Today we go to the polls to vote in European and local elections. Voting was a very different experience at the turn of the 18th century…
One of the most prolific periods for elections in Britain occurred long before universal suffrage. After the reforms of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-89, parliament passed the Triennial Act, stating that parliament must meet annually and elections be held every three years. This, combined with serious political issues – war on the continent, religious differences between high church Tories and pro-dissent Whigs (see our Explore page for more), and the rival interest of ‘court’ and ‘country’ – led to fierce political battles in what has become known as the ‘rage of party’. Elections during the period 1690-1715 occurred on average every two and a half years, unique in British history.
The electoral system was of course very different to that of today. Despite the high number of general elections they were not always contested. In many counties, for example in Staffordshire, candidates were agreed among the social elite at an informal county meeting and the voters rarely went to poll. Historians have found it impossible to provide a definitive estimate of the size of the electorate, especially as the voting qualification was very different between county and borough seats, could be very different between different borough seats, and in both cases how many people met the eligibility criteria is deeply uncertain. Instead they discuss a ‘voterate’, the number who actively engaged in the process. In the counties, Yorkshire had the highest ‘voterate’ (8,000 from a possible electorate of 18,000). Over the period this often grew, not always using honest means. During the 1710 election in Rutland both sides created new freeholders and thus new voters:
Whig interests had created over 100 freeholders in the course of the previous year, to offset which Nottingham himself had made more than 300 in the week immediately preceding the election…So staggered were the Whigs when these and many ‘true freeholders’ began pouring into Oakham to poll…that they readily accepted Nottingham’s proposal to discount all new freeholders, on both sides.
At the other edge of the spectrum, the borough of Buckingham had only thirteen voters. This made for an exciting contest in December 1705 when the two candidates (James Tyrell and Browne Willis) polled six votes each:
the mob who were concerned to have a representative for the town made diligent inquiry after the 13th person, who was missing, and at length found that he was in prison.
The thirteenth voter was led out from prison, and cast the deciding vote for Willis.
In some ways, campaigning was similar to today. Candidates would canvass for votes by sending circular letters (hand-written to the most important voters, printed copies would suffice for those less important) and used agents to gather support. Some practices, however, were dubious at the time and would certainly not be allowed today, such as ‘treating’. For example, in Bedfordshire, 1695, Lord Edward Russell:
Spent over £125 on his election…paying for entertainments, the delivery of hogsheads of ale and cases of tobacco to the freeholders in their various hundreds, the transportation of voters from Woburn, and even a small dole in charity to the poor in the parishes of Bedford itself.
In some constituencies outright bribery (though definitely illegal) was commonplace. For example, in the borough of Bramber, Sussex the going rate was £20 for each of the 32 electors.
Election day itself had plenty of theatre. Candidates might arrive with supporters on horseback (at Westmoreland in 1702 over 900 horsemen turned out). Even where the electorate was small the wider community of non-electors was often involved (and enjoyed the entertainments!). In Northamptonshire in 1701 crowds of around 10,000 came out in support of the Tory candidates, but only 3,000 or so actually cast votes. On occasion women could also be involved, ‘Captain Kate’ in Coventry addressed Tory crowds with the cry ‘now boys, or never, for the Church’. Violence was also a possibility, particularly during the bitter 1710 campaign (for more, see our ‘1710 Parliament’ article). Swift wrote that during the election poll in Covent Garden (for the borough of Westminster) ‘it rained blows right and left’. In Queenborough, Kent a man was beaten to death in the 1705 election, and there were even duels over election results. Sir Henry Hobart,
Had been enraged upon hearing after his election defeat…that a neighbouring Tory squire, Oliver Le Neve… had been ‘spreading a report that he was a coward…by which ’tis said he lost his election for the county’. He immediately issued a challenge, and although Le Neve, who was an innocuous character…denied the accusation, Hobart would not accept an apology and pressed the matter to a fight. But the duel, on Cawston Heath on 20 Aug. 1698, resulted in Hobart himself being mortally wounded.
Today’s election will probably pass with considerably less drama (and certainly less free alcohol!) but it will be a poll much more acceptable to modern standards.