The Returning Officer.

In May 1874, an election petition was heard concerning the recent election at Launceston, Cornwall. In 1872, James Henry Deakin had bought the Werrington Park estate and was told by the gamekeepers that there were too many rabbits. The problem persisted and, when the election was called and Deakin stood as the Tory candidate, the first meeting was disrupted by a mob shouting “Rabbits, rabbits” and waving rabbit skins on poles. At a meeting the next night, Deakin announced: “ I give authority for you, every one of you, to kill every rabbit on my estate; kill them, ferret them, trap them, shoot them, send them to market.” His agent Mr Cowland announced confidently “that the little four-legged question has been got rid of”. Both speeches were reprinted in a local paper and many free copies distributed. Deakin won. Mr Justice Mellor considered that the offers made constituted an attempt to bribe the electorate and declared the result void. The rabbits had their revenge.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special