of the Press’