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 2,500


15 Apr. 1754Sir John Armytage 
 George Fox Lane 
1 Dec. 1758William Thornton vice Armytage, deceased1239
 Robert Lane994
27 Mar. 1761Sir George Armytage 
 Robert Lane 
21 Mar. 1768Lord John Cavendish 
 Charles Turner 
10 Oct. 1774Charles Turner828
 Lord John Cavendish807
 Martin Bladen Hawke647
11 Sept. 1780Lord John Cavendish 
 Charles Turner 
3 Apr. 1782Cavendish re-elected after appointment to office 
8 Apr. 1783Cavendish re-elected after appointment to office 
17 Nov. 1783Robert Monckton Arundell, Visct. Galway, vice Turner, deceased 
6 Apr. 1784Visct. Galway1083
 Richard Slater Milnes1022
 Lord John Cavendish913
 Sir William Mordaunt Milner812

Main Article

York had one of the largest electorates among the English boroughs, and in Yorkshire its representatives had a standing second only to that of the knights of the shire. Usually they were of the same social class: substantial country gentlemen, drawn from all parts of the county. No merchant, and only two sons of English peers, ever sat for York in the 18th century. There was a certain hereditary element in the representation, but the city was renowned for its independence. Still, in the second half of the century the Marquess of Rockingham obtained control, first over one, then over both seats at York.

At the general election of 1747 William Thornton, a Whig, and George Fox Lane, a Tory who had the support of the corporation, had been returned unopposed; and at a meeting of the freemen in October 1753 were again nominated candidates for the forthcoming general election. But shortly afterwards Thornton informed the Rev. John Fountayne, dean of York, a political ally of Rockingham, that he would decline, and offered his interest at York to a candidate chosen by Rockingham. He agreed to keep his intention secret until Rockingham had found a suitable candidate.1

Rockingham had two aims: to demonstrate by his choice of candidate his interest at York, and to prevent a contest. His close friend Sir George Savile and Thomas Wentworth, a distant connexion, both refused to stand; and eventually Sir John Armytage was adopted. The chief danger came from John Dawnay, who claimed he had received an invitation to stand; but he soon withdrew, possibly under pressure from Henry Pelham, who was kept informed of the state of affairs at York by William Murray, Rockingham’s uncle. ‘If there had been no objection to Dawnay’, Murray wrote to Rockingham on 6 Dec. 1753, ‘he would not have done half so well for you. Dawnay would have said and even thought his own interest had the great share.’

‘The Whigs are for having two of their own friends’, wrote Fountayne to Rockingham on 17 Nov. 1753. And Murray, 2 Dec.: ‘Mr. Pelham ... is for setting up two. If others are of the same opinion there will be no stopping it.’ This was the second danger against which Rockingham had to guard: to set up two Whigs might provoke the Tories into doing the same, and lead to an expensive contest. Both Newcastle and Murray were against attempting two; and Rockingham, while restraining his followers, did not commit himself. Murray wrote to Newcastle on 5 Dec.:2‘The Tories have ... sent a message that they will give no opposition unless Mr. Lane is attacked. Lord Rockingham has refused to enter into any agreement, but says as he was only asked to recommend one it did not become him to interfere further.’ And to Rockingham from London on 15 Dec., on receiving the news that Armytage had been nominated by the freemen: ‘Nothing can have ended better. It is seen here in the very best light, and nobody better pleased than the King.’ Lane and Armytage were returned unopposed.

Rockingham had achieved a considerable success in a difficult constituency, where his father had never dared to interfere. To consolidate his position, in December 1753 the Rockingham Club was founded at York. The Club contained a sprinkling of country gentlemen, but most of its members were citizens of York. Rockingham was president, but rarely attended its meetings. It became a centre for his supporters in York, and the nucleus of his interest in the city.

There is evidence that some of Thornton’s friends were not well pleased at the foundation of the Rockingham Club; and in 1757 Thornton complained that his advice had been persistently ignored, and the Club had become ‘a faction or cabal of persons no ways respectable or significant’.3 When Armytage died in September 1758 Rockingham averted the danger of a split among his followers by inviting Thornton to stand again. In view of the conciliatory attitude of the Tories in 1753 no opposition was expected.

But on 22 Sept., the day after the news of Armytage’s death had reached York, Robert Lane, son of George Fox Lane, summoned a meeting of his friends to consider whether he should offer himself a candidate. Lane was advised not to stand—the corporation and many of the electors would be averse to both father and son representing the constituency at the same time, especially since Thornton gave an assurance that he would not oppose a Lane candidate at the general election. On 25 Sept., at a meeting in the Guildhall called by the lord mayor, Thornton alone was nominated.

For two months all was quiet, but on 25 Nov. Lane advertised that he intended to stand. Rockingham was at Bath, and on hearing the news hastened to York. ‘I found everything in confusion’, he wrote to Newcastle on 3 Dec.4 ‘Great irresolution in my friend, and a determined party point carrying on on the other side with great vigour and expense.’ Thornton was afraid of the expense, and wished to decline in favour of Sir George Armytage, brother and heir of Sir John; but Rockingham thought it was too late to change his candidate, and believed the attempt of the Lane family to secure a second seat would be resented. ‘The unfairness of the attempt’, he wrote to Newcastle on 3 Dec., ‘has divided the corporation, so that they are not totally or so warmly against us as they would otherwise have been.’ It also united the Whigs, and strengthened Rockingham’s position as their champion. The election was marked by rioting, a large creation of new freemen, and a lavish distribution of money. Thornton’s expenses came to over £12,000, to which Rockingham contributed over £8,000. ‘Win or lose’, he had written to Newcastle on 3 Dec., ‘I shall be sheared, but shall have money’s worth for the money’; and in fact Thornton’s victory established Rockingham’s interest on an unshakeable basis.

In 1761 Robert Lane and Armytage were returned unopposed. In the autumn of 1767 Armytage informed Rockingham that he would retire at the next general election, and Rockingham began to search for a new candidate. His choice of Charles Turner seemed inauspicious, for Turner, independent and disliking aristocratic patronage, refused to join the Rockingham Club; and Rockingham was uncertain whether under these circumstances his friends at York would accept him.5 But on 11 Mar. 1768 Turner offered himself to the Club as a candidate ‘upon Whig principles’, and was accepted. ‘I find my Lord had indulged his punctilio of not being an absolute member of the Club’, wrote Lady Rockingham to Newcastle, 22 Mar., ‘which perhaps made him less cordially received there, yet upon the whole well.’ Rockingham’s choice of Turner, like that of Thornton in 1758, turned out to be a very wise move: neither man could be accused of being his dependent. By selecting Turner, Rockingham ‘put those who were not quite his friends into mighty good temper’.6

At a meeting at the Guildhall on 12 Mar. 1768 Turner and Lane were nominated. But on 14 Mar. the lord mayor received a letter from Lane announcing his decision to retire from Parliament because of ill health. Rockingham heard the news at Wentworth Woodhouse that night. With him was Lord John Cavendish, just returned from Lancaster where he had declined the poll. Cavendish demurred to Rockingham’s suggestion that he should offer himself at York, but agreed that Rockingham should go and examine the ground. ‘I immediately mounted my horse’, wrote Rockingham to Newcastle,7 ‘and was in York by eleven o’clock that night. I called my friends together the next morning and warmly recommended Lord John Cavendish. It was received with the utmost approbation.’ The corporation had not found a candidate to replace Lane, and readily accepted Cavendish. He and Turner were returned unopposed.

‘In truth, my dear Lord’, wrote Rockingham to Newcastle, 16 Mar., ‘I have never been luckier in any matter than I have been in this election matter at York.’ Certainly chance had favoured him, yet he could not have profited by Lane’s retirement had not his conduct over the last fifteen years won the esteem of the citizens. His interest was based solely on their goodwill; he had acted in York affairs only through the Club, composed for the most part of independent freemen; he had claimed no rights; he had taken care not to offend; he had kept in the background. By these means he had secured control over both seats at York, and he maintained that control until his death.

Martin Bladen Hawke, who stood against Rockingham’s candidates in 1774, came of an old Yorkshire family, and appeared to be a strong candidate. Yet Rockingham’s only fears about the election arose from the conduct of Charles Turner. ‘The vulgar’ were ‘rather discontented for want of drink’, and Turner ‘objected to taking any steps towards treating the town ... and wanted to give all his money to some public work’.8 ‘The run against C. Turner is very strong’, wrote Cavendish to Rockingham on 5 Oct. 1774, ‘and I am told they swear they will pelt him when he is chaired.’ And Rockingham to Cavendish, 6 Oct.:9 ‘This attempt of Mr. Hawke’s could signify nothing if it was not for the clamour against Charles Turner.’ The election was twice held up by rioting, and on the fourth day of the poll ‘the mob were very clamorous and offered Mr. Turner some indignities’.10 By then it was clear that Hawke could not win, and the next day he admitted defeat.

Of Hawke’s 647 votes, 537 were plumpers—an indication of the numbers unequivocally opposed to Rockingham. More significant is the fact that by 1774 Rockingham had won over the corporation. 60 members of the corporation voted for Lane in 1758, and only 27 for Thornton; in 1774 the figures were 48 for Cavendish, 47 for Turner, and 21 for Hawke. The election of 1774 had served to demonstrate the strength of Rockingham’s interest.

By 1780 Rockingham’s party in the Commons was more numerous than it had ever been, he was widely recognized as the leader of the Opposition, and public opinion was at last turning in his direction. Paradoxically, in that year his position in Yorkshire faced its most serious threat; and the Yorkshire Association seemed an even greater danger at York than in the county.

Cavendish, like Rockingham, opposed the Association’s policy of shorter Parliaments and parliamentary reform; while Turner favoured that policy. On 4 Sept. 1780 Cavendish wrote from York to Rockingham:

Charles Turner ... has sent over a very foolish advertisement, offering his services in his usual style but concluding with his absolute submission to the Association by whose advice he means to act, and then states his own opinions on short parliaments, etc. I have taken upon me to stop the publication ... and have represented the imprudence of our advertising separately.

That day Cavendish received a visit from William Mason, one of the leaders of the Association. Mason, wrote Cavendish to Rockingham,

expressed ... hopes that I might be induced to say something which would enable them to support me consistently with their engagements, which I peremptorily refused. He then gave me to understand that they should think themselves obliged to support some candidate who would subscribe ... I believe they think they can prevail upon somebody to stand. I have no sort of fear of the event of such a contest, but I do not think it worthwhile ... there is more dignity and credit as well as pleasure in taking my leave of them at once than carrying the election with many of our best friends against me, and receiving the support of our enemies ... I do not like the expense of a contest, but the vexation and tiresomeness of it I can not prevail upon myself to go through with.

The same day the York Courant published an advertisement requesting the citizens to refrain from promising to vote for any candidate who would not pledge himself to support parliamentary reform. It continued:

A gentleman of independent character and fortune will in a few days offer his services to represent this respectable city who is a friend to that just and necessary reform.

With one candidate ready to run away, and the other prepared to go over to the enemy, a crisis seemed imminent in Rockingham’s affairs. He did not go to York, but left to the Rockingham Club the task of bringing Cavendish and Turner together and starting them off on their canvass. Once that had begun, the prospect seemed much brighter. ‘We canvassed Coney Street, Micklegate, and Tanner Row’, wrote Cavendish to Rockingham on 6 Sept., ‘not above ten negatives, only two ... asked me if I had signed.’ But his doubts about Turner remained: the Association ‘have abused him so much for joining with me that I fairly believe he will decline tonight’. And two hours later: ‘If Charles declines and the Association set up one or two, where are we to find a person to be joined with me?’ But in a P.S.: ‘Charles after much agitation ... has consented to go on with me upon the canvass tomorrow.’

Rockingham knew how to deal with the Association. ‘I have particularly desired Lord John’, he wrote to Lady Rockingham on 5 Sept. ‘to state that he looks to the approbation and support of the citizens of York and that he shall not submit to be catechized by persons who are not under that description.’ He knew that the Association could not conduct an election in York, and that he could rely on the loyalty of the Rockingham Club. On 7 Sept. Cavendish wrote: ‘Our canvass went on as well as yesterday. I think C. Turner was in better spirits.’ On 8 Sept. he told Rockingham that Wyvill had said ‘it was impossible to do anything without our aid’. And that evening: ‘We have today canvassed Walmgate, the Shambles, and all the dirtiest part of the town, with hardly a negative.’ On 11 Sept. Cavendish and Turner were returned unopposed.

Lord Fitzwilliam, who succeeded to Rocking ham’s estates on his death in 1782, hoped to maintain his interest at York. The by-election of November 1783, following the death of Charles Turner, showed how little of that interest could be passed on to a successor. Immediately on receiving the news of Turner’s death Charles Duncombe, brother of Henry Duncombe, M.P. for Yorkshire, offered himself at York and asked Fitzwilliam’s support. Fitzwilliam endorsed his candidature. Duncombe was a member of the Yorkshire Association, yet he was prepared to stand as Fitzwilliam’s candidate and by supporting him Fitzwilliam would re-create the old alliance between Wentworth Woodhouse and the Yorkshire independent country gentlemen, and prevent the possibility of any other candidate appearing. Thus Lord Galway, who had intended to offer himself, abandoned the idea on hearing that Duncombe had Fitzwilliam’s support.

But the Rockingham Club, wrote Duncombe to Fitzwilliam on 11 Nov., was ‘no more the firm phalanx as in the time of our honourable friend, but split into different factions, animated with a degree of virulence against each other scarce to be believed’.11 Many of the members were ‘violent Associators’:12 Rockingham had restrained their enthusiasm, but they considered themselves under no loyalty to Fitzwilliam; others were equally violent against the Association. Personal jealousies and long-hidden feuds, now brought to the surface, accentuated and ran across these divisions. The Associators were displeased with Duncombe because he had asked for Fitzwilliam’s support, thus admitting Fitzwilliam’s interest in the borough; those who had been closest to Rockingham disliked him because he belonged to the Association. Duncombe would neither join the Rockingham Club nor stand openly as the candidate of the Association; neither side had any enthusiasm for his candidature; and on 10 Nov. he withdrew.

The dissident members of the Club immediately invited Galway to stand; Rockingham’s old friends put forward George Fitzwilliam, Fitzwilliam’s brother. Peregrine Wentworth, one of the strongest supporters of the Wentworth Woodhouse interest, warned Fitzwilliam that if his brother stood, there would be a large secession from the Club;13 and Fitzwilliam was forced to concur in the choice of Galway.

Fitzwilliam had saved his face, but had only postponed the ruin of his interest at York. On the dismissal of the Coalition in December 1783 preparations began for the expected general election. Galway asked Fitzwilliam for his support; but Fitzwilliam soon made it clear that he intended to run two candidates: his brother and Lord John Cavendish. Fountayne, dean of York, warned Fitzwilliam that his brother, who had voted against Pitt’s proposals for parliamentary reform, would be opposed by the Association; and advised him to be content with one Member.14 But Fitzwilliam seems to have been bent on a trial of strength: he replaced his brother by a more suitable candidate, and his hostility forced Galway to stand on a joint interest with Richard Slater Milnes, a Dissenter and a member of the Association. Galway and Milnes avowed themselves supporters of Pitt and parliamentary reform, and the current was running in their favour. The result was a complete defeat for the Fitzwilliam interest, which had to be built up anew and on a different basis.

Author: John Brooke


F. C. Price, ‘Parlty. Elections in York, 1754-90’ (Manchester Univ. M.A. thesis).

  • 1. Fountayne to Rockingham, 12 Nov. 1753, Rockingham mss.
  • 2. Add. 32733, f. 367.
  • 3. Thornton to Fountayne, 5 Feb. 1757, Rockingham mss.
  • 4. Add. 32886, f. 138.
  • 5. Brooke, Chatham Admin. 1766-8, pp. 347-50.
  • 6. Ld. John Cavendish to Newcastle, 16 Mar. 1768, Add. 32989, ff. 191-2.
  • 7. Ibid. ff. 187-9.
  • 8. Cavendish to Rockingham, 5 Oct. 1774, Rockingham mss.
  • 9. Rockingham mss.
  • 10. York Chron. 21 Oct. 1774.
  • 11. Fitzwilliam mss.
  • 12. Peregrine Wentworth to Fitzwilliam, 10 Nov. 1783.
  • 13. Wentworth to Fitzwilliam, 14 Nov. 1783.
  • 14. Fountayne to Fitzwilliam, 2 Jan. 1784.