In the 18th century Parliament, there were just over 550 elected M.P.s: a surprisingly large number for a time when the population of the country was only a tenth of what it is today. Under an Act passed in 1716, a general election was held every seven years, and this was only changed to the current five years in 1911.
There were 45 M.P.s from Scotland and 24 from Wales (100 from Ireland would be added in 1800), and 2 each chosen by the graduates of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (an ancient right, not abolished till 1948); the rest being elected by English constituencies. Here, 2 M.P.s were elected by each county, regardless of size and population. This might sound strange and unfair, but the Americans still use a system derived from it, where every state elects just two senators.
The great majority of M.P.s, however, were elected by the towns. Ever since the early middle ages, certain towns had been granted the status of “Boroughs”, which meant they could choose their own mayors, collect their own local taxes, and also elect their own M.P.s to Parliament: Most boroughs elected two M.P.s. There were four boroughs in Staffordshire: Lichfield, Newcastle, Stafford and Tamworth; meaning that, with the addition of the two representing the county, 10 M.P.s were returned altogether.
The trouble with this system was that it had become hopelessly fossilised. For over 100 years the population grew and shifted, but no new boroughs were created, nor did any old ones lose their borough status. This meant that new cities like Birmingham or Manchester (or Stoke) remained legally villages, with no local government structure or representation in Parliament, whereas old decayed towns, like Old Sarum (a deserted hilltop outside Salisbury) or Dunwich (a port on the coast of Suffolk, which had now fallen into the sea) still elected their own M.P.s! These were the famous “rotten boroughs” - but nothing was done about them till the Reform Act of 1832! There were, however, no rotten boroughs in Staffordshire.
Who could vote
Basically, voting was by men who owned property. In the counties there was a uniform system: voting was restricted to those owning land or houses with a rateable value of £2 a year: these were nicknamed “the 40 shilling freeholders”. Even in the 18th century this was not a large sum of money, so in most counties there would be several thousand of these voters. In the boroughs, however, there was no uniform system at all, and every town might have its own rules for qualification. The most common were where the M.P.s were chosen by the town council, or where they were chosen by the Freemen of the town (this was the system in Newcastle and Stafford). In other places, the vote might go to all ratepayers, to the owners of certain houses, or even to anyone who happened to be in the town at the time of the election! There was no notion of “one man, one vote”: if you were fortunate enough to own property in several different towns, then you could vote in all of them! Furthermore, if a town returned 2 M.P.s, as most did, then each voter would in fact have two votes; though he wasn’t allowed to give both to the same candidate.
There was no secret ballot till 1872: voting was “open” and took place in public. If you wanted to cast a vote, you would have to go up onto a platform (called the “hustings” in the town square, where your name would be checked on the list of voters, and you would tell the returning officer (probably the mayor of sheriff) whom you wished to vote for. The candidates and their agents would be watching closely to make sure there was no cheating. There would probably be a large crowd in the square, provided with lavish amounts of free drink by the candidates, ready to cheer or boo as the mood took them, and often to riot and go on the rampage. Obviously such a system led to a great deal of bribery, corruption and intimidation, which everybody officially deplored but nobody did anything about!
What happened in an election
In actual fact, few elections ever got as far as an actual vote (called a “poll” - literally, a head-count of voters). Electioneering was a very expensive business, which the candidates usually had to pay for out of their own pockets. Usually, therefore, candidates who realised they had little chance of winning would drop out long before the poll, in order not to waste any more money (The idea that parties have to contest every seat, even those they are never likely to win, only dates from after the second world war). There would only be an actual poll where the contest was looking very close, or the candidates exceptionally determined, or simply very rich. In most 18th century elections, there would be a lot of excitement, and often very riotous campaigns, but usually by election day only two candidates would be left, and they would be proclaimed to have been returned without any need for an actual vote. In the general election of 1754, only about 50 constituencies got as far as a poll!
The people most likely to benefit from this system were the great landowners, and not surprisingly the great bulk of M.P.s and almost all cabinet ministers in the 18th century were drawn from these families. In some cases, a nobleman’s hold over a constituency was so tight that he could practically nominate the M.P.s, and it would be nicknamed a “pocket borough”. There were none of these in Staffordshire, but nevertheless, most of the local M.P.s were drawn from just four families and their dependents, as we shall see.
There is not a single case of an 18th century government losing an election! A government simply had more to offer than its opponents. M.P. did not receive a salary until the 20th century, but in the 18th century at least 150 M.P.s would receive government money in one way or another, and naturally they would be expected to support the government in return. Similarly, governments could reward their supporters in the constituencies with a great variety of jobs and favours. Once again, everyone denounced the corruption involved, but no serious attempts at reform were made. Governments fell, not because of defeat at the polls, but because of internal divisions, or in some cases because the king sacked the Prime Minister!
Early in the century there were two parties, the Whigs and the Tories; though of course neither was as well-organised as parties today.
When in 1714 Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, died, the throne passed to a remote German cousin, George I, elector of Hanover. He was strongly supported by the Whigs, but many Tories thought the true heir was James Edward Stuart, son of the late King James II who had been deposed back in 1688. James’s supporters were known as the “Jacobites”. The trouble was that whereas George was a Protestant, James was a Catholic and was furthermore backed by the French; and in consequence many Tories could not bring themselves to support him. There were two major Jacobite rebellions, one in 1715-16 and another (led by James’s son Charles Edward Stuart; “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) in 1745-6. Because of these, the first two Hanoverian kings could not trust the Tories, and their governments were entirely Whig. After mid-century, these old political divisions declined, politics became very confused, and it was only from about 1780 that a new Whig party developed in opposition to the government of Lord North and later that of William Pitt the younger.
Staffordshire was a strongly Tory area, and many people in the county were Jacobite sympathisers.
Staffordshire Constituencies & Votes
The County of Staffordshire
About 5,000 voters (40 shilling Freeholders)
Polls in the period 1714-1800: 1715, 1747
About 700 voters (various qualifications)
Polls 1714-1800: 1715, 1722, 1727, 1747, 1754, 1761
About 500 voters (Freemen)
Polls 1714-1800: 1715, 1734, 1768, 1790
About 200-500 voters (Freemen, known as Burgesses)
Polls 1714-1800: 1722, 1734, 1754, 1768, 1780, 1790
About 250-500 voters (“Scot & Lot”: those who paid the local Poor Rate tax)
Polls 1714-1800: 1722, 1727, 1734, 1741, 1761, 1774
It can be seen that there was never an election when all the Staffordshire constituencies went to the poll!
(Next: the families who dominated Staffordshire politics)