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 inhabitant householders and in the freemen

Number of voters:

about 600


(1801): 3,360


16 June 1790JOHN CALVERT315
 William Baker259
 James Brownlow William Cecil, Visct. Cranborne256
6 Feb. 1817 JAMES BROWNLOW WILLIAM CECIL, Visct. Cranborne, vice Cowper, vacated his seat 

Main Article

Hertford was invariably represented by the local gentry, and as the corporation could not make more than three honorary freemen the competition was limited. In 1790 William Baker* of Bayfordbury tried to regain the seat which he had won in 1780 and lost to John Calvert of Albury in 1784. The other candidate, Nathaniel Dimsdale, was the heir of the retiring Member and, like Calvert, well disposed to Pitt’s government, which Baker opposed. The Dimsdales, physicians and bankers, were said to have the ‘principal interest in this borough’; they enjoyed the confidence of the local Quaker community. Calvert was thought less secure. He had a troublesome critic in John Hale, a Hertford attorney, of whom the Duke of Portland wrote, ‘I know he has been hawking about his pretended interest in Hertford to everybody he thought would bite’. Since 1780 James Cecil, 1st Marquess of Salisbury, had been high steward of the borough and Calvert was regarded as his protégé. Accordingly it was to Salisbury’s brother-in-law Arthur Hill, Lord Fairford, that Hale first pledged his support at the next vacancy, 7 Jan. 1789. He added: ‘I shall not join the Dimsdale standard as from the moment I declared for your lordship, I endeavoured to reduce the interest of that house.’ Fairford did not take advantage of the offer, but remained au fait with corporation affairs. Hale invited Lord Burford* to stand, but the latter was Earl Fitzwilliam’s choice at Hull and discovered that Hale overrated himself. Hale extended his invitation to William Baker, who refused it, ‘supposing the grounds on which Mr Hale went were not of any great consequence’. Baker then had no intention of owing his candidature to Hale. Lord Salisbury took credit for Baker’s failure when he informed the King of it: his satisfaction was premature, as Baker went on to win a county seat.1

Relations between the Dimsdales and the representatives of Salisbury’s interest were uneasy. When Nathaniel Dimsdale obtained an aldermanic gown in 1789, Lord Fairford’s agent Rooke alleged:

it is unnecessary for me to hint the consequence of the baron’s coming in, with respect to division or otherwise, more than it might be better to have had one more inclined as your own friend, yet that it’s pleasant to be fully satisfied that he cannot well go against the present idea of interests to be supported.

In 1792 Baron Dimsdale wrote to Lord Hillsborough (as Fairford had become), in dispute over a lease:

I take this opportunity of renewing my assurances that I wish to contribute to your lordship’s pleasure ... but I know not how it has happened that I have not been so fortunate to be so thought of by your lordship, which I confess has given me concern.

The sitting Members were spared a contest in 1796. John Calvert, for whom Salisbury obtained ministerial good will, reported:

I had, as you may have heard, a little bustle at Hertford, but as Mr [Thomas] Brand* was more easily convinced than Mr Waddington [candidate at St. Albans] and declined the contest the day before the election, all went off quietly.

(Brand was the agent for an invitation to Henry Brougham* to offer himself in 1812, but he advised him to decline it.)2

In 1802 the Dimsdale interest lapsed with Nathaniel’s retirement. He was replaced by a son of Lord Cowper, who had previously represented the borough and whose interest had been given to Dimsdale and Calvert. This arrangement met with no opposition and Cowper claimed, when he applied to Pitt for office in 1804, that his re-election would be a matter of ‘no doubt’.3 In 1806 there was a threat of opposition, to be directed against Cowper, by Col. Stedman Rawlins of Hoddesdon (a native of St. Kitts) who canvassed in August at the instigation of Alington, an attorney who had quarrelled with Cowper over Hertfordshire volunteers’ business. Cowper’s colleague Calvert was uneasy: ‘he may shoot at a pigeon and kill a crow’. But Rawlins found he stood no chance: soon afterwards he had to abscond for debt.4

Cowper was again the object of opposition in 1812, but this time from a more formidable quarter, Salisbury’s son Viscount Cranborne being now of age and switching his aspirations from the county to the borough. This transfer was described by William Lamb as ‘a sort of judgement upon the family for Ld. Cowper’s somewhat shuffling between Sebright and Cranborne in the county’. Calvert was embarrassed, refused to join forces with Cranborne, but sought ‘to avoid all appearance of coalition’ with Cowper. His wife wrote of this ‘most unexpected and vexatious’ contest, ‘we all abominate that miserable little animal Lord Cranborne for giving all this trouble and expense’. Calvert headed the poll and was well received; Cowper, who kept Cranborne at bay, not so, but the rowdy element encouraging Cranborne would not give their man a hearing either.5 Cranborne had staked his claim, and on Cowper’s retirement in 1817 vacated another seat to succeed to this one. Lady Salisbury assured the prime minister that there was no danger of a contest—a day’s canvass sufficed.6

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, i. 313; Ginter, Whig Organization, 83; PRO NI, Downshire mss D607/B/228; Fitzwilliam mss, box 40, Burford to Fitzwilliam [26 June], 3 July 1789; Spencer mss, Spencer to his mother, 25 June 1790; Geo. III Corresp. i. 605; London Chron. 15 July 1790.
  • 2. Downshire mss D607/B/229, 335; HMC Verulam, 169; Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey, Fri. [18 Sept. 1812].
  • 3. Fortescue mss, Cowper to Grenville, 24 May, Salisbury to same, 24 May 1796; PRO 30/8/126, f. 180.
  • 4. Herts. RO, Baker mss 3, ff. 361, 369, 375; Diary of Rev. Wm. Jones ed. Christie, app. B; Spencer mss, Carter to Spencer, 18 Feb. 1807.
  • 5. Warrenne Blake, Irish Beauty, 187, 189; Roden mss, Lamb to Lady Melbourne, 9 Oct. 1812.
  • 6. Add. 38264, f. 144.