William Hogarth – Polling Day
Elections of one sort or another have been constantly in the news for the past few years and the prospect of yet more hangs above our heads like the sword of Damocles. So, as my genealogical side took over, I decided to look back at the voting record of my ancestors and try and discern what were their motives or priorities in the way in which they cast their ballots.
Of my immediate forebears I can say little, other than than guess how they voted and why; I’m fairly sure I know how my parents cast their vote from conversations with them; my grandparents less so. Beyond that all is a mystery caused by the secret ballot which was introduced in the UK in 1872. Of course, prior to the 1920s my female ancestors did not have the vote, and few of my male ones did either before the Second Reform Act of 1867. However, when the ballot was not secret, the lists of voters and for whom they voted were printed and published for all to see. In many cases, no doubt, many voted with this in mind; it did not go unnoticed that one’s employer, landlord or creditor would discover where your vote was cast.
The constituences of the pre-Reform Act Parliament which existed until 1831 were vastly different to the ones we know today. Everyone has heard of the “Rotten Boroughs” where the franchise was exercised by a handful of people; in the notorious case of Old Sarum in Wiltshire there were at one time just 7 electors, controlled by the local landowner who owned all the houses by which they exercised their voting rights. There were many others, all returning two members to Parliament. In addition though, there were the free boroughs where the franchise was extended to all freemen or burgesses. Some of these, like Westminster or Bristol had very large electorates indeed, Bristol usually recording a total of over 5000 votes in any election. As well as the boroughs, each county returned two “Knights of the Shire” who were elected by a land-owning or renting franchise. Quite often in the 18th century at least, elections in the shires were not contested as the Tories or “Country” party normally took all the seats.
William Pitt the younger addressing the House
The Parliament these conditions gave rise to were again very different to that of the post-Reform Act assemblies. The core of the house was the “Tory” knights of the shires who generally voted according to their own consciences or desires. They did not necessarily back any particular line, whether government or opposition. There were also many placemen, usually elected from seats where the government could control elections; naval ports were the main ones, but there were others. These MPs always voted with the government. Finally there were the “professional politicians” who are the ones we have usually heard of; Pitt Fox and Burke for example. They normally sat for rotten or pocket boroughs, nominated by the patron of the seat, although some, like Burke, sat for the free boroughs and took their chances at election time. One must remember that the government of the day was very much the King’s government. No ministry could survive without the royal patronage, if not always the royal approval. The King appointed his ministers, but generally understood the need to have some chance of them securing a majority in the House of Commons when required. In the 18th century, it should be noted, no government ever lost a general election.
Although we still use the labels “Tory” and “Whig” for the factions in Parliament, they do not really mean very much; what was required to govern was the confidence of the King and a majority in the House. Some have preferred the labels “Ins” and “Outs” as being more realistic.
I am lucky in having several ancestors who were enfranchised at one time or another. There are one or two who appear on a voting list where I cannot find a Poll Book with the votes cast, but in two cases my forebears were freemen of boroughs where the data for every election survives.
The published Poll Book for the 1721 election in Bristol
John Harwood (sometimes spelt Horwood) was a house carpenter and merchant of Bristol. At the time of the 1721 election he is listed in the Poll Books as a Freeholder of St James parish. Other records show that he purchased property there in the early years of the century and his will (1744) makes mention of freehold houses he owns in St James’ Square and Merchant Street. His vote is recorded in three elections; 1721, 1734 and 1739.
John Horwood’s votes recorded in the Poll Book
In 1721 there were three candidates for the two places as MP for the City and County of Bristol: Sir Abraham Elton, Joseph Earle (John cast his vote for these two; every voter could choose one or two candidates) and William Hart. The final result was Earle 2141, Elton 1869 and Hart 1743, Elton and Earle being returned. Both the new MPs were prominent local men, Elton a previous Mayor and Earle a Sheriff of Bristol, and both are described as Whigs, whereas Hart was a Tory, but it seems that local considerations were uppermost in the voters’ minds – who would do best for Bristol and its trade. The election of 1727 saw the return of Abraham Elton (son of the winner of 1721) and John Scrope who was another Whig and Secretary to the Treasury. William Hart had decided to stand again, but was bribed by Elton to the sum of £1000, and did not proceed to the poll.
The mention of direct bribery, which in this case was denied, but expressed as a reimbursement to “offset election expenses”, reveals how rotten the system was even in the nominally “free boroughs”. As well as other candidates, voters were usually offered inducements, from free food and liquor to outright cash payments. A letter of the time records that at this 1727 election “The people who sold their votes have received from one to five guineas per man”, which shows how expensive campaigns could be.
In 1734 Elton and Scrope stood again, this time against the Tory Thomas Coster, but Scrope was beaten into third place, mainly because he had voted in Parliament for an Excise Bill (which as a government placeman he would have to) against the wishes of the Bristol Corporation. John Harwood again voted for the two Whigs. Thomas Coster died in 1739 and a by-election was called to replace him. On this occasion, a non-partisan, Henry Combe, a Bristol merchant stood against Sir Edward Southwell, a Whig country gentleman with no particular connection to the City. John Harwood voted for Combe but the establishment Southwell won by a narrow majority. Seemingly John Harwood voted for the local candidates who stood for the interests of Bristol merchants and trade, rather than strictly partisan party issues. The following election was unopposed and John died in 1745.
Several of my Bumstead ancestors, confusingly all called Stephen, were freemen of the town of Ipswich, and as such were entitled to vote in both the elections for the two MPs for Ipswich and the two Knights of the County MPs for Suffolk. The latter, however were virtually never contested and the only record I have of voting was in 1790 when Stephen Bumstead (1751-1831) voted for the successful Tory candidates Sir John Rous and Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury. Stephen is recorded as voting at all the Ipswich elections from 1784 until 1826; he is often referred to as “senior” after his son Stephen (1778-1841) became a freeman and acquired voting rights in 1800. Three of Stephen’s sons in turn became freemen and voted from the 1826 election onwards. In this latter election the three Stephens are recorded as “Stephen Bumpstead, Stephen Bumpstead junior and Stephen Bumpstead (London), my great great grandfather having moved to the capital sometime in the mid 1820s.
The 1826 Ipswich Poll Book
There is little point in listing the results of the many elections the family took part in, but they always voted for the Blue candidate. Party politics in Ipswich was a fiercely divisive matter and the parties were usually referred to as the Blues and the Yellows. The former were the “Country” party standing for the landowning interest, but also the upholding of the established church and establishment in general; they were generally coalescing into the Tory party whilst the Yellows adhered to the Whigs and represented a more radical outlook. Election time was noisy and often violent with gangs of dockers and others terrorising the town and trying to persuade voters one way or the other; as in Bristol in earlier days, bribery and coercion were common. The open ballot and the time taken (elections were often spead over four or five days) presented plenty of opportunity for pressure of one sort or another to be applied. For the voters though there were good pickings, if one was careful. It is interesting that the three Bumstead brothers all travelled from London to Ipswich to vote in the late 1820s and 1830s, which meant a couple of days travelling and time off work – could they really have been such sincere party adherents?
Mr Pickwick at the Eatanswill Election Hustings
A wonderfully satirical glimpse into contemporary elections is seen in Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” when Mr Pickwick and his companions visit the town of “Eatanswill” at polling time; Eatanswill is actually Sudbury in Suffolk and the atmosphere must have been very similar to nearby Ipswich. All the corruption and fraud around elections necessarily produced results that were challenged. In Ipswich, both the 1820 and 1826 results were overturned on appeal, the first resulting in the two Blue candidates being disqualified and the Yellows triumphing; in 1826 exactly the opposite was the case.
1823 Ipswich newspaper advertisement
Apart from election time, at least one of the Bumsteads took an active role in political matters. Two newspaper advertisements give an indication of this. One lists a Stephen Bumstead amongst the signatories protesting at the invitation (by the Yellows no doubt) made to Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Nationalist to speak in Ipswich in 1836 and another dated 1823 indicates the establishment of a constituency group to advance conservative principles. Again Stephen Bumstead is one of the names listed. With the deaths of all three bearers of the name in the period 1831-46, this stage of my forebears political life draws to a close. The next generation (yet another Stephen 1844-1903) had to wait for the later 19th century reform acts before he appeared on a list of electors in Bristol in 1897.