Today in penal history: Kings Bench Prisoners hold mock election, 1827.

“Nothing during the last year excited more curiosity than the Mock Election, which took place in the King’s Bench Prison; as much from the circumstances attending its conclusion, as from the astonishment expressed that men, unfortunate and confined, could invent any amusement at which they had a right to be happy.”

In July 1827, the inmates of the King’s Bench Prison, in Borough, South London, organised a fantastical mock hustings, to elect an MP to represent ‘Tenterden’ (a slang name for the prison) in Parliament. Three candidates were put up, one of whom was Lieutenant Meredith, an eccentric naval officer. “…As I approached the unfortunate, but merry, crowd, to the last day of my life I shall ever remember the impression… baronets and bankers, authors and merchants, painters and poets… dandies of no rank in rap and tatters… all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads…”

All the characteristics of a regular election were parodied. Addresses from the candidates to the ‘worthy and independent electors’ were printed and posted up around the prison; contending parties wrote broadsheets & sang songs attacking their opponents; there were processions with flags and music, to take the several candidates to visit the several ‘Collegians’ (i. e., prisoners) in their rooms; speeches were made in the courtyards, full of grotesque humour; a pseudo-“high-sheriff” and other “election officers” were chosen to oversee the proceedings “properly”; and the electors were invited to ‘rush to the poll’ early on Monday morning, the 16th of July.

“Hitherto it had been a mere revel; but on the latter day the frolic assumed a serious aspect, from the interference of the marshal of the prison.”

Worried about the disorder that might arise (and that the inmates might be enjoying life in a manner non-profitable to him and other warders?!), Mr. Jones, marshal of the prison, put a stop to the whole proceedings on the morning of the 16th. Apparently the proceedings were halted violently, exasperating the prisoners. They resented the language used towards them, and opposed the treatment to which they were subjected; until a squad of Foot-guards, with fixed bayonets, forcibly drove some of the leaders into a filthy ‘black-hole’ or place of confinement.

“The three candidates, and other persons who were active in the election, were for some time kept in close confinement, and a sergeant’s guard was introduced, and remained in the prison all night. The result was pacific; but the conduct of the marshal has been much censured and threatened with a parliamentary investigation.”

Quotes from an account of the Mock Election by Benjamin Haydon, imprisoned in the Kings Bench for debt, July 1827.

Mock elections were all the rage at one time… for many years the Mayor of Garratt elections in South London were the highpoint of the social calendar…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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