Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen and inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

about 750


28 Jan. 1715WILLIAM FARRER381
 William Gore317
 Edward Jefferies312
2 Dec. 1715FARRER re-elected after appointment to office 
21 Mar. 1722GEORGE HUXLEY488
 John Thurloe Brace341
 Francis Brace160
9 June 1725JOHN THURLOE BRACE vice Huxley, appointed to office 
 George Huxley 
15 Aug. 1727JOHN ORLEBAR240
 Samuel Ongley465
 James Metcalfe462
 METCALFE vice Brace, on petition, 16 Apr. 1728 
30 Jan. 1731SIR JEREMY VANACKER SAMBROOKE vice Metcalfe, deceased375
 Thomas Browne346
24 Nov. 1740SIR BOTELER CHERNOCK vice Sambrooke, deceased 
29 June 1747THOMAS GORE 
 Sir Boteler Chernock 
 John Hynde Cotton 

Main Article

As in the county the Whig and Tory strengths in Bedford were about equal. The recorder was Lord Bruce, a Tory, appointed in 1711, who sold his Ampthill property, a few miles from the borough, to the Duke of Bedford in 1730.1 The Dukes of Bedford at Woburn exerted a strong influence from 1726, mainly in support of anti-government candidates. Elections seem to have been managed by the local landowners, from whose ranks most of the ten Members were drawn, two only being strangers. With a wide franchise, corruption was rife. The corporation had the right of creating an unlimited number of freemen, all of whom had votes, without restriction as to residence and qualification. This was a method used by the Whigs when they had a majority. The Tories, however, seem to have relied on straight bribes in cash and kind to the poorer members of the electorate.

In 1715, when the 3rd Duke of Bedford was only a child, the Whig or Russell interest prevailed; and in 1722 the contest was between rival Whigs. Three years later the Whig members of the corporation tried to get rid of their Tory recorder by legal action, on the grounds of his non-attendance at the borough court and failure to appoint a deputy. Their reasons were clearly political as they not only refused to accept a new deputy, appointed by Lord Bruce, but they asked a Whig, John Orlebar, who paid their expenses, to be Bruce’s successor. These proceedings, however, were abandoned in 1728.2 Meanwhile, in 1726, the young 3rd Duke of Bedford came out in strong support of two anti-government candidates for the county.3 On the day before the borough election of 1727, when John Orlebar and John Thurloe Brace ‘were thought to be perfectly secure’, he brought Samuel Ongley and James Metcalfe into Bedford, when they

declared publicly that they knew the election was to be bought and they would buy it whatever the cost ... 400 votes at 4 guineas each ... and ... whatever money Mr. Brace and Mr. Orlebar gave, they would outbid them as far as 20 guineas a man. Mr. Brace and Mr. Orlebar being unable to withstand such a torrent of money resolved to rest their election on their natural interest ... not a penny given by [Brace].

Though Orlebar and Bruce were defeated by over 200 votes, they were returned by the returning officers. On petition a compromise was arranged between the parties. As no counsel appeared for Brace, and Ongley was found ‘incapable of claiming to sit in Parliament’ because he held a place in the customs, Orlebar and Metcalfe were declared elected. An opposition motion that the late mayor of Bedford, by not returning Metcalfe, had been ‘guilty of a manifest violation of the laws made for preventing false returns’ was rejected. On the petition an anonymous writer observed:

The ancient right of election ... was in the burgesses, freemen and inhabitants paying scot and lot till a Tory Parliament in the year 1690 ... resolved the right to be in the inhabitants at large not receiving alms ... If the last resolution be reversed ... it will not only infallibly secure the present election but the Whig interest in the said borough for the future since this means the whole number of voters will be reduced to about 560, and it appears that considerably above 200 on the Whig side will not be tempted by money whereas on the Tory side the whole number must be bought, about 50 only excepted ... If the poor inhabitants be still permitted to vote, the borough will always be subject to fall a prey to the contrary interest with such a man as the Duke of Bedford at the head of it.4

At a by-election in January 1731, Sir Jeremy Sambrooke, a rich Tory, was opposed by Dr. Thomas Browne of Arlesey, who wrote on 16 Jan. that the

agents on both sides are come to a great degree of extravagancy in their expenses; the common people are not content with ale as they had at first, but will have wine and punch at their meals, and bring their wife and children to partake with them.5

On behalf of the Tories the Duke of Bedford provided his ‘charity’ of meat and coals for the poor. A fortnight before the poll Browne estimated the voters as 366 for him and 358 against, Sambrooke having ‘got ground of late’. To counter this the Whig majority on the corporation created 51 freemen, six of whom were parsons of nearby villages and all of whom voted for Browne.6 Despite this additional support the Tories, who relied on the ‘thirsty voters’,7 were successful with a majority of 29. Browne’s petition, in which he was to ‘explain ... the right to vote as established in 1690, to exclude those not paying scot and lot,’ was withdrawn.8

In September 1731, at the municipal elections, the Tories gained control of the corporation by secretly mobilizing all their supporters ‘from all quarters, even Lincolnshire, Essex, etc., so that very few of the out-of-town votes were absent’. They also used methods ‘which few resist’;9 in February 1734 Sir Rowland Alston referred to ‘Alderman Oakley, who was bribed by the Tories to put the corporation into their hands’.10 Sambrook and Ongley were returned unopposed at the general election, when the government candidates withdrew before the poll, leaving ‘the populace of Bedford ... most discontented at having no opposition for the town’.11 Chernock and Ongley were again returned without a contest in 1741, when the Duke of Bedford was in opposition. Going over to the Government in 1744, he was made lord lieutenant of the county next year. In 1747 the corporation sent a deputation to wait on him in London to ‘settle the point for future elections’. A large number of new freemen having been admitted,12 the Duke’s nominees, two government supporters, both strangers, defeated two Tories. The 2nd Lord Egmont wrote against Bedford in his electoral survey, c.1749-50: ‘to be left to the Tories who, with the help of the excise etc., will beat the Duke of Bedford’.

Author: R. S. Lea


  • 1. VCH Beds. iii. 271.
  • 2. Patronage of Bedford Borough, 1725-8 (Rex. v. Recorder of Bedford), Orlebar mss 1773-82, Beds. RO.
  • 4. Undated memo. concerning the late election for the town of Bedford, 15 Aug. 1727, Orlebar mss 1789/1-3, 1803; CJ , xxi. 138-9.
  • 5. F. St. J. Orlebar, Orlebar Chron. 297-9, 301.
  • 6. John Pepiatt to John Orlebar, 16 Jan. 1731, and undated notes by John Orlebar on Dr. Browne’s case, Orlebar mss 1806, 1814; Orlebar Chron. 301; of Benjamin Rogers (Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. xxx), 24.
  • 7. Dr. Browne to John Orlebar, 7 Jan. 1731, Orlebar mss 1804.
  • 8. Undated notes by John Orlebar on Dr. Browne’s case, ibid. 1814.
  • 9. Diary of Benjamin Rogers, 30.
  • 10. Sir Rowland Alston to Walpole, 15 Feb. 1734, Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss.
  • 11. E. F. D. Osborn, 18th Cent. 53.
  • 12. Recs. of Bedford Corp. 74,77.