By Stephen Basdeo
As a general election is looming here in the UK, I thought I might give readers a glimpse into elections of the eighteenth century, as seen through the eyes of the subject of my next book: Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), a man who was instrumental in the development of the Robin Hood legend.
Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1752 and was a conveyancer. He moved to London in his early twenties, served a brief spell as an apprentice in the conveyancing firm of Messrs. Masterman and Lloyd.
He also inherited some property in Stockton from an uncle who passed away in the 1780s. This was an important step to his becoming an eighteenth-century gentleman because it gave him the right to vote, for voting rights were restricted to property owners who owned property worth over 40 shillings (or £2). The exact value of the property remains unknown but we do know that Ritson could vote in general elections, but whatever value it was, it satisfied this requirement.
Ritson never made any money from his properties, however: his tenants rarely paid up on time and some of the cottages were falling into disrepair. Ritson himself was hardly rich, earning but £150 per year, and he was certainly not a member of the aristocratic and mercantile elite, who dominated the electoral franchise at this point.
The fact that Ritson could vote, however, highlights one of the many oddities in the eighteenth-century electoral system: although it is with some justification assumed that only rich people could vote and governments were elected by a very narrow number of electors, there were also situations where, as in Ritson’s case, a man could be relatively poor, earn very little from his property, and in spite of this still have the right to vote because he owned property that was worth over 40s.
Ritson was fairly quiet about politics in the years following the American War of Independence (1776–1783). But we start to get a little bit of political commentary in his later years.
In the eighteenth century, governments could sit for a maximum total of seven years, thanks to the Septennial Act passed in 1716 (governments often expired before the seven year term limit, however). There had been a General Election in the wake of the American War in 1784, with King George III having engineered one to get rid of the Prime Minister Lord North, who ‘lost’ the American colonies. This resulted in a victory for William Pitt the Younger, who won a wafer-thin majority of 280 seats (there were only 558 seats in total at the time). Pitt then called an election again in 1790, resulting in him winning what we would call a landslide victory today of 380 seats.
In his letters, Ritson expresses how disgusted he is with the eighteenth-century political system when he comments upon the General Election in 1790, saying that he can witness nothing but
Bribery and perjury.
But why would Ritson say this?
Let’s have a closer look at voting practices in the eighteenth century.
In Britain at this point, there were two main political parties: the Tories (or Pittites) and the Whigs. The former was used to describe the ‘King’s Friends’. These Tories—it was a derogatory term at this point and no statesman ever adopted the name himself—believed in the need for a strong monarchy, a strong Church of England, and wanted to maintain the pre-eminent social position and rights of the landowners at the expense of the moneyed middle classes.
The Whigs stressed the need for very limited powers for the monarchy, were tolerant of dissenters (Protestants not associated with the Anglican Church), and were the party most friendly to business and trade.
This being said, we should not make the mistake of thinking that they were a modern political party by any stretch; the electorate was very small and these parties did not publish manifestos—there was no need to when the vast majority of the population could not vote—but instead it was merely a system of loose alliances between MPs who found that they had common interests with each other.
Ritson enthusiastically endorsed the Whig statesman, Charles James Fox, whose party had been in opposition since 1784:
‘Fox and Liberty Forever!’
Ritson exclaimed in a letter to one friend in 1784. Elsewhere, Ritson declared that
‘if Charles Fox don’t take the helm’ then there would be ‘immediate ruin’.
So, we can safely assume that, were Ritson to vote, he would plump for the Whig candidate.
General Elections in the eighteenth century usually lasted slightly over a month, as each constituency polled on a different day and it took a while for the results from all over the country to travel to London and actually be counted.
The General Election of 1790 took place between 16 June and 28 July, but Ritson was not able to exercise his voting rights in London, in spite of the fact that he was resident there. Instead, if he wanted to vote, he had to travel all the way back to Stockton, for that is where he was registered as an elector and that is where his property was situated.
There were two seats up for grabs in Ritson’s home constituency of Durham County.
One of Ritson’s friends, named Mr Rowntree, attempted to convince Ritson to make the journey from London back to Stockton and cast a vote for the Whig candidate, Captain Ralph Milbanke.
Ritson thought that this was rather cheeky for a number of reasons:
I this morning received your favour of the 20th … how can it have happened that you should expect me down? … I most certainly had no intention … it would have been highly inconvenient, if not altogether improper, to have set out immediately on receipt of your letter. I am nevertheless perfectly desirous, if a single vote can be of consequence, to give mine to Mr Milbanke, and for that purpose am ready to sacrifice my convenience to my inclination, and come down, as a freeholder, in the same way that a gentleman does: though I shall certainly make it a point to return the moment I have polled. No one, I should think, could expect me to make such a journey at my own expence: nor, if I do come down, shall any thing I here say be construed to prevent me from splitting my vote if I see occasion for it in favour of Sir John Eden.
As a property owner, Ritson was inclined to ‘do his civic duty’, so to speak, and return to Stockton to cast a vote.
But Ritson expected payment for his services as a voter and this was the usual practice: candidates would canvass voters before an election to see if they could count on their support; if a voter had to travel a long way to cast his vote for a candidate, so he also expected to be paid expenses.
A voter would also expect to be ‘wined and dined’ by the prospective MP, given a good meal and a few drinks before going to cast his vote at the hustings, for all votes at this point were in public.
This is why Ritson’s letter to his friend Rowntree is rather standoffish. Ritson was a property-owning gentleman (even if he wasn’t rich) and it was barefaced cheek for anyone—even those with whom he was friends—to ask him to make a journey and spend his own money simply to cast a vote.
He may have disapproved of the ‘bribery and perjury’ which flourished at election times but he expected at the least to receive expenses for his troubles were he to vote in person.
But why wouldn’t Ritson vote for Milbanke anyway, for he was a Whig candidate, standing for the party that Ritson confessed to support?
Well, Ritson would use his vote as he saw fit: he would not be railroaded into voting solely for Milbanke, but might split his vote and also lend his support both to Milbanke as well as to the other Whig candidate, John Eden (1743–1812).
This requires some explanation: in general elections, each constituency generally sent two members to the House of Commons and when a person gained voting rights as a result of having met the property qualification, he gained the right to cast two votes.
Under this system, if a voter wanted to support only one party, he could opt for a ‘straight-party vote’ and cast his votes for the two candidates who had been nominated by a single party.
If a voter could not decide which party to vote for, he might even cast one vote for the Tory candidate and one vote for the Whig candidate.
If you’ve read this far and think this all sounds like a bit of a mess, well, it was a mess.
Ultimately, Captain Milbanke won his seat with a comfortable majority. Ritson’s other candidate, John Eden, was not so lucky in the end because he lost his seat to Sir Rowland Burton, a Tory landowner who held his seat until 1806.
This was probably a good thing anyway: Eden could rarely be bothered to actually make the trip down to London, sit in parliament and actually represent his electors anyway because that would curtail the time he was able to vote for hunting, so even in the ‘rotten’ parliament of the eighteenth century, it is unsurprising that voters eventually opted for someone else.
The coming of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815)—the ‘first’ world war in many respects—saw the voices of the increasingly influential middle classes combine with the working classes to call for reform of the political system and extension of the franchise.
Partial reform came in 1832, with the passage of the ‘great’ Reform Act. This Act extended voting rights to people with the following property qualifications:
Those who owned freehold land worth over 40s.
Those who owned copyhold property worth over £10 (land held by a manorial tenant which could not be passed on to a family member after a person’s death but reverted back to the manorial lord).
Male householders who paid rent on any property worth over £50 per year.
These measures excluded the working classes from voting and it was not until 1867 that the vote was given to working-class male householders, and it was not until 1918 that the vote was given to all men and some women.
 Joseph Ritson, ‘To Mr Rowntree, 23 June 1790’, in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq., ed. by Joseph Frank (London: William Pickering, 1833), I, p. 166.
 Ritson, ‘To Mr. Walker’, in Letters, I, p. 169.
 Ritson, ‘To Mr Rowntree. 23 May 1784’, in Letters, I, p. 88.
 Ritson, ‘To Ralph Hoar. New Years’ Day 1787’, in Letters, I, p. 119.
 Ritson, ‘To Mr Rowntree, 23 June 1790’, in Letters, I, pp. 165–66.
 Ritson, ‘To Mr Rowntree, 25 June 1790’, in Letters, I, p. 167.
 John A. Phillips, Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England: Plumpers, Splitters, and Straights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 20.