As voters across the country head to the polls this month, we thought it was an ideal opportunity to look back at some of the research on 19th century elections we have featured in our blogs over the past few years. These draw on our work for the History of Parliament’s House of Commons, 1832-68 project, which is producing biographical profiles of the 2,591 MPs who sat between the first and second Reform Acts and accounts of the 401 constituencies in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales across the nine general elections which took place during this period. You can find more details about our project here.
The system under which electors cast their votes between 1832 and 1868 was very different in many ways from the modern British electoral system. As our editor, Philip Salmon, explains in this post, before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, voters cast their votes in public rather than in private. With a limited electorate (around one-fifth of the adult male population), a key argument for open voting was that it enabled non-electors to scrutinise the votes of those entrusted with the franchise. As one candidate put it in 1841,
“The vote is public property, the elector is only a trustee, and you the non-electors have the right to scrutinise and to direct the exercise of the voter’s function”.
Before the 1872 Ballot Act, the candidates for each constituency were proposed and seconded at the nomination, which usually took place on a hustings platform erected temporarily for that purpose. Electors and non-electors, both male and female, attended the hustings and other election events such as the declaration of the poll. The participation of women in elections, despite their formal exclusion from the franchise, has featured in several of our blogs. This post on elections at Peterborough – where the voters had to endure five contests in the space of seven years – looked at George Whalley’s tactic of targeting the wives, sisters and daughters of electors who, it was hoped, would persuade their male relatives to vote for him. At Lyme Regis, meanwhile, the Liberal MP, William Pinney, included the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning among his supporters.
Elections were often lively events, and the vivid descriptions of electioneering in the fictional borough of Eatanswill in the Pickwick Papers were inspired by Charles Dickens’s experiences of reporting on contemporary elections, including the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election. He complained on polling day that:
“the noise and confusion here … is so great that my head is splitting … the voters … are drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is.”
The corruption of the 19th century electoral system has been a recurrent theme in our blogs, with over 400 election petitions alleging bribery, treating and other election misdemeanours heard by election committees in the Commons between 1832 and 1868. Our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, considered the amount of parliamentary time and effort which this problem consumed in this post. The 1865 election at Totnes not only saw one candidate challenge the other to a duel, but also prompted an election inquiry which found that bribes of up to £200 had been offered. Another MP who spent excessively to secure his return was the shipbuilder Charles Mare, elected for Plymouth in 1852, unseated for bribery in 1853 and declared bankrupt – for the first of four times – in 1855. Totnes and Plymouth also featured in this analysis of politics in Devon and Cornwall from our research fellow Martin Spychal.
One of the aspects of the 19th century electoral system which is often overlooked is that, prior to 1885, the majority of constituencies – counties and boroughs – elected two members. With two votes each, voters could choose to support two candidates from the same party (a straight vote), share their votes between candidates from different parties (a split vote) or cast just one vote (a plump). The impact of this on voting behaviour is analysed in this blog on the mathematics of Victorian representation. Another feature of 19th century elections which has now disappeared is the existence of university seats. The rationale for the creation of the University of London seat in 1867 is explored here.
Before voters even got as far as the poll, a show of hands would be taken at the hustings to gauge the level of support for the rival candidates. Non-electors as well electors took part in this ritual, and it was therefore not unusual for the outcome of the poll to differ significantly from the result of the show of hands. More unusual, however, were cases where popular candidates at the show of hands subsequently polled no votes at all, a paradox discussed by our research fellow Stephen Ball. Among the other quirky election cases we have uncovered in our research are the Wakefield election where the victorious MP was unseated because he was technically still the returning officer at the time of his election, and the Huntingdonshire election where two candidates polled exactly the same number of votes. Both were declared elected, but after a scrutiny of the poll, one of them had his name expunged from the parliamentary record.
For more on the theme of 19th century elections, see https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/category/elections/