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Houses of Parliament launch for 18th-century elections project

Published on: 28 November 2023

The fascinating history of 18th-century politics has been brought to life with a new resource based on research led by Newcastle University.

Modern democracy

The eighteenth century is notorious for its corrupt and restrictive politics, when few could vote and bribery and debauchery were commonplace. But it was also an age when modern democracy was being shaped.  Eighteenth-Century Political Participation & Electoral Culture is the first-time a wealth of information on English parliamentary elections from 1695 to the Reform Act of 1832 has been collected in one place.

The website includes a complete list of all surviving poll books, plus the transcribed and searchable contents of those poll books, showing how individual people voted. This sits alongside, plus copious carefully curated examples of the printed, material and musical culture that elections generated. It is all presented with a striking digital design, featuring exciting data visualisations, interactive tools and new recordings of 18th-century songs.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project was led by Matthew Grenby, Professor of 18th Century Studies in Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics. He said: "Even if few people could actually vote, that doesn’t mean that people weren’t politically active. Elections engaged a wide section of the population – women as well as men, poor as well as rich, children as well as adults – and  were often accompanied by an explosion of print, sermons, and song; countless ceremonies, assemblies, and entertainments; new modes of dress, decoration, and behaviour."

The Cockade worn by William Garret at The Newcastle Election in 1820 © Newcastle City Library

Outside factors

Eighteenth-Century Political Participation & Electoral Culture features a series of articles which give an introduction to issues of the time, such as the role women played in elections and also slavery, abolition and Black voters. It also provides case studies of 20 different constituencies, including towns, counties and the universities, which are representative of different kinds of constituencies in terms of size and their franchise, as well as having a geographical spread, and including some of the infamous “rotten boroughs”.

Professor Grenby added: “Many of the issues we found in 18th-century politics remain highly relevant today. Obviously nowadays voting is now available to almost everyone but questions about the influence of outside factors such as music, literature or the media remain. Today we are concerned about how carefully-targeted interventions in a campaign can affect the election result; we can ask the same about the 18th century, thinking not about social media posts but about ballads and satirical prints.”

Eighteenth-Century Political Participation & Electoral Culture will be launched at an event at the Houses of Parliament on Thursday 30 November.

The project was led by Newcastle University in partnership with the  University of Liverpool and researchers worked closely with History of Parliament and the Institute of Historical Research.


Image captions:

State of the Poll, Friday, Quarter before 3 o’Clock in‘Addresses and Squibs in the Contested Election, for Members in Parliament, 1820’ (1820), Newcastle University Special Collections, RB 942.82 ADD

The Cockade worn by William Garret at The Newcastle Election in 1820’ in ‘A Collection of Papers, Speeches, &c. &c. Delivered at the Newcastle Election, 1820. Collected by William Garret’(1820), Newcastle City Library, L324/N536 © Newcastle City Library



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