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 the freemen

Number of voters:

about 100


17 Apr. 1754Richard Barry 
 Sir William Meredith 
28 Mar. 1761Fletcher Norton 
 Simon Luttrell 
1 Feb. 1762Norton re-elected after appointment to office 
24 Dec. 1763Sir Fletcher Norton re-elected after appointment to office71
 George Byng39
18 Mar. 1768George Byng57
 Beaumont Hotham54
 John Smith Barry44
8 Oct. 1774George Byng 
 Beaumont Hotham 
23 May 1775John Morton vice Hotham, appointed to office 
21 Aug. 1780Henry Simpson Bridgeman vice Morton, deceased 
11 Sept. 1780Henry Simpson Bridgeman58
 Horatio Walpole53
 Sir Richard Clayton24
7 Sept. 1782John Cotes vice Bridgeman, deceased 
2 May 1783Walpole re-elected after appointment to office 
3 Apr. 1784John Cotes 
 Orlando Bridgeman 

Main Article

Because of the size of its electorate and the nature of its franchise Wigan was an extremely difficult constituency to manage. The electorate was sufficiently small to tempt a patron, yet too large for it to be controlled without considerable labour and expense. The voters were mainly small shopkeepers and craftsmen, without much political consciousness. The admission of freemen was regulated by a complicated municipal constitution, whose exact interpretation depended in the last resort on the courts of law. ‘The two pillars of electoral success were the mayor and the court leet’, and litigation often determined the course of Wigan politics.1

Newcastle’s survey for the general election of 1754 notes under Wigan:

Two Tories, Lord Pollington, Serjeant Poole—
There has been a strong contest but the Tories have carried a material trial at law against Lord Pollington and Serjeant Poole.

The two Tories were Richard Barry, son of James, 4th Earl of Barrymore (M.P. for Wigan 1715-27 and 1734-47), and Sir William Meredith (a close friend of Lord Barrymore). They stood on a joint interest, and were returned without a poll.

In 1758 Fletcher Norton and Simon Luttrell intervened in Wigan politics against Barry and Meredith, and as Whigs were naturally supported by Newcastle and the Treasury. Their interest, wrote Kinnoull to Newcastle, 30 Aug. 1758, was ‘in a very doubtful and ticklish situation ...  The whole depends on the election of the mayor.’2 At this election, on 1 Oct. 1758, Norton and Luttrell were beaten by one vote, but succeeded in intimidating four of their opponents to withdraw; only to have the retiring mayor strike out four of their own voters, thus restoring victory to Meredith and Barry ‘who immediately chose their mayor and several new burgesses’.3 A lawsuit followed, lasting over two years; and on 26 Aug. 1760 Norton wrote to Newcastle:4 ‘We succeeded in our Wigan affairs beyond expectation at the assizes at Lancaster; we have secured the borough and ... I believe we shall have no more opposition.’ At the general election eight months later Norton and Luttrell were returned unopposed.

About George Byng's contest with Norton in 1763 little is known, except that Byng was backed by the Duke of Portland and Meredith. Byng and Meredith, two very active electioneers, now set about building up a party in the borough in Portland's interest, hoping to drive out Norton and Luttrell as these had driven out Barry and Meredith in 1760.

The way they had to work (and it is a typical example) can be seen in a letter from Meredith to Portland of 24 Sept. 1764,5 about securing a majority of the non-resident freemen for the approaching mayoral election:

Sir Fletcher Norton has only brought in such a number of out-liers as give him a majority of fourteen. One of his men is at the point of death. Seven therefore will secure us a majority, and eight may be had.
   1. One is at the disposal of a lady in this neighbourhood [Liverpool] whom I shall attend till the man is fixed.
   2. Barker requires to sell his house for £500, which is perhaps worth £300 but will sell for £250, and he offers to give security upon all his effects.
   3. Joshua Rudd (his price not named) but to pay what Sir Fletcher owes him [sic]—perhaps £200.
   4. His son (whom we are I think sure of).
   5. Thomas Fairbrother, who has offered himself to me for £50, which he owes Sir Fletcher.
   6. Barnes, who took £50 before from Byng, but the money was got back again. He will take it now.
   7. Bolton, whom Hervey [a freeman in Portland's interest] undertakes.
   8. Jonathan Fogg, who may be had for £100.

Meredith concluded: ‘Had I foreseen what difficulties have happened, I dare say your Grace will believe I should never have named Wigan to you.’

Luttrell and Norton were ‘indefatigueable in their labour and boundless in their expenses’,6 using every kind of legal guile and chicanery. At the mayoral election of 1764 each side held its own court leet, elected its own mayor, and declared that of the other an unconstitutional election. Portland's side managed to get hold of the mayoral regalia, and thus contrived to make it appear that their man was the legally elected mayor. On every occasion of civic life the two mayors competed.

On the Sunday at church [Byng wrote to Portland, 26 Oct. 1764] the two mayors went to receive the sacrament, and ... there was a race between them who should receive the cup first. The parson being of our side, you may easily guess to whom it was delivered.

‘The scene is now changed to Westminster Hall’, wrote John Jackson, a Portland supporter, to Byng, 13 Dec. 1764; and there the decision was given in favour of Portland's candidate.

On 31 May 1765 an agreement was drawn up between Norton and Luttrell on the one part and Lord Edward Bentinck (Portland's brother) and Byng on the other.7 The first clause read:

Sir Fletcher Norton and Mr. Luttrell resign their pretensions to the borough of Wigan in favour of Lord Edward Bentinck and Mr. Byng, and engage to lend their best assistance towards giving Lord Edward and Mr. Byng possession of the borough and securing it to them.

Then followed arrangements for removing Luttrell's and Norton's mayor, creating new freemen, financial agreements and compensations, etc. Luttrell signed for himself and Norton; Norton at first repudiated the agreement but was eventually compelled to accept.8

On 24 Aug. 1765 Meredith gave Portland some advice on ‘the means to secure your conquest at Wigan on some stronger tenure than the humours of the people’:

I ... recommend it to your Grace that some person or other ... may carry on an intercourse betwixt your Grace and them: that you may lend money when the people in trade want it, especially such as are in a thriving way. If you take your interest in the manufactures they make or the foods the shopkeepers deal in, you would not lose £20 a year out of the loan of £2,500, which is more than is necessary, especially if you purchase a small estate near the town.

Hugh Bullock is now taking up (as I heard) £200, and was offered but refused to borrow it from a person in opposition to you. Now if you was to take four per cent interest and receive it in his way of trade, which is check and all sorts of furniture and linens, you would oblige him as much as lending the money for nothing. By these contrivences Lord Barrymore kept his seat at a trifling expense for fifty years, and his son lost it by recalling the money.

Bullock received from Portland a loan of £200 at four per cent interest, and Meredith informed him that Portland would be ‘glad to increase and promote the trade of the town by enlarging the capitals of the principal tradesmen’.9

All seemed secure for the return at the general election of Portland's candidates Byng and Beaumont Hotham. But on 13 Nov. 1767 Hotham informed Portland that he had heard there was to be an opposition from John Smith Barry, brother of Richard, and son of the fourth Earl of Barrymore. On 9 Dec. Hotham wrote again: ‘Jack Barry says that he has received very strong and repeated solicitations from Wigan, which he thinks he cannot resist. He does not pretend to object to Byng, but I find means to stand against your friend. He ... relies most on his family interest in the borough.’ It was agreed to inform Barry ‘that if he is determined to make a canvass, he at least finds himself disappointed upon it, to yield the thing handsomely without giving us more trouble than is necessary.’

On 17 Dec. Hotham wrote to Portland about the canvass he and Byng made at Wigan:

Just as we had finished our rounds Mr. Barry came in, and the next morning as he was beginning his canvass we met. After some temperate and very cool explanation he told us that he found he had been much deceived, that he thought he had no chance, but that as he was here he must make a kind of canvass, and the moment he had finished it he would acquaint us with it, and if it turned out as he expected he should leave the town the next day. At night when he had gone through the town we saw him again, and he again confessed that he thought he had no chance but could not give it up till he had consulted with his friends, and that as yesterday he would send us his final answer. This morning it came, and the subject was that he had met with such encouragement from many of his friends ... that he was determined not to desert them, and that he doubted not of sufficient support on the day of election.

‘We can not yet find out any defection of our friends’, Hotham added; and Meredith believed ‘the opposition impotent’. Yet in fact a substantial proportion of the electorate voted for Barry.

There was no opposition to Portland's candidates at the general election of 1774 or the by-election of 1775. After this important changes happened at Wigan, but the documents which survive in the Portland mss do not allow the full story to be told.

On 15 Oct. 1779 Lord Frederick Cavendish wrote to Portland:

I dined today with Burke at General Burgoyne's ... when a note came from Byng to Burke to desire him to speak to Lord Derby about Wigan in case there should be a vacancy. This led Burgoyne to ask what your Grace meant to do, and he said that if you was not engaged there was a man in that neighbourhood who had been your enemy but was a very staunch Whig, and whose sentiments now entirely corresponded with your’s, Sir R. Clayton. I said I was entirely ignorant of your connexions at Wigan ... that I had heard something of a transaction with Sir H. Bridgeman, and that it might possibly happen that however your Grace might be inclined, you might not be able to get your friends on the spot to forget their old antipathy to their opponent Sir Richard.

Nothing further has been discovered of the transaction with Sir Henry Bridgeman (q.v.). But its nature seems fairly clear. The Bridgemans, owners of the advowson of Wigan, had natural interest in the borough (the rector of Wigan was also lord of the manor); while Portland at this time was cutting down his electoral activities (in 1780 he surrendered his interest at Carlisle to Lord Stanley). Portland seems to have yielded one seat to Bridgeman, one of whose sons sat from 1780 till his death in 1782, and another from 1784 until 1800.

Sir Richard Clayton, 1st Bt., of Adlington, near Wigan, was the nephew of Richard Clayton, who had represented Wigan 1747-54. His first overtures to Portland met with no reply, but in 1780 he tried again.

He hinted [wrote Lord Lumley, through whom the opening was made, to Portland, 8 Aug. 1780] that a division between you had been encouraged by misrepresentations of the respect he bore to your Grace and those principles on which you and your friends had acted for many years past. That these had been made by some who had views in keeping you disconnected, and that he had it much at heart to remove the impressions they had left, with the hopes of uniting interests in the town of Wigan.

Again Portland did not repond.

Robinson in his electoral survey for 1780 wrote about Wigan:

This borough is canvassed against, because the Duke of Portland is supposed to have weight there ... although it has been thrown out that it is open, and Sir R. Clayton ... who has the most natural interest there has been mentioned as having intentions to stand. If he succeeds he is a friend.

Now that Clayton had no chance of securing Portland's interest he had presumably dropped the respect he formerly bore to Portland's principles, probably with the view of obtaining Government support—but this counted for little at Wigan. He made a worse showing than any other defeated candidate during the period.

On the death of Henry Simpson Bridgeman in 1782, John Cotes was returned unopposed; and at the general election of 1784, Cotes and Orlando Bridgeman, again unopposed. Cotes was the son of the Rev. Shirley Cotes, who had been rector of Wigan 1750-76. Oldfield, in the 1792 edition of his History of the Boroughs, names as patrons of Wigan Sir Henry Bridgeman and ‘the Rev. Mr. Cotes’. But Cotes had died in 1776, and in 1791 the rector of Wigan was the Rev. George Bridgeman, fourth son of Sir Henry. Clearly Sir Henry Bridgeman now controlled both seats. Portland had still considerable influence, but could no longer be described as patron of the borough.

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Croston, Hist. Lancs. iv. 225; M. Cox, ‘Sir Roger Bradshaigh ... and the electoral management of Wigan, 1695-1747’, Bull. John Rylands Lib. xxxvii. 142.
  • 2. Add. 32883, f. 180.
  • 3. Luttrell to Newcastle, 1 Oct. 1758, Add 32884, f. 218.
  • 4. Add. 32910, f. 342.
  • 5. Portland mss.
  • 6. Meredith to Portland, 14 Oct. 1764.
  • 7. Portland mss.
  • 8. For the quarrel which followed between Norton and Luttrell, see LUTTRELL, Simon.
  • 9. Meredith to Bullock, 27 Sept. 1765, Portland mss.