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

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 8,000


28 June 1790JOHN ROLLE500
 Sir Charles Warwick Bampfylde, Bt.170
17 Oct. 1812SIR THOMAS DYKE ACLAND, Bt.840
 Samuel Colleton Graves19
13 May 1816 EDMUND POLLEXFEN BASTARD vice Bastard, deceased2338
 Hugh Fortescue, Visct. Ebrington1702
25 June 1818HUGH FORTESCUE, Visct. Ebrington4090
 Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, Bt.3804

Main Article

Devon’s size, scattered population and large electorate, which entailed heavy expense in transporting of voters to the poll at Exeter, were strong deterrents to would-be contestants. The contest of 1790 was the first for 78 years and another 26 elapsed before the next one worthy of the name. There was no commanding aristocratic influence and for most of this period electoral business proceeded in the time-honoured way, under the control of the wealthiest country gentlemen, with Members virtually guaranteed security of tenure once returned; but this tranquillity was shattered in 1816, when the old order was challenged and political issues made a significant intrusion.

There was a hint of excitement during the Regency crisis, when the sitting Members took opposite lines in the House. John Rolle, a soi-disant independent, in practice a zealous supporter of Pitt and heir to the largest estates in the county, voted with government, while John Pollexfen Bastard, who had been returned in 1784 as a supporter of administration, but had shown increasing independence, sided with opposition. Ministerialist sentiment, encouraged and manipulated by Rolle, ran strong in Devon, but Bastard seems to have silenced most of those who ventured to charge him with duplicity by making a ‘strong declaration of attachment to the minister’ at the county meeting in January 1789.1 The contest of 1790 was forced by a local Whig landowner, Sir Charles Warwick Bampfylde*, fresh from defeat at Exeter. He appealed to the dissenters, whose leaders had publicly resolved the previous October to ‘show a particular and marked attention at the ensuing general election to such candidates as we believe to be well-affected to civil and religious liberty’, and accused Rolle and Bastard, who combined, of stifling electoral independence. Although, according to Sir Robert Palk, a native of Ashburton who had bought property near Exeter with the spoils of his career in India, the county ‘was on the brink of confusion, by the means of a number of farmers at the election taking some offence at the candidates, more particularly against Mr Bastard’, Bampfylde had no real chance, not least because of his parlous financial position. He gave up after three days and Rolle boasted to the Duke of Leeds that he and Bastard ‘had all the principal gentlemen with us’.2

Bastard enjoyed unchallenged possession of his seat for life. Rolle could probably have done likewise, but he was ambitious for a peerage. In August 1794 he was asked to bide his time, apparently because Pitt did not wish to provoke an unnecessary by-election. He agreed to do so, but, maintaining that his decided support for ‘the established church and government’ had ‘offended the dissenters, a very numerous and opulent body in Devon, who are determined to retaliate by putting me to all the trouble and expense they can on my election’, staked his claim to elevation either on the death of his father, who had evidently renounced any personal interest in a peerage, or at the dissolution. The business was accordingly engineered in this fashion in 1796 when Palk’s son Lawrence, sitting Member for Ashburton, came forward to replace Rolle. There was a late intervention by James Buller of Downes, retiring Member for Exeter, but it went no further than the show of hands.3 Rolle succeeded his father in 1797 and, as the county’s largest and wealthiest landowner, became the natural leader of the ‘Church and King’ element.

When ill health forced Palk to retire at the dissolution of 1812 the 24-year-old Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, scion of an ancient and wealthy Devon family, offered himself. There were hints of an intended ‘independent’ appeal to radical sentiment, but the nomination, 12 Oct., when Bastard rested on his record of thoroughgoing independence and Acland promised to follow his example, passed off peacefully. Next day there appeared an address signed by ‘G’, who admitted that he could not afford a conventional contest, but sought freely given votes in support of religious liberty, peace, parliamentary, economical and tithe reform. On the day of the election, 15 Oct., the author revealed himself as Samuel Colleton Graves, son of Adm. Richard Graves of Hembury Fort, near Honiton. Both were members of the Hampden Club, and Graves made similar futile interventions at Bath, Haslemere and Taunton at this general election. He forced a poll, Bastard and Acland formally uniting against him, but the ensuing contest was a farce. It ended after three days, when Graves’s plan for keeping the poll open by recording one vote every hour until the arrival of his boasted army of voluntary supporters collapsed under the weight of the county’s indifference.4

When Bastard died abroad in April 1816 his nephew, who had sat for Dartmouth without drawing attention to himself since 1812, came forward, trading on his name and his uncle’s undisputed record of ‘firmness and independence’. He was challenged by Lord Ebrington, Whig Member for Buckingham, whose father Earl Fortescue, brother-in-law and political follower of Lord Grenville, was lord lieutenant of Devon from 1788 to 1839 and possessed considerable property in the north of the county. His initiative, apparently his own, seems to have been inspired by his desire to free himself from electoral dependence on the Grenvilles, from whom he had been drawing politically apart for some time. He stood as the advocate of economy, retrenchment and tithe reform. The Bastard camp put out exaggerated claims for their man’s record of independent opposition to the military establishment, sinecures and heavy taxation, denigrated Ebrington as the son of a peer and a party man and made much of his Grenvillite relatives’ impressive collection of sinecures, pensions and peerages.5 Lord Grenville doubted whether the truculent independence of the late Bastard and his nephew’s ‘rarity’ of attendance would ‘make government very anxious about his success’. He was, though, preferable to a Whig and had the ‘good wishes’ of Lord Sidmouth, the Home secretary, in his capacity as a Devon landowner. He also enjoyed the moral backing of the bishop of Exeter and the active support of such leading ministerialist landowners as Rolle, who worked ‘under the rose’ for him, Lord Morley, a Canningite, Lord Mount Edgcumbe, Sir John Leman Rogers*, Sir William Elford*, Sir Lawrence Vaughan Palk*, Sir William Pole of Shute House and Samuel Kekewich of Peamore. Ebrington could count on the Dukes of Bedford and Northumberland, Lords Egremont, Petre and King, and Bampfylde and Newton Fellowes* among the local Whig gentry, but he was badly prepared, short of money and handicapped by the distance of his natural sphere of influence from Exeter.6 Bedford wrote to Lady Holland, 9 May:

I have seen Ebrington. The real state of the case seems to be that he must go to a poll, that he will make a respectable show of independent yeomanry, who will come up at their own cost, but that he has no chance of success. He however will be at little or no expense, as he has no agency, no conveyances, none of the ordinary expenses of a contested election. His opponents on the contrary are full of activity and money, and the odds against him are so fearful both with regard to influence and the means of exerting that influence, that it would be next to a miracle were he to succeed against them; but all this we must keep to ourselves till the event is decided.7

Ebrington went to a poll, but gave up after six days when he trailed by over 600 votes, though he made it clear that he would be back. It was with some reluctance that his cousin, the Marquess of Buckingham, agreed to return him again for his old seat.

Within a month of the election the death of Bastard’s father made him head of the family, but the cost of his victory, over £17,000 according to the accounts in his papers, was a fearful burden on his inheritance. Ebrington, on the other hand, had made his presence felt at comparatively little cost, as much of his support had been freely given. There was cause for optimism also in the fact that Acland, who had proved a conscientious and independent Member, with the usual ideological bias towards government which characterized his type, had alienated many of his constituents by agreeing to move the address at the opening of the 1816 session and, still more, by voting for the renewal of the property tax and seeming to treat Devon petitions against it with a lack of candour. In October 1816 Ebrington accepted the invitation of a meeting of his supporters to stand at the next election. The original draft of his reply contains passages, subsequently scored through and omitted from the published version, qualifying his acceptance with the admission that he could not afford the customary expenditure and would be dependent on the voluntary efforts of his supporters. He later told his wife that he had been prevailed on ‘not to make in the first instance a public declaration which would give such an advantage to my opponents’, because so much in the electoral game ‘depends on brag and humbug’. A canvass was begun on his behalf by members of the Devon County Club, formed by the local Whigs after the by-election.8

Acland, already under attack in Whig propaganda as a ministerial time-server paying lip-service to independence, immediately followed suit, but Bastard, having explained his financial difficulties to Rolle and others, publicly declined, 13 Nov. 1816, to enter the contest, on the ground that recurrent heavy expenditure would impair his ability to preserve his independence. Some of his friends, who regarded Ebrington as the puppet of the Hampden Club, deemed Bastard’s withdrawal damagingly premature, but others thought it likely to stimulate a move to raise a subscription to defray the costs of his re-election. Bastard had been aware of this possibility, but whether it was his ultimate aim is not clear. In two subsequent exchanges, the first apparently private, the second certainly public, with a committee formed to promote his re-election free of expense, the earlier notion, favoured by Rolle among others, of linking him with Acland having been rejected, he declined their invitation to stand on these terms, ostensibly because a subsidy would be incompatible with his independence. At the same time, he did not rule out the possibility of his deciding, when the presumably distant dissolution occurred, to undertake the expense of a contest himself. Rolle accused him of throwing the game away, but Bastard made it clear in reply that considerable calculation lay behind his apparent indecision. He genuinely feared the expense of another contest in his present circumstances and claimed still to prefer the adoption of another candidate, but, unable to ignore the encouraging signs of support for his re-election, did not wish to put himself irrevocably out of the running, particularly as it was ‘possible that many circumstances may arise to induce me to stand forward taking the expense on myself’. The idea of a free return must have been tempting but, mindful perhaps of Acland’s recent scrape and conscious of the popularity he derived from his late uncle’s example of independence, he shied from committing himself at this early stage to a subscription, which might hamper his freedom of action (and diminish his stature as a self-reliant country gentleman) in the House in the period before a dissolution, while there was also the possibility that he might find himself at odds with his supporters on some contentious issue. On a more practical level, he was haunted by the spectre of finding himself at the head of the poll in the middle of a contest, only for the money to run out, leaving him with the unpleasant choice of reaching into his own pocket or giving up the fight.9

Meanwhile Ebrington and his supporters had gathered on Io Dec. 1816 to appoint a committee of some 250 to 300 who, according to a spy from the Bastard camp, ‘appeared to have been selected so as to form a chain of communication throughout the county’. The leading Bastardites responded with a warning not to engage voters and a series of meetings to endorse resolutions to nominate and support Bastard.10 In June 1817 Ebrington resigned his seat after finally parting company with the Grenvilles by opposing the suspension of habeas corpus, and confirmed his intended candidature for Devon at the next election. By October 1817 his returns indicated 4,600 promises (3,000 split votes and 1,600 plumpers) from 6,100 voters canvassed, but the ‘fearful consideration’ of money still worried him, as he understood that many of the distant voters would ‘require conveyance at least part of the way at my expense’. His decision to abide by his original resolution and make it clear, at a meeting of the ‘superintendents of hundreds’ appointed earlier, that he would ‘not pay anything whatever for the conveyance of votes to the poll’ but would only ‘provide them dinner and stable room when they come’, was made easier by the fact, not generally known, that he had received a promise of an alternative seat ‘upon the most unexceptionable terms’, in the event of his defeat. By January 1818 he was confident that even if Bastard was ‘prevailed on by all the promised support of his Tory friends’ to stand the contest, he and Acland would only have second place to fight for, and in March he put his network of ‘superintendents’ on the alert in anticipation of the dissolution.11

When it came Bastard, having negotiated the last two sessions without exciting controversy, accepted the offer of his leading supporters to try to return him free of expense. A general subscription, to boost which it was assumed ‘old Rolle is at last opening his enormous coffers’, was started on his behalf. Ebrington, adding ‘the cause of constitutional liberty’ to his economical reform platform, concentrated his attack on Acland as a covert ministerialist whose behaviour on the property tax and subsequent support for repressive legislation gave the lie to his boasts of independence. Three weeks before polling was due to begin he learnt that Acland and Bastard planned to unite and ask for split votes to counter his own strong appeal for plumpers, and when the junction was made public on 22 June he seized on it as confirmation of the existence of the cabal of wealth and influence which had so long stifled electoral freedom in Devon.12

Ebrington was always comfortably ahead in the voting and, as Rolle admitted later, ‘the popular cry was so strong’ against Acland that he had a rough passage on the hustings. By the sixth day, with 7,801 freeholders polled, Ebrington, who claimed over 3,000 plumpers in his total of 4,090, was safe. Acland trailed Bastard by only 16 votes but, resisting any temptation to fight on in the hope of overtaking his ally, he gave up the contest, a gesture which redounded much to his credit, though he was hardly in a position to do otherwise.13 Lord Liverpool called Ebrington’s ‘the greatest victory the opposition have obtained after London’, while Lord Glastonbury, a Grenville, thought it

a perfect phenomenon in the history of elections ... for when has it happened before, that such combined powers consisting of blue spirits, and white, black spirits and grey, swarming forth from the Treasury, the Excise, the Customs, the State and the Church with their toy shop bishop at their head, together with the weight of the magistracy (with very few exceptions) have been defeated ... by the virtue, and popularity and good management of a single opponent, aided only against such powerful and not very scrupulous allies by the spirit and enthusiasm of a stout though poverty-stricken yeomanry.

The lack of a poll book makes it impossible to test the accuracy of this assessment, but it seems likely that long and careful preparation and good organization were at least as important to Ebrington’s success as a popular spirit of rebellion against the charmed circle which had dominated Devon politics for so long, though there must have been a strong element of this. He was not without influential backing, most notably that of the Russells, nor was his victory won without cost. His uncle Thomas Grenville learnt from Lady Fortescue that ‘their bill will not be less than £10,000’, though this compared favourably with the £20,000 said to have been spent by Acland, and the liabilities of £13,000 incurred by Bastard’s supporters, whose subscription had realized only about half that sum. Sir John Rogers was said to be ‘in mortal terror’ lest he was found responsible for making up the deficit, and Grenville guessed that Rolle ‘had led the attack by the cry of allès instead of allons, mes enfants, for a good round sum from him might have cleared this account’.14

The lines of battle were immediately drawn for the next encounter. Ebrington’s opponents, ‘the Tories’ as he called them, began an active canvass and boasted over 1,000 pledges of support by August 1818. Lord Fortescue, who apparently approved his son’s electoral activities, despite their political differences, broke his long public silence on county politics at a celebration dinner at Barnstaple, 24 July, when he called for continued support for Ebrington in his struggle against ‘a cabal, which has for nearly half a century, kept this county in a state of thraldom, unparalleled in other counties’.15

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PRO 30/8/146, f. 151.
  • 2. Devon RO, Bastard mss, handbills of June 1790; PRO 30/8/165, f. 31; Add. 28066, f. 65.
  • 3. Sidmouth mss, Rolle to Addington, 3 Aug. 1794; True Briton, 2 June; Morning Chron. 4 June 1796.
  • 4. Spirit of Election Wit at Exeter and Devon (1812), 33-89.
  • 5. R. Cullum, Exeter and Devon Addresses (1818), 131-61.
  • 6. Add. 48223, f. 67; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Flood, 27 Apr.; Bastard mss, Pole to Bastard, 20 Apr., Elford to same, 24, 25 Apr., Palk to same, 29 Apr., Mount Edgcumbe to same, 30 Apr., bp. of Exeter to same, 3 May, Clarke to Holdsworth, 6 May 1816.
  • 7. Add. 51666.
  • 8. Add. 52180, Horner to Allen, 17 Sept.; Devon RO, Earl Fortescue mss FC 76, Ebrington to Chichester, 21 Oct. 1816; FC 75, Ebrington to his wife, 16 Oct. 1817; Cullum, 225-6; Exeter Flying Post, 18 July, 15 Aug. 1816.
  • 9. Cullum, 227-41; Sidmouth mss, Bastard to Sidmouth, 12 Nov.; Bastard mss, letters to Bastard from Holdsworth, 11 Nov., Kekewich, 13 Nov., Bayley, 14 Nov., Fulford, 25 Nov., Colwich, 30 Nov., Rolle, 16 Dec.; resolutions of meeting, 29 Nov.; Bastard to Colwich [early Dec.], to Rolle, 17 Dec. 1816.
  • 10. Bastard mss, ‘Heads of the proceedings at Lord Ebrington’s meeting’, 10 Dec. 1816; Cullum, 241, 243.
  • 11. Cullum, 242-3; Earl Fortescue mss FC 75, Ebrington to his wife, 15, 16 Oct., reply 17 Oct. 1817, secret circular, 31 Mar.; Fitzwilliam mss, Ebrington to Milton, 9 Jan. 1818.
  • 12. Cullum, 243-91; Bagot mss, Lyttelton to Bagot, 3 June 1818; HMC Fortescue, x. 437, 439.
  • 13. Cullum, 303-31; The Late Elections (1818), 82-108; Add. 38458, f. 271.
  • 14. Harewood mss, Liverpool to Canning, 6 July; Berks. RO, Braybrooke mss 6 C2, Glastonbury to Neville [July] 1818; HMC Fortescue, x. 442.
  • 15. Add. 51577, Ebrington to Holland, 14 July; HMC Fortescue, x. 442; Earl Fortescue mss, Fortescue’s speech, 24 July 1818.