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 inhabitants until 1698; thereafter in the freeholders and leaseholders for life

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 88 in 1698; at least 93 in 1705


18 Feb. 1690THOMAS NEALE 
 Edmund Harrison 
16 Jan. 1695JOHN RICHMOND WEBB vice Deane, deceased 
 Thomas Neale, jnr. 
19 Oct. 1695THOMAS NEALE 
26 July 1698WALTER KENT71
 John Richmond Webb47
 JOHN RICHMOND WEBB vice Neale, on petition, 11 Feb. 1699 
14 May 1705WALTER KENT54
 Edmund Richmond Webb42
 John Richmond Webb42
 JOHN RICHMOND WEBB vice Powell, on petition, 17 Jan. 1706 
 Hon. Robert Bruce45
 – Albert15
 – Swift10
 Henry Skylling441
24 Mar. 1714JOHN WARD vice Webb, chose to sit for Newport, I.o.W. 

Main Article

Local landowners and London merchants jostled with each other in Ludgershall elections. Despite the presence of strong proprietory interests, the venality of the electorate and the importance to the town’s economy of the clothing industry meant that any outsider prepared to spend money and with the appropriate trading connexions would have a chance. A significant part in this kind of campaign might well be played by the clothiers of Newbury, Berkshire, who enjoyed influence at Ludgershall as they did at Great Bedwyn. In 1690 a London merchant, Edmund Harrison, was defeated by two former Members with powerful local ties: John Deane, one of the outgoing Members, whose estate lay close by the town, and Thomas Neale, who though himself a notorious City ‘projector’ had sat previously on the interest of the recusant lords of the manor of Ludgershall, the Brownes. The other outgoing Member, John Smith I*, may have put up. At any event, his cause failed for want of expenditure: in the words of a sympathizer, he ‘lost it . . . for to spare the penny’. Harrison petitioned, alleging partiality in the returning officer, the lord’s bailiff, but his petition was not heard. When Deane died at the end of 1694 Neale’s son stood for the vacancy. The Browne interest, if it had helped his father in 1690, was of little use to him now. Biddesden, in the parish of Ludgershall, electorally their most valuable property, had been sold in 1692 to John Richmond Webb, who himself stood at the by-election and was chosen, having secured the bailiff’s promise, so it was said, to return him ‘right or wrong’. Neale submitted a petition but let it drop, and did not pursue his challenge at the general election, when his father and Webb were returned together. Opposition had been threatened but did not materialize. In 1698, however, there was a contest. The elder Neale was joined by another Tory citizen, Walter Kent, a Turkey merchant with various Berkshire connexions, in opposition to Webb. Kent topped the poll, and Neale defeated Webb by nine votes for the second seat. Webb’s petition, while acknowledging that the other two candidates had acted in combination, was against Neale alone. The grounds for the petition were twofold: bribery on Neale’s part, and differing interpretations of the franchise. Webb, supported by his father, Edmund Richmond Webb, alleged that ‘a little before’ the dissolution Neale had bought £50 worth of written promises of votes at 10s. apiece, and that in the two or three days immediately preceding the election a further £12 had been spent in the same way. That the £50 had been spent Neale did not deny, though he claimed it had been paid ‘without any condition’ and produced a letter he had written to his agent in July 1698 specifically ordering him to ‘put . . . an end to all expense in the town’ before the writs were issued, to avoid infringing the 1696 Act for Preventing Charge and Expense at Elections. He had added, however:

Please assist . . . in taking the bills from each house, for what’s past; which I will pay, but no growing expense. But, the better to enable such as will to drink my health, I have sent each voter that will accept it half a piece for that purpose.

There were, too, some counter-allegations against Webb: that he had offered one voter a guinea; another ‘a load of straw’; a third, a bricklayer, ‘to make his day’s work worth two guineas’. The second question, that of the franchise, proved difficult. As the bailiff put it, ‘there were a great many queries upon the poll’. Evidence as to previous practice was vague and contradictory. Some said the right of election was confined to freeholders and those with ‘freehold leases’ (i.e. leases for lives) but ‘inhabitants’ had also been admitted, and non-resident freeholders had apparently been excluded ‘upon an election or two late past’. Webb claimed that before the election it had been agreed ‘by the freeholders, leaseholders and inhabitants’ and by the candidates themselves, that ‘no party, not inhabiting within the said borough’ should be permitted to vote. The bailiff, who gave evidence for Webb, produced ‘the original poll’ on which this agreement had been inscribed. It was clear, however, that Webb wished to argue for a franchise restricted to freeholders (and, presumably, leaseholders for life), since he objected against a number of Neale’s voters on these grounds and others of his witnesses testified that ‘out-freeholders’ had in the past been polled. Neale, who had, it was said, accepted the freeholder franchise in the 1685 election, when he ‘carried it by the freeholders and freehold leases’, now argued on the basis of a ruling of the House in 1660 that inhabitants as well as freeholders had a right to vote, and disavowed his part in the pre-election compact. The committee, although deciding for Webb, reaffirmed the 1660 judgment. When its resolutions were reported on 11 Feb. 1699, however, not only was Webb seated but the decision on the franchise was reversed in his favour. It was now settled in ‘such persons who have any estate of inheritance, or freehold, or leasehold determinable upon life or lives within the borough’, and was not to be contested again in this period.2

After Neale’s death in 1699 the Webbs consolidated their hold, John Richmond Webb and his father being chosen without opposition in the three succeeding general elections. Both were Tories, and the borough’s address on Queen Anne’s accession sounded properly Tory sentiments. Echoing the royal phrase, ‘with hearts entirely English’, it congratulated Anne’s ‘affection for the Church of England as by law established’ and promised that Ludgershall would always elect Members who would stand firm against ‘all your Majesty’s opposers, whether popish or fanatic’. It is conceivable that the Webbs’ opposition to the Tack and John’s associations with the moderate Tories in the ministry were somehow connected with the emergence of a Tory challenge to them in 1705, though there is no evidence of any such issue in the election. The challengers were Kent and a Tory cloth merchant, Thomas Powell, who had been invited to stand by elements among the clothing interest in the town. For once the lord’s bailiff was not in the Webbs’ pocket. On the contrary, he was said to be ‘a known agent’ of Kent and Powell, to whom, according to John Richmond Webb, he had sold his services: ‘the bailiff undertook to return him [Powell] if he would spend as much money at his house, as he had done at the George’, and so Powell and he had entered into ‘articles’. The bailiff’s method of fixing the return was to draw up before the election his own private list of those entitled to vote, and, once he had gone through it, to declare the election, leaving some 26 of the opposition voters unpolled. The Webbs petitioned, backed by a secondary petition from a number of their supporters, though before the petitions could be heard Edmund Richmond Webb died. The committee reported on 17 Jan. 1706. The burden of the case was the behaviour of the bailiff. The sitting Members denied that his having prepared a list of voters was without precedent, and added that he had been assisted by ‘six of the ancientest inhabitants of the borough’, but the force of this point diminished when it was revealed that all six had polled for them. Accusations of corruption and intimidation came from both sides: while Kent and Powell had proposed to one freeholder to ‘help his kinsman to an excise place’, the Webbs were said to have offered money, up to six guineas a vote, and at one stage as much as 50 guineas to the bailiff himself, and to have threatened to have men sent ‘to sea’ or ‘for soldiers’. Powell, at whose door responsibility for the arrangement with the bailiff was chiefly laid, was unseated in favour of John Richmond Webb. Presumably because there was now only one petitioner, Kent, who had again headed the poll, retained his seat.3

At the next election Webb faced opposition from several different quarters, the most dangerous being from another of the local interests, that of the Bruces of Savernake. Lord Bruce (Charles*) had eventually supported the Webbs in 1705, after prolonged sitting on the fence. But by April 1707 his steward was reporting the progress of a local agent in the town on behalf of Lord Bruce’s uncle, Hon. Robert Bruce. ‘Two hogsheads of drink’ had been given to ‘the Ludgershall men’ and ‘the majority of the town is very free for Mr Bruce upon my lord’s account’. The presence of the candidate would ‘make him safe and put him to no more charge’. At this stage competition was expected from Kent and Powell, who were to visit the borough together, and from Webb and his brother Thomas Richmond Webb*, recently defeated at a by-election at Devizes. Aware of the habits of the Ludgershall voters, Lord Bruce’s steward was making inquiries of ‘what sort of notes the people gave the late Colonel [Edmund Richmond] Webb’, and by November he was reporting bidding for pledges of votes:

Major-General Webb last week distributed three guineas a man to all his voters, but he has been chosen three times for it. Mr Kent the same week also gave two guineas a man, and designs to do it over again, as they term it here. Mr Street tells me Mr Bruce yet stands very fair with the people and there seems to be a general inclination to choose him for one, but he does not know how far this money may work upon them to alter their minds.

A further complicating factor was the interference of the widow of Sir Walter Clarges, 1st Bt.*, who intended to use her interest for Powell and either her brother-in-law Morgan Randyll*, at present out of the House, in case he should fail to be chosen elsewhere, or ‘Mr Tilly who is warden of the Fleet’. She ordered ‘Mr Dowling, an attorney of Andover that keeps the court at Ludgershall, to go with Mr Randyll and Tilly thither and to make all the interest possible’. Having heard that ‘Webb and Kent had given money’, Randyll and Tilly ‘said they intended to do the same to every one of the voters, and would outdo the other two’. By April 1708 the situation had become clearer. Lord Bruce was informed that ‘Mr Kent, Mr Powell and Mr Tilly have been in the town and tried their interest, but could make no great matter of it and so have given it up’. Kent had ‘the best interest of anyone at the beginning, but by mismanagement of one Cooke, a clothier at Newbury, in distributing money wrongfully among his friends, quite lost his interest’. That left ‘three sides’, those of Bruce, Webb and Randyll (who still ‘designs to stand’). Bruce’s position was the happiest. As his agent described it, ‘all Webb’s men (except five or six) will give their other vote to Mr Bruce, and all Mr Randyll’s will do the same; so that Mr Bruce will have by much the majority of votes’. Bruce was even sure of the score or so of Randyll’s supporters whom ‘they call single-handed men, because they reserve one vote to the day of election’, since their main object was ‘to fling out Major-General Webb, whom they do not love’. In the event, it is unlikely that Randyll followed through to a poll, for there is no evidence of a contest and he was in any case returned safely at Guildford. Bruce’s campaign was, however, managed with great caution. Treating stopped in late April; care was taken to make no promises, nor to say ‘anything . . . that the least hold may be taken of’; and the Ludgershall voters were not paid off until after the new Parliament had commenced. Their price was a subject of deep cogitation. Lord Bruce’s steward informed him that the agent

was under some doubt at first that their expectations were heightened by the Bedwyn people, who told them what they had the last time. But reasoning with him upon his first proposal . . . that 30s. or 40s. would be sufficient, he . . . said that Mr Webb gave them three guineas a man just before the last election, for which he had been chosen thrice; that Mr Kent gave them two guineas a man, which he thinks was the most they ever had; upon this I proposed 40s. a man for Mr Bruce, but he thought it not conducing to your lordship’s and Mr Bruce’s [interest] there . . . to give them two guineas each, which with the arguments he should use, as to your lordship’s favour and the constant benefit the whole town received from your estate thereabouts, the quickness of their being paid now, and not delayed as others have done to serve a turn for another election, he believes he will give them entire satisfaction.4

The 1710 election saw Webb and the Bruces in direct conflict, as Webb sought to bring in his fellow soldier Thomas Pearce. Although both Webb and Robert Bruce were standing in other constituencies, and Webb in particular was certain of election at Newport, Isle of Wight, through his position as governor of the island, neither would give way. Webb was being encouraged by the Duke of Beaufort, who was accused of ‘meddling’ in the affair. When he represented his case personally to Beaufort, Robert Bruce found that the Duke ‘talked at his old, silly rate’, disparaged the strength of the Bruces in Ludgershall and denied that Webb ‘could easily provide for Pearce in the Isle of Wight’ where such influence as he had was already disposed of at the Queen’s request. To Bruce’s argument that because his was ‘a family interest’ he could not desist, while Pearce’s ‘could be but an interest bought up to serve a turn’, Beaufort ‘said he could do nothing in it, but wished me success and so we parted’. Further appeals to the dukes of Ormond and Shrewsbury produced sympathy and promises but no action, and Bruce approached the election with a pessimism justified by the outcome. So narrow was the margin between Pearce and himself, however, that the appearance of two other local candidates may have been crucial, one of them a ‘Mr Albert’, the lord of the manor, whom Beaufort had tried unsuccessfully to persuade to withdraw in favour of Pearce. Bruce, returned at Marlborough, did not petition.5

The Ludgershall address of congratulation on the peace in July 1713 promised that the borough at the forthcoming election would choose such Members ‘as are steady for the Church of England as by law established, loyal to your Majesty, and lovers of their country’; and once again all three candidates were Tories: John Richmond Webb, his nominee Robert Ferne, and a local man, Henry Skylling of Draycot, Wiltshire, who represented the Bruce interest. The election underlined Webb’s now established supremacy. Lord Bruce’s steward gave an account of Skylling’s fate:

The election . . . held from nine in the morning till eight at night . . . The same measures were taken at this . . . as at the last. Several good old votes that were allowed upon the last poll were struck off now, because they would have voted for Mr Skylling, and many new sham votes made and allowed to pass by the bailiff because they voted for General Webb and Ferne. They turned out Mr Yalden for one, though the parson had voted [time] out of mind, which incensed him so that he would not suffer the bells to ring when the election was over. I find there was much wrong management from the first (besides the general distrust the people had of pay), for Mr Skylling was imposed upon by Mr Webb, who sent him a message . . . some time ago, wherein he gave his word that he would not oppose him, upon which Mr Skylling relied and neglected the people for a month or more; and all this while Webb’s friends were making interest for a third man to turn out Skylling . . . Notwithstanding all the ill management, and the desertion of some votes that morning at the Cross, had fair play been allowed him at last the election might have turned for him by one or two votes, as ’twas thought by the person that took the poll and minutes of the discarded old votes and of the new-made ones. It was a tedious, troublesome, noisy election at the last. Serjeant [Thomas Richmond] Webb was their manager and counsel at the Cross.

Skylling was prompted to petition but his petition had not been heard by the time Webb elected to sit for Newport, and surprisingly enough no opposition was mounted by Skylling or any other Bruce nominee when John Ward IV was placed by Webb in the vacant seat.6

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. HMC 15th Rep. VII, 211.
  • 2. Defoe Letters, 108; HMC Portland, viii. 27–29; VCH Wilts. v. 216; Add. 70018, f. 94.
  • 3. London Gazette, 2–6 Apr. 1702.
  • 4. Ailesbury Mems. 33; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 1300/1311, 1337, 1338, 1338A, 1341, 1344, Charles Becher to Ld. Bruce, 12 Apr. 1705, 19 Apr., 31 May, 9 Dec. 1707, 25, 27 Apr. 1708; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 198–201.
  • 5. G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 264; HMC 15th Rep VII, 202–3; Ailesbury mss 1300/1020, 1291, Robert to Ld. Bruce, [22 Sept. 1710], Lady Bruce to same, 12 Oct. 1710; Post Boy, 17–19 Oct. 1710; Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Beaufort to Mr Albert, 14 Sept. 1710.
  • 6. London Gazette, 14–18 July 1713; HMC Portland, x. 91; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 211–12.