Saturday, February 03, 2024

I could have voted in Dickens's Eatanswill by-election

The most famous account of a parliamentary by-election must be the one by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers: the Eatanswill by-election.

Dickens make the town of Eatanswill sound very like political Twitter:

It appears, then, that the Eatanswill people, like the people of many other small towns, considered themselves of the utmost and most mighty importance, and that every man in Eatanswill, conscious of the weight that attached to his example, felt himself bound to unite, heart and soul, with one of the two great parties that divided the town - the Blues and the Buffs. 

Now the Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at public meeting, town-hall, fair, or market, disputes and high words arose between them. With these dissensions it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill was made a party question. 

If the Buffs proposed to new skylight the market-place, the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast at the enormity. There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns and Buff inns—there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle in the very church itself.

And the election was not won by the side putting out the most leaflets:

During the whole time of the polling, the town was in a perpetual fever of excitement. Everything was conducted on the most liberal and delightful scale. Excisable articles were remarkably cheap at all the public-houses; and spring vans paraded the streets for the accommodation of voters who were seized with any temporary dizziness in the head - an epidemic which prevailed among the electors, during the contest, to a most alarming extent, and under the influence of which they might frequently be seen lying on the pavements in a state of utter insensibility. 

A small body of electors remained unpolled on the very last day. They were calculating and reflecting persons, who had not yet been convinced by the arguments of either party, although they had frequent conferences with each. One hour before the close of the poll, Mr. Perker solicited the honour of a private interview with these intelligent, these noble, these patriotic men. It was granted. His arguments were brief but satisfactory. They went in a body to the poll; and when they returned, the Honourable Samuel Slumkey, of Slumkey Hall, was returned also.

This, remember, was politics after the first Reform Act had been passed.

An article on the Victorian Commons site says that:

As well as Dickens’s experiences of electoral practices in the boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, his account of Eatanswill was inspired by his assignment to report on the December 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election for the Morning Chronicle. 
Interestingly, unlike the already notoriously corrupt boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, Northamptonshire North was a brand new county constituency in the reformed electoral system. Yet the county’s voters and non-voters, who congregated in the nomination town of Kettering for the proceedings, wasted little time in developing their own rowdy and partisan electoral identity. 
As Dickens found, to his dismay, Northamptonshire North was anything but ‘reformed’.

The illustration above is one of Phiz's from the first edition of The Pickwick Papers. It comes from that Victorian Commons article and was scanned by Philip V. Allingham.

As I have mentioned before, the part of Market Harborough I live in - Little Bowden - was in Northamptonshire until the 1890s, So I wondered if, as a property owner here, I would have been able to vote in the Northamptonshire North by-election.

The Wikipedia page for the old Northamptonshire North constituency lists the county's hundreds that it encompassed, and one of them is the Hundred of Rothwell. And if you go to a Northamptonshire Family History Society page that lists the county's parishes by hundred, you will find that Little Bowden fell within the Hundred of Rothwell.

So there you have it: I could have voted in the Eatanswill by-election.


nigel hunter said...

Would you have been happy living in a Slum(key)eat an swill (not a lot of good food in this town) and take the 'donation for your vote? just wondering!?

Mick Taylor said...

Of course, though you don't mention it, voting was in public. The secret ballot wasn't introduced - and then only as a short term measure that never ran out - by Gladstone in 1872 (I think). So had you voted in the by-election you would have had to appear in person and tell the returning officer in front of the hustings who you were voting for and all your friends and neighbours would have known.

Jonathan Calder said...

I'd have had no problem with publicly supporting the party that upheld the principles I believe in (unless the other side were offering better bribes, obviously).