Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Estimated number qualified to vote:

Eabout 4,000



Main Article

Between 1754 and 1805 Hertfordshire, a fecund agricultural county, experienced a period of electoral turbulence which made it the most frequently contested county in England: eight of the 11 elections which occurred between those years went to a poll, and there were five successive contests between 1784 and 1805. Thereafter the county was comparatively tranquil, and there were no further contested elections before the passage of the Reform Act. From 1807, when a sometimes uneasy compromise was reached among the competing territorial interests, one seat was occupied as an independent by the eccentric Sir John Sebright of Beechwood, near Hemel Hempsted, who in general acted in the House with the Whig opposition, though he was emphatically not a party man. The other was secured by the Whig Thomas Brand of The Hoo, near Welwyn, a leading advocate of moderate parliamentary reform, who enjoyed strong support from the county’s many Dissenters, a significant force in Hertfordshire politics.1 When Brand succeeded his mother as 20th Lord Dacre in October 1819, he was replaced by William Lamb, the son and heir of the aged 1st Viscount Melbourne of Brocket Hall, near Hatfield, a lord of the bedchamber, and brother-in-law of the Whig 5th Earl Cowper of Panshanger, near Hertford. Although Lamb, a Whig of an extremely conservative cast, was not the first preference of the county’s opposition activists, he had the crucial support of the two leading Tory peers, the 1st marquess of Salisbury of Hatfield House, the lord lieutenant and a joint-postmaster, and the 1st earl of Verulam, the county’s largest landowner and the premier Lord Liverpool’s brother-in-law, whose seat was at Gorhambury, near St. Albans. Salisbury, now turned 70, had once aspired to dominate the county, but had not managed to do so: his son and heir Lord Cranborne* had withdrawn in 1812 despite a supposedly promising canvass, and Salisbury had to be content with securing his return for Hertford in 1817. Verulam, whose father had sat for the county with Salisbury’s backing in the 1784 Parliament, had no suitable member of his family available as a possible candidate: his son and heir Lord Grimston* would not come of age until early in 1830.

At the general election of 1820 Sebright offered again as ‘the independent representative of independent constituents’. Lamb, who had pursued a middle course on the recent repressive legislation, claimed that in doing so he had tried to ‘secure the public tranquillity’ and at the same time to ‘preserve the rights of the people from infringement or diminution’. There was no hint of ‘difficulty or opposition’, as Lamb reported to Lord Fitzwilliam. Three days after the election the county met to vote condolences and congratulations to George IV.2 Lamb wrote about his election to his brother Frederick, 3 May 1820:

Everybody behaved very kindly and handsomely about it ... The seat is a very pleasant and independent one ... The drawback is that there is always hanging over you the fear of an expensive contest ... William Hale [junior of King’s Walden, Verulam’s first cousin] has £10,000 ready to spend ... even with the certainty of losing the election, for the sake of putting himself in a position to win the next ... I do not think there is much need for living well and keeping company at Brocket, as you apprehend. Brand, and still more Sebright, for the former save for that entertainment at the races, have so accustomed the county to their Members riding with saddlebags, without a groom, dressing worse than common farmers ... that nothing more is now expected of them.3

Petitions complaining of agricultural distress were presented to the Commons, 17, 19 May 1820.4 The county did not meet in support of Queen Caroline, but there were widespread celebrations of the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties in November. In one such incident the 7th earl of Bridgwater, a supporter of the measure, who had residences in the Berkhampstead area, was pelted with animal entrails as he passed through Watford.5 There were further petitions for relief from agricultural distress from various parts of Hertfordshire, 23, 26 Feb. 1821.6 In January 1822 Dacre, Nicolson Calvert of Hunsdon, near Ware, the independent Member for Hertford, Sir Culling Smith of Bedwell Park, near Hatfield, and William Baker of Bayfordbury, a former Member, promoted a county meeting to consider the problem. Salisbury, Cranborne, Bridgwater and Verulam attended the meeting, 1 Feb., when Dacre, ruling out increased protection or currency reform, advocated agitation for a reduction in taxation, including repeal of the malt tax. George Fordham junior, a member of an old Hertfordshire family of Dissenters with a banking business in Royston, and a follower of William Cobbett†, took exception to the bland petition proposed by Dacre and called for a specific demand for repeal of the taxes on malt, beer, salt, leather, soap and candles. He denounced the large standing army, corruption in church and state, and excessive public expenditure, and criticized the county Members for failing to vote often enough in support of Hume’s campaign for economy and retrenchment. He was seconded by Rowland Alston of Pishiobury, near Bishop’s Stortford, who also attacked the corn laws because they increased the price of food. Lamb expressed his willingness to present the original petition, but repudiated Fordham’s amendment as ‘an instruction’ to a delegate, which he refused to countenance. He warned of the dangers of seductive economic theories; declared his support for all retrenchment which was consistent with public safety; pleaded illness as a reason for his failure to appear in some of Hume’s divisions, though he considered many of them to have been brought forward in ‘a tone and spirit of opposition, in which he could not participate’; and refused to surrender his right to exercise his independent judgement as a Member. Cranborne made a plea for unity, dismissing parliamentary reform as irrelevant and the cry for economies as largely delusive. Fordham’s brother Edward made a personal attack on Lamb and put the case for reform, before Sebright, who admitted the prevalence of distress but pointed out that all Europe was paying the price of the war, defended his parliamentary record on retrenchment and, like Lamb, refused to be dictated to by his constituents. Although Edward King Fordham, George’s uncle, concurred in his amendment, he supported Dacre’s successful plea for its withdrawal. In conclusion, Salisbury declined to oppose the petition, but pronounced that it would achieve nothing. A few more petitions calling for relief from heavy taxation were presented to the Commons in February and March 1822.7

In February 1823 Dacre, the Whig 5th earl of Essex, who had a residence at Cassiobury, near Watford, and Calvert put their names at the head of a requisition for a county meeting to consider petitioning for parliamentary reform. The sheriff, Robert Sutton of Rossway, objected to the inclusion of the word ‘inhabitants’, which he thought departed from the customary form, but he did not obstruct the meeting, which took place on 8 Feb. Hale proposed a petition calling for ‘a speedy and effectual reform’, but George and Edward Fordham intervened with an amendment demanding taxpayer suffrage, annual parliaments, the abolition of sinecures and unmerited pensions, reduction of public salaries and of the army, and the sale of crown and church lands. This radical programme was too much for Dacre, who objected strongly to the infringement of legitimate property rights. Once again, Edward King Fordham urged his nephews to withdraw their amendment, which he said played into the hands of the enemies of all reform. Sebright, a long-standing supporter of moderate reform, declared his preference for the scheme put to the Commons by Dacre in 1810 and condemned both extremists and reactionaries. He was well received, but Lamb was given a rough ride as he seemed to defend rotten boroughs and stated his opposition to ‘any sudden and extensive changes’, in which he included the redistribution plan currently advocated by Lord John Russell; he was only willing to countenance ‘amelioration’ of blatant ‘vices’. He was followed by Samuel Grove Price* of Knebworth, a young barrister of extreme Tory views, who ridiculed the portrayal of reform as ‘an universal nostrum for every evil’, but was forced into silence by the tumult which erupted when he tried to demonstrate, citing Hume and Paley, that the danger to the balanced constitution came from the preponderance of its popular element. Only three hands were held up in favour of the Fordhams’ amendment and against the original petition, which Sutton refused to sign on behalf of the meeting. Sebright presented it without comment, 13 Mar. 1823.8 An attempt the following month by John George Fordham of Odsey to get up a requisition for another county meeting to petition for a reduction of taxes which bore on the agriculturists and immediate repeal of the beer tax was unsuccessful.9 On Salisbury’s death in June 1823 Liverpool recommended Verulam for the lord lieutenancy, the ‘usual practice’ whereby the position was not if possible allowed to pass from father to son thus proving highly convenient for him and his brother-in -law. (Peel deviated from this custom when he appointed Verulam’s son on his death in 1845, which resulted in the lieutenancy being executed from Gorhambury for 69 consecutive years.) Liverpool had ruled out Cowper on political grounds, and in answer to Peel’s question said that he had not overlooked Bridgwater, but had considered his age and poor health (he died four months later) and the fact that he interfered very little in county business, to be decisive disqualifications.10

The county produced petitions for repeal of the duties on seaborne coal and the abolition of slavery in 1824 and 1825.11 Some months before a dissolution was rumoured in September 1825, Lamb had become aware that he had lost much of his Whig support through his conduct in Parliament, where he had attended only spasmodically, voted more often with government than with opposition and continued to resist reform. On the other hand, his support for Catholic relief had damaged him with the 2nd marquess of Salisbury and Verulam. His reluctance to fight what seemed to be an inevitable contest was reinforced by his father’s failing health, which would result in his removal to the Lords sooner rather than later. On the advice of his friends he announced that he would not seek re-election for ‘personal and private considerations’; and in his room came forward Calvert, whose politics were broadly similar to Sebright’s and who took his leave of Hertford. The impression of collusion was strengthened when Lamb immediately declared his candidature for the borough.12 The county generated more anti-slavery petitions during the 1826 session,13 but its agriculturists seem not to have been unduly alarmed by the government’s revision of the corn laws, although Sebright opposed it in the House. There was talk of an opposition to Sebright and Calvert at the 1826 general election, but none materialized. The only disturbance was Price’s anti-Catholic rant and denunciation of both candidates for their consistent support for relief at the nomination meeting, when he was backed up by one Williams. Sebright and Calvert reiterated their belief that emancipation, as well as being an act of justice, was the only sensible solution to the problems posed by Irish disaffection. At the election formalities there was a call for reform, which both Sebright and Calvert had always supported.14

They also voted in 1828 for repeal of the Test Acts, for which Hertfordshire Dissenting communities had long been agitating.15 In October 1828 Price was prominent in an attempt to get up a county meeting to oppose concession of Catholic claims, but Verulam, despite his personal hostility to relief, vetoed the plan, which was abandoned. Lady Cowper told Lord Holland that the local opinion was that the Brunswickers ‘would have been beat’ if it had come to the crunch.16 Anti-Catholic agitation, in which Price was joined by Samuel Unwin Heathcote of Shephalbury, near Stevenage, was confined to the localities, though after the ministerial plan had been unveiled in February 1829 a requisition was got up for a county meeting. Verulam, who felt ‘in a degree compromised with the people of Hertfordshire’, was initially sorely tempted to give it his backing; but after consulting the duke of Wellington, the prime minister, whom he was reluctant to oppose, he seems to have distanced himself from the affair. The sheriff, Charles Phelips of Briggins Park, near Ware, eventually declined to call a meeting on the ground that it would pose a threat to public order in the prevailing atmosphere of ‘extraordinary excitement’.17 Sebright and Calvert of course supported emancipation in the House, while Verulam and Salisbury opposed it in the Lords.

In March 1830 Alston and Fordham of Odsey promoted a county meeting to consider agricultural distress and petition for repeal of the taxes on beer and malt and parliamentary reform. Those present on the 13th included Verulam, Salisbury, Melbourne (as Lamb now was) and Thomas Robert Dimsdale of Camfield Place, near Hatfield, as well as Sebright and Calvert and the Members for Hertford, Salisbury’s nominee Thomas Byron and the radical Whig Thomas Duncombe, who seconded the resolutions moved by Fordham. Dacre was too ill to attend, but indicated by letter his support for the objects of the meeting. Salisbury, arguing that reform had no relevance to distress, moved an amendment to expunge reference to it from the petition, which was seconded by Melbourne and supported by Price. Sebright confirmed his commitment to reform, without entering into specifics, while Calvert made no bones of his approval of much that the Wellington ministry had achieved, though he threatened to oppose them if they did not make adequate tax reductions. Salisbury’s amendment was heavily defeated, and Sebright and Calvert endorsed the prayer of the petition when the former presented it, 16 Mar.18 Neither of them took much part in the ensuing opposition campaign for economy and retrenchment, but they both confirmed their continued support for a measure of reform. In May 1830 the agriculturists of Hertfordshire agitated for the imposition of a duty on rum commensurate with that proposed to be levied on corn spirits.19

Sebright and Calvert offered again at the general election of 1830. A report that Joseph Andrew Latour of Hexton House, near Hitchin, was a contender was soon discounted, and Byron told Salisbury that Phelips had turned down an invitation to stand from local Tories. Price, who claimed that Sebright had experienced a ‘most unsuccessful canvass’, which he had ‘acknowledged ... in an incautious manner’, tried to persuade Salisbury to back Unwin Heathcote, whom ‘several most respectable freeholders’ wished to put up. Salisbury poured cold water on the project:

Heathcote’s starting at so late a period would, if we had anybody in view for another election, be highly impolitic. The ground is already occupied and his strong opinions will tend to detach persons from the Tory party who would otherwise by degrees fall into it. Success, unless Sebright is frightened by the appearance of a contest, is hardly to be expected. There seems, however, such an impossibility to bring forward a person who would have a better chance at a future time, I have no great objection to the attempt. I shall support Heathcote to the utmost of my power if he comes forward, although I will not be active in beginning a contest which does not appear to me to hold out a reasonable prospect of success at this very late period for such an undertaking.

Nothing came of the plan, and the sitting Members were quietly returned.20

A county meeting to petition for the abolition of slavery, 5 Nov. 1830, was addressed mainly by clergymen, but Calvert showed his face and declared his support. Similar petitions were subsequently got up at Watford, Baldock and Berkhampstead.21 Hertfordshire was only marginally affected by the ‘Swing’ disturbances. There was petitioning for repeal of the coal duties in February 1831.22 Sebright and Calvert voted against the Wellington ministry on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, and supported their successors’ reform bill when it came before the House early in 1831. There was no county reform meeting, but petitions in support of the measure were got up at Watford, Ware, Tring and Bishop’s Stortford, following earlier petitions for reform in general from Royston and Bishop’s Stortford. As the new sheriff, Dimsdale petitioned personally to approve the reform bill, 28 Mar. 1831.23 A requisition inviting Sebright and Calvert to stand at the next election was in circulation well before the snap dissolution. Salisbury tried to persuade Abel Smith of Woodhall Park, near Hertford, Member for Wendover, to come forward as an anti-reformer, encouraging him to believe that ‘the threat of an opponent would drive them both out of the field’. Smith would have none of it.24 Sebright and Calvert duly stood, though the latter admitted publicly that had the 1830 Parliament lasted for a normal length of time he would have retired, being now too old, at almost 67, to do justice to his responsibilities as a Member. Salisbury failed with a late approach to Latour, who pleaded fear of ‘an expense I could at present ill afford’.25 At the last minute Salisbury persuaded a supposedly reluctant Verulam to start Grimston, who had just been humiliatingly defeated by two reformers at St. Albans, having only been returned there the previous summer. The marquess was reported to have made a personal contribution of £500, and a subscription was opened to finance Grimston’s candidature. Corresponding measures were taken on behalf of the sitting Members. The anti-reformers’ late challenge ended in fiasco, as Grimston backed down at the nomination, when he admitted that his hurried canvass had revealed that he had ‘no prospect of success, owing to the general feeling in favour of reform’. Sebright and Calvert were re-elected, to complete a clean sweep of the county’s six seats for the reformers.26

In June 1831 Lady Verulam incurred the official displeasure of Melbourne, now home secretary, for introducing politics into the affairs of the yeomanry when presenting colours to the Cashio troop at Gorhambury: she was reported to have referred to the threat to property from ‘the restless and innovating spirit of the times’.27 Early in August John Curling of Hitchin transmitted to Salisbury a petition to the Lords signed by 108 ‘considerable owners and occupiers of land’ in the area, protesting against the clause of the revised reform bill which proposed to extend the county franchise to lease and copyholders but not to yearly tenants. He portrayed it as ‘a distinct proof of how much the bill has retrograded in public opinion, for more than half the signatures are those of reformers’, who now feared that the measure would lead to the destruction of the agricultural interest. He encouraged Salisbury to promote a general meeting on the subject, which would give Grimston or any other potential anti-reform candidate an ideal opportunity to ‘forward his views by attending and taking a decided and determined part, as it will naturally bring to his standard most of the farmers’. Nothing came of this, but the petition was presented to the Lords, 16 Aug.28 The votes of Sebright and Calvert with ministers two days later against the enfranchisement of £50 tenants-at-will, to which the former had declared his hostility before the 1831 election, provoked some criticism in the County Press, a recently founded Tory Hertford newspaper which was subsidized by Salisbury.29 A county meeting to petition the Lords to pass the reform bill, 30 Sept., was thinly attended, according to Henry George Ward of Gilston Park, son of the former Tory minister Robert Ward*, who spoke at great length in favour of moderation and deplored any attempt to intimidate the peers, because of ‘some little difference of opinion’ among the reformers as to its necessity. Alston and Fordham of Odsey praised the Members and denied that there had been any reaction against reform, and Phelips’s attempt to get rid of the petition was overwhelmingly defeated. Sebright and Calvert affirmed their undiminished support for the bill, and the petition was presented by Dacre, 4 Oct. 1831.30

In January 1832 Salisbury, Verulam, Dimsdale and Price promoted a county address to the king, which while professing support for moderate reform, urged suppression of the political unions and praised the king for his continued resistance to the creation of peers to carry the reform bill. The signatories were said by its supporters to own property worth over £10,000,000; but the reformers dismissed it as ‘a gross and palpable deception’. Salisbury and Verulam travelled overnight to Brighton to present it on 16 Jan. In the Commons, 10 Feb. 1832, Duncombe made much of a petition from six Barnet freeholders complaining that they had been duped into signing the address, which they claimed had been presented to them as being for repeal of the assessed taxes. His real object, however, was to raise the subject of a creation of peers and to try to commit ministers to a declaration of intent.31 During the crisis of May 1832 there were meetings at Tring and Ware which produced petitions calling for the supplies to be withheld until the bill had been passed.32 Its safe emergence from the Lords was widely celebrated with illuminations, dinners and festivals.33

The Reform Act made Hertfordshire a three Member constituency, with a registered electorate in 1832 of 4,245. Grimston confirmed his candidature in June, but Salisbury found Abel Smith still unwilling to join him. Alston, who was considered radical, and Ward declared as reformers, and Sebright and Calvert both initially announced their intended retirement into private life. They were persuaded, however, to change their minds, and at the general election in December, when Ward was successful at St. Albans, they were returned in tandem along with Grimston, who narrowly kept out Alston.34 All three seats were in Conservative hands from 1841 until 1857.

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 361-2, 366; J.E. Bradley, Religion, Revolution, and English Radicalism, 99.
  • 2. County Chron. 29 Feb.; County Herald, 11, 18, 25 Mar. 1820; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F49/76, 77.
  • 3. Herts. Archives, Panshanger mss D/Elb F78.
  • 4. CJ, lxxv. 221, 230.
  • 5. County Herald, 18 Nov. 1820.
  • 6. CJ, lxxvi. 103, 108.
  • 7. County Chron. 22 Jan., 5 Feb.; The Times, 2 Feb. 1822; CJ, lxxvii. 47, 142, 147.
  • 8. County Chron. 4 Feb.; The Times, 4, 10, 11 Feb.; County Herald, 15 Feb. 1823; CJ, lxxviii. 115.
  • 9. County Herald, 1 Apr. 1823.
  • 10. Add. 38575, f. 172; 40304, ff. 137-41.
  • 11. CJ, lxxix. 23, 54, 55, 130; lxxx. 5, 127, 142.
  • 12. Panshanger mss F78, W. to F. Lamb, 16 May, 23 July; Torrens, Melbourne, i. 207-11; Herts Mercury, 3, 10, 17, 24 Sept. 1825.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxi. 49, 134, 165, 170, 263.
  • 14. County Herald, 3 June; Herts Mercury, 3, 17, June 1826.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxii. 357, 527; lxxxiii. 74, 78, 100-1, 105.
  • 16. Herts Mercury, 8 Nov. 1828; Add. 51599A, Lady Cowper to Holland, 31 Oct.; 51834, Dacre to same, 2 Nov. 1828.
  • 17. Herts Mercury, 15, 22 Nov. 1828, 10 Jan., 21 Feb., 7, 14 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 14, 20, 26, 33, 89, 103, 105, 109, 120, 128; Herts. Archives, Verulam mss D/EV F54, Verulam’s diary, 5, 7, 9, 10 Feb., 3, 4 Apr. 1829.
  • 18. Herts. Archives, Hawkins mss 52886, 52938; Herts Mercury, 6 Mar.; The Times, 15 Mar. 1830; CJ, lxxxv. 183; LJ, lxii. 205.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 410, 433, 462.
  • 20. Herts Mercury, 10 July, 14 Aug.; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Byron to Salisbury, 10 July, Price to same, 24 July, reply [late July] 1830.
  • 21. Herts Mercury, 30 Oct., 6 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 132, 183.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvi. 209, 211, 264.
  • 23. County Herald, 19, 26 Mar.; CJ, lxxxvi. 245, 309, 446.
  • 24. Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Salisbury to Smith, 1 Apr., reply, 4 Apr. 1831.
  • 25. County Chron. 3 May; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Latour to Salisbury, 25 Apr. 1831.
  • 26. TNA, Granville mss 30/29, Lady Holland to Granville [5 May]; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 30 Apr.; County Chron. 3, 10, 17 May; County Herald, 7, 14 May; Bucks Gazette, 14 May; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Sutton to Salisbury, 6 May 1831.
  • 27. Wellington mss WP1/1187/31; 1191/12; The Times, 14 June 1831.
  • 28. Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Curling to Salisbury, 4 Aug. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 25.
  • 29. County Press, 23, 30 Aug., 6 Sept.; County Herald, 9 Apr.; Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Salisbury to Dorrien, 4 Dec. [1831].
  • 30. County Press, 27 Sept., 4 Oct.; County Chron. 4 Oct.; County Herald, 8 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1045.
  • 31. Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., A. Smith to Salisbury [Jan.], Ouseley to same, 2 Jan., Unwin Heathcote to same, 5 Jan., Dering to same, 6 Jan., S. Smith to same, 7 Jan., Duckett to same, 7 Jan., R. Ward to same, 13 Jan.; Verulam mss F55, diary, 11, 14-16 Jan.; F308, Verulam to Taylor, 11 Jan.; Herts Mercury, 7, 14, 21, 28 Jan., 11 Feb.; County Press, 10, 17, 24 Jan.; Greville Mems. ii. 236-7; Wellington mss WP1/1213/22.
  • 32. Herts Mercury, 19 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 332, 488.
  • 33. Herts Mercury, 9, 16, 23 June, 7 July 1832.
  • 34. Hatfield House mss 2M/Gen., Salisbury to Smith, 23 June, replies, 26 June, 20 Oct.; Herts Mercury, 23, 30 June, 7 July; County Press, 26 June 1832.