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 the freemen

Number of voters:

about 1,000


15 Apr. 1754Robert Lee 
 Thomas Rowney 
19 Nov. 1759Sir Thomas Stapleton vice Rowney, deceased 
25 Mar. 1761Robert Lee 
 Sir Thomas Stapleton 
17 Mar. 1768George Nares592
 William Harcourt562
 William Craven332
 Sir James Cotter80
31 Jan. 1771Lord Robert Spencer vice Nares, appointed to office 
5 Oct. 1774Lord Robert Spencer 
 Peregrine Bertie 
8 Sept. 1780Peregrine Bertie72
 Lord Robert Spencer64
 Benjamin Bond Hopkins11
3 June 1782Spencer re-elected after appointment to office 
30 Mar. 1784Lord Robert Spencer 
 Peregrine Bertie 

Main Article

Oxford was one of the larger freeman boroughs, but the corporation retained control of the representation throughout this period. In 1754 the corporation was in the hands of the Tories, and both the Members returned at the general election were Tories. Thomas Rowney was high steward, and was succeeded in 1759 by Sir James Dashwood, who had stood on the Tory interest in the celebrated county election of 1754. The Earls of Abingdon had a longstanding interest in the city as leaders of the Tory group: George Nares, son of the steward to the second and third earls, was town clerk 1746-56, and recorder 1766-71.

Elections were expensive, as there was heavy treating, and many of the voters had to be brought down from London. The Members were expected to contribute handsomely towards civic projects. Thomas Rowney built the town hall at his own expense in 1751; ten years later, Robert Lee made a donation of £1,000; and, later in the period, the two Members defrayed the expenses of the Oxford races, which were believed to be worth £2,000 per annum to the city in trade.

The Tory supremacy was destroyed by the events of 1766-8. On 12 May 1766 the corporation, concerned at the size of the city debt, wrote to the sitting Members to beg their assistance. There was £5,670 outstanding, and the corporation explained that it had resolved to make the approach on hearing that certain persons had offered the representation of the city for £4,000. If the sitting Members refused, ‘the whole council are determined to apply to some other person or persons in the county to do it, and if possible, by that means, to keep themselves from being sold to foreigners’.1 Stapleton and Lee considered the matter for two and a half months before returning an unctuous refusal: ‘As we never intend to sell you, so we cannot afford the purchase.’ Presumably it was the size of the demand that staggered them, since they had made contributions in the past. The corporation then turned to the ‘other person’, the Duke of Marlborough:2

They [the Members] have from motives best known to themselves declined giving that assistance which might naturally have been expected from them. The mayor and common council assembled have therefore with one assent presumed to lay the state of their affairs before your Grace ... And we further beg leave to assure your Grace that we on our parts will upon all occasions take every opportunity of testifying our gratitude to your Grace and of making every return in our power.

The Duke replied that the state of affairs caused him much concern, but he was gratified to think he could be of help. Foreseeing, however, that an attempt to capture both seats would provoke fierce opposition, he disarmed criticism by consulting Lord Abingdon:3

I have the pleasure to find that his Lordship is equally concerned with myself at the embarrassment of the city finances ... we are willing jointly to take upon ourselves the discharge of the city debts ... amounting as I am informed to near £6,000.

Plans now went quietly ahead for the general election. The Duke proposed to bring in his brother, Lord Robert Spencer, and Lord Abingdon a friend, William Craven. The only cause of anxiety was an opposition by Sir James Cotter, who was reported in January 1768 to be treating on a lavish scale.

But at the end of January the whole transaction became public, when the sitting Members complained to the House of Commons, and produced the corporation’s letter. They did not explain why it had taken them a year and a half to perceive where their duty lay, but the House professed itself scandalized and ordered the corporation to attend. This they did on 5 Feb., having first taken the precautions of despatching the town clerk to France with the minute book, and ordering a good meal to be prepared for them at Newgate.4 The House duly sent them to Newgate, where they spent five days before being released with a solemn reprimand. The common opinion was expressed by Walpole, who wrote (to Mann, 26 Feb.) that the corporation ‘rather deserved thanks for not having taken the money for themselves’.

The indignation of the corporation was now vented upon Lord Abingdon, who was accused of promoting the appeal to the House of Commons. Though he and his friends strongly denied it, the corporation denounced the agreement. The Duke and Lord Abingdon met, and dissolved their partnership, the Duke writing afterwards to confirm what had passed:5

The whole of what I meant to say was that I considered all the engagements which I had entered into with your Lordship as at an end, and that consequently we were both at liberty to act as we pleased. I told your Lordship that I did not mean that my brother should be a candidate ... but at the same time in case any friend of mine should be a candidate I shall most probably give him my support.

With the glare of public attention on the corporation of Oxford, the Duke was obliged to act cautiously. ‘It is also current here’, wrote Theophilus Leigh, master of Balliol, on 14 Feb. 1768, ‘that the Duke of Marlborough will not give any recommendation in the next election ... how easy and natural it will be to the Duke of Marlborough to behave commendably afterwards I need not say.’6 The corporation then offered the seats to William Harcourt, son of Lord Harcourt, and to George Nares, the recorder, who had started life under the auspices of the Abingdon family, but was now a follower of Marlborough. When the new nominations were announced, William Craven protested with great bitterness:7

I little expected to have been deserted by some of that assembly, without any demerit of my own; but merely on account of a groundless aspersion which has been thrown on the character of a noble person, whose friendship I shall esteem as a principal honour of my life.

Brownlow Cust commented on the curious change that had taken place in Oxford politics:8

I am sorry to say that the old interest will most probably be triumphant in the University, though Lord Abingdon’s conduct has completely destroyed it in the town, insomuch that the most Tory member of the corporation would rather choose a member from one of the most zealous Whig families in the kingdom than give the least assistance to a Tory.

Craven remained in the field, and polled more than 160 plumpers, but Nares and Harcourt were returned with large majorities.

Three years later Nares was appointed a judge, and Lord Robert Spencer, though abroad, was elected in his place. Henceforward one seat was in the nomination of the Duke of Marlborough, and the other disposed of by the corporation.

Another change took place at the general election of 1774. One section of the corporation, probably the old Tories, were determined to get rid of Harcourt. After an attempt to persuade the mayor to summon a special meeting of the corporation, they put forward the Earl of Abingdon’s brother, Peregrine Bertie, and Harcourt retired rather than face a contest. Lord Abingdon explained later:9

Upon a misunderstanding some years ago ... between the corporation and myself, I declined what was then offered to me, the nomination of a Member. Upon this occasion, my brother either stepped forward himself or was brought forward, no matter which, and was elected the Member, and as such without any support from me, though indebted no doubt to the support of the family interest.

The same Members were returned in 1780 without much difficulty. John Whalley Gardiner, a local man, was mentioned as a candidate, but declined rather than injure his friend Captain Bertie’s interest and was brought in by Abingdon for Westbury. The most restless voters were those from London, who would be deprived of a trip home if there were no contest. They persuaded a Surrey gentleman, Benjamin Bond Hopkins, to offer a last-minute opposition, but after a morning’s poll had brought him only 11 votes he declined, complaining that he had been ‘egregiously deceived’.10

The situation in 1784 was more complicated. When Lord Abingdon refused to re-elect Gardiner at Westbury, he declared an opposition in the city. The sitting Members retorted by announcing a complete union of interests. Their own positions were, however, far from easy. Both supported the Coalition. But the Duke was a waverer, pulled by personal appeals from the King, while Lord Abingdon was a vociferous and fanatical opponent. Gardiner hoped to exploit the rift in the Bertie family, and the Earl gave his brother no assistance. Indeed, in January he instructed his agent at Oxford to work for an address from the corporation condemning the late ministry: his agent replied advising caution—‘as the two families they look up to are divided in their opinions, I am persuaded if an address was carried it would be far from unanimous’.11 Abingdon persisted, and Gardiner’s friends in the corporation supported the measure as a means of embarrassing the sitting Members. On 11 Feb. an address was carried, thanking the King for dismissing the Coalition, and Lord Robert Spencer was obliged to present it. Although Gardiner had declined, the Members remained in suspense until the poll. On 25 Mar. they issued a handbill deploring that an opposition should be threatened ‘by one from whose previous conduct and declarations we flattered ourselves we had reason to expect friendly assistance’, and on the eve of the poll they put out a stronger declaration, warning voters not to imagine that Gardiner was a friend of the Berties: ‘No man ever behaved with more ingratitude towards the Abingdon family than Sir John.’12 After all these alarms, they were returned unopposed.

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Parlty. Hist. xvi. 398-9.
  • 2. Mayor of Oxford to Duke of Marlborough, 13 Aug. 1766, Oxford borough recs.
  • 3. Marlborough to the mayor, 27 Oct. 1766, ibid.
  • 4. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, iii. 109 (the corporation minute book 1763-8 is still missing); HMC Carlisle, 237.
  • 5. Marlborough to Abingdon, 10 Feb. 1768, Oxford borough recs.
  • 6. Add. 38457, f. 148.
  • 7. Jackson’s Oxf. Jnl. 27 Feb. 1768.
  • 8. Chrons. of Erthig on the Dyke, ii. 28.
  • 9. Bodl. Top. Oxon. c.280.
  • 10. Jackson’s Oxf. Jnl. 9 Sept. 1780.
  • 11. Jas. Morrell to Abingdon, Jan. 1784, Bodl. Top. Oxon. c.280.
  • 12. Ibid.