Violence and Riot

Disorder was endemic in 18th-century elections, among voters and non-voters alike [15-minute read]

Georgian elections were often noisy, contentious, and sometimes even violent civic occasions. Voters and non-voters alike were active, engaged participants, sometimes using whatever they could get their hands on to express their pleasure or displeasure. Liberal treats of alcohol made violence and riot more likely, with inhibitions lowered and rowdy behaviour following. Violence took place in elections both across the country and throughout the century. The Reform Act of 1832 certainly did not curb electoral violence; indeed, it probably escalated over the course of the nineteenth century, as demonstrated by the Causes and Consequences of Electoral Violence: Evidence from England and Wales, 1832–1914 project at Durham University. Violence could erupt across the social spectrum, perpetrated and suffered by both voters and non-voters. The more deep-seated the local animosities, the deeper familial rivalries, and the closer the contests, the more likely there was to be some form of electoral violence. And violence could range from hurling stones, dung, or dead cats; to personal attacks; to the hiring and use of armed mobs to attack processions, treats and entertainments. Committee rooms, hustings, and the homes of the key supporters were repeated targets. Violence could result in damage or destruction of property, as well as the injury (and sometimes even death) of voters and non-voters. The examples below highlight some key moments of electoral violence, particularly in the latter half of the long eighteenth century: instances where acts of violence were particularly visceral and spun out of control.

Anonymous, The Brentford Election, 1768, etching and engraving on paper, 10.8cm x 17.9cm, British Museum, London, Y,4.574. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Rival Factions
Bludgeon, c.1780, wood, Courtesy of Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, SH.A.85. Click the image to view the bludgeon in the Cultural Artifact Explorer.

Violence frequently erupted between rival candidates’s supporters.  Bristol’s population was particularly prone to bouts of rioting as electoral activity came to a head in advance of polling. In 1830, the candidates standing for the city included Richard Hart Davis (Tory), James Evan Baillie (Whig), Edward Protheroe Jr. (Whig), and James Acland (a radical). Violence broke out between Baillie and Protheroe’s supporters in the vicinity of their candidate’s election headquarters (The Rummer and The Bush respectively). On Monday 26 July 1830, the entry of the Whig James Baillie into Bristol was accompanied by violence. An intergenerational group of ‘50 men and boys on horseback, evidently in a state of intoxication, and many of them armed with bludgeons’ attacked the procession as it entered the high street, suggesting familiarity with the processional route and therefore premeditation.[1] When Baillie emerged from The Rummer to address the crowd, he was greeted with hissing and cries of ‘Protheroe for ever’, prompting ‘gentlemen on horseback, and others’ to attack the crowd; ‘having succeeded in partially clearing the area, a considerable number of men who assisted to swell the procession were recalled to occupy the space’.[2] So, too, was violence perpetuated across the social hierarchy, initiated by gentlemen, tradespeople, and sailors alike. That evening, ‘60 to a 100 sailors and ships’ carpenters, in a dreadful state of infuriation and intoxication and armed with common bludgeons’ attacked The Bush, prompting a rival mob to attack The Rummer. The violence sent 27 people to the infirmary. In the poll book, 136 ‘mariners’ or sailors and 163 ‘ship builders’ were listed as voting, primarily for the Davis/Baillie (Tory/Whig) combination, indicating that the violence erupted from many of the voters themselves and particularly against Protheroe’s candidacy.

According to the Bristol Mercury, on the first day of polling (30 July 1830), as Mr Protheroe addressed the ‘collected multitude’ from The Bush, an unknown ‘miscreant’ threw an oak rung of a ladder at Protheroe’s head, injuring him enough for him to miss speaking on the hustings the following day.[3] Violence could erupt spontaneously from individuals in the crowd, whether genuinely acting based on personal political belief, or planted by rival campaigns to stir up rioting. After five days of polling, Davis and Baillie were elected.

Voter Intimidation

Voter intimidation, through the use of force and sometimes the hiring of armed thugs, could sometimes prevent rival factions from having their votes recorded. The 1768 Pontefract election was particularly contentious, with violence stirred up by the supporters of Sir Rowland Winn against the joined interests of Lord Galway and John Walsh. In 1768, William Monckton, 2nd Viscount Galway, ran alongside Henry Strachey (Walsh’s candidate). On polling day, Sir Rowland Winn was accompanied by his supporters ‘in a riotous and tumultuous manner’, who then occupied the town hall and prevented Galway and Walsh’s supporters from casting their ballots. The violence and targets were clearly premeditated, as an affidavit sworn by G. P. Micklethwaite and others illuminates:

… after parading the town for some time and terrifying the burgesses and inhabitants there, and insulting many burgesses in the interest of Lord Gallway and Mr Strachey… [they] repaired to the lodgings of Sir Rowland Winn… [During the poll, they] insulted and violently beat a great many burgesses who voted for… Lord Gallway and Mr Strachey, and also others who were in their interest, and endeavouring to go to the poll, but were by those means prevented…[4]

These tactics were effective, as on Tuesday 22 March 1768, after Sir Rowland Winn arrived at the Town Hall ‘attended by his friends’, ‘there was no shouting or noise in the streets’. According to Lord Galway and Mr Strachey, ‘others were so intimidated, they durst not come to poll’.[5] Winn’s supporters used intimidation tactics to keep the polls open until Winn had a majority. The use of violence was effective, temporarily securing Winn a victory for the borough.

Similarly, in the newly-enfranchised town of Sheffield in 1832 following the Reform Act, voters and non-voters used their bodies to fill public spaces, intimidating passers-by in the streets. The candidates included John Parker (Whig), James Silk Buckingham (radical), Mr Ward (radical), and Samuel Bailey (radical). Preserved in the Home Office papers at the National Archives survives a handbill printed after the result of the poll and the ensuing riot, breaking down the hourly actions which led to violence on 15 December 1832.[6] As the number of voters attending the polls dwindled on the second day of polling around two o’clock in the afternoon, a large group of Mr Parker’s Whig supporters gathered around the Corn Exchange where the voting took place, blocking the ‘free ingress of voters’.[7] In advance of the reading of the final poll, stones were hurled at the constables, with Mr Buckingham’s election committee trying to maintain order. By four o’clock, the result of the poll was read to a crowd of around 25,000 people (evidently including both voters and non-voters); with Parker receiving 1,704 votes; Buckingham 1,650; Ward 1,330; and Bailey 897. The supporters of the unsuccessful W. Ward, the president of the political union, then gathered outside the Tontine Inn, Mr Parker’s election headquarters, throwing stones and smashing the windows. The Riot Act was read for the first time that evening to deter further violence as troops were sent for from Rotherham (over 20 miles away), from where 120 yeomanry and 100 infantry descended on the town. As Frank O’Gorman indicates, soldiers were not allowed to be within two miles of towns until an election came to a close, but were stationed nearby in case violence broke out in the surrounding area.[8] The election constables gathered en masse and entered Haymarket, trying to disperse the crowd, before the newly elected MP (and magistrate), Mr Parker, addressed them at eight o’clock in the evening. Violence erupted in the streets, with crowds of rioters trying to break through the human barriers formed by the constables. Two hours later, at ten o’clock, the regimental cavalry arrived in Tontine Yard. The Riot Act was read for the second time as rioters hurled threats and stones at the soldiers. The reading of the Riot Act (enacted into law in 1714) was meant to deter ‘rebellious riots and tumults’, as local officials ordered groups of more than 12 people illegally gathered to disperse or risk the death penalty. After the order was given to fire on the crowd with the third reading of the Riot Act, at least five were killed and numerous others wounded. The resort to counterviolence from the Crown dispersed the rioters, and restored a period of calm to the city. Violence was used to sway the official outcome of elections, and could also be used by official bodies to suppress riotous behaviour that breached the limits of acceptable or conventional disorderly behaviour associated with elections.

Lack of treating

Violence could also break out if electoral conventions were not properly followed. The convention of treating voters was clearly prized in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. In a letter from Robert Sinclair to Lord Fitzwilliam on 17 November 1806, Mr Sinclair wrote, ‘The duke of Devonshire’s agents thought, very properly, that a check should be given to wanton & unnecessary extravagance, which they observed to be, from time to time, rapidly increasing’.[9] Expenses for the borough surpassed £500, causing the duke of Devonshire and his agents to shift the location of their election dinners in support of Lord John Townshend, connected to the Cavendishes by marriage, to Harrogate, drawing the ire of Knaresborough’s inhabitants. Knaresborough was a seat typically held by members and allies of the extended Cavendish family. In November 1806, Lord John Townshend and Viscount Ossulston were elected without contest for the borough. However, the reduction in conventional treats and dinners drew the ire of the voters. On 3 November, the day before the election, the duke of Devonshire’s agents, Mr Carr(?) and Mr Shaw, ‘thought it adviseable [sic] to swear in a large number of special constables [the duke’s lead miners]… to the number of 140 in seven distinct Lots of 20 in each… [they were] directed by no means to break the peace if assaulted, not to resist […] but only to protect Mr Sinclair, the Returning Officer & the other Gentlemen in the Execution of the Writ of Election’.[10] As the constables were deployed around the Court House, a crowd of angry men and women chased them through the streets, ‘[pelting] them with stones, dirt or anything that came to hand & several of them were wounded’. The military were sent for from Harrogate, where the Scots Greys arrived to escort the election officials to the Bell Inn and thence to Harrogate after the conclusion of the election. The relationship between patrons, candidates, and community was symbiotic, linking both obligations and benefits. Voters were cognisant of their political power and influence, and bargained for patronage, favours, and entertainments by which they could be swayed.[11]  Following the accepted and encouraged patterns of treating and canvassing was vital to maintaining goodwill within the community. Attempting to reduce election expenses was therefore a risky electoral strategy, resulting in danger to the candidates and election officials.

Selection or Return of Candidates
Robert Dighton, The Westminster Election 1796 (Detail), 1839, hand-coloured mezzotint, 63.5cm x 80.5cm, British Museum, London, 1937,0508.37. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Violence could also erupt when voters and non-voters were unhappy with the selection or return of candidates. A particularly potent means of expressing displeasure and visceral hatred through crowd action was through the hurling of objects, with the throwing of dead cats becoming almost proverbial. In 1818 in Bristol, candidates were assaulted with ‘stinking fish, dead dogs, cats [and] rats’, while the threat of ‘rotten eggs and dead cats of Chichester’ in the 1820 Sussex election was used to intimidate Edward Jeremiah Curteis from standing, albeit unsuccessfully.[12] Apocryphally, during the 1784 Westminster election, a cat had been thrown at Charles James Fox at the hustings. A voice from the crowd called out that the dead cat reeked worse than a fox, his namesake. Fox rejoindered, ‘there was nothing extraordinary in that, considering it was a poll-cat’.[13] Indeed, in Robert Dighton’s depiction of the 1796 Westminster election, a child can be seen holding a cat in his hand looking up at the hustings, ready to engage with crowd action.

However, violence was not always condoned. During the 1784 Westminster election, a constable knocked down a schoolboy in the course of electoral violence, and was roundly condemned for doing so.[14] The constable was ‘immediately taken into custody [… and] was given up in charge to the high constable, who engaged that he should be forthcoming for prosecution’.[15] Striking and injuring a child in the course of the election was deemed a step too far in spectrum of electoral violence, as was murder. A couple of weeks later, at the close of the day’s poll on 10 May, another riot took place in Covent Garden resulting in the assault and death of Nicholas Casson, a constable. Both sides immediately blamed the other for Casson’s death. Fox’s campaign offered a 100-guinea reward (equivalent to over £9000 in 2017) for the person who could turn in the murderer. On 1 June, at least four labourers were tried at the Old Bailey for Casson’s murder.

Violence was a key means of voicing voter disapproval in the course of an election, as well as a tool to sway election results. The case studies above illuminate that violence could be spontaneous or premeditated, and range from intimidation, to destruction and death. It is worth noting, however, that many of our accounts of electoral violence may be quite mendacious. Juicy reporting of electoral scuffles or violence would have had commercial appeal to newspaper editors, but it might also have been used to influence votes, as the press was often decidedly partisan when it came to eighteenth-century elections. The perception of the crowds of people who attended and participated in elections were often mediated by the press reporting on the proceedings. As Mark Harrison astutely points out, ‘When thousands of people present themselves on the street, their individual value systems are reduced, condensed, filtered and reinterpreted by those who comment upon them’.[16] Crowds became ‘the mob’ and the ‘collected multitude’, condensing a heterogeneous gathering of men, women, boys, girls, old, and young into a faceless, gender-neutral, homogenous, and threatening mass of people.

The 1872 Secret Ballot Act was expected to reduce electoral violence, as the public polling booths and publication of poll books left voters open to violence, hostility, and intimidation before, during, and after elections. In fact, however, electoral violence only gradually declined in the latter half of the nineteenth century, ‘shifting from mass events to individual attacks’ according to Lydia Buckroyd.[17] Violence was endemic in electoral culture in the long eighteenth century, springing out of the dense networks of relationships and rivalries, and deep-rooted conventions within local communities.

[1] Reading Mercury (2 August 1830), p. 4 col. c.

[2] Reading Mercury (2 August 1830), p. 4 col. c.

[3] Bristol Mercury (3 August 1830), p.3 col. a.

[4] G.P. Micklethwaite and others, Affidavit sworn 2 May 1768, quoted in C. Bradley, ‘The Parliamentary Representation of the Boroughs of Pontefract, Newark, and East Retford, 1754-1768’, MA dissertation (Manchester, 1953), 57.

[5] Leeds Intelligencer (12 April 1768), p.2 col. b.

[6] National Archives, Kew, Letter from the Earl of Harewood, 16 December 1832, HO 52/20/115 ff.294-297A.

[7] HO 52/20/115 f.296.

[8] Frank O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties: the unreformed electoral system of Hanoverian England 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989), 255.

[9] National Archives, Kew, Letter from Robert Sinclair to Lord Fitzwilliam ,17 Nov 1806, HO 42/87/212 f.890.

[10] HO 42/87/212 f.883.

[11] F. O’Gorman, ‘The unreformed electorate of Hanoverian England: the mid‐eighteenth century to the reform act of 1832’, Social History, 11/1 (1986), 48.

[12] Bristol Mirror (20 June 1818); R. McQuiston, ‘Sussex aristocrats and the County election of 1820,’ English Historical Review, 88/348 (1973), 547.

[13] Francis Grose, The Olio: being a collection of essays, dialogues, letters, biographical sketches, anecdotes, pieces of poetry, parodies, bon mots, epigrams, epitaphs &c. (London, 1792), 203.; Matthew Grenby and Kendra Packham, ‘Electoral Animals in Eighteenth-Century England’, in Human-Animal Interactions in the Eighteenth Century: From Pests and Predators to Pets, Poems and Philosophy, ed. by Stefanie Stockhorst, Jürgen Overhoff, and Penelope Corfield (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 157.

[14] James Hartley, History of the Westminster Election (London, 1785), 186.

[15] Hartley, 186.

[16] Mark Harrison, Crowds and History: Mass Phenomena in English Towns, 1790-1835 (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 5.

[17] Lydia Buckroyd, ‘The Secret Ballot Does Not Eliminate but Changes the Type and Timing of Election Violence: Evidence from Election Violence Deaths 1832-1914 in England and Wales’, Causes and Consequences of Electoral Violence: Evidence from England and Wales, 1832-1914 (2021) <>