AskDefine | Define hustings

Dictionary Definition

hustings n : the activities involved in political campaigning (especially speech making)

User Contributed Dictionary



(Canada) /ˈhʌstɪŋz/


hustings (plural noun)
  1. a platform where candidates in an election give speeches
    • 1749: Henry Fielding, From This World to the Next
      I now mounted the hustings, and, without any regard to decency or modesty, made as emphatical a speech in favour of the king as before I had done against him.
  2. In the context of "by extension": an election campaign
    • Washington is awfully deserted now that every congressman is out on the hustings.

Usage notes

The plural hustings is used more often than the singular husting for the concrete sense of 'platform'. For the metaphorical sense of 'campaign', the plural is used almost exclusively.

Extensive Definition

A husting, or the hustings, was originally a physical platform from which representatives presented their views or cast votes before a parliamentary or other election body. By metonymy, the term may now refer to any event, such as debates or speeches, during an election campaign where one or more of the representative candidates are present.

Development of the term

The "platform" meaning is derived from the application of the word, first to the platform in the Guildhall on which the London court was held, and next to that from which the public nomination of candidates for a parliamentary election was formerly made, and from which the candidate addressed the electors. The Ballot Act of 1872 did away with this public declaration of the nomination.
On older usage, it meant (Old English: hasting; Old Norse: húsþing), the "thing" or "ting," i.e. assembly, of the household of personal followers or retainers of a king, earl or chief, contrasted with the "folkmoot," the assembly of the whole people.
"Thing" meant an inanimate object, the ordinary meaning at the present day, also a cause or suit, and an assembly; a similar development of meaning is found in the Latin res, as in the word 'republic' or res publica ('public thing'), meaning 'commonwealth'. The word still appears in the names of some of the legislative assemblies throughout Scandinavia, for example the Folketing of Denmark, the Althing of Iceland and the Storting of Norway.
"Husting," or more usually in the plural "hustings," was the name of a court of the city of London. This court was formerly the county court for the city and was held before the lord mayor, the sheriffs and aldermen, for pleas of land, common pleas and appeals from the sheriffs. It had probate jurisdiction and wills were registered. All this jurisdiction has long been obsolete, but the court still sits occasionally for registering gifts made to the city. Today, the Hustings Court tradition endures in the United States and in states like Virginia, where Hustings Courts decide local criminal and other matters In Richmond, Virginia there is also a park called Hustings Court Square adjacent to the city's Hustings Court, the place where people voted in the old days.
The charter of Canute (1032) contains a reference to "hustings" weights, which points to the early establishment of the court. It is doubtful whether courts of this name were held in other towns, but John Cowell (1554-1611) in his Interpreter (1601) s.v., "Hustings," says that according to Fleta there were such courts at Winchester, York, Lincoln, Sheppey and elsewhere, but the passage from Fleta, as the New English Dictionary points out, does not necessarily imply this (II. lv. Habet etiam Rex curiam in civitatibus ... et in locis ... sicut in Hustingis London, Winton, est.).

The Husting in eighteenth and early nineteenth century practice

The Husting was usually a platform or pavilion, which was a temporary structure erected at the place of election. The returning officer (in most borough constituencies the Mayor or equivalent civic dignitary and in county elections the High Sheriff of the county) was responsible for the detailed timing of the election and the provision of a suitable husting. County elections took place at a single place of election, which was usually the county town or a large town.
On the appointed day the returning officer attended at the husting with the prospective candidates (or the agent of a candidate who was not present in person). The candidates, with a proposer and a seconder for each addressed the assembled voters. This could sometimes be a difficult task in a large urban constituency, where unpopular speakers might be shouted down.
At the conclusion of the speeches, a show of hands was taken. This was an informal indication of the opinion of the voters and no official record was kept of how many voted for a particular candidate. Sometimes a candidate who found he had little support or otherwise did not want to continue declined to call for a poll. Stooks Smith gives a remarkable example from the 1784 election for the four seats of the City of London. William Pitt the Younger was proposed and "was returned on the show of hands, but retired before the poll".
If there were no more candidates, nominated and willing to go to the poll, than seats to be filled they were declared elected. This was considered to be an unopposed return. However if there remained more candidates than vacancies the polling commenced.
Votes were cast openly on the husting, with the elector orally declaring for whom he was casting a ballot. The vote was recorded in a poll book, with the name of the voter (which enabled further enquiries to be made about his eligibility to vote, if a scrutiny was called for at the end of the polling.)
Polling could continue for many days, so long as there were voters wanting to participate and the candidates desired to continue. A maximum limit of fifteen days was imposed by law in the eighteenth century.
A tactic sometimes used was to nominate additional candidates as the polling continued, since this gave an opportunity for more speeches.
At the end of the polling the returning officer was required to declare the result from the hustings and return the members elected. This could also be a problem after a hotly contested election as rioting was not unheard of. The 1722 election in Westminster was declared void on account of rioting.
Stooks Smith quotes a contemporary decription of the 1802 election in the rotten borough of Old Sarum. This demonstrates how the hustings operated in one of the least competitive constituencies.
This election for the borough of Old Sarum was held in a temporary booth erected in a cornfield, under a tree which marked the former boundary of the old town, not a vestige of which has been standing in the memory of man, the several burgages which give the right of voting, being now without a dwelling for a human being. Mr Dean, the bailiff of the borough having read the precept for the election, and caused proclamation thereof, read the bribery act, and gone through all the legal ceremonies, the Rev. Dr Skinner rose and nominated Nicholas Vansittart, and Henry Alexander, Esq. from a thorough conviction that their public conduct would be such as would give satisfaction and do honour to their constituents. The other electors acquiescing in this nomination and no other candidates offering, the proclamation was thrice made for any gentleman disposed to do so, to come forward, the bailiff declared the above two gentlemen to be duly elected.

Modern usage

The literal husting of pre-1872 Parliamentary elections is no longer used, but the term is now applied to a meeting at which more than one candidate participates. This may involve a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.


  • Electoral Reform in England and Wales, by Charles Seymour (David & Charles Reprints 1970)
  • The Parliaments of England by Henry Stooks Smith (1st edition published in three volumes 1844-50), second edition edited (in one volume) by F.W.S. Craig (Political Reference Publications 1973)
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