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June 2012 Item of the Month

Election ballad, 1761 Durham City 'mushrooms' election


The local elections and referendums passed off peacefully last month. As a reminder of the corruption and fraud that used to characterise unreformed politics in this country, and of the very restricted franchise prior to the electoral reform acts of the nineteenth century, this month's featured document illustrates the 1761 Durham City by-election. The poll occurred on 7-12 December between Major-general John Lambton and Major Ralph Gowland, both Whigs, the latter put forward by Lord Darlington who already dominated politics at the county level. Nationally, the political picture was agitated by both the recent general election and by the resignation from the Government of William Pitt over the conduct of the Seven Years' War.


Reproduced below is a draft satirical ballad produced by the Lambton interest, purporting to be a ditty sung by sixty Durham freeholders who have journeyed from their homes in London, each upon the promise of £30 by Garland. They complain, upon hearing of a block of two hundred more voters in Garland's interest being procured, that their market value has fallen, and worry Garland will be ruined and their costs not covered. The deployment of non-resident voters in this way was a favourite means of 'maximising the vote'. 


The ditty is addressed to Judith Baker (née Routh), wife of George Baker, and who canvassed strenuously for Lambton. The Bakers, of Elemore Hall in Pittington, were a family active in society, and in the region's business and political affairs. George's father himself represented Durham City from 1713-1722, and the family's papers include a good number of election campaign strategy documents, ephemera, canvassing books, and expense accounts, providing evidence that inducements were used on both sides that would today attract the attention of the Electoral Commission. The secret ballot was not introduced until 1872, and thus candidates' canvas books could document and compare past and promised votes, and even voters' own prices and conditions for their support.

The 1761 by-election is chiefly remembered for the 215 so-called 'mushrooms' who voted for Garland, winning him a majority of 23. The franchise in the city at this date was its freemen, admitted through the guilds either by serving apprenticeships or by patrimony, that is being the adult eldest son of a freeman. At the 30 March-1 April 1761 Durham City general election, in which Garland also stood, 1,050 voters, not all of them resident in Durham, cast 1,777 votes (voters could split their vote between two candidates, or make a whole, later termed 'plumper', vote for one candidate). The December by-election produced 1,527 voters, a 45% increase in turn-out.

How this increase was achieved is colourfully described in the Baker Baker papers. Having wasted his money in the Spring, Gowland was clearly determined he would not fall short again, and he and his party carried out a small coup d'état, rushing through a change in the Corporation's by-laws, packing the toll-booth to exclude Lambton's supporters, overriding the protests of the city's guilds, and then admitting 215 honorary freemen, most of whom were not resident or even known within the city, and whose sudden appearance overnight was compared to mushrooms, or toadstools. There were also claims Gowland had misappropriated a local charity's funds to sway indigent freemen.

Allegations of fraud and bribery were not uncommon - Gowland himself briefly lodged a complaint of such in April when he lost by 20 votes. But his tactics were unusually bold. In his defence, the creation, with the mayor's connivance, of honorary freemen on the eve of, and even during, elections had been a useful device used by a number of successful candidates in the past. However, a by-law passed in 1728 protecting the guilds' monopoly on city trading unintentionally prevented the repetition of such a device, and a lightning revocation of the by-law was Garland's solution.

Sadly for him, Lambton's petition to Parliament against the result was sustained, by 88 votes to 72; and the exuberance of his fraud even spurred the 'Durham Act' or Freemen (Admission) Act 1763, preventing thereafter an honorary freeman from voting within twelve months of his admission. In fact, contested elections in Durham City in this period were unusual: between 1722 and 1799 only 6 of 20 elections were contested, the city's two seats being split between the Tories and the Whigs, and for much of this period between succeeding generations of the Lambton and Tempest families.

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