Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Secret History: the Ballot, the Borough and Britain

Friday 13 November, 12.30 – 1.30
Nelson Room, Pontefract Town Hall.

A rare opportunity to examine the impact of secret voting in Britain. Join one of Britain’s most important parliamentary experts,   David Natzler, Clerk of the House of Commons, and curators from Pontefract Museum to explore the seismic change to Britain’s democratic system caused by Britain’s first secret ballot in Pontefract in 1872.

The ballot box used in 1872
Tickets are free, but must be booked by calling 01924 302700,  emailing or collecting a ticket from Pontefract Museum.

The ballot box

Pontefract was centre stage on the 15 August 1872 when the first secret ballot in the Northern Hemisphere was held to elect a member of Parliament.

This was the first time that people had voted in secret by placing an ‘X’ on a ballot paper next to the name of their choice – the system that we now take for granted.

One of the boxes used to hold the ballot papers is now on display in Pontefract Museum. It is still marked with the wax seals used to ensure the votes were not tampered with once the box was closed.

The seal was made using a liquorice stamp from Frank Dunhill’s factory, which shows the image of a castle and an owl. The owl was the emblem of the Savile family who were local landowners. The castle is similar to the design that is still seen on Pontefract cakes today. For many years Pontefract cakes were given their distinctive design by hand using just this sort of stamp.

Pontefract has held a charter since 1484 so it is odd that the box was not sealed using an official stamp. Perhaps it was a sign that the local officials did not think much of this new system of voting. Or maybe they just used what first came to hand, which in a town so involved in the liquorice industry, was this stamp.

Frank Dunhill may have been a presiding officer overseeing the ballot. One of his roles would have been to check that the box was empty before voting began – to prove that there were no voting papers already in the box. He could then have used his stamp to seal the box ready for use.

The votes were counted and the results announced at the Town Hall in Pontefract, where H.C. Childers was elected MP for the town.

The Times newspaper of the following day reported that

‘The first election under the Ballot Act has been throughout peaceful. Persons of great experience declare that they never saw a contested election in which less intoxicating liquor was drunk. No charges of bribery are rife, and the election appears to have been fought on both sides on principles of purity’.

This was a great change from earlier elections, which had often been riotous and uncontrolled affairs, with people voting openly rather than in secret. At the time there were even complaints that this new system took ‘all the life’ out of voting. This first ballot was however seen as a success and set the standard that we still use worldwide today.

The ballot box has recently been 'on tour' to parliament as part of the Festival of Freedoms, and can now be seen at Pontefract Museum.


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