West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



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 type!

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 my memory.

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 year before.

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 candidate.

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

The 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


Site constructed and maintained by Michael Norfolk
This website is Copyright © 2005-2013 [www.pontefractus.co.uk] All Rights Reserved