How a Christmas general election 100 years ago made history

Will Thorne received the backing of nearly 95 per cent of voters in his constituency - a record that

Will Thorne received the backing of nearly 95 per cent of voters in his constituency - a record that stands to this day. Picture: LBBD - Credit: Archant

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is, for many people, a time for relaxing, visiting friends and family and picking up a bargain or two in the sales.

But a century ago, that week held a very different purpose – returning the votes of the first general election to take place in eight years.

When the First World War came to an end, Parliament had been sitting since 1910, having been extended during wartime.

Just three days after the Armistice, a fresh election was called, with the vote taking place on December 14. The count, however, did not take place until December 28, with the two week delay allowing ballots cast by soldiers serving overseas to be included in the tallies.

The election was notable for a number of reasons. It was the first in which women – as long as they were over 30 – could have their say, as well as men over the age of 21.

And in a quirk almost unimaginable in modern politics, candidates from across the political spectrum were endorsed by both Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George and the leader of the Conservatives, Bonar Law.

Known as the coalition coupon, letters signed by both men were sent to 159 Liberal candidates, 364 Conservatives, 20 Labour candidates and two people standing under the Coalition Labour banner – candidates who identified as Labour-leaning but supported the ruling coalition.

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There was often little opposition in constitiuencies where a coalition candidate was standing and ballot papers with just two or three names on them were frequent.

It resulted in a record-breaking vote in the newly-created Plaistow constituency, with Labour’s Will Thorne winning 12,156 votes to Independent Liberal candidate Arnold Lupton’s 631. Thorne’s election by nearly 95per cent of the electorate remains the largest proportion of the popular vote of any Parliamentary seat to this day.

Election campaigning ran up to the day itself, with the Barking, East Ham and Ilford Advertiser carrying a large advertisement on the front page of its December 14 issue encouraging people to “vote early for Captain Martin, the approved coalition candidate”.

The Liberal candidate for the Romford constituency – which at that time included much of Barking and Dagenham – Albert Edward Martin went on to win comfortably with a majority of more than 5,000.

The Romford Times of January 8 told how Capt Martin took “a tour of the Romford Division” to “pay visits to the various centres of population after his election”.

It explained that he was part of a group to travel in three cars “decorated in flags and favours”, greeted by cheering and tooting as the group drove from Barking to Romford.

But despite the election taking its place in history for multiple reasons, reports from the time found that the number of people making their way to ballot boxes across the area was similar to those that do so now.

An article in the Romford Times of December 18 read: “It is questionable whether even 50per cent of the electors took the trouble to record their votes at the Parliamentary contest which took place under such miserable climatic conditions on Saturday.

“The majority of the men certainly did not show any enthusiasm, and had it not been for the keenness of the women in going to the poll through rain and mud the ballot boxes would have been comparatively empty. Election excitement was absolutely absent.”

The turnout would subsequently be reported as just over 48pc – and votes being cast by less than half the electorate would prove to be common across east London, despite the vast increase in the number of people actually being eligible to do so.