During the 1874 election in Shaftesbury, an attempt to employ hired ‘roughs’ (goons employed to disrupt elections by violent means) was made. However, the plans, made by some significant political actors, came to naught before they even had a chance to begin. In this particular incident, it’s clear that roughs were not only hired, but brought in specially from London by train:
This was not entirely uncommon in elections of the period, but the article provides crucial extra information, showing that having been spotted on the train, word was sent by telegraph to the police, who were waiting for them at the station:
By the 1870s, the number of large groups of hired roughs in elections was arguably beginning to decline. This article suggests that in this case at least, the advance of technology (the telegraph) was enabling ever-more organised police forces to prevent imported roughs from interfering in elections. Indeed, such tactics are now commonly used by the British Transport Police to board trains containing overly-rowdy revellers!
The leader of the roughs was a James Dillon, and (most interestingly), the local contact directing and paying them was ‘a certain Mr Price’:
The tone of the rest of the article suggests that ‘Mr Price’ was a well-known figure (at least locally), and may therefore be traceable – further research reveals that he was in fact the accredited political agent of the Liberal candidate, Henry Danby Seymour. Not just a local partisan voter, or a member of a minor party committee – the direct chief agent for the candidate, legally responsible (and legally liable) for election expenditure.
Mr. Price was certainly an organised agent, giving each hired rough a ticket in an orderly fashion, ‘just as if so many waiters had been hired for a ball’:
This begs the question of how accustomed Mr Price was to such practices – and, indeed, how accustomed political agents in other constituencies were to organising election violence.
The end of the incident was notably sedate – instead of pressing criminal charges or detaining the roughs for the course of the election, the Mayor allowed the roughs to return to London by the next train:
Was leniency and informality a representative reaction to hired roughs? Was this softly-softly approach an effective way of mitigating rough-led violence, which was already contributing to their decline? Did this leniency reflect a general acknowledgement of a limited legitimacy to their presence, as per cultural explanations of the phenomenon? Or was the Mayor himself a fellow Liberal, suggesting a rather strategic motivation behind the decision? Further in-depth examination of such cases will shed light on such questions, as well as others.
(Sources: Edinburgh Evening News, 14 Feb 1874, Western Gazette, 20 Feb 1874. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)