Cambridge residents denied the vote meet at the guildhall. 1859.

It’s easy to forget that the majority of people in the UK did not have the vote until after the First World War. Prior to that, the franchise at a local and national level was based on gender (men only) and a property qualification – ie did the individual own property and/or pay a sufficient amount in local taxes in order to warrant the vote?

This report from 1859 in the British Newspaper Archive from the Conservative-supporting Cambridge Chronicle (as will be clear in their account of the meeting of their political opponents) makes for interesting reading in that it is a meeting of people denied the vote. As rough and violent as the meeting sounds, it doesn’t read any more violent to the meetings that Conservative-supporting students at Cambridge University – this is them smashing up the Cambridge Reform Club in 1885. Such behaviour continued into the 20th Century – imperialists targeting peace activists on Remembrance Day in 1933. This was only five years after Millicent Garrett Fawcett saw her dream of Universal and Equal Suffrage enacted in 1928.

The meeting – and the names shouted out by the crowd. 

The first thing to note is that the meeting took place in the middle of the 1859 general election. A “Mr Mowatt” is mentioned throughout the article. It is likely that this is Francis Mowatt MP (Cambridge Radical – 1854-57)- who was a candidate in that election, ultimately not succeeding.

The names of Macaulay and Steuart are also called out. These are Kenneth Macaulay MP  and Andrew Steuart MP, both of whom were elected for the Conservatives in the 1850s in Cambridge. Four years later in 1863, Henry Fawcett would stand for election in Cambridge – unsuccessfully. Town politics would remain rotten for some time to come!

590430 Meeting of non-voters Cambridge 1859

Meeting of non Electors and Row at the Town Hall.

“One of the most noisy and riotous assemblages that it was ever our lot to witness took place the Town-hall on Monday evening last. A certain number non-electors, principally Whig-Radicals and little boys, petitioned the Mayor to allow a public meeting of non-electors at the Town-hall, and his worship, with that impartiality which has distinguished his mayoralty, once acceded, and granted the use of the hall.

“At seven o’clock large mass of the ” great unwashed” from Barnwell, Castle-end, New-town, and other extremities of the borough thronged into the hall, together with some few respectable electors and non-electors, attracted curiosity. [Barnwell – ‘The Kite’ pocket of land south of Newmarket Road and north of East Road, along with Castle Ward and New-town, the pocket of land east of Trumpington Road and West of Hills Road between Lensfield Road and Brooklands Avenue, were some of the most notorious slums in Cambridge at the time].

“Mr. Mackintosh having been elected to preside, took the chair, and the Radical candidates, and some of their canvassing companions mounted the platform with him. The first resolution was moved in comparative order by Mr. Henry Hall, who, with some eloquence, advanced his opinions about the Rights of Man, advocating vote by ballot and universal suffrage, but expressing himself in Mowattian parlance, “satisfied with the franchise for the present.” He also indulged in some abusive remarks against “Caustic” and the Cambridge Chronicle, but fortunately hitherto they have not been attended with very dreadful results. Some persons’ censure is praise.

“After the resolution was seconded, up rose Mr. Mowatt, and he was received with volley after volley of groans. yells, and hisses. A large portion of rightly conceived that, though Mr. M. is a non-elector in Cambridge he is not one of those whose views the meeting was called to hear. Mr. Mowatt, however, persisted obtruding himself and his opinions on the meeting. He made grimaces, held up his arms, grinned, and raised his voice to a shriek. Then ensued one of those blackguard fights for which Whig-Radical meetings have generally been distinguished.

“The object of the Radicals was to turn out those who differed from them in opinion, and one or two quietly-disposed individuals complied with their wish. Others stood their ground, in spite of the scuffling, swearing, and pushing of their opponents: then there was more squaring, and more blows were struck.

“During this time, Mr. Mowatt seemed to enjoy the fun more than anybody; he and his partizans on the platform cheered, gesticulated, and waived their hats, to encourage the Radical bullies. All attempts, however, to turn out the dissentients were unavailing, and Mr. Mowatt. amid hisses and tumult, again essayed to speak. He told the non-electors that so long they remained without the franchise they were only half free, and were little better than Russian serfs. Then he said that those who held the £10 franchise exercised their trust for the non-electors, and the non-electors had a right to demand which way they voted; but he did not attempt to reconcile this position with his oft-expressed opinion in favour of the ballot.

“He went on in his usual tedious and would-be facetious vein to abuse Lord Derby and the “bottle conjuror” (as he designated the Chancellor of the Exchequer), and was proceeding at greater length he was reminded by the Chairman that the meeting did not come near him alone. All the time he had been speaking the non-Mowattian element had continued to raise its voice high in opposition to his arguments; counter cries of turn ’em out” were uttered, but that appeared to be easier said than done. Many and loud were the cheers raised for “Lord Derby.” for “Macanley and Steuart:” and equally loud the groans for “old Mowatt.”

“There were several more fights; indeed the meeting consisted for the most part of series of skirmishes. The Chairman put the resolution, which was to the effect that in the opinion of this meeting any Reform Bill which does not extend the franchise qualification to £6 occupiers in boroughs, and £10 in counties, and does not grant the privilege of vote by ballot, is unworthy of support. This resolution, opposed by a forest of hands, was declared carried. Another resolution, pledging the meeting support the Radical candidates, was proposed by Mr. Collin (draper’s assistant), and seconded by Mr, Harvey, and when, put by the Chairman was greeted with cheers for ” Macaulay and Steuart.”

After a vote of thanks had been unanimously given to the Mayor for the use of the hall, the meeting was declared dissolved. It did not break up. however, without a fight or two more, and cheers and counter cheers for the rival candidates. Mr Mowatt left the hall followed by a host of admiring shop boys; and brawls were continued in the streets till a late hour.”


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