Short EV Account: Special Constables In The Dock

The use of Special Constables to keep order during Victorian elections was common – as one court case illustrates, however, this practice could do more harm than good:

During the 1874 election for Newcastle-under-Lyme, there were disturbances in which large crowds of men gathered and several free fights took place in the neighborhood of both the Conservative and Liberal parties. The Conservative committee rooms were smashed, with public-houses displaying red flags also targeted. The Mayor threatened to delay the declaration of results, which had the desired effect of ending the violence.

In the aftermath, several rioters were brought before the local magistrate, including Martin Fallon, John Kelly, Alfred Rogers, and three members of the same family – William, John, and Sarah Matthews. Three regular policemen gave evidence, corroborated by several other witnesses, that during the breaking of the windows of the Gardener’s Arms, one of the Constables went into the mob and was attacked by John and William Matthews. In a striking example of female participation in rowdy popular politics, Sarah Matthews was also present in the crowd and apparently masterminded the assault. Continue reading “Short EV Account: Special Constables In The Dock”

1865 Election Violence Mapped

After a short break, we are happy to post releasing a geographical day-by-day representation of our recent 1865 election violence tweets; the red dots appear on the day that they occurred, while the black dots represent all events over the election period:

The following map also roughly splits these into incidents (green), disturbances (red) and riots (blue):

It seems clear that election violence was both common and geographically widespread, reaching most areas of England and Wales.  The most interesting things among the dispersed events that we’ve noticed are as follows:


  1. Between 1 and 24 July, the 1865 General Election and its lead-up directly caused to a total of six deaths, including that of a small child
  2. There were at least 28 small-scale violent and individual incidents, including assaults, shots fired, property damage, and murder – once our data collection is complete, it’s likely there will be much more of this type of violence to report.
  3. There were at least 43 serious mass disturbances, involving large crowds, significant property damage, and multiple serious injuries.
  4. There were at least 21 full-scale riots, with giant crowds (at least several hundred, often thousands), many serious injuries, occasionally-devastating property damage, significant military/police responses, and reading of the Riot Act.
  5. Over the total period covered by our tweets (23 days), this equates to almost one English/Welsh full-scale riot per day in 1865, but in reality violence was much more concentrated.
  6. The 11th of July was the 2nd-most violent day: 11 July. 19 events of varying intensity occurred, including in Grantham, where rioting caused the destruction of the polling booth, military to be called in, Riot Act read, and a man’s death.
  7. The 12th of July was the most violent day. 22 violent events of varying intensity occurred, including in Lincoln, where the mob set fire to a barrel of tar and rolled it to a hotel where a candidate was dining, smashing the windows of the room he was dining in. One hotel owner shot at them, injuring several people.
  8. This election was (somewhat) comparable in terms of violence to the next General Election in 1868, the first held after the 2nd Reform Act expanded the electorate. That election featured at least 18 incidents (10 less than 1865), 29 disturbances (14 less than 1865), 30 riots (9 more than 1865).
  9. While smaller incidents and disturbances were seemingly more common in 1865 than 1868, full-scale riots were significantly more likely to occur in 1868. Mortality rates were also comparable – at least 20 were killed due to 1832 election violence, 6 in 1865, 8 in 1868, and 3 in 1880.


(The county boundaries are provided by and uses historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth)

Election Violence Poetry, Part II: The Hero Of The Hustings

We have previously brought to light Victorian election poetry of questionable quality – to celebrate the recent sunny weather, we are republishing another dubious poem from 1852, about a fictional candidate braving the summer heat on the hustings,  not to mention the various missiles thrown at him:



The honourable gentleman upon the hustings stood

For two hours of a summers day–a feat of lustihood–

And shouted forth, and saw’d the air with all his force and might,

The temperature higher than a hundred, Fahrenheit.


The sun above him blazing from a blue unclouded sky,

He frying like a sausage that could feel itself to fry:

It rain’d upon him cats and dogs; and likewise, it is true,

However strange the circumstance, that he was dripping too.


The undeveloped offspring of the gallinaceous tribe,

The free and independent men with many a taunt and gibe,

Launch’d also at the candidate’s unvenerated head,

And frequently advised him to go home and go to bed.


Not only did this hero spout thus long upon his legs,

And brave the sun, the puppy-dogs, the kittens, and the eggs;

Not only he incurr’d the execrations of the mob,

But lost above a thousand pounds, moreover, by the job.


Such lots of money, fortitude, exertion, pluck, and nerve,

It costs to gain the privilege those gentlemen to serve,

Who yell at you and pelt you with all sorts of nasty things;

Surely a seat in Parliament some vast enjoyment brings!


(Source: Reprinted from Punch, in the Wiltshire Independent, 22 July 1852. Retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)


Short EV Account: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Today’s Short EV Account looks at an attack on a constituency’s Conservative committee rooms, with the mob targeting someone in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity:

In Buckley, North Wales, the 1885 election was a heated one – having been elected unopposed in 1880, the Conservative Lord Richard Grosvenor, MP for Flintshire, was locked in a battle against a Liberal challenger, Henry Lloyd-Mostin. After the contest, serious rioting broke out as soon as darkness set in, and continued until about 9pm. The conservative committee rooms were savagely attacked, with ‘every window being broken’. Continue reading “Short EV Account: A Case of Mistaken Identity”

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! Continue reading “Short EV Account: Party Urchins”

Short EV Account: Larking About

This week’s Short EV Account explores an unusual incident of window-breaking and stone-throwing in Sunderland, involving yet more animals – in this particular case, a lark:

The 1885 election for the borough of Sunderland saw two Liberals, Storey and Gourlay, narrowly beat the sole Conservative candidate, Austin, by just over a thousand votes. The contest also saw some rioting, during which Storey was targeted by missiles and some damage to property occurred. Continue reading “Short EV Account: Larking About”

Short EV Account: Bottled Voters

This week’s Short EV Account is looks at some violence associated with a local municipal election. It would appear that the Victorians perpetrated and experienced violence during elections of all types:

During the 1868 election in Bolton, a major disturbance led to serious damage of a mill owned by Thomas Barlow, with the perpetrators eventually standing trial.  In their defence, it was asserted that the ‘riot’ had been caused by the system of ‘bottling’ employed by the Liberal party (this being a contemporary term for kidnapping/detaining voters during an election). On the night of Sunday 1 November, a number of voters were kidnapped and detained in Barlow’s mill, and then ‘supplied with drink until their senses were stupefied’. Continue reading “Short EV Account: Bottled Voters”

Dead Cats, and other missiles

In a guest blog, Alan Heesom explores the history of dead cats in electoral politics, straddling, fact, fiction, and symbolism:

Election speaker in 1847 has dead cat and other missiles flung at his cab

Recent assaults with milk shakes, eggs and vegetables are (at least from a candidate’s point of view) presumably preferable to the early custom of using dead animals as election projectiles. Dead cats seem to have symbolised hatred towards an individual. When the unpopular John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, died in Dublin in 1802, dead cats were flung on his coffin. Continue reading “Dead Cats, and other missiles”

Throwing Things At Candidates

Victorian men and women, most/all of whom did not have the vote, were often to be found throwing missiles at candidates. This blog explores a few of their choices:


Perhaps the most traditional missile; the Roman Emperor Vespasian was pelted with turnips, and those medieval unfortunates sentenced to the stocks would often be pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables.

Rotten apples


The traditional aggressive accompaniment to fruit and vegetables, throwing rotten eggs has a similarly long history. Without the availability of modern refrigeration, spoiled food was more readily available to use as missiles.

Another common choice

Dead Cats (and dogs, and rabbits…)

The subject of our popular tweet, it would appear to have been fairly common for crowds to throw dead cats (and occasionally dead dogs and rabbits) at politicians – it was an established election custom as far back as the eighteenth century. Thus far, we have not been able to identify any possible symbolic reason for their use, or the origins of the practice – if anyone has any leads, please do contact us on Twitter.

Can be spotted at the top centre-left


Not by any means a popular choice, but certainly famous – during the election of 1892, William Gladstone himself was struck in the eye by a piece of flying gingerbread biscuit. While it was unlikely that this was intended to do serious harm, there were serious consequences – the eye was treated at Chester Infirmary, but never fully recovered.

The Grand Old Man


Another popular choice, especially in cases of unplanned pelting by a crowd which had not prepared missiles in advance – mud, after all, tends to be readily to hand.

Children were often enthusiastic participants in mud-throwing, even at elections


There was a close link between Victorian election rioting and widespread drunkenness – bottles were therefore often used.

Flying bottles during Dublin election rioting, 1886


We’ve explored the use of herring in a previous blog – a noxious fish, especially once rotten, its use as a missile may also have been politically symbolic.



Probably the most dangerous type of missile – these could range from small pebbles to altogether more dangerous varieties. Newspaper reports of election violence usually refer vaguely to the throwing of stones, but a few go into more worrying detail, indicating that crowd-members pulled up extremely heavy paving slabs from the ground, and hurled these at candidates. In several instances during election riots, the desire for such missiles was so strong that group raided churchyards, breaking apart headstones to use the pieces as missiles. At least half a dozen bystanders lost their lives after being hit by stones during Victorian elections, including this unfortunate voter in 1880.

Missiles flying during election rioting at Wilton, 1885

Anything That Came To Hand

Members of Victorian election crowds were notably inventive when it came to sourcing missiles, choosing items rich in symbolic meaning, and otherwise employing anything practical that came to hand. As and when our project uncovers these, we will add them to the list.




Illustrated London News, 12 December 1885; 17 July 1886

Short EV Account: Illegality and ‘Extreme Illegality’

This week’s Short EV Account looks at boisterous series of tit-for-tat violent exchanges between Welsh Conservatives and Liberals during the 1841 Flintshire contest. Many were illegal but ignored by authority, but the final incident may well have crossed the line – giving a useful indicator of where the line was located at that time and place:

A newspaper alleges that the Conservatives made every effort to win the contest, and that ‘neither cajolery, gold, nor threats was spared by them’.  When it became clear during the first of two days of polling that the Conservatives were significantly behind the Liberal candidate Mostyn, all seemed lost. It was at this point that ‘a certain indiscreet supporter of the Tory candidate’ brought a large party of miners in his employ to the polling place at Mold. They were alleged to have been brought ‘for the avowed purpose of fighting’.  The miners, having been ‘well primed with drink’, proceeded to do so, in the afternoon of the first polling day. A bottle and other missiles were hurled out of the Lion Hotel (The Conservative Election HQ) at a passing (and peaceful) group of opposing Liberal ‘Mostynites’.  Continue reading “Short EV Account: Illegality and ‘Extreme Illegality’”