9 general election curiosities through history

From rotten boroughs to 47-day elections, the electoral system has, through history, featured a number of quirks and unusual customs. Here, Dr Seán Lang investigates…

Parliament was a medieval institution, originally summoned by Simon de Montfort in 1265 to add weight to his stand against King Henry III. By 1295 it had developed to consist of two burgesses from each town and two knights from each shire and, with some modifications in the Tudor period, this remained the basic structure of representation until the parliamentary reform campaigns of the 19th century.

There were no set rules for how towns and shires should choose their representatives, and there was great variation among them. Some held a relatively open election, while others restricted the choice to wealthy property owners. Others, meanwhile, simply left it to the city council to choose. As a result, by the 18th and 19th centuries the electoral system was not only looking hopelessly old fashioned, but it had thrown up a number of striking anomalies…

 

1) Own a pot? You can vote!

One voting qualification in the 19th century actually depended on owning a large cooking pot. Such people were known as potwallopers.

In theory, the pot was to be taken as proof that they had a hearth big enough to contain it. This, in turn, was considered to be evidence that they were responsible citizens, owning the freehold of their own homes and making a major contribution to the life of the community. It was thought that this would ensure the right sort of people were voting on behalf of the community as a whole.

Voting was regarded as a sort of reward for civic virtue, and recognition of the voter’s value to society. The notion that it constituted a civil right was generally regarded as dangerously radical – the sort of idea that had led to the French Revolutionary Terror, when the vote had indeed been extended to all adult Frenchmen.

 

2) Rotten boroughs

We might today take it for granted that an election will be contested, but that was by no means always the case in the 18th century. Many constituencies were so effectively controlled by local landowners that they were known as ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs.

Before 1832, all constituencies returned two MPs, so a landowner controlling a borough (or ‘boroughmonger’) would simply nominate two of his protégés to represent the borough – and, of course, himself – in parliament. If no one else nominated anyone, then there was no need for an election, and the proceedings would be wrapped up at the nomination stage.

The lowest number of contests at an 18th-century election in England and Wales was 47 (in the election of 1761) – just 18 per cent of the constituencies. In effect, even those relatively few citizens who had the right to vote were disfranchised.

A political cartoon drawn by E King depicting the need for election reform and the problems of rotten boroughs. Published in 1832, the piece is entitled 'The Reformers Attach on the Old Rotten Tree; or the Foul Nests of the Cormorants in Danger'. (Photo by HultonArchive/Getty Images)

 

3) Who needs voters?

Before the Reform Act of 1832, it could by no means be taken for granted that, even if an election were held, there would necessarily be any voters to vote in it.

The pattern of representation still reflected the distribution of towns that existed in Tudor times, and took no account of subsequent changes in population. Some places that had declined since then still retained their right to elect two MPs.

In the most notorious cases, places that had actually become deserted retained the right to elect two MPs. The most celebrated was Old Sarum in Wiltshire, which was a deserted mound, or the abandoned village of Gatton in Surrey. Both of them returned two MPs at election times, when a handful of voters hurriedly took up residence. That was harder to achieve at Dunwich in Suffolk, since much of the constituency had fallen into the sea!

 

4) A lengthy process

There were angry scenes at the 2010 election when some people were still queuing outside when the polls closed at 10pm. It would be difficult to imagine that happening in the 18th century, when polling might typically go on for a week or more, to allow voters from outlying areas to travel in to cast their vote.

In the pre-telecommunications age, there was no need for elections to take place at the same time, and there was often a staggered start to the voting process across the country. In fact, elections were not all held on the same day until 1918.

Voting took time, too: votes were declared one by one in public, and before that there was a lengthy process of checking voters’ registration, to make sure they did indeed have the right to vote. Candidates could and did challenge the credentials of voters they thought likely to vote for their opponents.

All this meant that a keenly-fought election could last much longer originally intended. In the 1784 election, the contest for the Westminster constituency – where one of the MPs was the Whig leader, Charles James Fox – lasted from 1 April to 17 May! (See the satirical illustration at the beginning of the article).

 

5) Treats and tricks

Voting in the pre-Reform Act period [pre-1832] was regarded as a public duty undertaken on behalf of the community as a whole, and it was quite normal for candidates to reward their supporters in the form of ‘treating’ – usually by providing plentiful free beer, or issuing other victuals to voters and their supporters on production of a ticket.

Less enjoyable were the threats of retaliation that might be made against voters who failed to back the landlord’s favoured candidates; they might find their rent increased by a vindictive boroughmonger, or they might even lose their home.

It was hoped that introducing the Secret Ballot in 1870 [which was extended generally in the Ballot Act 1872] might reduce such open corruption, but keeping their own vote secret only encouraged voters to demand treats from both sides, knowing that the chance of reprisals was now much lower.

3 April 1880: a group of politicians attempting to buy an elector's vote with a pint of ale. The voter is turning his back on the offer with the words "Wot! Sell my birthright for that. I ain't likely". (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

6) MPs were particularly young in the 18th century

Our modern political leaders are noticeably younger than their predecessors, but the record for electing young MPs belongs to the 18th century. William Pitt the Younger was elected MP for the pocket borough of Appleby at the age of 21, and went on, only two years later, to become the country’s youngest prime minister.

His great rival, the Whig leader Charles James Fox, was so young when he entered parliament that he wasn’t actually old enough to vote! He was elected at the age of just 19, even though 21 was the voting age.

 

7) Got a degree? Have a second vote!

Graduates in previous centuries enjoyed a second vote in general elections. Until the 1948 Representation of the People Act, universities had their own representation in parliament, voted for by their graduates, on the basis that the most highly educated opinions were deserving of extra weight.

Oxford and Cambridge had two MPs each; the Scottish universities shared three between them, and both Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Wales had one MP each.

 

8) I’m terribly sorry, prime minister…

Winston Churchill is one of the few non-peer prime ministers not to be able to vote in his own general election. In the face of huge movements of population during the Second World War, it became impossible to keep the electoral roll up-to-date. Therefore, when Churchill called the 1945 election, ration cards were used as the basis for electoral registration.

By some administrative oversight, Churchill himself was actually missed off the ration-card electoral roll, and so he could not vote in the famous election that saw him turned out of office.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) steps into his car at the rear of Downing Street on his way to hand in his resignation to King George VI, 26 July 1945. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

9) Prime minister in waiting

If defeated in a general election, the prime minister has to depart as soon the result is clear – there is no transition period. However, even a victorious prime minister has to wait to be appointed by the monarch, in a ceremony known as Kissing Hands, before moving into No 10.

This has to fit in with the monarch's own schedule. When the Conservatives won the 1970 election, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson couldn’t resign immediately because the queen wasn’t at Buckingham Palace to receive him. She had gone to the races at Ascot, and the new prime minister had to hang around until she returned!

Dr Seán Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British Empire. He is the author of Parliamentary Reform 1785–1928 (Routledge, 1999). You can follow him on Twitter @sf_lang.

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