Book extract: When election night brought crowds into the city

Before television and radio, Saturday night election results were a public spectacle. 

© Extracted with permission from Chapter 5: "City crowds," in The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920, by Ben Schrader. Published by Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016

Street life, both in day and night time, were a feature of colonial towns and cities, particularly on Saturdays when crowds gathered to observe election results. This extract from The Big Smoke describes the scene outside Wellington's Evening Post newspaper and similar ones in other centres. 

The Saturday night crowd was a regular event. A less frequent but more dramatic social crowd formed on general election night. Before the completion of a national telegraph network in the early 1870s, general election results could take days to be confirmed; the telegraph meant results could be known within hours of the closing of polling booths. Metropolitan newspapers took advantage of the new technology to turn election night into a public spectacle. They erected large screens outside their central-city offices to project (using limelight lanterns) the latest election results as they came in by telegraph. Thousands of people flocked into town to watch events ‘live’ on the big screen.

A general election unlike any before it was the election of 28 November 1893, the first in which women voted. Wellingtonian Herbert Spackman recorded ‘great excitement’ in the city as the polls opened. Arriving at the polling booth, he was ‘pestered by lady canvassers at the doorway and loaded with tickets of all kinds’. (Before the party system, candidates often ran as part of a ticket.) 

As a teetotaller, he voted for the prohibitionist ticket: Sir Robert Stout, F. H. Fraser and John Duthie. After his early-evening orchestral rehearsal he went to ‘Evening Post Corner’ (the corner of Willis Street and Lambton Quay) to watch the election unfold. Among the assembly were large numbers of women and many young children. The crowd had been building since the closing of polls at seven o’clock and reached over 10,000 when the pubs shut at eleven o’clock. Spackman described it as ‘tremendous’.

Instead of the usual limelight lantern and screen, the Post had erected three hoardings on which the names of electorates and candidates were printed, with blank spaces for the posting of voting figures. The boards faced different directions so as to be visible from the contiguous streets, and were lit by 241 electric lights. The newspaper boasted the electrical display was the first of its kind in New Zealand and made the corner ‘brighter than day’. 

At 9.40 p.m. the results for Wellington City were put up on the boards. Stout (Liberal) topped the poll, followed by Harry Bell (independent Liberal) and Duthie (independent conservative). This became ‘the signal for a demonstration which lasted many minutes. Peal after peal of cheers reverberated up and down the streets, the cries being taken up from far and near, and echoed back to their source only to be sent forth again with equal vigour.’ Counter-demonstrations were drowned out by the prevailing sentiment.

The conservative victor in the Wellington Suburbs seat, Dr Alfred Newman, was seen in the crowd and hoisted shoulder high by enthusiastic supporters; Duthie was also spotted, but his much bigger girth foiled the same stunt being pulled. Stout addressed a large gathering from the upstairs window of his committee rooms, crediting his win to the support of Wellington’s women and pledging to work his hardest for the city.

Scenes in other centres
Similar scenes played out in the other cities. In Dunedin, ‘a sea of faces’ gathered outside the Otago Daily Times building in Dowling Street, and prolonged cheers rang out when at just after ten o’clock David Pinkerton (Liberal) topped the local poll.When news of his success reached the Wellington crowd about an hour later, resounding cheers erupted there too. 

The main venue in Christchurch was the Lyttelton Times office in Gloucester Street. A few larrikins caused annoyance by hurling rotten eggs at random, but this did not dampen the crowd’s euphoric mood, each Liberal victory being greeted with a ‘hearty cheer’. After midnight, William Pember Reeves, George Smith and William Collins (all Liberals) were declared the winners for Christchurch City; Reeves was lifted from his horse and carried aloft into the Times building, from where he addressed the assembled mass from a first-floor balcony.

In Auckland, screens were erected on both the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Star buildings in Queen and Shortland streets respectively. In noting the novelty of the day, the Star recorded that many ladies who might have been expected to vote in the morning had waited until the afternoon, when ‘they emerged in all the glory of their summer apparel, and perambulating the streets in numbers far exceeding the members of the coarser sex who were there, seemed to be enjoying their new power before they took the trouble exercising it’. 

As in Wellington, the crowd thickened outside the Star building after polling closed, and Shortland Street was soon awash with people. As each result arrived in the Star office it was transferred to a glass slip and handed to the lantern operator. According to the paper, ‘Some times deafening cheers rose as if from every throat in the crowd; sometimes prolonged howls and hisses were heard; sometimes the cheerers and the hooters were pretty evenly matched and the result was a discordant medley; and sometimes the news was greeted with silence almost.’ The crowd was kept amused between each result with cartoons of the politicians.

At ten to twelve, the result for Auckland City was announced, with Sir George Grey (Liberal) topping the poll by a wide margin. Soon after, the crowd scattered. Things were still in full swing in Wellington, with people waiting to hear results from Auckland and Christchurch. The overloading of the telegraph system meant it was two o’clock in the morning before the Christchurch return arrived, after which the electric lights were switched off and the now-enervated crowd dispersed.The reforming Liberal government had been returned to office.

In the 21st century, most New Zealanders watch general election results on televisions in the privacy of their homes (if they watch at all), but the same night in late-colonial cities was a civic event. For an evening the streets outside metropolitan newspaper offices became agora-like as townspeople engaged with and debated the election, either as individuals discussing the latest results with those about them or through the multiple voices of the crowd. There is no sense of Le Bon’s anonymous mass devoid of human agency.

Instead, the crowd comprised different groups firmly or loosely aligned to particular candidates or tickets. Each expressed their agency by cheering or hooting candidates’ wins and so reinforced the social identity of their group. Periodically the multiple voices became a single voice: when a candidate with wide appeal topped a poll, the crowd’s cry reverberated down streets and bounced off buildings to create an electrifying atmosphere. The attraction of the election-night spectacle therefore rested not only in following the election’s progress in (near) real time but also on the exhilaration and fleeting fraternity of the crowd.

In a period known for its trenchant provincialism, general elections created a moment of national consciousness. Standing alongside thousands of others, watching the latest polling results from all corners of the country being projected or scribbled onto boards in each of the cities, few people would have been oblivious to being part of an (imagined) New Zealand body politic or community. The phenomenon adds weight to historians’ claims that communications – road, rail and (in this instance) the telegraph – were instrumental in the production of national or nation space in colonial society.

© Extracted with permission from Chapter 5: "City crowds," in The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920, by Ben Schrader. Published by Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016