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Introduction to the 1780-84 Poll Book

The Electoral System

            Up until the 1832 Reform Act, parliamentary constituencies were divided into 'county' and 'borough' constituencies, and usually each one returned two members to Parliament. In Newcastle upon Tyne there were about 2,500 voters, which made it a large constituency. For this reason, Newcastle elections were both expensive and an organisational challenge for candidates. The local political elite usually tried to agree who would represent them and avoid a contest. However, if no compromise could be reached, an election would take place. The candidates and their agents would endeavour to canvass every voter to secure the promise of a vote.

            Polling would take place over several days – in the case of the 1780 election in Newcastle,10 days in September, in booths set up for the purpose and in the presence of the returning officer, usually the mayor or sheriff and his deputies. Each voter would state his qualification to vote. This was open to challenge, as there was no electoral register, and he might be required to take an oath to prove his qualification.

            Certain other oaths could also be required at this stage, from anyone suspected of disloyalty or to state that no money or reward has come the voter's way, 'a somewhat implausible assertion' according to Professor O'Gorman. He then declared his vote. He could “split” his vote between two candidates or “plump” for one. His vote was recorded in a manuscript poll book, usually with a 1 for each split vote and an X for a plump. A daily total of votes for each candidate was declared. A candidate would withdraw when it became clear that he could not win a seat. The winning candidates were declared after several days of polling. Afterwards, the poll book was often printed, as a record of who had voted for whom and as a useful guide for those canvassing in future elections. Elections were often closely fought and subject to challenge. In those cases, the poll book was useful to those investigating irregular voting.

             When an election was expected in 1784, one of the candidates used a printed poll book of the 1780 election as a handy list of freemen to canvass. To judge by the written comments, this was the agent for the sitting member and candidate Andrew Robinson Stoney Bowes. The agent added notes of who had died, who had become freemen since 1780 and how they promised to vote. Canvass notes such as this are not unique, and a copy of the 1777 Poll Book, with notes for use in the 1780 election is available on a CD-Rom, from Archive CD Books Ireland. However, so far as we know no-one else has done a complete transcription of a poll-book with all its notes. There is still work to be done on the database, but once complete, we will also be able to provide the full contents in an Excel spreadsheet to bona-fide researchers, which will allow for extensive analysis.

            This copy of the Poll Book has 58 double pages, but only the right-hand page of each pair has anything printed on it. The canvass for the 1784 election is written on both left- and right-hand pages, but usually with a lot more on the right, including additional names for new voters since the 1780 election. A few left-hand pages do not have any annotations.

The Newcastle Elections of 1780 and 1784

            A 'compromise' was common in Newcastle elections, because it was a large expensive constituency. This meant that one Tory and one Whig were returned unopposed, and in practice often co-operated in Parliament. For a period in the second half of the century, though, there were battles between radicals and the local political elite, mainly over local issues, and so there were contested elections. In a by-election in 1777, Andrew Robinson Bowes was put up by the radicals under the slogan 'Bowes and Freedom', but lost by 95 votes. In the general election of 1780, he stood again and this time beat his rival, Thomas Delaval, by 50 votes. In 1784, he stood again, as a supporter of the Coalition, but gave up as they ‘were preparing to go to the hustings’ - perhaps because his canvass returns showed that he had lost support.

            You can find more detail about the elections in the constituency's entry on the History of Parliament website, and also information about Bowes himself. He was essentially an adventurer, originally called Andrew Robinson Stoney, who had married Mary Ellen Bowes of Gibside by a trick in 1777, and asset-stripped the Gibside estate over the coming years. He treated her abominably, and has been called 'Britain's worst husband'. He was the model for William Thackeray's novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, adapted by Stanley Kubrick for a 1975 film starring Ryan O'Neal.

Sources; this information comes from the History of Parliament website, Voters, Patrons and Parties: the Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832, by Frank O'Gorman (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1989), and relevant Wikipedia entries. Much of it was originally pulled together by Derek Cutts. Thanks to all of them.

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