Archive Item of the Month – May 2015

This month’s featured item is a timely accession to the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society Library. Whether you are rejoicing or commiserating at the recent General Election result, this unassuming volume provides a glimpse of corrupt election practices in Victorian Gloucester.

Report of the Commissioners into the Existence of Corrupt Practices in the City of Gloucester (1881)

A Royal Commission was appointed to investigate allegations of bribery and election fraud by Conservative and Liberal parties during the General Elections of 1874 and 1880. This volume is the official report delivered to Queen Victoria by her Royal Commissioners after they conducted hundreds of witness interviews between October 1880 and January 1881. The transcripts of the interviews are recorded in the report and make for fascinating reading.

Title page

The report states that at the election of 1874, “many voters took more than one bribe, and frequently from both parties, and many, bribed on one side, voted on the other” (p.4). Both sides spent upwards of £1000 on bribes during each election, the equivalent of upwards of £60,000 today.

Electoral wards and polling stations in Gloucester c.1880

The report sums up:

“As to bribery we have to remark that the leading agents engaged in corrupt practices on both sides are principally members of the Corporation, and in the course of our investigation it has appeared that bribery is the rule and not the exception at all elections in the city of Gloucester. At municipal elections the price given for the vote is not so high as at parliamentary elections, but the practice of bribery is so ingrained in the city of Gloucester, that a large number of the poorer electors do not avail themselves of their franchise, either municipal or parliamentary, unless they receive a sum of money for “loss of time”, as they term it.”

Thomas Henry Ford’s evidence statement

One particularly odd witness statement came from Thomas Henry Ford, a clerk at the Liberal Central Committee Rooms on Berkeley Street. Ford was instructed to pass on bribery monies and took the precaution of disguising himself in “a very large hat something like the Yankee style. I had false whiskers. I think it is what they call the Dundreary style” (p.227).

An example of the “Dundreary style” is below, courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery. Ford’s testimony goes on to say that his disguise raised a few laughs from his fellow fraudsters.

 

“Dundreary Style”
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