Roughs at Elections: Hired to Cause Trouble

One of the main aims of our project is to examine the causes of electoral violence from both bottom-up and top-down perspectives – essentially, whether such violence was the result of spontaneous popular expression, or an strategic phenomenon, perpetrated by elites to influence election results.  It’s likely that (to varying extents) both types of violence existed between 1832 and 1914, but one strong indication that there was an element of elite-directed election violence is the presence of hired ‘roughs’ at many election contests.

Many of these roughs were considered to be an almost-traditional (and somewhat legitimate) part of contests, but the fact remains that these roughs were often hired – most likely with money from candidates and parties.  Were they always hired merely to provide colour and excitement to contests, or were there more strategic motives for doing so? Existing literature discusses hired roughs in some detail, but there are a large number of unanswered questions about them – who exactly were they? Who exactly hired them?  When did they become a recognised feature of elections, and why did they eventually fade from the picture? The next blog, on roughs at a Shaftesbury election, explores some of these questions.

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