A look back at Norwich’s turbulent political history
- Credit: Ian Smith
Everywhere across the country political parties are vigorously debating the issues which will decide the General Election on June 8. But few towns or cities outside London can look back on such a turbulent history of political strife as Norwich.
For a century and a half, from the late 1600s onwards up to the time when parliament and local government were reformed in the 1830s, Norwich was a bitterly divided city, where at periods of political dispute, elections were fought with unparalleled ferocity, accompanied by bribery and corruption, coercion and outright violence.
Numerous political clubs and, up to the 1740s, two partisan local newspapers fuelled the flames. In the words of one of the editors, it was a city 'distracted with Party rage'.
Then as now, Norwich had two MPs. As it was treated as a single constituency, each elector could cast two votes.
The timing of general elections depended of course on national factors - but annual municipal elections enabled party leaders to maintain party spirit.
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Political passions ran particularly high each year during 'cleansing week', just before Easter, when representatives to the 'Common Council' were elected.
In the run-up to elections, candidates addressed meetings and, particularly from the mid 1700s, handed out huge numbers of printed handbills.
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Many of these seem impossibly long-winded by today's standards and contain references to local issues and scurrilous attacks on local personalities whose significance is difficult for modern readers to fathom. Some were set to verse.
But not everyone, it seems, was so easily convinced.
You might be offered a bribe, or alternatively threatened with losing your job if you voted for the candidate not approved by your boss.
As the all-important textile industry fell into crisis in the early 1800s, few voters could resist the going rate of up to £10 for a vote. 'Treating' and 'cooping' [see separate box] became a feature of closely contested elections.
In this atmosphere of intimidation, violence was never far below the surface. As politicians moved about the city they were commonly accompanied by security guards known as 'stavemen' - as many as 2,000 in the 1786 election - in case they met the opposing faction.
On election day itself, there was no way of keeping your vote secret.
At parliamentary elections voters went to one of two booths set up in the Market Place, each bearing the name of the separate opposing candidates. Poll books recorded who had voted for whom.
Alcohol-fuelled rioting was common. After the election the winning candidates were customarily lifted shoulder high and carried round the city.
In the 1830 election the accompanying procession complete with bands, flags and banners stretched for half a mile. Both winning and losing candidates were commonly pelted with missiles.
By the standards of the time the city's voting system was quite democratic.
In the early 1700s, up to a third of the adult male population held the ancient status of freeman, the commonest qualification for casting a vote.
By comparison, about half the boroughs in the country had fewer than 100 voters. Exceptional numbers also turned out to exercise their right and elections were often swung by narrow majorities.
Although women did not have the vote, it was still thought that they could influence the outcome by putting pressure on their menfolk.
Parties tried to boost their chances of success by moving the goal posts or stretching the rules. Before elections the party controlling city government would sometimes create hundreds of new freemen whom they knew would vote for them.
A new law passed by the Whigs in the 1720s obliged all textile workers (thought more likely to vote for them) to take up their freedom.
The rule which allowed freemen in the city gaol to vote was also skillfully manipulated. In 1722 they were even being pressured to vote in three wards - in the two which the gaol straddled as well as in their home ward.
Treating and cooping.
An official inquiry into the parliamentary election of 1786, eventually declared invalid, shows how 'treating' worked.
Supporters of Henry Hobart, the eventual winner, arranged for up to 60 pubs to provide free meals and drink to freemen likely to support him. In the course of an evening, Hobart would tour about 20 pubs in person. Publicans came to his HQ at the King's Head to be reimbursed. The opposing candidate employed similar tactics. To avoid confusion, signboards were put up in the street to show which party a pub supported.
'Cooping', for which Norwich local elections were particularly notorious, featured in another official inquiry in 1833. Potential supporters of one party were rounded up, treated with food and drink but kept in confinement ('cooped'), until the election to make doubly sure that they voted the right way. Electors of the opposite party were forcibly 'cooped' until the polls closed to stop them voting. Witnesses told the inquiry how they had been, variously, plied with rum and laudanum, kept without food for 24 hours, detained on a wherry anchored in the middle of Panxworth Broad and left to walk back home.
Although also known as Whigs and Tories, political parties in Norwich were better known, from the 1780s, by their colours – respectively Blue and White and Orange and Purple. Few people, whether they could vote or not, bothered to hide their allegiance. Even housemaids and children, it was said, concealed their political colours about their persons in readiness to show them slyly from some window, both to encourage their friends and exasperate their enemies. There were plenty of other ways too in which you could tell someone's allegiance. If you worshipped at the Octagon chapel or the Quaker meeting house or another non-conformist chapel, or if you lived in one of the wards on the North of the river, you were almost certainly 'Blue and White'; if you worshipped in an Anglican church, particularly one with a 'high church' bent, or if you lived near St Peter Mancroft, you were probably 'Orange and Purple'.
Norwich Through The Decades is published every Tuesday in the Norwich Evening News.
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