Reporting back from the first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the year…
Our seminar returned for 2015 last week when Dr Richard Aldous, from the University of Winchester, spoke on ‘Electoral politics in an age of uncertainty: the case of ‘Winchester man’, 1830-1880.’ Dr Aldous’s work explores the nineteenth century electorate through electoral registers, poll books and by then tracing the lives of registered voters in censuses and local newspaper materials. The resulting paper was a detailed insight in to the typical Winchester voter – ‘Winchester Man’ – in a period which saw three major reforms to the electoral system in the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts, as well as the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872.
Aldous argued that his work in Winchester questioned the amount of impact that party agents had on the nineteenth century political process, despite their claims to be able to control elections through their work in the voter registration process. He suggested that perhaps historians should seek to explain why there remained so many contested elections in the nineteenth century. If the agents were as successful as they claimed, fewer electoral contests might be expected.
Winchester itself was an interesting case study as one of the small boroughs that played a major role in deciding the outcome of elections. As for much of the period the Tories/Conservatives won the majority of county seats and the Whigs/Liberals were able to control the ‘Celtic fringe’ and large borough seats, the nineteenth century ‘small boroughs’ were the target seats the Conservative party needed to win to form governments.
Aldous then shared his description of ‘Winchester man’ – normally an Anglican, professional, craftsman or trader. He would join the electoral register at what Aldous termed the peak of his ‘economic status’, around the age of 40, and remain wealthy enough to remain on the register for another 11-13 years. Years on the electoral register were not always continuous, depending as firmly as it did on economic circumstances. There was therefore a high turnover in Winchester’s electorate, with an average of 7% of new electors at each poll. As a marginal constituency, this number could swing the election. In combination with the fact that only a third of the electors were born in Winchester, with a further third born outside the county altogether, Aldous questioned how party agents could claim to predict the election outcome, on the basis of their understanding of ‘social networks (as posited by Jeremy C. Mitchell), given this uncertain voting bloc.
In discussion afterwards, the seminar debated what motivated ‘Winchester man’ to vote the way he did, as well as the prevalence of the ‘split vote’ in the period for candidates of both of the major parties.
Our seminar remains in the 19th century next week as Martin Spychal will speak on ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act.’ Full details are available here. Hope to see you there!
Our younger readers can also find out more about 19th Century reform in our new schools section on ‘Political Reform’.