Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in burgage holders

Number of voters:

about 100


(1801): 3,080


4 Nov. 1796 WALTER PALK vice Palk, chose to sit for Devon
6 July 1802WALTER PALK
31 Oct. 1806WALTER PALK
14 Feb. 1811 JOHN SULLIVAN vice Palk, vacated his seat
6 Aug. 1812 SULLIVAN and CAVENDISH BENTINCK re-elected after appointment to office
12 Feb. 1819 COPLEY re-elected after appointment to office
20 July 1819 COPLEY re-elected after appointment to office

Main Article

Ashburton had been jointly controlled since the 1760s by George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, and Sir Robert Palk, a native of the town who had become governor of Madras. Each owned a moiety of the lordship of the manor and commanded about a third of the votes, with Orford having perhaps slightly the stronger interest of the two. There was no contest, apart from the sham fight of 1784, between 1761 and 1831, when the independent interest in the town, so long quiescent, was stimulated by the Reform crisis to make its presence felt.

In 1790 Palk returned his son who, on choosing to sit for Devon after his election for both county and borough in 1796, was replaced by his cousin. Sir Robert died in 1798 and Lawrence became head of the family. Walter Palk made way in 1811 for the Sidmouthite John Sullivan, a nabob and kinsman of the late Laurence Sulivan, chairman of the East India Company, who had sat for Ashburton on the Palk interest in the 1768 Parliament. Sir Lawrence Palk died in 1813. His son and heir, Lawrence Vaughan Palk, came of age the following year, but did not claim the seat from Sullivan until 1818. By the end of this period the Palk interest was showing signs of wear and tear, largely as a result of inadequate stewardship and the financial burden placed on their Ashburton estate by their heavy investment in the development of their property at Torquay.

The history of the Orford interest is more complicated. In 1790 Robert Mackreth, a former coffee house waiter turned usurer and estate jobber, who had a financial hold on the mentally unstable 3rd Earl, was again returned. On Orford’s death in 1791 most of his property went to his uncle and successor as 4th Earl, Horace Walpole, but that at Ashburton was divided into two parts. The older, consisting of the lordship and the former Tuckfield property, went to Orford’s cousin Robert George William Trefusis of Trefusis, Cornwall, as the heir nominated in the will of Samuel Rolle, father of Orford’s mother Margaret, s.j. Baroness Clinton from 1760 until her death in 1781. The validity of Rolle’s will was challenged by the 4th Earl of Orford’s great nephew George James, 4th Earl of Cholmondeley, but the resultant legal dispute was not settled until 1822. Trefusis claimed Orford’s barony of Clinton, which was allowed to him in 1794, when he was summoned to the Lords as the 17th Lord Clinton. The remainder of the Ashburton property, consisting mainly of freeholds bought since 1739, went to the 4th Earl of Orford, who sold it to Trefusis, turning down a bid made in 1792 by Wilmot Vaughan, 1st Earl of Lisburne*, Lawrence Palk’s father-in-law. Mackreth, as one of the late earl’s executors, managed the sale, which was completed in 1794, when he claimed to be assured of Clinton’s support at the next election. Clinton, who now also controlled both seats at Callington, but had had to borrow heavily from the Palks and probably also from Mackreth to finance the purchase and his peerage claim, duly returned Mackreth in 1796.1

Clinton died, aged 32, in 1797, leaving a ten-year-old boy as his heir. In his will, dated 19 Mar. 1797, he had appointed as guardians of his son and his executors his wife and his friends John Clevland* and William Trefusis Reichenberg, but by an earlier deed he had named as his trustees his kinsmen Ambrose St. John*, John Inglett Fortescue* and the 6th Earl of Warwick, and one Humphrey Hall.2 A squabble evidently ensued. On 5 Oct. 1797 the Pittite John Rolle, now Lord Rolle, Member for Devon in the previous Parliament, who was related to Clinton and had acted as Orford’s manager at Callington in the 1780s, informed the minister:

By a decision of the lord chancellor the trust of the late Lord Clinton with respect to his landed property and boroughs is determined not to be in Mr Clevland under the will but in Mr Inglett Fortescue and Mr Hall under a deed. The two latter ... have ... thought proper to consult with me respecting the management of the boroughs. I am authorised to say that the three seats on any vacancy or dissolution ... shall be filled with friends of yours.3

On 16 Oct. 1797 Reichenberg wrote to an unknown correspondent, possibly Clevland, in terms which suggest that the executors still intended to set the trustees at defiances4, but it was apparently Rolle who was responsible for instigating the return in 1802 of Sir Hugh Inglis, a director of the East India Company who had lived in Devon for a period after his return from India.

Shortly after the formation of the ‘Talents’ ministry in 1806 the Foxite Lord St. John referred Lord Grenville to his cousin Ambrose who, as one of the Clinton trustees, was prepared to act ‘agreeably to my wishes’ regarding the boroughs.5 On 20 Mar. 1806 Clinton himself, now 18, wrote to Grenville from Wells, the home of Francis Drake, a retired diplomat and scion of an old Devon family, offering to return the premier’s nominee for Callington if, as expected, St. John vacated his seat. On the question of the disposal of all his seats at the next general election he declined to commit himself, but offered Grenville first refusal, ‘if I should then have the means of recommending’.6 Clevland later claimed that Clinton had commissioned him to offer the seats to government, which he had done in the spring of 1806, when he had learned that Clinton had been in direct communication with the Treasury and that Rolle and Inglett Fortescue had also been ‘busy about the boroughs’. In mid July Clinton, who had fallen under Drake’s influence, concluded terms with Grenville for disposal of his seats. Shortly afterwards Clevland told Grenville that he had ‘lately received two extraordinary letters’ from Clinton denying having authorized him to approach government; but, understanding that the offer had been made, he assured the minister that he had wanted to make it all along and requested payment of the appropriate sum into Clinton’s accounts, ‘subject to my order’.7

At the dissolution, government nominated for the Ashburton seat Gilbert Elliot, son of the 1st Earl of Minto, recently appointed governor-general of Bengal, who had to pay £4,000, which he considered excessive. Drake informed Grenville that Rolle was disgruntled that the patronage of the Clinton boroughs ‘should have slipped out of his hands’ and asked him to write a placatory letter. Grenville did so, but not before Rolle had written to Lord Auckland complaining that Clinton had ‘got into the hands’ of Drake, who was ‘making a fool of him for his own purpose and endeavouring to divide him from his relations and friends’. Rolle, who had decided to strike Clinton out of his will, conceded that Elliot was a ‘very proper candidate’, even though he was to ‘turn out’ his friend Inglis, and seems to have been primarily concerned with events at Callington, but he asked Auckland to warn Grenville that, if Clinton’s current advisers were allowed to continue in their present course, all three seats would be endangered, especially ‘if a suspicion gains ground they are sold which they have never been’. In reply to Grenville’s letter Rolle grudgingly acquiesced in the fait accompli, but restated his resentment and suspicion of Drake. Elliot, who was also involved in an unsuccessful bid for the Roxburghshire seat, was returned in absentia, but it was perhaps in consequence of Rolle’s hints that Minto enjoined on him utter secrecy ‘about the Treasury, and money, in the Ashburton business’.8

The Elliots got a poor return on their investment. The Portland ministry made advances to Clinton ‘for his parliamentary interest’ before they dissolved Parliament in April 1807, but St. John thought that Grenville’s personal intervention with Drake would keep them steady, and Elliot, determined to impress on Grenville that ‘he ought to bring me in again for Ashburton, considering the price’ Minto had paid, remained optimistic as late as 16 Apr., having heard that Clinton had again closed with Grenville. In the event Clinton and Drake found it expedient to return ministerialists for all three seats, though ‘under the conditions agreed upon’ when Drake had seen Grenville in London. Drake alleged that

any other arrangements would have been extremely hazardous at the present moment; and perhaps his lordship’s interest, strong as it is, might not have withstood the combined effect of the machinations by Lord Clinton’s own agents, and of the silly cry of No Popery and the Danger of the Church which has been so industriously kept on foot.9

The nominee for Ashburton was Lord Charles Bentinck, one of Portland’s impecunious younger sons, who attached himself to the Prince Regent in 1811 and in July 1812 was appointed to a post in the Household under Cholmondeley. He was safely re-elected in August, though his expenses, he claimed, exceeded £600. Cholmondeley had apparently contemplated attacking Clinton’s seats at the next general election, but changed his mind on learning that government were negotiating for them. There were doubts about Clinton’s real political allegiance however, and Lord Wellesley, ‘understanding’ that he had ‘not formed any engagement with the present administration’ and that he stood ‘equally independent of any other party’, made a bid for his interest at the dissolution. When Cholmondeley heard that ministers were ‘not sure of Lord Clinton’s boroughs’, he ‘lost no time in sending to beg Lord Charles Bentinck would go down to Ashburton from me’. He maintained that he would have been ‘pretty sure’ of success had he sent Bentinck down in time, but it was too late, and Richard Preston, a former local attorney who had since prospered as a conveyancer, was returned.10

Clinton had come of age in 1808, but he was away for long periods on active service in the Peninsula. In January 1813 Drake wrote to Charles Long:

With respect to the political conduct of Lord Clinton and his friends, he is now of an age to judge and decide for himself, though his late avocations have afforded him but few opportunities of turning his attention to political subjects and consequently of forming many political opinions. I have reason to believe, however, that the support of the crown, without reference to parties, will form the main and leading feature of it; and I know of no public questions on which he has made up his mind, except on the expediency of prosecuting the war in Spain with all the energy that the means of the country can afford and on the expediency of concessions to the Catholics.11

Preston proved extremely independent in the House and in 1818, notwithstanding a report that Clinton, who was later to support Catholic Emancipation and the Reform bill, was ‘in opposition’,12 he was replaced by the ministerialist lawyer John Singleton Copley later Lord Lyndhurst.

Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher


See H.J. Hanham, ‘Ashburton as a Parliamentary Borough, 1640-1868’, Trans. Devon Assoc. xcviii (1966), 206-56.

  • 1. Ibid. 231-2; Egerton 2137, f. 121; Norf. RO, Hamond mss, Mackreth to Hamond, 8 Feb., 1 Mar. 1794.
  • 2. PCC 631 Exeter; Hamond mss, receipt dated 25 Aug. 1794.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/173, f. 86.
  • 4. Devon RO, Clinton mss.
  • 5. Fortescue mss, St. John to Grenville [16 Feb. 1806].
  • 6. Fortescue mss.
  • 7. Ibid. Clinton to Grenville, 14 July, Grenville to Clinton, 16 July, Clevland to Grenville, 9 Aug. 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 237.
  • 8. Fortescue mss, Drake to Grenville, 21 Oct., Grenville to Rolle, 22 Oct., Rolle to Grenville, 30 Oct. 1806; Add. 34457, f. 104; NLS mss 11083, f. 20; 11740, ff. 135, 145.
  • 9. Fortescue mss, St. John to Grenville [9 Apr.], Drake to same, 22 May 1807; NLS mss 11087, ff. 38, 40.
  • 10. Geo. IV Letters, i. 171, 173; Add. 37297, f. 175.
  • 11. Hanham, 234.
  • 12. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 749.