With local elections looming, Duncan Leatherdale looks back at a voting scandal that shocked a County Durham town more than 130 years ago

COUNCIL elections are contentious by their nature causing debate and division.

But in 1878, in Crook, the election caused not only consternation but also criminal convictions and a full public inquiry.

It started with problems with ballot papers, claims historian Tony Young, who gave a talk about the scandal to the Crook and District Local History Society recently.

The Auckland Poor Law Union, effectively the district council of its day, had 41 members on its Board of Guardians, three of whom represented Crook and Billy Row.

Elections were rare; normally candidates were agreed and co-opted on board.

But in 1878, four candidates emerged for the three Crook seats necessitating an election. There were the incumbents, wine merchant John Bell, mine manager Samuel Taylor Jones and Temperance party candidate grocer John Greener. The fourth was George Morson, co-owner of a local mine.

Only residents who paid rates and who had lived in Crook for 12 months were eligible to vote.

Their details were kept in the rate book by the Union’s assistant overseer Thomas Edward Bell, who was also in charge of running the election (and happened to be candidate John Bell’s son).

Nearly 2,000 people were eligible to take part in the three day voting process starting on Monday, April 8.

On the first day, ballot papers were delivered to each eligible voter by the local police officers.

On the second day the papers were collected, with marks put alongside the names of the voters favoured candidates.

Illiterate voters could still take part by making a mark on the form before having it signed by a witness.

On the third day, Wednesday, April 10, the votes were counted, with the three incumbents retaining their seats.

Jones secured 1,116 votes, Bell 886, Greener 873 and Morson 788.

By Friday, April 12, Mr Morson had launched legal proceedings calling for the vote to be declared illegal.

And he had 13 sworn affidavits from voters supporting his claim that the votes had been tampered with.

Mr Young said: “There were four basic problems.

“Firstly, people who were eligible to vote didn’t get papers.

“Secondly, people who were not eligible to vote did get papers.

“Thirdly, papers were collected from houses where none had been delivered.

“And finally, papers were pre-signed and filled in, the illiterate option was much used because it was easy to forge the papers.”

One example of the latter was that of Charles Heywood who received his paper on Monday and later that evening discussed it with Thomas Futers, a colliery engineer who illegally distributed numerous papers and whose name appears as a witness on more than a dozen of the illiterate returns.

On the Tuesday morning, Mr Heywood’s wife arrived at his work to say Futers had been round, taken the proper papers and replaced them.

Mr Heywood had originally selected Greener and Morson, but his new papers brought by Futers had voted for Jones and Bell.

At the Queen’s Bench in London a month later, candidates Jones and Bell agreed that a Quo Warranto – a writ that would nullify the election – should be issued, but it was suspended after the pair said they would stand down and trigger a by-election.

On Monday, July 29, Futers was sentenced to 21 days in prison after being convicted of illegally delivering ballot papers.

A second man, mine overseer Thomas Bell (no relation the previous Bells), who lived on Mount Pleasant in Stanley Crook, was sentenced to 10 days in prison for his role in rigging the election.

He visited the home of colleague John Hewitson while he knew he was out, filled in Mr Hewitson’s papers and then got Hewitson’s brother to sign the document purporting to be his brother.

At his trial, Bell initially claimed that he had mistaken Hewitson’s brother for Hewitson himself, a claim rubbished by the magistrates after they heard both men worked for him.

Complaints were also made about the role of assistant overseer Thomas Bell, whose father was a long-serving member of the board and who secured his son a good position in the union when he was just 19 (although official papers claimed he was 21).

The Government inspector, George Culley, privately believed Thomas Edward Bell had been involved in some misdemeanours but could not prove it.

The Board of Guardians was ordered to give him a strong telling off, but Mr Young believes Bell had little to do with the scandal and blamed others close to him for using his position as holder of the Rates book to get access to important information and documents.

Eight men put themselves forward for the by-election for the two places on the board (Greener, who was not implicated in any wrong-doing, kept his spot), with Morson and colliery agent Robert Dixon elected.

On December 14, 1878, George Morson was presented with a gold watch worth 70 guineas, snuffbox and walking stick bought by the 700 ratepayers in his district.

This was in recognition for his honesty and fair method in the local elections.