Local Government Elections in Hampshire

Democracy – in Hampshire or elsewhere – is one of those ‘hoorah’ words that may warm the heart but conflict with reality. In the ideal world, great issues would be debated by well-informed opinion leaders. Large numbers of people would listen carefully to the arguments and, almost without exception, cast their votes. But a new Hampshire Paper by Dr Roger Ottewill tells a very different story for elections to the county council between 1889 and 1974. At the national level, the Great Reform Act 1832 created great hopes for a parliament that would be fairer, more decent and untainted by the ills of corruption and nepotism that a burgeoning press was increasingly laying bare. But it took more than 50 years for similar ideas to apply universally to local government.

A start was made with the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, which reformed the governance of a handful of places, including, in Hampshire – Winchester, Southampton, Portsmouth, Andover, Basingstoke, Romsey and Lymington. But until the Local Government Act 1888 the administration of all county government outside the corporations was in the hands of JPs, appointed by the Lord Lieutenant.  Weighty tomes in the Hampshire Record Office of business enacted at the Quarter Sessions by JPs witness the huge range of activities they undertook – regulating wages and food supplies, building bridges, diverting footpaths,  running prisons and workhouses and much else –  as well as setting the County Rate.

Outside Southampton and Portsmouth, which were created self-standing county boroughs in 1888 (and are not covered in Ottewill’s paper), all the work formerly done by JPs was put into the hands of elected councillors on 29 January 1889. On this day eligible voters chose members of the Hampshire County Council for the first time, though the franchise was limited to a small proportion of men and some single women. Thereafter, triennial elections for a proportion of councillors ensured opportunities to vote in new men (mainly).

Despite the aims of the 1888 Act, Ottewill’s research shows that the competitive element of pure democracy was often in short supply in county elections.  Even at the beginning, only 45% of the 75 divisions were contested, and a much smaller proportion was the norm until after the Second World War. Between 1889 and 1932, there were seven divisions in which every election had only one candidate! The most contested was Whitchurch, with Basingstoke Borough and Farnborough North close seconds.  In Winchester, St Bartholomew and St Maurice was amongst the most contested, with five electoral battles.

The tenor of some campaigning in 1889 is demonstrated in a Hampshire Chronicle report for Whitchurch, where William Portal – whose Huguenot ancestors had brought papermaking to the area – was standing. It reported that ‘Miss Portal the little daughter of the candidate drove through the town in her donkey cart, with a banner inscribed “Please vote for father” ’.

In 1904 a national issue sparked several contests in Hampshire, following the Education Act 1902, which Nonconformists saw as privileging Church of England schools by giving them access to funding from the Rates while enabling them to continue providing a sectarian mode of religious education. In Eastleigh, for example, a Quaker philanthropist, Thomas Cotton, who had held the seat since 1889, was challenged by the Rev. Francis Ashmall, rector of Bishopstoke. In the event, the people of the town voted to be ‘free from sectarian creeds’ as the local paper put it.

National issues were, however, rarely key factors in winning local elections and it was generally considered inappropriate to attach the names of political parties to candidates’ manifestoes. Ottewill’s study shows that until the ‘post-war rise of party’ the overwhelming majority of Hampshire candidates stood as Independents, but in reality most of them were ‘concealed Conservatives’.

The post-war national election that brought Labour to power in Westminster – with its first and only success in Winchester – had its effects locally. Labour ended up with nine council seats, three of which were not contested, including that of ‘the redoubtable Arthur Quilley in Eastleigh South’ and two others in Gosport. Of the six contested seats, Ottewill writes: ‘the most remarkable was that in the predominantly rural division of Stockbridge. Here the successful candidate was Thomas Parker. Although he lost his seat in 1949, he subsequently “repackaged” himself as an Independent, regained the seat in 1952, and held it until he retired in September 1966.’

The 1946 county council elections was also the first to be fought with universal suffrage. This was the end of a long road for women, which had started in 1869 when single women with sufficient property were allowed to vote in municipal elections. However, as Ottewill has shown, the advent of votes for all, accompanied by party politicisation locally resulted in ‘turnouts [that] were far lower and coverage in the local press [that] was substantially reduced.’ In other words, the quest for ‘democracy’ has far to go.

Political history is difficult to study without the bias of personal convictions, but Ottewill has succeeded wonderfully in doing so, thereby providing a background against which the local history of Hampshire in much of the last century can be set. And he is ideally placed to have done it: his working life started as an audit examiner with the District Audit Service, covering  Surrey and Hampshire.  He has fond memories of auditing Kingsclere and Whitchurch RDC in the early 1960s!  He later studied for a part-time degree at London University, and worked for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Farnham UDC, before moving to a lectureship in the Department of Political Studies at Sheffield Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University. For a few years prior to full retirement he was employed as a research assistant in the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Southampton where he rediscovered his love of history. He is the author of several books and many papers.

Candidates and Contests: Hampshire County Council Elections from 1889 to 1974, Hampshire Papers (Series 2), No 7, is available from the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk, or direct from: Publications Sales Office, 22 Clifton Road, Winchester SO22 5BP, telephone: 01962 867490.