Short EV Account: On Your Marks, Get Set…

This blog explores an incident of election violence which occurred #OnThisDay 139 years ago – the very first recorded incident of violence for the 1880 UK General election.  We’ll be tweeting the many other incidents throughout the rest of March and into April:

In the run-up to the 1880 election for Derby, it was widely rumoured that the Conservative candidate, Thomas Collins, would be appearing at the open-air marketplace to give a speech to locals, both electors and non-electors.  On Monday night between six and seven o’clock at night, an ‘immense crowd’ gathered at the square in anticipation of his arrival.  Gradually, however, the conviction came over the crowd that Collins would not be attending, as he was ‘otherwise engaged’. 

At this point, it became very clear that most of the crowd had assembled with the purpose not of hearing Collins speak, but instead preventing others from hearing him, and ‘indulging in a preliminary election skirmish’.  After exhausting their patience, unruly members of the crowd began to seize their neighbours’ hats and ‘whirl them in the air, and, the object of their proposed fun not arriving, they began to indulge in amusement of a more pronounced kind’.  Cods’ heads, and other ‘unsavoury portions’ of rotten fish, which had evidently been held in reserve, were thrown in the faces of crowd members and at their clothes.

The less keen portion of the crowd quickly retreated, while the more boisterous element continued to play a sort of game among themselves. Moving from the marketplace to the centre of the corn market, much ‘horseplay’ was evident.  Blue bags, and bags of flour followed the fish, and soldiers, among others, were targeted. Then, at nine o’clock, the roughs overturned a potato machine in the square, creating a great deal of amusement.  More serious damage had immediately preceded this, with stones thrown and several windows broken.

Of particular note is how widely this incident was reported in many newspapers across the country up to a week afterwards – our Research Assistants have discovered well over a dozen separate articles on the Derby affair. By the standards of mass violence usually experienced during elections, this incident was relatively minor and fairly commonplace, and would usually have merited only a short paragraph in a local newspaper. This would have been the case had it occurred during the time around polling days, when dozens of riots and major disturbances filled the pages of journals across the UK; because this was the first detectable incident of election violence however, long before polling days, the story spread far and wide.


(Source: Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 27 March 1880. Retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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