This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1872 Ballot Act, which introduced secret voting at general elections in the UK. In this extended blog, our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, explores the role of Harriet Grote (1792-1878) in the popular and parliamentary campaign for the ballot during the 1830s.
Before 1872 voting at general elections in the UK was a public act. If you were fortunate enough to be enfranchised (the UK had a limited and locally variable male suffrage), your vote at the polling booth was public knowledge. It was available for your neighbours, landlords and employers to view in perpetuity, often via easily available published pollbooks.
British radical politicians had been calling for the introduction of secret voting at general elections – or ‘the ballot’ as it was generally referred to at the time – since the 1790s. While their theories varied, most radicals reasoned that secret voting would shift the balance of power in the electoral system from the corrupt aristocracy to the people, by ending voter intimidation and electoral bribery, and reducing exorbitant election costs.
In the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act, the ballot became a central demand of radicals and reformers both inside and outside Parliament. It was one of the major issues on the hustings at the 1832, 1835 and 1837 elections, and from 1833 MPs voted almost annually on whether to implement the measure. The 1830s represented a high point for the ballot as a popular political cause, and by 1839 221 MPs were willing to support its introduction.
During the 1830s the public leader of the ballot campaign was the MP for London, George Grote (1794-1871). Behind the scenes, however, it was his wife, Harriet (1792-1878), who organised much of the campaign. In my previous blogs I’ve discussed how Harriet rallied support among MPs at Westminster for George’s annual ballot motions, her attempts to establish a radical party at Westminster after the 1835 election, and her increasing exasperation with radical parliamentary tactics by 1836.
As the 1837 parliamentary session approached, Harriet and George sought to galvanise radical forces at Westminster and in the country by trying to turn talk and theory about the ballot into a realistic prospect. While MPs had voted on parliamentary motions for the ballot in 1833, 1835 and 1836, the fine detail of what they had been voting for had been unclear. If MPs approved of the ballot, what would a Ballot Act look like, and how would secret voting work in practice?
Harriet took to solving both issues and publicising their solutions ahead of a planned parliamentary debate and vote on the ballot in February 1837. The first issue at hand was the creation of draft legislation. To do this she enlisted her friend, the barrister and reformer, Sutton Sharpe (1797-1843). In February he mocked up a draft ballot bill with Harriet, which she published in the Spectator.
The response to the bill was mixed. She wrote to Sharpe exclaiming:
I am almost as fagged as George himself, with helping him in his many tasks. I have sundry letters to reply to from new correspondents who have let fly at him since the apparition of “the [Ballot] bill” in last Sunday’s Spectator.
One of the key discussion points was: what would an actual ballot box look like and how would it work? The easy option – and Sharpe’s preferred solution – was a box that voters slipped voting cards into – similar to that in use in the UK today. For Harriet though and many others (including the ballot’s opponents) a simple box left too much room for fraud from election officials and voters.
As a result, Harriet advocated a more complex machine that required voters to punch holes in preloaded cards, and that allowed for illiterate and blind electors to vote with the verbal support of an election officer in a different room – but also for that election officer to monitor the process of the voting card entering the ballot box.
A week after the publication of their ballot bill, Harriet published plans in the Spectator of their proposed ballot box, which she and George had developed with a Hertford carpenter, William Thomas.
Once a physical model was built, Harriet then sought endorsements from high profile public figures, including her close friend, the mathematician, inventor and ‘father of the computer’, Charles Babbage (1791-1871). She wrote to Babbage in April 1837:
I have been desirous of sending to your house the model of the balloting frame which we have adopted … You can show it to your friends who take an interest in the subject. It has been exhibited at the Reform Club.
Babbage was evidently enamoured with the model, forcing Harriet to wrest it from his possession in June, when she wrote to him ‘permit me to ask for the balloting case, per chariot herewith’.
With their models and bill in hand, parliamentary support for the ballot increased to 160 MPs in February 1837. The Grotes’ campaign was then given further impetus by the 1837 general election, which was prompted by the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria. The results were dispiriting for radicals and reformers as Conservative candidates won over 300 Commons seats. Harriet and many radicals across the country blamed the rise in Conservative fortunes on ‘venality and corruption in the old boroughs, and intimidation in the counties’. These were symptoms that Harriet and George were sure the ballot would cure.
To ensure that MPs continued to feel public pressure to support the ballot, Harriet and George paid for around 40 of their model ballot boxes, which they distributed to leading radicals and reformers across the country by November 1837. Their hope was that the boxes would be displayed at public meetings, which would then petition Parliament in favour of the ballot.
Demand for the model ballot boxes quickly caught on. Harriet wrote to her ally, the veteran radical, Francis Place, asking:
Could you let me have that ballot box again now you have shewn it to most of your people? I really can’t get them back from country towns, fast enough to circulate, and are hard up for one to go to Worcester by special request from the radical mayor of that town Mr. [George] Allies and his co-rads.
Requests for ballot boxes, and levels of incoming correspondence, were so high by December 1837 that the Grotes set up a ‘London Ballot Union’ to co-ordinate their public campaign. In doing so they sought to replicate the strategies of the parliamentary reform and anti-slavery movements of the early 1830s.
Harriet wasn’t the only woman helping to co-ordinate the campaign either. In December 1837 she wrote to Mary Gaskell, the ‘formidable’ wife of the former MP for Wakefield, Daniel Gaskell:
If you will return Mr Oldham’s model (as he seems ravenous for it), you can have one for yourself now, by writing to the secretary to our new Ballot Union … We have now ceased to be the issuers of models, being, to tell you the truth, somewhat weary of furnishing them to so many applications gratis. We have fixed it upon Mr. [William] Thomas, who supplies them at the cost price, 24s. …. We have had shoals of letters expressive of delight with, and approbation of, the contrivance; and many who wished for secrecy yet mistrusted its being attained, have become hearty balloteers since “the box” was exhibited to them.
The campaigning worked and Parliament received 365 petitions signed by 181,506 persons from across the country during the 1837-8 session. It even inspired Cleave’s Penny Gazette to publish an illustrated depiction of a ballot box in operation (see below). Despite a decline in the number of radical and reformer MPs since the 1837 election (many of whom were beginning to call themselves ‘Liberals’), the number of MPs willing to support Grote’s annual ballot motion in February 1838 increased to 203 (from 160 the previous year).
Constituency pressure on non-Conservative MPs then became so much that by the following year the Whig Melbourne government was forced to declare the ballot an open issue. This meant that when Grote held his annual ballot vote in June 1839, 221 MPs supported his motion, 18 of whom were either in the Whig cabinet or in lesser government positions.
However, while on paper the June 1839 vote appears to be a high point in the ballot campaign, in private Harriet and George had accepted it had come to an end. While the ballot had been the popular issue in town meetings across the country in the winter of 1837-8, it was no match for the more visceral and emotive demands of the People’s Charter (1838), the Anti-Corn Law League (est. 1838), and the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (est. 1839).
All was not well among Parliament’s dwindling band of radicals either, who had irreparably split over how to respond to the rebellions of 1837-1838 in Canada and the government’s proposed suspension of the Jamaican constitution in 1839. George confessed in private to only introducing the June 1839 ballot motion in order that members could ‘satisfy their constituents’. And Harriet was dismayed at the response at Westminster:
the flatness of debate itself was incontestable, insomuch that scarcely a soul called to say a word to me respecting it; a melancholy contrast with previous occasions, when the whole corps of Radicals were wont to come and pour out their congratulations.
For Harriet and George, the 1839 ballot motion marked the beginning of the end of their parliamentary aspirations. It was also the end, at least temporarily, for the prospects of the ballot. It would be another two decades before Parliament exhibited such high levels of support for allowing electors to vote in secret.
We will be marking the 150th anniversary of the Ballot Act with further blogs and events later this year. Follow our blog or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons to receive future updates on those.
S. Richardson, ‘A Regular Politician in Breeches: The Life and Work of Harriet Lewin Grote’, in K. Demetrious (ed.), Brill’s Companion to George Grote and the Classical Tradition (2014)
B. Kinzer, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics (1982)
J. Hamburger, ‘Grote [née Lewin], Harriet (1792-1878)’, Oxf. DNB, www.oxforddnb.com
Lady Eastlake, Mrs Grote: A Sketch (1880)
H. Grote, Collected Papers: In Prose and Verse 1842-1862 (1862)
H. Grote (ed.), Posthumous Papers: Comprising Selections from Familiar Correspondence (1874)
M. L. Clarke, George Grote: A Biography (1962)