KS3 > Political Reform > Constituencies > Pontefract
The town of Pontefract first sent MPs to Parliament in 1621. In 1832 the boundaries of the constituency were extended to include smaller local towns. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century the MPs were from both the Liberals and Conservatives.
|A 'Poll book' from 1708|
Pontefract became the first place in Britain that a parliamentary election took place by secret ballot in 1872. Before then voters turned up at a booth and were asked – in public – who they were voting for. The answer was written down and the lists – ‘poll books’ – could be bought from local newspapers. They are now great sources for historians! For many Victorians, even reformers like Lord Russell, the idea of voting in private was cowardly or ‘un-English’. They believed that people should admit who they voted for.
But this system also meant there was plenty of opportunity for intimidation or bribery. From the eighteenth century onwards sometimes mobs were brought to polls to intimidate the voters. Elections could be like a party – many candidates ‘treated’ their voters to large amounts of alcohol!
After the 1867 Reform Act more working class people could vote. This meant that more people were concerned about voting in public. John Bright argued that those who were poorer could face greater intimidation – or be easier to bribe – by those with more money or power.
The Pontefract 1872 election was watched with ‘considerable curiosity’ by party officials from all over the country. The town only had a few weeks to prepare, so there were some teething problems. Voters now placed a cross on a ballot paper next to the names of the chosen candidates – very similar to how we do now. They did so in private booths, although in some of the booths the partitions were loose so people could see inside! There were other things to get used to. If a voter could not read or write the whole room had to be cleared before they could tell the official their choice. Despite these issues, the election went smoothly. It only took four hours to count the votes, and many people commentated the town was much more quiet than a normal election.
Despite the positive reports, party officials felt that bribery could still be possible. This was not dealt with until the 1880-1885 Parliament.