Georgian Elections

Canvassing for Votes

Elections in England in the late 18th century and early 19th century, before the adoption of the secret ballot, were given over to corruption. Votes were cast by a show of hands by each man going to the Returning Officer and registering his vote. Since votes were cast in public, intimidated of voters or the purchase of votes by the powerful was the practice of the day. Votes were often bought with liquor. The mixture of freely flowing alcohol added to political rivalries tended to make for a riotous day. The militia often had to be called out to restore order.

Before the Reform Act of 1832, the election of members to the House of Commons bore no resemblence to democratic representation. The very name 'commons' derives not from commoners but from the word communes, which is Norman French for localities. The right to vote was in the hands of a tiny group of affluent subjects that historians estimate included only about 5 per cent of the adult male population. The ability to determine voting eligibility in the shires rested with the sheriffs and the rules varied widely. In some shires men owning land worth 40 shillings freely held could vote, in others some even more arcane formula was used. In Winston Graham's books, Ross Poldark did not have the right to vote, even though he was a landowner in Cornwall.

Of the 565 MPs in Parliament, 122 were county members and 436 borough members. Virtually all counties and boroughs sent two members to Parliament. Seats were not linked to population and provided very uneven representation: Old Sarum, which had been deserted for centuries, still sent 2 MP's. A borough was a town that had been granted the right (chartered) to send members to Parliament by the king at sometime in the past. Each borough, whether a large city or a tiny village, had its own traditional method of choosing its members of Parliament.

Under the Septennial Act of 1716, parliamentary elections were required every seven years rather than every three. By-elections were held between general elections to replace a sitting MP who had died or resigned.

Hogarth satirized the corruption of elections of his time in a set of four paintings. The first three paintings "Election Entertainment," "Canvassing for Votes," and "The Polling" expose the type of corruption that took place in 18th century elections. Hogarth's work inspired the election day scenes in William Graham's Poldark Saga novel Jeremy Poldark. The final scene depicted in Hogarth's four-piece set "Chairing the Members," in which the crowd carries the winner through the street on the precarious perch of a chair, is described in Graham's book.

Pocket boroughs were another type of corruption. A pocket borough was owned by one man and he controlled the few voters who resided in the borough. The Duke of Bedford controlled the thirty-one voters who elected the member to the parliamentary seat of Camelford. He had the power to offer the seat to the man of his choice. In the 18th century, powerful men like the Duke of Devonshire who had the power to nominate seven members of the House of Commons virtually controlled their political party. In 1785, William Pitt presented a Reform Bill that would disenfranchise 36 pocket boroughs, but the bill was defeated. Pocket boroughs were even bought and sold. In 1812, the Duke of Bedford sold the borough of Camelford with its constituency of only thirty-one voters to the Earl of Darlington for £32,000.

Parliament opened in November with the king's speech. The session, interrupted by Christmas and Easter breaks, lasted until the summer recess when most of those owning country homes left the heat and stench of London for the summer. As more business came before parliament, the sessions were gradually extended until they reached August 12th which marked the opening of Grouse season. Families generally did not come to town until after the Easter break, for the season.

During this period of British history, party affiliations were often drawn along the lines of one issue, making for both strange bedfellows and shifting alliances that really can not be defined within a strict two party system. Factions are more characteristic of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The terms Whig and Tory arose out of the divided loyalties surrounding the exclusion of James VII & II from the throne. Whigs supported the exclusion while Tories opposed it, however as time went on Tory was used for the party that supported the king while whig referred to the party with strong constitutional allegiances.

'Tory,' derived from an Irish term for an outlaw, robber, came to represent a conservative party. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Tory policies had shifted to represent those who threw their support behind the Hanoverian kings and the belief that the king should determine the direction of the state. The interests of the country gentry, tradesmen, and official administrative groups were most often allied to Tory goals. Famous Tories include Lord Bute and Lord North. White's was a Tory club. Red is the Tory color.

'Whig,' originally a Scottish Gaelic term for cattle drovers, came to be the name of a party seeking electoral, parliamentary, and philanthropic reforms representing a constitutionalist position. Famous Whigs include Charles James Fox and his supporter the Duchess of Devonshire. Brooks was the Whig club, but in a mirror of the blurring of the two party system, most men were members of both the Whig Brooks and Tory White's clubs. Whig colors were buff and blue.


The historical novel in William Graham's Poldark Saga novel Jeremy Poldark include scenes of an election.
The Regency romance The Lady and the Cit by Blair Bancroft involves an election.
The biography Georgiana : Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman includes discussion of the duchess's involvement in elections.
Learn more about Charles James Fox in the biography by L. G. Mitchell



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