Democracy and Pontefract Cakes: The Story of the Secret Ballot

by Thomas Smith

In 1872 a media circus descended on our merry little town of Pontefract. Thousands, including electoral agents and journalists, flocked from all over the country, eager to see a new electoral mechanism at work: the secret ballot.

Why Pontefract of all places? Well, the secret ballot happened here first because, in 1872, our Member of Parliament, the Liberal Hugh Childers, had been newly appointed to ministerial office as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Contemporary parliamentary practice instructed that if an MP wished to take ministerial office they also had to be re-elected in a by-election in order for them to serve. Now, with Childers being called up to be a minister just three weeks after the introduction of William Gladstone’s Ballot Act 1872, he (and Pontefract), on the 15th of August 1872, became the first in line to try out the Act’s new-fangled style of voting: the secret ballot.

Before the introduction of the Ballot Act, being a voter in the United Kingdom could be a swarthy business. It is worth briefly recalling here that at this time only property owning men were enfranchised with the vote (see Reform Act 1867). When it came to casting your vote, you had to do it publicly, very publicly. You had to stand in the polling station and state your name, details, and crucially, cast your vote orally for all to hear. Other methods of voting also in use at this time were the show of hands and the public signing of the ballot paper. What is more, the details of your vote could be easily seen in poll books which were widely available for anyone to peruse.

Of course, this style of open voting left individuals vulnerable to all kinds of bribery and intimidation. When entering the polling station, there would have been several corrupting influences bearing down upon your judgement. For one thing, the person up for election may well be your boss or your landlord, and if you didn’t vote their way you could be liable for the sack or, worse still, eviction. And as if that wasn’t enough to worry about, you were also susceptible to being ‘soaked’ by a candidate, who often threw parties on the day to (literally) sway voters to electing them by plying them with booze and grub. Electoral bribery was also rife and candidates would often try and ‘buy off’ voters; these dodgy dealings often took place in public buildings of all places! Campaign spending at this time was also unlimited and candidates could spend untold amounts of money on influencing voters. The threat of violence also played a large part on polling day. Candidates could hire mobs to stand at polling stations to intimidate, jeer and threaten voters. There are even reports of voters being kidnapped and taken by force to the polling station!

However, corruption and perversion of democracy aside, polling days were also a source of fun and festival for the community. On these Victorian election days, social norms and behaviours became relaxed and people drank lots of liquor, partied and got very merry, with a punch-up or two added into the mix. There were also bands playing and flags – a real festival atmosphere. Of course, with the advent of Ballot Act 1872 and the secret ballot, all of this merry-making effectively disappeared. Locals complained that all the fun had been taken out of elections; observers present in Pontefract on that pivotal day in August 1872 commented that the lack of booze and general havoc made it not seem like an election day at all.

With the secret ballot in action, the electors of Pontefract were now able to cast their votes privately by marking an X on the ballot paper within a closed booth before then posting it in a sealed ballot box – a method more akin to the way we vote today. The wooden ballot boxes used in this first secret ballot were specifically made for the occasion and marked with a wax seal to ensure that they were not tampered with. Fascinatingly, and not without a swell of local pride, the seals were stamped not with the Great Seal of the Royal Borough of Pontefract granted by Richard III in 1494, but instead by the traditional stamp used to mark Pontefract Cakes.

Despite the improvements in voter confidentiality, the new method of voting still had its problems. In the mid-to-late 19th century Pontefract was chiefly a rural area where a considerable proportion of the population were illiterate. This understandably caused issues when voters had to read the names of candidates on the ballot paper to cast their vote. At the Pontefract by-election in 1872, 199 of the 1236 voters were classified as illiterate; when they came to cast their vote, they had to do so orally, but before they could do so a special declaration had to be made and the room cleared of bystanders (including the attendant police officer). A further calamity arose when a number of voters reportedly forgot their spectacles and had to use the voting procedure for blind voters.

With polling day over, the votes were counted and the results announced in Pontefract’s Town Hall with Hugh Childers carrying the day. Though with the introduction of the secret ballot, there was a general anticipation that the results of the vote would differ from previous elections i.e. Childs would lose to his Tory opponent due to there being no question of corruption of the polls. However, even with the secret ballot, Childs won comfortably, much to his satisfaction.

So, next time you cast your vote in an election, remember that Pontefract is where the secret ballot was first in use!

Reproduced by kind permission of Pontefract Heritage Group.

This article was featured in Issue 4 – May 2019.

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