The Age of George III

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Elections and the electorate in the Eighteenth Century

The Electorate

Very few people could vote because of the land requirement. In the counties the voting qualification was to own land worth 40 shillings freehold. The franchise qualification varied a great deal in the boroughs.

The 1716 Septennial Act made general elections compulsory every seven years although if only one candidate stood for election, there would be no contest.

Until 1801 there were 558 MPs. Of these

All together, there were 314 constituencies, of which 245 were in England. These were divided into forty county constituencies and 203 boroughs. Some boroughs had two MPs, others had only one. Oxford and Cambridge Universities each had one MP. Ireland had its own parliament until the 1801 Act of Union, after which it sent one hundred MPs to Westminster.

There was no uniformity in the distribution on English constituencies. At least two-thirds of MPs represented constituencies in the south of England (i.e. below the Wash/Severn line) as the map shows. Although this distribution had been adequate when it was decided upon initially, by the 1760s it was becoming inadequate. By the 1820s it did not reflect the distribution of either population or new wealth. The industrial revolution had created huge industrial towns that had no parliamentary voice.

By the 1780s, in Cornwall and Devon, 1050 people voted for 53 MPs but growing northern industrial towns had no representation. For example, in 1831, Manchester had a population of a quarter of a million but no MP. Each county had two MPs, regardless of the size of the county. Yorkshire had 20,000 voters of whom half lived in the West Riding.

The size of the electorate did not grow very rapidly in the Nineteenth Century but it was certainly bigger than in the Eighteenth Century.

Electorate (thousands)

Population (thousands)

% of adults (m & f) entitled to vote

England and Wales


England and Wales


























Adult males able to vote

England and Wales




1 in 5

1 in 8

1 in 20


1 in 3

1 in 3

1 in 6


This was done by a show of hands and by each man going to the Returning Officer and registering his vote. There was no secret ballot until 1872. County elections were held in the county town (in York for Yorkshire, Alnwick for Northumberland, Lancaster for Lancashire). Candidates stood on the hustings and shouted at the crowd. In order to save expense, candidates often held a canvass of the electors to see whether votes could be secured. If a candidate was not going to get a substantial number of the votes, he would withdraw and there would be no election. All voters expected to be paid for their vote - it was a form of property - and if the voters had to travel to the country town, they expected to receive payment for everything they spent.

Riots, civil disorder, corruption and drunkenness usually accompanied elections and it was not unusual for either the local militia or troops to have to be called out to restore order. Consequently, elections were unpopular. Each election continued until candidates could no longer afford to (or chose not to) pay their supporters. Elections were known to go on for weeks. In 1785 the length of any single election was limited to fifteen days' duration. Also, elections were not all held at the same time. It could take months for one general election to be completed. Candidates who were unsuccessful in one constituency could move to others where elections were taking place - provided they had enough money.

The most expensive election was the 1807 Yorkshire election when William Wilberforce first took his anti-slavery stand. (1) The two main candidates were Lascelles of Harewood ( Tory) and Lord Milton, the eldest son of the Earl Fitzwilliam (a Whig). The election lasted two weeks and cost £¼ million in expenses. Milton was elected.

(1) Prior to this election, Wilberforce had fought against the slave trade; that had been abolished in 1807 and then Wilberforce turned his attention to the abolition of slavery itself.

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Last modified 17 December, 2017

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