On 13 December 1832, residents of Brighton elected their own members of parliament for the first time. It’s interesting to note that the newly enfranchised town’s first representatives were men known to hold what at the time were seen as radical views. Isaac Newton Wigney, son of a local banker, and George Faithfull, a solicitor and non-conformist preacher, had liberal ideals and called, among other things, for the abolition of slavery and of all ‘unmerited pensions and sinecures’. Faithfull, the more radical of the two, also wanted to disband the army and slash the amount spent on the Civil List.
As well as creating new constituencies to ensure better representation of the people in parliament, the Reform Act of 1832 had given more men the right to vote. The Brighton poll of 1832, for example, included butchers, bakers, painters and bricklayers as well as those simply described as gentlemen, which shifted some power from the aristocracy to the urban middle classes. But those with voting rights were still in the minority and it wasn’t until 1918 that all men over the age of 21 were given a say about who represented them in parliament. Votes for women, of course, came later; even the outspoken Faithfull seems not to have addressed this injustice in his manifesto.
Poll books from 1832 show not only the name, trade and address of each elector, but also how each one voted. In retrospect, it seems astonishing that an election was such a public affair. Perhaps not surprisingly, accusations of bribery and intimidation were common as newly enfranchised tenants and skilled workers were vulnerable to influence by their landlords or employers. Faithfull and Wigney, who supported the introduction of the secret ballot, wrote an open letter to the people of Brighton, challenging them to resist such pressure. Using highly emotive language, they ask:
‘You who seek to purge and cleanse the system of its present corruption, will you contaminate your fingers with base bribes? Will you be ensnared?…No! You cannot, you must not, you will not be guilty of such political debasement. Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Spurn the wretch who would thus tamper with your feelings, act as becomes men striving to be free, and success must crown your efforts.’
After a vigorous campaign, full of claims, counterclaims and accusations of bad behaviour from all sides, Wigney and Faithfull were elected with 873 and 722 votes respectively.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre