This week’s Short Account covers elections which took place years apart, and illustrates how many writers thought that, when looking back, violence was due to natural exuberance and on the decline. Editorials had been claiming such a decline since at least 1832, making the accuracy of such claims a matter of debate…
In 1906, polling for the county seat of East Worcestershire was reported to have proceeded peacefully. Notably, it was ‘unmarked by any of that horseplay and disorderliness seen at some previous elections’. It was the first contest the seat had experienced since 1892, and the reporter wrote approvingly of local party activists, who ‘wisely devoted themselves to looking up and checking off voters instead of chaffing and taunting political opponents’. After the conclusion of polling, there was some ‘booing and hurrahing’, by a crowd mostly composed of boys and young men – despite the decline in boisterousness, it was still evidently thought by them the ‘election night [was] a capital opportunity for giving vent to their feelings, but it is safe to say any other excuse would have served just as well as an election ’. The reporter goes out of his way to note that nothing was broken except the silence of the night – no windows smashed, nobody injured, merely that nearby residents were kept awake.
The next article then reminisces how this was not the case in the same location for the previous election of 1880 – the positive changes between then and 1906 were ascribed either to the ‘better manners’ of Edwardian election crowds, or to improved methods employed by the police. In 1880, there was no disturbance until late morning, as almost all of the crowd were largely of the same political ‘colour’. This was, however, evidently too quiet for some, and two of the ‘larrikin’ class went into a shop and bought ribbons of the opposite colour for their coat buttonholes. However, ‘if their object was to infuse a little life into the otherwise quiet proceedings they succeeded beyond what were, probably, their highest expectations’. In less than ten seconds, they had lost not only the ribbons but also the coats that they were attached to, not to mention their hats, vests and collars. They only narrowly avoided being stripped of their shorts, trousers, and boots as well! Blows were then struck, with some of the crowd taking one side and others the opposite, and ‘in a few minutes two crowds existed where there was but one, divided not by political differences, but merely for the purposes of a row’. Various advertisement boards were smashed, with the pieces used as weapons, in addition to stones and brickbats. Damage to people and property continued well into the evening. The writer concluded that ‘we manage things better nowadays’.
They were right about managing things better; election riots and other disturbances declined sharply as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. This account of an election disturbance which took place 26 years before, however, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Though it may well be that a carnival atmosphere and a ‘simple love of disorder’ was the main cause of the 1880 disturbance, articles which report such violence when looking back from a great distance tend to privilege the entertaining and sentimental aspects, alongside the exotic rituals involved. First-hand reports of election violence written at the time of their occurrence often tell a different story.
(Source: Alcester Chronicle, 27 January 1906 . Retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)