JOHN O. E. HOLMES
Elected representatives go back to times when records were few and even fewer
survive. It is known that Pontefract sent two members to Parliament in
1298, but when the summons to send two members was sent out in 1423 the
plea went back to London that ‘they were too poor’ so nothing is on
record before 1621 when two members were sent. From that time there is
an almost continuous record of members sent to Parliament.
The interesting parts of elections are the times when things are not
straightforward and somebody cheats. Over the years the rules have been
changed, but there are still candidates who seek to get elected by fair
means or foul. The thing I find amusing is that after all the fuss of
the elections, so often all the resolutions come to nothing. I have
copies of the town minutes for 1875 to 1879 and although there are some
770 pages, in fact very little happened and this was at a time when big
changes were taking place in the system of town administration. Even to
his day, how we vote in Pontefract matters little and the elected
Government is determined by a small majority in perhaps 30 to 40
constituencies spread around the country.
This preamble does not tell much about Pontefract’s history so I will
return to that:
As a Borough, Pontefract returned two members and they were elected by the
Burgage Holders. The Charter of 1484 made Pontefract a self-governing
township and the Corporation was headed by the Mayor who was the
returning officer and who often sought to influence things so that his
candidate was returned. This resulted in many election petitions and
even after the result had gone against a candidate, a repeated petition
occurred. It was these repeated petitions that resulted in 1788 in the
Grenville Act which virtually said that once a petition had been
decided, there would be no appeal.
In 1768 there were riots at the election so that it was declared void, and
it became established that only established burgage holders could vote.
It became an established system for land to be bought freehold and then
leased off for very long periods at a peppercorn rent so that the
burgage vote remained with the one who had bought the freehold, even
though he had virtually sold the land. Boothroyd in his book mentions
that in 1807 there were about 321 burgage votes, and of these, Lord
Galway owned 190, Mr. Pitt 44 and Sir Rowland Winn had ‘a few.’
It was obvious that this could not continue, so in 1832 there was the
Reform Act. This was only passed when the threat was made to create
sufficient new Peers to take it through. After this, voters were the
occupiers of property of £10 yearly rental.
The number on the electoral roll varied very little over the years. In 1863
there were 605, in 1864 581, in 1865 574, in 1868 597 of which 428
voted, in 1870 737 of which 420 voted, and in 1871 468 voted out of 799
electors. This was the last open election limited to voters of three
years standing. In 1872 the franchise was opened to voters of one year
standing and also to female householders, but there were still only 934
voters of which 554 voted.
Pontefract had the first secret ballot in 1872 when there was a by-election about
six months before a general election was due, after the Rt. Hon. Hugh
Childers (Liberal) had been appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of
Lancaster. His opponent was Viscount Pollington (Conservative). There
was great interest shown throughout the country to learn how voting
might go. As it turned out, Childers won as before, and carried on
winning at several subsequent elections. Richard Holmes was appointed as
agent for Pollington and was presented with one of the ballot boxes.
This was given back to the council and put on display in the museum. The
seals were impressed with Pontefract Cake stampers!
From 1880 Pontefract returned only one member and in 1918 the area was
extended and we became Pontefract County Division, going right out to
Goole, whilst in 1945 we became the Pontefract, Castleford &
Featherstone Constituency, much to the disgust of Castleford who thought
they should come first as they were the biggest part.
The original charter called for twelve Aldermen to be elected by the
Burgesses who then elected the Mayor. This continued until the Municipal
Reform Act of 1834 when there were twelve Councillors who elected four
Aldermen, and the combined body then elected the Mayor.
This only lasted some forty years, as in 1876 the borough took in Park,
Tanshelf and Monkhill, the whole borough being divided into three wards,
the twelve Councillors becoming eighteen and the four Aldermen becoming
six. The total electorate was still only 1265 and this included some
duplication where property was owned in two wards by the same person.
In 1914 there became six wards, West, South, Central, East, North and Mill
Hill. This lasted an even shorter time as in 1938, Carleton was taken in
and there were still six wards but they were called Carleton, Baghill,
Central, Park, Tanshelf and Castle. On becoming part of Wakefield
Metropolitan District Council, Carleton, Baghill and Central were
combined to give Pontefract South, while Park, Tanshelf and Castle
became Pontefract North.
Local elections have in the past generated some lively action and interest,
and some news cuttings from 1910 report a petition against the election
of Councillor Archer. The reports are very lengthy and cover the
evidence verbatim extending to 51 eleven-inch columns of very small
The enquiry summarised briefly states that Albert William Archer who was
secretary at the Featherstone Pit had attended meetings at two clubs
when free beer was dispensed, and that T. J. Sides had thrown coppers to
the children at the polling booths. Also, deputies from the Featherstone
Pit had received their wages and expenses while they stood outside the
polling booth, offering a shilling to those who would vote for Mr
Archer. Two traps and horses usually for hire had also been used on
polling day on Mr Archer’s behalf. Councillor Archer was unseated and
had costs of some £600 to pay.
All up to now can be found in various printed matter although it does occur
to me that you might be interested in some personal reminiscences
concerning my own experiences at local elections while they are still in
When I left the airforce in 1949 I joined my father in the printing business
and in 1950 we had a general election. Out of curiosity I went to one or
two meetings which at that time were very well attended in the Assembly
Rooms. As a result of this I became interested and joined the Young
Conservatives (formerly the Junior Imperial League). It was all very
friendly and sociable. Although we had a Labour MP, the council was
anti-labour since there were four wards which returned anti-labour and
only Baghill and Tanshelf where Labour could triumph. This was to change
when the Coal Board decided to build houses and fill them with workers
brought down from Scotland and Durham, thus in 1954 Mr Brindley was
returned by two votes and the following year the labour candidate had a
majority of 200. Park ward was also lost so that labour became the
majority party and deep depression took over the conservative party. In
1957 I was asked to stand in Castle Ward and I accepted the challenge.
As I had really expected, I lost, but I was not disheartened. The
following year no candidate could be found for Castle Ward, so in 1959 I
stood again. This time I decided to make it a bit more of a fight, so my
address had on it my picture, also my opponent was John Trueman Holmes
In those days it was illegal to put on the ballot paper the party the
candidate supported, so I learned there was some concern in the labour
party that votes might go to the wrong man – they had to get out and
explain who the labour man was! In the election I got another 114 votes
so I felt a blow had been struck for democracy.
The following year, Joe Dixon who was well known and lived in Castle Ward,
volunteered to stand. He asked me if I thought he had a chance and I
told him that while he had a difficult task, it was the usual custom to
offer easier seats to those who had stood in difficult seats. He took me
at my word, stood, and lost by only 73 votes.
The following year Mr. Ashton volunteered to stand in Castle Ward, again he
asked my advice and I told him what I had told Joe Dixon. He stood and
got 250 more votes than Joe, and would have won with the same vote the
I had volunteered to stand in Tanshelf Ward – an unheard of thing for an
election where the labour candidate had been returned unopposed for the
previous ten years or so. I knew I hadn’t much chance but was proposed
etc. and became candidate. I was matched against one of the labour
stalwarts, Robert Egan, who had been elected in 1949 and returned
unopposed every time since. I canvassed all round the ward and was
pleased with the interest. A deputation came from Prince of Wales
Terrace and said they would all vote for me if I could do something
about their houses, which being Duchy owned, there was little that could
be done (or so it was said). I made no false promises but said I would
shout up for them if elected. I also canvassed the workhouse and
Northgate Lodge, where they had not seen a canvasser for years. I learnt
that the labour party were worried as they were even out on a Saturday
afternoon, an unheard of thing in those days.
Come the election they had two or three large cars taking voters from Prince
of Wales Terrace to vote, but I did a steady trade taking people from
the workhouse to vote. One lady told me ‘Mr Holmes you’re the first
person to take me out in two years. I’m going to vote for you’.
Of course I did not win, but Prince of Wales Terrace was demolished within
about two years and there was a polling station established on the
Monkhill Recreation Ground before the next election so I felt my
campaign had not been in vain.
The following year in 1962, there was a by-election in Central Ward and I
was present at the meeting to decide the candidate. It was decided
without any discussion that a newcomer, Clifford Green, would be the
conservative candidate, no consideration being given to any of those who
had previously stood in difficult wards. I was not concerned about
myself, but those I had told would be considered were never mentioned.
Accordingly I was nominated for the same seat, as was a labour and a
liberal candidate. The result was that labour got 312 votes, liberal and
conservative candidates got 230 votes each and I got 126, which I felt
showed my name meant something to the electors.
The following year, Eric Marr stood for Central Ward, and as it was me that
had suggested him as a candidate, I did nothing to oppose him. In 1965
the retiring candidate was again labour, so I felt it might be worth
opposing him. I was therefore nominated, but a newcomer to the
conservatives was also nominated. Result – Geoffrey Lofthouse was
again returned, although my vote of 117 added to the conservative vote
would have well beaten him.
In June 1965 I was married and that clipped my wings! I did have further
dealings with elections in 1979 when Pontefract had its by-election on
the premature death of Joe Harper. As the election was about six months
before the general election there was much national interest in any
possible swing that might show what the result would be in the
forthcoming general election. Pontefract was thus honoured with three
candidates, labour (of course), conservative and liberal. We had all
sorts of bigwigs from each party to tell us why theirs was the best
The first of these was Michael Foot who came to the adoption meeting for
Geoffrey Lofthouse. This was advertised as a public meeting so along I
went armed with three daughters’ autograph books. At the end of the
meeting, poor Michael Foot was left all alone on stage while everyone
went to give Geoffrey their best wishes. I seized my chance and quickly
got three autographs.
The following evening the liberals met and had as their principal speaker
Clement Freud, with Michael Wainwright as a supporter. Sheila and I
decided to go and were amused to find that we formed about a fifth of
the genuine audience. At the end of the meeting Clement said that he was
sorry that ‘he didn’t give autographs’ so we settled for
Wainwright. As the evening was still young we decided to go into the
RAFA Club, where we met Derek Enwright, who had been on the stage at
Geoffrey’s adoption meeting. He then told us that he had a rather
costly book by Michael Foot, but he had decided not to take it to the
meeting as it might not be the right thing to do, but what he did see
was a well known anti-labour man get not just one autograph, but three!
Later, various others turned up and I was able to get Maggie Thatcher (although
I did stand aside to let Jack Johnson plead for the return of our
Mayor), Willie Whitelaw and various others, all of whom seemed in great
haste to get away!
If I can add a personal comment, it is that in my lifetime I have seen what
was a real local event become little more than a rubber stamp, and that
it would seem that nowadays the real power lies in the committee rooms
of whichever party happens to be the dominant one in any area, and woe
betide any that stray from the party path. ♣
John O. E. Holmes
above account was compiled as a series of notes for a talk given by John
Holmes in Pontefract and the account has been edited by Michael Norfolk
for reproduction in The Digest magazine.
Other studies by John Holmes
Pontefract Mill Hill Sand Tunnels
Pontefract and its Manors Part One
Pontefract and its Manors Part Two - The New Hall