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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Election Fever!

The date of the general election has been fixed at last, and no doubt for the next few weeks we will be inundated with political analysis and comment on every TV and radio channel.

Election campaigns in Regency times were positively bloodthirsty affairs. Vote-rigging, bribery, and fistfights between rival supporters were the order of the day. The electoral system was rotten to the core and ripe for reform. Very few people had the vote, only ‘forty shilling freeholders,’ that is, those with property worth forty shillings or more. Parliamentary seats were bought and sold; they were even advertised for sale in the newspapers. There was no secret ballot, so a would-be MP could check whether his money used for ‘treating’ electors was well spent.

Cheshire had four parliamentary seats: two for the county as a whole, and two for the city of Chester. The Cheshire parliamentary seats were carved up between eminent county families. Between 1785 and 1829 Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, John Crewe of Crewe, Davies Davenport of Capesthorne, Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal and the Egertons of Tatton shared the honours pretty equally. Cotton and Crewe were Whigs; Davenport an Independent; Cholmondeley and Egerton were Tories. The all-powerful Grosvenor family of Eaton Hall held at least one but more typically both Chester city seats between 1780 and 1830. The Grosvenors spent over £20,000 on drinks alone for voters during the contentious 1784 city election to grease the wheels for their candidates Wilbraham Bootle and Thomas Grosvenor. 

Chester was notorious for its political in-fighting, and there were frequent riots on its streets during election time. You can read more about election fever in the county during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and some of the colourful characters involved, in Regency Cheshire.
Image: Section of map of planned Parliamentary Divisions for Chester in 1832 by Lt. Robert K. Dawson

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