EXACTLY 150 years ago this week, Durham was – as it undoubtedly is today – gripped by election fever, with accusations swirling not of sleaze but of bribery and corruption.

The city’s Liberal MP, John Davison, had died aged 46, sparking a by-election in which John Lloyd Wharton, who had just inherited Dryburn Hall, ran for the Conservatives in a two horse race against the Liberal candidate, Thomas Thompson.

The Northern Echo: John Lloyd Wharton who was elected 150 years ago this week as the Conservative MP for Durham City

Voting began on a platform outside the Town Hall at 8am on April 28, 1871, and the state of the polls were posted every hour.

“The Dean of Durham, Dr Lake, recorded his vote for the Liberal candidate, and on his way to and from the platform was much cheered,” reported the Darlington & Stockton Times.

Perhaps it was the dean’s backing that allowed Mr Thompson, a barrister who courted the anti-vaccination vote, to have a slender lead of 15 out of the 1,100 votes cast, when the state of the polls was revealed at 11am.

And it was around midday that it was alleged that the Conservatives resorted to underhand methods to see if they could ease their man ahead.

The Northern Echo: The Rose and Crown, which was replaced by Woolworths in 1928, was from where John Lloyd Wharton gave a victory speech 150 years ago before his victory had been officially declared. Picture courtesy of Michael Richardson and the Gilesgate Archive

“There was a great deal of disorder, caused principally by a number of roughs imported by the Tories from the neighbourhood, and several persons were very roughly handled,” said The Northern Echo.

It stopped short of accusing the Tories of terrible misdeeds, saying there was no evidence, but the D&S Times didn’t hold back. It said: “The Conservative party are accused by the Liberals of bribery and corruption, who state that many proofs of treating and intimidation will be forthcoming.”

It worked, in that when the 4pm count was announced, Mr Wharton was ahead by 814 votes to 776. He knew he could not be caught and so delivered a victory speech from the balcony of the Rose and Crown Hotel.

He was then called over to the Town Hall balcony for the 5pm official announcement of his victory, by 38 votes. “Cheers and hisses ensued,” said the D&S Times.

The proof of the corruption never materialised, and so Mr Wharton was Durham’s MP until the 1874 General Election. In those days, the city returned two MPs, and at the 1874, Mr Wharton faced two Liberal candidates.

And the Liberals won, with Mr Thompson topping the poll with 924 votes and Mr Wharton coming in third with 846. Now the cross was in the other ballot and the boot was on the other foot and this time Mr Wharton alleged “bribery and personation” (voting under someone else’s identity) against the Liberals.

The Northern Echo: Durham Market Place, in August 1965. The white Woolworths’ building on the right at the top of Silver Street replaced the Rose and Crown in 1959

And this time there was enough evidence. The case went to court three months later and the Liberals were found guilty, although the two candidates were not said to have known was taking place on their behalf. The judge declared the election void, and the contest was re-run, only for the Liberals to increase the size of their winning majorities.

Mr Wharton, who was chairman of the North-Eastern Railway, had another unsuccessful go at winning the Durham seat in 1880. Then he was given the safer seat of Ripon and represented the North Yorkshire city from 1886 until his death in 1906.

However, Mr Wharton had one last claim to political fame in his home city: in 1889, when the first elections to the newly-formed Durham County Council were held, the Conservatives won a slim majority and he became the first council leader.