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

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

286 in 1708; at least 379 in 1713


27 Oct. 1691CALEB BANKS vice Clerke, deceased 
 William Cage 
 Edward Knatchbull 
3 Jan. 1708SIR JOHN LEAKE vice Shovell, deceased 
 Hon. Heneage Finch191
25 Nov. 1709SIR JOHN LEAKE re-elected after appointment to office 
7 Oct. 1710SIR JOHN LEAKE 
 Sir Stafford Fairborne 
25 Aug. 1713SIR JOHN LEAKE 
 Sir Thomas Palmer, Bt.2302

Main Article

The representation of Rochester was often shared between a local landowner and an Admiralty nominee. The key to the Admiralty’s influence lay in the importance to the economy of the town of the adjacent Chatham dockyard. Rochester itself was somewhat wary of the economic power of its newer neighbour; in particular, efforts were made in 1689 and 1710–11 to suppress Chatham’s market. The borough’s chief concerns related to matters such as the financial outlay in maintaining the important bridge over the Medway.3

A key figure in transforming the Admiralty’s economic leverage into political interest was the resident commissioner at Chatham; he could exert influence over those dockyard workers who were also freemen of Rochester, and over spending decisions which might sway townsmen. In 1690 the dockyard interest may not have been as potent or as organized as it was later to become, for the commissioner, Sir Edward Gregory (a freeman himself since 1678), wrote apologetically to the Earl of Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), regretting that his endeavours on behalf of Sir John Banks, 1st Bt.*, had proved unsuccessful. On that occasion the victors at Rochester were Sir Joseph Williamson, a substantial Kentish landowner through his wife, and Francis Clerke I, a lawyer and property-owner in the town. Clerke’s tenure of the seat was short, for he died in 1691, a new writ being issued on the opening day of the 1691–2 session. The beneficiary was Caleb Banks, whose father’s accounts indicate election expenditure of £589 7s. 6d. between 3 Mar. 1691 and 28 Jan. 1692, most of it used presumably to secure Caleb’s return to the Commons.4

The election of 1695 saw the first sign of Admiralty power in Rochester, with the return of Sir Clowdesley Shovell to partner Williamson. Well over a month before the election a newsletter report stated that the town had resolved to elect Shovell. About the same time Williamson, from his residence in Dublin, made application to the corporation. Later correspondence indicates that the town gained financially from selecting Shovell because he contributed to the cost of a new town hall. Subsequently Shovell wrote that, although this had come to £30–40 more than anticipated, ‘so great’ was his ‘inclination to do anything that may add to the beauty or conveniency or good of the city’ that he would pay the extra cost. The shortage of specie caused by the recoinage crisis then provided him with a convenient excuse for his failure to pay for ‘the whole finishing the new hall’, although he also claimed that he had expected Williamson to contribute.5

A measure of the hold Williamson exercised over Rochester can be seen in 1698, when he was returned again despite being abroad for the second election running. He may well have been responsible for ensuring that Rochester went to the polls on the same day as Maidstone, thereby depriving Sir John Banks of the opportunity of contesting the former. Indeed, Banks thought that proceedings at Rochester had been so organized that with only 40 freemen present the election of Williamson and Shovell ‘was quickly hurried over and 300 came too late to prevent it’. In January 1699 there was a failed attempt to use Williamson’s absence abroad to trigger a fresh election. The attempt may have had a salutary effect on Williamson because, following his return to England in July 1699, he made haste to secure his position at Rochester by paying a personal visit and ‘scattering a great deal of money’, just in case an election was in the offing. Such measures must have been effective because Williamson and Shovell were chosen in January 1701 without opposition.6

With Williamson demonstrably ailing during 1701 (he died on 3 Oct.), there was a vacancy in prospect. Furthermore, although entertained by the corporation in September 1701, Shovell did not enter the lists either. Thus both seats were certain to fall to new Members when an election was called in November 1701. The Tories were concerned that the Whigs would capture the seats, and more particularly that one of the Kentish Petitioners, specifically David Polhill* or a Colepeper (Thomas or William), would succeed Williamson. In the event Polhill declined to oppose either Francis Barrell, the Tory recorder of the borough, or William Bokenham, a Whiggish naval captain. It was during discussions over the threat of a Colepeper victory at Rochester that Viscount Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†) spelled out to Robert Harley* the nature of the naval interest at Rochester: ‘Chatham has a great stroke in that election, which the Admiralty may direct’. The Tories felt comfortable with Barrell, but initiated a challenge to Bokenham, in the person of William Cage, who had the backing of a letter from Williamson’s widow, Lady Catherine, which the corporation ordered to be read to the freemen. In one sense the corporation may have solicited such a letter, for on 25 Oct. a letter of condolence was ordered to be written to Lady O’Brien on the loss of her husband. The letter certainly caused some concern among the Whigs, for Sir Thomas Frankland I* wrote to Polhill, ‘if Lady Catherine is not of the same principle with Col. Cage, she will be pressed to withdraw her recommendation, care being taken to let her see what Lucas has declared’. This letter pinpointed Cage’s weakness, a reputation for disloyalty to the regime, which his opponents were quick to seize upon. A printed tract of November 1701 attacked Cage as a Jacobite and specifically charged him with making a trip to Calais during which he had let fall ‘slighting words of King William and his government, and said there would be an alteration of government in a little time’, as well as having spoken favourably of James II. As the attorney-general, Sir Edward Northey*, informed Secretary of State James Vernon I*, the accusations made against Cage were of a general nature and furthermore spoken beyond the sea, so that no indictment would be effective. That Bokenham was involved seems clear from a letter to him from Francis Wyvill in the state papers, in which Wyvill denied aspersing the character of the chief witness against Cage, one Captain Lucas. The Tories regarded all this as a concerted smear campaign against Cage (and Thomas Bliss*, the candidate for Maidstone), Charles Davenant* in Tom Double Returned out of the Country putting the following words into the mouth of ‘Whiglove’: ‘pray remember to tell ’em that ’twas I who trumped up the two false affidavits in Kent . . . the other did Colonel Cage’s business at Rochester; the witnesses were of my suborning’. Cage duly petitioned the Commons on 6 Jan. 1702, but there was no time for any action to be taken before the death of William III, which precipitated another election.7

Although Bokenham, together with Barrell, presented an address of congratulation to the Queen on her accession, the political climate now favoured Cage. On 12 July 1702 the Earl of Winchilsea informed Nottingham, ‘I am told Mr. [Edward*] Knatchbull and Colonel Cage are on good terms at Rochester’, an assessment borne out by their unopposed return four days later. Presumably, the Admiralty interest was either in temporary abeyance following Anne’s accession, or, more probably, Nottingham was able to harness it to the local interest of Knatchbull, who in addition had just been appointed a sub-commissioner of prizes. As early as June 1704 Knatchbull was obviously worried about his prospects for retaining his seat, given the known intention of Shovell to re-enter the fray at the next election. Winchilsea’s response to the threat was to suggest to Weymouth that ‘if [navy] commissioner St. Loe [George*] (who has an interest in the docks) could be brought to engage one vote for him, it would be of great service’. According to Harley’s notes of February 1705, no challenge was in evidence against Knatchbull and Shovell, but Sir Stafford Fairborne had his eye on one of the seats and had devised a plausible means of dealing with objections to the fact that his election with Shovell would monopolize the constituency for the navy. In March 1705 Fairborne told the Duke of Ormond that this charge could be countered by portraying Shovell as a country gentleman, by virtue of his landed estate, with Fairborne himself thus accounted the only sea-officer. Fairborne also wanted Ormond to ensure the neutrality of Sir Edward Gregory in case of a contest. Having taken care to avoid being sent to sea during the run-up to the election, so as to keep ‘my friends fast together’, Fairborne succeeded in defeating Knatchbull despite the intervention of the Tory naval hero, Sir George Rooke*, who appeared ‘against the two admirals, but with no better success than he used to do against the French’.8

Following Shovell’s death at sea, Admiral Sir John Leake took over the vacant parliamentary seat, being returned at a by-election in January 1708, probably with the support of Fairborne. At the general election held later in 1708, Fairborne was returned again, winning every vote bar one when a poll was called. Leake garnered nearly as many votes as Fairborne, the third candidate, Hon. Heneage Finch II*, trailing badly. Leake was chosen ‘unanimously’ when he stood for re-election upon his appointment as an Admiralty lord in November 1709. The change of ministry in 1710, and the subsequent general election, placed both Leake and Fairborne in a difficult position. However, Leake found favour with the new ministry, whereas Fairborne did not. A retrospective account of the 1710 election written by one of Fairborne’s supporters accused Leake of deceit in pretending to join with Fairborne while at the same time secretly forming an alliance with Cage. Fairborne meanwhile had been asking for votes both for himself and Leake, only to find that his generosity was not reciprocated. Various factors had weakened Fairborne’s interest, including his absence from the constituency, which was caused by Harley delaying him in London, and a speech by Recorder Barrell before polling began, which was a panegyric on Leake’s career and a smear against Fairborne as the initiator of a forged letter telling Leake that his election was assured so that he need not attend in person. Barrell also denied that Leake had ever joined his interest with Fairborne. Finally, the author of this account laid bare the role of ministerial pressure in the contest: the bias of the ministry having obliged many of Fairborne’s friends to vote against their own inclinations, particularly the dock officers.

When Leake wrote to the corporation on 16 Oct. 1710 to excuse his ‘precipitate and hasty’ departure from Rochester, the corporation replied asking for his help ‘to put down Chatham market’. Nothing came of their request, because both the navy and Admiralty boards saw advantages in such a market and because the impecunious townsmen of Rochester feared the superior ability of Chatham to raise funds in the event of a protracted legal dispute. As an alternative Leake was persuaded to contribute to the costs of a school for the daughters of freemen.9

Despite the entrenchment of the Tories in power, the 1713 election saw a vigorous Whig challenge. The Post Boy reported that the ‘posse of Whigs of this country’ were mortified when Cage was returned ‘by a great majority’. However, Fairborne’s friend revealed that Cage defeated Sir Thomas Palmer, 4th Bt.*, by only 34 votes. In his view, Leake

espoused Colonel Cage’s interest with the greatest zeal, and obliged all the people whose dependencies were on the navy, and wherever else he had any influence, to vote for the colonel in opposition to Sir Thomas Palmer, and carried the election as the ministry will always very probably do in that place.

Palmer was to gain his revenge at the 1715 election, when together with Sir John Jennings*, he was returned unopposed. Palmer had started to campaign in the city as early as November 1714, and this may explain Barrell’s comment to Leake in January 1715 that upon a consideration of events elsewhere, ‘with the proceedings of our own city and the dock and navy in our neighbourhood, we could not but conclude that it would be impossible for us to stem the violence of the present torrent that runs against us’. This, together with the creation of 70 new freemen and the possibility of more, plus the retirement of Cage, made Leake’s re-election impossible, so he was advised to withdraw gracefully. However, Leake’s letter declining to stand again was considerably more vitriolic than had been suggested, referring to ‘the many vile acts that have been since used to poison and corrupt the freemen’ and to the state of his health which would not stand up to ‘the fatigue of a confused and tricking election’.10

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. Daily Courant, 4 May 1708.
  • 2. Centre Kentish Stud. Weller mss U38/Z1, notebk. p. 43.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 18; F. F. Smith, Hist. Rochester, 93.
  • 4. HMC Finch, ii. 271; Add. 70014, ff. 291–2; D. C. Coleman, Sir John Banks, 165.
  • 5. Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 19 Sept. 1695; Bodl. Rawl. A.289, f. 138; HMC Bath, ii. 176.
  • 6. Devonshire mss at Chatsworth House, Finch-Halifax pprs. Banks to [Hon. Heneage Finch I*], 26 July 1698; CSP Dom. 1699–1700, p. 7; Add. 70276, acct. of Dyer’s case, 1705.
  • 7. Smith, 86, 91; Post Man, 15–18 Nov., 20–22 Nov. 1701; HMC Portland, iv. 24; Medway Area Archs. Rochester corp. bks. RCA/A1/3, f. 18; Sevenoaks Pub. Lib. Polhill-Drabble mss U1007 /C13/5, Frankland to Polhill, 18 Nov. 1701; [?H]ail the Enemies of the King, the Government, and Themselves, within the City of Rochester, that Appear on Behalf of Col. Cage; CSP Dom. 1700–2, pp. 454–5; Tom Double Returned out of the Country, 7.
  • 8. London Gazette, 6–9 Apr. 1702; Add. 29588, f. 93; 70334, Harley’s notes; 61458, f. 160; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs., 17, f. 294; HMC Ormonde, n.s. viii. 147; Univ. of Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Moore mss 143 cd., Fairborne to Arthur Moore*, 13 Apr. 1705.
  • 9. Daily Courant, 4 May 1708; Rochester corp. bks. RCA/A1/3, ff. 84v, 96v, 97v; Weller mss, U38/Z1, pp. 1–11, 35–41.
  • 10. Post Boy, 25–27 Aug. 1713; Weller mss, U38/Z1, pp. 43–45; Arch Cant. v. 95; Add. 5443, f. 202.