Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at The Whitaker

Reform Flasks The Whitaker Museum

What’s your MP like?

Whatever your thoughts the fact is that if you are over 18 and a UK citizen then you are likely to be entitled to vote at the next election. Two hundred years ago this would not have been the case.

In the early 1800’s Parliament was decidedly unrepresentative of the population. The ‘will of the people’ was decided by a small number of voters. They were all men and of means. 

The term Rotten or Pocket Borough was applied to an area where just a handful of voters could decide who was the elected MP for that constituency. In the worst cases elections were decided by as few as seven men. Nearby Clitheroe had two MPs though only thirty six men were entitled to vote. There was no specific MP for Rossendale as most of Lancashire was a single constituency, even Manchester didn’t have an MP.

Sir Joseph Porter: I grew so rich that I was sent by a pocket borough into Parliament. I always voted at my party’s call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

Chorus: And he never thought of thinking for himself at all.

Sir Joseph: I thought so little, they rewarded me by making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
— HMS Pinafore by Gilbert & Sullivan
Reform Flasks The Whitaker Museum

Everyone who voted had to declare their nomination, there was no secret ballot. There was no official electoral roll either, those entitled to vote were drawn from tax lists. The opportunity for the land owning prospective MP to apply pressure to tenant voters was obvious.

Fearful of a revolution similar to that in France, something brought sharply into focus by the Peterloo events of 1819, Parliament finally produced The Representation of the People Act 1832 (commonly ‘the Reform Act 1832’). The previous year there had been riots in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter and Bristol.

The Reform Act introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales such as new industrial revolution towns and cities getting MPs or the first time and increasing the number of voters to of one out of six adult males (population 14 million). 

Though far from being truly representative of the population it is rightly considered to be one of the major foundations of our current democracy.

So, how do people commemorate such a ground shifting event? 

Well, in part, they do it with alcohol. More specifically alcohol drunk from a stoneware flagon known as a Reform Flask.

Stoneware bottles have been made in what is now Germany since the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century the same type of bottles were being mass-produced in London and production spread, particularly to the Midlands, by the 18thcentury. The small versions were pretty much indestructible by ordinary means and because of this very many survive.   

Reform flasks were produced in very large numbers from the mid-1830’s to the early 1850’s, a fairly short period of time. The flasks often depict real life characters involved in the politics of the day but also can be found commemorating the coronation of Queen Victoria (technically an Accession rather than Reform Flask but of the same type) and other notable events.

Reform Flasks the Whitaker Museum
Reform Flask Whitaker Museum
Reform Flasks Whitaker Museum

Popular figures represented included King William IV (the monarch at the time of the Reform Act) and a generic character known as Old Tom who is a reference not to a particular person but to the style of gin, somewhere between a Dry Gin and Dutch Gin/Jenever. Old Tom was supposedly named after the signs used to promote the sale of illicit gin which were in the shape of a Black Cat and from which your gin was surreptitiously served.

They are good examples of the novelty promotional item that is still heavily relied upon by manufacturers today and we have a very good selection for your viewing pleasure here at the Whitaker.


Mick Stephens

Twitter – @brownbowlerhat

Independent Antiques Dealer & Valuer / Whitaker Museum Collections Consultant