Electoral Violence in Blackburn, 1868: The Politicisation of a Death

Election violence was seldom simple or isolated; it could be the result of a complex and interlinked chain of events, across multiple elections and involving themes which included class, religion, and nationality.  In this post, David Hughes explores one such richly complex event:

In November 1868, the Lancashire town of Blackburn was the site of intense electoral activity. The municipal elections, in which all six wards were contested, were held on Monday 2nd November. The borough parliamentary election followed on 16th November then, on the following day, the nominations for the newly created county seat of North East Lancashire. All three of these elections were accompanied by violence, with the most serious occurring, somewhat unusually, during the municipal elections – indeed, a man died two days after the municipal elections from injuries sustained at that contest. Soon, this death was politicised by both parties when alleged death threats were made against the Tory candidates.

Although the violence was not as serious during the following parliamentary elections, another man was killed. This sustained period of violence provides an insight into how nationality, religion and class relations could come together to play a part in electoral politics. The violence began on the Friday before the municipal elections in the Nova Scotia district, when a crowd of Tory supporters smashed the windows of a public house in which the Liberals were meeting. Rumours spread that a Catholic Church and another pub had been attacked. The Liberals retaliated to this by smashing the windows of another public house on the same street used by Tory supporters. During this attack, the landlord was injured when a stone hit him.

The Mayor responded by calling in the army from Preston ahead of the municipal elections. On the election day itself, armed police reinforcements were also brought in from around the county. The municipal elections were hotly contested because both parties believed that success for their candidates would virtually decide the result of the borough parliamentary election. As each ward had only one polling booth, both parties adopted the tactic of monopolising polling booths, with one party taking different booths and preventing supporters of the other party voting. Supporters of the opposition responded, in some wards, by attacking the booths to occupy them for their voters. The result was violence, with the Riot Act read in several locations. Dragoons and police armed with cutlasses were deployed.

In the afternoon, the Liberals attacked the booth near the Market Cross. During the skirmish, a police constable struck Patrick Gallagher, a young Irishman, on the head with his baton. Two days later Gallagher died from his injuries. At the inquest Gallagher’s wife admitted that she had been paid 4 shillings by the Liberals for her husband’s actions on election day. The death of an Irishman in the pay of the Liberals, after being struck by a police constable protecting Tory supporters who had occupied a polling booth, resulted in the politicisation of the incident by both sides.

The Tories claimed that handwritten death threats had been sent to their candidates, one of which was reproduced and distributed as a poster. The Tories accused the Liberals of sending these death threats. The Liberal candidates were also criticised for exploiting Gallagher’s death in their speeches and conspicuously attending his funeral to make political points. Much was made of Gallagher’s wife being paid by claiming he had been employed to bludgeon Tory supporters, a form of attack said to be used ‘only in the wilds of Tipperary’.

The Liberals responded with their own poster claiming that the Tories had forged the death threats. Disclaiming violence, the poster included a plea for peace amongst all parties, religions and nationalities, and for working men to ‘Obey the Command of God, Vote for the Supporters of GLADSTONE, BRIGHT, and true Liberalism’. These pleas proved to be in vain.

Violence was limited during the nominations and polling for the borough parliamentary election. During nominations, the Tory supporters threw stones when the Liberals displayed a representation of the ‘Tory Screw’ (Tory factory owners sacking Radical supporters). A councillor sent for the dragoons but the mayor ordered them back to their billets, and the election passed without rioting. However, in the evening, Thomas Whittaker, while intoxicated, walked down a street in an Irish quarter shouting a slogan in support of one of the Tory candidates. He was attacked and killed. Two men, Thomas Fallon and Daniel Duxbury, were charged with murder; Fallon was Irish.

The following morning was the appointed day for the nominations for the county seats of North East Lancashire. These passed quietly, probably because physical barriers had now been erected between the supporters of each party. The day did not pass quietly, though. During the afternoon, a crowd of Tory supporters paraded displaying a gamecock, a symbol associated with William Henry Hornby, who had just been elected. Some Liberal supporters attacked them, and yet another riot ensued. And with that, the violence associated with the municipal and parliamentary elections in Blackburn ended.

The ways in which elections taking place at different levels, and for different constituencies, could interact with one another in the same physical space provides a stark and telling illustration of the interconnectedness of local and national, urban and rural politics. Moreover, the complex mix of nationality and religion, in these cases, particularly related to Irish immigrants and class relations, as shown by the accusations that Tory mill owners sacked Liberal supporting workers, is worthy of further, more detailed study.


For further information on political and social change in the Blackburn with Darwen area during this period, see http://www.cottontown.org/Pages/home.aspx


David Hughes is a history graduate of Bath Spa University, and works as a Community History Volunteer for Blackburn with Darwen Council.


(Sources: Blackburn Central Library ephemera collection, Blackburn Times, held by Blackburn Central Library.  Blackburn Standard. Retrieved 2018, via British Library Newspapers).

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