The importance of the secret ballot – Cambridge Liberals learn the hard way. 1859

When the 1859 General Election was held, it was still on a very narrow franchise. Despite Cambridge’s ever-growing population, the percentage of the population who could vote was still under ten percent.

Furthermore, in those days there was no secret ballot. The way in which a voter cast their vote was published in newspapers and in public poll books. This gave a huge influence for anyone who wanted to use threats (financial, physical or otherwise) to persuade voters which way to case their votes. It would not be until the Ballot Act 1872 that secret ballots that we are familiar with today, were brought in. Recall that this was one of the primary demands of the Chartist Movement – who last appeared in Cambridge in 1848, and were much lampooned for their troubles.

Following the general election, the Liberal-supporting Cambridge Independent had the following to say as an opinion piece. From the British Newspaper Archive here.

“Now that the Election is over, we only discharge a duty in which we are sure will be as agreeable to our friends as it is pleasant to ourselves, when we return our sincere thanks of the Liberal Party to Mr Mowatt and Mr Twisleton for the gallant effort they made on our behalf to liberate us from the sway of the Tories. We deeply regret that, by the apathy of professing Liberals, their attempt was unsuccessful. The former gentlemen has been assailed, as usual, by every vituperative epithet that malice could suggest, both by a certain malevolent Editor, and his no less vindictive friend and representative, to whom the epithet par nobile fratrum [A pair of famous…!] can be most appropriately applied.

“The discouraging circumstances under which Messrs Mowatt and Twisleton undertook an enterprise which was sure to entail upon them considerable expense and heavy personal exertions, with at least a doubtful result, greatly strengthen their claim upon our gratitude. Possession always counts for a great deal, and they came here to wrest two seats from gentlemen who already had them; they came in the face of a powerful influence, which was sure, even passively, to tell against them; and they came to fight a party which, if it cannot win by fair means never scruples to resort to foul.

“Adverse, however, as they well knew all these things to be before they consented to offer themselves to the electors, they nevertheless flinched not from their duty to the Liberal Party, and boldly encountered the trouble and expense of an arduous contest, together with a risk of failure which is now unfortunately proved to have been a certainty. All this ought to make those who frustrated their gallant effort doubly ashamed of themselves.

“Three hundred electors did not come to the poll; and of these, at least two hundred were persons who call themselves Liberals, and who, if they had voted as they ought to have done, would have given Messrs Mowatt and Twisleton a decisive majority.

“Liberal absentees say that they were afraid of University or other influence being exerted against them; that they have their bread to earn and that they have to earn it as much from Tories as from Liberals. That they have to live by Tories as much by Liberals we do not doubt; but they were in the least afraid that they would suffer in trade by voting for Messrs Mowatt and Twisleton we do not believe for a moment.

“The plain truth is that they are indifferent, or recreants from the good cause, and are now in the incipient stages of ratting. They have not pluck enough to go boldly over to the other side at once so for this year , they contrive to occupy neutral ground, and try to cover their movement by pretending that they have taken shelter in a halfway house as a refuge from persecution. It is an excuse, however, which deceives nobody.

“Though we have not heard of it, yet it is possible that Universitymen as individuals, in the same way as Townsmen as individuals, may have tried to exercise an unfair influence on some of the electors; but whatever may have been formerly the case, it is now tolerably well-known that there is no active exercise of influence in town elections by the University and by the Colleges in their corporate capacity. Besides, being so odious has oppression now become, that if a man is known to have suffered in his trade by giving an honest vote, his loss is always made up to him, and more; in fact it is rather lucrative than not now-a-days to be a martyr. The simulated fears of the croakers about University influence are nothing but a transparent sham, which everybody sees through; and as these persons will not vote, the franchise must be extended to those who will.

“Many persons say that Mr Mowatt’s speech at the Nomination was too long, and some say that it was too strong; but they forget the open provocation which he received at the hustings, and the less manifest, but not the less irritating, provocation which he had received during the canvass. People differ in their temperament, and in their way of taking an insult; but we will venture to say of the vast majority of the world, that if they had received the provocations of which Mr Mowatt had to encounter, they would have been nearly as long, and quite as strong, in repelling them, as he was; one thing, at all events is most certain, that Mr Macaulay received a dressing that day which he will not soon forget.

“Among other things, he chose flatly to contradict Mr. Mowatt in what he said in his address about Messrs Walpole and Henley; but Mr Mowatt was perfectly right, for all that; and The Times of Thursday last takes precisely the same view. When a man meets with a direct contradiction, while he knows he is speaking the truth, it is not surprising if he gets a little warm, and, knowing his opponent replies in language with is more forceful than polite.


What this opinion/editorial piece tells us is that several of the voters felt that their businesses would be threatened if they were publicly seen to be voting for the Liberal candidate – even though this is something that the newspaper says was manageable. Furthermore we also hear about ‘University intrigues’ – mindful at the time that Oxford and Cambridge Universities elected their own Members of Parliament – something only brought to an end in the 1940s. But it shows how at the time the political outcomes rested on the votes of a relatively small number of people.

It’s one of the reasons why the title of the book below describes Victorian Westminster so brilliantly. Such were the small number of men eligible to vote (no women were enfranchised), that this was politics without democracy – as the vast majority of adults were excluded from that basic element of democratic processes, the ability to vote without fear or favour in a general election. Worth thinking about when politicians go on the media to praise the UK’s democratic history.

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