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Who was this forgotten man, Henry Samuel Chapman?

H.S. Chapman was a British barrister who devised the system of a ‘secure’ vote – numbered books of government ballot papers listing all candidates. Electoral officials were required to list each voter’s electoral roll number on both paper and stub, before handing it to him to cast his vote in a private booth. They were only put together again in an election challenge. 

According to Henry Chapman’s descendant, the New Zealand senior lecturer in law, Henry Spiller, his ancestor was a true son of that great age of British enterprise, and advancing democracy, the nineteenth century. He wrote: “Born the son of an English civil servant, at 15 years old he was obliged by the straitened circumstances of his family to become a clerk in a bank. In 1823 his employer sent him to Quebec where he established his own merchant business. Later, in Montreal, he founded the first daily newspaper in British North America in support of the French radical cause.

“On returning to England in 1835, he wrote extensively in local journals in support of the philosophical radical movement , inspired by the brilliant legal and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham who argued for a universal right to vote  and for education to extend the ability of all to be capable of exercising that right intelligently.

 After entering the Middle Temple in 1837 he was called to the British bar in 1840. Although moderately successful, his late start and lack of capital meant he could not support his growing family. An interest in New Zealand (he edited the New Zealand Journal from 1840-3) led to appointment as a judge in Wellington, where he helped to frame the Rules of Court. He moved on to the better-paid post of Colonial Secretary of Tasmania in 1852. Suspended from office after six months because he would    not oppose the anti-transportation movement, he departed to practice at the Victorian bar in 1854. 

 As Henry Chapman later recalled he ‘had not a day, scarcely an hour to wait for practice. A steady stream of briefs came in. His opinion was sought on all sides.’” Chapman’s immediate success was enhanced when, in February 1855, he gained the acquittal in the trial by jury of the American black, Joseph, the first of thirteen men charged with high treason over the notorious Eureka Stockade affair. 

In December, 1955 Chapman, now a member of the Legislative Council, was plunged into a new crisis when the pressure of Chartist migrants and the Melbourne Argus led to the Legislative Council approving, by 33 votes to 25, that the election of the first Victorian Parliament be held by secret ballot. But its leader, Nicholson, had not the faintest idea of how it would work. As historian Professor Ernest Scott recorded: “One is struck by the extreme crudity of the ideas of both the supporters and the opponents of the ballot at the time (Historical Magazine November.8 No.1 1920).” 

After several months of stalemate in the Legislative Council debate, Professor Scott related how Chapman resolved the crisis by inventing his ‘secure vote system’. “When William Nicholson first proposed his ballot motion, he had but the crudest conception as to how to give effect to what he desired…He had not thought out the matter nor, there is reason to believe, was he capable of doing so. It was, therefore, fortunate that a well-trained lawyer came to the rescue in the person of Henry Samuel Chapman. He is the real author of the Australian ballot – not, indeed, the man who had commenced the agitation for it, nor the man who had carried a motion in favour of it in the Legislature, but the man who took the crude idea and worked out a scheme in the form of practicable clauses.” The Parliament opened triumphantly in September 1856.

"That the electoral system is open to manipulation is beyond question
 ... Fraudulent enrolment is almost impossible to prevent."

(NSW Electoral Commissioners, Messrs R. Cundy and Ian Dickson, NSW Government Inquiry 1989)

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