May Artwork of the Month: 'The Westminster Election, 1796'

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01 May 2017

With a General Election fast approaching, May’s artwork depicts a traditional election hustings in London’s Covent Garden in 1796.

Today the term hustings is used to describe meetings where election candidates debate policies and answer questions from the public. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it had a more specific meaning.

Derived from an Old English word for a deliberative assembly, by the 1800s it was the name given to the temporary platform upon which parliamentary candidates were nominated and from which they addressed the electorate.

Often polling itself also took place on the hustings. Until the Ballot Act 1872, when secret ballots were introduced, voters were required to publicly declare their vote.

‘The Westminster Election, 1796’

Robert Dighton’s image of the 1796 election in Westminster shows the hustings erected in front of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. The candidates, flanked by their close supporters, stand on the platform, while a crowd of people gather in front.

Those up for election include the leader of the Whig party, Charles James Fox, who stands in the centre with his arm around a post. At the far left is the Tory candidate, Sir Alan Gardner, in his admiral’s uniform. Between the two stands John Horne Took, a radical reformer.

Only a small number of men who met certain property qualifications were eligible to vote. But, as Dighton shows, urban hustings often attracted large and mixed crowds.

Once described as exhibiting a ‘dangerous spirit of opposition between high and low, rich and poor, gentleman and mob’, Westminster elections had a reputation as one of the most volatile in the country.

Further information

Image: Detail of  'The Westminster Election, 1796' by Robert Dighton, coloured acquatint, c.1800 (WOA 1618)

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