Prisoners as Voters

Edward Coleburn won the 1718 by-election for alderman of the ward of Mancroft in the city of Norwich, beating his opponent William Chamberlayne by 28 votes. There was only one problem. Many of the votes cast for Coleburn had come from prisoners in the city gaol, which lay within the boundaries of the ward. As three of William Chamberlayne’s supporters explained it in an deposition given to the court of King’s Bench, the Gaoler, Peter Harrold, had “brought from out of the Gaol belonging to the said City eighty prisoners therein, a great many persons to vote for the said Mr. Coleburne.” They continued

And these deponents further severally say that they have heard and verily believe, that such persons were either prisoners that lived with their families in other wards of the said City, and were called in by the said gaoler just before the said Election on purpose to vote for the said Mr. Coleburne, and obliged by the said gaoler to do so, or that just before the said election rendered themselves prisoners to the said gaol, on fobb actions for that purpose, part of the said gaol being within the said ward of Mancroft , and they thereby insisting to be inhabitants thereof, the right of election of alderman of the said Ward being in the freemen inhabitants therein. And these deponents further severally say That although by these practices the said Mr. Coleburne had a majority of eight and twenty votes, yet they believe that the said Mr. Chamberlayne had a much greater majority of good votes of such as were freemen inhabitants , and dwelling within the said Ward.

Eighteenth-century people were quite familiar both with voter fraud, and with allegations of voter fraud being used to challenge election results.  And in this  respect we have not changed much. But the modern reader may nonetheless be struck by the fact that no one in this affair questioned the right of prisoners to vote. The complaint was simply that prisoners normally voted in the wards where they and their families resided, whereas these had voted in the ward where the prison was located. In the United States today, different states have different policies regarding voting by prisoners: two states allow convicted felons to vote even while incarcerated, while others permanently ban them from voting even after their term is served. Britain’s ban on voting by prisoners convicted of serious crimes was recently upheld in 2015 by an EU court, but other European countries let prisoners vote.  Granted, the status of the prisoners in the city gaol is not specified and it is likely most were debtors. Still, the easy acceptance of prisoners as voters is a reminder that the meaning of imprisonment was quite different in the eighteenth century than it was today.

William Hogarth,

William Hogarth, “The Polling,” from Humours of an Election (c. 1755). It shows voters of questionable eligibility being told how to vote, and conversely eligible voters being challenged by election officials. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is one other deposition in the file that tells the story from the inside. In some ways it suggests that prison could be a jolly, easy thing. Samuel Oliver Spillsby, a worsted weaver, supported the allegations made about the elections. Spillsby resided and was entitled to vote in the ward of Wyman, not Mancroft. But, as he told it, he was summoned by a Mr. William Hall to a tavern, where he also found the gaoler Peter Harrold. Hall asked Spillsby whether he owed any money to anyone, whereupon Spillsby told Hall he owed about 5 shillings to one Thomas Burrage. So Hall told Spillsby that he must on the Monday morning following vote for Mr. Edward Coleburn for alderman, and that in order to vote as an inhabitant of the ward of he would be arrested at Mr. Burrage’s suit. He was instructed to go to the city gaol at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon and lie there that night, and vote in the morning. Spillsby, for his pains, got five shillings from Hall and, as he tells it, had a not unpleasant experience. When he was in the gaol he saw others who lived in other wards of the city, who also “came in upon fobb actions” (that is, frivolous lawsuits), and ” were all called over by the gaoler that night, and there entertained and treated.” The next day Spillsby dutifully voted for Edward Coleburn, Spillsby “came away from the said gaol without without paying any fees, or having any demanded of him,” a thing unheard of for normal prisoners for debt.

So far this an amusing story about the relative niceness of being in prison, but there are some intimations here about the arbitrary power exercised by the gaolers. Spillsby also said that “when he was in the gaol there were several persons then Prisoners there who would have voted for Mr. William Chamberlayne for alderman rather than Coleburn, and the gaoler confined such persons and would not suffer them to stir out of the said gaol.” So perhaps prisoners’ voting rights were actually a matter of the gaoler’s discretion. Or, to say it differently, voting in this election for Colburn should not be mistaken for an exercise of rights.

We might also use this episode to highlight just how easy it could be for a person to end up in prison. After leaving prison, Spillsby went to see Mr. Burrage, the man to whom he owed 5 shillings, and paid him his debt. Burrage told him “he knew nothing of his being arrested and wondered what Hall meant by doing it.” We assume that debtors were locked up because creditors demanded it (and accordingly we wonder at the creditors’ foolishness, since imprisoned debtors were unlikely to pay their debts). If Spillsby was telling the truth, though, then the fact of being in debt meant that a person can be arrested, nominally at a creditor’s suit, without the creditor knowing about it. And of course, in early modern society, almost everyone was in debt. Why did some debtors end up in prison while others did not? Who gets to make the choice? In a future post I’ll tell some of the stories prisoners for debt tell about why they were imprisoned.


The two documents discussed here are found in in TNA KB1/1/2, King’s Bench Crown Side Affidavits. They are in the bundle from Trinity term, 4 George I.

There is a more about this election in Paul Halliday, Dismembering the Body Politic (Cambridge: CUP, 2003) pp. 304-5. It cites further depositions to be found about this case.

This digital copy of Hogarth’s “The Polling” courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. See it bigger on their website

For felon voting rights (or lack thereof) in USA, see For UK, see

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