West Looe


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

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

not more than 38 in 18311


537 (1821); 593 (1831)2


10 Mar. 1820SIR CHARLES HULSE, bt. 
13 Feb. 1822GOULBURN re-elected after appointment to office23
 Rowland Stephensonnil
9 June 1826JOHN BULLER 
6 Apr. 1827SIR CHARLES HULSE, bt. vice John Buller, vacated his seat 
12 Feb. 1830CHARLES BULLER II vice Buller, vacated his seat 
2 Aug. 1830SIR CHARLES HULSE, bt. 
29 Apr. 1831SIR CHARLES HULSE, bt. 

Main Article

West Looe, otherwise known by its older Cornish names of Portighan, Portpigham and Portuan, lay on the west side of the mouth of the River Looe in the south-east of the county. It was linked to East Looe by a narrow stone bridge, and of the two settlements (‘the twins’, in Cornish borough parlance), it was the less significant in terms of population and trade. The only industry was a pilchard fishery and the market had long been discontinued, although inland transport links were improved by the opening of a new road and canal to Liskeard in 1829.3 Thomas Oldfield wrote in 1816 of a ‘contemptible hamlet, composed of a few fishermen’s huts’, and even Thomas Bond, the town clerk from 1789 to 1837, who was eager to promote the place as a watering hole, admitted in 1823 that it ‘consists of but one street and a few scattered houses, very picturesquely situated on the quays and the sides of the hills of the ascending valley’.4 The borough boundary was undefined, but it reportedly encompassed only a small area, ‘about 150 acres’, of the parish of Talland. Since 1793 John Buller of nearby Morval had been the sole patron and Bond, ‘the most influential’ resident, appears to have acted informally as his agent. In 1813 Buller had been confident enough of his position to decline an invitation to purchase the residual interest of the Trelawny family for £5,600.5 His influence was maintained ‘through the medium of the corporation’, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, and 12 other capital burgesses; in return, ‘the patronage of the borough was distributed’ among them. The franchise was vested in the capital burgesses and an unlimited number of freemen created by them; 14 were so honoured during this period.6 A Commons decision of April 1822 made the right of election contingent on residence, which reduced the notional electorate by about half, but no contest occurred thereafter to test the practical effect of the ruling. The reform bill returns, which variously showed 19 or 38 voters, evidently reflected confusion over the status of non-resident freemen.7

In 1820 Buller again returned his brother-in-law Sir Charles Hulse and the ministerialist Henry Goulburn, who was apparently a paying guest. On his appointment as Irish secretary in December 1821 Goulburn complained of the ‘new expense’ connected with his re-election, over which he anticipated difficulties. His meaning became clear on the day of the by-election, when an address appeared from the London banker Rowland Stephenson*, who called on the townsmen to assert their ‘chartered rights’. Pledged to ‘a liberal, safe and equitable reform of the representative system’, Stephenson took blue as his party colour and attempted to poll 47 supporters, said to be ‘chiefly old inhabitants and all paying rates’. Their votes were summarily rejected by the mayor and Goulburn was returned by those of 23 ‘chiefly non-resident’ capital burgesses and freemen. The ensuing controversy was fuelled by allegations that Goulburn’s agent had openly advised the mayor on the eligibility of votes and, when challenged, had described himself as ‘the mayor’s assistant’.8 Stephenson petitioned the Commons against the return, 28 Feb. 1822, asserting the validity of his votes. His counsel informed the resulting committee, 18 Apr., that the corporation’s domination of the electoral process was a usurpation dating from the early eighteenth century, and that by the charter of 1578 all inhabitant householders were entitled to be sworn as freemen at the annual court leet. The right of election, on which no prior determination existed, was therefore claimed to reside ‘in the commonalty or burgesses, being the inhabitant householders ... paying scot and lot’. Since the borough records had disappeared fifty years previously, much depended on anecdotal evidence of past practice and on semantic argument over the term ‘burgess’. Goulburn’s counsel naturally favoured an exclusive definition and, invoking the spectre of universal suffrage as the inevitable consequence of a finding for the petitioner, maintained that the franchise rested solely ‘in the mayor and burgesses, being members of the corporation’. The committee ruling, 24 Apr. 1822, endorsed this version of the franchise as far as it went, but appended the rider, ‘being inhabitants of the town of West Looe’. This indicated their acceptance of Stephenson’s other argument that the admission of non-resident votes for Goulburn was in contravention of the charter. Goulburn’s counsel made no attempt to contest this point, which was tacitly acknowledged by the token periods generally spent in the borough by capital burgesses prior to their election.9

Although Goulburn was confirmed in his seat, the partial success of the petition emboldened 80 inhabitant householders to claim admission to the freedom at the next court leet, 22 Oct. 1822. It was then alleged that of the 32 existing freemen, 22 were non-resident, and from evidence submitted in connection with the petition it seems that seven of the capital burgesses were similarly circumstanced. When the mayor dismissed the inhabitants’ claim a legal challenge was mounted, and the legitimacy of the mayor’s own election (by the capital burgesses alone) was also brought before the courts. Neither action succeeded, and the matter appeared to have been settled by the king’s bench ruling on the former: that ‘the corporation have a discretion in electing and rejecting whom they please as members of their body’. Stephenson transferred his attentions elsewhere, having, according to the historian of the Cornish boroughs, ‘gained nothing for his pains but a bill of costs of portentous dimensions’. Henry Alworth Merewether, his counsel, concluded a published account of the case with the rueful observation that the corporation would continue to ‘monopolise all the privileges of the borough and arbitrarily exclude all their fellow inhabitants’.10

The creation of 12 freemen in 1823 perhaps indicated a bid to tighten Buller’s grip on the borough. However, the anti-slavery petitions which the corporation and inhabitants sent to the Commons, 6 Apr. 1824, 10 Mar. 1826, did not portend a general acceptance of the status quo.11 In September 1824, prompted by stirrings in East Looe, a group of inhabitants reasserted their claim to participate in mayoral elections in a letter of protest to the incumbent, Isaac Willcocks. Amid a flurry of allegations over jobbery in local customs appointments, a king’s bench ruling was obtained obliging Willcocks to hold a court leet, 22 Nov. 1824, though he remained defiant in refusing to recognize the inhabitants’ claim. The struggle to open the borough by legal process remained unequal when, as one commentator observed, the Buller family were on cordial terms with lord chancellor Eldon, who would ‘never decide against his friends’, and the patron’s brother James Buller, in his capacity as clerk to the privy council, held the key to ‘the making of all charters’.12 King’s bench finally decided against the inhabitants’ claim to the parliamentary franchise, 9 Feb. 1825, and they switched their attentions once more to the form of mayoral elections, but to no avail. At a meeting chaired by one Robert Thomas, 28 Mar. 1825, a resolution was adopted asserting that precedents existed to justify a resident householder franchise. It was further noted that of the 13 capital burgesses, seven resided elsewhere (‘one ... has been in India for two years, and many others have not been in the borough for 12 years’) and that they met ‘from time to time’ to elect ‘a few of their friends or dependants to be freemen’, by which means they sought to delegate ‘a power which they do not themselves possess’. The resulting petition was presented to the Commons, 20 June 1825.13 However, this proved to be the final throw of the townsmen’s dice, for though it had been confidently predicted that the general election of 1826 would be contested, no challenge materialized. Buller, perhaps acting from caution, returned himself with his brother Charles, only for him to make way for Hulse at a by-election in April 1827.14 Charles Buller presented an anti-slavery petition from the mayor and inhabitants, 9 June 1828, and another, from interested parties, for the continuance of the export bounty on pilchards, 7 May 1829.15 Both Members supported the Wellington ministry’s Catholic emancipation bill in 1829. In March 1830 Buller vacated for his son and namesake, who was returned unopposed with Hulse at the general election that summer.16

Anti-slavery petitions from the inhabitants of both Looes reached the Commons, 17 Dec. 1830, 18 Mar. 1831.17 In March 1831 the Grey ministry’s reform bill proposed the complete disfranchisement of West Looe. Hulse voted against the measure but Buller, who had published a pamphlet in favour of sweeping changes to the representative system, supported it. Presumably for this reason, he was replaced at the ensuing general election by his uncle Sir Anthony Buller, an anti-reformer.18 On 22 July Davies Gilbert, Member for Bodmin, proposed that East and West Looe should return a single Member together on the strength of their combined population, which he somehow computed at 2,559. A ‘Mr. Buller’, probably Sir Anthony, attested to the homogeneity of the boroughs, and Goulburn spoke up for his former constituency. However, ministers showed no interest and Daniel O’Connell produced the epigrammatic riposte that, ‘than East Looe there is ... but one borough more rotten in England, and that is West Looe’; Gilbert’s proposal was negatived without a division. West Looe fared no better under the new criteria adopted in the revised bill of December 1831, as it contained 132 houses and paid £53 in assessed taxes, which placed it 12th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. Its disfranchisement was confirmed without discussion, 20 Feb. 1832, and it was absorbed into the Eastern division of Cornwall.19 In 1833 the municipal corporations commissioners reported that the Reform Act had left West Looe corporation with ‘no further functions to exercise’ and that the patron was no longer willing to bear the expense of paving the town; the corporation nevertheless survived until 1869.20

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 546.
  • 2. Ibid. 38-39.
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 150; T. Bond, Sketches of East and West Looe, 1, 9; A.L. Browne, Corporation Chrons. 94-95; West Briton, 5 Nov. 1824, 30 Jan. 1829.
  • 4. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 239; J. Keast, Hist. East and West Looe, 66; Bond, 59-60.
  • 5. PP (1835), xxiii. 678; Browne, 182; Cornw. RO, Buller mss DD/BU/357, Job to Hearle, 2 Oct., Buller to Trelawny, 11 Dec. 1812, 6 Mar., reply, 25 Jan. 1813.
  • 6. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 546; (1835) xxiii. 675-7; Browne, 187; Bond, 243.
  • 7. CJ, lxxvii. 196-7; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 38-39, 546.
  • 8. Add. 40328, f. 14; West Briton, 22 Feb. 1822, 5 Dec. 1823.
  • 9. CJ, lxxvii. 68, 183, 185, 196-7; H.A. Merewether, Case of West Looe (1823), passim.
  • 10. Merewether, 225-54; W. P. Courtney, Parl. Rep. Cornw. 143
  • 11. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 546; CJ, lxxix. 257; lxxxi. 151.
  • 12. West Briton, 1, 15 Oct., 5, 19, 26 Nov.; The Times, 23 Nov. 1824.
  • 13. West Briton, 18 Feb., 1 Apr. 1825; CJ, lxxx. 573.
  • 14. West Briton 18 Feb. 1825, 16 June 1826,
  • 15. CJ, lxxxiii. 435; lxxxiv. 271.
  • 16. West Briton, 19 Feb., 13 Aug. 1830.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxvi. 183, 405.
  • 18. West Briton, 13 May 1831.
  • 19. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 129.
  • 20. Ibid. (1835), xxiii. 677-8; Browne, 100-01.