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Number of Qualified Electors:
|14 Mar. 1820||SIR ROBERT WILLIAMES VAUGHAN, bt.|
|15 June 1826||SIR ROBERT WILLIAMES VAUGHAN, bt.|
|5 Aug. 1830||SIR ROBERT WILLIAMES VAUGHAN, bt.|
|10 May 1831||SIR ROBERT WILLIAMES VAUGHAN, bt.|
Merioneth (Meirionydd) was a rugged county on Cardigan Bay, where slate quarrying, lead mining and the manufacture of woollen goods were locally important. The Mawddach estuary formed a natural north-south barrier within the county and the River Dee flowed north-eastwards towards Chester from Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake) in the north-east. Administratively, Merioneth comprised five hundreds: Ardudwy; Edeirnion; Estumaner (Ystumanner); Penllyn, and Talybont and Mawddwy. Bala and Dolgellau shared the assizes and the other market towns were Barmouth (Y Bermo), Corwen and Towyn.1 It was the only Welsh county without separate borough representation. The notion of party was considered redundant, the freeholders had not been polled since 1774 and, except from 1768-74, the representation had been dominated since 1701 by the Vaughans of Corsygedol, whose distant kinsman, the sitting Member Sir Robert Williames Vaughan of Nannau, had first been returned in 1792.2 As befitted a descendant of the Welsh princes, Vaughan was a ready patron of bards and local charities who kept up the old customs and entertained his guests like a mountain king.3 He ran Nannau, his 12,000-acre estate at Llanfachreth, near Dolgellau, jointly with his brother’s smaller one of Hengwrt; while the latter (Griffith ap Howell Vaughan, the constable of Harlech Castle) was squire of the 9,000-acre estate of Rûg, near Corwen.4 The former Vaughan estate of Corsygedol in Ardudwy had passed to Vaughan’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Mostyn*; and the county lord lieutenancy previously held by its owners had been conferred in 1793 on Sir Watkin Williams Wynn* of Wynnstay, Denbighshire, who owned 15,000 acres in Trawsfynydd and Penllyn.5
Despite recent enclosures, Merioneth was a county of large estates and comparatively few freehold farms, and was noted for its crown land, mountainous wastes and sheepwalks.6 Squires with a long tradition of political influence included Richard Watkin Price of Rhiwlas, whose estate, to which Rhiwaedog was added in 1823, then extended over 14,000 acres, Edward Lloyd of Rhagatt, and Sir William Wynne of Peniarth. Athelstan Corbet (formerly Maurice) had inherited the 8,000-acre Ynysmaengwyn estate, near Towyn, of the Vaughans’ 1774 challenger, Henry Arthur Corbet. The newcomer William Ormsby Gore’s* 7,800 acres at Llanfihangel-y-Traethau had benefitted from recent enclosures, agricultural improvements, and nearby quarrying at Tremadog. Lesser squires (holding 2,000-4,000 acres) whose interests could not be overlooked included William Oakley of Tanybwlch and Charles Thurston of Talgarth Hall, who derived much of their incomes from slate quarrying; Gabriel Davies, whose Fronheulog estate near Bala was a symbol of his success as a wool merchant; and the high churchman Hugh Reveley of Bryn-y-Gwin, lord chancellor Redesdale’s former private secretary.7 Vaughan claimed to sit as an independent supporter of his ‘church and king’. He was staunchly anti-Catholic, fearful of the spread of Methodism, and inclined to support Lord Liverpool’s administration, yet sensitive to his constituents’ opposition to particular taxes.8 He chaired and addressed the county meeting at Dolgellau, 28 Feb. 1820, which adopted addresses of condolence and congratulation on the succession of George IV, and the Tory North Wales Gazette welcomed his announcement that he sought re-election.9 As at subsequent elections before 1832, he was returned at Harlech, 14 Mar. 1820, proposed by Price of Rhiwlas and seconded by Lloyd of Rhagatt. After the chairing, he reaffirmed his church and state politics in an after-dinner speech at the town hall, and ‘cwrw da’ (good beer) flowed for all.10
Fears of an increase in coastwise coal duties prompted slate owners and other users of steam power to lobby successfully against their reintroduction that summer. Griffith ap Howell Vaughan chaired the petitioning meeting at Dolgellau, 18 May, at which Wynne of Peniarth and John Edwards of Tyn-y-Coed carried resolutions, and Vaughan presented the ensuing petition to the Commons, 12 June 1820.11 Merioneth demonstrated little interest in the outcome of the queen’s case, although Dolgellau printers were long accustomed to issuing radical tracts and printed some of William Cobbett’s† work in Welsh.12 Agricultural distress was not a petitioning issue, but, as Sir Watkin Williams Wynn found on the Penllyn estate in 1824, distraint was of little use to the landlords.13 Merioneth’s interest in the Radnor, Hereford and Merioneth roads bill, which received royal assent, 3 June 1824, lay in the construction of a road from Penal to Towyn via Aberdyfi, which its promoter Corbet and his cousin William Edward Powell* hoped would assist the development of Aberdyfi as a seaside resort. Two-thousand-three-hundred-and-thirty of the £2,744 needed for its construction was raised by local subscription, and in February 1826 Corbet received a £1,000 exchequer loan to employ the poor in the enterprise.14 Rich and poor celebrated the coming of age of the heir of Nannau, 25 June 1824, which was commemorated in verse and with bell ringing, dinners, entertainments and illuminations countywide, and accorded ‘special coverage’ in the Chester Chronicle. The most lavish festivities outside Nannau were chaired by Price at Rhiwlas and Corwen.15
Merioneth did not experience a great Methodist revival until 1832, but Methodists and Protestant Dissenters were already established in the county and Bala was an important centre for training and ordaining their ministers.16 The county petitioned the Commons for inquiry into the case of the Methodist missionary John Smith, convicted of inciting slaves to riot in Demerara, 1 June 1824.17 Thomas Clarkson of the Anti-Slavery Society (who had the support of the bishop of Bangor) toured the county in August 1824, and a committee, chaired by Reveley, was established at Dolgellau. Vaughan and Price of Rhiwlas reputedly opposed their campaign, but Bala, Barmouth, Corwen Dolgellau and Towyn sent petitions to both Houses against colonial slavery in March 1826.18 Anti-Catholic sentiment ran high and Vaughan’s votes against relief in 1825 were supported by petitions to both Houses from his strongholds of Dolgellau, Llanelltyd and Llanfachreth.19 The same parishes petitioned similarly in 1827 and in 1828.20 The chapels of Dolgellau and Ffestiniog petitioned for repeal of the Test Acts in 1827 and 1828, but otherwise petitioning was confined to Bala, Trawsfynydd and settlements near Denbighshire influenced by their Commons presenter Sir Watkin Williams Wynn.21 Petitioning against Catholic emancipation in 1829 was heaviest in the north-west of the county. Most petitions were presented by Lord Chandos, after first being dispatched to Ormsby Gore and forwarded to Lord Eldon, a friend of the Richardses of Caerynwch. Vaughan encouraged the adoption of hostile petitions locally, but chose not to present them or to vote on emancipation in 1829. Penllyn and Trawsfynydd adopted hostile petitions in defiance of the Williams Wynns. The county did not meet, and no petitions were forwarded from Corbet’s strongholds or the towns of Bala, Corwen and Dinas Mawddwy.22
Merioneth’s memorial of 7 Nov. 1828 asking the law commission to consider abolishing the Welsh courts of great sessions and judicature was the work of Corbet, undertaken in conjunction with Lord Cawdor’s agent, R.B. Williams of Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, who encouraged the adoption of similar memorials throughout Wales.23 Its 32 signatories included the attorneys of Bala and Dolgellau, John Edwards of Dolserau, Lloyd of Rhagatt and Price of Rhiwlas. The last two declared again for abolition and assimilation when responding to the commissioners’ questionnaires.24 The commissioners’ 1829 report abandoned proposals making Anglesey, Caernarvonshire and Merioneth a single district, hearing cases at Caernarvon, or holding the Cardiganshire and Merioneth assizes at Aberystwyth, and recommended that Merioneth, north Cardiganshire and west Montgomeryshire cases should be dealt with together at Dolgellau.25 Unlike other Welsh counties, Merioneth neither met to consider nor petitioned against the commission’s recommendations.26 However, at the committee stage of the administration of justice bill, through which the changes were to be enacted, 27 May 1830, Vaughan claimed that the majority of his constituents opposed it. The Williams Wynns gave qualified support to the measure, whose enactment, 23 July, after a late government amendment left the county assize structure almost intact, heralded the end of the Welsh great sessions and judicature, 1 Oct. 1830.
Dolgellau and landowners and occupiers in the hundreds of Ystumanner and Talybont petitioned for protective tariffs on imported wool, 28 Apr., 1, 15 May, and against ending the circulation of small bank notes, 13 June 1828.27 Quarrying and construction of the Ffestiniog-Porthmadog railway had suffered through the speculative interest of John Wilks II* (‘Bubble Wilks’) and others, whose ill-fated investment schemes were partly responsible for the bankruptcy and flight to the continent of Wilks himself and William Alexander Madocks*, the developer of Tremadoc and Porthmadog harbour. A new Ffestiniog railway bill, introduced by Ormsby Gore, 7 Mar. 1831, was strongly opposed by local farmers and carters represented by the attorney John Lloyd of Maentwrog; and in the Commons by Lord Palmerston, Lord Frederick William John Powlett and others with interests in a rival scheme sponsored by the Welsh Slate Copper and Lead Mining Company. The 1831 bill was lost, but another introduced on 31 Jan. 1832 received royal assent, 23 May 1832.28
Support for the 1831-2 petitioning campaign against colonial slavery was restricted to Barmouth, Harlech and a handful of parishes near Llangollen and Bala.29 The reform movement also made little headway, and Vaughan’s votes against the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., 19 Apr. 1831, attracted little comment. Disappointed at the bill’s failure to propose any change in Merioneth’s representation, Sir William Wynne, Oakley, and Owen Edwards sent a private petition to Lord John Russell* requesting borough representation, but it had not been presented when Parliament was dissolved, 23 Apr. 1831.30 Vaughan’s return at the ensuing general election was never in doubt, and he made no reference to reform in his canvassing address.31 The petition for borough representation was promoted afterwards by a group of squires led by Corbet, and the county met at Dolgellau to consider it, 17 June. The sheriff was ill, so Vaughan took the chair, and although Edwards, Oakley and Wynne’s son were present, it was Corbet, seconded by the Whig Charles Thurston, who moved the petition and its accompanying resolutions. It requested the enfranchisement as contributory boroughs of Dolgellau, Bala, Barmouth, Corwen and Towyn, which between them had 350 £10 houses; stressed the need to represent the county’s commercial interests; and alleged that Merioneth’s population of 34,380 in 1821 (35,609 in 1831) was twice that of Radnorshire, which had two constituencies, and greater than that of the Isle of Wight, which had three and six Members.32 Bala was the only town selected with any claim to ancient ‘free borough’ status, the others being Bere, Dinas Mawddwy and Harlech.33 The petition was carried, subject to an amendment secured by Robert Price of Goppa, who argued that the contrast between the needs of the landed and commercial interests was overstressed. Opposing the petition, Vaughan’s brother, Edwards of Dolserau, and Captain Lewis Edwards argued that a second constituency would be a source of strife in the county. When asked to present it, Vaughan did not refuse, but he suggested it would carry greater weight if entrusted to Russell.34 The Shrewsbury Chronicle made much of the presence of the leading gentry and attorneys at the meeting, but the Salopian Journal reported:
Although a spirit in favour of reform seems to pervade most other parts of the kingdom, yet so little progress has it made in Merionethshire, that even the alluring prospect of an additional representative failed in attracting more than about 70 individuals, a great proportion of whom came from Towyn and Aberdovey. From the total absence of all persons connected with Bala, Corwen and Barmouth, it is fair to infer that no feeling in favour of the proposed change existed in those places; and that the majority of the inhabitants of Dolgellau are averse to any alteration in their representation.35
The Methodists, led by John Elias, had resolved at their Bala meeting to distance themselves from the political issue of reform.36 Corbet took charge of Merioneth’s petition, organized a subscription to defray costs, and arranged to forward it to Edward Lloyd Mostyn, who had succeeded Sir Thomas as Member for Flintshire. However, it was Sir Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, a transient and pragmatic reformer, who presented it to the Commons, 4 July 1831.37 Corbet wrote on 17 Sept. to remind Lord Grey that the five Merioneth market towns sought borough representation and that the county was underrepresented, but to no avail.38 The boundary commissioners were not directed to report on Merioneth’s ‘boroughs’, which remained part of the county constituency under the 1832 Reform Act.
Bala, Corwen, Dinas Mawddwy (which had 19 burgesses) and Dolgellau joined Harlech as polling towns and 582 electors were registered in November 1832.39 Despite rumblings of discontent, Vaughan, who had avoided voting on the revised reform bill, was returned unopposed as a Conservative in December 1832 and retained his seat until he chose to retire in 1836.40 The electorate, which increased more than fivefold to 3,185 by 1868, was polled five times before 1885, and Merioneth acquired a reputation at this time for electoral malpractice and post-poll evictions. Conservatives prevailed until 1868, when the Liberal David Williams took the seat at his third attempt. The constituency was regularly and closely contested subsequently, but remained Liberal until after the First World War.41
Author: Margaret Escott
- 1. Parl. Gazetteer of England and Wales (1844), iii. 399-401.
- 2. F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 337; HP Commons, 1754-90, i. 465-6; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 502.
- 3. B. Parry Jones, ‘Jnls. of H.J. Reveley’, Jnl. Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. vi (1969-72), 267-78.
- 4. C. Thomas, ‘Merion. Estates’, ibid. v (1965-6), 221-38.
- 5. UCNW, Nannau mss 678, 3769; UCNW, Mostyn of Mostyn mss 6048; C. Thomas, ‘Corsygedol, Ardudwy’s Principal Estate’, Jnl. Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. viii (1977-80), 27-60; P. Roberts, ‘Merion Gentry and Local Government’, ibid. vi (1969-72), 35.
- 6. I. Bowen, Great Enclosures of Common Lands in Wales, 48-52; D. Howell, Land and People in 19th Cent. Wales, 21-26.
- 7. I. Gwynedd Jones, ‘Politics in mid-19th Cent. Merion.’, Jnl. Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. v (1965-6), 273-8; P.R. Roberts, ‘Decline of the Welsh Squires in 18th Cent.’ NLWJ, xiii (1963-4), 157-73; and ‘Landed Gentry in Merion. c.1660-1832’ (Univ. of Wales M.A. thesis, 1963), 40-151.
- 8. J. Hughes, Methodistiaeth Cymru, i. 604-11.
- 9. N. Wales Gazette, 24 Feb., 2, 9 Mar.; Shrewsbury Chron. 3 Mar. 1820.
- 10. N. Wales Gazette, 23 Mar. 1820.
- 11. Shrewsbury Chron. 14, 28 Apr.; N. Wales Gazette, 18 May; Cambrian, 22, 27 May 1820; CJ, lxxv. 302.
- 12. D.A. Wager, ‘Welsh Politics and Parl. Reform, 1780-1832’, WHR, vii (1974), 433.
- 13. Howell, 54.
- 14. CJ, lxxix. 73, 247, 373, 393, 451; P.R. Roberts, ‘Gentry and Land in 18th Cent. Merion.’ Jnl. Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. iv (1961-4), 325.
- 15. Nannau mss 719-48; N. Wales Gazette, 21 June, 1 July 1824.
- 16. E.T. Davies, Religion and Society in 19th Cent. Wales, 35-46.
- 17. CJ, lxxix. 446.
- 18. NLW mss 14984 A, p. 31; CJ, lxxxi. 170, 175; The Times, 17 Mar. 1826.
- 19. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 334; Cambrian, 30 Apr. 1825; CJ, lxxx. 308-9, 321; LJ, lvii. 643.
- 20. CJ, lxxxii. 256; lxxxiii. 277, 305; The Times, 3 Mar. 1827.
- 21. CJ. lxxxii. 567; lxxxiii. 91, 101; LJ, lx. 64, 74, 79.
- 22. N. Wales Chron. 1 Jan., 19 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 103, 115, 127, 140, 151, 154; LJ, lxi. 114, 145-7, 184, 185, 201, 220, 236, 270, 362.
- 23. Cawdor, Letter to Lyndhurst; Cambrian Quarterly Mag. (1829), 16-20; UCNW, Plas Newydd mss i. 740-41.
- 24. PP (1829), ix. 382, 383, 403, 413; N. Wales Chron. 1, 8 Jan.; Cambrian, 3 Jan. 1829.
- 25. PP (1829), ix. 42-44, 414, 421.
- 26. Cambrian Quarterly Mag. (1829), 249-60; (1830), 115-17, 119, 376-80; Shrewsbury Chron. 27 Nov. 1829.
- 27. CJ, lxxxiii. 294, 352, 276, 430.
- 28. ‘Mems. Samuel Holland’, Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. extra publications, ser. i, no. 1, pp. 11-19; J.I.C. Boyd, Ffestiniog Railway, i. 15-25; J. Gordon Jones, ‘Ffestiniog Slate Industry’, Jnl. Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. vi (1969-72), 50-54, 205-6; CJ, lxxxvi. 339, 346, 401, 411, 413, 414, 480, 505; lxxxvii. 37, 43, 58, 169, 170, 323, 331; NLW, Maybery mss 2316; Caernarvon Herald, 23 Apr. 1831.
- 29. CJ, lxxxvi. 202, 453-4; LJ, lxii. 238.
- 30. The Times, 25 June 1831.
- 31. Chester Courant, 3, 17 May 1831.
- 32. Salopian Jnl. 22 June; The Times, 25 June 1831.
- 33. PP (1835), xxvi. 2671-6; H.J. Owen, Echoes of Old Merion.
- 34. Salopian Jnl. 22 June; Shrewsbury Chron. 24 June; N. Wales Chron. 28 June 1831.
- 35. Salopian Jnl. 22 June; Shrewsbury Chron. 24 June 1831.
- 36. Chester Courant, 28 June 1831; G.R. Hughes, ‘Mae Meistr ar Meistr Mostyn’, Taliesin, xxix (1974), 115-20; D.E. Jenkins, ‘John Elias a Gwleidyddiaeth y Cyfundeb’, Y Traethodydd, Gorff. 1837, pp. 127-39.
- 37. Mostyn of Mostyn mss 8419; CJ, lxxxvi. 611; The Times, 5 July 1831.
- 38. Grey mss, Corbet to Grey, 17 Sept. 1831.
- 39. PP (1831-2), xli [unfoliated map]; (1833), xxvii. 17, 90.
- 40. Chester Courant, 7 Aug.; The Times, 25 Dec.; Caernarvon Herald, 29 Dec. 1832.
- 41. I. Gwynedd Jones, Jnl. Merion. Hist. and Rec. Soc. v. 273-326.