Double Member Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in freeholders, copyholders and leaseholders for three years, and, by Act of Parliament in 1782 (22 Geo. III, c. 31), 40s. freeholders in the hundreds of Highworth, Cricklade, Staple, Kingsbridge and Malmesbury

Number of voters:

about 200, increased in 1782 to about 1,000


16 Apr. 1754Thomas Gore 
 William Rawlinson Earle 
28 Mar. 1761Thomas Gore 
 Arnold Nesbitt 
 William Rawlinson Earle 
16 Mar. 1768George Damer 
 Sir Robert Fletcher 
 Arnold Nesbitt 
8 Oct. 1774William Earle150
 Arnold Nesbitt137
 Henry Eustace McCulloh69
 John Dewar4
28 Dec. 1774 vice Earle, deceased 
 John Dewar26
 Samuel Peach15
 Double return. Election declared void, 21 Feb. 1775 
4 Mar. 1775Samuel Peach54
 John Dewar41
 Samuel Petrie6
 Dewar vice Peach, on petition, 19 Feb. 1776 
29 Apr. 1779John Macpherson vice Nesbitt, deceased 
11 Sept. 1780Paul Benfield204
 John Macpherson172
 Samuel Petrie11
 Macpherson's election declared void, 28 May 1782 
12 June 1782George Richatd St. John 
 Samuel Petrie 
13 Apr. 1784Charles Westley Coxe442
 Robert Adamson435
 John Walker Heneage373
 Robert Nicholas358
 HENEAGE and NICHOLAS vice Coxe and Adamson, on petition, 4 Apr. 1785 
20 Mar. 1790Thomas Estcourt vice Nicholas, appointed to office 

Main Article

The nature of the franchise made Cricklade a difficult borough to control, no single interest ever predominated, and the electorate was venal. Before 1754 most of its Members were local men or owned property in the neighbourhood. The chief interest was in the Gore family, who owned the lordship of the borough and hundred of Cricklade, and had the right of appointing the returning officer.

In 1754 and 1761 Thomas Gore and William Rawlinson Earle stood with Treasury approval, but on separate interests. In 1761 Arnold Nesbitt, a London merchant and Government contractor, also declared himself a candidate. He may have been introduced to the borough by the Gores and possibly had their support. An expensive contest followed—Earle is said to have spent nearly £5,0001—but the numbers on the poll are not known.

Nesbitt now began to extend his interest by buying houses in Cricklade and in 1763 the lordship of the borough. In 1768 he had to face opposition from George Damer, son of the wealthy Lord Milton; and from Edmund Maskelyne, of an old local family—in the 17th century it had owned the lordship of the borough and had represented it in Parliament. Maskelyne was Lord Clive’s brother-in-law, and was supported by the powerful Clive connexion.

Here is the account of that election given by Thomas Carter, a relative of Maskelyne and a person of considerable importance in Cricklade:2

Lord Clive declined the borough of Cricklade at the last election, after having met with all possible encouragement, because the people there would not undertake to elect his friend for a stipulated sum or nothing if they failed, which the nature of the borough would not admit of. Sir Robert Fletcher, an entire stranger, without any interest, without a shilling of money, by mere accident dropped into town a few days before the election and carried it by dint of promise only, upon the very interest which we had raised.

Of Damer, nothing was said; but presumably he owed his seat to his father’s money. Again the figures on the poll are unknown.

In 1774 Damer did not stand; Fletcher canvassed the borough, and then declined. In all, twelve candidates are said to have appeared between the dissolution of Parliament and the poll. Of those who stood the poll, Nesbitt and Earle, the successful candidates, had local connexions and seem to have stood on a joint interest. Dewar, of a Hampshire family, and McCulloh, son of a London merchant, were complete outsiders. On Earle’s death (25 Nov. 1774) five candidates appeared, all outsiders. Only two went to the poll: Dewar and Samuel Peach, a London banker, who stood on the Nesbitt interest. Dewar had the greater following, but Peach had the support of the returning officer; who, on pretence of a riot, closed the poll after the first day, and made a double return.

The election was declared void. Dewar and Peach stood again; and a third candidate appeared in Samuel Petrie. Petrie, a London merchant of Scottish extraction, was a close friend of John Wilkes, whom he persuaded to help in the canvass. Wilkes, however,

had not canvassed an hour with him before he discovered how the pulse of the voters beat; and with his wonted wit and good humour ... said, ‘Sam, Wilkes and liberty will not do here; I see it must be hard money.’3

And so it proved: Petrie obtained only 6 votes. The returning officer disallowed 108 votes tendered for Dewar, and thus enabled Peach to head the poll. Petitions were presented against him by Dewar, Petrie, and Henry Herbert, who was cultivating an interest at Cricklade; and in 1776 Dewar was declared duly elected.

Nesbitt died in 1779, leaving his affairs in disarray; his nephew and successor, John Nesbitt, could not face an expensive contest; and Herbert took the opportunity to secure the return of his friend John Macpherson, a nabob—the first unopposed return since 1754.

In 1780 Robinson wrote about Cricklade: ‘A coalition of interests is talked on between Mr. Herbert and the purchaser of Mr. Nesbitt’s estate.’ This was Paul Benfield, another nabob; and he and Macpherson duly appeared as candidates. Against them appeared Petrie, standing as the champion of pure elections; and the result could not be a moment in doubt.

[Petrie] knew he had no chance of succeeding by numbers, but he thought ... that if he had a few honest votes, if he had only twenty votes or a less number, and could prove the corruption so general as to leave himself a majority upon the poll of uncorrupted votes, he knew that by the justice of the House he must be seated.4

He petitioned the Commons, alleging bribery; and brought legal actions against Benfield, Macpherson, Herbert, and many of the electors of Cricklade. His petition was not heard until February 1782, when Macpherson’s return was declared void and a new writ issued. Reform was in the air; and the House of Commons, sensitive to the reports of abuses in India, was not sympathetic to nabobs. The committee which tried Petrie’s petition urged the House to take notice of the extraordinary bribery which had been practised; and, following the example of New Shoreham in 1771, a bill was brought in to extend the franchise at Cricklade to the freeholders of the neighbouring hundreds.

The by-election of 1782 was fought under the new franchise. Petrie thought his chances were now overwhelming.

My complaint to the House of Commons [he afterwards wrote5] of the gross conduct of my opponents ... having produced this Act, I thought my claim upon the new class of electors irresistible, and that avowing myself a candidate was of itself sufficient to ensure me the certainty of their franchise.

But under the new franchise the contest took on the character of a county election with influence replacing bribery. Petrie had ousted the nabobs, only to find them replaced by even more dangerous competitors—independent country gentlemen. At a meeting of freeholders on 27 Mar. 1782 three candidates were nominated: two country gentlemen, Robert Adamson and Robert Nicholas; and George Richard St. John, son and heir of Viscount Bolingbroke, whose estate of Lydiard Tregoze was now included in the constituency. According to the report in the Bath Journal (6 June 1782): ‘No gentleman of Cricklade appeared at the meeting’; and ironically it was from them, whose consequence Petrie had done so much to lower, that he received almost his only support. Adamson and Nicholas withdrew; Petrie went to the poll, but declined on the second day.

Robinson wrote about Cricklade in December 1783: ‘It is very hard indeed to class this borough or to say who is likely to be returned for it, it is now laid so open.’ At the general election of 1784 Petrie intended to stand again, but finding no support outside the town withdrew. The contest was fought out by local country gentlemen, and had a marked political character. Adamson and Coxe stood jointly as followers of the Coalition, Nicholas and Heneage as followers of Pitt. The borough vote was given overwhelmingly to Adamson and Coxe, and won them the election; but they were unseated on petition. Petrie again canvassed the borough in 1789, and made his last attempt at the general election of 1790.

Author: J. A. Cannon


J. A. Cannon, ‘Samuel Petrie and Borough of Cricklade’, Wilts. Arch. Mag. lvi.

  • 1. Add. 32935, f. 497.
  • 2. To an unknown addressee, 14 Apr. 1771, Clive mss.
  • 3. London Chron. 14 Mar. 1775.
  • 4. Speech by Petrie’s counsel in Benfield v. Petrie, heard at Salisbury assizes, 2 Aug. 1781.
  • 5. Glocester Jnl. 5 July 1790.