In 2014, Wyre Archaeology group were invited to excavate an old water mill at Hollowforth, near Woodplumpton. Whilst researching the background to this area I came across the following reference to Hollowforth in the Haydock Papers (1).
In 1768, during the anti-Jacobite and No-Popery fermentation at Preston, Newhouse chapel narrowly escaped destruction. An infatuated mob, after destroying St. Mary's chapel, in Friargate, Preston, and burning that at Cottam, moved in the direction of Newhouse for the purpose of demolishing the chapel there. But a neighbouring Protestant, named Hankinson, a descendant of the family of the man who betrayed George Haydock, the martyr, met the mob near Hollowforth Mill, and persuaded them not to touch the chapel. He entreated them not to molest Mr. Carter, whom he highly praised. He then provided them with food and drink, which appeased them, and thus they marched back to Preston.
The image is a representation of the first St Mary's Chapel, Preston destroyed in the riots of 1768. Unfortunately no original images remain.
All of this information was new to me even though I had a keen interest in the history of Preston. Riots in Preston! Burning down of churches! A quick on-line search revealed that, even after 250 years, the 1768 election was known as “The Great Election”. Why should this election be famous? I was intrigued.
More online research provided another reference to the election in "The Gentleman's Magazine" and contains "A letter from Preston, in Lancashire” dated February 21st, 1768, which reports:-
"The contest here is attended with imminent danger. I have just escaped, with many friends. The country is now up in arms. As the town is now abandoned by our [the Tory party's] men, the cry is, 'Leave not a freeman alive !' God knows where this will end. I think to-night, or tomorrow, may be fatal to many. This is shocking work in a civilised country."
Local histories provide a little more background information but lack details. From them, it seems that this election stood out from the hundreds of other elections down the centuries for a number of reasons; the many thousands involved in riots, running battles in the streets, lack of official intervention, churches being burnt down, houses ransacked, corruption in the “buying” of votes, the MP’s initially returned had their election win overturned by a Parliamentary committee, comprehensive records giving the full details of the male population of Preston and, not least, universal male suffrage.
For me, it was the phrase “universal male suffrage” which stood out since this election took place exactly 150 years before the 1918 Representation of the People Act which gave full voting rights to all males across the country - so something out of the ordinary was taking place in Preston. Anyone gaining these rights in the 1768 election could retain them in principle even into the 19th Century. Amazingly, and an explanation for this will be revealed later, a large number of documents still exist covering the election and its aftermath. Through these comprehensive records a unique glimpse of lives at the time can be viewed; the paupers, the criminals, the ordinary man in the street trying to make a living as well as the rich and powerful flexing their political muscles. After reading some of these documents in which the ordinary lives of 18th Century Prestonians were revealed, in particular the voter cross-examinations, I became hooked.
This article is intended to provide a slightly different view of this election through these original sources and links to transcriptions of these sources. The most revealing of the documents provide a listing the male population of Preston; sometimes their age, employment, background, relationships, if they like a drink, trustworthiness and voting intentions together with their actual vote. Movement of individuals, power struggles between the local gentry and legal arguments all added to the complex background surrounding the election. And where else could you find out that there were 7 peruke (wig) makers in Preston in 1768?
1. The Haydock Papers – a glimpse into English Catholic life under the shade of Persecution and in the Dawn of Freedom by Joseph Gillow.
2. Old Catholic Lancashire Vol 2 - Blundell