In modern politics the month of October is usually dominated by coverage of the major party conferences. In Victorian times, it was the stand-off between the political parties in the voter registration courts, famously immortalised by Peel’s call to ‘register, register, register’, that captured the attention of the nation’s press every October. This annual legal battle between the parties to enlist as many of their supporters as possible, and disqualify as many of their known opponents from the rolls, was a crucial component of the Victorian political system. It kept local party activists and election agents on their toes in the lulls between general elections, and in some constituencies ensured that when an election was held, the result was a foregone conclusion, since one party had gained a clear majority on the registers.
Party registration battles were possible because of the peculiar nature of the Victorian polling and registration system. Before 1872 there was no secrecy attached to voting – the way every elector polled was public knowledge and their party preference at the last election widely known. Coupled with this, only a minority of the (male) population qualified for the various franchises then on offer. As well as having to meet all sorts of stringent property and residence requirements, voters had to have settled their local rates on time and to have paid a one shilling registration fee. They also needed to be able to prove their entitlement before a revising barrister if any objection was raised against their name, coming to the registration court armed with all the necessary documents.
Significantly, objections could be raised by any elector. This process was supposed to keep the registers ‘pure’ and remove all those who were not fully qualified. Assisted by local solicitors, however, party activists soon began using the system to object to as many of their political opponents as possible, in the hope of knocking them off the registers. The number of these partisan objections could often reach into the thousands. In the West Riding, for instance, 7,000 (two-fifths of the electorate) were objected to by the parties at the 1835 revision. Local parties also helped to defend the qualifications of all their known supporters and tried to enlist as many new recruits as possible, on occasion even assisting with their rate payments. Those unlucky enough to be a ‘floating voter’ could find themselves objected to by both parties and forced into an arduous legal battle over their voting entitlement.
The constituency articles being written for the 1832-68 project bear ample testimony to the importance of the annual registration process, both for party performance and individual voters. (For details of how to access our draft articles, click here.) The courts themselves were sometimes crowded to suffocation, with the cases of local personalities providing intense drama for the assembled inhabitants. Exposure of sloppy work by the local officials responsible for drafting the initial lists added another attraction. Passions often ran high and it was not uncommon for proceedings to become extremely noisy, with hooting from the galleries and even the occasional missile. Revising barristers were not above playing to the crowd either. When a Bedford hairdresser was removed from the register after moving to a cheaper house in 1838, for instance, he was ordered to be ‘shaved off the poll (laughter)’.
October was therefore the month in which a rather different kind of intense partisan activity took place during the Victorian era, but one which like the party conferences of today, could play a significant role in determining electoral fortunes.
P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work: local politics and national parties, 1832-41 (2011)
J. Prest, Politics in the Age of Cobden (1972)
J.A. Thomas, ‘The system of registration and the development of party organisation, 1832-70), History, xxxv (1950), 81-98.
C. Seymour, Electoral reform in England and Wales: the development and operation of the parliamentary franchise (1915)