In this post, Research Assistant Sam Holden explores an election fatality, and touches on the role played by party colours and other visible partisan symbols in election violence more generally:
Votes weren’t necessarily the only things being counted at Victorian elections. Unfortunately, occasionally there was also a body count.
Much like today, election periods provoked much excitement in the Victorian period. Allegiances were often ironclad, and rivalries fierce. In some instances, simply displaying party colours was an invitation to violence. This was one visible manifestation of what some have termed a ‘carnival’ atmosphere; some historians posit that this atmosphere was one of the main catalysts for elections which spilled over into lawlessness, rioting, and even killing. It’s often difficult to uncover the motivations behind different incidents, be they elite strategic manoeuvring or popular partisanship on the one hand, or adrenalin-fuelled excitement on the other.
The July 1865 election in Oldham provides one example of an incident in which visible partisan symbols played a role, but political motivations are less clear. During the early afternoon of 12 July 1865, a 25-year-old man named William Mellor was walking through the town with a white ribbon attached to his coat collar. A ‘party of young men decorated with blue ribbons’ approached him, in the context of wider disturbances taking place around the town.
The men, whose ribbons identified them as partisan supporters, denounced Mellor as a supporter of opposing candidates, and subjected him to a severe beating. Mellor ‘fell down in great agony’ and was taken to his home, where he subsequently died.
A person losing their life simply for displaying the colours of their preferred political candidate on their coat collar is a tragedy. In Mellor’s case, it was doubly tragic as he hadn’t even put the ribbon on himself. In fact, there is no indication that he was even a supporter of the ‘white’ candidates at all. The mere sight of a white ribbon provoked Edward Hague, and the other men sporting blue ribbons, to such an enormous extent that they beat someone to death.
Significantly, in the subsequent trial related to the death, it came out that the group were in the direct employ of one of the candidates, but the prosecution went out of its way to state that they did not believe that it had ‘been an electioneering fight on the part of the prisoners’ – thus, avoiding making a direct connection between elite manoeuvring or popular partisanship and election violence. Yet, the defending lawyer stated that the riots were ‘in some measure attributable to men of a superior class, who after exciting the men, turned them loose in the streets’. These particular men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude.
Perhaps no direct connection (or, if inclined to cynicism, provable connection) existed between ‘men of a superior class’ and the broader disturbances in Oldham. Nonetheless, the actions of elites, seeking to exploit a ‘carnival’ atmosphere for strategic ends perhaps led (at least indirectly) to election violence – and to the death of William Mellor.
Memorial to James Platt, Ashway Gap
*The 1865 Oldham election saw the election of John Platt as one of the MPs for the borough. His younger brother, previously MP for Oldham, had also been killed – though accidentally in that case, having been shot during a hunting trip by the Mayor of Oldham in 1857. For this incident and the Platts more generally, see https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/mp-of-the-month-the-untimely-death-of-james-platt-mp-for-oldham-1823-57/
Sam Holden is a politics graduate of the Universities of Newcastle and Utrecht. Originally from Clitheroe, Lancashire, his academic interests include British political history, political philosophy and, more recently, electoral violence during the Victorian era.
(Sources: Geograph.org.uk, Scotsman, 15 Jul 1865, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 Aug 1865. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)