LOCAL elections in 19th century Basingstoke were sometimes wild and riotous affairs fuelled by plentiful supplies of alcohol. Far more exciting than today.

In some years the local election went uncontested as no new candidates were nominated and the members were automatically re-elected. In the years where there was a contest, the proceedings usually passed without any major incident. But the elections in 1865, 1869 and 1881 were enlivened by riot and destruction.

The election in 1865 turned into a fierce struggle between those who wanted an improved system of drainage and for sewage works to be carried out, and those who opposed it on cost grounds. It resulted in a narrow victory for the anti-sewerage party.

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Basingstoke Gazette: Town Hall balcony - reading the election results

Both parties treated their supporters with beer and other refreshments during the afternoon. The mobs created considerable havoc in the Market Place by shouting and pelting each other and anyone passing by with eggs and paper bags filled with a variety of ingredients, including flour, red and yellow ochre and lime. It was reported that all persons who passed through the Market Place that afternoon were “plentifully besplattered”. 

The noise and the disturbance startled a pair of horses that were standing in Wote Street. They ran onto the pavement, driving the carriage pole through the window of Miss Curtis’s shop, smashing the plate glass and woodwork and scattering the goods in the window display onto the pavement. The ladies in the carriage were “greatly alarmed but unhurt”.

At the 1869 election, because no treating was allowed, “a number of disorderly persons” visited several pubs and shops demanding beer or money, and causing damage where this was refused.

The municipal election in 1881 was the opportunity for the divisions in the town concerning the Salvation Army to be translated into votes. In the evening a large crowd had gathered outside the Town Hall, waiting for the results to be announced.

Among them was a group of about 200 Massagainians, one of whom lobbed a stone, smashing one of the large plate glass windows of the teetotal Old Angel Café that was being used as the headquarters of the pro-Salvation Army party.

After the results were announced, the police and the special constables retired to the Town Hall to have their tea. This cleared the way for the Massagainians to go on the rampage.

They started by smashing the windows of the Congregational minister’s house in Essex Road. They then surged down Brook Street to the Salvation Army factory. They smashed the gas lamps and the windows, showering the congregation with glass.

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Basingstoke Gazette: Henry Smith's Musical Warehouse after the 1881 riot

From there they turned the corner into Chapel Street, where George Greenaway, ‘The Hallelujah Auctioneer’ – a Salvation Army soldier – had his house and shop. Using building materials from a house being repaired just opposite, they smashed every window at the front of the house, and struck a heavy blow at the front door, which knocked the catch of the door fastening clean out. 

The next stop was Hillside, the home of the magistrate, John Burgess Soper, in Vyne Road. There they smashed all 12 windows and broke the blinds. When Soper arrived home, he found 53 large stones in various rooms, including one on his bed weighing over 2lbs.

The Massagainians returned to town, down Station Hill, where they smashed the plate glass window of Councillor Henry Smith’s musical instrument warehouse. Then on to Bunnian Place, where they smashed the windows of another councillor who supported the Salvation Army, breaking a window frame in the process.

As they passed Gerrish, Ames and Simpkins’ clothing factory they smashed two or three panes of glass, likewise at Wallis’s foundry where five or six panes were broken. They broke several panes in the window of the Wesleyan Chapel, and on their way up Church Street, they broke six or seven panes of glass at Felgate’s Gospel Book Depot and the windows of the Gazette office.

As a result of the election riot, Basingstoke enjoyed another 15 minutes of fame in the national and provincial press.

Reynolds’ Newspaper made matters seem worse when it reported that, “a mob numbering about 200 assembled, went through the town, and deliberately smashed a number of widows”.

This article was written by Bob Clarke