Elections, Riots, and Election Riots: Whittlesey

The dismantling and distribution of wood from the hustings was a hallowed tradition in many constituencies – but not always an accepted one.  Project Research Assistant Elise Boothroyd explores one such instance of the practice in which official intransigence provoked a serious incident of election violence:

Much of the electoral violence reported in articles from nineteenth-century newspapers is attributed to causes immediately relevant to elections, including disagreements between electors, electors’ disapproval of candidates, or a more general desire to create trouble and disturb the political process. In an article describing events in Whittlesey in April 1857, however, there is no specific mention of political feeling in favour of, or against, any party, nor about the election more generally. Indeed, 1857 was reputed to be one of the quieter Victorian General Elections. Yet, still a riot occurred. The cause? According to one newspaper report, the townsfolk of Whittlesey decided that they fancied the wood from the hustings platform, where candidates gave their nomination speeches, for their personal use. Having taken the wood by force, a conflict with the police ensued.

This initially seemed rather amusing, and bemusing, to some; indeed, the journalist presents it as such in the article, describing the notion that the people had a right to take the wood as ‘absurd’. The violence that followed, however, was less comical. When seven policemen intervened to stop the theft, they were driven back into the police station no fewer than three times by a growing and angry mob, now armed with large cudgels – a sort of reverse-kettling.

After forcing the police, by now ‘besmeared with blood and dirt’, to retreat indoors, the mob destroyed the windows and garden of the police station, while one man was shot from a window (no explanation is given for this). The group then proceeded to break the windows and furniture of the house owned by the magistrate responsible for the policemen’s orders, and to destroy almost everything in a china and earthenware shop owned by a man who had helped the police.  Not content with this, they stole the recovered wood from the house where it was now being stored, vandalising the town hall for good measure as they passed by.

On the face of it, it appears that this violence arose simply because some local inhabitants held the incorrect belief that they had a right to the wood. But given that the journalist described this notion as ‘absurd’, it is clear that this sense of entitlement was by no means universally accepted. Why, then, did 400 people, some of whom presumably realised that taking the material was objectionable, follow suit?

Perhaps some of the answer lies in the collective mentality of large crowds. While some of those involved may not have acted in such a manner individually, on this occasion they saw others taking the wood and decided that they might as well do the same, possibly assuming that they would not be punished en masse. The election arguably enabled this misconduct by bringing large numbers of people together. However, this would also be the case at other mass events, including festivals and holidays. It therefore seems likely that the violence was connected more directly to the election in other ways, too.

Some people may have considered it acceptable to take wood from the hustings because they had a lack of respect for authority, particularly during elections. Much of the crowd, after all, were subject to an increased level of police control at this time despite not possessing the vote themselves. Therefore, perhaps some residents saw stealing the wood as an opportunity to express their resentment towards the police, who were stationed at the hustings even before any misconduct had taken place. This would explain why the mob then targeted the property of those who had helped the police. Indeed, a group of rioters declared that the disturbance would not stop until special constables had been removed from the town. It is also possible that the theft of wood from the hustings escalated into a full-blown riot on this particular occasion due to heightened tensions that may have prevailed over the 1857 election for other reasons, including those specific to the local contest in Whittlesey.

Of course, the riot may have broken out purely because of a misunderstanding regarding the residents’ entitlement to wood from the hustings, making the fact that the violence occurred during an election something of a coincidence. However, while the above suggestions are only speculation, they do highlight the possibility that the violence was caused, or at least exacerbated, by factors related to the election. Given the sheer number of riots and other mass disturbances which took place during Victorian elections, coincidence is hardly a convincing explanation. Regardless, this incident reminds us that even trivial election activities, if not handled carefully, could present a serious threat to tranquillity, security and lives in the nineteenth century.


Elise Boothroyd is about to begin her third year studying History at Durham University. She is particularly interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American social history, and is currently carrying out research for her dissertation on jazz musicians and race in the US.


(Source: Cambridge Independent Press, 11 Apr 1857. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive).

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