With the 2015 General Election on 7 May, it seems timely to consider how elections and electioneering were practiced in earlier times. The Special Collections holds a range of material relating to politicians and politics. Below is a piece discussing the Southampton Poll Books which form part of the Cope Collection rare books.
Major manuscript collections relating to politics from the eighteenth century onwards include the archives of the first Duke of Wellington; the Congleton Archive —with material for the Parnell family, which provides a fascinating insight into politics in Ireland; the papers of Lord Thorneycroft of Dunstan, who was a Conservative MP and Minister; and the Broadlands Archives. Within the vast array of material in the Broadlands Archives are sections of papers that tell specific stories: such as the correspondence relating to endeavours to secure a seat for Henry Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, in the House of Commons in 1805-7, or the photographs documenting the violent aftermath of an election address by Evelyn Ashley in Shanklin Institute in 1880.
Amongst the Anglo-Jewish Archives are papers of a number of individuals who were involved in politics on a local, national and European level, this ranges from the leaflets produced by Sarah Laski during her election campaigns as a local councillor in Cheetham from the 1920s, to those of Fred Tuckman who was both a councillor for Camden in London and a MEP for Leicester.
Southampton Poll Books
As you cast your vote in the General Election, you can be reasonably sure that your decision will remain private and certain that it will not become a matter of public record, open to the scrutiny of all. But the set of Southampton poll books in the Cope Collection shows that in earlier parliamentary elections this was not always the case.
From 1696 until the Ballot Act of 1872 there was a legal requirement that returning officers should be able to provide a copy of the poll if requested, the aim being to prevent electoral fraud. As printing became more widely established in the provinces, it became customary for poll books to be published by local printers and booksellers, rival businesses sometimes publishing their own copies of the same poll.
For Southampton, there are nineteen locally printed poll books running from 1774, shortly after the first printer appeared in the town, to 1865. They record the names of the voters and identify the candidates for whom they voted. In many cases addresses and occupations are also included, information which is of value to researchers today, despite the limited nature of the franchise. The books vary in arrangement, some listing the voters in the order in which they voted – the poll usually being held over several days, and others by alphabetical order or with the names grouped by candidate.
The 1818 poll book records the votes cast for William Chamberlayne of Weston Grove, Lord Ashtown, of Chessel House and Sir William Champion de Crespigny of Anspach House at the end of a particularly divisive campaign which had seen the swearing in of 100 special constables in order to keep the peace. Most of the abuse had been directed towards Lord Ashtown, an Irish peer, who failed in his attempt to secure one of the two seats on offer for the town.
The presentation copy of the poll book of 1842 shows the newly elected M.P.s, Humphrey St. John Mildmay and George William Hope, rewarding Thomas Wood, one of their voters, with a printed copy of the poll. That Southampton’s voters were often more lavishly rewarded is suggested by the fact that this vote was held only because the poll in the previous year’s general election had been declared void, the two successful candidates having been found guilty of bribery.