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.

The polling commenced ‘briskly’ in the morning – after two hours of voting, a mob approached the hustings and proceeded to demolish barricades which had been erected for the benefit of queuing voters. They were described as displaying ‘the most savage disposition’, carrying short thick bludgeons. They then engaged in several fights with Special Constables which resulted in several broken heads and a Deputy Constable breaking his arm. This so worried authorities that they closed the polling for the day, and magistrates sent for military reinforcements.

By 1pm, however, the situation had further deteriorated. The mob continued to roam the streets armed with bludgeons, damaging much property. The polling had been briefly re-opened, but then closed again.  By this point, the local ‘dungeons’ were full, and no more of the mob could be detained.  The crowd, in any case, proceeded to storm the dungeons, liberating all prisoners.

By 2pm, foot-soldiers and cavalry had arrived in Bolton. The Riot Act was read, by which point the crowd were described as ‘tolerably peaceable’.  It was stated that the authorities were determined to put an end to the disturbances, and to ensure that the poll (which had been re-opened for a second time) proceeded quietly.

By 2.30pm, a Unitarian minister speaking on behalf of the Conservative candidate (William Bolling) registered a formal protest with the authorities, denouncing their decision to call in the military. The meeting of minister and authorities was ‘accompanied by a great portion of the mob’. However, peace was (barely) maintained, and the polling continued.

It is notable that a mass election riot, involving military intervention, injuries, property damage, the liberation of prisoners, and multiple interruptions to polling, was not unusual for 12 December 1832. At least SIX other election riots were taking place simultaneously across England and Wales, alongside many other smaller acts of political violence. On the days they occurred, we will be tweeting summaries of these violent election events, big and small, later this month.  

(Source: The Examiner, 16 December 1832. Retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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