Extending the Franchise

For the past few months I have been extracting information from the electoral register for the Much Wenlock District, being aware that nineteenth century scribes (in my mind Bob Cratchit figures with candlelight and quills) were recording a document listing which men had been awarded the right to vote and why they had that right under the Great Reform Act of 1832. This act broadened franchise property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers.  Nineteenth century scribes were copying from lists. I am doing the same, but onto an Excel spreadsheet where mistakes are easily rectified (very few mistakes are on the original copper plate hand writing). The original document records names, property owned and the location of that property within certain parishes.

The people on the register are listed in alphabetical order, except when the scribe has missed somebody out and just added them in later! So there is an insight into the person who was given this task one hundred and eighty years ago. Writing deteriorates at the end of pages, or when his pen nib runs out of ink. One scribe in particular appears very lazy just writing “ditto” rather than the full description of the property owned by the voter! One overseer signing that there is a true record on the page has just put his cross. I wonder how he knew that the record was true?

Property owned ranges from “mansion” to “rock”, the latter referring to limestone near Wenlock Edge. Where does that person live – near the lime works! Interesting historical facts emerge. For example people are recorded living at “Benthall Rails”. Further research tells me that this tram road is believed to have been in existence by 1686 when it must have been a system of wooden rails with horse drawn trucks serving the local furnaces. Its course is still visible today. People are recorded living at “Werps”. Again further research tells me that this is a “lost village”: one of a group of small settlements which later became collectively known as Jackfield! Many of the rope works and malt houses in this area have now disappeared, whereas Barrow Street and Shineton Street are still very much part of Much Wenlock. Addresses are given as “near the church” or “by the brockholes”!

Significant historical names suddenly hit you, such as when the Darby family appears on the list. In the 1830s Abraham Darby must have been a descendant of the earlier iron master, but this one is still recorded as owning “an ironworks in Coalbrookdale”. The Brookes’ of Much Wenlock and the Reynolds families are other notable names.1131-0

People comment that this must be a boring task, but I have found it most interesting. Why? I am a historical geographer, so to me maps and place names are fascinating and informative. However in the 21st century technology camouflages my personality. In the future another person will not learn about my character from the typed script, but at least they will not have to decipher my inferior handwriting!

Helen Scarisbrick

Volunteer

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