Short EV Account: Party Urchins

Victorian elections took place before universal suffrage, when only some propertied men could vote.  Today’s Short EV Account looks at a serious riot started by a group which is still unenfranchised in the present day:

During the 1868 election at Trowbridge, a group of ‘disreputable characters’ were evidently hired by the Liberal party to cause disruption at polling, and intimidate the electors.  This group was, of course, unenfranchised. What makes them all the more unusual, however, is that the group would not possess the vote even in the present day – they were hired thugs well under the age of 16!

On Tuesday 17th November, there was a small riot, in which many windows were broken. As soon as the Conservative candidate Sir George Jenkinson’s prospects of success began to improve, a group of underage small boys, all wearing yellow paper bands around their caps to signify their Liberal allegiance, began to cause a disturbance.  They were hired and organised, ‘under the leadership of several youths who appeared to have been appointed for the purpose’.

All the Liberal conveyances and prominent supporters received cheers and applause from the group, but Conservative carriages were met with showers of mud.  In one case in particular, a group of out-of-town voters being driven to a polling booth were so drenched in mud that the driver was completely blinded, and the person sitting next to him was obliged to seize the reins and guide the horse to prevent crashing – all as early as eleven o’clock in the morning!

As the day progressed the number of small boys, few of them over 12 years old, increased. As soon as dusk fell, stones began to be thrown. By four o’clock, violence was so intense that the a Major Clark was obliged to read the Riot Act, in two separate locations around the town.

By now, the mob had been augmented by ‘grown-up’ people from local factories, and violence continued.  The police force was needed to protect the polling booths, leaving the police Superintendent entirely alone to face down the mob – he received a blow from a stone for his trouble, which opened his cheek from eye to mouth.

Unfortunately, troops which had previously been sent to Trowbridge had recently been dispatched again, to Gloucestershire. Tories were targeted, intimidated, and besieged inn hotels whose windows had been smashed, but no personal violence seems to have resulted. Speical Constables were sworn in, all pubs cleared by eight o’clock, but several fights then took place, with many heads broken before order was restored.


(Source: Frome Times, 2 December 1868Retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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