Sunday, 7 February 2016

Just who could vote in Chorlton in 1836?

Chorlton-cum-Hardy electors in 1836
We are just four years after the great Reform Act, which provided a degree of uniformity to who could qualify to vote in Parliamentary elections, gave votes to the new industrial cities and towns of the North and along the way actually disenfranchised some people.

And here in Chorlton in 1836 that still amounted to just 30 men, which were just 9% of the adult population.

Now I remain fascinated by who they were and how they voted.  Up until recently it was down to looking through the records held at the Local History Library at Central Ref, but now an increasing number are available on line at ancestry.co.uk.

What is more fascinating is that these Poll Books also contain the record of how each man voted enabling the historian to gauge the political complexion of an area.

But we have to be careful about just what we can learn from these records.

Chorlton-cum-Hardy electors in 1836
To vote in an election was to vote in the open.  There were no niceties like secret ballots.  A man’s choice was clear to all and if he were a tenant or tradesmen he might well feel obliged to follow the political line of his landlord or chief customer.

All of which is there in the story of the 1835 General Election and one that is covered in The Story of Chorlton-cum-Hardy.*

In the meantime I shall just reflect on what the digitalization of records has made it easier to search that vast storehouse of historical sources.

Now there are some who rubbish those of us who sit at a computer to research the past.  For them there is no substitute for holding the original document confident in the knowledge that all but a few will have handled it since it was written perhaps two centuries ago.

This is all true but if you live in Manchester and the records are sitting in a library in Ottawa or even just down the road in London that access is less easy.

Labour Party poster, 1931 aimed at women voters
Added to that the search engines cut the time of searching, although I have to say even with such short cuts you can get side tracked and pass endless hours wandering around.

And in a few cases the search engines seem to lose material which once prevented me from finding the registration of my own birth.

It is true that you are at the mercy of what the company has decided to copy but that only raises the bigger issue that so many records have been lost already either through negligence, accidents, or bad luck.

And then there are the acts of crass stupidity like the decision to put the entire records of the Derby Workhouse on a skip a long time ago.

So I am not only thank ful for what has survived but pleased that it is available like the records of electors.

Here are their names, their qualification to vote and on election years the record of who they voted for.

And with a bit of cross referencing it is possible to work out their religion, and whether they might be at the mercy of a powerful landlord.

All of which is good stuff.

But doesn’t help us much with the political preferences of the rest, for as important as the 1832 Reform Act may have been for laying down a marker for future reform it still left only something like 3% of adults with the vote.

Added to this of course not one women was enfranchised.  They would have to wait another 86 years and another decade would pass before virtually everyone over the age of 21 could vote in a General Election.

For these their first ever parliamentary election would be in 1929, and the ground breaking 1945 contest would be but their third.  So when you do the sums it is a sobering thought that we have only been a democracy for 85 years and until recently there will have been women and some men who passed well into the middle years of their lives before they could choose a government.

Pictures; from the 1836 Poll Books of Lancashire courtesy of ancestry.co.uk and the London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Libraries, and the Labour Party

*The Story of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/the-story-of-chorlton-cum-hardy.html

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