Today voters across the country go to the polls. In Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, electors will choose their new MP after the death of Harry Harpham in February. Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, discusses the Sheffield Brightside by-election of 1897 and the electoral culture of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period…
With numerous election contests taking place around the country today – local council elections in England, police and crime commissioner elections, elections for the mayor of London and the London Assembly, as well as elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly – many homes will have been receiving election leaflets through their doors. In one constituency, Sheffield Brightside, voters may have received more than most, with a parliamentary by-election also taking place on 5 May.
It seems unlikely, however, that Sheffield Brightside’s electors will have been inundated with quite as many election leaflets and pamphlets as their predecessors in the constituency were almost 120 years earlier. In August 1897, a by-election took place following the death of the veteran Liberal MP Anthony Mundella. He had represented Sheffield since 1868, and had served in three Liberal ministries, most recently as President of the Board of Trade. In his place, Brightside’s Liberals selected Fred Maddison, who had been president of the TUC in 1886, and had unsuccessfully stood for Hull Central in 1892 and 1895. His Conservative opponent, James Fitzalan Hope, was also experienced in electioneering, having stood for the Elland division of the West Riding in 1892 and for Pontefract in 1895.
At one house in Brightside, 42 different items of election literature were received during the 1897 contest. Ironically, we know this thanks to a non-elector, Charlotte Wilson, who collected copies of all the material which came to her family’s home, Osgathorpe Hills. Charlotte was the wife of Henry Joseph Wilson, MP for Holmfirth and a leading figure in the Sheffield Liberal party. She did the same at the 1900 general election, when she gathered 30 items. Victorious in 1897, Maddison was ousted in 1900 by Hope, as his pro-Boer views proved unpopular at the so-called ‘khaki’ election. Maddison’s election agent at the 1900 contest, Claude Moore, assembled three scrapbooks of material – including election literature and newspaper cuttings – relating to the 1900, 1906 and 1910 contests. By 1906 Maddison had abandoned Sheffield to be returned as Labour MP for Burnley, but his Liberal successor, John Tudor Walters, an architect, won the Brightside seat, which he represented until 1922.
Taken together, these collections provide many fascinating insights into late Victorian and Edwardian election literature. Perhaps most interesting are some of the differences from the material typically distributed by the parties today. Both the sheer amount and the variety of the literature are striking. Moore’s scrapbook from 1900 showed that the 30 items collected by Charlotte Wilson were far from all the material in circulation in Brightside. As well as being delivered to houses, election leaflets were handed out at election meetings, in the streets and at the factory gates, and posters were displayed on hoardings and at election committee-rooms. Half of Maddison’s spending on his 1900 campaign was on the printing and distribution of leaflets, handbills, pamphlets, posters and cartoons, together with other election stationery. This was in keeping with the country as a whole – on average, candidates in England and Wales devoted 45% of their total expenditure in 1900 to this aspect of electioneering.
One method used by these candidates to communicate their political message was the local election song. The ditty composed for Maddison in 1897 was entitled ‘Maddison for Brightside and the People’. In 1906, Brightside’s inhabitants were urged to ‘Vote, vote, vote, for Tudor Walters’, in a song set to the tune of ‘Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching’. This was a popular choice for adaptation for electioneering purposes, as were ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Men of Harlech’.
Two thousand copies of ‘Vote, vote, vote, for Tudor Walters’ were distributed to children in Brightside, and they were also targeted with small versions of the candidate’s photograph. In 1910, photo cards were again printed specifically for distribution to children, bearing the slogan, ‘Vote for Walters and no tax on the children’s bread’. Such items are a reminder of the ways in which election contests became a community event, incorporating non-electors alongside electors. This had been most evident in the days of the hustings and open voting before 1872, but remained significant in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.
With the political parties playing a key role in the registration of voters before 1918, they often acquired detailed knowledge not only regarding each elector’s political views, but also his occupation and economic circumstances. This enabled the candidates to target voters with literature appealing to their particular interests. In 1900, a specially written pamphlet on ‘Mr. Maddison and the Railway Workers’ was sent to those employed in this industry. Members of different religious groups and supporters of the temperance cause were among those to whom particular leaflets were directed.
While much of the Brightside election literature sought to convey a serious political message, with topics such as free trade to the fore, there was some more light-hearted material, as well as decorative items intended to catch the eye and be put on display. One handbill circulated on polling day in 1906 depicted the candidates as rival horses in the ‘Brightside Handicap’, with their jockeys being ‘Free Trade’ and the ‘Little Loaf’. The Conservative candidate, J. F. Hope, used an acrostic to put across his views on his poll card:
Justice for our Working Men;
Fair Trade Promoted;
Home Industries Encouraged;
Open Markets for our Goods;
The most popular item among Brightside’s voters in 1900 – described by the Liberal election agent as ‘the HIT of the election’ – had very little to do with the appeal of the local candidate or indeed the issues of the day. It was a decorative picture card, featuring a portrait of Gladstone with the motto ‘Forget Me Not’. This design, intended for use in any constituency, was over-printed in red with the slogan, ‘Vote for Maddison and the Liberalism of the Grand Old Man’. The ‘Grand Old Man’ had died in 1898, and had not led the Liberal party since 1894, but his name evidently had an enduring resonance for Victorian voters.
The H. J. Wilson papers, which include the Brightside election literature collated by Charlotte Wilson, are held by Sheffield Archives. Claude Moore’s cuttings relating to Brightside elections are held by Sheffield Local Studies Library.