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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 12,000


20 Apr. 1754Edward Cornwallis3385
 Sir John Crosse3184
 James Edward Oglethorpe261
 Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex209
25 Mar. 1761Edward Cornwallis 
 William Pulteney, Visct. Pulteney 
27 Apr. 1762Edwin Sandys vice Cornwallis, appointed to office 
15 Mar. 1763Hugh Percy, Lord Warkworth, vice Pulteney, deceased 
16 Mar. 1768Edwin Sandys 
 Hugh Percy, Earl Percy 
30 Apr. 1770Sir Robert Bernard vice Sandys, called to the Upper House 
26 Oct. 1774Hugh Percy, Earl Percy4994
 Lord Thomas Pelham Clinton4774
 Hervey Redmond Morres, Visct. Mountmorres2531
 Charles Stanhope, Visct. Mahon2342
 Humphrey Cotes130
17 Dec. 1776Charles Stanhope, Visct. Petersham, vice Percy, called to the Upper House 
20 Apr. 1779George Capel, Visct. Malden, vice Petersham, called to the Upper House 
10 Oct. 1780Sir George Brydges Rodney5298
 Charles James Fox4878
 Thomas Pelham Clinton, Earl of Lincoln4157
3 Apr. 1782Fox re-elected after appointment to office 
12 June 1782Sir Cecil Wray vice Rodney, called to the Upper House 
7 Apr. 1783Fox re-elected after appointment to office 
17 May 1784Samuel Hood, Baron Hood6588
 Charles James Fox6126
 Sir Cecil Wray5895
 A scrutiny was demanded, and HOOD and FOX were declared duly elected, 4 Mar. 1785 
4 Aug. 1788Lord John Townshend vice Hood, appointed to office6392
 Lord Hood5569

Main Article

Westminster was the largest urban constituency in the kingdom, and invariably returned men of the highest social standing: of its fourteen representatives between 1754 and 1790, nine were sons of peers, one was an Irish peer, and four were baronets. Indeed, in 1762 Newcastle was uncertain whether Edwin Sandys, whose father had been ennobled only in 1743, was ‘of dignity enough’ to represent Westminster.1 Certain landlords had considerable influence in the constituency: the Earl of Bath, the Duke of Bedford, the Duke of Newcastle, the Duke of Northumberland; and so had Administration, through the many residents connected with the court and government departments. In 1754 the Duke of Bedford wrote of ‘the vast expense that must necessarily attend any contest in Westminster’,2 and it became the business of Administration to choose suitable candidates and thus prevent contests. With two royal residences and the Houses of Parliament in the constituency, it had a prestige value in Government eyes. The election of 1754 was a farce, neither of the unsuccessful candidates having any chance, and from then until 1770 Government candidates were returned unopposed.

About 1769 Westminster began to be influenced by radicalism from London and Middlesex, and John Wilkes emerged as the leader of the popular party in the constituency. By 1770 the movement was sufficiently strong to secure the unopposed return of Sir Robert Bernard, one of the leaders of the Bill of Rights Society—the first candidate returned against Government since 1741. At the general election of 1774 Wilkes backed Lord Mahon and Lord Mountmorres on the radical interest, and Administration was roused to make a determined effort.

Lord North now urged the Duke of Newcastle to allow his son, Lord Thomas Pelham Clinton, to stand as joint Government candidate with Lord Percy. ‘I am convinced’, he wrote on 25 Sept., ‘that nothing can be ultimately so detrimental to the Government as that the faction should conceive themselves capable of carrying all their points by noise and intimidation.’3 And on 28 Sept.:

I never knew the King more earnest on any point. He has been informed of the great probability of your son’s success, and dreads nothing so much as the reputation of abandoning so fair a prospect from the dread of noise, riot, and scurrility. ... We will take all the trouble of the canvass off your Grace’s hands.

Wilkes’s influence, he believed, was waning, and defeat at this election would ‘demolish his weight and power’. Newcastle agreed to allow his son to stand, and, with the Bedford and Northumberland interests on their side, the Government candidates won a resounding victory. William Phillips wrote to Newcastle on 27 Oct. 1774: ‘You have secured Westminster to yourself for one Member certain, if not more than that ... I apprehend you mean to preserve it ... Some expense, great attention, and some little trouble on your Grace’s part is all that is necessary.’ And in 1776 and 1779 Government supporters, backed by Newcastle, were returned unopposed.

But the defeat of Wilkes in 1774 had only cleared the way for a more formidable antagonist. During the American war radicalism increased, and Westminster was one of the first constituencies to respond to the petitioning movement, started in Yorkshire in December 1779.4 At a meeting in Westminster Hall on 2 Feb. 1780 Charles James Fox was appointed chairman of the Westminster committee of correspondence and was adopted as future parliamentary candidate for the constituency. In April 1780 Fox called for shorter Parliaments and an increase in the county representation, and in May a sub-committee of the Westminster Association produced an even more radical programme. It denounced the doctrine (held by Burke and the Rockingham Whigs) that Parliament represented primarily the property of the nation and called for adult manhood suffrage. ‘A portion of the soil, a portion of its produce, may be wanting to many; but every man has an interest in his life, his liberty, his kindred, and his country.’ Here was a radicalism far different from that of the Yorkshire Association or of the Wilkite movement.

North was slow to appreciate the strength of Fox’s position at Westminster. In a letter to Newcastle of 14 Aug., asking permission for Lord Lincoln to stand as joint Government candidate with Sir George Rodney, he wrote about Fox: ‘I should very much doubt whether he will venture to make a very serious opposition to the two candidates I have named; at least I am pretty confident he will not make a successful one.’ But the timid Newcastle, hearing that the Bedford interest was to be given to Fox, would not allow Lincoln to stand. Fox’s candidature he described as ‘a most formidable opposition, headed by one of the ablest and most popular men in the kingdom’ (a judgment echoed by Edmund Burke in a letter to Lady Rockingham of 27 Sept.: ‘It is no trifle to keep out such a man as Fox’). Still the Government failed to realize the situation. ‘It is acknowledged that Lord Lincoln should come in by all parties’, wrote John Robinson to Newcastle on 24 Aug., ‘for Mr. Fox nor anyone aims opposition at him.’ Not to allow Lincoln to stand would be ‘throwing this seat away from your family, from apprehensions that don’t exist, and from causes that ought not to have weight’. Reluctantly, Newcastle gave his permission, on the understanding that Government would bear all expenses.

Robinson was wrong in thinking that both parties would support Lincoln. In his speech on the hustings Fox emphasized the political issues involved and described Lincoln as ‘from connexion and from avowed principle one of the strongest adherents to the present minister and his measures’.5

The contest ... is not between Lord Lincoln and me, but between Lord North and the electors of Westminster. It is whether you will choose a representative for yourselves, or whether an implicit dependant of Lord North shall be forced upon you.

The Treasury spent over £8,000 on this election and got very little for it: Rodney, normally a Government supporter, was away at sea for most of the next two years; and Lincoln came bottom of the poll.

Henceforth family interest ceased to determine Westminster elections, and in 1784, as in 1780, the decisive issue was political. The East India bill and his alliance with North had lost Fox a good deal of his popularity, and it was Pitt who now stood forth as the champion of parliamentary reform and the enemy of corruption. If Fox could be defeated in Westminster, the blow to the morale of the Opposition would be tremendous; and Pitt’s Administration exerted every nerve to oust him. There followed one of the most hotly contested elections of the century, best known perhaps for the picturesque canvassing of the Duchess of Devonshire. The poll was open for forty days—the longest of this period—and at its close the figures were: Hood 6588, Fox 6126, Wray 5895. Wray then demanded a scrutiny—a tedious and protracted affair in such a large constituency—and the bailiff declined to make a return.

Having failed to defeat Fox on the hustings, Pitt tried to achieve the same result by means of his majority in the House of Commons. On 24 May an Opposition motion that Hood and Fox should have been returned was beaten by 283 votes to 136. ‘I have no doubt of Fox being thrown out’, wrote Pitt triumphantly to the Duke of Rutland.6 Thirty years earlier Pitt’s plan might have succeeded, but the House of Commons no longer dealt with election disputes as it had done in 1754: Westminster was not to be another Oxfordshire, decided on party lines without any regard to the merits of the case. Fox had in the meantime been returned to Parliament for Tain Burghs, and as the hearing of the case proceeded opinion in the House swung over to his side. Still Pitt persevered in what one of his supporters, Daniel Pulteney, called ‘this cursed business’: ‘I clearly foresee’, Pulteney wrote on 10 Feb. 1785, ‘and indeed have almost heard as much from several, that many will form a very different idea of the Administration if such an odious business is forced down by a small majority.’7 On 3 Mar. Pitt was beaten on a motion to adjourn by 162 votes to 124, and did not contest the motion requiring the bailiff to make the return.

Government had spent over £9,000 to try to keep Fox out of Westminster—a total of £17,000 in two general elections; and the only result had been to strengthen Fox’s position with his constituents. Further humiliation followed in 1788 when Hood, standing for re-election after having accepted office, was beaten by Lord John Townshend, a close friend of Fox. How much Government spent on this election is not known, but the expenses were such that they were compelled to open a subscription to defray them.8 Fox’s friends, who had financed the elections of 1780, 1784, and 1788, were presumably anxious to avoid a contest at the next general election. It was the appalling expense of Westminster elections which forced the two sides into a compromise:9

On the 15th March, 1790, Lord Lauderdale and Mr. Pitt held a conversation on the subject of the Westminster election, Mr. Dundas present.

They agreed that each party should propose and support only one candidate respectively at the first general election, and during the whole of next Parliament, so long as either the Duke of Portland or Mr. Fox on the one part, and Mr. Pitt or Mr. Grenville on the other, are alive, and including every other contingency of death, vacancy, and changes of administration.

In this conversation Mr. Pitt agreed in the name of the present administration or any of which he or Mr. Grenville should be a member.

Lord Lauderdale agreed in the name, and as authorised by the Duke of Portland or Mr. Fox, or any administration of which either should be a member.

It was understood that this agreement has nothing to do with any question respecting the right of election for the city of Westminster.

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Add. 32936, f. 432.
  • 2. Bedford mss 30, f. 34.
  • 3. Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  • 4. On Fox and the petitioning movement in Westminster see H. Butterfield, Geo. III, Lord North, and the People, 1779-80, pp. 224-7, 269-81, 310-12, 340-4.
  • 5. I. R. Christie, End of North’s Ministry, 134-5.
  • 6. Pitt-Rutland Corresp., 13-14.
  • 7. HMC Rutland, iii. 177.
  • 8. Add. 35641, f. 188.
  • 9. Stanhope, Life of Pitt, ii. 52-53.