From the Darlington & Stockton Times of February 18, 1871

THERE was a remarkable by-election at Ripon 150 years ago this week after the sitting Liberal MP, Lord John Hay, had resigned so that he could go and captain an ironclad warship, HMS Hotspur.

The Liberals parachuted in another colonial military man Sir Henry Knight Storks, the former Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands and Governor of Malta and Jamaica. He, though, was a controversial candidate, particularly among women.

“Lecturers and tract distributors from the Society for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts are actively at work in opposition to Sir H Storks,” said the D&S Times, “and on Monday night a meeting, exclusively of women, was held, and addresses were delivered by three ladies from garrison towns denouncing those Acts.”

The contagious diseases in question were sexually transmitted ones, and the Acts were aimed at the prostitutes who clustered around military bases and ports. Women suspected of prostitution – which was not illegal – could be carted off, forcibly examined and sentenced to up to a year in a “lock hospital” if they were found to have a venereal disease.

The male soldiers and sailors who were passing on the contagion were allowed to carry on unaffected even though they were infected.

Feminists deeply abhorred the unfairness and, led by Josephine Butler who must have spoken at those Ripon women-only meetings, had the temerity to talk about sex in public – this made some male moralists bristle with even deeper fury.

Josephine Butler, who led the campaign against Sir Henry Knight Storks and his ilk

Josephine Butler, who led the campaign against Sir Henry Knight Storks and his ilk

Sir Henry wanted the Contagious Diseases Acts extended, so that women could be sentenced to longer in lock hospitals and so that soldier’s wives could also be incarcerated if they were found to be infected.

Despite the women’s opposition, Storks was elected by 522 votes to the 302 polled by his Conservative rival, Mr GA Cayley, although the count ended in unseemly scenes.

“Some of the supporters of the Conservative candidate began what they no doubt considered practical joking,” said the D&S, “by throwing rabbit skins at Sir H Storks and his supporters. Some confusion followed, and the friends of Mr Cayley then began stone-throwing at the Liberal side of the hustings, Sir H Storks and some of his committee being struck with the missiles, but fortunately not seriously injured.

“The friends of the successful candidate retaliated by throwing missiles at Mr Cayley and his supporters, and a serious riot appeared imminent.

“A large body of police was among the crowd and seized some of the prominent offenders, but the officers were in turn set upon and roughly handled.

“When the mayor made his appearance, Sir H Storks and Mr Cayley renewed their exhortations to the crowd to cease stone-throwing, and at length his Worship was able to declare that Sir H Storks was duly elected.”

Perish the thought that any woman would have been involved in the unacceptable stone-throwing or rabbit-tossing, but the female campaigners did have the last laugh: Storks did not contest the seat in the 1874 election, largely because of their opposition to him.