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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 560 in 1790, rising to more than 800 in 1818


(1801): 9,421


 Richard Barry, Earl of Barrymore [I]255
5 June 1797 JOHN SIMEON vice Neville, called to the Upper House 
 John Simeon231
29 Oct. 1806JOHN SIMEON 
4 May 1807JOHN SIMEON 
 John Berkeley Monck286
 John Weyland303

Main Article

The absence of a dominant landed or manufacturing interest left Reading open, but only men with strong local connexions were likely to succeed. Earlier the borough had been notoriously venal, and after an apparent interlude of comparative respectability in the 1780s and 1790s, corruption, in the form of lavish treating, ostentatious municipal beneficence and widespread commercial racketeering, grew rife again. In 1809 a hostile observer alleged that a seat for Reading cost at least £4,000 in treats and other douceurs, ‘and this without any man actually receiving a farthing by way of a bribe’. With this regime the corporation, self-electing and unprogressive, became closely identified. While its once dominant electoral influence had declined throughout the 18th century, it still had some control over elections in 1790, and in 1809 it was estimated to be able to command almost 100 votes in its capacity as a landlord. Yet the voters of Reading enjoyed more actual and potential political freedom than those in many boroughs with electorates of similar size which were under patronage. The corporation became increasingly unpopular, particularly with the growing number of prosperous tradesmen and skilled craftsmen; and liberal and reforming sentiments, nourished by religious dissent, gained significant ground in the borough during this period.1

Both the Members returned in 17.384, Francis Annesley, a popular local man, whose brother was an alderman, and Richard Neville, son of a prominent Berkshire landowner, whose family had a long history of parliamentary connexion with Reading, voted with government on the Regency question. A Whig, Lord Sheffield*, canvassed the borough in September 1789 and remained in the field until the dissolution of 1790, but he transferred his attentions to Bristol at the last minute. A contest was forced by a late challenger Lord Barrymore*, an eccentric peer with an estate at Wargrave, who was seeking a refuge from his creditors. He made no personal canvass, but came a respectable third, without seriously threatening the incumbents. Political issues seem to have played no part in the contest. Annesley and Neville were supported unanimously by the corporation and overwhelmingly by the gentry, professional men and larger businessmen. The publicans showed a preference for Barrymore, probably from their traditional liking for a ‘third man’ to swell their profits, and a high proportion of his support (about 70 per cent) came from retailers, labourers, craftsmen and artisans.2

There was no disturbance in 1796. On Neville’s succession to a peerage in 1797 he was quietly replaced by John Simeon, a Chancery lawyer native to Reading and its recorder since 1779, whom Neville had beaten at the by-election of 1782. In 1802 Simeon was ousted with surprising ease by Charles Shaw Lefevre, a rich country gentleman with banking and City interests and friend and political follower of Henry Addington, who himself had strong local connexions and a vote for the borough. Comparatively few single votes were cast: Annesley received five, Simeon 24 and Lefevre 46. Some 68 per cent of Lefevre’s votes and 61 per cent of Simeon’s were splits shared with Annesley, who was well supported by all sections of the electorate. All ten members of the corporation who polled cast one vote for Annesley, but their second votes were divided between Simeon (6) and Lefevre (4). Simeon did better than Lefevre among the gentry and leading businessmen, but Lefevre had a slight edge with the professional men and a decisive preponderance of support among retailers, craftsmen, artisans and labourers, who contributed about 75 per cent of his total vote, as opposed to 50 per cent of Simeon’s and 55 per cent of Annesley’s. The votes of publicans were evenly divided between the three candidates.

Simeon sought to restore his position through his connexions with the corporation, from which he was later reputed to have received ‘a vast amount of political support’. In alliance with his brother Edward, a wealthy merchant and director of the Bank, he embarked on a programme of ostentatious charity, which included gifts to the poor, housing subscriptions and charitable donations. More subtle methods of persuasion were also used: local tradesmen received cheap loans and wholesale discounts, a traffic in the issue of public house licences was developed with the aid of magistrates and brewer members of the corporation, and leading inhabitants were won over by the judicious bestowal of Chancery, Bank and East India Company patronage. Lefevre, for his part, cultivated the borough with annual dinners and charity subscriptions.3

In 1806 Annesley retired, stating his unwillingness to resort to these ‘new and different measures’. Edward Simeon, believing that Annesley had transferred his interest to Lefevre, announced his intention of standing, professedly to protect the electorate from attempted dictation, but asked only for second votes and promised that he would stand down after three months. He did not carry out his threat, however, and his brother and Lefevre came in unopposed amid much mutual recrimination in the local press.4 They were again unchallenged in 1807, when opinion in the town was fairly evenly divided on the Catholic issue and the dismissal of the ‘Talents’, and Lefevre promised to resist increased expenditure and to expose abuses.5

In the 1807 Parliament Lefevre gradually drifted away from the Addingtonian group into independent opposition and developed progressive views on parliamentary and economical reform. At the same time, radical sentiment gained considerable ground in Reading and its pressure weighed more heavily on Simeon, a general though not servile supporter of government. In 1809 a meeting of over 1,000 inhabitants carried resolutions commending Lefevre for his consistent votes against the Duke of York, attacking placemen and pensioners and demanding reform, including triennial parliaments. An attempt to commend Simeon’s qualified censure of the duke was heavily defeated and a declaration was passed against the acceptance of treats and gratuities. The corporation and their allies were not mute, however, and in 1810, when petitions for reform and the release of Burdett were carried at a mass meeting, 70 of the leading inhabitants produced a counter-petition.6

In 1812 the challenge of John Berkeley Monck† of nearby Coley Park, a Whig reformer who had been active in Reading politics since at least 1806, was directed against Simeon. Monck, summoned from France at the last minute, managed only a brief canvass and stood partly on a purity of election platform. Simeon’s party were said to have spread false tales that Monck was a Catholic and to have carried bribery and treating to new heights. After a rowdy contest Lefevre and Simeon were comfortably returned.7 Over a third of the voters polled for Lefevre and Monck together, while one in four plumped for Simeon and provided 42 per cent of his total vote. Polarization was not universal, however, for there were 188 votes for Lefevre and Simeon together, which made up 48 per cent of the latter’s total. The corporation was split: seven members plumped for Simeon, three for Lefevre, six voted for both and a lone burgess plumped for Monck. Simeon drew over a third of his support from the gentry, professionals and publicans, Lefevre and Monck about a quarter each. About 67 per cent of Monck’s votes came from the retailers, labourers and craftsmen, while Lefevre drew some 64 per cent and Simeon only 45 per cent of their support from these quarters. About 38 per cent of the single votes for Simeon were cast by gentlemen, members of the corporation, professionals and publicans, as opposed to only 20 per cent of those for both Lefevre and Monck. A third of the Lefevre-Simeon votes came from these groups. Some 70 per cent of the Lefevre-Monck votes were polled by craftsmen, retailers, artisans and labourers, in sharp contrast to the 45 per cent of the Simeon plumpers who were so composed.

In 1813 Edward Simeon bequeathed over £4,000 to various charities in the borough, but in December 1816 his brother decided to retire at the next election. The corporation, ‘supposing they have still influence enough to return one Member’, made unsuccessful overtures to Richard Benyon* of Englefield and Robert Palmer of Sonning; and one of its members, William Simonds, the town’s leading brewer, in vain solicited Lord Sidmouth’s intervention with Palmer. Sidmouth did, however, let it be known that he approved the candidature of his friend John Weyland† of Hawthorn Hill, who offered himself. Weyland was challenged by Charles Fyshe Palmer, an advanced Whig who had a neighbouring estate. The campaign went on intermittently for 18 months, with Lefevre resting on his parliamentary record of reforming zeal, Palmer advocating retrenchment and reform, and Weyland restoration of the property tax to facilitate the repeal of duties on necessities. Weyland was considered to have the full backing of the corporation and Lefevre and Palmer to have joined forces against him. According to Weyland’s opponents, the mayor foisted overseers of a favourable persuasion on three parishes to tamper with the voters’ lists, but 30 new voters thus proposed were struck off. It was also alleged that Weylandite brewers threatened their tenants with eviction unless they voted satisfactorily, that the dissenting ministers, under pressure from ‘the heads of their congregations’, who included prominent brewers and doctors, voted for Weyland, but that the rank and file did not follow their lead and that money was given for votes. Lefevre and Palmer, on the other hand, were reported to have stood openly against bribery and treating. The lack of a pollbook makes it impossible to test the accuracy of this picture, but Lefevre and Palmer were comfortably returned, and the latter’s success in particular was hailed in sympathetic quarters as ‘the triumph of independence’. Celebrations were renewed in March 1819 when a petition against Palmer’s return, on the ground that his wife’s pension made him ineligible, an objection originally lodged during the election but overruled by the recorder, was rejected by the Commons.8

Author: David R. Fisher


See A. Aspinall, Parliament through Seven Centuries (1962), 79-93; R. C. J. F. Bailey, ‘Parl. Rep. Reading during 18th and 19th Cent.’ (Reading Univ. M.A. thesis, 1944).

  • 1. [J. Man], Stranger in Reading (1810), 178-85; VCH Berks. iii. 362-3.
  • 2. Reading Mercury, 21, 28 Sept. 1789; Ginter, Whig Organization, 165; J. R. Robinson, Last Earls of Barrymore, 165-7.
  • 3. ‘Octogenarian’, Reminiscences of Reading, 186-7; Stranger, 179-81; ‘Detector’, Letters to Stranger in Reading (1810), 42-51; Reading Mercury, 24 Sept. 1804; Bailey, 37-39.
  • 4. Reading Mercury, 20 Oct., 3, 10 Nov., 8, 15 Dec. 1806.
  • 5. J. Man, Hist. Reading, 99-100; Aspinall, 88.
  • 6. Man, 102-3, 108-11; W. M. Childs, Reading during early 19th Cent. 65.
  • 7. Bailey, 143; ‘Octogenarian’, 131-2.
  • 8. [W. Turner], Reading 70 Years Ago ed. Ditchfield, 60-83; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Simonds, 16 Dec., to Golding, 19 Dec. 1816; C. F. Palmer, Letter to Electors of Reading (1818); Add. 47235, f. 35; Life of Mary Russell Mitford ed. L’Estrange, ii. 31-32; Letters of Mary Russell Mitford (ser. 2), i. 56; CJ, lxxiv. 59, 234.