Cannons and Colour Codes: The Violence and Visuals of Long Edwardian Elections

In this guest blog post, Chris Shoop-Worrall explores how the ‘new dailies’ Mail, Express, and Mirror reported electoral news in the early-twentieth-century Britain, making them mass spectator events:

As Thompson (2018) notes, political campaigns in early-twentieth-century Britain were awash with vibrant forms of mass political communication. The four general elections which preceded the outbreak of the First World War were no exception. This blogpost explores the prominent role of the emergent daily mass press – the ‘new dailies’ Mail, Express, and Mirror – in the creation of election communication as spectacle: fireworks, explosives, and interactive experiences all played a part in making the dissemination of election news, particularly in London, into mass spectator events. Within this election-news spectacle was a curious reality, where often-violent spectacles (and direct allusions to war) were used as part of a form of mass political communication that – at its heart – channelled ideas of socially-conservative, consumer-based election conduct framed around an idealised ‘man in the street’.

It took until 1918 for general election voting to occur on a single day, and so a great deal of news coverage of elections pre-1918 covered the gradual return of results from constituencies across the country. In print, the new dailies increasingly used visuals to depict the daily changes in party results as races to a finish line: the Express used climbers on greased circus poles in 1900; the Mirror carried front-page banners of the parties as runners scrambling to be the first to reach Westminster. What was more striking however were the efforts made by all three newspapers to contribute to a wider, multimedia culture during which election news became a staple of the massified consumer culture of the period.

Take, for example, the Daily Mail during the 1906 general election. The newspaper sponsored the erection (according to pages seven and nine of its 13th January edition) of ‘monster searchlights’ across various locations in central London. Said searchlights were used to illuminate the night sky with messages of recent constituency results, so that people on the streets could look up and never miss a return: readers of the Mail were provided basic Morse code, so that the meaning of the lightshows would not be lost on them. The Mirror, meanwhile, highlighted the use of colour-coded rockets across the capital’s skyline: red for a Liberal victory, and blue for a Conservative Unionist. Election news, thanks in significant part to these newspapers, was a mass event. Thousands of people wandering London’s streets – flitting between shops, cafes, pubs, restaurants, and the ‘populist palatial’ (McWilliam, 2020: 200) of the West End’s various music halls – were spectators of a show where elections announcements were the headline act.

Election news was not just communicated across London’s night sky; thanks in-significant part to the Express, the 1906 general election was communicated across the capital’s entertainment districts. They too sponsored lightshows and provided readers on 15th January with a reference table explaining which colour represented a particular party. In addition to this, however, they helped make election news a dominant part of central London’s nightlife during the weeks of the election results. Show finales at the London Hippodrome featured on-stage motor cars with the election results on the sides, so audiences left knowing the latest tallies. A collection of London’s Empire Theatres incorporated election news announcements into their nightly productions. The Coliseum, meanwhile, would interrupt performances with a paid-for actor (playing a messenger boy) running into the stage to announce the latest results. Further news, or for anyone who had not attended one of the many shows in which these announcements were placed, was coordinated with a variety of hotels and restaurants: paid announcers in hotel lobbies for guests and patrons; window signage for the passers-by.

It was not that election news was some inescapable reality that clashed with the consumer industries of Edwardian London: election news had, with the help of the new dailies, become a huge part of its nightly success. Political communication and popular consumerism were intertwined, with explosions and entertainers serving a key role in spreading news of the election to large, urban-based audiences of interested people.

Interestingly, this massified election experience was often articulated using the language of war and violence. The lightshows, for example, were using technologies promoted through their past use in ‘the South African war’: the Second Boer War which, among other things, had helped boost the readership of the Mail (and other pro-war publications) thanks in-part to its populist and supportive coverage of the conflict (Potter, 2014; Wilkinson, 1998). Indeed, said paper’s coverage of that war had overlapped with its coverage of the 1900 election, and the language used in dozens of articles to cover both stories (often in side-by-side columns) was often interchangeable: fights taking place between rival forces, advancing and retreating across battlegrounds (Shoop-Worrall, 2019: 100-102). Much like with their staging of explosive and eye-catching events during 1906, the use of violent language within the new dailies’ coverage of 1900 helped represent election politics as exciting and entertaining news content.

For all the significant use of action to help articulate elections as mass-appealing news content, the new dailies were far from politically radical. Their lightshows, stage events, and exciting news content did make political news accessible and enjoyable, but within restrictive and broadly-conservative ideals of their shared imagined reader and voter: the ‘man in the street’ profiled explicitly by the Express on the opening day of the 1906 polls;

(I am) generally not a politician… a teetotaller, anti-vaccinationist, or a vegetarian, or any sort of crank… industrious… casual and intermittent interest in football matches and race meetings… I like the theatre and the music hall – the latter, perhaps the more… sympathetic, but not sentimental… England for the English, a happy England populated by prosperous Englishman…’

This man in the street did represent a significant portion of the British electorate from whom political parties of the period increasingly sought support, particular in the continuing aftermath of the Reform Acts of the 1880s. However, it was far from a complete picture; it was the ideal of a pro-imperial, masculine and largely-urban mass electorate that existed comfortably within the still largely-middle-class consumer culture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Violence and allusions to war were ways, in essence, to sell elections to the public. They were not, in any way, calls for violent or radical political causes.

1910 Daily Mail Election Chart (Courtesy of the  British Library Board: Maps 1092 (9))

The political stance of this hugely-significant mass press – both in terms of its ideology and its articulation of politics as mass, human-interest entertainment – was perhaps best crystallised by the Mail’s initiative, during the elections both in 1906 and 1910, to sell election wall charts. These charts allowed readers to follow along with the results at home, adding colour-coded tabs onto a map of the nation by-constituencies whenever new (or returning) MPs were confirmed. These charts, like the lightshows and the war-like comparisons, helped the new dailies articulate the general elections of the Long Edwardian period as accessible and entertaining aspects of their readers’ lived experiences. These charts also spoke of the ways in which these same newspapers’ shared representations of mass democracy placed politics firmly within a consumerist mass culture of spectacle and sensation. Violence – long a part of British political life – was very much present within these representations, but it was far from radical. Instead, it was part of its marketable appeal.

Christopher Shoop-Worall is Lecturer in Media and Journalism at UCFB. He researches the intersections between politics, the press, and mass-popular culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, and completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield’s Centre for the Study of Journalism and History in 2019. His latest article, from which this blog particularly draws, is:

Christopher Shoop-Worrall (2021) ‘Leaps and Light Shows: Visual Politics in the Edwardian Mass Press, 1900–10’, Parliamentary History 40.2, pp. 362-377:


Rohan McWilliam 2020. London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simon J. Potter 2014. ‘Jingoism, Public Opinion, And The New Imperialism’, Media History 20(1), 34–50.

Christopher Shoop-Worrall 2019. Politics and the Mass Press in Long Edwardian Britain: 1896-1914, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.

James Thompson 2018. ‘“The Lights of the Electric Octopus Have Been Switched Off”: Visual and Political Culture in Edwardian London’, Twentieth Century British History, xxix, 331–56.

Gavin Wilkinson 1998. ‘“The Blessings of War”: The Depiction of Military Force in Edwardian Newspapers’, Journal of Contemporary History 33(1), 97-115.

The Secret Ballot Does Not Eliminate but Changes the Type and Timing of Election Violence: Evidence from Election Violence Deaths 1832-1914 in England and Wales

In this guest blog, Lydia Buckroyd explores the impact of the 1872 Secret Ballot Act on election violence and in particular on election violence deaths. Contrary to widely held views, the introduction of the Secret Ballot did not eliminate, but merely changed the type and timing of election violence deaths:

In the period between the Great Reform Act and Great War, British elections transformed from public, rowdy, and often violent events to the more private, tranquil occasions that we recognise today. The violent nature of elections during the nineteenth Century is starkly reflected in the number of fatalities. It was routine in the nineteenth Century to see several deaths per election, sometimes several killed in a single event. One of the worst examples of this was the Sheffield election of 1832, when five people were shot by military forces called in to disperse an election riot (Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 1832). But by the turn of the century, only the very occasional fatality was recorded.  Why did British electoral conduct change so dramatically?

Cartoon the introduction of the secret ballot to Britannia by the newly elected MP in Pontefract, the first by-election to be held under the Secret Ballot Act in 1872. Source: Punch, 24th August 1872.

This Punch cartoon offers an explanation that was widely agreed on by contemporary observers. It depicts the Pontefract by-election, the first election in the UK after the 1872 Ballot Act introduced the secret ballot to UK parliamentary elections. In it, ‘Little Boy Ballot’ is presented to Britannia by the successful Liberal candidate, Hugh Childers, with a comment on how successful he had been. The use of the secret ballot in Pontefract thought to promote tranquillity and peaceful conduct during polling, a substantial change from the rowdiness of earlier elections in general.

Up until 1872, polling was public. Electors were required to announce their votes, often in front of a gathered crowd, which were then recorded in the pollbook. Candidates and their agents therefore could compile an accurate record of vote choices, allowing them to target specific voters in upcoming elections via bribery, intimidation, and violence. But this state of affairs also allowed the disenfranchised to heckle and even attack voters whose allegiance they disagreed with, ‘punishing’ them for voting ‘wrong’. This rowdy behaviour was not solely limited to polling day. Elections pre-1872 also featured a Nomination Day prior to polling, where candidates would be nominated by their voting constituents. Non-voters would gather in crowds numbering into the tens of thousands and make their thoughts on candidates known through shouting and rioting (Lawrence, 2009, p. 45). The public nature of these events meant that elections often became a competition between the parties to see who could put on the best display for onlookers, from hiring circus acts to organising processions accompanied by marching bands (Crook and Crook, 2007, p. 452).

The public nature of these electoral contests often led to violence – and, at times, deaths. Richter (1971, p. 25) describes the fatal rioting observed as being the result of a ‘spontaneous outpouring of sheer ebullience’ brought on by the excitement and tension of crowded elections. But it was not only rioting that resulted in fatalities: one of the most shocking deaths recorded in the Victorian Election Violence Dataset (VEVD) occurred in Liverpool in 1837, when a Liberal supporter slit the throat of his 2-year-old daughter after finding her wearing the ribbon of the opposing candidate, gifted to her by a stranger (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1837). The public nature of elections was blamed for producing these outpourings of overwhelming emotion, which was said to drive people to commit fatal violence. After 1868, following what was seen as a particularly and unacceptably violent election (Wasserman and Jaggard, 2006, p. 145), Gladstone’s government finally concluded that secret balloting was needed to curtail the public rowdiness of British elections.

This brings us back to the subject of the Punch cartoon. The Pontefract by-election was celebrated as a tranquil event that demonstrated the success of secret balloting. It was thought to have eradicated deplorable violence and fatalities from elections to the extent that residents hardly even knew an election was taking place (O’Leary, 1962, p. 86). At the following election in 1874, The Times asserted that the introduction of the secret ballot meant that ‘mobs, processions, favours, free fights, and punch-drinking have become for the most part things of the past’ (Hawkins, 2015, p. 285). Based on these observations, the answer should be clear: our elections became peaceful because of the introduction of the secret ballot, and removal of the crowded and festive atmospheres around nomination and polling day that had previously led to violence and fatalities.

However, the data unearthed by the Victorian Electoral Violence Project raises doubts. In fact, there were more fatalities in the 1880 election (7 in total) than had occurred in most of the General Elections before secret balloting. Even Pontefract, which had no history of electoral violence pre-1872 according to the VEVD, saw violent incidents at each of the next five elections after 1872. In 1874, miners and collieries damaged buildings and property; in both 1880 and 1885 the Conservative Club was stormed by a Liberal mob armed with sticks; in 1886 there was widespread window breaking after the poll was declared; and 1892, a tranquil election from a national perspective, saw numerous assaults on local police. Even if violence did decline nationally in post-1885 elections, this evidence makes it hard to argue that the secret ballot led to any decisive change in Pontefract. The successes that The Times and Punch attribute to it seem an exaggeration.  If crowds, candidates, and their agents could no longer identify voters’ intentions, then it should follow that targeted electoral violence aimed at influencing the outcome of the poll became unfeasible. So why did violence continue to occur?

I provide an answer by systematically counting and examining electoral fatalities. The Punch cartoon is not wholly wrong in implication: overall deaths on polling day did decline, and fatal rioting did become substantially less common. But the timing, location, and type of deaths occurring simply adapted to the new restrictions that the 1872 Ballot Act imposed. A substitution took place with deaths shifting from mass events to individual attacks, rather than there being any absolute decline in fatalities.

Figure 1: Proportion of mass versus individual violence fatalities over time

Figure 1 illustrates the substitution between deaths due to mass and individual violence around the introduction of the Ballot Act in 1872. ‘Mass violence’ deaths constitute fatalities due to rioting, or untargeted public disturbances. ‘Individual violence’ fatalities include targeted deaths perpetrated by an individual or small group, including deaths due to hired roughs and political quarrels. This difference is best exemplified by the 1868 Blackburn election. In the lead-up to polling, Thomas Whittaker was beaten and killed by a group of Radical Irishmen after shouting his support for the Conservative candidate while walking down the street (Preston Herald, 1868). The targeted nature of the attack and the small number of participants makes this an instance of individual violence. But the rioting caused by Whittaker’s death resulted in the killing of Patrick Gallagher, who was hit over the head by a policeman trying to settle the riot (Bristol Times and Mirror, 1868). Since this happened as part of a riot, Gallagher’s killing is recorded as being borne of mass violence.

Figure 1 uses election year as the measure of time on the x-axis, and percentage of overall fatalities as the quantity measure on the y-axis. The left-hand graph shows the proportion of overall fatalities that are recorded as mass violence for each election, whereas the right-hand graph shows the same for individual fatalities. Obviously, the 1872 Ballot Act triggered a change from predominantly mass violence to predominantly individual violence fatalities. Mass violence fatalities dropped by around 50 percentage points between 1868 and 1874 and remained low for the rest of the time period analysed. The increase in individual violence mirrors this pattern, creating a substitution effect in the cause of deaths.

This is mainly attributable to the fact that the secret ballot did not tackle the underlying causes of violence. Candidates employed underhand tactics, including violence, to increase their chances of winning: this is evident from the continued levels of bribery, treating, and other illegal practices observed (Hawkins, 2015, p. 285). Abolishing public nominations may have removed the large-scale gatherings and excitement that had previously triggered fatal riots, but it also meant that there was a need for a new form of public hustings that would let people (particularly the disenfranchised) question candidates. Parties rose to fill this gap by organising multiple smaller hustings around the constituency (Lawrence, 2009, p. 55). These meetings provided opportunities for more targeted acts of violence on a small scale, including the involvement of hired roughs. These people had long been relied on to perpetrate violence and intimidation against opposing voters. But since it was now impossible to reliably determine party allegiance on polling day, these roughs were more effectively deployed to monitor attendees and votes at explicitly partisan meetings and attack those supporting the opposition (Lawrence, 2009, p. 59). It is no coincidence that the only recorded death of a candidate in the dataset happened after the introduction of the secret ballot, when roughs stormed Raymond Lluellyn’s party meeting, arguably killing him in the process (Dundee Courier, 1886).

The shift in the use and focus of violence can also be observed in the timing of deaths.

Figure 2: Election Timepoint of fatalities over time

Figure 2 shows that while polling day fatalities declined after 1872, deaths during the campaign stage of elections became much more common. The x- and y-axis are the same here as in figure 1, but this time the graphs track the timing of the fatality during the election period. Whether it occurred in the month before polling, during polling, or in the month after.

Deaths on polling day had previously been dominated by rioting and mass violence because of the large crowds that gathered. This meant that minor violent incidents had a tendency to escalate into large-scale and fatal disturbances. By legislating to remove festivities from elections and prevent any ‘spectacle’ by making them private affairs, the Ballot Act largely removed the crowds from polling day and so removed the tendency for fatal mass violence to break out. But because of the new party-specific events and campaign-stage strategic violence discussed, fatal violence in the campaign stage of elections only became more common. Evidently, other factors were affecting the scale of the transition. This is clear from the fact that both campaign and polling stage deaths seem to occur at a similar rate post-1872, rather than matching the dramatic shift seen in Figure 1. Arguments for this are discussed in more depth in the research, but primarily come down to challenges in implementing legislation.

Thus, while contemporary commentators and legislators were convinced that the Ballot Act of 1872 would curb illegal practices, it only shifted the type and timing of electoral violence. The Pontefract by-election of 1874 was an exception rather than the standard: the tranquillity and peace experienced were not reflective of typical general elections after 1872. Instead of the public spectacles of Nomination and Polling Day, which offered fertile ground for triggering mass riots and disturbances, post-1872 elections saw increased violence at campaign events involving parties and candidates. Roughs used these as an opportunity to easily identify and subsequently target opposing voters. Without removing the motivations related to the use of violence during elections, the election period remained as dangerous and fatal as ever.

Lydia Buckroyd is an incoming third-year International Relations student at Durham University. She has worked on 19th-Century election-related deaths as an alternative to her planned year abroad, which was canceled due to the pandemic. More on her research into 19th-Century election violence deaths can be seen in the lecture on 19th-Century election violence she gave (together with Dr. Patrick M Kuhn) in the Royal Armouries Museum’s Winter Lecture Series at


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Crook, M and Crook, T 2007 The Advent of the Secret Ballot in Britain and France, 1789-1914: From Public Assembly to Private Compartment. History, 92(308): 449-471.

Hawkins, A 2015 Victorian Political Culture: Habits of Heart and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 273-286.

Hoppen, T 1994 Grammars of Electoral Violence in Nineteenth-Century England and Ireland. The English Historical Review, 109(432): 597-620.

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Police Brutality, Race and Racism in the 1885 Nottingham Election

In 1885, a black American was convicted as the ring-leader of an election riot in Nottingham. This blogpost describes the accusations of police brutality which likely sparked the riot, examines how a black American come to be arrested and prosecuted, and explores associated accusations of racism.

Did police brutality spark the riots?

It is in many ways unexceptional that there was a riot in the 1885 election in Nottingham. As Richard Floyd (2008) notes, ‘outright bribery and riot’ were routine features of elections in the city. Our Election Violence database records that Nottingham experienced some form of violence in nine of the ten general elections between 1832 and 1885. This included several riots.

Earlier election riot in Marketplace, Nottingham (1865)
Continue reading “Police Brutality, Race and Racism in the 1885 Nottingham Election”

Short EV Account: Post-Election Violence & Constituency Agents

Today’s Short EV Account looks at a 1906 case of property damage and intimidation of a constituency agent, revealing perceived differences between pre- and post-election violence:

At the Poole Police Court in the aftermath of the 1906 election, two men living in Branksome were brought before the magistrates for breaking windows and fencing at the house of A.G. Barralet, having done damage to the extent of £5. Barralet had been constituency agent for the unsuccessful Unionist candidate for East Dorset. Interestingly, M.W.H. Curtis, the agent for the victorious Liberal candidate, had also been the target of violence – a brick thrown through one of his windows was said to have narrowly missed his sleeping daughter.

A large mob had gathered at Branksome late on Monday night, proceeding to Barralet’s house – the police were sent for, but the damage had been done before they arrived. The two defendants were not the ringleaders, but were unfortunate enough to be on the spot at the time, clearly part of the now-dispersed mob.

Continue reading “Short EV Account: Post-Election Violence & Constituency Agents”

Election Violence, or Political Violence during an Election?

One hundred and ten years ago this month, County Durham witnessed a rather different form of political turmoil to that experienced in the December 2019 general election. On the evening of Wednesday 26 January 1910, Horden miners attacked the colliery manager’s residence. Police protecting the building baton-charged miners, leaving one man seriously hurt. An imprecise press report added that a boy was ‘injured by a gun shot’. The managers’ house was ‘much damaged’ and his car was ‘hurled over a cliff’. Though the police managed eventually to repulse the attack on the managers’ house, disorder continued and ‘it was deemed advisable to secure the arrival of the military by special train’. As during the Gateshead riots, the pithead was also attacked with baulks of timber, coal tubs and other debris hurdled down the pit shaft. Rioters proceeded to loot the miners’ social club, smashing every window and breaking up its fixtures. As Horden had no pubs, the social club was the only place in the village that sold alcohol. The rioters ‘made a raid on the liquor’, carrying off  small casks and bottles and opening the larger casks in the cellar. Many of them were soon ‘the worse for liquor’. The caretaker’s house was also wrecked. The next day, Thursday 27 January, a number of men returned to the looted social club and set fire to it, for good measure. This was the final act of the 1910 Horden riots.

Continue reading “Election Violence, or Political Violence during an Election?”

March on Gateshead

On 17 January 1910 up to 10,000 miners from South Moor, Tanfield Lea, Annfield Plain and Stanley area of the Durham coalfield marched on Gateshead, on the south bank of the Tyne. Parading the town’s streets, they chanted slogans in opposition to John Johnson, a Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) fulltime official (who was now standing for Labour) and in support of Johnson’s Liberal rival. On the march up, a breakaway of up to 400 miners attacked Marley Hill colliery (which was working), looting and smashing windows for about an hour before moving on. On the return home from Gateshead, another group of miners attacked a colliery in Birtley, only to be surprised by a contingent of 100 police and men employed by the Birtley Iron Company waiting for them. Fierce fighting and serious injuries inevitably resulted.

Continue reading “March on Gateshead”

Short EV Account: General Election Polling Disrupted

The date the 2019 General Election coincides with a great many election riots which broke out during 12 December 1832, 187 years before. Today’s Short EV Account looks at one such riot, in the constituency of Bolton:

The present-day constituencies covering what was the old borough of Bolton have both been marginal seats in recent history, hotly contested by Labour and the Conservatives. In 1832, Bolton was a newly-created borough seat, electing two members.  The first election there was hotly contested between Conservatives and Whigs. Notably, the local returning officer decided that polling should begin on 12 December; periodic updates on its progress, and the violence which broke out, appeared in local and national newspapers.

Continue reading “Short EV Account: General Election Polling Disrupted”

‘[Loud cheers, and eggs]’: Protests at the 1865 Election for Colchester

In today’s guest blog, Lara Green explores the interplay between national issues and local reputations, and how these affected the character of electoral violence:

At the nomination for the 1865 election for Colchester borough, Essex, the arrival of the Conservative candidate Phillip Oxenden Papillon and his supporters on the hustings was greeted with ‘eggs, fresh and rotten’, thrown by members of the crowd. When it finally came time for Papillon to make his speech, he was assailed with further volleys of eggs and a newspaper, which he attempted to deflect with his umbrella. The crowd, estimated at around four thousand, called for ‘soot’ and mocked Papillon’s campaign. More than once, their actions forced those on the hustings to retreat. Continue reading “‘[Loud cheers, and eggs]’: Protests at the 1865 Election for Colchester”

Short EV Account: Violence Without (Political) Purpose?

Today’s short EV Account contextualises a rather disdainful account of popular violence, which perhaps reveals more about the attitudes of the writer than the nature of the violence:

In previous Short EV Accounts, we have mainly focused on incidents which appear to have been motivated by overtly political reasons (with the following exception). These could spring from the electoral machinations of political elites, or the dissatisfaction of the disenfranchised.  There were, however, incidents which appear to have owed little or nothing to politics – events which occurred as a by-product of the festival-like atmosphere of Victorian elections. These were often encouraged by the apparently widespread popular belief that disorder was (to an extent) tolerated by the authorities during contests. Continue reading “Short EV Account: Violence Without (Political) Purpose?”