Now you see me now you don't

The mushroom voter in 18th century Hertford elections

By Ruth Herman

With our electoral commission, secret ballots and a well-established universal suffrage, we citizens consider it is our inalienable right to vote.  Three hundred years ago it was different; the process was anything but transparent, with results often (but not always) depending on long-standing loyalties with little need for sophisticated psephology or swing-o-meters. Having said that when we come to consider Hertford in the 1700s, fighting for a seat in Parliament was every bit as exciting as anything in a modern General Election.  Candidates used every trick available to win their seats. One unsuccessful county candidate, complained that

great injustice was done at the last election  … by Persons [who had] no Right, and several who were out of Town, and others Dead, being personated by Ill-designing men, who … were not denied to Poll.[1] [italics added]

Welcome to the duplicitous world of parliamentary elections in eighteenth century Hertford.


In the 1700s General Elections were held every three years, making campaigning almost a continuous process. The right to vote was highly restricted and varied from constituency to constituency depending on local regulations and depended on various things such as property ownership, residency, or the citizenship of the borough as a ‘freeman’.  There were the usual excesses with ‘great stirs at the drinking at Hertford’ but beyond this much of the political activity was in direct defiance of the law.[2] As we shall see the officials in charge had more than a ‘Naughty way with ‘em‘.[3]


Described as ‘one of the most factious boroughs in England’ Hertford seems to have enjoyed more disputed elections than the tiny electorate of 750 voters should have occasioned. The Hertford archive has pages of petitions, objections and disputes offered up in complaint to Parliament in the early 1700s.   In fact the borough appears to have been a war zone between Whigs and Tories.[4]  The political battle was worsened by the vagueness of the town’s royal charter which regulated the franchise within the borough.  The Tory aldermen, in control of the franchise, did everything they could, legally and illegally, to get their candidates elected.  One mayor was even accused of declaring the result before the Town Clerk had even ‘cast up the poll’.


The eighteenth century had begun with the Whigs in control of Hertford with the leading family, the Cowpers, supplying the MPs and enjoying the support of the non-conformist vote, which included the Quakers.[5] Unfortunately the Cowpers’  dominance came to an end when one of their number, Spencer Cowper, was accused of murdering a Quaker woman in 1699, which unsurprisingly upset the non-conformists who now shunned the Whigs.[6]  Jubilant Tories could at last envision success at the polls. For the Whigs the only thing lightening the mood came when they heard that the successful Tory candidate had dropped dead. But the Tories were determined not to lose the upcoming by-election, and immediately took to illegal enfranchising ‘great numbers’ and turning away rightful voters.[7]  As a result the electorate increased by a bumper 100 plus guaranteed Tory voters giving a total of 670 in 1701. The Whigs naturally petitioned Parliament. The successful MP robustly defended this practice by claiming with extraordinary double-think that while these illegal ‘Freemen must not be refused to give their Votes’ he was simultaneously stating that he would ‘always … oppose illegal and Arbitrary Practices’.[8]


The next General Election came round and the officials were still ‘endeavouring to have their voters qualified tho’ they lived in a garrett or chamber … as if a cupboard was sufficient.’[9] The Whigs compiled a ‘List of Bad Inhabitants’ which details the spurious voters such as ‘Rutt: never lived in Borough; ironmonger at Ware; Davis: Never lived in Borough a Carpenter at Hatfield; Trayhern; Never lived in Borough; a Dyer at Stanfield’.[10] The routine complaints about the dubious electoral practices now saw one Tory MP kicked out to be replaced by a Whig.  The Whigs celebrated their victory with ’bonfires … bells … and barrels of drink’.  Inside Parliament the one legitimately elected Tory MP, Charles Caesar, disgraced himself, insulted the Queen and  found himself committed to the Tower. Upon his return he was greeted by a ‘Mob … with gilt Lawrels in their Hats’. [11] Significantly, the welcoming party included all the town’s Publicans, although whether they were there to claim the money that he owed them or because they relied on the Tory candidate for much of their income, was a moot point.

Despite loud protestations of Tory vote rigging, the Mayor when challenged said ‘Tis no Matter … I’ll Poll them all’. And it wasn’t just the Tories. The Whigs were also guilty of suspect activity.[12]  In 1710  their candidate was accused furnishing houses and rooms for ‘occasional inhabitants’ two or three days before election with the intention of creating some illegal sympathetic voters of his own.  In addition to this it was claimed that thr Whigs ‘offered and gave great sums of money’ to the disqualified voters. Equally seriously they threatened to throw one potential voter ‘out of his worke if he did not get a place in the Burrough’ to vote for  his party. Two of his supporters were also seen to give the ‘greatest disturbance at the Election and threatened Persons at the Poll that came to vote’ for the Tories.[13]

1713 onwards

Another one of the major disputes took place in 1713 when the Tories were elected over their Whig opponents.  They gained 63 more (largely illegal) votes and were incensed that the Tories had manipulated the election bringing in

at least 73 People, some whereof were Servants or Lodgers, and others who were resident in distant Parts, came to the Town, some a few Days, some the very Day before the Election, all which the Mayor … allowed to Vote under Pretence of being Inhabitants, and having so done, most of them disappeared, and were by the Townsmen called Mushrooms’.[14]

A contemporary newspaper was equally damning:

The Mayor of the Burrough being the Returning Officer, behaved himself with the utmost Partiality; and in Defiance of the last Resolution of the House of Commons …  [said] that he would Poll the honorary Freemen … as also great Numbers of Persons being Strangers and [not Householders], and by refusing Legal Votes … and polling those who had no … Right to Vote contrary to the Law.[15]

A clue as to how the candidates got all these ‘foreigners’ to the polls is illustrated by advertisements in the London papers offering transport to the polls:

Whereas the Election … will be tomorrow the 3rd of April … Notice is hereby given to all the Friends and Voters of CHARLES CAESAR Esq; That Coaches and Saddle Horses will be provided for such as want Conveyances, at the Two Swans without Bishopsgate … at Seven a Clock in the Morning.[16]

And getting elected was not cheap. One MP’s election expenses were calculated at £53,000 in today’s money.[17] Given the size of the electorate this represents over £700 per voter.

The frankly illegal doings of the Tory corporation continued until the end of Anne’s reign when things settled down.  The Mayor relentlessly continued to ‘poll the … unqualified freemen contrary to the last determination in Parliament’.  Unabashed at one election he even outrageously refused to allow a perfectly legal voter to exercise his right unless he used it to the Tory advantage.  The Tories defended the Mayor’s actions with twisted logic by claiming that he did not want the trouble that would have come his way by refusing up to 300 disputed voters who had been bribed and stood to lose financially if turned away.[18]  The Mayor however did not escape the wrath of Parliament. It was judged that he was ‘guilty of acting in an illlegal and arbitrary manner’ and as a punishment for this ‘breach of privilege’ was taken into custody by the parliamentary serjeant at arms.[19]


Without doubt elections in the early eighteenth century were more dog fights than transparent exercises in democracy.  Although voting was often blatantly irregular we have to remember that it was the beginning of the party system as we know it today.  Politicians were beginning to line themselves up to support opposing ideologies. In doing so they exhibited every bit as much hostility as we see today and we must be thankful that they left their swords outside the Chamber.



[1] Daily Courant January 24, 1715

[2] Panshanger mss D/EP F8, f. 70, Sir William Cowper to his wife, 16 Oct. 1695; Hertford bor. recs. 23/77–100, 113–17;Quoted in History of Parliament

[3] Oldmixon, History of Addresses, ii p. 185( London) 1711

[4] Under Queen Anne, the Tories represented the resistance, mainly by the country gentry, to religious toleration and foreign entanglements. Toryism became identified with Anglicanism and the squirearchy and Whiggism with the aristocratic, landowning families and the financial interests of the wealthy middle classes.

[5] History of Parliament

[6] See The Mysterious Case of the Lawyer and the Heiress on the Herts Memories website

[7] c

[8] The Case of the Antient Burrough of Hertford in Relation to their Electing of Burgesses to serve in Parliament

[9] HALS vol 23 part 1 note 278

[10] HALS vol 23 part 1 note 248

[11] Flying Post or The Post Master June 2, 1715 – June 4, 1715

[12] The case of Sir Thomas Clarke, and John Boteler Esquire, and of the inhabitants of the town of Hertford, petitioners; against Charles Caesar, and Richard Goulston, Esquires, sitting members. (London) 1714

[13] HALS Borough Records 63/363 In defence of the Mayor

[14] The case of Sir Thomas Clarke, and John Boteler 1714

[15] Flying Post 25 January 1715

[16] Daily Courant Monday 2 April 1722. The voters were intended for the County election but the principle holds.

[17] D/EP F93

[18] In defence of the Mayor

[19] The Rights of Elections of the Several Counties, Cities and Boroughs, 1755. p. 280

This page was added on 28/02/2015.

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