Double 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 burgage holders until 1783 when the House of Commons determined that the right of election was in inhabitant householders.

Number of voters:

about 320, increased in 1783 to about 400


17 Apr. 1754William Monckton Arundell, 2nd Visct. Galway 
 Sambrooke Freeman 
1 Apr. 1761Viscount Galway 
 William Gerard Hamitlon 
27 Apr. 1763Hamilton re-elected after appointment to office 
26 Dec. 1765Galway re-elected after appointment to office 
21 Mar. 1768Viscount Galway44
 Sir Rowland Winn42
 Henry Strachey21
 Election declared void, 24 Nov. 1768 
5 Dec. 1768Viscount Galway183
 Henry Strachey179
 Sir Rowland Winn25
 Edward Winn21
11 Dec. 1772Henry William Monckton Arundell, 3rd Visct. Galway, vice William, 2nd Visct. Galway, deceased 
28 Mar. 1774Robert Monckton vice Galway, deceased 
10 Oct. 1774Sir John Goodricke130
 Charles Mellish130
 Charles James Fox 
 James Hare 
11 Sept. 1780Robert Monckton Arundell, 4th Visct. Galway 
 William Nedham 
13 Feb. 1783Nathaniel Smith vice Galway, vacated his seat 
 John Smyth 
 John Smyth vice Nathaniel Smith, on petition, 11 Apr. 1783 
2 Apr. 1784John Smyth330
 William Sotheron196
 Sir Rowland Winn166
 John Walsh 
 William Cockayne 

Main Article

In 1754 Pontefract was controlled by Lord Galway and George Morton Pitt. Galway owned about 80 burgages, Pitt about 75, and 22 were in their joint possession. By an agreement made in 1743 and renewed in 1747, each party contracted not to sell his burgages without first giving the other the option to buy.

The Winns of Nostell, four miles from Pontefract, held 40 burgages. The remainder were held in ones or twos by a large number of individual owners, mostly resident in the borough—the independent burgesses as they were known. Although Galway and Pitt jointly had an absolute majority of the burgages, at elections they always canvassed the independent burgesses, treated the populace, and never transferred their own burgages to dummy voters. In short, they went out of their way to cultivate the goodwill of the borough; and until 1767 there was no sign of opposition to the proprietary interest.

Pitt died in 1756 leaving an only daughter and heir, Harriet, then ten years of age. To her and her heirs he devised his burgage estate at Pontefract, with remainder to his cousin John Pitt; and during Harriet’s minority the estate was administered by George Morton Pitt’s executor, Richard Benyon. Harriet died without issue in 1763, and in 1766 John Pitt sold the burgages to John Walsh for £16,000. The sale was made with the full knowledge and approval of Galway, and Galway and Walsh made a similar agreement to that of 1743.

Although there were two proprietors at Pontefract, there was only one management; and from 1741 to 1767 this was in the hands of the same man. In 1767 Thomas Taylor took over the management of the borough; and this change, together with the advent of a new proprietor, led to new methods of conducting elections at Pontefract.

Walsh and Taylor determined to assert proprietary control, and to be no longer dependent upon the goodwill of the burgesses. They persuaded Galway to fall in with their plans. These included a complete survey of the burgages, the preparation of faggot votes against the forthcoming general election, and the refusal to canvass the independent burgesses or to treat the populace. When the news leaked out there was considerable dissatisfaction in the borough, directed mainly against Walsh as a stranger and a nabob. In December 1767 a group of independent burgesses decided to run a candidate against Walsh, and in February 1768 Sir Rowland Winn accepted their invitation to stand.

Taylor had underestimated the resistance the new methods would meet with, but was confident that Galway and Strachey, Walsh’s candidate, would be returned. He had secured the mayor but failed to reckon with the populace, incensed at being deprived of their electoral advantages. On polling day Winn was escorted by a large mob, who ‘in a riotous and tumultuous manner’ occupied the entrances to the town hall and prevented supporters of the proprietary interest from voting. The mayor was intimidated into keeping open the poll until Winn had a majority, and then was forced to close it and declare Winn and Galway elected. Galway stood by his agreement with Walsh, and joined him in preparations for a petition; and in November 1768 the House of Commons declared the election void on account of the riot, the ringleaders having already been convicted at York assizes.

At the by-election Winn and his brother stood on the right of the inhabitant householders. In support of their right there existed a resolution of the House of Commons in 1624, but this had been superseded by decisions in 1699 and 1715 in favour of the burgage owners. The by-election was a quiet one. 344 inhabitant householders voted for the Winn brothers, but all except 21, who were burgage owners, were rejected. Had the election been by inhabitant householders Winn would have triumphed, for the majority of the proprietary voters were strangers put into possession of a burgage for the purposes of the election.

Henceforth the struggle at Pontefract took the form of a dispute over the right of election. In 1770, after hearing Winn’s petition, the House confirmed the right to be in burgage holders. In 1774 the opposition persuaded Charles James Fox and James Hare to stand on the right of the inhabitant householders, and the election followed a similar pattern to that of December 1768: the votes of 252 householders who tendered for Fox and Hare were rejected because they were not burgage owners. In March 1775 the House reaffirmed its decision of 1768, and the cause of the inhabitant householders seemed lost. In 1780 no one could be persuaded to stand on their right.

Yet in 1783 the householder party at last succeeded. Robert, 4th Viscount Galway supported parliamentary reform, and it seems to have been thought in Pontefract that he was prepared to yield up his rights in the borough. But at the by-election of 1783 he proposed as his candidate Nathaniel Smith, an East Indian and a stranger. The householder party put up John Smyth, and the election followed the pattern of 1774 and 1768. This time, however, the committee of the House of Commons which considered Smyth’s petition decided that he ought to have been returned, and thus by implication declared the right of election to be in the inhabitant householders. Legally there was no reason why the decision of 1775 should have been reversed, but in 1783 the current was running in favour of wider representation.

In 1784 Walsh himself and William Cockayne were the proprietary candidates, and Smyth and Sotheron stood on the householder interest—Winn’s last minute intervention, on the householder interest, complicated the election but made no difference to the issues involved. The position was now reversed: voters offering for the proprietary candidates were rejected because they were not inhabitants of Pontefract, and the committee which tried the petition confirmed the decision of 1783.

Author: John Brooke


C. Bradley, ‘The Parlty. Rep. of Pontefract, Newark and East Retford, 1754-68’ (Manchester Univ. M.A. thesis).