Elections in Belloc’s time

Many commentators thought our recent, 2019, general election was one of the most aggressive and intolerant ever.

Our first stop is 1910 and the January election of that year. Belloc’s biographer, Robert Spaight takes up the story:-

” Belloc and his wife drove around in an open carriage. Some threw mud at them and others cheered. Even the children of Salford [Belloc’s constituency] were involved. One little Tory of tender years ran after the carriage shouting, ‘Tear him oop! Tear him opp!: whereupon a lifelong Liberal of about the same age called out from a doorway, ‘Ah’ll stick thee in tha bahels!’ …..While the count was being taken Belloc amused himself – and perhaps others – by ragging his opponent……The result was declared on placards posted on the upper windows of the Town Hall in Bexley Square; below, the crowd waited in the downpour and blew tin trumpets. When it was known that Belloc was just in by 314 votes, red lights were burned in a neighbouring street, and Irishwomen in the crowd mobbed and kissed him as he reached the Exchange Club with victory in his eyes and practically no voice.”

We now time travel back to the 1840s, when Henry Burstow, Lucy Broadwood’s most prolific singer was a teenager and was part of a gang hired by one of the candidates to protect him and to ‘encourage’ the electorate to support their man. They wore white smocks and carried six foot poles, painted in the candidate’s colours. They were expected to ‘encourage’ the electors how to vote. Bear in mind this was before the secret ballot and voters had to mount a hustings (raised platform) to declare, before the clamarous and drunken mob who they were going to vote for:-

“But by far the greatest amount of drunkenness at any election in my time took place in 1847 – one of the most notoriously drunken and corrupt elections in the United Kingdom. ‘Free’ liquor could be had at every public house and beer shop in the parish [Horsham – the candidates footed the bill] for several weeks…..On nomination and polling days it may almost be said the town was entirely drunk. The bribery was almost as bad as the drunkenness; many ‘free and independent’ citizens were bribed for their vote, others were bribed not to vote. Others again were kidnapped away so that they could not vote. A platform, called the Hustings, was erected against the Town Hall, and here the candidates and friends and the returning officer assembled on nomination and election days…..

Our final time machine stop is to 1734.

Anthony Henley was first elected MP for Southampton in 1727, on that occasion he had to bribe the entire city corporation (council) to ensure he was elected. By 1734, Henley was tiring of his electorate complaining about the government’s policy of increasing the excise tax on imported good, such as spirits, tea and tobacco. However the corporation were also tiring of Henley and looking to find a candidate more compliant with their wishes. Henley had discovered this and wrote a letter to the corporation, ostensibly in reply to yet another letter from them complaining about the excise tax:-

“I received yours [their letter] and am surprised by your insolence in troubling me about the Excise. You know, what I very well now, that I bought you. And I know, what perhaps you think I don’t, you are now selling yourselves to Somebody Else; and I know, what you do not know, that I am buying another borough. May God’s curse light upon you all: may your houses be as open and common to all Excise officers as your wives and daughters were to me, when I stood for your scoundrel corporation.”

There you have it, the great outstanding tradition of English mobocracy. By comparison, the 2019 election, is little more than a fading ember in a damp bonfire.

Chris Hare

I am the project manager for Belloc, Broadwood and Beyond