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The Age of George III

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Elections and the electorate in the Eighteenth Century

The Electorate

Very few people could vote because of the land requirement. In the counties the voting qualification was to own land worth 40 shillings freehold. The franchise qualification varied a great deal in the boroughs.

Electorate (thousands)

Population (thousands)

% of adults (m & f) entitled to vote

England and Wales

UK

England and Wales

UK

1831

435

516

14,000

24,000

5

1833

700

813

14,000

24,000

7

1866

1,000

1,310

22,000

31,000

16

1868

2,000

2,500

22,000

31,000

28½

Adult males able to vote

England and Wales

Scotland

Ireland

1833

1 in 5

1 in 8

1 in 20

1869

1 in 3

1 in 3

1 in 6

Voting

This was done by a show of hands and by each man going to the Returning Officer and registering his vote. There was no secret ballot until 1872. County elections were held in the county town (in York for Yorkshire, Alnwick for Northumberland, Lancaster for Lancashire). Candidates stood on the hustings and shouted at the crowd. In order to save expense, candidates often held a canvass of the electors to see whether votes could be secured. If a candidate was not going to get a substantial number of the votes, he would withdraw and there would be no election. All voters expected to be paid for their vote - it was a form of property - and if the voters had to travel to the country town, they expected to receive payment for everything they spent.

Riots, civil disorder, corruption and drunkenness usually accompanied elections and it was not unusual for either the local militia or troops to have to be called out to restore order. Consequently, elections were unpopular. Each election continued until candidates could no longer afford to (or chose not to) pay their supporters. Elections were known to go on for weeks. In 1785 the length of any single election was limited to fifteen days' duration. Also, elections were not all held at the same time. It could take months for one general election to be completed. Candidates who were unsuccessful in one constituency could move to others where elections were taking place - provided they had enough money.

The most expensive election was the 1807 Yorkshire election when William Wilberforce first took his anti-slavery stand. (1) The two main candidates were Lascelles of Harewood ( Tory) and Lord Milton, the eldest son of the Earl Fitzwilliam (a Whig). The election lasted two weeks and cost £¼ million in expenses. Milton was elected.

(1) Prior to this election, Wilberforce had fought against the slave trade; that had been abolished in 1807 and then Wilberforce turned his attention to the abolition of slavery itself.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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