Weymouth and Melcombe Regis
Available from Boydell and Brewer
The two boroughs were united by Act of Parliament in 1571 and returned four Members
Right of Election:
in the freeholders
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
at least 150 in 1705; at least 481 in 1713
|20 Feb. 1690||Sir John Morton, Bt.|
|22 May 1691||Thomas Freke vice Gould, deceased|
|31 Oct. 1695||Hon. Maurice Ashley|
|2 Mar. 1698||Philip Taylor vice Knight, expelled the House|
|8 Aug. 1698||Philip Taylor|
|George St. Loe|
|3 Jan. 1701||Hon. Henry Thynne|
|Hon. Maurice Ashley|
|George St. Loe|
|26 Nov. 1701||Charles Churchill|
|George St. Loe|
|Hon. Maurice Ashley|
|Sir Christopher Wren|
|5 Feb. 1702||Anthony Henley vice Ashley, chose to sit for Wiltshire|
|31 July 1702||Hon. Henry Thynne|
|George St. Loe|
|12 May 1705||Charles Churchill||134|
|Hon. Maurice Ashley||131|
|Hon. Henry Thynne||124|
|George St. Loe||80|
|12 May 1708||Hon. Henry Thynne|
|Hon. Maurice Ashley|
|24 Jan. 1709||Edward Clavell vice Thynne, deceased|
|9 Oct. 1710||Anthony Henley||216|
|Hon. Maurice Ashley||189|
|Betts’s and Littleton’s elections declared void, 17 Mar. 1711|
|18 Apr. 1711||William Betts||192|
|Sir Thomas Hardy||168|
|HARDY and HARVEY vice Betts and Littleton, on petition, 22 May 1711|
|21 Dec. 1711||Reginald Marriott vice Henley, deceased|
|5 Sept. 1713||James Littleton||340|
|Sir Thomas Hardy||147|
|HARDY, WILLIAM HARVEY and MARRIOTT vice Daniel Harvey, Betts and Baker, on petition, 3 June 1714|
The right of election at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis lay with the freeholders. Since the boroughs had been united, thereby returning four Members, each elector had four votes. The size of the electorate increased rapidly towards the end of Anne’s reign, as party rivalry gave rise to the widespread practice of splitting freeholds. The nature of the franchise militated against the existence of any controlling interest. Nevertheless, the earls of Shaftesbury possessed a traditional connexion with the constituency; and the administration of the day could also make its influence felt through the local customs service.
Three of the candidates in 1690 had represented Weymouth before the Revolution. Sir John Morton, 2nd Bt., Michael Harvey and Henry Henning had first been returned with the support of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper†). All were Dorset country gentlemen and Whigs. Shortly before the election a proposal was made by Morton and Philip Taylor to the 2nd Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley†) that his eldest son, Lord Ashley (Anthony*), should stand. Lord Ashley declined on the grounds that he was not yet ready for a parliamentary career. The fourth seat therefore went to Nicholas Gould, a London merchant and Court supporter, who owned a small estate in Dorset. There was no contest in 1690, and on Gould’s death the following year his place was taken, without opposition, by Thomas Freke II, of Hannington, Wiltshire, a Whig. Freke, a kinsman of Thomas Freke I, the county Member, had an interest of his own at Weymouth, but was also on close terms with Lord Ashley. Freke and Harvey retained their seats in 1695. Morton stood down to make way for Shaftesbury’s younger son, Maurice; and Henning retired because of ill health, leaving the fourth seat to be taken by John Knight, receiver of the customs, who was returned on the government interest. Knight was expelled in 1697, however, for his involvement in the false endorsement of Exchequer bills. The Shaftesbury interest was represented at the ensuing by-election by Taylor, who took the seat without a contest. At the general election of 1698 George St. Loe, resident commissioner of the navy at Plymouth, became the first Tory to attempt the seat in King William’s reign. He enjoyed the support of the 1st Viscount Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†), who had acquired an electoral interest through his son’s marriage to the daughter and heiress of Sir George Strode† of Leweston, Dorset. Of the Whigs, Taylor, Harvey and Freke all stood for re-election, but Ashley retired and was replaced by Arthur Shallett, a London merchant and government contractor. Taylor, Freke and Harvey joined their interests on the understanding that if St. Loe looked like winning Taylor would stand down and give his votes to Freke. In the event, this proved unnecessary and St. Loe was defeated.1
The Shaftesbury interest was boosted by the succession of Lord Ashley as 3rd Earl in 1699. Shaftesbury, a far more active politician than his father, gave his attention to developments at Weymouth well in advance of the next election. On 10 Sept. 1700 he wrote to Thomas Freke I:
I have heard from Weymouth that my brother [Maurice Ashley] may have a secure interest there, but I am tender of crowding in lest Mr Thomas Freke [II]’s interest should be any ways disturbed, his interest being of more moment to support there than my brother’s, and I should be sorry if he thought the least of declining and hope you will encourage him to the contrary if he has any such thought.
Freke promised his support for Ashley, and on 19 Dec. 1700 informed Shaftesbury that he had been asked to aid the candidacy of Lord Weymouth’s son, Henry Thynne: ‘I told Mr Thynne . . . that I was under an obligation to your lordship if it lay in my power to serve Mr Ashley and likewise to do nothing that might prejudice my good friend Mr [Michael] Harvey or my cousin Freke’s pretensions.’ Thynne later proposed that he might join his interest with that of Ashley; but this proposal for Whig–Tory co-operation was not taken up. On 19 Dec. 1700 Thomas Freke II informed Shaftesbury that neither he nor Taylor intended to stand. Both wished Ashley to fill one of the vacancies, but were undecided about the fourth place. Three more Whig candidates emerged, all former Members: Harvey, Shallett and Knight. There were three Tory candidates: Thynne, St. Loe and Charles Churchill, brother of the Earl of Marlborough (John Churchill†). Sir Christopher Wren, another Tory, also thought about standing, but desisted in favour of Thynne. The poll, which returned two Whigs (Ashley and Harvey) and two Tories (Thynne and Churchill), represented a considerable success for the Tories. During the following summer Lord Weymouth secured a royal grant of money for the borough, thereby increasing his influence. But the continuing vitality of the Shaftesbury interest, at least in the corporation, was indicated in October, when Ashley presented the borough’s address denouncing the French King’s recognition of the Pretender and calling for war with France.2
The second 1701 election was uncontested, but nevertheless marked a continuing decline in Whig fortunes. Ashley survived but Harvey stood down, and the Whigs gained no advantage from the transfer of Thynne to Tamworth because three other Tories, Churchill, St. Loe, and Wren, were returned. Ashley himself gave up Weymouth in favour of Wiltshire, and the ensuing by-election was contested between Anthony Henley, a Hampshire Whig, and Harvey, the former Member. Henley wrote to request Shaftesbury’s support on 13 Dec. 1701, informing him that ‘if the town of Weymouth is not already engaged (which I believe a great part of it will not be), I design to try my fortune’. Shaftesbury, who disapproved of Harvey’s recent parliamentary opposition to preparations for war, agreed to support Henley, who was successful. Harvey petitioned on 24 Feb. 1702, alleging bribery and ‘entertainments’, but no report on his case was made to the House.3
For the first election of Anne’s reign the Whigs initially intended putting up Henley, Thomas Freke II and Shaftesbury’s brother-in-law, Edward Hooper. It was nevertheless felt by Freke that Hooper’s canvass had merely aided the Tory campaign. He warned Shaftesbury on 12 July 1702 that ‘Mr Hooper’s going down [to Weymouth] hath greatly advanced Mr Thynne’s and St. Loe’s interest’. Hooper eventually withdrew, but it is not known whether Freke stood a poll. If he did, he was unsuccessful, since Henley was the solitary Whig returned. The other three seats went to Tories: Thynne, Churchill and St. Loe. At the 1705 election the seats were divided equally between the parties. Henley held on and Ashley regained a seat. Churchill and Thynne were re-elected, but St. Loe came fifth in the poll.4
By 1708 Ashley had quarrelled with his brother and was accused by the Earl’s friend, Sir John Cropley, 2nd Bt.*, of opposing Shaftesbury’s interests at Court. Consequently, it was with some relief that Cropley wrote to Shaftesbury in the spring that ‘I believe for certain, Mr Ashley does not stand at Weymouth’. If the Earl could not find some ‘relation or neighbour’ to stand for Weymouth, then Cropley suggested choosing some ‘insignificant person that you could safely remove hereafter if you desired it’. Cropley declared strongly against Shaftesbury endorsing ‘any mercenary custom house fellow that may be able by Grub Hall to be supported and soon defy you’. Ashley, however, changed his mind about standing, and Shaftesbury, laying aside his anger, helped his brother’s cause by making a gift of £200 to the corporation. Cropley reported in April, albeit incorrectly, that ‘there will be no bustle at Weymouth’. In fact, Edward Clavell, a Whig landowner, stood a poll. No voting figures are known, but Shaftesbury reported that Clavell had tied with Churchill in fourth place, the other seats being taken by the outgoing Members. After a scrutiny the mayor declared in favour of Churchill. Cropley gave the following account of events to James Stanhope* on 18 July 1708:
My Lord Shaftesbury saved the Duke of Marlborough’s brother [Churchill] in Weymouth. He consented Mr Ashley, who had 40 votes to spare, should give 10 to the general to come in. The Whigs were against my lord’s saving him, but he thought rejecting him must in reality appear a very great slight on the part of the town to my lord duke himself.
Clavell did not remain disappointed for long, for he was returned at a by-election the following year caused by Thynne’s death.5
By the 1710 election Churchill had retired from public life and Clavell, possibly deterred by the prospect of another contest, also stood down. Shaftesbury, dogged by ill-health, had retired from politics, but his brother nevertheless decided to stand for re-election. Ashley joined his interest on this occasion with that of the other three Whig candidates, Henley, William Betts and James Littleton. Betts was a London merchant, who had connexions with George Dodington* (uncle of George Bubb Dodington†, whose influence at Weymouth became important after 1715). James Littleton, a naval officer, was a kinsman of the lately deceased former Speaker and navy treasurer, Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt.* Their defeated opponents were John Ward IV*, a wealthy business man, and Richard Hallett. Ward and Hallett petitioned on 1 Dec. against the return of Littleton and Betts, alleging corruption and partiality on the part of the mayor. Witnesses testified that Betts had distributed food and money to the voters. Littleton was accused of giving £200 to the corporation, £10 to the poor and smaller bribes to individual voters. It was further alleged that he had arranged for Admirals Matthew Aylmer* and Sir John Jennings* to bring eight men-of-war into the harbour for ten days, entertaining the corporation on board and providing ‘a fine sight’ which attracted visitors to the town and boosted trade. The mayor was accused of soliciting votes for the outgoing Members and of unreasonably disqualifying voters for the petitioners. Counsel for Littleton and Betts claimed the fleet had been driven in by contrary winds and that Ward’s agents had distributed beer to the voters and had bought nine freeholds, intending to return them after the election. The committee resolved, and the House agreed on 17 Mar. 1711, that the election of Littleton and Betts was void. The mayor, Edward Tizard, was ordered into the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. Even before the decision had been reached, canvassing started for the anticipated by-election. William Harvey I, a kinsman of Michael Harvey, but unlike him a Tory, had been invited to stand by St. Loe, in partnership with Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, with the support of Lord Weymouth. The local Whigs, now led by Philip Taylor and Edward Tucker†, another local merchant and member of the corporation, were expected to put up the recorder, Denis Bond*, who, according to Lord Weymouth’s electoral agent, Richard Bury, ‘swore the late mayor, though unduly elected, by the advice of Mr Henley and to advance his own interest’. Bury urged Weymouth to challenge the legality of the mayor’s election in the courts and to try to secure a new charter. By these means he hoped the Tories would ‘have a majority in this corporation and choose honest gentlemen, otherwise we must submit and they will tyrannize over us’. Any hopes of effecting changes in the corporation before the next election could not be realized. The bailiffs refused to execute the writ in the absence of the mayor, who was released from custody on 2 Apr. and presided over the election on the 18th. In the event the Whigs did not put up Bond, but ran Littleton and Betts again, who, with the help of the mayor, were returned. One Tory newspaper, however, printed an inaccurate version of the poll, showing Hardy and Harvey with a large majority. Their petition, alleging bribery and partiality on the part of the mayor, was heard at the bar of the House, and on 22 May Harvey and Hardy were declared duly elected. The mayor was once more ordered into custody. Party feeling continued to run very high: Lord Weymouth was informed by one of his agents that ‘Mr Taylor and Tucker with the rest of their party continue to affront and oppose any which they think will be benefactors to the town and lovers of the Church of England’. On Henley’s death in August 1711 Ward and William Harvey recommended to Lord Weymouth one Reginald Marriott, a London auditor, as a suitable candidate. The Whigs proved unable to decide between the relative merits of Betts, Littleton and Bond. No Whig candidate emerged and Marriott was returned unopposed.6
By the election of 1713 the size of the electorate had more than doubled to over 480 voters because of the splitting of freeholds. The Whigs had been rather more successful than the Tories in increasing their share of the vote. Each of the Whig candidates polled over 300 votes, Littleton and Betts coming first and second in the poll. The other Whig candidates, who came third and fourth, were Admiral John Baker and General Daniel Harvey. The Tories put up Hardy, Ward, Marriott and William Harvey (a kinsman of his Whig opponent, Daniel). A petition was presented by them on 3 Mar. 1714, from which Ward subsequently withdrew. Counsel for the remaining petitioners thereupon accepted that Littleton had been duly elected, while maintaining that 59 votes rejected by the mayor should be added to the petitioners’ poll and 168 deducted from that of the sitting Members. One witness alleged that
the first splitting of votes for this borough, which began to be very notorious, was in October 1710. In 1711 they went further, and in the last election, they went so far as, he thinks, they could go. That he believes the new votes on all sides are of the same nature; there are upon the poll 58 new voters for the petitioner and 186 for the sitting Members.
After hearing further evidence about the transfer and splitting of freeholds, the committee resolved first that no freeholders made since the election of April 1711 had any right to vote in this last election and, second, that ‘all conveyances to split and divide the interest in any houses or lands in this borough amongst several persons, in order to multiply votes at elections, are illegal and void’. The petitioners’ counsel proceeded to call evidence that 151 of the sitting Members’ voters had been made since 1711, of which no less than 97 dated from 1713. Counsel for the sitting Members claimed that all 59 voters refused by the mayor had fraudulent deeds and argued that 68 of the petitioners’ voters possessed freeholds dating from after the 1711 election. It was further alleged that the petitioners had donated £1,000 for building a bridge at Weymouth and paid many electors a guinea a vote. The committee resolved that Hardy, William Harvey and Marriott had been duly elected and presented its report to this effect on 27 May 1714. When it was discovered that two resolutions had been left out, the report was recommitted. On 3 June it was presented again to the House, and the two resolutions on the splitting of freeholds were rephrased in such a manner as to appear to accept, instead of disqualify, these new voters. This alteration proved immaterial because the House rejected the resolutions outright. The recommendation to seat the three petitioners was nevertheless upheld.7
Author: Paula Watson
- 1. B. Rand, Shaftesbury, 252; PRO 30/24/22/2/108–9.
- 2. PRO 30/24/20/35, 38, 97; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 13, ff. 183–4; 25, f. 61; Locke, Orig. Letters, 161–2; HMC Portland, iii. 639, 641; Post Man, 14–17 Mar. 1701; Flying Post, 11–13 Aug. 1698.
- 3. Thynne pprs. 13, ff. 183–4; PRO 30/24/21/364.
- 4. PRO 30/24/20/150–1.
- 5. PRO 30/24/21/21–24; 30/24/22/4/321, 323; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/C9/31, Cropley to Stanhope, 18 July 1708.
- 6. Thynne pprs. 15, f. 88; 26, ff. 104–5, 140, 174; Post Boy, 19–21 Apr. 1711.
- 7. HMC Portland, v. 454; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 531.