Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

375 in 1753


31 Jan. 1715EDWARD NICHOLAS140
 William Benson130
 Henry Andrews100
  Nicholas and Rush unseated and BENSON seated on petition, 3 May 1715 
 William Hearst118
21 Nov. 1718BENSON re-elected after appointment to office89
 Sir Edward des Bouverie16
 BOUVERIE vice Benson, on petition, 24 Jan. 1719 
 Charles Wither 
 Clement Wearg 
3 May 1726STEPHEN FOX vice Nicholas, deceased 
 John Cope80
 Pattee Byng80
 William Benson4
1 May 1734JACOB BANKS285
 Stephen Fox174
 FOX vice Bennet, on petition, 20 Feb. 1735 
9 Mar. 1738PHILIP BENNET vice Banks, deceased151
 Thomas Drury131
11 May 1741PETER WALTER jun. 
1 July 1742GEORGE PITT jun. vice Ewer, deceased 
8 Dec. 1747WILLIAM BECKFORD vice Pitt chose to sit for Dorsetmajority of 62
 Frazer Honywood 

Main Article

In 1738 Shaftesbury was described by Hutchins, the Dorset historian, as ‘a mercenary and ungrateful borough’. Lord Ilchester, who had represented it as Stephen Fox, wrote of it in 1747, as ‘more unwieldy than Hindon, made up of complicated interests with a sort of gentry that are troublesome’; and, in 1753, as ‘very troublesome and expensive’. Although the right of voting lay in the inhabitants, control of the 12-man corporation was important. Shortly before the general election of 1747 Ilchester wrote:

Mr. Excel, the present mayor, is very desirous to choose a new alderman that may be in my interest and thinks it can be done ... but it is my opinion we can bring but 5 aldermen against 6. The scheme is to call a Hall when 2 of the other side are out of town and choose Merefield directly as there is no suspicion.

Ilchester eventually got Merefield elected by offering one alderman up to £50, by bringing back in secrecy an absconded alderman, who had 40 guineas for his journey, and by lending another man, who was in bed, £200 upon a bond for only £50.1

Members returned were usually Dorset landowners, standing in the main on their own interest. Tories held both seats in 1715, 1722, and 1727, though William Benson, a Whig, was seated on petition from May 1715 until January 1719, when, having been re-elected on vacating his seat by accepting a place, he was ousted by a Tory on another petition, on which ‘the Prince’s party and several of the other [i.e. the King’s] court joined the Tories’.2 After 1727 the seats were divided between the parties except between 1738 and 1741, when Philip Bennet took the Tory seat at a by-election. Stephen Fox, who was originally elected as a Tory in 1726 but soon went over to Walpole, maintained a strong government interest in the borough both as Member and, after 1741, as a peer. The 4th Earl of Shaftesbury, who, having come of age in 1732, was made lord lieutenant of Dorset in 1735, entered the lists against the Administration in 1740, when he at first put forward his cousin Edward Hooper, spending some £70 on entertainment; but at the general election of 1741 he returned his uncle Charles Ewer, the other Member being Peter Walter the younger, who had put up as a Whig on his own interest ‘in nowise interfering with Mr. Fox’.3 Shortly before the 1747 election Fox, now Lord Ilchester, thought that Lord Shaftesbury was ‘pretty indifferent about meddling’;4 and as late as 9 June Shaftesbury told George Pitt, the Tory candidate, that ‘he had no intention of interfering ... at present’. However, the next day he wrote offering to help Pitt in any way.5 Lord Ilchester accepted Pelham’s nominee,6 Colonel Cuthbert Ellison, whom he did not know and who paid out £2,7007 to be returned with Pitt unopposed. When Pitt opted to sit for the county, where he had also been returned, William Beckford, the West Indian, came forward as an anti-government candidate on his own interest, with the support of Lord Shaftesbury, who insisted that he should be put to no expense.8 Lord Ilchester, although ‘backward ... to embark in this second affair’, accepted another Pelham nominee, Hans Stanley, but asked ‘if Mr. Stanley will give 7 guineas if Mr. Beckford does?’9 Beckford, eventually, came to terms with Stanley, distributing £1,000 among Lord Ilchester’s friends, though they were unwilling to support him. Despite this compromise, which was confirmed by Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Ilchester, Frazer Honywood, M.P., was sent down against Lord Ilchester’s wishes to offer further opposition to Beckford.10 At the poll Honywood was beaten by 62 votes.11

The 2nd Lord Egmont, in his electoral survey c.1749-50, considered that Shaftesbury was ‘to be bought by the best bidder’. In April 1753 Lord Ilchester wrote to Pelham:

I never used to give any [money] till afterwards [i.e. after the election] and as I never deceived the [voters] my interest was always good, but that method is now rendered impractical by Lord Shaftesbury’s agent having given 7 guineas a man to almost 200 and still offering to as many more as will take.

His own agent estimated that there were then 375 voters in Shaftesbury, including 60 who did not take money. Of these, 180 were for Lord Shaftesbury and 195 for Lord Ilchester. The price per vote was reckoned at 7 guineas now with a refresher of 3 guineas before the poll, the total expense for a government candidate being £2,100. On this Lord Ilchester commented:

It will be necessary to give away £1,600 now and the rest about the election ... Merefield ... calculates the expense something less, but my opinion is the election will come to £2,000 or £2,600. I do believe if the money is sent now there will be no opposition.12

Author: R. S. Lea


  • 1. Lond. Mag. 1738, p. 219; Ilchester to Hen. Fox, Apr. n.d., 20 Apr., 10, 13 May 1747, Hen. Fox mss; Ilchester to Pelham, 3 Apr. 1753, Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  • 2. HMC Portland, v. 577.
  • 3. Peter Walter jun. to Newcastle, 6 Oct. 1740, Add. 32695, f. 205; Shaftesbury to Ilchester, 22 Dec. 1747, Shaftesbury mss.
  • 4. Ilchester to Fox, Apr. 1747, Hen. Fox. mss.
  • 5. Shaftesbury to Pitt, 9, 10 June 1747, Shaftesbury mss.
  • 6. Ilchester to Fox, 20 Apr. 1747, Hen. Fox mss.
  • 7. Ilchester to Pelham, 3 Apr. 1753, Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  • 8. Shaftesbury to Beckford, 2 July, to John Bennet, 6 July, to Hans Stanley, 13 July 1747, Shaftesbury mss.
  • 9. Ilchester to Fox, 7 Oct. 1747, Hen. Fox mss.
  • 10. Shaftesbury to Ilchester, 22 Dec. 1747, Ilchester to Shaftesbury, 26 Dec. 1747, Beckford to Shaftesbury, 30 Dec. 1747, Shaftesbury mss.
  • 11. CJ, xxv. 474-5.
  • 12. Ilchester to Pelham, 3 Apr. 1753, Matthew Merefield to Pelham, 5 Apr. 1753, Ilchester to Fox, 12 Apr. 1753, Newcastle (Clumber) mss.