The road to universal suffrage in Leicester

A short walk through the history of representative democracy in Leicester.

A crowd of men in top hats gather outside the town hall.
The opening ceremony of Leicester's Town Hall in August 1876. Photograph: Public domain

It is 1275, and Leicester is alive with political promise. For the first time in history, we sent 'burgesses' to parliament, who were representatives selected by the King rather than the people. This was the beginning of representative democracy in Leicester. 654 years of political conflict between the classes and a fierce fight for universal suffrage followed. But it was not until 1918 that women could vote under certain circumstances, and in 1929 that we had the same voting rights as men.

1275: Political representation in parliament

There were two burgesses in each town sent to parliament, and after they were first selected, there were 120 gatherings between 1300 and 1509, judging from records of MPs' wages. Today, politicians receive a basic annual salary of £91,346 on top of expenses; but in the 13th and 14th centuries, MPs' expenses consisted of horse hire and a groom.

Despite the very little we know about them, the same men were likely selected several times. The burgesses, who came from the burgher class, were privileged men and often landowners. 1275 was Leicester's first experiment with representative democracy, but it would be hundreds of years until the city saw a better democracy and an equal playing field between social classes.

Mid-15th Century: Two types of elections

From the mid-15th century, a shift in political decision-making and gradual loss of power meant that one MP was chosen by the whole “commons” and the other by the mayor and 24 jurats. The location and date of the separated votes varied according to records. In 1407, for example, the two elections took place separately but on the same day, while in 1411, the polls were separated by over two weeks.

An illustration of medieval Leicester from bird's eye view. It is very small by modern standards, but has several churches dotted around. It is surrounded by a wall.
What medieval Leicester might have looked like. Illustration: Story of Leicester

Of those who represented Leicester during the 14th and 15th centuries, four MPs came from families with a history of parliamentary service. Thomas Wakefield, for example, was alleged to be the son of William Wakefield, an MP for Leicester in 1348, and was present at the 1407 and 1411 Leicester parliamentary elections. Out of 24 parliamentary burgesses during this period, 18 were permanent residents of Leicester at some time, 16 held offices in the borough and 13 were mayors.

1768: Conflict during the general election

The 1768 general election was described as “hotly fought; very hotly at Leicester.The conflict had divided the Common Hall, with contention between the corporation candidates, Edward Palmer and John Darker, and the opposition, Booth Grey and Eyre Coote, the latter a former soldier for the East India Company. He campaigned as a defender of freemen's liberties, having enrolled nearly one thousand voters before the election.

Title reads "Leicestershire poll book." It is mostly in old English.
A Leicester poll book. Photograph: Story of Leicester

After two weeks of violence before polling day, Leicester Journal reported that the election was a quiet affair. The two Whig candidates, Booth Grey and Eyre Coote, won the poll, thanks to the Duke of Rutland and Earl of Stamford's support. Palmer and Darker suffered a devastating political defeat, blaming bribery and manipulated votes. In response to their loss, the corporation leaders offered freedom to gentlemen “of known constitutional principles,” leading to 250 later enrolling in Leicestershire.

1820: The fight for men's suffrage

In Sue Wilkes' writing on Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain's Rebels & Revolutionaries, she described Sir Francis Burdett as a “hot-headed young politician.” Burdett was an MP for Boroughsbridge who first entered parliament in 1796. He was closely linked with political reformers and was popular for his radical beliefs. Unlike his more liberal peers, however, Burdett only wanted male suffrage for householders – those owning property – separating him from campaigners like Henry Hunt, who fought for universal suffrage.

During the 1820 elections, Burdett was brought before Leicester judges, where he was found guilty of seditious libel the crime of making public statements that threaten to undermine respect for the government”despite giving a four-hour-long defence speech. This was not Burdett's first legal battle, as he had previously been accused of plotting a rebellion. In 1820, he was quoted saying: “A packed Leicestershire jury would if directed by a judge and attorney-general, find Abel guilty of the murder of Cain.”

1918: The fight for women's suffrage

Fast-forward 100 years, and a very different fight for suffrage concluded in Britain. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 allowed women over the age of 30 who met strict property requirements to vote. Across the country, it is estimated that 8.5 million adult women, or 40 per cent, were able to vote, a vital step towards equal political representation.

In the first Leicester elections following the Act, the constituency was separated into Leicester South, Leicester East and Leicester West. The total turnout for Leicester South was 23,961 voters (66.7 per cent), for Leicester East was 24,721 voters (65.6 per cent) and for Leicester West was 26,917 voters (66.2 per cent) – a total of 75,599 voters across Leicester. That was up from 45,720 voters during the 1910 January election and 45,720 voters during the 1910 December election, indicating a more representative and democratic election result.

In our conversation with Jess Jenkins, a Leicester historian, she reflected on her research into the suffragette movement in Leicester, particularly the Women's Social and Political Union. 19th and 20th-century women's suffrage in Leicester was global news, and a proud moment for our city.

“I think Leicester was an interesting town, an industrial town, deep roots in nonconformity, deep roots in radical politics. In 1856, a group of women had a meeting at the Guildhall in Leicester to talk about women's rights – it was so unusual for women to speak. There's mention of it in German newspapers, a meeting in Leicester. The women of Leicester were organising themselves in 1856 – that's quite something.”
Two women stand outside the WSPU shop in Leicester.
The Women's Social and Political Union Shop, which sold merchandise to raise funds for their Suffragette movement. Photograph: Public domain

1928: The equal franchise act

The 1918 representation of the people act was a historic moment in women's history, but it only benefited a limited group of women. A decade later, the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 granted equal voting rights to women and men, meaning that regardless of their marital status or property ownership, both men and women over the age of 21 could vote. The equal franchise act was a historic moment for Leicester's democracy and marked over six hundred years since Leicester representatives first attended parliament. Later, the Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 for elections, making the UK the first major democratic nation to do so.

Today, the people of Leicester continue to exercise their democratic rights in the 2024 general election.

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