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 mayor, jurats and freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:



15 Mar. 1690ROBERT AUSTEN I 
2 Nov. 1696SIR GEORGE CHOUTE, Bt. vice Austen deceased 
23 July 1698JOHN HAYES 
 Robert Austen II5
 John Hayes51
 Election declared void, 27 Feb. 1701 
 Peter Gott 
21 July 1702GEORGE CLARKE 
 Robert Austen II 
20 Dec. 1708ROBERT BRISTOW II vice Dodington, chose to sit for Bridgwater 
 William Penn2
 Richard Jones2

Main Article

Even by contemporary standards Winchelsea’s privilege of sending representatives to Parliament was regarded as an obvious anachronism. Defoe identified the town as one of the worst examples of a decayed borough. ‘What can the Members who have served for the town of Winchelsea answer’, he wrote, ‘if they were asked who they represented; they must answer they represent the ruins and vaults, the remains of a good old town, now lying in heaps?’ In The Art of Governing by Partys, John Toland also saw Winchelsea as exemplifying the iniquities of the electoral system. Nature had taken away its seaboard and by the 1690s the town, once a thriving and populous port, had become a pale shadow of its former self. Visitors such as Celia Fiennes were struck by the extent of physical decline apparent from the large overgrown expanse of ruined merchants’ premises, houses, churches and streets.2

Those who aspired to one of Winchelsea’s parliamentary seats needed only to cultivate an interest with the corporation. This small and notoriously ‘bribarous’ body, comprising the mayor, three jurats and nine freemen, constituted the entire electorate. Indeed, the overall number of inhabitants was said to be not much greater. The corporation’s reputation for venality stemmed from several instances in the recent past of colossal outlay by candidates, though usually in this period only modest efforts were required to secure a seat. A revealing appraisal was made in 1708 by John Caryll, a local Catholic gentleman. Writing to a prospective purchaser of his property adjoining the town, he observed:

Formerly, when I cultivated my interest in the town, I could almost be sure of it . . . but since that I have entirely neglected those matters, and as corruption daily spurred itself more and more through almost every corporation in England, so you may conclude this is also become proportionately infected; yet I question not but a stranger may be chosen there at any time for £300 and as the market now runs I believe few boroughs are cheaper. Besides you may reasonably believe that a man that has a good estate among them, even the very town rents, and who shall make it his constant business to keep on foot and improve his interest, may be elected on easier terms than a foreigner.

Being under the suzerainty of the lord warden, Winchelsea was also subject to government influence, though never overwhelmingly so. In the 1690s the corporation enjoyed an autonomy in the election of MPs which subsequently weakened as successive administrations, pressurized by the demands of ‘party’, grew more purposeful in the exercise of the warden’s interest. Even then, government managers were obliged to come to terms with men of local standing who were not necessarily amenable to official direction.3

Throughout the 1690s the dominating figure in Winchelsea’s corporate body was Edward Marten, who presided as mayor from 1690 to 1694 and again from 1698 to 1701. Through him, the corporation played a controlling part in the selection of parliamentary representatives. Indeed, when Marten’s conduct came under Commons scrutiny in 1701 it was revealed that he had made a practice of ‘selling the elections’ through his ‘influence’ over most of the freemen. In 1690 two well-known local Whig gentlemen were re-elected: Robert Austen I, first returned for the town in 1666, and Samuel Western, the son of an ironfounder and Ordnance supplier whose business was in part based in the Winchelsea area, and who enjoyed further local connexions through his relationship to the Gott family of Battle. The pair were unanimously re-elected in 1695. An illuminating insight into the way in which the corporation could enforce its preferences in electoral matters over those of the lord warden can be seen in the preliminaries to the by-election of November 1696. Within days of Austen’s death in August that year, the Earl of Romney (Hon. Henry Sidney†), the lord warden, had written to the Tory Admiral Sir George Rooke* persuading him to offer his services to the town. Rooke was promptly told by the corporation, however, in ‘a fair and direct answer’, that they were pre-engaged to Austen’s nephew, Sir George Choute, 1st Bt. On this occasion political preference may well have motivated the corporators, whose previous choice of representatives had been instinctively Whiggish. Another factor may have been the resentment among the Cinque Ports against the right claimed by the lord warden to impose his own nominees. What seems clear is that Winchelsea, as the worst decayed of the Cinque Ports, could expect little from its connexion with the lord warden, and so did not consider itself particularly beholden to him when local gentlemen like Choute might be of greater service.4

In the 1698 election Western was forced to stand down because of ill-health, and Choute also retired. Their places were taken by Robert Bristow I and John Hayes, two arriviste gentlemen, both of whom in recent years had purchased property in and around Winchelsea. Whereas in 1696 the corporation had been able to refuse the approaches of a distinguished Tory figure, local priorities now forced them to swallow their Whiggish pride. Though Bristow’s politics cannot be determined, Hayes was a man of undoubted Tory colouring, but since he held a sizable rent-roll within the town’s precincts the corporators were hardly in a position to obstruct him. Marten’s appointment in 1699 as a riding officer in the customs would suggest that the government was taking steps to cultivate connexions within the corporation in order to rejuvenate its residual interest in the town, and at the next election, in January 1701, Marten, while retaining his mayoral office illegally, promoted the candidacy of one of his superiors, Hon. Thomas Newport, a Whig customs commissioner and a stranger to the electors. His other favoured candidate was Bristow. However, Marten’s high-handedness in promoting a complete outsider over Hayes’ superior local claims provoked confrontation when Hayes and another local candidate, Robert Austen II, eldest son of the late Member and formerly MP for Hastings, set themselves up in opposition. At the casting of votes Newport and Bristow were in a minority, with four votes, while their opponents obtained five. This split within the corporation may have had some political basis, but in essence it seems to have been a division primarily between those prepared to endorse Marten’s self-interested designs, and those who were not. Despite the slight majority against him, Marten returned Newport and Bristow, ignoring the protests of the jurats. Hayes and Austen each complained of Marten’s conduct in petitions, and the full extent of his electoral chicanery was revealed during a hearing at the bar. In addition to the illegality of his role in the election, it was disclosed that Marten had threatened to secure the dismissal of one of the freemen from the customs for refusing to vote for Newport. Similarly, Bristow’s agent, John Dunmall, was found guilty of bribery. Both Marten and Dunmall were ordered into custody, and Marten stripped of his customs post, but the House, reacting against the ‘notorious briberies’ in other constituencies, was in no mood to look sympathetically upon Hayes and Austen, and so declared the election void. To reinforce its expression of disgust with the Winchelsea case, the House also ordered that no new writ be issued during the current session.5

At the next election Austen and Hayes were returned. There had been a third contestant in the person of Peter Gott of Battle, a Whig whose position as Member for Hastings had been made untenable by stronger interests there. An almost total absence of documentation obscures the electoral process, but it would seem that once more the corporation were not prepared to countenance candidates without some past connexion with the town. A hint of this may be found in the record of the election in the town assembly book which makes no mention of votes being taken for Gott. The fact that Gott’s petition was specifically levelled at Hayes clearly indicates that he saw himself in a Whiggish partnership with Austen and as such acceptable to the corporation. The petition, though referred to the elections committee, was given no attention.6

The corporation was quite unused to the degree of ministerial intrusion seen at the election that followed Queen Anne’s accession in 1702. Winchelsea was among the Cinque Ports visited during the elections by the newly appointed deputy lord warden, the 4th Earl of Winchilsea, along with a small retinue of Tory officials, including George Clarke, whose election for the town they were promoting. Lord Ashburnham (John†), the leading aristocratic figure in the area, wrote disapprovingly to his kinsman Edward Southwell*, who was currently standing for Winchelsea:

I am sorry to tell you that my Lord Winchilsea has put his steward to harangue and treat at Winchelsea in favour of George Clarke, having often used the Prince’s name with his lord’s, to move that corporation which I think would have been more inclineable to have one as desired without those names being used, which they take as an infringement of their rights, not to say an imposition on them contrary to law. However, George Clarke stands very fair, though the step of his public recommendation is very unwarrantable and may turn to the prejudice of the Earl of Winchilsea and her Majesty’s service.

Clarke, a rising Tory bureaucrat, had been suggested for one of the seats by Anthony Hammond*, another acolyte of the Earl of Rochester (Laurence Hyde†) with whom Winchilsea was associated. While there was no attempt to impose a second Member, the ministerial visitation expected the other seat to be taken by Austen rather than Hayes. In a final canvass, Hayes found Austen with an advantage over him of one vote, but in a shrewd manoeuvre ensured victory for his own interest. Southwell, attending the election with Lord Winchilsea, reported that

Mr Hayes very cunningly, without saying anything, just at the time of election, put up his nephew, young Mr [James] Hayes, and by that means had the opportunity of giving his own voice in right of his being a freeman there, which brought the votes to an equality for Austen and Hayes, and the mayor, being Hayes’ friend, gave the casting vote for him and so returned him.

Clarke, the other candidate, was elected unanimously. Although Austen petitioned against Hayes on grounds of ‘diverse undue practices’ by the mayor, Hayes’s Tory credentials, and his acceptability to the ministry, precluded any consideration of Austen’s allegations by the committee. Nevertheless, the senior Hayes’s vote for his nephew sparked controversy within the corporate body over the next 18 months about the status of votes given by non-resident freemen. At the end of June 1703 John Hayes and his nephew, the new MP, and several other outsiders appeared in person to vote in an election of new freemen but were prevented by the mayor and the majority of resident freemen. On 6 Mar. 1704 the corporation men discussed their recent ‘differences’ on the subject, and passed an order invalidating the votes of freemen who had lived outside the town longer than 12 months.7

The political changes of 1705 brought the Cinque Ports under the management of a Whig deputy warden, the 6th Earl of Westmorland. In place of Clarke, who was not invited to stand for re-election, the government brought in George Dodington, the long-standing Whig associate of the Earl of Orford (Edward Russell*). James Hayes appears to have had no trouble in retaining the other seat. However, mounting financial difficulties, and a Chancery decree of 1707 requiring the sale of the Winchelsea estate that had belonged to his late uncle John Hayes, forced his retirement in the 1708 election. This enabled Westmorland to bring in a second Whig outsider, his brother-in-law Sir Francis Dashwood, 1st Bt., alongside Dodington. But when Dodington chose shortly afterwards to make his election for Bridgwater, Robert Bristow II, the 21-year-old son of the late Member, was returned in his stead unopposed. Bristow’s father, who had died in 1706, had requested that his Winchelsea property be sold off, but since this had not been put into effect the younger Bristow was able to assume his father’s former interest. Even so, it is unlikely that Dodington, as a government man, would have vacated the seat without ensuring its suitable reallocation, and he was probably responsible for nominating Bristow. By 1712 there existed a family connexion between Dashwood and Bristow, Dashwood’s brother George* having married one of Bristow’s sisters.8

In 1710 the incoming Tory ministry made no attempt to capture Winchelsea from the sitting Whig Members. Both Dashwood and Bristow had important City connexions which the ministers were loath to antagonize. Indeed, the customs commissioners instructed one of their employees to vote for the sitting Members. However, what appears to have been a local challenge was posed by two candidates, William Penn and Richard Jones, apparently standing jointly, about whom nothing has been ascertained beyond the fact that their opposition to two moderate Whigs in the current political climate would suggest they were Tories. There was a brisk rounding-up of votes by the corporation interest in which Penn and Jones were unable to compete, though when the return was issued in Dashwood’s and Bristow’s favour they petitioned, claiming a majority of ‘legal’ votes. The mayor was cited for his partiality towards Dashwood and Bristow as well as being unqualified for his office, having failed to take the sacrament within the statutory time, while he and the sitting Members ‘were guilty of bribery and threats’. No action was taken, however, until the petition was presented a second time on 8 Dec. 1711. During proceedings in the elections committee the petitioners’ counsel argued that the small number of Winchelsea freemen were in effect of the same status as common councilmen in other corporations and therefore should have qualified themselves to vote in the election by taking the sacrament as required by the Corporation Act, which seven of them had not done. The votes by which the petitioners claimed to be elected seem to have been cast largely by ‘outsider’ freemen. The Tory majority might certainly have been used on this occasion to unseat the two Whigs, but the petitioners’ case was defective on fundamental points. The committee found nothing in the Corporation Act which required the freemen to take the sacrament for electoral purposes, while the corporation’s position regarding non-resident freemen in elections was indisputable. Despite uncontradicted evidence of their having bribed for votes to the tune of up to £30 a head, Dashwood and Bristow were confirmed in their seats.

In 1713 Dashwood stood down, probably by arrangement, to allow Dodington to resume his former seat, being unable to resist stern Tory opposition at Bridgwater. Thereupon, at a meeting of the corporation, Bristow and Dodington were ‘unanimously elected’. As before, there were no ministerial moves to install Tory nominees. Under the first two Hanoverian monarchs the Whig establishment was to develop a more enduring hold over the borough. Dodington and Bristow consolidated their personal interests within the town, but since they were government men it naturally acquired the reputation of a ‘Treasury borough’.9

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. E. Suss. RO, Winchelsea ct. bk. WIN 60, p. 68.
  • 2. D. Defoe, The Freeholders’ Plea against Stock-Jobbing Elections of Parliament Men (1701), 17–18; J. Toland, The Art of Governing by Partys (1701), 75; Journeys of Celia Fiennes ed. Morris, 138–9.
  • 3. Defoe, Freeholders’ Plea, 9; Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 146; Add. 28227, f. 67; Herts. RO, D/ER/C10/1.
  • 4. Winchelsea ct. bk. WIN 58, pp. 317, 319, 328; WIN 60, pp. 9, 13, 23, 34, 56, 59, 64, 68; Carlisle RO (Cumbria), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 27 Feb. 1701; BL, Althorp mss, Halifax pprs. box 3, Robert Crawford* to Mq. of Halifax (William Savile*), 22 Aug. 1696; box 8, Rooke* to same, 27 Aug., 3 Sept. 1696.
  • 5. W. D. Cooper, Hist. Winchelsea, 227–31; Cal. Treas. Bks. xv. 167–8; Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 27 Feb. 1701.
  • 6. Winchelsea ct. bk. WIN 60, p. 68.
  • 7. Add. 29588, ff. 102–4; Bodl. Rawl. A.245, f. 68; Winchelsea ct. bk. WIN 60, pp. 92, 101; E. Suss. RO, Ashburnham mss ASH 844, p. 35, Ashburnham to Southwell, 11 July 1702.
  • 8. Add. 34223, f. 15; E. Suss. RO, Add. ms 3215, indenture 1 Mar. 1744; PCC 166 Eedes; Cooper, 227–31.
  • 9. E. Suss. RO, Add. mss. 3215.