The Cope Handbills are a wonderfully rich collection of over three hundred items, over two large volumes, of political flyers, public notices, newspaper reports and other printed ephemera produced predominantly in Southampton. They cover a sixty year period, from the last quarter of the eighteenth century into the early years of the nineteenth.
Beginning with a newspaper report of November 1776 from the Hampshire Chronicle, relating the victory of King George III’s troops at New York, the items continue through to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars until the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832, with a smaller number of items from the later years of the nineteenth century also.
The Handbills form part of the wider Cope Collection cared for by the Special Collections team at the Hartley Library. The Rev Sir William Cope (1811-92), twelfth Baronet, of Bramshill, Hampshire served in the Rifle Brigade before purchasing his discharge in 1839 to become ordained as a priest. He was a minor canon of Westminster Abbey from 1842 until 1852 and chaplain of Westminster Hospital from 1843 to 1851. In 1851 he succeeded to the baronetcy, and at Bramshill developed an interest in the local area, writing on matters of local interest, e.g. A Glossary of Hampshire Words and Phrases (1883) and establishing his ‘Hampshire Collection’. Cope died in 1892, having bequeathed the collection to the Hartley Institution, a forerunner of the University of Southampton. The handbills shine a light onto the momentous political and social developments of a world that was changing rapidly for Southampton’s inhabitants, bringing out the contrasting worldviews which informed the intellectual debates and shaped the larger developments that defined the era.
The increasing power of the state is evident in the notices on the new income tax, first introduced in 1799 (amidst ferocious opposition from some quarters), by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger as a temporary measure to fund the war with France; the Income Tax was the first tax in British history to be levied directly on people’s earnings. The War with France itself features prominently in the hand bills, with impassioned polemics both in favor of (Item 66, Vol. 1) and in opposition to (Item 60, Vol. 1) the prosecution of the war:
Inside the volumes we find numerous campaign flyers which reveal the maneuverings and diatribes of local politicians on issues ranging from Catholic emancipation to slavery; these underscore how politics was becoming an increasingly visible concern for Sotonians. At the beginning of the era the political life of the town was largely dominated by the Corporation of Southampton, which vacillated between Tory and Whig influences and had the power to sway general elections and send MPs of its choosing to Westminster. MPs were usually country gentlemen from neighbouring counties and of recent commercial or professional success. It was also common, from the 1740s onwards, for MPs to hold West Indian connections or property; slavery becoming a burning issue for some Sotonians in the early 19th century. A petition favouring moderate reform of the slaves’ conditions to prepare them for ultimate emancipation was signed by 1,353 residents of Southampton and presented to Parliament in 1828. A few years earlier in January 1824 a petition to Parliament was requisitioned by William Chamberlayne MP, calling for the abolition of slavery altogether. It was widely supported in nonconformist circles but was strongly opposed by some Anglicans:
But the handbills also allow us a glimpse into the more mundane realities of the everyday cultural lives of Sotonians. Alongside the items covering the more serious political and social issues of the day we find flyers for a range of entertainments including fencing demonstrations, scientific and educational lectures, musical performances and exhibitions of a ‘celebrated Irish Giant’ and a lady only thirty inches in stature of ‘lively wit and agreeable conversation’. We also see commercial advertisements for all manner of goods and services from fashionable dresses and hats to book-sales, lotteries, coach travel services to London and Bristol as well as dubious medicinal cures and treatments, including some for electrical therapy and ‘earth-bathing’:
Intermixed with all these items we find: satirical cartoons; religious and moral tracts; notices of local voluntary militias and military procedures and rules; the bulletins of various reading, archery and dining clubs and public notices proscribing fireworks, rioting and the disruption of church services, as well as notices on everything from public improvements to bank robberies and poor relief.
Taken together, the handbills allow us to build a picture of how the lives of Sotonians changed between 1770 and 1830. By the time of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which was celebrated in Southampton by a festival (Item 141 – Vol. 1) and which had been championed by the Whig faction in Parliament, the era of social and political reform had truly come of age. In 1835 the Whigs also passed the Municipal Reform Act; this broke the power of many town corporations, including Southampton’s, which were deemed undemocratic, inept and unresponsive to the needs of the rapidly changing urban communities they served. Southampton’s corporation, whilst not as dire as those of other English towns, was nonetheless found by the government’s commission of enquiry to be inadequate: “…it is evident that the whole power of the Corporation is in the hands of a few persons…” The Radical William Lankester, although admitting no malpractice on the part of the Southampton Corporation, did complain that the Corporation was apathetic towards improvement, citing a lack of the following: “a new jail should have been built, or a hospital endowed, or schools established, or an efficient police set up, or marshes and ditches drained.”
The decline of the town corporation’s influence was concomitant with the rise of movements and new organisations in Southampton which sought to improve and reform almost everything before them. We see this very clearly in the items establishing new gas lighting for the town (Item 138, Vol. 1); new educational initiatives to improve the lot of the poor in the rapidly expanding suburb of St. Mary’s (Item 143, Vol. 1) and local petitions for the reform of capital punishment (Item 130, Vol. 1).
Simultaneous with this new drive for social and political reform, which transformed the intellectual and moral landscape of the country, we see the continuing rise of commerce, industry and the new forms of transportation which were rapidly altering the physical landscape of the town. This is reflected in handbills concerning everything from the trade in wine and ales (Item 2 Vol. 2), the malpractice of butchers at Lymington (Item 25, Vol. 1) to plans for a new canal linking Southampton to Salisbury (Item 22, Vol. 1) and the jubilant newspaper reports on the arrival in Southampton of Queen Victoria via the new railway in 1843 (Item 108, Vol. 2).
The individual handbills are listed in PDF files which can be downloaded from the Cope Collection LibGuide at:
 A History of Southampton 1700-1914, Vol. 1: An Oligarchy in Decline by A. Temple Patterson, Southampton University Press, 1966, pp. 176-77