In the days when scorping and burking were well known political tactics, cowhouses were once used to milk votes in Northallerton.

An article in the Darlington & Stockton Times of 100 years ago sheds light on these fabulously dodgy practices which went on during elections in the early 19th Century, and today there is an “extremely unusual” brick out-house standing in the middle of a lawn in the village of Brompton – once known as “Scorptown” – which might be a survivor from the dubious days before Rishi Sunak or William Hague occupied the seat.

The D&S Times of April 1924 told how the last of the Battie-Wrightson family’s land in the Northallerton area was to be auctioned at the Golden Lion Hotel. It included 11 lots of 1.5 acres to 7.5 acres, each with a cowhouse.

“How comes it that there are so many small lots and a cow house on each?” asked the D&S. “The answer is to make votes.”

The article goes back to the days of 1832 when the Great Reform Act swept away the old electoral corruption. Northallerton had been a “pocket borough” as all the voters were in the pocket of the local Lascelles or Peirse landowning families who effectively chose the MP.

The 1832 Act ended such rottenness and gave the vote to any man occupying a house or land worth £10.

Darlington and Stockton Times: St Thomas' church, Brompton, in December 1949St Thomas's Church in "Scorptown", or Brompton, near Northallerton, in December 1949. Here they celebrated the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act by roasting an ox

Brompton, to the north of Northallerton, had a thriving linen industry where the workers backed radical politics. On the day the Reform Act came into law, June 24, 1832, a fat ox was roasted on the village green and six cannon were acquired from somewhere, arranged in a half moon shape, and set off. They “roared out to the sky the common joy for the extended franchise”, said the D&S, and then 1,000 people marched into Northallerton carrying “an enormous large broom symbolising the sweeping clean of the borough from corrupt influences”.

At the head of the march was Captain John George Boss, of Otterington Hall, who had made his name in the Caribbean capturing American and Spanish privateers. He had accepted the radicals’ request to be their candidate in the election.

But then William Battie-Wrightson rode into town. He was the MP for Hull who was married to the grand-daughter of Henry Peirse of Bedale. He was determined to claim Northallerton for the Liberals.

“He bought a great deal of land – over 1,500 acres – and divided it into small lots,” said the D&S. “He built a cowhouse on each, as was required by law to get a vote, and let them out at £10 or over. That’s why there are so many cow houses in this part of the country.”

The cowhouse made the plot of land worth £10-a-year, and Mr Battie-Wrightson obviously hoped that all of the people he was allowing to occupy the plot would be so grateful they would vote for him.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Marna and John Pacey's outhouse - perhaps a vote-winning cowhouse - in Brompton, near NorthallertonMarna and John Pacey's outhouse - perhaps a vote-winning cowhouse - in Brompton, near Northallerton

Marna and John Pacey live in Brompton in an early 19th Century house that was originally two cottages – humble abodes presumably for linenworkers.

Behind, in their lovely lawn, is an elderly, brick out-building. “It is standing there in the middle of the garden, which is extremely unusual,” says John. “We just assumed that it was, as we were told by our predecessor, a shed in which until fairly recently someone had kept a cart to which they hitched their horse every day to deliver vegetables or coal.”

But could it really be one of the curious cowhouses with which Mr Battie-Wrightson hoped to cream off some votes?

Darlington and Stockton Times: Marna and John Pacey's outhouse - perhaps a vote-winning cowhouse - in Brompton, near NorthallertonA curious cowhouse in Brompton

The election was on December 10, 1832, so there was “six months of excitement, with each side using its utmost exertion, persuasion, eloquence and intimidation”, said the D&S in 1924, something we in 2024 are also enjoying.

On the one hand, there was the radical captain cheered on by the Scorptown linen workers, and on the other was Mr Battie-Wrightson, who was backed by all those who had suddenly come into possession of a cowhouse.

But it all turned sour for the cowhouse vote. Capt Boss was victorious by 108 votes to 97, and he was chaired round the constituency carrying “a huge gold gilt key, a symbol of opening up of the borough to the free and independent voters, free from corruption and bribery”.

However, two months before polling day, the captain’s wife, Charlotte, had died in Otterington Hall, and his heart seems not to have been in radical politics. He retired at the 1835 election, leaving the way clear for Mr Battie-Wrightson to be MP for the next 30 years.

Not that the radicals of Brompton were happy about this, and vented their displeasure whenever Mr Battie-Wrightson’s agent, Mr T Fowle, entered their village seeking support.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Water End, Brompton, December 1935.Water End, Brompton, December 1935, with some waterfowl whose eggs could have been used to throw at politicians

“At Brompton Water End, they have a lot of ducks to this day, and the radical zealots used to save up their rotten eggs for political expression of opinion,” said the D&S in 1924. “When it was known that political enemy chiefs were in their midst, the enemy came out with their rotten eggs and plastered Mr Fowle’s hat and coat and so he beat a hasty retreat. Brompton has a nickname ‘Scorptown’, ‘scorp’ is Yorkshire for ‘head’, ‘to scorp a man’ is to hit him over the head, and our rude forefathers sometimes did not hesitate about that in heated political debate.”

But Mr Battie-Wrightson’s team had a tactic to counter the scorping. It was called “burking” – an 1820s word meaning “to stifle or quietly but effectively suppress”. It apparently derives from the actions of graverobber William Burke who, with accomplice William Hare, in 1828 was found guilty of quietly suffocating victims and removing their bodies which they sold for anatomical dissection.

Not that Mr Battie-Wrightson murdered anyone. In the political sense, “burking” meant to get an opposition voter helplessly drunk and then drive his body out of town in a carriage so that by the time he had sobered up, he had missed the poll.

The 1924 D&S article said: “The writer knew a man who was thus taken right up Arkengarthdale on the day of the Northallerton election and brought back after the voting was concluded.”

So Mr Battie-Wrightson rose, like the cream, to the top of the poll through a little burking and by milking the cowhouse vote. Might there be any other curious cowhouses still standing in the Northallerton area? Please email

Darlington and Stockton Times: Cobden Street, Darlington, on the Freeholders' Estate, where every house was just big enough to qualify a man for a vote. Picture: Google StreetViewCobden Street, Darlington, on the Freeholders' Estate, where every house was just big enough to qualify a man for a vote. Picture: Google StreetView

WILLIAM BATTIE-WRIGHTSON was not the only person to indulge in politically-motivated property speculation.

In Darlington, off Yarm Road there is the “Freeholders’ Home Estate” which is made up of terraced properties in streets named after prominent Liberal supporters: national politicians John Bright and Richard Cobden have streets in their honour as do local Liberals like John Harris and the Pease family.

Railway engineer John Harris was the brains behind this estate. In 1851, he bought £4,000-worth of cheap land off Yarm Road which he divided up into 144 plots with narrow roads running among them.

He set up the Darlington and South Durham Freehold Land Society, which was registered as a building society. If a working man were to save 1s 6d-a-week with the society, in five years he would have just enough to buy a plot of land on which he could build a house that was just big enough to qualify him for a vote.

Then he’d be so happy that he’d dash out to the polling station and put his cross beside the name of the Liberal candidate.