The spotlight was turned on to the 1884 Reform Protests in Ayrshire as unrest grew over the right to vote, a recent Largs Probus meeting heard.

For most of the 19th century the extension of the 'franchise' was a dominant political issue and the growing economic and social influence of the skilled middle classes led to agitations across Britain.

These agitations were the fascinating subject of Dr. Mark Nixon in a recent talk to Largs Probus Club as they eventually led to the 1832 ‘Great Reform Act’ which created fairer constituency boundaries and extended the franchise to middle-class men.

Though its scope was limited, its impact was significant in Scotland, increasing the electorate from 4,500 to 65,000, or approximately 2.8% of the total population. Before 1832 not a single person within Kilmarnock had a vote; now it was granted to 730 householders.

A further Act of 1867 widened the franchise by giving the vote to urban householders and lodgers who paid rent of at least £10 per year, thereby enfranchising much of the urban working class.

Incremental reforms to the electoral system followed, such as the implementation of the secret ballot in 1872. In 1884, William Gladstone’s Liberal government passed the Third Reform Act.

Largs and Millport Weekly News: William GladstoneWilliam Gladstone (Image: GOV UK)

The Bill was initially rejected by the House of Lords but passed a second time in October through a fear that failure to pass the Bill could lead to a revolution as some violence at Reform demonstrations and marches had occurred.

The Act extended the 1867 concessions from the urban areas to the countryside and all men paying an annual rental of £10 and all those holding land valued at £10 now had the vote. This significantly increased the electorate, from three million to nearly six million.

A Reform demonstration was held in Kilmarnock on September 13, 1884, where 8,000 tickets were sold to demonstrators and over 30,000 watched the trades of the town and its surrounding area parade with a variety of materials to identify themselves as workers and as radicals.

Led by Stonemasons, who would benefit from the change, the trades proudly displayed banners, marching materials, such as the products they produced carried on poles, and sold and distributed medals. Roads in the town were blocked and the parade took 53 minutes to pass any one point.

A contingent of around sixty Liberals from Largs attended the Kilmarnock event including Messrs. Alexander Malcolm, James Malcolm, Peter Morris, James Cassidy and John McLean who were “veterans of ‘32” (the 1832 Act).

The Largs and Millport Weekly News of September 20, 1884, recorded that “the day was as good as could be wished for, being bright, breezy, and fair and a pleasant outing was enjoyed by those who went either to “demonstrate” or merely sight-seeing”.

It advised that “The Largs Liberals had time to hear some of the speeches in the Agricultural Hall before they left the old town at 8pm. They arrived in Largs about 10pm, all apparently pleased with their day’s outing, and filled with enthusiasm in regard to the extension of the franchise.”

Largs and Millport Weekly News: Chanty DykeChanty Dyke (Image: Newsquest)

Dr Nixon circulated medals produced at the time for purchase by supporters of reform, then drilled for a pin or worn on ribbons.

By wearing such medals at political marches, radicals marked themselves out and the medals were treated like campaign medals for an army on the move, seeking to abolish the House of Lords for initially rejecting the Bill.

Despite this strong belief in democracy, the franchise was not extended in the 19th Century to all men, nor to women, although the radicals did intend to seek the vote for women once all men had secured the right to vote. Women in England, Wales and Scotland didn’t receive the vote on the same terms as men (over the age of 21) until the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1928.

Famous suffragette Emily Pankhurst visited Largs in 1911, for more on this story, visit here

Largs Probus Club will next meet in the Willowbank Hotel on February 28 at 10am for their AGM. For more details about the club, go here: