Drunken Disturbances: Electoral Violence in Chepstow, 1847

Alcohol and Victorian elections often went hand-in-hand – this could promote a festive and exuberant atmosphere, but also create or exacerbate election violence if the mood turned sour; in this blog, Research Assistant Ilia Hionidou explores one such instance:

In 1847, the Nottingham Review reported some bemusing events that took place the Wednesday prior in Chepstow, a small town in south Wales. The report recalls incidents that took place during an 1842 election, a year that featured prominent Chartist uproar in Wales and around the UK. Chartism aimed to bring about far-reaching political reforms, which included universal male suffrage and the introduction of the secret ballot. 

However, the politically-violent events that occurred on Friday 20 August 1847 were not driven by Chartist tensions. Instead, this violence was caused by ‘a wagon containing barrels of beer’. The article reports that the ‘lower orders’ who had attended Captain Somerset’s hustings ‘were so excited by drink to almost be in a state of madness’. The arrival of the beer acted as a catalyst, with the mob then committing a variety of violent acts, including assault, vandalism and the killing of a person. The Nottingham Review discusses the assault of ‘several persons [who] were severely injured’ by the crowd’s riotous behaviour. The mob’s violence triggered the death of a ‘young surgeon’ who had recently moved to Chepstow and had fallen out of the wagon in the midst of the ‘madness’. His skull was fractured. The disturbance also potentially claimed another victim, a ‘navigator’ for whom, it was reported, ‘little hope [was] entertained of his recovery’. Perpetrators also did much damage to physical property, notably the home of a ‘respected vicar’ whose ‘residence was not spared’. Various other properties were damaged; the article mentions that the houses of Captain Somerset’s affiliates ‘were attacked with such fury that not only the glass but the shutters were destroyed’, while Captain Somerset himself was ‘openly attacked by the mob’.

If initiated by Chepstow’s supply of beer and not politics or Chartism, is this electoral violence? One prominent nineteenth-century legal definition of electoral violence situated it within the broader context of electoral corruption. The application of ‘undue influence’ was ‘(1) Any force, violence, restraint or threat thereof, (2) Any injury, damage, harm or loss inflicted, or threat thereof, or other intimidation, (3) Any abduction, duress, or any fraudulent device or contrivance which might impede the proper enjoyment of the franchise.’ This project uses a combination of this definition and a more specific operational definition to characterise electoral violence as the ‘physical damage, or the explicit and immediate threat of physical damage to persons and/or property that directly results from the local and national electoral cycle’.  These instances of violence occurred because of political events – in this case, the occurrence of Captain Somerset’s hustings in combination with the arrival of beer.

Having established these events as electoral violence, can they help to explain the causes and consequences of electoral violence? The factors behind such events might be clearly direct causes, or perhaps more opaque general associations. The Nottingham Review’s article suggests that nothing other than the excitement of drink was a contributing factor to the ensuing violence – a direct association between the violent events and the drunkenness of the perpetrators. The article does not mention that the violent events had any immediate formal or legal consequences (other than the deaths, injuries and vandalisms). For example, the Riot Act was not read out, nor was there any increased presence of authority in the vicinity, such as the more regular police, special constables, or the military. Rather, the article draws the retelling of the aforementioned violent events to a relatively quiet close, concluding that ‘on Thursday night, the mob having ceased to be supplied with drink, the town was blessed with the return of peace and quiet’.  The newspaper asserts that excessive drinking caused the violence – it is election violence because it is highly unlikely that the events would have occurred had the hustings not taken place. The provision of free alcohol, paid for by candidates, was a common feature of elections in the period; such largesse could benefit candidates, but also violently backfire.

 

Ilia Hionidou is a third year student reading English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her academic interests, outside of nineteenth-century electoral violence encompass literatures of the same period, including Romantic Poetry and the early Victorian novel.

 

(Source: Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, Friday 20 August 1847. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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