Pubs and drink in Victorian elections

Most of us probably think of pubs as informal spaces for leisure and socialising. In the period we research for the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, however, things were rather different. Public houses played a central role in many of the formal routines of public life, providing meeting places and temporary offices for a range of civic and commercial activities. These more formal functions were especially apparent when it came to the business of organising and running election campaigns. The idea of the pub as a suitable venue for electioneering might seem rather alien to us today, but our research shows that they continued to play a significant part in British political life well beyond the 1832 Reform Act.

Unused ‘refreshment’ ticket, 1841

The traditional view of the pub in early Victorian elections, of course, is as providers of drink. Vast quantities of alcohol were often given away in the days leading up to and during the poll, not just to voters but also to the entire community, including women. Paid for by election agents acting on behalf of candidates, drink (and free meals) could be one of the largest single costs in an election. At Cheltenham in 1841, for instance, the publicans’ bills charged to the successful candidate came to £876, over twice the £342 spent on canvassing.

Detail from typical election scene

Drunkenness, as our constituency articles amply testify, was a routine feature of many elections. At Bodmin it became ‘notorious that many electors were brought to the poll in a state of beastly intoxication’. During the 1835 contest even ‘respectable females … were seen lying about the streets inebriated and some of them almost in a state of nudity’ (Cornish Guardian, 23 Jan. 1835). Describing similar ‘debauched’ scenes at Derby, a local paper reported how one voter had ‘retired to the privy to relieve his stomach, but being unable to keep his equilibrium he pitched forth head first into the disgusting receptacle, where he stuck fast by the shoulders in the seat and remained … for several hours’. (He was unable to poll.) Candidates often tried to stop this sort of ‘treating’. But as Lord Mahon, Tory MP for Hertford, complained to Lord Salisbury in 1835, the bills came in regardless, even though ‘I had strictly forbidden and I thought effectively prevented any treating at public houses’.

The ‘George Inn’, the Tory HQ at Bedford, 1835

The problem faced by Mahon and so many other candidates was that pubs and inns provided a lot more than just drink and free meals during a campaign. Along with local hotels they were also used as formal committee rooms and temporary headquarters for the local party agents and their canvassers and willing volunteers. Members of the committee often stayed there for the duration of a campaign. The entire establishment would be booked out. Sometimes even a printing press for squibs and broadsides was installed if no alternative was available nearby. Pre-nomination speeches would be delivered from an upstairs window or balcony, like the one depicted here at the ‘George Inn’ at Bedford. The building would be plastered with ribbons, flags and cockades in the candidate’s colours. If unrest or an election riot broke out, it would be the pub windows that usually suffered first.

Securing ‘inns’ in a good location before a campaign therefore became critical. Retainers were often used and pre-election scrambles by local agents to book the best inns were not uncommon. Because of the supply chains involved, pubs also wielded influence more broadly. Once booked, they would only buy from local suppliers who promised to vote for their man, in what amounted to a collective form of ‘exclusive dealing’.

The decline of the role of the pub (and drink) in Victorian elections is usually associated with the increasing restrictions on ‘treating’ and bribery that came into force during the second half of the 19th century, along with the rise of the temperance movement and its huge influence on politics. But there was also another factor that helped to sideline the pub, which is often overlooked.

As well as the provision of drink, pubs performed another important function at elections. Before the railways were completed, many pubs and coaching inns supplied horses, carriages, stabling and all the other amenities associated with local transport. By booking these inns on behalf of the candidates, local party supporters helped to secure the means of fetching and transporting voters to the poll. ‘Conveyance’, as it was called, could involve anything from bringing in large numbers of electors from distant corners of a county to just sending flys around to collect infirm or elderly voters in a borough. In county elections it could prove decisive. As a Lincolnshire election agent noted in 1837, ‘very few indeed of the smaller voters would go any great distance to give their votes without being conveyed’. With the development of the railways from the 1840s onwards, however, candidates and their committees in many constituencies were able to bring in voters by train, usually far more quickly and cheaply, beginning to break the traditional stranglehold that pubs had exercised over election logistics.

Given the central role of the pub in elections, it is hardly surprising that the efforts made by Parliament to tackle ‘treating’ and bribery in the latter part of the nineteenth century included specific regulations directed at curbing its influence. The 1883 Corrupt Practices Act banned the use of pubs as committee rooms for candidates, although this disappointed the temperance lobby, which had wanted to see pubs closed altogether during elections. It would not be until 1914 and the outbreak of war that licensing laws were introduced to limit the opening hours of pubs more generally.

This entry was posted in Constituencies, Corruption, Elections, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pubs and drink in Victorian elections

  1. Pingback: The shipping and the railway interests: Whitby’s electoral politics, 1832-1868 – The History of Parliament

  2. Pingback: The shipping and the railway interests: Whitby’s electoral politics, 1832-1868 | The Victorian Commons

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