‘Rough Rollicking Enthusiasm’: Relationships Between Election Violence and the Restricted Franchise

Our project covers not one period, but many – at different points between 1832 and 1914, different proportions of the adult male populace were entitled to the vote, as successive Reform Acts expanded the franchise.  Towards the end, electoral violence by women seeking the vote is also evident. Research Assistant Genevieve Johnson explores the rather biased editorial line of an 1865 electoral violence report, one which suggests a close link between violence and exclusion from the franchise:

In nineteenth-century England and Wales, a wide and confusing variety of overlapping factors could prompt electoral violence, from the displaying of party colours to the utilisation of hired roughs as political weapons. Even more varied was the type of violence, which could range from brutal murders to the throwing of cabbages and herring. One common factor amongst many of the electoral events to be found in nineteenth-century newspapers was the type of person generally found in violent mobs. In many (if not most) cases across the decades, they were largely made up of working-class men and boys – labourers of various types, and “paupers”. In other words, the disenfranchised.

Why, it might be asked, would these non-electors attend political gatherings and take an interest in something they could not be a formal part of? It could of course have much to do with the exciting ‘carnival’ atmosphere of election periods in Victorian Britain. A more likely explanation in my opinion, however, is that much of the violence and intimidation was a direct way in which the disenfranchised could make their political voice heard, by trying to sway those who could vote that they should poll in favour of their preferred candidate.

This theory is espoused by the (rather disapproving, Tory-supporting) author of an 1865 article in The Sheffield Daily Telegraph:

The article concerns an election riot in Rotherham, involving a Liberal-supporting mob which took part in a large-scale riot.  During this disturbance, they attacked anyone wearing the Tory colour of blue and smashed several windows; the violence escalated so far that the military were called in and proceeded to charge the crowd with swords drawn. The author, who refers to the crowd as “dogs” and “beasts”, compares this to a similar riot which had taken place at Sheffield, giving this scathing account of the character of the mob there:

Although the Reform Act of 1832 had extended the franchise somewhat, still by 1865 only one in five adult males owned sufficient property to qualify for the vote. In places such as Sheffield and Rotherham, moreover, the imbalance between overall population and numbers of electors was especially pronounced. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 extended the franchise amongst males even further, allowing increasing numbers of working-class men to go to the polls. However, it was not until the Representation of the People act of 1918 that all men over 21 (and women over 30) got the vote – four years after the end of the period covered by this project.

Amongst all of the articles concerning Victorian election violence, it appears to be relatively rare to find extended discussion of the relationship between violence and the restricted franchise. Yet, as this biased but insightful article illustrates, the lack of a direct ability to affect electoral outcomes by legitimately voting drove many non-electors to pursue alternate methods of participation.


Genevieve Johnson has just completed a postgraduate MA in history at Newcastle University, and plans on beginning her PhD in 2019.  In addition to her research in Victorian political culture, she is also interested in discourses of eugenics and genocide in the nineteenth and twentieth-century US.


(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 22 July 1865. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive).

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