The expanding Essex electorate

As the 2015 General Election approaches, we take a look at some of the records of voting history in the Essex Record Office archives…

The right to vote is something which we are all today well accustomed to, and perhaps even take for granted. In the 2010 General Election 847,090 people voted in Essex. Not all that long ago, many of these people would have been barred from the polling station.

Turn the clock back 100 years and what we today recognise as a fair electorate would be halved straight away by the exclusion of women. Go back a little further and many men were excluded on the grounds of not owning enough property. Return to 1830, and only about 10% of the adult male population qualified to vote. Essex had a population of about 300,000 people at this time, only about 6,000 of whom could vote.

Although not exactly a scientific comparison the pictures below give you some sense of just how much the electorate expanded during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This first, slender volume from 1833-34 is one of the earliest electoral registers held at the ERO. There were so few voters at this time that they are all listed in just two volumes this size, one for the northern part of the county and one for the south.

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By the time the super-sized registers for the Walthamstow Division pictures below were created in 1914 and 1915 most men had the vote, but women were still excluded. The population in metropolitan Essex had increased considerably in this time, but even taking this into account the difference in the size of the books and the changes this represent in voting qualifications are remarkable.

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Today Essex elects 18 MPs but in the 1700s and 1800s there were only four places in Essex where polling could take place for parliamentary elections – the Boroughs of Maldon, Harwich and Colchester, and the county town of Chelmsford – with each sending two MPs to Westminster.

Elections themselves were conducted very differently too. The secret ballot was not introduced until 1872; before then, voting was done openly, by a show of hands or voices, and with lists published of who had voted for whom. Thus a vote was not exactly a free one; at a time when your landlord, boss and local magistrate might all be the same person, who would be brave enough to vote against the candidate he had put up? A further Act in 1883 (the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act) criminalised attempts to bribe voters.

Before the reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries parliamentary seats in Essex were monopolised by leading county families such as the Bramstons of Skreens, the Luthers of Brizes, the Conyers of Copped Hall, the Maynards of Easton Lodge, the Harveys of Rolls Park, the Houblons of Hallingbury Place and the Bullocks of Faulkbourne Hall. Often there was only one candidate standing; between 1734 and 1832, only 8 elections in Chelmsford were actually contested.

The ERO looks after hundreds of electoral registers dating back to the 1830s. As well as telling us something about the expansion of the electorate, they can also be useful in tracing people and their historic addresses. The registers for 1918 and 1929 have been digitised and can be viewed on Seax as they were the first years in which women could vote (married women over 30 in 1918 and all women over 21 in 1929). We are planning to continue to digitise our historic electoral registers and make them available online.

The UK has only had universal suffrage and equal voting rights for men and women since 1928 – just 87 years ago – something that is worth bearing in mind as we prepare to make our way to the polling stations on 7th May.

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