Child Voters

‘Minors’, under 21 years old, were not allowed to vote. But did they? [15-minute read]

Today, the minimum age for voting in parliamentary elections is set at 18. This was lowered from 21 only in 1969. What is less well known is when limitations on voting age were first introduced.

Going back to the early seventeenth century, there seems to have much more flexibility. There is evidence of voting by boys as young as 12. Although this was probably a bit exceptional, we can assume that the practice of voting by ‘minors’ – which is to say males who had not obtained their ‘majority’ at 21 – was reasonably widespread, since Puritan reformers in England and the American colonies felt it necessary to argue in the 1620s that a minimum voting age should be set, usually at 20 or 21. Why would they have done so, if people younger than that were not regularly voting? Indeed, their case seems to have been accepted during the English Civil War in the 1640s, although little or no research has been done on whether the new restriction was enforced. In any case, the age requirement was repealed at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Then it was only after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688/89 that the Parliamentary Elections Act (1695/96; 7 and 8 William III c25; sometimes known as the ‘Splitting Act’) stipulated that ‘infants [are] not to vote or be elected’. This law firmly excluded those under 21 from either voting or sitting as a Member of Parliament.[1]

‘The Young Cub’ (detail), said to be Charles James Fox, c.1766 or a little later (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Even after that the law could sometimes be disregarded. Some Members of Parliament were certainly still minors. In the seventeenth century, teenage MPs had been relatively common. They were typically sons of dominant local landowners, whose election for a ‘pocket borough’ would be easily enough to arrange without a formal contest. Many underage MPs probably simply occupied the position without undertaking many of its duties, although some did take an active part in parliamentary business. The practice continued into the eighteenth century. A petition against the result of the Guildford election of 1734 alleged that Richard Onslow ‘at the times of the said Election, was incapable of standing a Candidate, being under the Age of Twenty-one Years; and that the Petitioner and his Agents publickly declared the same to the Electors at the time of the said Election’.[2] He was allowed to take the seat though. In 1768, nobody seriously objected when Charles James Fox was elected for Midhurst in Surrey at 19 years old (though he did not make a speech until his was 21). And in 1780, Lord Ailesbury referred to known instances ‘at the last election’ of minors being elected ‘a year or two before they were of age’ (he named Charles Manners, later 4th Duke of Rutland, returned unopposed for Cambridge University, and George Broderick, later 4th Viscount Midleton, returned for Whitchurch, both  in 1774, when they were aged 20). But underage MPs seem to have become steadily less acceptable. Lord Ailesbury preferred what he called ‘the more usual method’ of getting one’s underage son into parliament, which was to install someone as a placeholder MP on the basis that they would vacate the seat when the boy came of age. Certainly, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become something to avoid. There was controversy in Flintshire over the nomination and indeed successful election of Sir Thomas Mostyn in 1796, with his minority being presented either as debarring him or of no consequence, depending on which side one was on.[3] And our case study of the 1807 Yorkshire shows that Lord Milton, just a few days shy of his 21st birthday, deliberately delayed an election so that he would reach his majority as he started campaigning.

As for the continuation of underage voting, some evidence can be drawn from poll books.

Using the ECPPEC data explorer we can search the project’s 20 Case Study Constituencies for individual voters whose age was challenged when they went to vote. Try searching ‘manuscript comments’ for terms like ‘age’ or ‘minor’ for instance. So, at the 1734 Bedfordshire election, for example, we can find a John Sperrey listed as ‘refus’d being under age’, and in the same constituency in 1831, a William Turner appears with the note ‘Not of age’. A voter at the 1734 Coventry election was marked ‘not of age’. At the 1727 Northampton election, 9 would-be voters have the note ‘Q[uery] Age’ listed by their names, with similar annotations to the Yorkshire 1727 poll book. The 1768 Northampton election was so fiercely contested, in fact, that more than half of the voters were asked at the hustings to prove their right to vote (although not all on the basis of their age). Even at Cambridge University, in 1727, one voter attracted the remark ‘Under Age’.

Of all ECPPEC’s case study constituencies, the most frequent age-based challenges appear to have been in Minehead, a small ‘potwalloper’ borough where about 300 men qualified to vote as resident householders. The high number of recorded challenges – made on a range of points – was due partly to the contentiousness of some of the elections, at which the Luttrell family’s usually dominant interest would periodically come under challenge; and partly to the nature of the franchise, which connected the right to vote with the question of residence, and whether apprenticeships had been fully served or not at the point the would-be voter had turned 21. Moreover, these Minehead elections are unusual in that copies of poll books happen to have survived which record, in detail, election agents’ queries and challenges. Sometimes, these challenges appear to have been successful, as when George Milton and James Burchier in 1747 (and the latter again in 1754), were marked simply as ‘not of age’ and have no votes recorded. Sometimes, indeed, the poll book notes record apparent disappointment, as when William Boden, or William Chapman, were recorded as ‘und[e]r Age  not bro[ugh]t to Poll’ in 1768. These were presumably notes by election agents who had to accept, reluctantly, that these possible supporters were ineligible. Sometimes, though, challenges could be unsuccessful, as with James Boyles in 1802, whose age was queried but still voted.

Poll books, though, are problematic as evidence of actual underage voting in various ways. First, it should be said that challenges on the basis of age are not all that common. Second, the queries may have been the work of particularly assiduous polling clerks or of a campaign agent, seeking (perhaps unsuccessfully) to find fault with the qualifications of voters who were supporting the opposing candidates. Yet all this having been said, a willingness to query voters’ ages does indicate that it was far from inconceivable that men under 21 might attempt to vote.

Corroboration comes from post-poll attempts to challenge election results. The result of the 1768 Northampton election, for example, was so close, that scrutinies of voters’ qualifications began almost immediately. Attempts were made to have certain votes rejected, chiefly on the grounds that the voters were ‘Lodgers & Boarders, or Under Age’.[4] Indeed, when an election was controverted (which is to say, legally challenged, with the petition to overset the result coming before the Committee of Privileges and Elections of the House of Commons), allegations of under-age voting were not infrequent. A glance at the petitions lodged for just a few mid-century years shows that retrospective discounting of votes cast by ‘Minors’ was urged for elections for Northampton and Southampton in 1734, Yorkshire in 1736, Denbeigh, and Ruthyn, both in 1740, and Gloucester in 1741.[5] These allegations could be made against specific individuals or larger groups. Again, even if the numbers of underage voters brought to the Committee were quite small overall, these claims (however tendentious they were) do suggest that underage voting was something that people imagined happening, and which probably did.

To be clear then, there is no compelling evidence that voting by minors was a widespread phenomenon in the eighteenth century. Probably if it did happen, it was on an ad hoc basis rather than as a deliberate, pre-meditated strategy. Yet in at least one constituency, an attempt was made to systemically enfranchise minors. In Portsmouth, the right to vote was limited to the burgesses of the town. For most of the period, there was little conflict, it being an ‘Admiralty borough’ closely tied to the interests of the Royal Navy. From 1750, however, Navy control came under challenge from a group of independents, headed by the Carter family. Their initial tactic was to elect new burgesses: 62 in 1750, many of them members of the family, and 18 of them minors. Two of these new burgesses were as young as 8 and 5.[6] Here, then, was a constitutional question: would these minors, as burgesses, be able to vote in parliamentary elections, or would they have been debarred by the 1695/96 Act? As it turned out, the point never came to be tested, since there were no electoral contests in Portsmouth between 1741 and 1772. The point was discussed, though, in letters to the newspapers and pamphlets, suggesting that the prospect of children voting in parliamentary elections was not something to be rejected out of hand.

Indeed, remarkably, it was the reforms of 1832 that actually enabled much more widespread voting by children. This was because an electoral register was introduced. It was by no means impossible for minors to be put on the register, for instance if they were the legal owners of a property. If they presented themselves to vote as registered voters, it was difficult and – in the twentieth century at least – illegal for polling clerks to refuse their vote. No research has investigated how common this was in the decades following the 1832 Reform Act, but by the early twentieth century, voting by children who had been accidentally or deliberately added to the register was often reported in the press. This included infants as young as two years old. The practice was largely tolerated as a minor eccentricity of the system, although moves to prohibit it were made in 1923.[7]

Oddly, then, it seems that in comparison to the seventeenth century and earlier, and the period after the Reform Act, the long eighteenth century was a time of comparatively close restriction of voting by minors. We have plenty of evidence of underage voting being challenged, which gives the idea that the practice was generally prohibited. Yet, this impression could be a factor of the kind of evidence that survives. The evidence we have is of votes by minors being called out. If minors did vote successfully, without anyone challenging them, there would be no record in the poll books or petitions. It might be, after all, that voting by minors was quite often tolerated, or even that it was relatively commonplace in the eighteenth century, with practice varying greatly – as it so often did – from one constituency to another and according to how close the electoral contest was.

[1] Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p.41, and ‘The Historical Links between Children, Justice, and Democracy’, Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy, 28, I (Fall 2006), 339-356 (343).

[2] Journal of the House of Commons, XXII (1732-1737), 352.

[3] See Frank O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties (Clarendon Press, 1989), p.117 for a full discussion. He notes that 21 MPs under the age of 21 were retuned to the six Parliaments between 1715 and 1754, and 13 in the six Parliaments between 1754 and 1790 (p.117n.22). Lord Ailesbury’s views are quoted in Ian R. Christie, The End of North’s Ministry, 1780-1782 (Macmillan, 1958), pp.63-64. The Sir Thomas Mostyn case is discussed in O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties, p.115 and R. G. Thorne, ‘Flintshire’, in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne (1986).

[4] See Zoe Dyndor, ‘Widows, Wives and Witnesses: Women and their Involvement in the 1768 Northampton Borough Parliamentary Election’, Parliamentary History, 30 (2011), 309–23. An annotated pollbook used to challenge the result gives more detail but does not distinguish further between the specific reasons for disputing voters’ qualifications (BL Add. MS 75752).

[5] Journals of the House of Commons, XXII (1732-1737), 334, 345, 506 ad 696; and XXIV (1741-1745), 32, 566 and 579.

[6] A. Temple Patterson, Portsmouth, a History (Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press, 1976), 77.

[7] Peter Keeling, ‘Child Voters’, History Today, 70 (2020), 42-51.