Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen 1690, 1695-1705, 1710-13; in the resident freemen 1691, 1708

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

about 250 in 1690, 1695-1705, 1710; about 40-60 in 1691, 1708; 86 in 1713


11 Mar. 1690SIR ROBERT RICH, Bt.  
6 Nov. 1691JOHN BENCE  
 HENRY HEVENINGHAM vice Skippon, deceased  
  Double return. BENCE declared elected, 8 Dec. 1691  
29 Oct.16951SIR ROBERT RICH, Bt.3513
 Roger Wood2521
 John Bence252213
27 July 1698SIR ROBERT RICH, Bt.153 
 Sir Henry Johnson82 
 John Nicholson76 
29 Jan. 1700SIR CHARLES BLOIS, Bt. vice Rich, deceased  
10 Jan. 1701SIR CHARLES BLOIS, Bt.  
1 Dec. 1701SIR CHARLES BLOIS, Bt.  
25 July 1702SIR CHARLES BLOIS, Bt.  
12 May 1705SIR CHARLES BLOIS, Bt.  
7 May 1708SIR CHARLES BLOIS, Bt.11813
 Sir Richard Allin, Bt.1212
 Daniel Harvey124125
 ALLIN and HARVEY vice Blois and Kemp, on petition, 5 Feb. 1709  
12 Oct. 1710GEORGE DOWNING896 
 Sir Richard Allin, Bt.12 
 Daniel Harvey12 
3 Sept. 1713SIR ROBERT KEMP, Bt.  

Main Article

At the beginning of this period Dunwich was already ‘manifestly decayed by the invasion of the waters’ and ‘in danger of being swallowed up’: ‘as the Church of England is semimortua and semisepulta, so is this corporation half-eaten up by the sea’. In 1702 St. Peter’s parish church had to be demolished; not long afterwards a similar fate befell the town hall. Yet Defoe noted that the town, ‘however, ruined, retains some share of trade’, and there remained enough inhabitants to make a residence qualification for the parliamentary franchise a serious proposition. This question had indeed been raised by the defeated Tory candidates in 1689, when the House declared against any such limitation. There was no similar opposition to the outgoing Whig Members at the 1690 general election, but when one of them, Sir Philip Skippon, died the following year, a local Tory, John Bence, put up on this basis against the Whig Henry Heveningham, nominee of the other sitting Member, Sir Robert Rich, 2nd Bt. As well as his own influence, Rich could count on the help of Alderman John Benefice, ‘a . . . great man in this corporation, men call him King John’, whose interest in the borough was thought to be the key to success. This alliance was powerful enough to deter the former Tory Member and still recorder of the corporation, Sir Robert Kemp, 2nd Bt.†, who had apparently considered standing. But Bence, probably with the strong backing of Sir Henry Johnson* at nearby Aldeburgh, pinned his hopes on the support he enjoyed among the resident freemen. At the election ‘he rejected the outsitters that would have given him their votes’. He duly secured a majority ‘on the floor’; Heveningham, who received votes from ‘divers’ of the resident freemen as well as his ‘outsitters’, had a majority of the combined vote; and the bailiffs made a double return, though the indenture with Bence’s name on it was signed by only one of them. Full of confidence, Bence petitioned. The point at issue, both sides agreed, was whether the franchise was restricted to ‘the floor’: if it was, Bence had been duly elected; if not, Heveningham. While Bence produced evidence from various original returns and ‘old books’ purporting to show that until the Restoration only inhabitant freemen had voted, together with verbal testimony that the intrusion of ‘outsitters’ had largely been the work of John Benefice, who ‘since 1670 had made free 500, two whereof were Scotchmen, and others lived very remote, and particularly he made 42 free at an alehouse, whereas there are not above 40 freemen resident’, Heveningham’s case rested on the previous decision over the 1689 election. After a division in which Rich was a teller for the minority, the House resolved that the franchise was confined to residents, and Bence was seated.7

This by-election ushered in a period of bitter party conflict within the town. Bence’s supporters sought to capitalize on their success in the House by having some of the more prominent Whigs on the corporation deprived of their offices and disfranchised. In April 1692 Benefice was removed for various ‘grave offences’, including his part in taking up to London borough charters and records which the Commons had ordered from the town clerk to facilitate their inquiry into the 1691 election dispute, and which the town clerk, a Tory, had refused to bring; and a number of irregularities in the admission of freemen, making false entries in the register, preparing blank papers for admission and giving them to others to dispose of, and so on. The following month Samuel Pacy, another of Rich’s election agents, was removed as bailiff. Rich was alleged to have retaliated by conniving at the illegal impressment of one of the Tory aldermen, through his influence as a lord of the Admiralty. Satisfying as it was to see one of his leading ‘enemies’ serve a spell as ‘a common seaman’, Rich required more drastic measures, in view of the new restriction on the franchise, to counteract the apparently entrenched Tory majority among the inhabitant freemen. His supporters, therefore, instigated a petition for a new charter to replace the charter of James II (by which they all, including Rich himself, held office), or rather, to restore the previous charter surrendered in 1684. The town clerk, William Betts, later described his and his friends’ reaction:

About December [recte October] 1693, they heard there was a petition carried on to get another charter. Whereupon they called a Hall, and every freeman in the town was there, and 5 of them that signed the petition was there . . . one . . . said he signed the petition for fear of being pressed, and others said they did not understand it. It was supposed to be a petition for a scire facias or quo warranto. That there were 16 in the Hall, actually, who were against any new charter, and 9 that stuck to the petition they had signed, and accordingly a petition was framed against it. But, finding the first was a petition for restitution, they were fain to get another petition, and by order of Council they were to be heard upon it, but first to pay costs, which being £33 they were not able to raise it, and so the petition was dismissed.

A new charter was granted in April 1694, restoring the status quo before 1684, ‘with power to the bailiffs of the town to elect other officers’ to supply any vacancies. The Whigs, accompanied, it was alleged, by some ‘3 or 400 foreigners’ then carried the new charter down to the borough, but the Tories ‘never accepted of it’ and insisted on the continuing validity of the 1685 charter. During the summer of 1694 there rapidly developed a schism within the corporation. Kemp, who had apparently come to terms with Rich since 1691 and supported the new charter, was replaced as recorder by the old corporation, and three Whig aldermen were also removed. The restored pre-1684 corporation meanwhile lost no time in making up its numbers, and Rich and Heveningham were quickly promoted to aldermen. Rich and his allies sought to exploit their power under the new charter to increase their support among the resident freemen, admitting at least 25 new freemen before the 1695 election. They were hampered in their electoral preparations by the refusal of William Betts to deliver up to them the ‘ancient books’ of the corporation in which the names of the freemen were enrolled, and eventually petitioned the lord chancellor to compel him to do so, it is not known with what effect. At the same time the Tories, encouraged and probably financed by Sir Henry Johnson and other neighbouring country gentlemen, were striving hard to keep up their interest, and in one instance had allowed 30s. a week to a Dunwich tavern-keeper for food and drink ‘for the use of the freemen that were friends to Mr Bence and Mr Wood [the other Tory candidate] and were for King James’ charter’. Despite these stratagems Heveningham was confident of success: his own last-minute efforts included ‘treating the women with punch’. At the election it was the new charter which proved the Whigs’ trump card. Both sides claimed a majority among the resident freemen – Heveningham had declared beforehand that he and Rich ‘now stood only by the borough men and would poll none but what were such’, and even though Rich panicked at the last minute and brought in some 50 or 60 outsitters they did not seem to be needed – and each set of bailiffs returned their own man. The Whig bailiffs under William and Mary’s charter returned Rich and Heveningham; the Tories, who with the aldermen of the old corporation and the rest of the Tory voters who had protested against ‘any other charter’ and ‘all proceedings by the other party under such a pretence’, returned Bence and Roger Wood, a relation of Sir John Rous, 2nd Bt.†, the lord of the Temple manor of Dunwich. The sheriff accepted the Whig return and rejected the Tory, and Bence and Wood petitioned. Although the petition itself concentrated on the legality of the return and whether the Whig bailiffs were indeed qualified by virtue of the 1694 charter, which had been ‘obtained by power’ and ‘crowded upon [the] town against the majority of the people’, the Tories appeared unwilling to press this point before the committee, perhaps because it involved questioning the propriety of the granting of this charter. Instead their evidence emphasized the issue of the franchise. The previous Commons’ decision was cited, and the evidence given in 1691 repeated and embroidered. It was now alleged that Benefice ‘had taken 40s. and 50s. apiece of several, to make them free; and carried the common seal in his pocket; and gave the oath of a freeman at Gt. Yarmouth, Ipswich etc., and had a factor at Wapping, and made several free that never saw the town’. Almost as an afterthought, Betts introduced into his testimony an account of the circumstances of the petition for the new charter, and of ‘the town’s’ rejection of it once granted. The committee, however, observing that ‘the numbers of freemen would be more or less’ according to whichever charter prevailed, went back to this topic. The crux of the matter was whether or not the 1685 charter had been valid. Rich and Heveningham argued that it had not been, because the surrender of the previous charter, though made to Charles II, had not been enrolled until his successor’s reign. The charter of 1694 thus merely explained and confirmed what was already operative. The Tory contention, on the other hand, was that the surrender and regrant of 1684–5 had been properly done, and that it was the 1694 charter, granted without any surrender of the existing charter, which was invalid. Besides, it had not been ‘accepted by the town’ as the 1685 charter had. Each party also produced a crop of allegations of bribery and intimidation, as well as exceptions against individual voters on the other side. Heveningham was said to have offered 10s. ‘and a scarlet waistcoat’ to one freeman, while for the Tories Bence had ‘promised a vessel’, perhaps one of Sir Henry Johnson’s, and together he and Wood had spent some £54 on ‘meat and drink’. Sir Charles Blois, 1st Bt., was also charged with involvement in Tory bribery. A great deal of the petitioners’ evidence concerned Rich, and his abuse of his authority as an Admiralty lord. One man was alleged to have received from Rich ‘a place of £10 a year’; others, serving in the navy, were given ‘protections’ to go to Dunwich and vote; and in the most spectacular example ‘three men-of-war came to anchor at Dunwich, a little before the election’, remaining there until the proceedings were over. Rich claimed, without much conviction, that the presence of these frigates was purely coincidental, but there was ample testimony that ‘seafaring men’ among the electors were threatened with the press-gang for voting against Rich and Heveningham. Several confessed to being ‘frighted by the men-of-war, and . . . one man ran out of the town for some time’. The decision of the committee, and of the House, was not, however, based on these allegations or on the dispute over the charter, but on the issue of the franchise, where the arguments on both sides had largely repeated what had been said in 1691 and on which neither party seemed to have placed much weight. Changing their minds again, the Commons confirmed the rights of ‘outsitters’ to vote, and rejected the petition.8

This vote implicitly endorsed the 1694 charter, though it was not until 1698 that the old corporation abandoned its separate existence. By then Johnson had been able to make substantial inroads into the Whig interest: £10 or £12 apiece paid by his brother to bail out freemen who were in debt to Rich (‘telling them I know you would do no such thing, but for myself, that their votes may not be engaged’); an arrangement to provide for one of the Whig freemen, ‘William Swatman the sailor’, from the resources of Johnson’s shipbuilding and mercantile concerns. By these and other such ploys Johnson was able to capitalize on the growing ‘unrest’ in the town against Rich and not only win over one of the bailiffs but also many others of ‘that gang that was for Sir Robert Rich’. In July 1698 Johnson was informed that ‘most of the inhabitants’ were ‘more inclined to his interest’ than could have been expected. Another observer thought that he would have ‘almost all the town’. His brother William*, after dining with some of Rich’s former supporters and drinking ‘pretty freely’, persuaded them publicly to declare for Johnson: ‘[they] have all signed a paper to Mr Heveningham to join with you or else they will be against him’, William Johnson wrote, ‘there is not above seven of the town that are of another opinion . . . I do hope neither of the corporations are to be doubted’. Among the out-freemen too, Johnson, with his various landed and commercial interests in London and along the East Anglian coast, could be sure of considerable support. An agent wrote from Aldeburgh that ‘if the townsmen hold to their words’ Johnson would ‘certainly sway it for a borough election’ and

if Sir Henry please to write to Sir John Rous and Sir Charles Blois and Sir Robert Kemp there is no question of swaying it with the outsitters . . . I think I have secured 20 votes in this corner besides the Dunwich inhabitants . . . Mr Johnson and myself are to go to Southwold this week where I have some hopes to get above 20 votes more, my son Will hath sent me a list of the names of those who live in Yarmouth; he writes me most of them are free to vote for Sir Henry . . . William will make what interest he can among them.

After a visit to Southwold there was more good news:

We find the freemen of Dunwich that live there very ready and willing to give you their votes. There is about 26 in that town and I believe 18 or 20 of them will be for your interest. One Mr John Postle hath a great influence upon them, his son-in-law Mr Martin is building a small ship . . . Mr [William] Johnson was willing to have underwritten your name for 1/8 part . . . it will wonderfully encourage these men.

Johnson’s supporters were confident that if he could split Heveningham from Rich he would easily secure election, but although the two Whigs were clearly ‘shaken . . . to a degree’ by the declaration from the town and at one point ‘Mr Heveningham’s party’ did offer assurances to Johnson, a visit from Rich recalled the waverers and in the event Johnson was forced to contest the election against both men. His partner was John Nicholson*, a business associate who, despite being a stranger to the locality, was nonetheless possessed of some influence of his own in places like Great Yarmouth where Dunwich out-freemen could be found. All this was still not enough, however, and at the election Rich and Heveningham were chosen by a comfortable margin. The Johnsons (though not Nicholson) were quick to complain of sharp practice, especially in regard to the polling of unqualified electors on the Whig side. Their friends were ‘denied a sight’ of the poll and William Johnson received information against the Whigs ‘that there was a gentleman could prove their making several freemen the morning of the election at Benacre as they came through’. A plentiful supply of drink soon induced other witnesses to come forward from Dunwich itself. Their evidence, that Rich and Heveningham had ‘procured unqualified votes for themselves and procured the bailiffs and recorder to refuse qualified votes’ for the other side, formed the grounds of Johnson’s petition. But before the petition could be heard Rich was dead and Johnson withdrew.9

The by-election of January 1700 marked a turning-point in Dunwich politics. After Sir Richard Allin, 1st Bt., a young protégé of Rich, had declined an offer to stand, Blois was returned unopposed, in an election which was said to have ‘done more good than ever any yet did; it has united all parties’. Johnson took a minor part, and in the period of Tory ascendancy which followed leadership was in more traditional hands: those of Sir Robert Kemp, Blois’ father-in-law, who had by now abandoned his temporary alliance with the Whigs, and Sir John Rous. Kemp had already been chosen bailiff in 1696 and 1699. Henceforth, for nine years, one or other member of his family continually held the office. His son Robert was returned with Blois at the next general election, again without opposition, Heveningham having died not long before the dissolution, and there was no further Whig challenge either in December 1701 or in 1702. In the 1705 Parliament Sir John Rous’s son replaced Robert Kemp, but he quickly grew weary of serving in Parliament and in 1708 Robert Kemp rejoined Blois. In the meanwhile the Tories had been carrying out a purge of the Dunwich electorate. They had completed their recapture of the key positions in the corporation in 1701, when William Betts was restored as town clerk. Then in 1703–4 some 71 freemen were disfranchised and about 60 new freemen admitted, ‘a virtual revolution’ in the borough. There were further disfranchisements in September and October 1707, some eight in all, on the first ‘rustle’ of news of a possible Whig candidate at the forthcoming general election, Daniel Harvey having begun to ‘make some interest’. Harvey and Allin were heavily defeated by Blois and Robert Kemp in 1708, but petitioned on 24 Nov. Their case was grounded on the old question of the franchise, which they claimed was restricted to residents, but since this by itself would not have given them a majority, there were supplementary allegations, of votes being obtained ‘by menaces, treating and bribery’ (and by their own accounts, which ran to £26, the Tories had indeed paid for food and drink for voters); the ‘arbitrary’ conduct of one of the bailiffs in denying qualified voters the opportunity to poll for Harvey and Allin; and the fact that Blois was himself a bailiff, which meant that he was disqualified from standing, and also that the return, signed by the other bailiff alone, was invalid. The House, on hearing the petition at the bar, yet again reversed its decision on the right of election, and declared Harvey and Allin duly elected.10

In 1709 another interest appeared at Dunwich, when it was reported that ‘Mr [George] Downing of Cambridgeshire has bought most of the houses’ there. Downing’s irruption into the borough reversed the recent turn to the Whigs, and also revived the vexed question of voting rights for outsitters. Early in 1710 there was a party contest over the election of a town clerk, in which the Whigs drew their strength from the ‘insitting’ freemen and the Tories theirs from the outsitters. The election of bailiffs produced a similar conflict, between a Tory, chosen by the freemen at large, and a Whig, chosen by the resident freemen only. Then, not long before the parliamentary election, a proposal to admit a number of ‘foreigners’ as freemen, including one of the prospective Tory candidates, gave rise to a dispute between the two bailiffs and their respective sets of supporters, in which the same party divisions were apparent, the ‘insitting’ Whig bailiff opposing the admissions and the ‘outsitting’ Tory arguing for them. In the general election itself both residents and out-freemen were polled. Downing and his fellow Tory, Richard Richardson, a London lawyer, defeated Allin and Harvey on both counts, by one vote among the residents and by ‘a large majority’ of the freemen at large, only one Whig out-freeman in fact being brought in. This time the Whigs did not petition. The Tories seem to have regained control of the corporation in 1710 and to have remained in control until 1715. Tories served as bailiffs of the borough from 1710 to 1715 and in 1712 and 1713 the corporation made hearty addresses of congratulation over the peace. In 1713 Downing and Robert Kemp, who had by now succeeded to his father’s baronetcy, were chosen without a contest, although they were careful to take a poll of their own supporters, 81 in all, of whom 46 were outsitters, and enter this in the corporation’s assembly book, presumably as a precedent. This did not, however, prevent the Whigs from restricting the franchise once more in 1715, and winning back both seats.11

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. HMC Var. vii. 106; Post Man 31 Oct.–2 Nov. 1695.
  • 2. Suff. RO (Ipswich), Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/47, sitting Members’ poll.
  • 3. Ibid. petitioners’ poll.
  • 4. Ibid. sitting Members’ poll.
  • 5. Ibid. EE6 1144/159/2, p. 5, petitioners’ poll.
  • 6. Suff. RO (Ipswich), Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/47, sitting Members’ poll.
  • 7. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 78; HMC Portland, iii. 472, 473; T. Gardner, Dunwich (1754), 94; Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/159/2; W. Suss. RO, Shillinglee mss, Edward Pratt to Sir Edward Turnor*, 12 Nov. 1691; HMC Var. 104.
  • 8. HMC Var. 104–6; CSP Dom. 1691–2, p. 432; 1694–5, pp. 18, 91–92; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Rich mss Xd.451/131, 451, R. Grange to Sir Robert Rich, 4 Feb. 1694, Thomas Neale to same, 30 Nov. 1694; HMC Portland, 506; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Harley) mss Pw2 27, Heveningham to [?Rich], 1695, and enclosed petition; Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/14, 147; Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 1526, John to Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, 28 Sept. 1695.
  • 9. HMC Var. 106; Add. 22186, f. 98; 22248, ff. 6–8; 31141, ff. 27–28; Shillinglee mss, Thomas Palmer to Turnor, 25 July [1698].
  • 10. Prideaux Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. xv), 193–4; HMC Var. 106–7; Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/13–14; Norf. RO, Le Neve mss, Mrs Le Neve to Oliver Le Neve, 29 Jan., 2 Feb. 1699[–1700]; Gardner, 85–86; Add. 19185, ff. 93, 96; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 19; Shillinglee mss, John Hooke to Turnor, 23 Oct. 1707, 23 Feb. 1707–8, John Morgan to same, Apr. 1708; Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/157, 158/2, 159/2.
  • 11. Shillinglee mss, Clement Corrance* to Turnor, 10 June 1709; Dunwich bor. recs. EE6 1144/14, 149; HMC Var. 107; Gardner, 86.