North Devon in 100 Objects 15

15. The Barnstaple Balloting Pots

These two pots were once used to elect the Mayor and Aldermen of Barnstaple Borough.

Although they look ceramic, they are actually made of wood (see the woodworm holes!) and were first recorded in use in 1556. Elizabethan Barnstaple was a prosperous and fast-growing town and borough with a thriving port and textile industry. The earliest genuine surviving borough charter dates from 1557, when the borough was incorporated by Queen Mary. The Queen’s Charter placed Barnstaple’s government in the hands of a Mayor and a Council of twenty-four capital burgesses (leading citizens) of whom two were ‘Aldermen’.

Elections of Mayor and Aldermen were by ballot and were held in the Guild Hall.         Repeated annually from 1556 to 1835, the election was a cumbersome process involving the ballot pots and small wooden balls.  The word ballot comes from an Italian word pallotta, meaning ‘little ball’. Once the majority of councillors had agreed on two potential candidates, they approached the pots in turn with a ball concealed in one of their hands. Placing their hands inside the pots they would then drop the ball into the pot that represented their choice of candidate. In this way a secret ballot was assured.

The balloting pots were originally part of the collection at St Anne’s Chapel Museum, which served as the borough museum from 1923 to 1988.

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