Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the mayor, aldermen and commonalty to 1708; in the freemen not receiving alms and inhabitants paying scot and lot from 17081
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
1,340 in 16982
|20 Feb. 1690||Sir William Rich, Bt.||702|
|Sir Henry Fane||714|
|22 Oct. 1695||Sir William Rich, Bt.|
|Sir Henry Fane|
|25 July 1698||Sir Owen Buckingham|
|Sir Thomas Stamp|
|4 Jan. 1701||Sir Owen Buckingham|
|22 Nov. 1701||Anthony Blagrave|
|Sir Owen Buckingham|
|21 July 1702||Sir Owen Buckingham|
|8 May 1705||Sir Owen Buckingham|
|26 Nov. 1705||Sir William Rich, Bt. vice Vachell, deceased|
|4 May 1708||Owen Buckingham|
|Sir William Rich, Bt.|
|4 Oct. 1710||Owen Buckingham|
|26 Aug. 1713||Felix Calvert|
The right to vote in parliamentary elections at Reading had been settled by a decision of the Commons on 25 Mar. 1659 which invested the franchise in the mayor, aldermen and ‘commonalty’ of the borough, rather than in the freemen alone. In practice this ruling probably gave the vote to all male householders, making Reading one of the most open boroughs in the country with well over a thousand voters. Many of these men must have been employed in the declining textile industry: petitions to the Commons on the plight of the local woollen industry in particular were a regular feature of the years 1695 to 1701. The corporation, consisting of a mayor, 12 aldermen and 12 assistants, appears to have been aware of the problems caused by this industrial depression, no doubt because of the effect on the poor rate. On at least three occasions in the mid-1690s schemes to put the poor to work were discussed, often in tandem with the existing charities administered by the corporation. In such a chilly economic climate candidates able to suggest ways of ameliorating the lot of the poor, and reducing the poor rate, were assured of a receptive audience in the corporation and the electorate at large. A further prerequisite for candidates at Reading was the money to entertain the electorate, an expense which appears to have favoured neighbouring gentry, or metropolitan merchants with local connexions, over townsmen.4
The large electorate, plus a considerable Nonconformist presence (estimated at 1,400 even in 1715–29, including 174 voters), suggests that the candidature in 1690 of John Wildman†, in partnership with Nathan Knight†, represented a calculated attempt to promote radical Whiggery in one of the most fertile constituencies available. In going down to defeat against two more moderate Whigs, Sir Henry Fane and Sir William Rich, 2nd Bt., Wildman and Knight still polled over 500 votes apiece. A letter to Wildman from his supporters (who included the mayor in 1688, Hugh Champion, and Charles Caverley, Champion’s successor when the charter was restored), attributed defeat ‘to the providence of God’ and asked for the repayment of £38 in election expenses, noting that Wildman’s opponents had spent double that amount. Although Sir Charles Hedges* was suggested as a candidate in 1695, he declined to stand, leaving Fane and Rich to face only a single candidate, Thomas Petit of Oxted, Surrey, recorder of Reading 1687–8, and a barrister on the Oxford circuit. Petit petitioned the Commons on 7 Dec. against their return, but to no avail.5
By 1698 circumstances in Reading had changed completely. Neither Fane nor Rich contested the election which saw the town’s Tory recorder, John Dalby, returned with Sir Owen Buckingham, a Whig merchant and former lord mayor of London. The defeated candidate, the Whig draper Sir Thomas Stamp, was another Londoner who had also served as lord mayor. Although the election of a Tory demonstrates some political shift within the town, the choice of the two Whig candidates probably reflected the crisis afflicting the local textile trade. Writing in 1708, Buckingham attributed his election ten years previously to his ‘undertaking the poor at Reading’. Presumably this referred to his choice of Reading as the centre of his enterprise to manufacture sailcloth for the navy. In combining continental techniques with local labour to exploit a gap in the market created by the effects of import duties on his overseas competitors, Buckingham demonstrated not only an acute business sense, but a grasp of the political capital to be made in Reading from employing the poor. It is possible that Stamp had been willing to offer the borough a similar deal, for when he petitioned the Commons on 12 Dec. 1698 his target was Dalby rather than Buckingham. Before Stamp’s petition could be considered it was ruled out of order on the grounds that, when it had been reintroduced on 24 Nov. 1699, at the beginning of the second session of the Parliament, the substance of Stamp’s case had been changed. From the Journals it would seem that his second petition laid more stress on the failure of the mayor to allow a proper scrutiny of the voters. This was the first inkling that under the pressure of contested elections attempts would be made to reinterpret the franchise for partisan advantage.6
Buckingham was again returned at the election of January 1701, in company with Francis Knollys, a Tory. On 14 Feb. Knollys’ return was challenged by a petition from Tanfield Vachell, his Whig opponent. The grounds for Vachell’s petition were twofold: first, the town clerk, Henry Deane, was accused of procuring votes illegally for Knollys, and secondly it was alleged that persons in receipt of alms had been polled. On 22 Feb. Vachell’s claims were backed up by a second petition, this time from voters in Reading who felt that their rights had been undermined by the decision to poll those in receipt of alms or charity. No decision was taken on the franchise, as the Parliament was dissolved after only one session. The election of November 1701 saw Buckingham lose his seat when Vachell and Anthony Blagrave, a Tory, were elected. Both Members were resident in St. Mary’s parish in Reading, whereas Buckingham must have been perceived as a metropolitan figure. The rotation of Tory candidates, which was to recur again in 1708–10, possibly suggests a desire to spread the costs of electioneering while concentrating on one agreed candidate. Buckingham and Vachell were returned unopposed at two consecutive elections in 1702 and 1705, but Vachell’s death before the new Parliament met necessitated a by-election. Defoe was confident ‘a good Member’ would be chosen, while Hearne reported that Buckingham was making interest for his own son, also Owen. In the event the corporation took a hand, declaring on 22 Oct. 1705 that, having been approached by Sir William Rich, they regarded him as being ‘a fit person to serve them’ in Parliament. They followed this statement with an order making it standard procedure to meet before each election to ‘determine and resolve amongst themselves who shall be deemed fit representatives for that purpose’, although there is no evidence from the council diary of any further endorsement of candidates. Rich was returned unopposed.7
Latent concern over the extent of the franchise came to a head in 1708. Buckingham stood down in favour of his son, although the previous March he had written to Lord Coningsby (Thomas*) bewailing his inability to maintain at full capacity his sailcloth factory which, he claimed, employed 200 men and hundreds of women and children, unless the next naval contract restored his share of the trade. The result would be increased unemployment, a humiliating failure to provide for the poor and the loss of his electoral interest. The fate of Buckingham’s appeal to the government for a timely order is unknown, but his son successfully stepped into his father’s parliamentary place. However, Rich lost his seat to Blagrave and on 23 Nov. 1708 petitioned, claiming that his opponent had used bribery and threats and had polled unqualified voters. Rich received support from a petition of Reading electors also claiming that people who had never paid scot and lot, and others receiving alms, had been allowed to vote to the detriment of those entitled to the franchise. On 2 Dec. the Commons confirmed the essence of the Whig position when they voted that the right of election lay ‘in the freemen and inhabitants, such freemen not receiving alms, and such inhabitants paying scot and lot’. As Luttrell noted, this decision favoured Rich. The Commons then turned to the task of examining the qualifications of individual voters. On 9 Dec. the Whigs triumphed in another division when the House refused to admit the town’s books as evidence of the right to vote. However, when the Commons had finished examining witnesses on 11 Dec., Blagrave was declared duly elected, ‘contrary to all expectations’, by 129 votes to 82.8
The three sessions following the 1708 election saw Reading corporation oppose a succession of bills aimed at making the Kennet navigable to Newbury. The unity engendered by such a campaign may explain why the two parties decided to share the representation in 1710, rather than suffer the ferocious contests which were taking place elsewhere. Party politicians were nevertheless keenly aware of opportunities to influence the Reading electorate. Thus in the summer of 1711 Lord Keeper Harcourt (Simon I*) considered filling the vacant living of St. Mary’s, Reading, worth £300 p.a. and in his gift, with a committed Tory like Francis Gastrell (later bishop of Chester), on the grounds that such an appointee ‘may gain an interest in that place, which may have a considerable influence in that county’. At the 1713 election the Tories captured both seats for the first time, after fielding two new candidates, Felix Calvert and Robert Clarges. Calvert topped the poll, aided no doubt by the provision of two enormous feasts in the run-up to the election. The defeated Whig candidate, Buckingham, chose to direct his fire at Clarges, noting in his petition on 3 Mar. 1714 that his opponent had been under age at the time of election, adding as a subsidiary point that several unqualified voters had been polled. Buckingham’s chances of persuading a Tory-dominated Commons were extremely slim and on 26 Apr. he withdrew his petition. After a disputed election in 1715, the Commons further narrowed the franchise in 1716 to exclude non-resident freemen. Thereafter, only about 600 voters went to the polls in Reading.9
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. CJ, vii. 620; xvi. 26.
- 2. CJ, xiii. 5.
- 3. Berks. RO, pollbk.
- 4. E. A. Smith, ‘Reading 1603–1754’, in Parliament Through Seven Cents. 60; Berks. RO, Reading corp. diary, 23 Aug. 1693, 5 June 1695, 1 Feb., 13 May 1698.
- 5. Add. 70014, ff. 291–2; 24107, f. 52; J. Doran, Hist. Reading, 61; HMC 11th Rep. pt. vii. 201; Masters of Bench, I. Temple, 53.
- 6. J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London (London and Mdx. Arch. Soc.), 155; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, pp. 14–15; Textile Hist. and Economic Hist. ed. Harte and Ponting, 77–81.
- 7. J. Man, Hist. Reading, 309; HMC Portland, iv. 269–70; Hearne Colls. i. 58; Reading corp. diary, 22 Oct. 1705.
- 8. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, pp. 14–15; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 379; HMC Downshire, i. 865–6; HMC Portland, iv. 514.
- 9. HMC Portland, vii. 33, 35; v. 11–12; Hearne Colls. iv. 313.