Monday, 16 January 2017

Politics, Georgian style

Karl Anton Hickel William Pitt the Younger addressing the
House of Commons on the outbreak of war with France
Wikimedia Commons

The multi-volume and very comprehensive History of Parliament is now online and this post is very much indebted to its research.

'The King in Parliament'

Eighteenth-century Britain was not a democracy. Power rested with the landed elites who controlled Parliament and local government. The monarch had considerable prerogative powers. He summoned and dissolved Parliament and appointed ministers, peers and bishops. No prime minister could remain long in office without the support of the King.

However, following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the King could not rule without Parliament, which, after 1716 had to be summoned every seven years. He could not hold on to a Prime Minister who did not have the support of the Commons. The great mass of the public did not have the right to vote, but public opinion could not be ignored.  The press was (largely) free and the judiciary was independent. The building-blocks of democracy had been put in place. 

Local government was in the hands of the aristocracy (200 families) and the country gentry (12, 00-13, 00 families). The nobility sat in the Lords and controlled many Commons seats. The upper gentry were knights of the shire; the middling gentry were JPs. National politics was controlled by the great political families, who filled government posts and had considerable powers of patronage. 

Because the monarch retained the right to appoint ministers, no government could be stable without his approval. Stable ministers required the support of both king and Parliament. Because the Commons controlled finance and taxation, it had an ultimate sanction over ministers and the Crown. 

Party, in the modern sense of the word, only re-emerged in the later eighteenth century. But in spite of political differences there was a broad ‘Whig’ consensus based on the Glorious Revolution: liberty, patriotism, a mixed constitution, a viable working relationship between king and Parliament.

The working of politics

The House of Commons consisted of 558 Members elected by 314 constituencies. The 245 English constituencies (40 counties, 203 boroughs, 2 universities) returned 489 Members; the 24 Welsh constituencies and 45 Scottish constituencies returned one Member each. In 1801 the addition of 100 Irish Members elected by 66 constituencies made an Imperial Parliament of 658 Members

Most of the Members of Parliament were landowners, elected either on the county 40-shilling franchise (the possession of freehold property valued for the land tax at 40 shillings per annum) or on one of the varied borough franchises. 

The size of the constituencies varied hugely. Yorkshire, with 20,000 voters, had the largest electorate, Lyme Regis, one of the smallest boroughs, had an electorate of 200. Old Sarum had seven voters, Dunwich had fewer than 40. 

There were six types of borough franchise

  1. Freeman: vote given to freemen of the town or city
  2. Burgage: franchise attached to property in the borough
  3. Corporation: vote confined to members of the corporation
  4. Scot and lot: voters who paid the poor rate
  5. Household or ‘potwalloper’: all inhabitant male householders not receiving alms or poor relief.
  6. Freeholder: right of voting lay with the freeholders

About 1 in 6 of the adult male population had the right to vote.
Voters wrote their names in a poll book, which was subsequently published. Poll books trace their origins to a 1696 act of Parliament designed to curb disputed election results and fraud. They continued to be used for various elections until the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. Many poll books are now on line. This site explains their nature and gives many links.  


William Hogarth, Humours of an Election. Voting
Note how the voters are signing their names in poll books.
Public domain

See here for a discussion of Hogarth's four paintings, The Humours of an Election. The paintings describe (with some exaggeration) the very contentious Oxfordshire election of 1754. They show us a great deal about the voting procedures but we shouldn't be misled into thinking they describe a typical election!

See here for a fascinating account of how a powerful woman - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu managed elections for her husband.

Some constituencies

Newcastle was a freeman borough, meaning that the franchise was vested in the hereditary freemen, by no means all of them wealth men. The seat was contested in the election of 1780. This was comparatively rare, as the borough was almost the hereditary property of the Ridley family. The members for Newcastle were as a rule acknowledged leaders of its business community, and they carefully watched over its interests. 

Poll book for Newcastle for the general
election of 1780
Public domain

Kent was one of the largest of the county constituencies, and was proud of its independence. The Duke of Dorset, the leading peer in the county, had considerable influence, and the government controlled port constituencies like Rochester. It was the custom to elect one Member from east Kent and the other from west Kent. Usually these were unopposed. When there was a contested election in 1790, most people seem to have found this very inconvenient!

Wentworth Woodhouse: The power house of the Yorkshire Whigs.
The home of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham and
his successor, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam
Public domain

Yorkshire was the largest constituency in Britain, and its size ensured its independence. Of the three Ridings the West was the most considerable, containing about half the number of voters in the county. The leading aristocratic interest, that of the Marquess of Rockingham, was located for the most part in the West Riding; but no one interest alone could return a Member for Yorkshire: he had to win the support of the independent country gentlemen and the woollen manufacturers of the West Riding. Generally, elections were uncontested, but the election of 1807 was fiercely fought and was the most expensive of the Georgian period.


  1. Georgian politics operated under the ‘unreformed’ electoral system. This system was to be reformed in1832.
  2. Politics was dominated by the aristocracy and most men did not have the right to vote.
  3. However, where voting did take place, there was evidence of a vibrant political culture. Politicians could not always take their electorates for granted.

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