Great Bedwyn


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 freeholders and burgage holders

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 118 in 1708.


18 Feb. 1690ANTHONY CAREY, Visct. Falkland [S] 
19 Nov. 1694FRANCIS STONEHOUSE vice Carey, deceased 
 Thomas Neale 
18 July 1702HON. JAMES BRUCE 
 Charles Bruce,  Ld. Bruce 
 Hon. James Bruce 
7 Dec. 1705CHARLES BRUCE, Ld. Bruce vice Byng, chose to sit for Plymouth 
29 Nov. 1707TRACY PAUNCEFORT vice Pollexfen, appointed to office68
 Edward Pauncefort29
 Nicholas Pollexfen22
 POLLEXFEN vice Pauncefort, on petition, 22 Dec. 1707 
5 May 1708CHARLES BRUCE, Ld. Bruce108
 Tracy Pauncefort18
 Nicholas Pollexfen171
7 Oct. 1710CHARLES BRUCE, Ld. Bruce 
16 June 1711THOMAS MILLINGTON vice Bruce, chose to sit for Marlborough 
28 Aug. 1713SIR EDWARD SEYMOUR, Bt. 

Main Article

An unprepossessing sight, Bedwyn consisted of ‘two streets: one on a descent from east to west, with several scattered houses in it like a vill; the other crosses it from north to south’. Despite this sparsity of population, the extension of the franchise at the Restoration to encompass freeholders as well as the owners of the ‘ancient burgages’ had enlarged the electorate significantly and in doing so had made the borough more difficult, and more expensive, to control, for the other distinguishing characteristic of Bedwyn was the utter venality of most of its voters, whose greed and commercial acumen made them increasingly resistant to alternative, less material or at any rate less direct, forms of influence. Neither the Stonehouses, who owned the manor of Stock within the town, nor the Bruces of nearby Tottenham Park, who held the other manor of West Bedwyn and appointed the portreeve (the parliamentary returning officer) at their court leet, possessed an untrammelled right of nomination. ‘Strangers’ with money to spend were assured of a welcome. In common with several neighbouring boroughs, Bedwyn looked in particular to the clothiers of Newbury for electoral subventions, and it was often through their mediation that carpet-bagging Londoners were introduced to the borough. Indeed, one of the Members returned unopposed in 1690, the City alderman Sir Jonathan Raymond, owned a country seat just outside Newbury. His partner was the Court Tory Lord Falkland, who seems to have been imported into the borough by Francis Stonehouse, in preference to standing himself, as he was being urged to do by leading Tories in order to keep out ‘the fanatics’. Whatever Stonehouse’s reservations had been, they had evidently disappeared four years later when he was returned to replace the deceased Falkland at a by-election, ignoring ministerial efforts to impose Sir William Trumbull* on the borough. He held his place at the general election in 1695, when he was joined not by Raymond but by the Tory admiral Sir Ralph Delaval, after Thomas Goddard of Swindon (father of Richard*) had been rumoured as a possible candidate, and again in 1698, when his partner was the opposition pamphleteer Charles Davenant. It is probable that these two elections marked a revival in the Bruce interest, following the political embarrassment suffered at the Revolution by the head of the family, Lord Ailesbury (Thomas Bruce†). Certainly after Ailesbury’s imprisonment on accusations of treason in 1696–7, and his flight to France in 1698, his brother Hon. Robert Bruce* took a firmer grip on the family’s affairs and managed both financial and political interests more efficiently. At about the same time Stock House was destroyed by fire, and Stonehouse removed his principal residence to Hungerford in Berkshire. Although he retained an important position in Bedwyn he gradually came to play second fiddle to the Bruces, and to exercise his influence in co-operation with theirs. In 1698 Davenant was almost certainly the Bruces’ nominee. The third candidate on this occasion, the ministerialist Thomas Neale*, who had evidently based his campaign on ready cash, petitioned, but only against Davenant. He claimed ‘illegal practices and corruption’ and was supported by a second petition signed by two of the borough’s ‘inhabitants’. The committee took no action on the case in the first session of the 1698 Parliament, during which the voters’ petition was withdrawn, and although Neale renewed his petition he died the following month and the committee were thereupon discharged from considering the matter any further.2

The general election of January 1701 passed without incident, Davenant reporting in advance that his return was ‘fixed’: Stonehouse had ‘declared for me and joined with me, and a very great majority have signed a letter inviting me to stand’. But by November the outlook had utterly changed. In common with the other ‘Poussineers’, Davenant faced rejection at the poll, but in his case it was not the scandal of being found in the company of the French chargé d’affaires that undid him, but the treachery of his erstwhile partner and the fickleness of the Bedwyn ‘burgesses’. Four days before the election he wrote somewhat peevishly to the Ailesbury heir, the young Lord Bruce, to announce that his efforts to preserve the ‘family interest’ of his patrons were doomed. Letters had arrived from Bedwyn

which have made me quite lay aside the thoughts of standing there. Mr Stonehouse in short underhand has always opposed me, but now he does it openly. Besides, the electors are generally such a pack of corrupt rogues that it is a shame an honest gentleman should represent them.

In these circumstances, withdrawal was preferable to a humiliating (and expensive) defeat. The fact that Stonehouse’s partner, Michael Mitford, came instead from the world of commerce (more specifically from among the major stockholders of the New East India Company) and that the tenor of the borough’s congratulatory address on Queen Anne’s accession was still markedly Tory, in line with the political sympathies of Davenant and his patrons, would seem to indicate that pecuniary rather than party-political considerations had been chiefly responsible for undermining Davenant’s position. The following year saw the Bruce interest re-establish its claim to one seat, through Lord Ailesbury’s youngest brother, James.3

In 1705 Stonehouse stood down, leaving the Bruces free to attempt both seats, Lord Bruce putting up in partnership with his uncle James. However, when their steward visited the borough in April he reported in dismay that the electors were ‘in an uproar’ and demanded no less than ‘£6 a man’ for their votes. By means of the clothiers in Newbury they had ‘engaged’ two persons ‘to come to town’ and offer themselves as candidates, both merchants and one of them, Richard Wollaston, the outgoing Member for Whitchurch. Money had already been paid over by ‘the Newbury clothiers’, and the steward, Charles Becher, foresaw more ‘charge and trouble’. As he told Lord Bruce, the burgesses ‘are continually at the park [Tottenham] with my lady [Ailesbury] and me when at home’, and in the end Bruce was obliged to pay as much as £8 a man to his ‘friends’. Although neither of the merchants stayed long, their places were quickly taken by other, even more formidable, interlopers. The first to appear was the young Whig Nicholas Pollexfen, son of a wealthy London merchant. Before the end of April, Becher was recounting a story from one of his under-managers, ‘Mr Bard’,

that three or four score of the votes have received £5 each and have engaged to serve Pollexfen, whose agents gave the £5 to the women under pretence of their spinning five pounds of wool at 20s. a pound. That they were arrived at this height to send for another man, who will give the same sum to them, engaging to have the second and then securing both votes; they will be so courteous as to offer your lordship the privilege of accepting one of their votes to be at your disposal, provided your lordship also pays down. And if you accept not of them upon these terms, then they will have two of their own choosing . . . I have written to Mr Bard and Mr Stonehouse all I could say were I there . . . It would do mightily well if your lordship would be pleased to write also to them and to press Mr Stonehouse’s utmost interest so as not to seem to take my lady’s commission out of her hands or to interfere with her, for they are jealous of that . . . and were resolved to fling up the business upon a slighting word or two that Mr Stonehouse let fall, and I had much ado to set them right.

Pollexfen’s efforts to find a partner quickly turned into an auction. Depositions collected subsequently by the Bruces in preparation for the hearing of the election case spoke of Pollexfen paying £5 a man. Also,

that Mr Pollexfen writ or went to London to invite a gentleman down [later identified as ‘Withers’] . . . to stand with him at Bedwyn, and met him afterwards at the Bear in Hungerford, where they discoursed together some time about terms to be offered to the voters of Bedwyn. And Mr Pollexfen told him he must give £5 a man to 74 voters, as himself had done, but the gentleman refused it, and said he would give but so much, which Mr Pollexfen computed and found it would rise but to £3 a man, and told him it should not do, upon which the gentleman went into his coach and drove away as far as the water, and then turned back again to the Bear inn . . . and . . . offered then to give £4 a man and said positively he would give no more . . . ‘No’, said Mr Pollexfen, ‘he shall not go to Bedwyn unless he will give £5 a man as I have done, for he shall not lie under me . . . But . . . I am sure of another man that shall pay . . . as much or more than I have done, I will do it for him.’ So Mr Pollexfen, they say, refused the £4 gentleman, who went away immediately. That Mr Pollexfen soon after this rode away post to London, and in a short time returned to Bedwyn and declared to these two witnesses and others that he had been with Sir George Byng, who had engaged to stand with him at Bedwyn and to give every voter as much or more than he had done, and would appear amongst them very soon, which accordingly he did, and with his own mouth Sir George promised these two witnesses . . . £7 a man for their votes . . . They further say Sir George Byng promised them and the rest of their voters new coats of one livery.

It appears that the two deponents, Richard Bartholomew and Francis Bushell, were in some way empowered to speak for a number of burgage holders, and there is evidence of other such informal arrangements, whereby certain influential or representative voters negotiated a price on behalf of a group. The outcome of this particular bout of bargaining was the election of Byng and Pollexfen, and a prompt decision on the part of the Bruces to lodge a petition against the return. Indeed, they had been accumulating evidence even before the election, of bribery and other ‘indirect practices’ on the part of Pollexfen and his agents, including the forcible restraint of some of the more notoriously unreliable of the bribed voters. Bartholomew and Bushell, for example, testified that, after receiving Pollexfen’s and Byng’s money ‘they fully intended to come away . . . that night with about 16 more votes and to have voted for my Lord Bruce’ but that

one Thomas Hayward betrayed them and that they were all the night after kept close in a room like prisoners and not suffered to whisper to one another nor to stir out of doors to do their necessary occasions but under the guard of two or three of Sir George’s and Mr Pollexfen’s servants or the clothiers’. That William Dorrell sat in the doorway with his legs across the door to stop them from going forth.

Responsibility for collecting proofs and transporting witnesses to London devolved upon the agent, Becher, assisted by Lady Ailesbury and various local allies, including Stonehouse, who were bringing pressure to bear on their tenants and dependants to give evidence. One of them advised the Bruces to take legal action against the ‘cottages’ in Bedwyn and ‘to proceed to destroying them’. As the time neared for the case to be presented, it became clear that the key witnesses would be Bartholomew and Bushell, men of almost legendary slipperiness. News in late October that they had evaded the vigilance of Becher’s men and gone up to London on their own created alarm. Becher wrote that there were fears

they intend to make their markets with Pollexfen and then apply to my lord in case they fail there. They are very rogues and must be carefully managed. If there be any safe way to gratify their desires, it will be very serviceable to do it, for they alone can unravel the whole bribery from first to last, and if they can be wheedled out of town into safe custody from Sir George and Pollexfen it will be very happy.

Fortunately for Becher, he was able to catch up with them again and, having persuaded them to keep clear of Byng and Pollexfen for fear of being ‘kidnapped’ or, through Byng’s influence as an admiral, press-ganged, was able to watch over them, though this involved the hardship of keeping their somewhat drunken company. They now promised to ‘act like men of honour’ and Becher informed Lord Bruce that ‘if your lordship pleases to suffer a little election familiarity with them they will tell you and Mr Bruce everything and I believe will stand stoutly to it’. The guard was not relaxed, however, and after the new Parliament had met and the petition been presented the confinement of the two men was brought to the House’s attention and they were required to explain themselves before being admonished to attend the committee. No censure was passed upon their captors. But at the same time Pollexfen’s agents were trying whatever could be done to intimidate the pair from testifying, which would indicate that their evidence was expected to be damning. Becher reported on 15 Nov.:

William Dorrell and Peter Limpas came from London yesterday. The whole town is in an uproar; they run from house to house in heaps to consult. John Bushell’s house was full of them. His daughter . . . threatened Francis Bushell’s wife, who owed her some money, that she would arrest him if he offered to say a word about the election, and called him a rogue for endeavouring to ruin the town, and fool if he went to London, for there he would be torn to pieces and starve in gaol, etc.

The Bruces did not rely solely on Bartholomew and Francis Bushell. There were other witnesses whose identity Becher hoped to keep secret from his enemies until the last minute. He had also ‘sent to an 80-year-old man who knows about Bedwyn elections before the constitution was altered’, presumably with an eye to challenging the validity of some of Pollexfen’s votes, or supporting the eligibility of their own electors against any counter-claim. Moreover Becher had discovered the identity of the man who had drawn up the bonds given by those who had accepted bribes from Pollexfen and Byng, one Goodwin, ‘clerk to Counsellor Cowslipp who lives at Denington near Newbury’, and steward to the Tory Lord Craven who promised to do what he could to persuade Goodwin to testify. But given the nature of Bedwyn elections, no petitioner could be entirely confident, and the Bruces were apprehensive enough to ensure that their agent be ‘thoroughly cautioned by counsel to defend him against anything the other party may charge him with, as I hear they intend to do’. They were anxious as well that Wollaston and Sir Edward Lawrence* be excluded from the committee when the cause was heard ‘because they were managers for Byng and Pollexfen’. And when Byng opted to sit for the other constituency for which he had been returned, the petition was promptly withdrawn and Lord Bruce returned unopposed to the vacancy (though still at a cost of £200), in what was clearly a compromise between the two sides.4

In November 1707 Pollexfen was one of several prizes commissioners whose office was adjudged to fall under the terms of the 1706 Regency Act, and who were obliged to seek re-election. Opposition on this occasion came not from the Bruces but from another interloper, Tracy Pauncefort, whose family’s involvement in various regimental agencies had doubtless established useful contacts for them with cloth manufacturers in Newbury and elsewhere and who was probably introduced to the borough by this means. The contest evidently took the same form as in 1705, with each candidate seeking to outspend the other, though Pauncefort introduced a tactical refinement by persuading his uncle Edward Pauncefort* to put up as well, with the sole, and very successful, intention of drawing votes from Pollexfen. The petition advanced by Pollexfen made a brief attempt to prove that some of Pauncefort’s voters were unqualified, living in houses ‘erected upon new foundations’, but concentrated its energies principally on the customary issue of bribery, and in particular on reports of a meeting held at the King’s Head in Bedwyn six days before the poll, where in an upstairs room a gentleman, known only as ‘Mr Nameless’, sat with parcels of money (variously said to contain between 17s. and £3 each) which were distributed to voters one at a time when they had signed bonds to vote for Pauncefort. Two of the more vociferous witnesses on Pollexfen’s side were none other than Bartholomew and Bushell, while Pauncefort’s chief local agent was Bushell’s namesake John, a man who in the general election had betrayed the Bruces, or so they alleged, and had helped to manage for Pollexfen. The evidence given before the committee shows the Bruce interest to have remained neutral, and even though their agents (under Francis Stonehouse’s direction) were collecting documentary proof that Pauncefort had paid John Bushell for his services, this was not with a view to supporting Pollexfen’s petition. Rather, it was probably intended to assist in a separate petition they themselves were mounting, in the name of two individual voters, ‘to have the right of election examined’, in response to an attempt by Pollexfen ‘to fling out the commoners [freeholders] and reduce the vote to the old number’. Though drafted, this petition was not presented, presumably because Pollexfen changed his strategy. The House in fact declared the franchise to reside in freeholders as well as burgage owners, before seating Pollexfen and ordering Pauncefort and John Bushell into custody for ‘notorious bribery and corruption’. They were held for some time, in the vain hope of extracting from them the identity of ‘Mr Nameless’. After a petition, and examinations at the bar of the House on 23 and 29 Jan. 1708, Bushell was released with a reprimand, but Pauncefort remained imprisoned until the dissolution.5

Prior to this by-election Charles Becher had been confident that Lord Bruce would find no difficulty in securing his re-election when need be: ‘matters go on very smoothly’, he had written, and ‘many of those that opposed last time seem to be altered much in their behaviour and are more humble’. Francis Stonehouse, too, was acting in close contact with the family’s other agents. But Pauncefort’s involvement in the borough complicated matters, and as the 1708 election approached, yet another interloper intruded, Samuel Sambrooke, son of one rich London merchant and heir to another even wealthier, who had already tried to buy his way into Parliament for Bramber. In April 1708 Becher repeated his assurance to Lord Bruce that ‘you are safe at Bedwyn’, but noted that ‘there is three gent[lemen] making interest (viz. Pollexfen, Pauncefort and Sambrooke)’, the latter two having already visited the town themselves and stationed agents there. Pollexfen was ‘making little of it’, and only ‘lies runningly upon the catch’. Eventually Pauncefort’s challenge, too, fizzled out, and Sambrooke was chosen with Lord Bruce by a crushing margin. It would seem that, in apprehension of subsequent parliamentary inquiries, money was not spent on the voters before polling, though afterwards Lord Bruce for one paid off his supporters, at the rate of £4 a man for ‘single votes’ (i.e. plumpers) and £3 for ‘doubles’. Pollexfen’s previous threat to disfranchise the freeholders had produced a reaction against him and in favour of the Bruces as the only ‘friends’ the freeholders had, so that for once something approaching a point of principle may have been at stake. Certainly in a remarkable display of near-spontaneous loyalty to the Bruce interest ‘30-odd’ electors ‘drew themselves up in a body at the market-house’ one day, ‘and of their own accords, unasked, set their hands to a paper’ promising to vote for Lord Bruce and ‘went themselves from house to house in a body to get the rest to sign . . . which they did to the number of 65 . . . very generously and frankly’. That this was indeed very much a personal vote is clear from the fact that around 40 of Bruce’s voters were plumpers. Despite the scale of his defeat, Pauncefort petitioned on the grounds of ‘bribery and indirect practices’, greatly to Becher’s alarm, who suspected Pollexfen’s hand ‘at the bottom of it’ and that another attack on the freeholder franchise was in the offing. The more forward-looking opinion of Francis Stonehouse was that Lord Bruce should himself exploit this opportunity ‘to establish the number of votes and to reduce them, which no doubt would be of great use if it could be done so as not to appear under any countenance of your lordship’, in other words to regulate the franchise so as to facilitate patron control in general and possibly in the long run to clear a path for the reassertion of the Bruces’ proprietorial interest, without forfeiting the family’s popularity among ‘townsmen’ as defenders of the wider, and more popular, qualification. However, after the House had for some reason failed to hear the case on the day appointed, Pauncefort withdrew his petition.6

In 1710 Lord Bruce and (Sir) Edward Seymour I (5th Bt.) were returned without a contest. Frederick Tylney* seems to have contemplated standing, only for his ‘interest’ to subside before the poll. The Tory 2nd Duke of Beaufort had also hoped to recommend a ‘friend’ and apparently succeeded in doing so the following year, when Bruce opted to sit for Marlborough instead and created a vacancy. Thomas Millington, the unopposed candidate at the by-election, was not long afterwards admitted to the Duke’s London dining-club, the ‘Board of Brothers’. He had been nominated by Lord Bruce to the Bedwyn voters, who demanded a ‘larger dole’ than usual for this demonstration of loyalty, and settled on a claim of £5, divided between Bruce and Millington at the rate of two to three. Unless this level of expenditure could be maintained, the Tottenham Park interest could not regard itself as invulnerable. The 1713 general election saw the outgoing Members safely re-elected, after ‘one Hill and other beggarly fellows’ had made an unsuccessful application to Richard Goddard to put up, and thus create a market for their votes, but in 1715 Stonehouse deserted and two Whig ‘outsiders’ outspent the hapless Becher to the degree that Lord Bruce did not even think it worthwhile to adopt a candidate.7

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Daily Courant, 11 May 1708.
  • 2. Bodl. Willis 15, f. 78; 48, ff. 438–9; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 9/3506, affidavit of John Hopkins, 22 Mar. 1721; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 60; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 12, f. 95; HMC Portland, viii. 27–28; Newberry Lib. case mss, Ld. Clarendon (Henry Hyde†) to Ld. Abingdon, 15 Feb. [1690]; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1234, Ld. Sunderland to Ld. Portland, 28 May 1694; Add. 70018, f. 94.
  • 3. HMC Cowper, ii. 409–10; Ailesbury mss 1300/1431, Davenant to Ld. Bruce, 20 Nov. 1701; London Gazette, 30 Apr.–4 May 1702.
  • 4. HMC 15th Rep. VII, 189–96, 204; Ailesbury mss 1300/1319, 1322, 1325, 1327, 1329, 1330, Becher to James Bruce, 8 Oct. 1705, same to Robert Bruce, 24 Oct., 10, 13 Nov. 1705, same to Ld. Bruce, 3, [4] Nov. 1705; 9/3514, Stonehouse to Ld. Bruce, 10 Nov. 1705.
  • 5. Ailesbury mss 1300/1338A, Becher to Ld. Bruce, 9 Dec. 1707; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 199.
  • 6. Ailesbury mss 1300/1338–9, 1341–5, 1348, Becher to Ld. Bruce, 31 May, 11, 25, 26, 27 Apr. 1708, ‘Thursday night’ [1708], ‘Sunday night’ [1708]; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 201.
  • 7. Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Beaufort to Tylney, 14 Sept. 1710; Post Boy, 19–21 June 1711; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 203–4; Ailesbury mss 1300/1319, Becher to Ld. Bruce, Aug. [1713].