Our 19th-century ancestors not quite as staid and solemn as some would have us believe
By Carol Campbell and James Smith – At the Historum
In the past, provincial election campaigns were neither long nor dignified. Before the introduction of the secret ballot, voting was oral and public. The crowd was unruly and boisterous. Only the presence of the county sheriff kept proceedings under control.
Here is a glimpse of events which took place during a Colchester election that took place more than 150 years ago.
May 5, 1859: Nomination day in South Colchester. Sheriff Charles Blanchard presided on a raised platform in front of Truro’s court house. Joseph Howe’s Reform Party nominated Adams Archibald and Alexander Campbell while the Tories chose George Reading and Samuel Rettie. All four candidates were Truro residents, but South Colchester extended from Stewiacke to Earltown.
May 11, 1859: Long Bill Hamilton of Brookfield, once a firm Tory, told Reading and Rettie that he was not going to vote for them. They did not think him sincere but the party decided that he had better be looked after anyway. Tory faithful brought Hamilton down to Snook’s store to be supplied with rum. Leander Crow got him a pair of trousers and purchased a pair of boots from the boot and shoe factory to humour him till he had voted.
May 12, 1859: Election day. Bill Hamilton mounted the platform and voted for Archibald and Campbell. The crowd cheered wildly. Afterwards, Hamilton went across the common to Grant’s Hotel where Cox the butcher, Burnyeat the barrister and other Tories got him down, pulled off his boots and made off with them. They had tried to get his trousers off but they were too tight.
May 13, 1859: On hearing Hamilton had lost his boots, George Archibald, the tanner, bought him another pair. Hotelkeeper Alexander McKay, also a defector from the Tory ranks, contributed a new pair of trousers and sent the tight-fitting ones over to Rettie with his compliments. Reform supporter Jotham McCully said that if the Tories cannot do anything else, at least they can cut up boots.
May 14, 1859: Return day. Sheriff Blanchard announced the results for South Colchester to the crowd – Archibald, 1074; Campbell, 1042; Rettie, 974; Reading, 953.
Rettie then told the audience that he had fully expected to be returned but was deceived. He was unable to say what influence had brought this to pass. Hamilton shouted, “My boots.” The crowd erupted in cheers.
Adams Archibald made reference to Joseph Howe’s statement that he would refuse to employ Roman Catholics. Archibald assured the crowd that suitable Catholics would be given office irrespective of religion, but at the same time he would not put a man like Mr. William Hamilton into a pair of boots that would not fit him. This created a tremendous cheer and broke up the meeting.
Rum continued to flow. That evening, when Bill Hamilton was snoozing on a bench in Grant’s Hotel, his new boots were taken off and suffered the same fate as the first pair. Knowing these would not be replaced, Hamilton declared, “The bugger dare not cut my throat so he cut my boots.”
The saga of Bill Hamilton’s boots was found among Israel Longworth’s private papers. The account was never made public. Like other Victorians, Longworth believed that nothing remotely detrimental to another person should be published.
This emphasis on respectability contributed to the image of our 19th-century ancestors as being staid and solemn. Many of the letters, diaries and accounts of daily life held at the Colchester Historical Society Archives contradict that impression.
Carol Campbell and James Smith are local historians and have published a book called 'Necessaries and Sufficiencies.'