The Power of the Ballot Box

Previous blogs have explained the background to the Compulsory Vaccination legislation, the role and responsibilities of the Guardians, the procedures involved in vaccination, the rules of the Anti Vaccination League and the profile of the league membership. This blog considers the role that electoral reform could have contributed to events in Keighley.

Two important pieces of legislation were passed in 1867 and 1872. The first, “The Reform Act”, or the Representation of the People Act 1867, 30 & 31 Vict. c. 10 widened the right to vote to more, but by no means all, working men. Votes were cast publicly and family historians have long made use of poll books to search for their ancestors. As votes were cast in such an open manner, there were concerns that undue influence could be brought to bear on electors. In 1872 An Act to amend the Law relating to Procedure at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections 35 & 36 Vict. c. 33, more commonly known as “The Ballot Act” changed the law again and introduced the secret ballot. Needless to say women were not enfranchised until much later – but that is another story!

Whilst I have not been able to locate any burgess/electoral rolls for the 1870s period, from my research into the social profile of the membership, I suspect that many of the members of the Keighley ACVL had become enfranchised as a result of the 1867 legislation. The ability to make use of the power of the ballot box to achieve their objectives – the removal of the compulsory element of vaccination – became a possibility.

The minute books of the KDACVL make frequent mention of identifying their own candidates to stand for election to the Board of Guardians. Reports of the outcome of elections in the local papers start to indicate the number of those elected who support the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination cause. The election of sympathisers to the Board of Guardians eventually resulted in the Board refusing to enforce the law as their office required and the Local Government Board taking steps to make the Guardians comply with the law. What followed was a protracted battle of wills between members of the Board of Guardians and the Local Government Board. Reading the Guardian Minute books and reports in the local paper, which give a far more colourful report compared to the bland minutes reported in the official record, show that there were also tensions amongst the Guardians themselves.

Ultimately, seven of the Guardians were imprisoned. These men, often referred to as “the Seven Wise Men of Keighley – Modern Martyrs” had used as their defence in court, the fact that they had promised their constituents they would not enforce the Act, and thus, could not break their promise to the electors.

You can find an image of these men at

For more information on electoral reform:

My website:

© Sylvia Valentine


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