Of disorderly elections, drunkeness, and a ‘borrowed’ Hanson cab

In February 1880 the death of John Locke, the sitting Liberal MP for Southwark seat brought about a by-election. In due course 15,312 eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot and the seat was won by the Conservative candidate,  Edward (later Sir Edward) Clarke. Clarke is most famous for being the barrister that represented Oscar Wilde in his unsuccessful prosecution of the Marquis of Queensbury for libel (which ultimately ended with Wilde being tried and then imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

Elections can be rowdy affairs even today and in the past (especially in the 18th century) they were raucous, sometimes fairly corrupt and drink tended to play a significant role. It seems the by-election in Southwark led to at least two Police Court appearances that month.

The first was a bricklayer named Frederick Evans, who ‘borrowed’ a Hanson cab when he was drunk. Evans admitted to having ‘got too much drink’ at the election (which caused much laughter in Wandsworth Police Court. He noticed that William Cheeney (a cab driver) was slumped in a chair in the Ballot room the worse for alcohol, and presumably thought he wouldn’t mind if he borrowed his vehicle.

Cheeney did mind. He appeared in court to give evidence that he wasn’t drunk at all and had only stopped off in the Ballot room to collect his fees for the night (presumably he had been ferrying voters of the receiving officers).

Mr Paget, the magistrate, wasn’t convinced by his story and while he fined Evans for being drunk in charge of a vehicle (so drunk in fact, that he fell off the cab!), he refused the cabbie’s request for expenses and told him to expect a summons from the police for ‘leaving his cab unattended’.

The second case was heard at Southwark and again involved drunkenness.

Ellen Harley (a 49-year old ‘stalwart Irishwoman’), was charged with being drunk and disorderly at the by-election, and ‘causing a mob to assemble’. PC Anker (305 M) was on duty outside a polling station in Fair Street, Horselydown, and witnessed Harley ‘on several occasions’ whipping up the voting public.

She marched up and down shouting ‘Home rule and Irish independence’ (a hot topic in the late 19th century) and the policeman asked her to go away and stop causing an obstruction and a nuisance. At six o’clock she was back and clearly quite inebriated and had gathered a ‘mob’ around her. PC Anker felt ‘obliged to take her into custody’.

In court she apologised and said she had been plied with drink by ‘some of her countrymen; and had got ‘rather excited’. The justice asked if she was known to the court or the gaoler. Fortunately it was found that she wasn’t; this was her first time in court. She was fined 10s or 7 days in prison.

Having stood for my local council at the last general election in 2015 I can attest that the process is a lot more sober these days but the campaigns can be quite lively for all that. Of course poor Ellen couldn’t vote. Although about 2.5 million more Britons had been enfranchised by the Parliamentary Reform Act (1867) this didn’t include women, she would have to wait to 1918 , if she lived that long (she would have been 87 so I doubt it).

p.s The loss of Southwark was temporary. in the 1880 general election (where Disraeli’s Conservatives were trounced by Gladstone, the Liberals regained the seat under Arthur Cohen MP)

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1880]

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One thought on “Of disorderly elections, drunkeness, and a ‘borrowed’ Hanson cab

  1. Excellent story; it is amazing how one news item can drop us into this utterly different world. I think it is the detail that does it – the way the magistrate conducts the hearing and thus decides on the appropriate penalty.

    Like

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