Black and white cartoon of the Rival Shows. You can see a big crowd around three stages. Men are standing on the stage giving speeches and they have been illustrated with big heads

To mark Parliament Week (13 -19 November) Abbey House Museum is teaming up with Leeds Libraries to host a session exploring how parliamentary elections in Leeds have changed over the last three centuries, looking at some of the interesting political items in our collections.

 Today, the right to vote is something that some may take for granted. However, in the 19th century the franchise was very limited, and hard fought for. Reform Acts in 1832, 1867 and 1884 gradually expanded the number of adults who were eligible to vote. Women had to wait until 1918 to vote, and even then had to be aged 30 or over!

Old piece of paper. Beige with black printed text. The title is 'To the Freeholders of the County of York'

Anti-Marshall handbill (1826), on display at Leeds City Museum.

Leeds did not have a sitting MP until after The Great Reform Act of 1832. By then, the town was growing in economic importance. This had been demonstrated in the 1826 election when the prominent Leeds industrialist John Marshall stood for Yorkshire under the patronage of the Whig party. A handbill on display at Leeds City Museum shows how Marshall’s aristocratic opponents attempted to paint this Unitarian and son of a linen draper as an enemy of the Established Church who owned ‘not 20 acres of land in this County!’. His investment of wealth in Foreign Funds was even portrayed as unpatriotic. Marshall’s victory showed how important industrial towns like Leeds were becoming.

In 1832, Leeds gained two MPs for the first time.  Following the 1867 Reform Act, this went up to three MPs, and then in 1884 to five MPs. During the 19th century great industrial cities often elected Liberal MPs, and Leeds was no different. In 1880 the town even elected William Gladstone as their MP. As he was also elected for Midlothian, however, he sent his son Herbert instead to represent the Liberal interest in the town– a fact reflected in a commemorative vase produced by Doulton, which is in the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries. The following year, William Gladstone himself received a raucous reception when he visited the town’s Mixed Cloth Hall (now the site of City Square).

Terracotta Stoneware vase with colourful details. The sides are full of patterns painted with blue, brown, red and white. The vase as the face of a man as the central decoration. Above the man's face you can read Herbert Gladstone and bellow you can read returned unopposed. The written details are white.

Stoneware vase (1882), commemorating the unopposed election of Herbert Gladstone for Leeds in 1880.

Conservative MPs who sat for Leeds included one with a very strong connection to Abbey House Museum: George Skirrow Beecroft, a partner in Kirkstall Forge, who lived at Abbey House in the 1840s and 50s before becoming  a Leeds MP in 1857.


Dark Wooden rattle with a wood handle. It looks about 1 foot long.

Wooden rattle used by donor’s grandfather, who was special constable during Chartist riots in Leeds, c.1840-48.

Politics excited strong feelings in Victorian Leeds. In common with other big towns and cities, there were agitations by Chartists in Leeds in 1848.  Many of their demands would seem reasonable to us today: for example, they demanded universal suffrage (albeit only for men!) and the payment of MPs – but some would have to wait up to 70 years.

One key Chartist demand was the secret ballot.  It wasn’t until 1872 that people had the right to keep who they voted to themselves. The prevailing mood was that secretly casting your vote was cowardly. However, in reality, having to declare an allegiance left people open to bribery and intimidation. One fascinating object in the museum collections is a poll book dating from 1841. Poll books listed voters by name, including not only who they’d voted for but also their address and occupation, a very different practice to today!

Cover of a well preserved brown book from 1841. On the book you can read Poll Book July 1841 handwritten in black

Poll book for Leeds Election, July 1841.

Some of the most interesting items in the collections of Museums and Galleries and Leeds Libraries are a series of political cartoons from elections held in 1868, 1874, 1880 and 1886. Many of their meanings have been lost in time. Often they caricature the candidates who were standing, playing on personal characteristics or names.  In the 1868 election George Meek Carter, a Liberal candidate and former Chartist, is portrayed as a coal merchant  (his former occupation),  while Admiral Duncombe, the Tory candidate, is often depicted in a nautical setting!  Candidates are often shown as prize fighters, or as turns at a show or circus, selling quack medicines and pills.

Black and white cartoon of the Rival Shows. You can see a big crowd around three stages. Men are standing on the stage giving speeches and they have been illustrated with big heads

Picture “The Rival Shows, or Leeds Fair Nov 1868”. One of the many election cartoons that can be viewed in our collections.

Other candidates feature as tragic figures. Sir Andrew Fairbairn, who stood down as Mayor of Leeds in 1868 to stand in Parliament not only failed to win but was accused of splitting the Liberal vote. He is depicted in one cartoon as Coriolanus, turning his back on the people of Leeds who have rejected him.

By Patrick Bourne, Assistant Community Curator at Abbey House Museum.

Find out more about Abbey House Museum, and explore our social history collection.