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 3,000


23 June 1790THOMAS POWYS 
1 June 1796THOMAS POWYS 
2 Aug. 1797 WILLIAM RALPH CARTWRIGHT vice Powys, vacated his seat 
12 Nov. 1806JOHN CHARLES SPENCER, Visct. Althorp2085
 Sir William Langham, Bt.1331

Main Article

There had been no contest for the county since 1748 and its representation remained in the hands of the country gentlemen until 1806, despite the strength of the aristocratic landowners, who were evidently disinclined to dispute it.1 In 1784, by a compromise, the Foxite Powys of Lilford was joined by a Pittite, Langham of Cottesbrooke. Sir James Langham informed Pitt, 4 Jan. 1788, that although he had not ‘the least doubt’ of re-election, he feared that his ‘precarious state of health’ would induce him to decline. He applied, in vain, for a peerage. Langham duly retired and his friends applied to Francis Dickins, the Member for Cambridge, to replace him. In Earl Spencer’s jaundiced view, 6 Aug. 1806, Dickins was ‘originally brought forward out of Suffolk without being in any degree known to the county and has continued to represent it (attending, I allow, very assiduously to the duties of a magistrate in the county) rather by sufferance than in any other tenure’. Dickins’s own view was that he had given up a safe seat, at the request of the independent gentry, to help preserve the county’s peace. On the outbreak of war, Powys went over to government. When Sir Justinian Isham, whose family had represented the county from 1698 to 1772, was urged by Sir English Dolben to stand as an independent, 7 Jan. 1796, he refused, pleading old age.2 Another person thought of in 1796 was young Cartwright of Aynho, scion of another county parliamentary family; and when Thomas Powys resigned his seat, 13 July 1797, for reasons of health, in anticipation of the peerage which was his reward for political conversion, Cartwright came in unopposed. To quote Powys, writing to Earl Spencer, 14 July, ‘there seems no probability of any other candidate appearing’.3

Yet Sir William Langham, son of the former Member, writing to Pitt, 16 Dec. 1797, affected to be ‘greatly hurt at being excluded from the chance of representing the county ... without disturbing the present Members who are both attached to government’. Then, and in December 1804, he renewed his father’s plea for a peerage.4 In July 1806, on the ‘generally received idea’ that Dickins would not stand at the next election owing to financial difficulties, Earl Spencer authorized his heir, Viscount Althorp, like himself a member of the Grenville administration, to offer at the assizes. Langham at once came forward as the champion of the independent gentry against the aristocratic intruder: unlike Dickins he had a long purse, and those who wished to see the old Members returned were in despair.5 Samuel Isted, for instance, wrote to Spencer, who had employed him to find out Dickins’s intentions, that as the latter had not ‘forfeited the confidence of the county’ and offered himself for re-election, disdaining a canvass, Althorp was in danger of turning out a man ‘whose only fault is poverty’. He advised Althorp to offer himself at a county meeting and then withdraw on a show of hands, as a pledge of his future pretensions.6 Spencer, encouraged by the ‘early declaration in our favour of many of the leading interests’, which the Marquess of Buckingham claimed credit for obtaining for him, would not withdraw Althorp: he did not think Dickins could ‘with propriety’ stand again, nor did he see why he should compensate him with a borough seat: ‘how’, he asked, ‘is that to satisfy Sir William Langham?’7

Langham was thought to have no chance, but presented a threat because he might be induced ‘to support Dickins and to pay his bills’. On 4 Nov. 1806, however, Langham’s committee at Daventry denied that Langham and Dickins had united ‘on the Fawsley interest’ (i.e. at the instigation of Charles Knightley of Fawsley). The Spencers hoped that Langham would not persevere, but his opposition was ‘pointed against Lord Althorp’ (his friends claimed that he was ‘actuated more by a constitutional jealousy of Lord Althorp, than by any over-anxiety to represent the county himself’), and on nomination day (5 Nov.) it was, as predicted, Dickins who retired after a show of hands in favour of Althorp and Cartwright. Althorp, citing an instance in his own family of a peer’s son representing the county, rejected a proposal of Sir William Dolben’s*, taken up by Langham, that they should both retire in favour of the sitting Members.8 Cartwright was also hostile to Althorp at the meeting, which cleared away, the latter informed his father, ‘all suspicions of a junction’: Althorp had not been averse to such an understanding, but most of his supporters were. Cartwright, for the same reason, publicly denied any junction on 10 Nov. In the event, Langham fared badly at the poll and gave up. Althorp, who had 2,000 promises but overestimated the electorate at 4,000, thought he owed his heading the poll to Earl Fitzwilliam, to whom he wrote, 16 Nov., ‘nothing could withstand Cartwright’s plumpers from his side of the county but yours from the south’, and he added that he was pleased ‘that the old Tory interest of the county is so totally defeated’. Althorp’s superiority among the plumpers was certainly decided by the Peterborough contingent. He and Cartwright shared about 900 votes, and even with Langham he shared more than did Cartwright. In fact, local and personal issues seem to have determined the result rather than political questions, though Cartwright and Langham were both regarded as in opposition to the government. They did not see eye to eye, however, Cartwright being criticized as an undeviating Pittite by Langham’s friends, who also accused him of favouring the slave trade. Many of these were dissenters and regarded Cartwright as hostile to them. Spencer thought his son had rescued the county ‘from a very inadequate representation in Parliament’.9

The election of 1806 was sufficiently expensive to discourage future contests for many years: Cartwright could ill afford it and took five years to pay his bills. Langham, who was regarded as the only threat, publicly declined to stand in 1807. Anti-Catholic views prevailed at a county meeting, 16 Apr., and were upheld by Cartwright and Francis Paul Stratford. Althorp could be confident of the support of the dissenters.10 But he admitted in 1809 that his politics were ‘so unpopular’ that it was only by ‘personal friendships’ that he was able to ‘make head against the Tory interest of Cartwright’ and he was unwilling to risk a county meeting. At the election of 1812, the Members decided to address the freeholders through the Northampton Mercury, rather than start a canvass which might stir things up, and nothing had come of rumours that the Duke of Grafton might offer his heir.11 Sir James Langham, brother to Sir William who died in 1812, was thought of in 1814 as a possible aspirant, but as Althorp informed his father, 31 Mar. 1815, ‘he is quite out of the question as to the county, his having refused to be steward at the races next year is quite decisive’.12 In February 1818 Althorp was on the alert against an anonymous opponent who had advertised. He believed it must be Otway, ‘for he is descended from an old Northamptonshire family, and is not of it himself’.13 Nothing came of the threat. There was no change until the Whig triumph of 1831.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iv. 272; E. G. Forrester, Northants. Elections and Electioneering 1695-1832.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/150, f. 86; Spencer mss, Spencer to his mother, 11 June 1790, to Isted, 6 Aug. 1806; Forrester, 88; Northants. RO, Isham mss IC2933.
  • 3. Northants. RO, Cartwright mss C(A)7699; Spencer mss.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/150, ff. 88-90.
  • 5. Spencer mss, Spencer to Finch Hatton, 11 Aug. 1806; ‘Althorp Letters’, 46; Reflections on the contest for the co. of Northampton: Supplementary argument against electing heirs apparent to seats in the House of Commons; Spencer mss, reply to the latter; Remarks on the procs. at the late contest for the co. of Northampton.
  • 6. Spencer mss, ‘Althorp Letters’, 47; Isted to Spencer, 4, 8 Aug. 1806.
  • 7. Spencer mss, Mq. of Buckingham to Lady Spencer, 12 July, Spencer to his mother, 30 July, to Isted, Aug. 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 436.
  • 8. Fremantle mss, box 46, Buckingham to Fremantle, 5 Sept. 1806; Cartwright mss C(A)7928; Spencer mss, Isted to Spencer, 2 Nov., Lady to Ld. Spencer, 8 Nov. 1806; Remarks on the procs. 13; Northampton Mercury, 8 Nov. 1806.
  • 9. Spencer mss, ‘Althorp Letters’, 47, 49, 51, 52; Althorp to Spencer, 5 Nov. 1806; Cartwright mss C(A)7964, 8165; Fitzwilliam mss, box 70.
  • 10. Forrester, 118; Spencer mss, Isted to Spencer, 2 Nov. 1806; ‘Althorp Letters’, 58; Mq. of Buckingham to Spencer, 29 Apr., Spencer to his mother, 4 May 1807; HMC Fortescue, ix. 136; Northampton Mercury, 18 Apr., 2 May 1807; The Speech of Francis Paul Stratford esq. (Northampton, 1807).
  • 11. Berks. RO, Pleydell Bouverie mss 025 68, Althorp to Folkestone, 26 Mar. 1809; Spencer mss, Harrison to Spencer, 1 Oct. 1812.
  • 12. Spencer mss.
  • 13. Ibid. ‘Althorp Letters’, 86.