25 July 2024
  • 25 July 2024

The Renfrewshire Election Scandal of 1874

on 1 April 2024 0

Brian Hannan from Abbey Books in Paisley reveals The Renfrewshire Election Scandal of 1874 thanks to a legal volume donated to the shop

I wouldn’t be aware that Renfrewshire had an unsavoury anniversary to celebrate in March 2024 had it not been for the donation – in pristine condition I might add – of an antiquarian legal volume. You might think that accusations of tampering with an election were a recent phenomenon as witnessed in the American Presidential Election for 2020.

But in fact, the election body and election officials of Renfrewshire were taken to court in two separate trials over an alleged miscount as I discovered when, in an idle moment, I perused a hefty book with the unappealing title of Scottish Law Reporter Vol II Oct 1873-July 1874.

I have a habit with older non-fiction of running my finger down the index, checking for any mention of Paisley and adjacent towns or Renfrewshire itself. To my surprise, there were two mentions – two separate court cases in other words – but both concerning the same issue, the possibility of the election of the local M.P. being rigged.

The triumph of Colonel Mure at the Parliamentary election held on February 5, 1874, was almost immediately challenged by a petition from Charles Irwin of Maxwell St in Glasgow and timber merchant James MacGregor of Pollockshields (thus spelled), supporters of the losing candidate Col Archibald Campbell who had previously held the seat. The action was taken invoking the Election Act of 1868 and the Ballot Act of 1872.

Mure had been declared the winner on a slim majority of just 88 votes. But that, in an election where there only just under 4,000 people (all men) were eligible to vote, meant it was a mighty close affair and indicated a relatively small swing in favour of the victor, since in the previous election Campbell had won by just 126 votes.

The size of the margin clearly suggested to Irwin and MacGregor that some murky work had taken place, although they were careful in their petition not to accuse anyone of bribery and corruption. Instead, they argued that “a mistake or mistakes were made in the voting papers” and that, therefore, the count was “unsatisfactory.”

Equally, they were very careful not to declare that such a miscount might affect the election, rather making the point that justice needed to be seen to be done, and clearly hoping that, at the very least, a court case and recount would prove highly embarrassing to Mure.

The case was heard on March 13, 1974. You might be surprised to learn it was not an open-and-shut case – i.e. enforce a recount and see if any allegations were correct – and that several points of precedence and legal procedure (including retaining the secrecy of the voters) had to be taken into account. Discussion was so lengthy that it accounted for eight closely-typed pages of this book, amounting to some 6,000 words.

The outcome was that a second trial was held less than a month later on April 6, 1874. This time it was Mr Hector, Sheriff Clerk of Renfrewshire, who was summoned to court since he had taken possession of the ballot papers after they were counted. The original enumerators (the people who had done the actual counting) were also called in to carry out the recount without revealing the names of the voters.

It turned out mistakes had been made. But not enough to influence the election. A total of 22 voting papers had not been marked “in accordance with procedure.” Embarrassingly for the plaintiffs, the result weighted victory even more in favour of Mure. The recount established he was the winner by 91 rather than 88 votes.

If you are interested in The Renfrewshire Election Scandal of 1874, Brian has a copy of the Scottish Law Reporter Vol II Oct 1873-July 1874 in Abbey Books, 21 Wellmeadow Street, Paisley PA1 2EF

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