At last, a genuine election

Women over 30 received the vote in 1918
Women over 30 received the vote in 1918

by Dr Jack Binns

On June 4, 1832, Scarborough celebrated the end of an old and the start of a new era. Bonfires of tar barrels and ships’ timbers were lit in Newborough and on the foreshore sands, and 44 dolls, all dressed as Town Hall councillors, were jeered as they passed down Eastborough to be gleefully buried in a deep hole in South Bay. After six and a half centuries, the 44 members of the borough’s oligarchy had at last been dispossessed of their exclusive parliamentary franchise.

As a result, Scarborough was no longer in the pockets of two aristocratic dynasties, the Manners and the Phipps. The borough retained its 
ancient privilege to return two Members to the Commons and its historical boundaries, but the franchise was to be extended to all adult male residents who owned properties of annual rental value of at least £10.

But, in fact, as events soon proved, the celebrations were premature. The outcome of the Reform Act of 1832 was a long way short of democratic. Out of a borough population of 9,000 only 508 male ratepayers were 
allowed two votes each and of these more than 100 either failed to register or to vote. Also, though the anti-reform Manners Tory nominee, Colonel Trench, came bottom of the poll in December 1832, the two successful pro-reform Whigs, Sir John VB Johnstone of Hackness and Sir George Cayley of Brompton, represented the same social landowning class as their predecessors. Moreover, both sides still resorted to heavy treating: 16 public houses offered free ale, known as “blue drink”, in support of Trench, while Houson’s Bull Hotel’s well-stocked wine cellar was put to use for the Whigs. Finally, within only three years, when the same three candidates faced the electorate and each other, Trench came out top and the truly independent, admirable Cayley bottom.

As far as Scarborough’s future government was concerned, far more radical and reformist was the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which swept away the old, corrupt, nepotist corporation and replaced it with a genuinely elected council. Of the 18 new seats in the Town Hall, only one was won by “the old corporators”.

So the so-called Great Reform Act of 1832 had little effect on Scarborough’s parliamentary politics and representation. Though the borough’s population rose dramatically from 9,000 in 1831 to 38,000 in 1901, the exclusively male electorate was still counted merely in hundreds. And though former Whigs became new Liberals, the successful candidates were still drawn almost entirely from the same landed gentry and even some of the same local families. Sir John Vanden Bempde Johnstone was followed by his son Sir John, who gained a seat in 1852, 1859, and 1868, and he in turn by Sir Harcourt Johnstone, who was returned in 1874 and 1880 before retiring to the Lords. During this period, the Whig-Liberals were favoured locally more than the Tory-Conservatives; they took both places in 1852, 1859, 1868 and 1880.

Until the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 ended voting openly in public, wooden hustings were erected outside the old town hall in St Nicholas Street and later outside the Court House in Castle Road. Here candidates were nominated and made their speeches, here votes were cast and written down in poll books and results declared. Until 1918 polling went on for several days. But not until election expenses were capped in the 1880s was there a decline in treating, particularly alcohol.

In Scarborough, as elsewhere, temperance was often the critical issue in parliamentary as well as municipal politics. Generally, Scarborough’s brewers, publicans and hoteliers were Tories, whereas Liberals favoured tighter restrictions on licensing, sales and consumption. In 1882, Thomas Whittaker, a leading temperance campaigner, founded the Evening News mainly to counter the Tory Daily Post, in which Sir George Sitwell had a controlling interest.

The other issue of the time that divided the town was Home Rule for the Irish. The Tories, who now called themselves Conservatives, were so passionately opposed to a parliament in Dublin that some of them preferred Unionist. The Liberals were split by Gladstone’s Home Rule bills which were both rejected in 1886 and 1893. After Scarborough became a single Member constituency in 1885, Sir George Sitwell of Wood End, a very rich Unionist, won the borough narrowly in 1885 and 1892 and lost the seat by only a few votes in 1886, 1895 and 1900. Temperance and the Irish question were central to all five elections. Whittaker never fought for Scarborough’s parliamentary place, but WS Caine, his close friend and president of the British Temperance League, was elected for one term in 1880. Joshua Rowntree, Quaker pacifist and temperance advocate, actually resigned from his office of mayor to win Scarborough for the Home Rule cause in 1886. On that occasion, by his opponents, Sitwell was said to have been backed by bankrupts, drunks, swearing blackguards, publicans, brothel-keepers and fallen women and still lost. Nevertheless, the vexed questions of Irish devolution and licensing reform seriously and permanently damaged Scarborough’s Liberal party: both Gladstone in 1898 and Whittaker in 1899 died deeply disappointed men.

Still, the Liberals did enjoy one last major triumph in Scarborough. Walter Russell Rea, who gained the seat in 1906 and just held on to it twice in 1910 until 1918, was arguably the most gifted and effective backbencher the borough ever had in the Commons, before or since. In 1908 he introduced a measure there which finally authorised and financed free medical inspection and treatment for schoolchildren. After 1918, as Dewsbury’s MP, he became the Liberal party’s chief whip.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 marked the next big change in the parliamentary story. All men over 21 and women over 30 were given the vote. This increased the national electorate from seven to twenty million. In Scarborough’s case, however, the new constituency was to include Whitby and the rural districts in between. So whereas in December 1910, at the last election, fewer than five and a half thousand Scarborians had gone to the polls, eight years later, over 20,000 turned out to vote. Also, whereas pre-war Liberals and Unionists had been almost equally matched, outside Scarborough’s old constituency boundaries the latter had a majority. The Act of 1918 proved to be yet another and perhaps final blow to the Liberals and a winning platform for the Tories.