East Retford


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:

resident freemen 1690-8, Dec. 1701-2, after 1710; freemen at large Jan. 1701, 1705-8

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

about 40 resident freemen in Jan. 1701: 106 in 1708


16 Oct. 1690RICHARD TAYLOR vice Pierrepont, called to the Upper House  
24 Oct. 1695JOHN THORNHAGH  
25 July 1698JOHN THORNHAGH  
11 Jan. 1701JOHN THORNHAGH 39
 Sir Willoughby Hickman, 17321
  HICKMAN vice White, on petition, 15 Apr. 1701  
2 Dec. 1701JOHN THORNHAGH31 
 Sir Willoughby Hickman, Bt.25 
 William Levinz22 
21 July 1702JOHN THORNHAGH77 
 Sir Willoughby Hickman, Bt.39 
 William Levinz38 
  HICKMAN and LEVINZ vice Thornhagh and White, on petition, 28 Nov. 1702  
 Sir Hardolph Wasteneys, Bt.50 
 Robert Molesworth48 
  WASTENEYS and MOLESWORTH vice Hickman and Levinz, on petition, 17 Jan. 1706  
10 May 1708THOMAS WHITE100 
 Robert Molesworth502 
9 Oct. 1710THOMAS WHITE85 
 Willoughby Hickman45 
 Bryan Cooke45 
 Robert Molesworth  
 HICKMAN and COOKE vice White and Westby, on petition, 11 Jan. 1711  
22 Apr. 1713FRANCIS LEWIS vice Hickman, deceased  
31 Aug. 1713FRANCIS LEWIS  

Main Article

East Retford was the main market town in the northernmost hundred of the shire. As such it played host to the quarter sessions which were held by adjournment from Nottingham and Newark. In size, it was little more than a village. Politically, the corporation, which consisted of two bailiffs and 12 aldermen, was not strong enough to resist the electoral power of the surrounding gentry, who monopolized the seats in this period.3

The absence of contests in the borough, which had characterized the Restoration years, continued for most of William III’s reign. In 1690, Evelyn Pierrepont and John Thornhagh were returned unopposed, with Richard Taylor, a Dissenter, similarly selected when Pierrepont succeeded his brother as Earl of Kingston later that year. Thornhagh was again returned unopposed at the next two elections: with Taylor in 1695 and with Sir Willoughby Hickman, 3rd Bt., a Lincolnshire landowner, in 1698. However, the decision of Thomas White II to claim the interest he had inherited from Richard Taylor coincided with the quickening tempo of political debate to force a contest in January 1701. Thornhagh, the longstanding Member, seems to have been returned unopposed once more. White had the support of the bailiffs and was returned on the traditional franchise which restricted the vote to resident freemen. Hickman petitioned and was voted duly elected after the House had agreed that the franchise was in both resident and non-resident freemen. To Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, there was clear evidence of bribery by Hickman’s agents, with the House deciding the matter along party lines.4

From 1701 the uncertainty over the franchise provided defeated candidates with an excuse to petition, giving a partisan House precedents in favour of either franchise and, thus, a justification for unseating opponents. In the election of December 1701 Thornhagh and White stood together again and were opposed by Hickman and William Levinz. The result was a narrow victory for the former, whereupon the latter petitioned, claiming bribery by their opponents and unfairness by the bailiffs in refusing to poll several of their supporters. At the committee of elections on 4 Mar. 1702, the Tories attempted to secure the reading of the report from the previous Parliament, but this was defeated. The question revolved around the right to the freedom of the borough by younger sons of freemen. This right was not allowed by the committee, a decision confirmed by the House, whereupon Thornhagh and White were declared duly elected by a margin of two votes in a House of over 350 Members.5

The same candidates offered themselves for election in 1702. As before, Thornhagh and White were returned and Hickman and Levinz petitioned. On this occasion, however, a different charge was levelled: that the bailiffs had admitted several to be freemen without regard to the customs governing admissions. In reply, counsel for the sitting Members claimed that the corporation had a free hand in the creation of burgesses without reference to residency. The House decided that non-residents were incapable of being made free by the corporation and overturned the election. In 1704 Hickman was sufficiently keen to build up his interest to use influence with Robert Harley* to ensure that the lord keeper, Sir Nathan Wright, put several of his friends and relatives into the commission of the peace for the Retford area, despite ‘some opposition given to it (you may guess from whence)’. One may speculate he meant the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†) or other Whigs such as Thornhagh or White. Hickman and Levinz stood again in 1705, but against different opponents. Sir Hardolph Wasteneys, 4th Bt., was a Lincolnshire landowner, while Robert Molesworth was presumably a Newcastle nominee. In the event both Tories were returned, but their opponents petitioned, as did several freemen on the grounds that their rights and privileges had been infringed. The sitting Members based their defence on claims that younger sons of freemen had the right to be freemen themselves and that only inhabitants of the borough could be made free by the corporation. The latter point was crucial, so that when the House decided upon the wider franchise the petitioners were in consequence declared duly elected.6

The election of 1708 was a three-cornered contest which on the face of it was straightforward. Thomas White II, with a strong local interest and Whig support, was unopposed, leaving the Tory Levinz to scrape home narrowly against the Newcastle nominee, Molesworth. Levinz was not even present for the election, recovering his health at Bath. However, he displayed considerable familiarity with the intricacies of the franchise, noting that he would not ask honorary freemen for their votes for fear of disobliging his friends in the town. Furthermore, he was aware that White’s attitude was crucial to the outcome: about a week before the poll he had received conflicting advice as to White’s intentions, noting that if it was true that he was soliciting votes for Molesworth, ‘I cannot see how he can honourably acquit himself, of what he declareth at Retford, that he would not concern himself for any body else’. It was White who effectively ruled out his neighbour Mr Banks as a candidate on the grounds that he was not ‘a proper man’ to represent the borough. An extant list of Levinz voters confirms a serious split in Whig ranks for it included Wasteneys, John Thornhagh and his son St. Andrew Thornhagh. Their defection from Newcastle’s candidate can only be explained in terms of a local dispute over the depredations of the deer in Sherwood Forest. The deer were encroaching on to land and crops in search of food, causing time and money to be expended in keeping them off productive land, without harming them. Thornhagh and Wasteneys wished to take remedial action, preferably through legislation defining the extent of the forest. Newcastle, as warden of the forest, opposed this action on the grounds that it would offend Queen Anne. With the dispute rumbling, William Jessop* even suggested to Newcastle in November 1707 that St. Andrew Thornhagh be offered a seat at East Retford, ‘that the grievance of the deer would be healed that way’. In the event, this cost Molesworth his seat and soured relations between the Whigs at county level for some time to come. In August 1708 47 freemen were admitted in the Whig interest, the vast majority non-resident, and the continuing acrimony within the borough may well explain the duel fought in January 1709 between Levinz and Jessop and the petition to the Commons on 15 Feb. complaining about Jessop’s conduct as recorder in obstructing the operation of the borough court by refusing to hand over its records to the bailiff.7

The favourable circumstances for Tories in 1710 saw Levinz turn his attentions to the county. White stood with a Dissenting relation, Thomas Westby*, in opposition to two Tories, Willoughby Hickman (son of Sir Willoughby) and Bryan Cooke. The two former were returned whereupon Cooke petitioned, challenging the franchise upon which the election was conducted. The fundamental question was, again, whether non-residents could be made freemen and vote in elections. Not surprisingly, the Tory House decided without a division in the committee of elections that they could not, thus excluding over 50 Whig voters. This decision was no doubt aided by the assertion, in at least one newsletter, that the non-residents had been ‘collected from a Presbyterian seminary at Attercliffe in Yorkshire who were menial servants and tenants to a great lord’ (presumably a reference to Newcastle’s power exercised through the recorder, Jessop).8

On the death of Hickman in April 1713 Francis Lewis, a Tory, was elected unopposed. At the general election four months later, Lewis was returned with John Digby, again without opposition. From the correspondence between Levinz and Lord Harley (Edward*) in 1714 it seems that both the Harleys and the Pelhams (the beneficiaries of the Newcastle estate) were concerned to retain an interest in the borough by succeeding Newcastle as high steward (a post left vacant since 1711). To Levinz, an experienced observer of corporation affairs, the election of bailiffs in 1714 was the key to establishing an ‘incontestable’ Harley interest, but it required the expenditure of some money to ensure that the new officers ‘shall have a dependence on your lordship’. The consequence of a failure to act was the probable appointment of Lord Pelham as high steward. Thus, the end of Anne’s reign saw the emergence of a new interest in the borough, that of Thomas Pelham-Holles, soon to be created Duke of Newcastle.9

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. Add. 70305, election case.
  • 2. Add. 70025, ff. 62–3.
  • 3. J. S. Piercy, Hist. Retford, 1, 7, 10; J. D. Chambers, Notts. in 18th Cent. 51, 79; A. Wood, Notts. 225.
  • 4. Add. 33062, f. 2; 70305, election case; Cocks Diary, 83–84, 97–98.
  • 5. Cocks Diary, 233–4, 248.
  • 6. Add. 70021, f. 164; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 106.
  • 7. Add. 70025, ff. 62–63; 70024, f. 263; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Mellish mss Me157–96/36, Levinz to [?Joseph Mellish], 3 May 1708; Notts. RO, Foljambe mss DDFJ11/1/1, ff. 13–20; Portland mss DD4P/64/21/2, Jessop to Newcastle, 22 Oct. 1707; DD3P/20/5, list of freemen made 30 Aug. 1708; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Holles) mss Pw2 302, ‘Sir Thomas Willoughby’s message to my lord’, 29 July 1708; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 396.
  • 8. Portland (Holles) mss Pw2 139, Jessop to [Newcastle], 18 July 1710; Add. 70421, newsletter 21 Oct. 1710; Luttrell, 667.
  • 9. Add. 70388, Levinz to Edward, Ld. Harley, 21, 26 July, 11 Sept. 1714.