In addition to other sources such as the Home Office Disturbance Book, one of our main sources for detecting election violence is newspaper reports. These can be of immense value, but must always be taken with a pinch of salt…
One of our main aims is to discover the identity and intensity of partisan allegiances in Victorian electoral violence. How much of the violence was down to groups or individuals who clashed because of opposing party loyalties? What’s more, of these partisan-caused incidents, was any party or parties particularly likely to be the perpetrators or victims? How did these trends vary geographically, and over time?
Answering these particular questions is massively complicated by the partisan bent of newspaper coverage. One Conservative-inclined journal might state that a Liberal mob was to blame for violence, while a Liberal-inclined paper might state the opposite. This is why our project is collecting and analysing multiple (and competing) articles which cover incidents of election violence where available.
The scale of this issue is both confirmed and exacerbated by the heavy prevalence of verbatim reprints of violence reports. Newspapers of the era very commonly copied and reprinted reports word-for-word from other journals. However, as we have discovered, such reports were not in fact exactly reproduced – tellingly, some newspapers copied some reports of riots and disturbances but replaced partisan labels according to their own outlooks. This tended not to be an outright switch, such as replacing ‘extreme Conservatives’ with ‘outright Radicals’ – a long article setting out the specific partisan background to an incident would have been difficult to prune, and the end result perhaps somewhat implausible.
Rather, such reports took advantage of the subtle and fluid distinctions between partisan labels which existed throughout the period, as the following two examples from the 1886 contest for Saffron Walden illustrate – each difference is highlighted:
“ELECTION RIOTS. After the declaration of the poll at Saffron Walden on Wednesday, serious disturbances occurred, caused, it is stated, by a Liberal rough stabbing a Conservative. The police were called out, and after a desperate struggle, in the course of which a number of persons were injured, they managed to clear the streets and arrest the ringleaders. About three o’clock, the house of the Rev. A. Rollason, a prominent Liberal, was broken into, and the rev. gentleman pulled out and assaulted. Mr. Gardner, the successful Liberal candidate, was hooted through the streets, and had to be escorted out of the town by police.” (South Wales Echo, 16 July 1886)
“ELECTION RIOTS. After the declaration of the poll at Saffron Walden yesterday, serious disturbance occurred, caused, it is stated, by Parnellite rough stabbing a Conservative. The police were called out, and after desperate struggle, in the course of which number of persons were injured, they managed to clear the streets and arrest the ringleaders. About three o’clock, the house the Rev. A. Rollason, a prominent Parnellite, was broken into, and the rev. gentleman pulled out and assaulted. Mr. Gardner, the successful Parnellite candidate, was hooted through the streets, and had to be escorted out of town the police.” (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1886)
Apart from one stylistic change at the beginning, these (at first glance) cut-and-paste articles are in fact significantly altered – the Sheffield Telegraph frames the incident as a straightforward Liberal-Conservative partisan clash, whereas the South Wales Echo reframes the cause of the incident as more specifically between Parnellite supporters of Irish Home Rule, and their opponents.
Herbert Gardner, MP for Saffron Walden
Further complicating matters, there is no guarantee that this change in terminology originated with the two papers examined. Newspapers copied from other papers, who had themselves copied from yet more papers, in a printed (and often transnational) version of Chinese Whispers. As such, it may well be that both the Telegraph and Echo in fact made no alterations themselves, but were faithfully reproducing newspaper copy from different (but near-identical) sources.
In the case above, the candidate Herbert Gardner was both a Liberal and a supporter of Home Rule. Nonetheless, labelling him a specific ‘Parnellite’ was perhaps less accurate than a broader ‘Liberal’. One element certainly was entirely inaccurate, though – Rev. Rollason wrote to the London Free Standard, yet another title which had copied and pasted the story, to refute their assertions. While his house was broken into and an assault occurred, he himself was ‘neither touched nor threatened’. Luckily for our purposes, most newspapers of competing allegiance tend to agree when election violence actually occurred – the further details, however, tend to require greater scrutiny…
(Sources: Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1886, South Wales Echo, 16 July 1886, London Evening Standard, 17 July 1886. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Images from Wikipedia, publicdomainpictures.net)
For reprinted news more generally, http://scissorsandpaste.net/