Higham Ferrers


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

A single Member constituency

Right of Election:

in freemen being householders not receiving alms

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

94 in 1702


21 Feb. 1690THOMAS ANDREW 
21 Oct. 1695THOMAS ANDREW 
22 July 1698THOMAS EKINS 
1 Jan. 1701THOMAS EKINS 
 Thomas Andrew 
22 Nov. 1701THOMAS EKINS 
13 Apr. 1702THOMAS PEMBERTON vice Ekins, deceased 
 Hon. Thomas Watson Wentworth43
22 Nov. 1703HON. THOMAS WATSON WENTWORTH vice Pemberton, deceased 
12 Mar. 1714HON. CHARLES LEIGH vice Watson Wentworth, chose to sit for Malton 

Main Article

The disposal of the single Higham Ferrers seat lay chiefly in the hands of whoever controlled the manor, the lordship of which belonged to the duchy of Lancaster. It had been granted by Charles II to his consort, Catherine of Braganza, with reversion to the 2nd Earl of Feversham, the Queen’s chamberlain from 1680 until her death in 1705. Feversham seems to have shown no interest in nominating candidates except in 1689 when he put forward his heir, his sister-in-law’s husband, Hon. Lewis Watson†, who in a short while succeeded his father as 3rd Lord Rockingham. It may well have been Feversham’s suspected association with the exiled James II that afterwards forced him to remain aloof from electoral politics. Thus in the course of the next 12 years the Queen Dowager’s steward, the 1st Lord Ferrers, controlled the allocation of the duchy patronage, most notably the offices of steward and receiver, which opened the way for country squires who sought the borough’s parliamentary seat. It was to Ferrers that Samuel Shepheard I*, the father of an outside aspirant (Samuel Shepheard II*), addressed himself in 1703 in the knowledge that whoever held either the stewardship or receivership of the honour of Higham Ferrers ‘will be infallibly elected Member in the stead of Mr [Thomas] Pemberton, and that the gift of them is in your lordship’. The receivership bestowed on the holder the right to make grants of hay from an area known as ‘Craftsmen’s Meadow’ to ‘craftsmen and innkeepers of the town, and their widows’, a practice which unless abused served as an obvious local channel of goodwill.1

Thomas Andrew, whose family estate stood five miles from the borough at Great Addington, occupied the seat until 1698, for most of that time as a Court Whig, but initially as a Country supporter. In his place was elected Thomas Ekins, a Tory who had held the receivership since 1691, whose intent to stand may have compelled Andrew to retire in order to avert an unwelcome contest. Ekins stood again in the first 1701 election and was this time challenged to a poll by Andrew who none the less failed to oust him. Although Andrew stood successfully at Northampton at a by-election on 21 Feb., his petition against Ekins was nevertheless submitted to the Commons five days later, probably to register the grounds of his quarrel with the earlier outcome at Higham Ferrers. As the second election approached in November, Ekins complained to Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, the Tory shire knight, of ‘some little difficulty in my own election, more than I did at first expect’, but did not identify his opponent. It could not have been his former antagonist Andrew, whose position at Northampton seemed secure; the strongest possibility is that it was Thomas Pemberton, another Tory squire who resided in the town. Unusually, it was Pemberton rather than Ekins who on 11 Nov. had presented the corporation’s loyal address in support of the King’s war policy, a circumstance which might be explained as a sign of rivalry between two neighbouring gentlemen. Whoever had threatened Ekins’ chances of re-election evidently chose not to pursue matters to a poll. The apparent ease with which Pemberton stepped into the vacancy left by Ekins’ death in March 1702 tends to suggest that the borough’s parliamentary seat might have become a focus of hostility between them. The Queen’s accession was greeted by an address from the corporation promising, ‘we will always send up such a representative to Parliament in whom we shall have special confidence that he will be ready to assist your Majesty in your undertakings, so much for the honour of these nations, and the security of the established religion’. At the general election in July, Pemberton faced determined opposition from Hon. Thomas Watson Wentworth, a Whig and Rockingham’s brother, who possessed a seat at Harrowden a short distance north-west of the borough. Though a scion of one of the county’s aristocratic families, Watson Wentworth was immensely wealthy in his own right, having inherited the Stratford fortune, and was thus a potentially formidable opponent. Before 1702, however, his interest was insufficient to allow him to contest the seat. In November 1701 he had stood for the county against Isham, and on his behalf Rockingham had applied for one of the Duke of Newcastle’s (John Holles†) borough seats, whereas Higham Ferrers was not considered a possibility. When he stood there in 1702, Watson Wentworth was unsuccessful by a narrow margin but petitioned against Pemberton with allegations that the mayor had manipulated the polling in the latter’s favour and that voters had been bribed and threatened. The elections committee considered the matter towards the end of the year. Watson Wentworth’s counsel tried to insist that the right of election lay in all of the resident freemen, but the committee agreed with Pemberton’s case that the freeman qualification was restricted to householders. The petition alleged that in return for votes Pemberton had promised several townsmen that he would pay their debts. The committee report also stated that ‘great stress’ was laid on Pemberton’s ‘partial’ distribution of hay from the ‘Craftsmen’s Meadow’, although much of the evidence for this was contradicted. Pemberton countered the accusations against him through witnesses who claimed that a month or so before the election Rockingham’s steward had arrived in the town to make a purchase of land for the use of the poor, though naturally any suggestion that it was merely a ruse to win votes was denied. A verdict on 24 Dec. confirmed the sitting Member’s election, and the House concurred without dividing on 28 Jan. 1703. Three months later, however, Pemberton died, and in November Watson Wentworth came in unopposed.2

Watson Wentworth consolidated his control of the seat, which he retained until 1713. He was able to purchase the reversion of the manor from his kinsman, Lord Feversham, probably soon after his first election in 1702; indeed, a report in February 1705 mentions that at the forthcoming election Watson Wentworth intended to bring in Sir Matthew Dudley, 2nd Bt.*, indicating that his control was well established. The purchase gave him ownership of ‘all the town except the college lands’. His brother Rockingham also established a relationship with the town, being appointed steward of the manor in 1707, and in 1708 he provided £50 for the parcel of land he had promised at the election of 1702. Elected in 1713 for both Higham Ferrers and Malton, Watson Wentworth opted for the latter, leaving the Higham Ferrers seat to be taken in March 1714 by his nephew, Hon. Charles Leigh.3

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Huntington Lib. Hastings mss HA10794, Shepheard to Ferrers, 3 June 1703; CJ, xiv. 146.
  • 2. Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 2716, Ekins to Isham, 16 Nov. 1701; IC 4705, Pemberton to same, 11 Nov. [1701]; London Gazette, 27–30 Apr. 1702; Northants. Poll Bks. 1702–1831, p. 56; HMC Portland, ii. 180; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 250.
  • 3. Bridges, Northants. ii. 173; Isham mss IC 4987, Edward Morpott to Isham, 24 Feb. 1704–5; R. Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Official Lists, 192; J. Cole, Hist. Higham Ferrers, 183.