Single Member Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:

less than 50


18 Apr. 1754William Henry Lyttelton 
5 Feb. 1755William Finch vice Lyttelton, appointed to office 
30 Mar. 1761Sir Edward Winnington 
Z7 Dec. 1762Winnington re-elected after appointment to office 
21 Mar. 1768Thomas Lyttelton24
 Sir Edward Winnington21
 Winnington vice Lyttelton, on petition, 25 Jan. 1769 
14 Oct. 1774William Henry Lyttelton 
18 June 1777William Henry Lyttelton, Baron Westcote, re-elected after appointment to office 
15 Sept. 1780William Henry Lyttelton, Baron Westcote 
5 Apr. 1784William Henry Lyttelton, Baron Westcote 

Main Article

The corporation consisted of the bailiff (the returning officer), the recorder, and twelve freemen. Since it had the power to create any number of honorary freemen, control of the corporation was essential for electoral purposes. In the second half of the eighteenth century the borough was contested between the Lyttelton and Winnington families.

At the general election of 1747, W. H. Lyttelton was successful against Edward Winnington; and the Lyttelton interest was strengthened in 1753 by the election of George Lyttelton as high steward. In 1754 W. H. Lyttelton was returned unopposed: ‘My good borough of Bewdley cost me a little more than a hundred pounds’, wrote George to Sanderson Miller.1

But the struggle flared up again in October 1754 when W. H. Lyttelton’s appointment as governor of South Carolina vacated his seat. Each side had a candidate, and each had a powerful patron in Administration: Pitt backed Lyttelton, and Fox backed Winnington. Newcastle, appealed to by both for support, consulted the King; and it was agreed that the seat should go to William Finch, connected with neither party, who had failed to secure a seat at the general election of 1754.

In boroughs like Bewdley crises often developed just before Michaelmas, when the mayor was elected and vacancies in the corporation were filled up. In 1755 the two sides were fairly evenly balanced, and great exertions were made. Lyttelton gained an advantage by persuading Newcastle to appoint Edward Bowles, a freeman with considerable interest, a commissioner of hawkers and pedlars in return for his deserting the Winnington party. Fox, mortified by this loss, wrote to Newcastle on 19 Sept. 1755:2

When your Grace sees by next Thursday’s votes at Bewdley what sort of an election Mr. Finch would have had against Sir Edward Winnington, I dare believe you will think it hard he should lose his borough, as I think he will do, by this favour conferred as a bribe against him.

Still, the issue remained in doubt until the last moment, and was decided for Lyttelton by a stroke of luck. W. H. Lyttelton on his way to South Carolina was captured by a French ship; released on parole, he returned to England just in time to vote in the mayoral election. ‘In two hours’ time I shall set out for Bewdley’, he wrote to Pitt, ‘having had an express from Sir George to acquaint me that the borough will absolutely depend on my vote.’3

At Michaelmas 1757 Winnington regained control.

Bewdley is not yet entirely lost [Lyttelton wrote to Mrs. Montagu4], the rascals are quarrelling among themselves. If the Duke of Newcastle had done half as much to secure my interest there as Fox has done to destroy it, the borough would have been mine; but what is a borough worth which cannot be secured without the perpetual aid of a minister?

Winnington’s election in 1761, and his re-election on taking office in 1762, were both unopposed. But he lost control in 1767 when he quarrelled with the bailiff, Adam Prattinton, one of his chief supporters, about some meadow land. Prattinton went over to the Lytteltons, and in August 1767 they created ten honorary freemen. At the general election of 1768 Thomas Lyttelton was returned by the votes of five of these honorary freemen. Lord Lyttelton (formerly Sir George) thus described the election:

On Monday last my son was returned Member for the borough of Bewdley by a majority of three votes, including the new burgesses with the old; but the votes of the new being disputed, and Sir Edward Winnington having a majority of two on the poll if these are not reckoned, both the candidates were chaired and Sir Edward will petition. Our cause is a fair one but the success will depend on the disposition of the House, which I think will not be unfavourable to me. Our adversaries brought a madman to vote for Sir Edward, but he gave his vote for my son ... We were in some danger from mobs till we strengthened our Bewdley friends with the aid of some brave allies from Kidderminster and Arley, who made us quite masters of the field. But one poor fellow had his thigh broken by the bursting of a patararero [a saluting gun] fired in our service. We hope that by cutting off the limb below the fracture his life will be saved. No other mischief was done. The extraordinary expense in meat, ale, and cockades for our troops will be above fifty pounds; but yet, if my son succeeds, he will have upon the whole a very cheap election.

In fact Lyttelton’s legal position was extremely weak. By the Durham Act of 1763 honorary freemen, to be qualified to vote in parliamentary elections, must have held their freedom at least twelve months. The House of Commons decided the issue in accordance with the law, and Thomas Lyttelton was unseated.

In August 1768 the wheel went round again, and the Lytteltons regained control of the corporation; which they maintained for the rest of this period, though not without some uneasiness. An opposition was threatened in 1780, and in 1787 there was a critical election for bailiff.

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Dickins Stanton, An 18th Cent. Corresp. 232.
  • 2. Add. 32859, f. 156.
  • 3. Chatham mss.
  • 4. M. Wyndham, Chrons. of 18th Cent. ii. 257. R. Blunt, Thomas, Lord Lyttelton, 70.