Democracy in Devon: exhibition at the Devon Heritage Centre

Welcome to the second of our guest blogs, which coincides with an exhibition running at the Devon Heritage Centre. Organised by Dr. David Thackeray, of the University of Exeter, the exhibition demonstrates the vitality of popular participation in nineteenth century elections.

Democracy in Devon, by David Thackeray

An exhibition currently being staged at the Devon Heritage Centre gives an insight into the changing culture of electoral politics in the county over the last 200 years. The world of Victorian elections is brought to life through the use of posters, leaflets and poll books. In this largely rural county, at least, the old traditions of the unreformed period proved surprisingly durable after 1832.

Castle Yard, Exeter at the 1820 election

Castle Yard, Exeter at the 1820 election

In this satirical print produced in 1820, the corruption of the county’s electoral politics is vividly presented, with voters depicted as little more than slaves to the interests of the church and leading landowners. Devon was an unwieldy constituency, covering 398 parishes, with over 7,000 voters, before it was split into northern and southern divisions in 1832. At the centre of this scene from 1820 is the ‘polling shop’, Exeter’s Castle Yard, where a reluctant electorate is being marched to the poll. Ironically, Exeter Castle was also an important symbolic venue for reformers. As the seat of the county’s Quarter Sessions it provided a venue where the public could voice complaints about the conduct of magistrates.

How much changed in the county after the reforms of 1832? Certainly elections remained the preserve of an elite, with less than three percent of Devon residents holding the parliamentary vote during the 1832-67 period. Political posters from the time, such as this ‘Shakespere Illustrated’ series (below) from the Exeter election of 1868, which depicts local political figures as characters in the great playwright’s most famous works, assumed that the electorate was well-educated and closely engaged with the local contest.

Election poster from Exeter, 1868

Election poster from Exeter, 1868

Moreover, candidates continued to rely heavily on volunteer activists, often members of the clergy or local landowners. The Church’s influence remained strong, particularly around the cathedral city of Exeter. The surprisingly large number of poll books which survive in the papers of local notables in the Devon Heritage Centre’s collections indicate the ongoing concerns that political leaders had with maintaining the power of traditional ‘influences’ in election contests.

The public ritual of the hustings continued to be vital to the culture of elections after the 1832 Reform Act, providing an opportunity for participation (albeit of often transient influence) by the vast majority of the electorate who remained unenfranchised. Plymouth hosted packed hustings meetings in the newly formed constituency of South Devon. The nominations in the constituency drew audiences estimated at 10,000 by some sources. In a largely rural region elections were times for communal entertainment and spectacle. The ceremonial chairing of candidates was so popular that in 1818 all three candidates were carried above the crowd to the poll. This tradition lived on in South Devon where at a by-election in 1849 the victorious MP, Sir Ralph Lopes, engaged in a triumphal procession in full military uniform on horseback. This painting (below) of a torchlight procession past Exeter’s Guildhall in 1880 gives some sense of the drama and excitement of election night during the Victorian era, where women and children are prominent amongst the throng of onlookers.

Exeter Guildhall, election night 1880

Exeter Guildhall, election night 1880

While election petitions remained rare in Devon after 1868, with the exceptions of Plymouth in 1880 (where the election result was declared void), and unsuccessful petitions at Barnstaple (1874) and Exeter (1910), accusations of low-level corruption and ‘treating’ by candidates remained a persistent theme in the county’s electioneering into the early twentieth century. One leaflet, attributed to the wife of the Liberal candidate for Mid-Devon in January 1910, even claimed that the Conservatives relied ‘largely on beer and gifts to win voters’. Exploring the visual world of politics, which is often well documented in the holdings of local records centres, can provide us with valuable and often surprising insights into the public culture of Victorian elections.

David Thackeray is a Lecturer at the University of Exeter, where he teaches a Special Subject on Electoral Politics in Modern Britain. The exhibition runs through May at the Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter and was put together with the support of Charlotte Anderson, Olivia Cottrell, Rosie George, Matt Kelsall, Anjali Mukhi and Anna Wilkinson.

Further reading

  • Jon Lawrence, Electing Our Masters: the hustings in British politics from Hogarth to Blair (2009)
  • Frank O’Gorman, ‘Campaign rituals and ceremonies: the social meanings of elections in England, 1780-1860’, Past and Present, 135 (1992), 79-115
  • James Vernon, Politics and the people: a study in English political culture, c.1815-1867 (1993)
  • History of Parliament articles from the 1820-32 volumes on elections in Devon and Exeter.
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4 Responses to Democracy in Devon: exhibition at the Devon Heritage Centre

  1. Pingback: Charting the changing culture of modern elections | The History of Parliament

  2. Pingback: Charting the changing culture of modern elections in Devon | GW4 Modern British Politics and Political History

  3. Pingback: ‘The power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’: parliamentary reform and its impact on Exeter, 1820-1868 – The History of Parliament

  4. Pingback: ‘The power of returning our members will henceforth be in our own hands’: parliamentary reform and its impact on Exeter, 1820-1868 | The Victorian Commons

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