‘There must have been a perfect forest of poles, I should think ? — Yes, in fact we drew people from all parts of the country to come and see it.”
John Pettet Ramell, Briber
From 1366 until 1832, the Parliamentary Constituency of Sandwich comprised just the three parishes of Sandwich, with a right to elect two MPs to the House of Commons.
Changes brought about by the Reform Act of 1832 however, meant the number of constituents was insufficient to retain two MPs and so the boundaries were extended so as to include the neighbouring towns of Deal and Walmer, which quadrupled the population.
In the five General Elections held from 1857 until 1880, both seats were won by Liberal candidates.
So great was their popularity that the Conservatives decided it was pointless to contest the 1880 General Election and they were returned unopposed. However a vacancy arose shortly after when one of those elected accepted a peerage triggering a By-Election.
Assured of success, the selected Conservative Candidate, Mr Crompton Roberts immediately made his way to Deal to begin canvassing on May 4th with his ‘celebrated’ electioneering agent and a big bag of gold!
Slower to get going, the Liberal candidate Sir Julian Goldsmid, who had lost his Rochester seat in the General Election, did not arrive in Deal until a week later and was left playing catchup.
Election Corruption is nothing new!
A feature of elections of the time were the various inducements bestowed on electors for their vote which ranged from treating – offers of free food and drink – to downright bribery. However the extent and creativity to which the population of Deal and Walmer in particular entered into it was second to none.
The Conservatives won but so extensive was the bribery that the behaviour set off an appeal and a parliamentary commission was established to investigate.
Over the three weeks it took place, it was found that out of an electorate of 2115, 1850 voted, of whom half admitted they had been bribed and over 100 admitted to offering bribes.
Nearly £9,000 (not far off £1m today) was expended between the two candidates with the Conservatives spending well over two thirds of that amount.
There were many ways in which the votes were influenced!
On arrival in Deal, the Conservative candidate immediately hired 71 of the 100 plus pubs and beer houses as committee rooms at £5 apiece. The publicans and Landlords were quick to capitalise. The landlord of the Rose and Crown amongst others, was happy to take money from both sides and rented the inside of his pub to the Liberals and the outside, for posters, to the Conservatives.
Posters plastered the fronts of pubs, and as many other blank walls as the well paid poster-stickers could get away with.
Flags, Glorious Flags!
A noteworthy feature of the campaign were the sheer amount of flags and bunting in the party colours – then blue for the Liberals and yellow for the Conservatives. Deal in particular was festooned to such an extent that people came from miles around to see the sight.
The flags and poles on which they were fixed were a fertile way of getting money into the pockets of electors. Flags had to be made and required teams of men to erect them and then ‘watched’ lest the other side inflict damage. The rivalry was such that the flags grew bigger and bigger and the town’s drapers, milliners and ironmongers made significant sums in generous remuneration for fabric, rope and so on.
For many in the towns it was Christmas, New Year and Easter all at once. Shopkeepers, publicans, boatmen – anyone who had a vote or might influence someone who did – had a wonderful time. And there is no sign that any of their “betters” – the clergy, councillors and magistrates of the town – raised any objections.
Crompton-Roberts won the election by 1145 votes to 705 and although he took his seat as an MP, the result was annulled after a few months, following the Commission’s report. In 1881 Crompton-Roberts forfeited his seat in Parliament and the seat was left vacant. As a result of the Commission Report, Sandwich was abolished as a constituency with effect from 25 June 1885.
How this came about
I came across this amazing and little known story about Deal’s colourful past some years ago and approached my friend, the writer Carole Hayman for ideas about how it could be dramatised. Perfect drama fodder, the Commissioner’s Report on the events that took place is a lengthy document with verbatim, sometimes humorous accounts of all those on trial.
Carole’s skill and unique perspective has developed the initial idea from being a mere depiction of the events to a wider ranging piece with contemporary parallels that resonate in our modern day lives.
Following successful workshops to a small invited audience in 2021, the currently planned presentations are the second stage towards a full future production. We hope you will enjoy following us on our journey as it develops further.
Pat Wilson, Producer, Rotters Opera