What is a poll?

The poll is the official process of recording votes. In the eighteenth-century, it was a largely public process: voters had to attend the Returning Officer (who conducted the polling) and speak their vote.

What is a parliamentary election?

Parliamentary elections are the process of selecting Members of Parliament (MPs) to sit in the House of Commons.

What is a constituency, and how many were there?

A constituency is a geographical area that was represented by particular Members of Parliament (MPs). In the mid eighteenth century, there were 245 English constituencies (and 24 in Wales, 45 in Scotland, and from 1801, 66 in Ireland). The 203 English borough constituencies generally represented long established urban centres, but these might have declined significantly in size and importance by the eighteenth century. The 40 county constituencies in England were supposed to represent rural areas, but also included some new cities that did not have borough status. In addition, Cambridge and Oxford universities were constituencies in their own right. Typically, each constituency returned two MPs to the House of Commons, although there were a few anomalies.

What is a franchise?

A franchise determines who is legally entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. In eighteenth-century England, franchises varied considerably between different constituencies. This meant that in some constituencies very few people had the vote, whereas in others most adult men were ‘enfranchised’ and were entitled to vote.

What is a general election?

General elections are when parliamentary elections are held in every constituency across the country, in which all the MPs are elected to the House of Commons. The Triennial Act of 1694 mandated that a general election must be held at least every three years, and this was amended to every seven years by the Septennial Act of 1716. However, in reality general elections tended to occur more frequently.

What is a by-election?

By-elections are held after a parliamentary seat becomes vacant. In eighteenth-century England, this might have been because the incumbent MP had died, had vacated their seat, or had been ennobled and subsequently called to sit in the House of Lords. In rarer cases, an MP who received an office of profit from the Crown after 1706 was obliged to seek re-election, or a by-election might be held to fill seats if an MP had been elected in more than one constituency (candidates could stand for multiple seats as a form of insurance).

What is a contested election?

A formally contested election was one which went to a poll, typically between three or more candidates for a pair of seats within a single constituency. Many electoral challenges never progressed to this stage as prospective candidates might drop out of the running for a variety of reasons; from the apparent strength of their rival following political canvassing, to the escalating costs of electioneering.

Who could vote?

See ‘Who could vote?’.

How did voting take place?

The process of voting was very different in the eighteenth century to today. The secret ballot was not introduced until 1872, so voters had to attend the hustings which had been specially erected or converted to speak their vote. There they might have to take several oaths (such as pledging allegiance to the crown, or swearing that they had not received bribes), and their legitimacy as a qualified voter might be challenged. Polling would rarely last a single day, but took place over several days or more. The Westminster election of 1784, for example, famously lasted for forty days. This led to a 1785 Act restricting polling to a maximum of 15 days, excluding Sundays.

What is a Poll Book?

Prior to the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, poll books recorded the names of voters and the candidates for whom they polled. This practice has obscure origins, but was increasingly regulated by acts of parliament. By 1711, sheriffs were required to deposit poll books for county elections with the Clerk of the Peace within twenty days of the poll declaration. It was not until 1843, though, that the permanent preservation of poll books was extended to all constituency types. See What is a Poll Book.

What political parties existed in eighteenth-century England?

In the early eighteenth century, almost every MP could be classified as either a Whig or a Tory. This great polarity between two rival political parties had emerged during the Exclusion Crisis of the late 1670s, and came to dominate politics during the reign of Queen Anne. However, the Whigs and Tories of the eighteenth century were not the institutionalised political parties we know today. They did not necessarily have a single acknowledged leader; they had no electoral organisation at a national level; only primitive methods to secure the attendance of their members at Westminster; and no means of ‘whipping’ or disciplining errant MPs. The question of what role party played in eighteenth-century politics remains one of the most contentious for modern historians.

What was a rotten borough?

Even if a town which had once been large had declined in status and size, it continued as a borough constituency, returning two MPs to the House of Commons. These were called ‘rotten boroughs’ because they had so few voters, and could easily be controlled. See Rotten Boroughs.

What was a pocket borough?

If much of the property in a constituency was owned by a particular family, or if it was dominated by a particular employer or authority (like the Government, or the Admiralty), its voters could easily be influenced or even controlled. These were called ‘pocket boroughs’.

What was the Reform Act of 1832?

Responding to growing pressure, and in the face of much opposition, a Whig Government passed a Reform Act into law in 1832 which amended the voting system. Rotten boroughs were abolished, and new industrial towns were granted MPs. The franchise was expanded to a moderate extent, allowing more middle-class men to vote.


What are straights, splits and plumps?

Since most constituencies were represented by two MPs, each voter had two votes which they could use in a variety of ways. They could cast both votes for complimentary candidates (voting ‘straight’); divide them between two rivals (‘split’); or cast only one of their votes and discard the other (in what was known as ‘plumping’), in order to give that candidate an advantage over the others.

What are the Cinque Ports?

The Cinque Ports are a series of coastal towns in Kent, Sussex, and Essex, which were originally grouped together because of their strategic and commercial importance. In the eighteenth century, eight were enfranchised as parliamentary constituencies: Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney, Rye, Sandwich, Seaford, and Winchelsea.

What are guilds?

Guilds were associations composed of artisans, workmen, and merchants from specific trades and crafts. The role of a guild was to protect the interests of that trade, oversee the quality of its work, train new members, and provide support for its members. Membership could be achieved through apprenticeship, patrimony, or payment of a fee.

Were any English constituencies abolished or changed in the eighteenth century?

Between 1695 and 1832, only one constituency was abolished: Grampound (a case study constituency of this project). Due to the corrupt practices which plagued its elections, Grampound’s two MPs were given to underrepresented Yorkshire (also a case study) after the 1820 general election. Elsewhere, alterations to borough franchises could be made by the House of Commons. In most cases the House voted to narrow electorates, either by replacing a franchise wholesale to a more restrictive category, or by introducing new residency or financial qualifications. However, by the later eighteenth century, as public concern grew over constituencies with particularly small electorates, a handful of franchises were significantly widened to incorporate the freeholders of surrounding hundreds: New Shoreham (1771), Cricklade (1782), and Aylesbury (1804).

Historical debates