Double Member County

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

Number of voters:

about 4,000


8 May 1754Sir James Lowther 
 Sir John Pennington 
6 Feb. 1755Sir William Lowther vice Sir James Lowther, deceased 
19 May 1756Sir William Fleming vice Lowther, deceased 
27 Apr. 1757Sir James Lowther vice Fleming, deceased 
4 Apr. 1761Sir John Pennington 
 Sir James Lowther 
28 Dec. 1761Sir Wilfred Lawson vice Lowther, chose to sit for Westmorland 
27 Dec. 1762Sir James Lowther vice Lawson, deceased 
30 Mar. 1768Henry Curwen2139
 Sir James Lowther1977
 Henry Fletcher1975
 Humphrey Senhouse1891
 Fletcher vice Lowther, on petition, 16 Dec. 1768 
19 Oct. 1774Sir James Lowther976
 Henry Fletcher876
 Sir Joseph Pennington305
26 Sept. 1780Sir James Lowther 
 Henry Fletcher 
14 Apr. 1784Sir Henry Fletcher 
 William Lowther 

Main Article

Sir James Lowther, 5th Bt., was the largest landowner in Cumberland and its chief political figure; the Earl of Carlisle, the Duke of Portland, and the Earl of Egremont were next in extent of territorial influence; and there was a number of gentry families whose co-operation in election matters was important. Before 1754 contests were rarer in Cumberland than in most other counties, and the practice of holding a county meeting to select candidates fell into disuse. One seat was usually held by a Lowther and the other by a less substantial country gentleman; after 1754 the main theme in Cumberland politics was the attempt by Sir James Lowther to control both seats.

Lowther’s wealth made his position immensely strong, and under the Bute and Grenville Administrations he was allowed to recommend to customs and excise appointments in Cumberland and Westmorland. At first, circumstances favoured him: Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle, did not come of age until 1769, and during his minority the Howard interest was neglected; while Lord Egremont resided mostly in Sussex, and had made himself unpopular with his Cumberland tenants by raising their rents. From 1754 to 1768 Sir John Pennington, Lowther’s uncle, held one seat for Cumberland; while the other was filled either by Lowther himself or by a connexion of his.

Lowther’s arrogance and selfishness offended the lesser gentry; and when it became clear that his ambition was to engross the representation of Cumberland and Westmorland, opinion turned against him. When in 1763 Lowther tried to secure the appointment of a dependant as coroner for Cumberland (an officer usually elected by the free-holders), an opposition against him took shape, led by Henry Curwen. On 4 Apr. 1763 a meeting of the freeholders

entered into an association that upon all future vacancies of places in the election of the freeholders a general meeting shall be advertised and had, to consider and fix upon proper person or persons to be offered to the freeholders.

The freeholders selected their own candidate and Lowther deemed it prudent to accept their choice.

This was the first check Lowther had received in Cumberland, and it greatly encouraged the opposition. They now found a leader in the Duke of Portland. His property in Cumberland was by no means as great as Lowther’s, but he was the only man of sufficient consequence to lead a party against Lowther. Portland’s real strength came not from himself but from the smaller gentry who were fighting for their independence.

Having decided to give battle Portland attacked on all fronts, began to form his own party at Carlisle, and interfered against Lowther in Westmorland. Lowther took up the challenge, and in 1767 turned out Portland and some of his most active supporters from the commission of the peace. The stage was being set for a battle royal, to be fought to the finish.

On 17 Aug. 1767 it was announced in the newspapers that a county meeting would be held on the 31st to choose candidates for the forthcoming general election. Lowther, in another advertisement, censured this as an unusual proceeding, ‘calculated to deprive the freeholders ... of their undoubted rights and privilege of electing their representatives by procuring a nomination of candidates by a few gentlemen’. At the meeting Portland’s friends proposed that Lowther and Curwen should be the candidates, but Lowther rejected this compromise and withdrew with his followers. In their absence the meeting nominated Curwen and Henry Fletcher, who forthwith published their election address. Lowther had some difficulty in finding another candidate, but on 21 Sept. he and Humphrey Senhouse announced that they would also stand.

Portland secured the Egremont and Carlisle interests, and the list of independent gentlemen who followed him was far more formidable than any Lowther could produce. Lowther obtained Government support, but Government had little influence in Cumberland. Then he struck a blow which he had long been preparing and which he expected to be decisive.

Part of Portland’s Cumberland estate, Inglewood Forest and the manor of the socage of Carlisle Castle, was originally Crown property and had been granted to the Bentinck family by William III. During the summer of 1767 Lowther’s lawyers found a flaw in Portland’s title, and on 9 July Lowther applied to the Treasury for a lease of the estates. The surveyor general of Crown lands reported that this property was not part of the original grant, and recommended that Lowther should be granted a lease, on condition that he undertook at his own expense to try the right of the Crown.

Lowther made no secret of the purpose for which he wanted this property. Charles Jenkinson told the Duke of Grafton that ‘the grant itself was of little value’ and ‘was of importance ... only as it related to ... elections’.1 Portland estimated that the votes of between 300 to 400 freeholders were affected. Immediately the patent for the grant was issued Lowther warned all tenants living in Inglewood Forest that their rents and dues should henceforth be paid to his agents; while Portland offered indemnities to those who should continue to regard him as their landlord.

This grant has made the Cumberland election of 1768 notorious. Three things may be said about it straight away: that the Treasury did not act unfairly to Portland, but was bound by the surveyor general’s report to grant Lowther a lease; that although Portland could with justice complain against being disturbed in the possession of property his family had held for over sixty years, his title was very doubtful; and that politically this manœuvre did Lowther more harm than good. The freeholders of Inglewood Forest, as John Robinson admitted,2 took ‘the side which hath had so long possession’; and elsewhere in Cumberland the sympathies of the independent gentlemen were turned still more towards Portland.

At almost the last moment, and after the poll for Carlisle had begun, Lowther, through his friend Sir George Macartney, proposed to Portland ‘a compromise for the town and county upon equal terms’.3 It had come too late, and Portland would have nothing to do with it. Had he done so he would have lost the popular support on which his interest both at Carlisle and in Cumberland depended.

The poll for Cumberland lasted 19 days. Lowther had taken care that a man in his interest should be pricked for sheriff, but as events proved he could hardly have made a worse choice. Sir Gilfrid Lawson was weak and ignorant, and his conduct of the poll was for neither Lowther’s nor his own advantage. Lowther’s counsel insisted that the sheriff should admit to poll only those freeholders who could produce documentary evidence that they had been rated to the land tax of 1767. This would have been in strict compliance with the law for conducting county elections, but would have made the poll a farce, for there was a large number of freeholders, known to be such, who could not produce documentary evidence in the form required by Act of Parliament. Inevitably the sheriff had to make many decisions which could not be justified by strict law. 689 freeholders who offered to poll were rejected: 423 who had offered to vote for Curwen and Fletcher, 244 for Lowther and Senhouse, and 22 who would have split their votes. When the poll was closed the numbers were: Curwen 2190; Fletcher 2027; Lowther 1993; Senhouse 1904. These included 145 freeholders whose votes the sheriff had admitted but put aside for further consideration: 98 for Curwen and Fletcher, 42 for Lowther and Senhouse, and 5 split. The sheriff took two days to consider, and then rejected 66: 50 for Curwen and Fletcher, 13 for Lowther and Senhouse, 2 for Lowther and Fletcher, and 1 for Lowther and Curwen. As a result Fletcher lost 52 votes and Lowther 16, and Fletcher’s majority of 34 was changed into a majority of 2 for Lowther.

4,060 freeholders voted in this election (including those whose votes were afterwards rejected by the sheriff), less than 200 of whom split their votes. Of the five wards into which Cumberland was divided, four gave a majority to Curwen and Fletcher: only in Allerdale above Derwent, which contained Lowther’s Whitehaven estates, was there a majority for Lowther and Senhouse.

Fletcher petitioned, complaining of improper conduct by the sheriff in rejecting votes. Lowther was not hopeful about getting a favourable decision from the Commons, and in August 1768 made an approach to Portland to compromise the election. Portland however was warned that this would destroy his interest in Cumberland for ever, and he returned Lowther the answer ‘that the affair was to be determined in the House and that no treaty would be agreed to’.4

The House began by hearing evidence on the return, which went to show that the sheriff had returned Lowther when he should have returned Fletcher. Lowther then wished to have the conduct of the poll examined, but a motion to proceed further was defeated by 247 votes to 95; and he was unseated without a division. On 6 Apr. 1769 the sheriff was committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms.

Portland’s triumph had cost him dear, and he was less able than Lowther to afford the expense. Moreover Lowther had not abandoned the idea of controlling both seats for Cumberland, and was determined on proving his title to the lands granted him in 1767. When the case was tried in the court of Exchequer (November 1771) he was non-suited, on the ground that the lease granted him in 1767 contravened the Civil List Act of 1702; and the question of the validity of Portland’s title was put aside for further consideration.

In June 1773 Lowther approached Portland, through Portland’s brother-in-law Lord Weymouth, about a compromise for Carlisle and Cumberland. In spite of Lowther’s declaration that this should not affect the lawsuit, Portland was prepared to consider his proposals; but for some reason which is not clear Lowther suddenly broke off negotiations. He renewed them again in March 1774, but Portland would give no answer until he had consulted his friends in Cumberland. On 19 Mar. Portland sent a circular letter to his principal supporters and asked for their advice:5

Sir James Lowther called upon me the other day to propose a plan for the consideration of our friends to prevent any contest at the ensuing general election, in consequence of which I am to inform you that if the county will consent to elect him or some other gentleman of fortune in the county in his stead as one of their knights of the shire, and if a friend of his may also be elected a citizen to serve in the next Parliament for the city of Carlisle, he (Sir James Lowther) will agree to support such other gentlemen as may be thought fit to fill those stations by our independent friends.

Most of the replies were favourable to the proposed compromise, and after a visit to Carlisle Portland wrote to Lowther, 18 July 1774:

I have the pleasure of acquainting you that I found the idea of a compromise so generally approved by my friends both in Cumberland and Carlisle, that I think I may venture to assert that any opposition thereto will be ineffectual, and that if you should think proper to offer your services to the county they would be almost unanimously accepted.

Yet there was already indication that an opposition might be expected. On Sir John Pennington’s death in 1768 Lowther had asked his brother Sir Joseph to stand for the county. Pennington had declined, nor did he assist Lowther at the election; and in October 1770 Henry Curwen wrote about him to Portland:

Sir Joseph publicly declares that it is his fixed determination to give his interest against Sir James Lowther at any future election; and dropped some hints in private that it would be agreeable to him to be nominated a candidate at the next election for the county.

To Portland’s circular letter of 19 Mar. 1774 Pennington gave an oracular answer:

I shall not in the least degree deviate from what shall hereafter appear to me just, right, and proper in itself, as tending to the welfare and prosperity of Cumberland. The freeholders ... I trust will neither be dictated to nor seduced by people aiming to lead them for their own private views.

At the county meeting of 22 Aug. he made no objection to Lowther and Fletcher being nominated as candidates; yet six weeks later, when Parliament was dissolved, came forward himself, as a result (so he said) of ‘repeated solicitations from every part of the county’.

The election of 1774 was a very different affair from that of 1768.

Things here are carried on upon a new plan [wrote Robert Baynes, Egremont’s agent]. Not a single farthing spent and the freeholders are to come to the election at their own expense. This it is imagined will make a very great many of them decline coming at all, and the objection will increase in proportion to their distance from the place of election.

The county in fact was tired of elections; and the freeholders having prevented Lowther from monopolizing the representation, would not deny his right to one seat, especially when he proposed to occupy it himself. If Lowther and Portland co-operated Pennington had no chance; and in spite of suspicions on both sides this they did. At the end of the second day’s poll Pennington declined.

The compromise of 1774 was maintained in 1780 and 1784. In 1780 John Pennington, son of Sir Joseph, came forward as a candidate, expressly directed against Fletcher. Lowther professed ‘a strict neutrality’, which was at first taken to mean that his tenants would be allowed to dispose as they wished of their second votes. But, complained Fletcher, Lowther’s agents were in fact soliciting the second votes for Pennington, and at Whitehaven ‘the whole town had promised Mr. Pennington’. Lowther, when informed of this (wrote Fletcher to Portland, 26 Sept. 1780),

assured me that all his agents who had acted that part should be dismissed, and all the gentlemen that had taken part with Mr. Pennington who had any dependence on him for favours expected or received should never enter his doors again—and this he had begun carrying into effect on Saturday. When the town refused giving him plumpers, all those he forbid having any coals either for their houses or ships. The town was then all in the greatest consternation, and on Sunday they began to give him plumpers and in general withdrew their votes from Mr. Pennington.

On election day, Pennington

in a manly temperate speech addressed the meeting to this effect. That it would be the highest of his ambitions to serve this county as one of their representatives in Parliament. That from his canvass he had a decided majority of votes in his favour ... but he said he would nevertheless decline standing the poll ... as he found that if he should be elected it would bring ruin and destruction upon many of his respectable friends in a town (meaning Whitehaven) which he must almost every day pass through ... and that he could not be a witness to such misery as was likely to attend many of the families who were in his interest. He then, looking at Sir James Lowther, said, it is owing to you, Sir, that I now decline standing a poll, although I am certain I should be elected by a great majority.6

Lowther only reluctantly surrendered his ambitions in Cumberland. In 1776 he had offered to buy Portland’s estate, but refused to pay his price—which was a mistake, for the next year Portland’s title to Inglewood Forest was confirmed in the courts and the price was raised. A similar effort to buy Egremont’s estates also failed, though Lowther offered generous terms. Finally he had to accept the compromise of 1774, and during his lifetime there was no further contest in Cumberland.

Author: John Brooke


B. Bonsall, Sir Jas. Lowther and Cumb. and Westmld. Elections, 1754-75.

  • 1. Add. 38205, f. 265.
  • 2. Add. 38458, f. 74.
  • 3. Macartney to Portland, 24 Mar. 1768, Portland mss.
  • 4. Add. 38206, f.63.
  • 5. Portland mss.
  • 6. Geo. Mounsey to Portland, 28 Sept. 1780.