|Elections and Eligibility to Vote
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - March 2010
With the approach of a General Election it may be appropriate to look back at how things once were and to briefly examine the changes which have occurred. These few paragraphs are not intended to reflect the political changes but will look at how the electorate, and the administration of elections, has changed over the years.
If recent practice continues the 2010 election will be, in general, a fairly placid experience for most of us and will follow widely accepted rules. Hopefully there will be no riots or even minor aggravations - only almost unceasing media coverage and mail shots to each and every potential voter. We will each receive voting cards with details of where to attend to place our cross on the ballot paper. The voting station may differ over the years but the day of the week - Thursday - has remained unchanged for many years.
In the early 1830s Colchester was very affected by concerns at the outcomes likely to arise over a proposed Reform Bill. The arrival of one candidate to open his campaign led to his carriage being thrown into a pond and the magistrates reading the Riot Act!
Given the small electorate in those days this seems very unlikely but it reflects the interest in events among those who were unable to vote
At that time many well to do people, such as lawyers and the Head of the Colchester Grammar School were not able to vote. The 1832 Reform Act brought about a slight change but was at least a step in the right direction to widening the electorate, especially in the towns, where many tradesmen were enfranchised. The local Overseers of the Poor played a key role in that they drew up lists of persons who felt they qualified under the new rules. Lists of electors for many parishes can be found in County Archives. The list for Birch, dated 1835, is as follows:
The list of persons entitled to vote in the election of Knights or Knight of the Shire for the Northern Division of the County of Essex in respect of property situate within the Parish of Great with Little Birch.
There then follows a manuscript list of 19 names, 2 of which had been crossed through by the Overseers of the Poor who signed such lists before sending them to the Justices of the Peace in Chelmsford. The qualifications to gain inclusion in such lists was the ownership of land, the possession of £50, or, as in the case of William Woodyard, in Birch, the fact that he owned 7 copyhold cottages and lived in one of them. The 1835 list has been pinned, or nailed, up in the parish for all to see. Subsequent lists have been printed and returned, by the Justices, to the parish for exhibition locally.
The series of lists for the parish of Gt and Little Birch show around 20 persons for most years up to 1867 when a further Reform Act was passed. Objections could be raised to any person listed and this seemed to occur where it was declared they lived outside the parish. In 1858 Thomas Day, tenant of the Angel, Daniel Potter farmer, occupier of Winterflood Farm and Joseph Powell, of Hill Farm, were successfully objected to as they were only tenants and not owners of the property. With the small numbers involved it must have been an easy decision for the Justices to make.
In Layer Breton there were never more than 9 voters up to 1867 with the occasional objection being raised. Layer Marney was about the same size with only one person listed, Quintin Dick, as a non-resident. In 1848 there were three persons by the name of James Sach, two owning property at Thorrington Farm and one living in Tollesbury but owning property in the parish. In 1865 objection was raised to B J Ley although he had been on the list for several years - correctly as it happens as he seems to have owned Almonds Farm.
By 1908 the eligibility rules had become more complex, with several categories of eligibility, and the number voting was much larger. Using Birch as an example we find:
Fourteen Ownership Electors of whom only 4 were resident but all could vote in Parliamentary and Parochial Elections but not County Elections.
One hundred and fifty eight Occupational Electors (other than Lodgers) were able to vote in Parliament, County or Parochial Elections (including 4 females in Parochial Elections only).
In addition seven Lodgers had the vote for Parochial Election but only five of them could vote in Parliamentary Elections. This gives a total of about 180 with votes in the various types of elections held.
Layer Breton had 69 in total and Layer Marney 67.
The next, and major Reform, came after the First World War, when women received the vote. This had been a much heralded reform involving high emotions and almost endless debate and publicity. Taking Great Britain as a whole the electorate roughly doubled at the first election after female emancipation was granted. That is reflected in the local area.
The Electoral Register for 1922 for Birch shows 390 electors with 14 jurors and 1 special juror.
In Layer Breton there are 125 voters including 3 jurors. Of the voters 47 were women, 37 listed as having the vote due to their husband's occupation. In Layer Marney the figures were 102 voters with 10 jurors and 35 women 33 having the vote due to their husband's occupation.
One of the most important changes came about as a result of the 1867 Act whereby the secret ballot was introduced. Prior to that Act a copy of the Electoral Roll was published, after the vote, containing the details of the person each voter had voted for! Evidently this gave rise to electors carrying out a business losing trade if they voted for the "wrong" side. After 1867 came the secret ballot.
The Government has recently given hints that further reforms may be in the wind but they are unlikely to lead to such dramatic changes as those which have taken place in the last one hundred and fifty years at least.