I. The Constituencies
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Between 1754 and I790 the House of Commons consisted of 558 Members, elected by 314 constituencies. The 245 English constituencies (40 counties, 203 boroughs, 2 universities) returned 489 Members; the 24 Welsh constituencies and 45 Scottish constituencies returned one Member each.1
THE ENGLISH COUNTIES
Each of the 40 English counties returned two Members to Parliament, and the voting qualification in all counties was the same: the possession of freehold property valued for the land tax at 40 shillings per annum (the 40s. freehold). For electoral purposes the term 40s. freehold was widely interpreted: it included leases for lives; annuities, rent charges, and mortgages based on freehold property; ecclesiastical benefices; and appointments in Government service. The number of electors varied from county to county, and owing to the infrequency of polls at elections during this period only approximate estimates can be given. Yorkshire had the largest county electorate (and the largest electorate in the country) with about 20,000 voters; next came Kent, Lancashire, and Somerset, with about 8,000 each; and nine counties had between 5,000 and 6,000 (Cheshire, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Staffordshire, and Suffolk). Most of the English counties had electorates between 3,000 and 4,000. At the bottom of the scale were Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Northumberland, and Westmorland, with about 2,000 voters each; Monmouth with 1,500; and Rutland with about 800.
The county electors were the landed classes; they were, in theory, the independent gentlemen of England, supposedly men of property and substance, able to choose their representatives freely. But the practice of the constitution, in this as in other matters, did not match the theory. Many of the freeholders were also tenants, renting land from a large landowner, or were under other obligations to him; many had little political consciousness, or their political horizons did not extend beyond local affairs. The larger landowners, the peers and the country gentlemen, were the acknowledged leaders both of county society and of county politics. Electioneers and politicians always assumed that tenants would vote in accordance with the wish of their landlords, and measured a landowner’s parliamentary interest in a county by the number of his tenants and the extent of his acreage. Interest, by this reckoning, meant first and foremost the possession of landed property.
It would be more correct to say, however, that property was a foundation on which a parliamentary interest could be built. The relationship between the landlord and his tenants was much more than a material one: the assumption that tenants voted as their landlord wished from fear of being dispossessed is a caricature of the real state of affairs. Landed property, after all, was primarily a source of income, and any large-scale dispossession for political reasons would have hurt the landlord as much as the tenants. Even Sir James Lowther, ‘the tyrant of the north’, would not go to this extreme: when he was thwarted by his tenants at Whitehaven in 1780 he threatened to stop their supply of coal, but he drew the line at evicting them. The gentry were the leaders of the county, not its masters; they expressed their wishes to their tenants, not their orders; and the tenants’ vote, when used agreeably to the landlord, was a tribute of respect, not an acknowledgement of dependence. It was always possible to rouse the freeholders with the cry that their independence was in danger, as is shown by these lines from an election song current in Somerset in 1768:
Rich bullies denied
And would fain set aside
Our right our own Members to choose;
They theaten us too
What mischief they’ll do
Should we their directions refuse.
Some landlords, such as the Duke of Devonshire in Derbyshire, would ask their tenants for one vote only and leave them free to dispose of the second as they wished; while a hard landlord, such as Thomas Cholmondeley in Cheshire, who let his estate at rack-rent, would find his parliamentary interest decline. And when the freeholders felt strongly about a political issue they were able to assert their independence against their landlords, as Lord Fitzwilliam found in Yorkshire in 1784. Fitzwilliam had inherited every acre that his uncle Lord Rockingham had possessed in the county; but while Rockingham had been able to secure the return of two Members of his own political complexion, Fitzwilliam was beaten down by the wave of anti-Foxite feeling. Even a small county like Westmorland, described by Oldfield in 1792 as ‘as much under the command of an individual as the most rotten borough in the kingdom’, rebelled against the intensely unpopular Lowther in 1768 and returned a candidate against his interest. Social and personal relationships, traditional and hereditary loyalties, counted for a good deal in county elections; and there was an element of goodwill present in every parliamentary interest, the extent of which it is impossible to measure quantitatively though its absence can be readily detected.
Candidates for the county were fixed upon at a county meeting, held about a year before the general election was due, and attended by the leading peers and country gentlemen. Usually the sitting Members were invited to continue, unless one or the other of them had made himself particularly unpopular. The counties disliked changes in their representation, especially if these involved a contest, and would-be candidates incurred some odium if they disturbed ‘the peace of the county’ without adequate excuse—unless they could plead, as did Admiral Boscawen in Cornwall in 1760, that ‘the only honour the county can confer’ should not be confined to a few families. If several candidates presented themselves, the county meeting would provide an indication of the amount of support they were likely to receive. Sometimes, as at the Cornwall meeting of 1774, a vote would be taken; but generally the sense of the meeting was made clear without that formality—without support from some of the leading gentlemen a candidate would have no chance. In addition to choosing candidates, the county meeting was also used to question the representatives about their conduct in Parliament or to vote instructions to them.
Having been adopted as candidates, the next step was to canvass the county—to go round and ask the freeholders for their votes. This was a laborious undertaking, hardly to be attempted without the assistance of friends and supporters; but it had the great advantage of enabling the candidates to make a rough estimate of how many votes they were likely to receive, and whether it would be worth their while to continue the fight. Yorkshire in 1784 was thoroughly canvassed by two sets of candidates, one supporting the Fox-North party, the other Pitt’s Administration. The two Foxite candidates received promises from only 3,000 freeholders as against 11,000 for their opponents; and on the evening before the election was due to begin they withdrew. A canvass, in fact, was often a bloodless election; it was a device to test the opinion of the county with the minimum of expense—an eighteenth-century kind of public opinion poll.
The chief objection to county contests was their enormous expense. This arose principally from the fact that the voting took place at the county town; and the electors had to be brought there, fed, liquored, and lodged at the candidates’ expense. Without this attention and treating, many voters would not attend. The Cumberland election of 1774 was a relatively quiet affair after the expensive fight-to-the-death of the previous general election in 1768: Sir James Lowther and the Duke of Portland, the protagonists on that occasion, had agreed to recommend to one seat each, but their peace and unanimity were disturbed by Sir Joseph Pennington who set himself up as a candidate. Lord Egremont’s agent wrote about the election campaign:
Things here are carried on upon a new plan. 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.
Still, candidates could be mistaken about the results of a canvass, or even stand a poll although the canvass had been unpromising. In such cases it often happened that a candidate would withdraw after the first day’s polling had convinced him he had no chance: thus Sir Sampson Gideon in Cambridgeshire in 1780 and Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury in Suffolk in 1784. But where the candidates were evenly balanced or where party or political rivalries were strong, the poll would be continued until the flood of voters became a mere trickle: the Sussex election of 1774 lasted 24 days (excluding Sundays) and the Cumberland election of 1768, 19 days. In 1785 the maximum duration of county elections was fixed at 15 days, which helped towards reducing their expense; but a bill to enable the poll to be held in more than one place, which would have reduced the expense still more, was defeated.
Figures of election expenses in the eighteenth century must always be treated with caution: still, for what they are worth, here are some for this period. The Essex by-election of 1763 is said to have cost each side over £30,000. The Oxfordshire election of 1754, the last great Whig-Tory battle of the century, cost the Tories over £20,000 and the Whigs can hardly have spent much less. The canvass in Somerset in 1768 cost over £5,000; and at the Hertfordshire election of 1774 the expenses of the county meeting alone, for food, drink, and transport, were estimated by one of the candidates at £4,000. Sums such as these were not met solely by the candidates, though they had to pay a large share: when the candidate stood as the representative of a party or group in the county, a subscription would be opened on his behalf. Thus in Yorkshire in 1780, £12,000 was raised on behalf of the Opposition candidates, Sir George Savile and Henry Duncombe, and in 1784, £18,000 on behalf of the Pittite candidates, Duncombe and William Wilberforce. Subscriptions of this amount were a convincing testimony of support and helped to frighten away opponents. Occasionally the Treasury helped to finance candidates, if political credit was to be obtained from their victory, as in Oxfordshire in 1754, Hampshire in 1779, and Berkshire in 1784. But Government aid was liable to draw odium on the candidates who received it (‘treating the county as if it were a rotten borough’), and was never sufficient to replace a public subscription. Nor did it avail much against a popular candidate or cause: in 1780 the Treasury spent £4,000 trying to secure the return of Thomas Onslow for Surrey, but failed miserably. On the other hand, for a popular candidate returned unopposed, a county election could be the cheapest method of entering the House. Sir John Trevelyan’s election for Somerset in 1780 cost him only £25, and about the election of 1784, when an opposition was threatened but not proceeded with, he wrote:
We then dismounted from our horses and went into a house with some of the principal gentlemen, when upwards of £10,000 was subscribed in a very few minutes. ... Whilst I was there Mr. Poulett ... came to the door and desired to speak to me, assuring me that no opposition was intended against me. ... The election was gone through as soon as the forms would admit of, and we parted, the town of Ilchester desiring to pay the usual fees of bellringing and chairing. The remainder of the expense was as follows:
|Porter to the county clerk||2.||2.||0.|
And then we all departed before dinner, as the town could not produce enough of meat and drink for one tenth part of the freeholders present, none of whom came but at their own expense.
He could hardly have been returned for less at any pocket borough in the kingdom.
Still, Trevelyan would have been prepared to meet the expense of a contest had it been necessary. Why were men ready to spend such large sums to enter Parliament for a county, when they could have got in more cheaply and easily for a pocket borough? In part, the desire to represent one’s county in Parliament was a fashion of the times, like planting trees or building country houses, and there is no accounting for fashion. Thomas de Grey told the Norfolk county meeting in 1767 that he was ambitious of representing his native county, but ‘would not accept of a borough though invited to it at free cost’; and Sir George Savile, whose parliamentary career is a record of service to his constituents without material reward to himself, was prepared to spend a fortune to come in for Yorkshire in 1754 but refused nomination at York and Higham Ferrers. For these men, to be chosen knight of the shire was a social honour, evidence of their standing in the county and of the approbation of their fellows. They did not go to Westminster to make or unmake governments, to win places or honours for themselves; they went there to watch over the interests of their constituents and to look on political matters with an independent eye. ‘Independency, gentlemen, has long been the characteristic of your county,’ wrote the Salisbury Journal at the time of the Wiltshire by-election of 1772. ‘Let us be the last to resign it to corruption and Court influence.’ The country gentlemen who were returned for the English counties were the most disinterested group of Members in the House, and a most accurate reflection of the state of political opinion among the landed classes. The position of sons of peers or aristocratic dependants who represented English counties was somewhat different: they sat not in their own right, but as representatives of great families. The motive for election was the same: a Cavendish sitting for Derbyshire or a Stanley for Lancashire was symbolical of the respect and pre-eminence accorded to the Duke of Devonshire or the Earl of Derby by their own counties. But aristocratic knights of the shire had a twofold allegiance: to their constituents and to the great house they represented; and their independence and disinterestedness were qualified.
In the west of England, where pocket boroughs were numerous, there was a strong feeling that the peers should confine themselves to the boroughs and leave the county representation to the country gentlemen. A meeting of Somerset justices of the peace at Wells in January 1784 passed a resolution that ‘no person who is heir apparent of a peer, or is in the immediate succession to a peerage’ ought to be chosen for the county. In Cheshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Shropshire, Somerset, and Worcestershire the county representation was practically monopolized by the country gentlemen; and in these seven counties there were only two contested elections during this period—both in Cornwall, in 1772 and 1774. In Wiltshire, the choice of candidates to be presented to the county meeting was in the hands of a club of the principal landowners, and solid, safe country gentlemen were always chosen. In Leicestershire, where there was only one borough constituency, it was understood that Leicester was to be left to the peers and the county to the country gentlemen, though this agreement was never strictly applied. Other counties free from a dominant aristocratic influence were Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, and Warwickshire. In these counties the peers did concern themselves with elections, but usually on behalf of a country gentleman, rarely for one of their own families; and contests were more frequent than in the western counties. Northamptonshire alone of this group was uncontested during this period, and there were ten contests in the other five counties.
In other counties, particularly in the north, there were aristocratic families of sufficient standing and antiquity to be able to command a seat almost by hereditary right: the Duke of Bedford in Bedfordshire; Sir James Lowther (created in 1784 Earl of Lonsdale) in Cumberland; the Duke of Devonshire in Derbyshire; the Earl of Darlington in Durham; the Earl of Derby in Lancashire; the Duke of Northumberland in Northumberland; and Earl Gower in Staffordshire. But this apparent right was really a concession on the part of the country gentlemen and did not extend to both seats. Lord Frederick Cavendish wrote to his nephew the Duke of Devonshire about the election for Derbyshire in 1768: ‘The Tory gentlemen acknowledge our moderation and do not deny but that we may have carried two [seats], but that, I think I have said to you before, I hope you will never think of unless drove to.’ Lord George Cavendish’s seat was not in dispute, and the two country gentlemen who stood, Sir Henry Harpur and Godfrey Bagnall Clarke, each solicited votes for himself and Cavendish. Cavendish was returned head of the poll with over 2,700 votes out of an electorate of 3,000—a lead of nearly 1,000 over Clarke, the second successful candidate.
When contests took place in this type of county constituency (there were eight in the seven counties of this group during this period) they arose usually from an attempt by the aristocratic interest to fill both seats. The great Cumberland contest of 1768 was a revolt of the independent freeholders and smaller landlords against the over-bearing tyranny of Sir James Lowther. With the Duke of Portland as their patron, they adopted two candidates in opposition to the Lowther interest and secured their return, one on petition by the House of Commons. But in 1774 the Cumberland gentry did not deny Lowther’s claim to one seat, provided he left the other to their free choice. Similarly in Northumberland in 1774 the Duke of Northumberland’s attempt to carry both seats was defeated, but only by a margin of 16 votes. In Durham the Earl of Darlington secured a second seat at the by-election of 1760, and at the general election the following year held both seats—an almost unique achievement in this period.
In other counties the predominance of one aristocratic family, though marked, was not overwhelming. Lincolnshire generally accorded one seat to the family of the Duke of Ancaster and no contest in this period was carried to a poll. In Oxfordshire, after the great contest of 1754, the Duke of Marlborough concluded an agreement with the Tory country gentlemen by which each was to nominate one Member for the county; and Lord Charles Spencer was able to tell Lord Shelburne in 1782 that his seat for Oxfordshire was as safe as if he held it by burgage tenure. But probably the most successful aristocratic interest in county politics during this period was that of Lord Rockingham in Yorkshire. Rockingham was well aware of the independence of the Yorkshire freeholders and of their suspicion of aristocratic interference: indeed, at the beginning of his career he had used anti-aristocratic feeling to oust Lord Holdernesse from the primacy in Yorkshire politics. Rockingham’s principle in Yorkshire was to follow the sense of the county, not to lead it: ‘I would not give any handle in Yorkshire’, he wrote in 1769, ‘for Yorkshiremen to say that my politics had led them beyond their intentions or that I had checked their well-founded ardour.’ From 1780 onwards his authority was challenged by the Yorkshire Association, a group of country gentlemen who had adopted a political programme much too radical for Rockingham and who were suspicious alike of peers and politicians. By trying to work with the Association, rather than against them, Rockingham preserved his primacy in the county until his death, but could not hand it on to his successor. The independent freeholders of Yorkshire could be led by personality but not overawed by property.
In Westmorland, where the electorate was only about 2,000, Sir James Lowther’s property was such that he established his control over both seats. But even in this small county Lowther’s interest did not go unchallenged: there were four contests during this period, and Lowther lost a Member in 1768—largely through over-confidence. Three other small counties were controlled by a combination of the two leading peers in the county: Cambridgeshire, by the Earl of Hardwicke and the Duke of Rutland; Huntingdonshire, by the Duke of Manchester and the Earl of Sandwich; and Nottinghamshire, by the Duke of Portland and the Duke of Newcastle. After 1768 the second Duke of Newcastle and the Duke of Portland were always on opposite sides politically, but this did not prevent their close collaboration in Nottinghamshire election affairs. Similarly, Sandwich and Manchester, though politically opposed to each other, worked together in Huntingdonshire, though with a good deal of jealousy and bickering. ‘There is no place in England’, Sandwich wrote in 1780, ‘where the parties are more at variance than in Huntingdonshire; we could not dine together on the election day, and the two Members could not agree to give a joint ball to the ladies.’ This was written at the time of an unopposed election, but they could always agree when, as in 1768, there was an opposition to their joint rule.
In Rutland the Earls of Exeter, Gainsborough, and Winchelsea contended for supremacy; while in Monmouthshire, another small county, the allied families of Morgan and Hanbury, traditionally Whig, disputed the representation with the Duke of Beaufort, whose family had a Tory tradition. Gloucestershire in this period recalls Dickens’s description of Eatanswill, where ‘the very church had a Blue and a Buff aisle’: in Gloucestershire everybody seems to have been either a Berkeley or a Beaufort. This division was partly traditional and partly political: the Berkeleys had a Whig inheritance and the Beauforts a Tory, and during the American war the Beauforts supported the Government and the Berkeleys the Opposition. At the contested by-election of 1776, when the House of Commons was deeply divided on the American war, Government and Opposition took sides, Government supporting William Bromley Chester and hailing his victory as a great triumph for their cause. But it would not be easy to say what the two sides were fighting about except whether or not both county seats should be filled by protagonists of the Berkeley family. After a campaign of seven months and a poll of eleven days, Gloucestershire had had its fill of election excitement, and in 1783 the two sides agreed to divide the representation between them. In 1784 an attempt by Winchcombe Henry Hartley, a zealous partisan of Charles Fox, to challenge this agreement came to naught, and Hartley retired after having polled only 20 votes.
In only two English counties did the Government have an important electoral interest. In Hampshire the Government could influence electors employed in the dockyards at Gosport and Portsea, the custom house officers in the numerous ports, and the Crown tenants in the New Forest; and at the contested election of 1779 (the only one during this period) £2,000 was advanced by the Treasury towards the expenses of the Government candidate. But the Government interest was not decisive: in Hampshire, as in Gloucestershire, the gentry tended to align themselves with one or other of two powerful magnates, the Duke of Chandos and the Duke of Bolton; and in 1779, despite Government support, the Chandos candidate was defeated. In Kent, again because of its ports and dockyards, there was also a Government interest, but smaller than in Hampshire, and in an electorate of about 8,000 it was much less effective.
Social and economic developments affected particularly the politics of three counties: Warwickshire, Middlesex, and Surrey. From 1754 to 1774 Warwickshire had no contest, and its representation was in the hands of the country gentlemen. At the general election of 1774 Sir Charles Mordaunt retired from Parliament, and his son John was proposed in his place. But the Birmingham manufacturers felt that Mordaunt was not a suitable candidate to represent their interests, and they proposed Sir Charles Holte of Aston. Thomas George Skipwith, the third candidate, was accepted by both parties; and the contest was really between Holte and Mordaunt, or between Birmingham and the rest of the county. In the hundred of Hemlingford, where most of the county’s industrial development had taken place, Holte polled 1,175 votes against only 315 for Mordaunt, and was eventually successful by 1,845 votes to 1,787. In 1780, when both Members retired, an advertisement appeared in the Birmingham Gazette for a meeting of freeholders to choose a candidate as Holte’s successor, whom they would then propose to the county. A correspondent wrote from Birmingham to Lord Dartmouth:
The various commercial regulations so frequently made by the legislature affect the trade and manufactures of this place very much, and render it an object of great importance to its inhabitants that gentlemen may, if possible, be chosen for the county who are connected with the people and not entirely uninformed of the particulars in which their interest consists.
Sir Robert Lawley was selected and returned unopposed both in 1780 and 1784. Thus Birmingham, itself unenfranchised, had established its claim to choose one of the county Members; but it should be noted that neither Holte nor Lawley was a business man—both were country gentlemen, of a type indistinguishable from others who sat for the county.
The growth of London, and its expansion into the neighbouring counties, is reflected in the politics of Middlesex and Surrey. Until 1768 Middlesex chose country gentlemen, one Whig and the other Tory, and the success of John Wilkes, a bankrupt outlaw convicted for blasphemy and libel, at the general election of that year astonished all parties. The increasing urbanization of the county had led to political changes—the growth of radicalism, emanating from London, unobserved by the politicians until Wilkes provided a focus for the social and political discontents of the smaller business men and shopkeepers. Throughout the rest of this period radicalism was the strongest political force in Middlesex. Similarly, in Surrey, the expansion of Southwark led to the spread of radicalism, and in 1775 Sir Joseph Mawbey, a Southwark distiller, became the first radical to be returned for the county. By the end of this period national politics had come to be the critical factor in Surrey elections. No such effects as these are to be observed in Essex and Kent, the counties adjoining London on the east. Perhaps London had not expanded in that direction to the same extent as it had done westwards; in any case, since both counties had large electorates, the effects of urbanization would be much less felt. Moreover, both Essex and Kent were sea-bordering counties, with thriving ports of their own, not dependent on London for an outlet for their trade. Geography, as well as the social structure of a county, was an important factor in determining its politics.
Altogether there were 50 county elections carried to a poll during this period: 37 at the six general elections (out of a possible 240); and 13 at 123 by-elections. County polls were more likely to occur at general elections than at by-elections; but (as will be shown) county elections as a whole were less likely to go to a poll than those in large boroughs. The most contested counties, each going to the poll at four elections, were Hertfordshire, a very independent county; Middlesex, largely because of the Wilkes affair; and Westmorland, trying to escape from the control of Sir James Lowther. Essex, Herefordshire, and Surrey each had three contested elections; seven counties had two; fifteen counties had one; and twelve counties never went to the poll during the whole period (Cheshire, Devon, Dorset, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and Yorkshire). These twelve counties, with the exception of Yorkshire, led a placid political existence, firmly under the control of peers or the country gentlemen; while Yorkshire only escaped a poll in 1784 at the last moment. In the thirteen counties which had 5,000 or more electors, there were ten contests; in the 27 counties which had electorates of less than 5,000, there were 40. The bigger the county electorate the less chance there was of a contest.
The number of contests at particular general elections seems to have been quite unaffected by political circumstances: there were five contests in 1754, four in 1761, eight in 1768, eleven in 1774, two in 1780, and seven in 1784. The election of 1780, when political feeling ran high, produced the smallest number of county contests; that of 1774, when there was no political issue at stake, the highest. Of much more significance was the extent to which political factors began to influence county elections towards the end of the period. In 1754 only one county election, Oxfordshire, was fought on political lines, over issues which meant little to the rest of the country. During the next twenty years political questions hardly came into county elections, except for the matter of general warrants, which was raised in Norfolk and Somerset in 1768 but was in neither county a decisive factor. In 1774 America was rarely mentioned, and in 1780, when party had come to mean a good deal in the House of Commons, only Surrey was fought on party lines. But in 1784 every one of the seven county contests was a struggle between followers of Pitt and Fox, and the issues of the East India bill and of Pitt’s minority Administration came up in them all. Moreover, in at least three counties which did not go to the poll (Dorset, Norfolk, and Yorkshire), these issues were decisive. The counties had long claimed to be the barometer of political feeling in the nation; by 1784 that feeling was developing along party lines.
THE ENGLISH BOROUGHS
The 203 English boroughs returned 405 Members of Parliament. 196 boroughs returned two Members each; two boroughs (London and the united boroughs of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis) returned four Members each; and five boroughs returned one Member each (Abingdon, Banbury, Bewdley, Higham Ferrers, and Monmouth). From the point of view of the franchise, the English boroughs can be divided into six groups: householder boroughs; freeman boroughs; scot and lot boroughs; corporation boroughs; burgage boroughs; and freeholder boroughs.
The householder or ‘potwalloper’ boroughs had the widest borough franchise in England, for in them the right of voting was in all inhabitant householders who were not receiving alms or poor relief. In 1754 there were eleven of these boroughs: another was added in 1768 when the House of Commons decided that the right of election at Preston was not in the freemen, as had hitherto been assumed, but in the inhabitant householders. In size of electorate they ranged from 1,000 at Northampton to 20 at St. Germans, and, whether large or small, were in general very difficult constituencies to manage; their electorates included a large proportion of the labouring classes; and contests were frequent. Nearly all of them had a number of venal voters, which meant that elections were always expensive and very often riotous. Two men were killed in the riots following the by-election at Taunton in December 1754, and it was said that the trade of the town suffered for years from the dissipation of this election. The famous ‘contest of the three Earls’ at Northampton in 1768 ruined Lord Halifax, forced Lord Northampton to live abroad, and seriously embarrassed Lord Spencer, one of the richest men in England. In 1774, in the same constituency, when Northampton and Spencer refused to treat the electors, they broke the windows of the inn where the candidates had their headquarters. At Preston in 1768 bands of miners from Lord Derby’s collieries terrorized the town, and John Burgoyne, Derby’s candidate, went to the poll with a guard of soldiers and a loaded pistol in his hand. The householder boroughs illustrate the worst side of electioneering in this period: inadequate policing, too plentiful supply of drink, and voters as yet hardly conscious of political issues.
Broadly speaking they fall into two types: venal boroughs, and boroughs under some degree of patronage; though characteristics of both types are to be found in them all. Ilchester, Aylesbury, Hindon, and Honiton were pre-eminently venal. The electors at Ilchester were described in 1756 as ‘poor and corrupt, without honour, morals or attachment to any man or party’, yet for most of this period the borough was under the patronage of the Lockyer family. At Aylesbury, Welbore Ellis, returned unopposed in 1761, paid £5 to each voter (the electorate numbered about 500); on his re-election in 1762 he gave a further £3; and in 1765, when he expected to be given office, £3 to each voter was again demanded as the price of his re-election. And he was told that if he made any difficulties, the electors would ‘bring in someone gratis rather than lower their rate’. Ellis refused to pay and in 1768 found himself another constituency. Still, things were done comparatively decently at Aylesbury, and towards the end of this period the borough led a more respectable existence under the patronage of the Marquess of Buckingham. At Hindon, where the population did not exceed 700, there were about 200 voters, and between 1768 and 1784 eight contests were carried to the poll. In the early part of the period the Beckford and Calthorpe families had run the borough, but after William Beckford’s death in 1770 and the decline of the Calthorpe interest the electors began to form themselves into groups, the better to sell their votes. One such group was led by the Rev. John Nairne, vicar of Portwood, near Hindon, who promised to bring them a candidate, ‘of great extent of fortune’, who was prepared to go up to £3,000 and would not boggle at a few hundreds more. Nicknamed ‘General Gold’ by the expectant electors, he materialized in the person of Richard Smith, an East Indian with a large fortune, who had already made several attempts to obtain a seat. In February 1773 he paid his supporters at Hindon five guineas a man; at Easter 1774 a further ten guineas; and at the general election in October, fifteen guineas. Conditioned perhaps by the looser conventions of Indian life, Smith lacked all discretion and made no attempt to hide the bribery: his campaign succeeded but he was unseated by the House of Commons and sent to prison for six months. The borough narrowly escape being reformed; the grosser aspects of its electoral existence disappeared when it was taken in hand by Lord Chancellor Thurlow, acting on behalf of young William Beckford, who was a ward in Chancery.
Honiton had an electorate of about 700, most of whom were labourers, artisans, or small shopkeepers, and for whom the rewards received at election time formed a substantial addition to their incomes. Candidates were sought out and even advertised for, and between 1754 and 1784 there were seven contests. As at Hindon, voters banded themselves into groups in order to get better terms. The Yonge family, whose estates gave them a natural interest in the borough, paid dearly for the privilege of representing Honiton. Sir George Yonge, who sat for the borough 1754-61 and 1763-96 and had six contested elections between 1754 and 1790, is reported to have said that he inherited £80,000 from his father, his wife brought him a like amount, and Government paid him £80,000, and yet Honiton swallowed it all. While this cannot be accepted as literally accurate, it gives some indication of the expense of cultivating an interest in a potwalloper borough with a fairly large electorate.
Northampton (1,000 voters), Cirencester (800) and Minehead (300) were all to some extent under patronage. At Northampton, aristocratic families, prevented by custom and tradition from representing the county, contended for supremacy. Lord Spencer, who got his candidate elected in 1768, lost the seat in 1784, and vowed that henceforth he would have nothing to do with Northampton. Cirencester, although it had three contests during this period, was a comparatively well-behaved constituency. The Bathurst family held one seat throughout and neighbouring country gentlemen the other. At Minehead, the Luttrell family of Dunster Castle generally held one seat, and after 1774 both, one of which they were able to sell to Government. But their hold on the borough was never secure: there was a fairly large venal vote, which in 1761 spirited up a third candidate in order to create expense.
St. Germans, the smallest householder borough, with an electorate of about 20, was a complete pocket borough of the Eliot family, the only one in this type of constituency. Tregony and Wendover, with electorates of about 150, were in 1754 counted as complete pocket boroughs also: Tregony of Lord Falmouth and the Trevanion family, and Wendover of Lord Verney. But the reality was far different from the appearance: both were very expensive constituencies and both were to prove unfaithful to their patrons. Thomas Jones, Lord Edgcumbe’s electoral agent, wrote about Tregony in 1760: ‘There are always a large number of votes ... ready to receive any adventurer whatever who will bring them money’; and John Robinson, secretary to the Treasury, in 1774: ‘The voters are a very venal set.’ At the general election of 1784 Falmouth was attacked at Tregony by Sir Francis Basset, and although his candidates proved successful he found it advisable in 1788 to sell the borough to Basset. At Wendover, Lord Verney’s tenants are said to have lived rent free on condition that they voted for his lordship’s candidates. But he lost one seat, largely through his own neglect, in 1768; and in 1784, when bankrupt and presumably compelled to exact his rents, he had the mortification of seeing the borough turn against him and return two strangers who paid £3,000 each for their seats.
Preston is an interesting example of a borough which came under patronage as a result of having its franchise enlarged. Until 1768 the right of election was assumed to be in the freemen, the borough was controlled by the corporation, and neighbouring country gentlemen were usually returned. In 1768 Lord Strange, eldest son of Lord Derby, obtained from the House of Commons a determination that the right of election was in the inhabitant householders. Since many of them were tenants of Lord Derby, Strange was able to build up an interest in the borough, and from 1768 to 1790 one seat was held by his brother-in-law, General John Burgoyne of Saratoga fame. Preston had a large Dissenting population, and Strange allied himself with Sir Henry Hoghton, leader of the Lancashire Dissenters, who was seated with Burgoyne in 1768. The corporation did not easily surrender their control of the borough and there were further contests in 1780 and 1784; but the alliance of the Stanley family with the Dissenters was too strong for them.
At Taunton there was also a large Dissenting population, at odds with the Anglican dominated corporation. In 1754 Lord Egremont aspired to become patron of the borough, but with an electorate of about 500 and a householder franchise it was too large to be controlled without exorbitant expense, as Egremont found at the by-election of 1754. At that election Egremont’s candidate, Robert Maxwell, supported by the Dissenters and subsidized by the Treasury to the tune of over £3,500, after a six months’ campaign defeated a Tory country gentleman. The citizens of Taunton, appalled at the amount of money poured out on drink for the lower classes, with the consequent rioting and dissipation, resolved that if money was to be spent on an election it should serve some useful purpose. A group of ‘sensible and public spirited tradesmen’, most probably Dissenters, formed themselves into the Market House Society with the object of ensuring that money hitherto spent on treating the populace should be devoted to public works, to begin with the rebuilding of the old market area. This had a sweetening effect on Taunton politics, and at the general election of 1768 the Market House Society carried both candidates without a poll. The Society were not allowed to have it all their own way and further contests followed in 1774 and 1782, but some sense of civic responsibility had entered into Taunton politics and there was no repetition of the orgy of December 1754.
To what extent did political issues influence elections in these, the most democratic of English boroughs? At Aylesbury in 1780 an Opposition candidate stood against two supporters of the Government and was overwhelmingly defeated; and there was a political flavour to the election of 1784 at Northampton and the by-election of 1789 at Aylesbury. These are the only instances that have been noted of political issues influencing elections in this type of constituency. The householder franchise gave the vote to a class for whom public affairs meant little, and who saw elections as a source of material benefits. The influence of a neighbouring landowner of large property, or of the Dissenters, who tended to see politics as a matter of principle, raised the tone of such boroughs as Cirencester and Taunton; but where these moderating influences were absent, bribery and treating prevailed in the elections for the householder boroughs.
The 92 boroughs where the right of voting belonged to the freemen (the freeman boroughs) formed the largest group of the English constituencies. London had a unique franchise, with the right of voting in the livery (a more select body than the freemen), but it is more conveniently placed in the freeman group than in any other and it behaved pretty much as a freeman borough. In many of the other boroughs the freeman franchise was subject to restrictions and extensions as a result of decisions by the House of Commons. The chief distinction was between boroughs where the right of voting was in resident freemen only, and those where honorary and non-resident freemen also were entitled to vote. In addition, there were boroughs where the franchise was in the freemen and freeholders; in the freemen paying scot and lot; in the freemen and inhabitant householders; and in combinations of these. Lichfield had a very complicated franchise: in freeholders, burgage holders, and freemen paying scot and lot. The permutations on the freeman franchise were many; and because of conflicting decisions by the House of Commons and ambiguities in borough charters, were a rich field for litigation But common to all these boroughs was the fact that the majority of the voters had to be duly enrolled as freemen before they could vote.
The qualifications for freemen varied widely from borough to borough and are more a matter of municipal than parliamentary history. Generally the freedom was obtained by birth, apprenticeship, redemption, or marriage to the daughter of a freeman. In all these boroughs the influence of the corporation over the creation of freemen was considerable, and control of the corporation was an important electoral asset. The corporation’s influence tended to vary inversely to the size of the electorate: in small electorates, where the creation of only a dozen freemen might turn an election, control of the corporation was essential. At Bewdley, where there were less than 40 voters, the borough was disputed between the Lyttelton and Winnington families, and an election was often decided not on polling day but at the previous Michaelmas, when the mayor was elected and new freemen created. In the very large freeman boroughs control of the corporation, though still important in elections, was rarely the decisive factor.
The largest electorate in this group of boroughs was London, with 7,000 voters; the smallest was Camelford, with about 20. They may be arranged in three sub-groups: 28 larger boroughs, with electorates of 1,000 or above; 30 medium boroughs, with electorates of at least 200 but below 1,000; and 34 smaller boroughs, with electorates of less than 200.
The larger freeman boroughs had electorates comparable in size to those of the English counties, but were much more frequently contested. Each of the 28 boroughs with an electorate of 1,000 or above went to the poll at least once during this period. London had nine contests (every general election and three by-elections); Maidstone had eight; Colchester and Coventry seven; and Bristol, Canterbury, and Norwich had six. These contests were almost as expensive as those for counties: William Thornton’s expenses at York in 1758 came to £12,000; Alexander Fordyce, barely defeated at Colchester in 1768, spent over £14,000; and the expenses at the by-election at Gloucester in 1789 came to over £30,000. The electorates were too large for the wholesale bribery of individuals (though Worcester had a large venal vote), and probably most of the money went on providing food and drink for the voters. At York in 1774 ‘the vulgar’ were ‘rather discontented for want of drink’, and Charles Turner became very unpopular when he preferred to give his money towards some public cause. At Bedford and at Hull it was the custom to issue voter’s tickets, which could be exchanged with the publicans for drink. ‘So established is this species of corruption’, wrote Oldfield about Hull, ‘that the voters regard it as a sort of birthright.’ Still, the comparative frequency of elections and the existence of bribery and treating, indicate that these constituencies were unfettered in the choice of their representatives.
Local landowners, of course, had potentially a great deal of influence, but it was rarely so commanding as in the counties. The Duke of Bedford, for example, held one seat for Bedfordshire throughout this period, but his influence in Bedford borough was lost in 1771 and never regained. Many of the urban freemen possessed no landed property, and could not be influenced by the same means as the freeholders in the counties. The influence of the larger landowners and gentry in the freeman boroughs was fitful and intermittent, depending often upon personality or the chapter of accidents, and exercised indirectly through control of the corporation. The first Lord Hardwicke, the great lord chancellor, who was a Dover man, was able to recommend one Member for Dover, but after his death in 1764 the family influence waned and ten years later it was extinct. Oxford was a very independent borough in 1754 and returned two Tories, but in 1768, when the corporation wanted the candidates to pay off the city’s debts, the Duke of Marlborough managed to get his foot in and his family held one seat for the remainder of this period. Carlisle was fought over by the Earl of Carlisle, the Duke of Portland, and Sir James Lowther, and the Members were usually clients of one or the other of these patrons. There was, however, a strong independent interest, dormant so long as the patrons were rivals and bidding against each other, but active, as in 1774, when they had composed their differences and had agreed to divide the representation of the borough between them. Again, at Maidstone, Lord Aylesford and Lord Romney had considerable influence, but there were eight contests during this period. The Hotham family had a strong natural interest at Beverley, which was the reason Sir Charles Hotham’s opponents gave for voting against him in 1774. They told me, wrote Hotham, ‘their opposition was not owing to any disregard to me personally ... but that unless they united against me ... they never should have any chance for a third man’.
At Durham one Member was always a Tempest and the other a Lambton, and together they defied the Earl of Darlington, backed by the corporation. Apart from these examples, only Bridgnorth and Chester of the larger freeman boroughs could be said to be under the influence of a patron; both were in the west of England where feudal ties were strongest, and even so the candidates had to be of the patron’s own family. Each had only one contest during this period—at the general election of 1784. The record of the Grosvenor family at Chester is almost unique in English parliamentary history: between 1715 and 1874 they held one seat without a break, and from 1754 to 1790 they had effective control over the second seat as well. The position of the Whitmore family at Bridgnorth was by no means so strong; they held one seat throughout this period, but at the contest of 1784 Thomas Whitmore was second on the poll. By then more than two-thirds of the electorate were non-resident, which had weakened the Whitmore hold on the seat.
Lord Rockingham’s influence at York was of a different nature from that of the Grosvenors at Chester or the Whitmores at Bridgnorth. It stemmed not from his being a great landowner, but from his position as the leader of the Whigs in Yorkshire; and it was strengthened by his careful handling of the constituency. When in 1754 Rockingham was first asked to recommend a Member at York, one seat was accorded to the Whigs and the other to the Tory-dominated corporation. Rockingham, pressed by his more enthusiastic friends to try for both seats, refused and contented himself with one; but in 1758 successfully resisted the attempt of the Tories to win a second seat. By 1768 Whigs and Tories had become practically extinct at York (as at most other places), and when the corporation was unable to find a suitable candidate, Rockingham was able to recommend a second Member. When his control was challenged in 1774, he had the majority of the corporation on his side—a tribute to his delicate handling of a populous and difficult constituency.
The politics of the larger freeman boroughs often turned on the conflict between the corporation party and an independent party opposed to the corporation. This was preeminently the case in eight constituencies during this period: Colchester, Coventry, Exeter, Leicester, Liverpool, Norwich, Nottingham, and Worcester. At Exeter, Leicester, Liverpool, and Norwich the corporation was Anglican, while the independent party was based on a nucleus of Dissenters; but at Nottingham the Dissenters had control of the corporation. This religious division embittered politics and frequently led to rioting and disorders (as at Coventry in 1780 when the returning officers were forced to close the poll), yet it was possibly as much social as religious in its origin. Both at Liverpool and at Worcester there was something of a class basis to these divisions, the more well-to-do citizens going with the corporation, and the poorer ones with the independent party. And when the Duke of Portland intervened at Carlisle in 1764 against Sir James Lowther and the corporation, he was advised to cultivate the ‘lower sort of freemen’.
The power of the corporation lay in its right to create freemen; in its control, through the Members, of local patronage; and in the influence it possessed through its distribution of charities and power to license inns. At Durham in December 1761 the corporation created over 200 honorary freemen, and its candidate, Ralph Gowland, defeated John Lambton by three votes on a poll of over 1,500. This led the House of Commons to introduce a bill preventing honorary freemen from voting in elections unless they had held their freedom for at least twelve months. In spite of the ‘Durham Act’, the making of honorary freemen continued to be relied upon by unscrupulous candidates, but they took care that the freedom was conferred at least twelve months before the expected date of the election. There was a mass creation of freemen at Leicester following the corporation’s defeat at the general election of 1768, and the same weapon was used by Lord Lonsdale (the former Sir James Lowther) in the 1780’s in his efforts to secure control of Lancaster and Carlisle. But it was never a very reliable electoral weapon, for the House scrutinized carefully elections carried by the votes of honorary freemen. The 1,400 honorary freemen Lonsdale created at Carlisle between September 1784 and February 1785, ‘nearly the whole of whom were entirely unconnected with and unknown in the city’, did him no good in the end, for though Lonsdale’s candidates were successful at the by-elections of April and November 1786, they were both unseated on petition.
The non-resident freemen were genuine freemen who had left the constituency to reside elsewhere. They were a source of trouble and expense to candidates and election managers, for they had to be brought from all parts of the kingdom, free of expense to themselves, to record their votes. At Evesham in 1780 Charles William Boughton Rouse ‘was so hard run as to send into the neighbourhood of London a post chaise and four horses to bring down a single vote’. For despite their large electorates, every vote counted in these boroughs. The Colchester election of 1788, when 1,280 voted, ended in a tie; there was a majority of only one at Gloucester in 1789 on a poll of 1,673; and of nine at Nottingham in 1754. When a handful of votes could turn the scale, it is no wonder that foul play was sometimes used. Dickens’s story of how Tony Weller was hired to tip a coach-load of voters into the canal is matched by an incident in the Coventry by-election of 1768. An officer of marines at Portsmouth, a friend of the Duke of Portland, learning that a number of his men, freemen of Coventry, had been given furlough in order to go there and vote for the Government candidate, hastily got them on board a ship bound for the coast of Guinea. Proud of his astuteness, he wrote to Portland that the Government candidate would find them in Guinea ten months hence if he wanted them—that some of the poor fellows would probably never come back did not appear to trouble him. Chase Price, M.P. for Leominster and Radnorshire 1759-77, a master of electioneering, once said that ‘every advantage is reckoned fair at an election’; and at Coventry in particular no holds were barred.
When political issues arose on which men felt deeply, as in 1780 over the American war, and in 1784 when Pitt versus Fox was a matter of widespread public concern, elections in these constituencies depended at least as much on the politics of the candidates as on their electoral manœuvres. This was the case in 1780 at Bristol, Evesham, Gloucester, London, Nottingham, Worcester, and York; and in 1784 at Bedford, Bristol, Hull, Leicester, London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Norwich, Oxford, Worcester, and York. These towns could claim to be the political barometer of urban opinion just as the counties were of rural opinion. And in these towns there is to be seen what was probably the most important political development of this period: the rise of urban radicalism.
It is sometimes assumed that the idea of political equality came into British politics as a result of the French Revolution, and that the growth of a working-class political movement was a consequence of the industrial revolution. But the beginnings of both these developments can be seen in the larger freeman boroughs ten years before the French Revolution and when industrial changes were as yet hardly under way.
Urban radicalism arose first in the metropolitan area following the Middlesex election of 1768 and the refusal of the House of Commons to allow John Wilkes to take his seat. Wilkes’s case had a catalytic effect in metropolitan politics: it provoked reactions which might not otherwise have occurred, and converted a mass of deeply-felt but inarticulate discontent into an organized political movement. There was economic hardship amongst the labouring classes which resulted in rioting. The London mob shouted for ‘Wilkes and liberty’, but also ‘that bread and beer were too dear and that it was as well to be hanged as starved’. Nevertheless, urban radicalism was primarily a lower middle class movement, which appealed to the smaller merchants, shopkeepers, and professional men. It demanded shorter Parliaments, place and pension bills, and tried to ensure that Members of Parliament would be more responsive to the wishes of their constituents. It went much further than previous political movements in demanding parliamentary reform and the abolition of rotten boroughs; and struck not merely at the rights of the Crown but at the privileges of the landed class. Yet it was not a revolutionary movement: it did not set out to re-model the state in accordance with a doctrine of social equality, but aimed to reform abuses and restore what was regarded as the original and purer form of the constitution. In its beginnings, at least, urban radicalism saw itself as a conservative movement.
By the end of 1769 radicalism had permeated the metropolitan constituencies of London, Westminster, Middlesex, and Southwark. The first constituency outside the London area to be affected was Bristol, the largest provincial borough. In March 1769 a public meeting drew up instructions to the Bristol Members demanding shorter Parliaments and the reduction of the number of placemen in the House; shortly afterwards a radical club was formed; and at the general election of 1774 the radicals succeeded in getting their candidate returned head of the poll. At Worcester radicalism seems to have begun about 1773, and Sir Watkin Lewes, a follower of Wilkes, contested the constituency four times between 1775 and 1780, on each occasion being defeated. The other large freeman boroughs where the radical movement made ground were Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bedford, and Nottingham. In boroughs dominated by feuds between the corporation and the anti-corporation party, such as Norwich, Liverpool, Coventry, and Leicester, radicalism played little part in elections; and in other than freeman boroughs it often appears as an attempt to extend the franchise.
During the American war the stream of radicalism became swollen with other currents and was to some extent diverted from its original path. The radicals opposed the American war, and in this they had the support of the Protestant Dissenters and of the aristocratic Whigs who followed Lord Rockingham. An agent of Lord Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, wrote about Nottingham in 1777:
This town is without any exception the most disloyal in the kingdom, owing in a great measure to the whole corporation ... being Dissenters, and of so bitter a sort that they have done and continue to do all in their power to hinder the service by preventing as much as possible the enlistment of soldiers.
At Portsmouth, a freeman borough with an electorate of only about 100 and where the Admiralty had considerable influence, an agent of Sandwich warned him in 1775 not to try to procure an address in favour of Government: ‘We should meet with great opposition, if not a defeat. We are beset with Presbyterians and Dissenters of every kind.’ Indeed, throughout the American war the word ‘Presbyterian’ was used almost as a term of abuse for those who disapproved of the policy of coercion against the colonists.
Another movement which arose during the American war was that of rural radicalism, a revolt of the squirearchy against both Governmental and aristocratical interference in elections. Its aims fitted in with those of urban radicalism: a reduction of Government expenditure and influence, and parliamentary reform. But whereas in the counties landed property was an essential qualification for a voter, in the larger freeman boroughs the majority of voters had no property. Here was the essential difference between rural and urban radicalism. Robert Nugent, who had represented Bristol from 1754 to 1774, wrote to Edmund Burke on 18 September 1780, shortly after Burke’s defeat at Bristol:
I believe with you that the Whigs have a superior weight of property, but however that may operate uniformly upon counties, where every voter must have property, and may sometimes prevail in great towns, where the majority of the electors have no property ... other indefinable causes, when they coincide, will render a shoemaker presiding over a club an overmatch for a rich alderman who licenses the alehouse where they meet and enables them by employment to pay their reckoning.
In London throughout this period there were two parties, corresponding to class distinctions: a party of the larger merchants and financiers, who had strong ties with Government; and a party of the smaller merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans. In some of the large provincial boroughs there can also be seen the beginnings of a party based on the urban proletariat. At Worcester in 1773 William Kelly’s supporters described themselves as ‘labouring freemen of this city, who, though poor, are determined to vote for no man but what shall act independent, and use his utmost interest to obtain a triennial Parliament’. When Andrew Robinson Bowes contested Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1777, his supporters took their stand on the rights of the freemen against the gentry —‘O break the closet-combinations of the magistrates and gentry, whose glory it seems to be to treat their inferiors as slaves.’ The journeymen of Bristol organized themselves in support of Henry Cruger, the radical candidate, at the by-election of 1781, and passed resolutions directed against the monopoly of the city’s representation by the middle-class political clubs. They declared it to be ‘a high infringement of the privileges of the freemen ... for any club or combination of men to declare who shall or who shall not become candidates to represent us in Parliament’, and urged journeymen to withhold their labour from employers who attempted ‘to oblige any man to vote contrary to his conscience’. And in 1780 a sub-committee of the Westminster Association demanded adult manhood suffrage. ‘A portion of the soil, a portion of its produce, may be wanting to many; but every man has an interest in his life, his liberty, his kindred, and his country.’
Even at the end of this period urban radicalism was confined to only a few of the larger constituencies, and as yet its aims were purely political. It was not a socialist movement; it did not seek to improve the economic conditions of the labouring class or to make fundamental changes in the social structure of the nation. Nor did it call for any basic changes in the balance of power between the three branches of the legislature. Finally, it was not supported by any large-scale agitation from the unenfranchised towns. But in the light of the industrial changes that were taking place, and of the challenge shortly to be faced from the French Revolution, its long-range significance can hardly be underestimated.
The 30 medium-sized freeman boroughs, with electorates above 200 but below 1,000, were a heterogenous lot. Among them were a number of open constituencies, relatively free from influence or corruption, which generally chose their representatives from local families: Berwick-upon-Tweed, Hertford, Ipswich, Maldon, Shrewsbury, and Southampton. Each of these was contested at least twice during this period. Lord Palmerston, M.P. for Southampton, wrote about the borough in 1767 with reference to the forthcoming general election:
The number of persons at Southampton who are not to be bought with money is very great, and whenever they unite, which happily they do in the present case, the lower sort, though they may make a noise for a time, neither can nor dare resist them.
At Hertford, Maldon, and Ipswich there was a large Dissenting population, and at Berwick-upon-Tweed the Government had some influence. At Ipswich there were two parties, the Blues and the Yellows, but it is difficult to say what each party stood for. At the general elections of 1780 and 1784 political issues were important at Ipswich, and also at Hertford in 1784; but otherwise elections in these boroughs were conducted without much reference to national politics.
Barnstaple, St. Albans, and Sudbury were also fairly open constituencies; but in each there was a large venal vote. At Barnstaple in 1767 there was an association of two hundred voters, ‘all out of the lower class’, who ‘publicly hawked’ the borough about. Sudbury had an electorate of about 800 and went to the poll at each general election during this period. It was, wrote John Robinson, the Government election expert, in 1783, ‘as open as the day and night too’; and very expensive.
The nature of its franchise and the number of voters determined to some extent the political life of a borough, but social and economic factors were also of great importance. Hertford and St. Albans are less than fifteen miles apart; and during this period each had the same type of franchise and about the same number of voters. Yet the two boroughs were very different in their political behaviour. Hertford was an independent constituency, with a large Dissenting population, particularly of Quakers, and since the number of honorary freemen was limited by charter to three it was not amenable to control by the corporation. Its representatives were always substantial local gentlemen, no one family overshadowing the others, and it was free from corruption. At St. Albans Lord Spencer and Lord Grimston aspired to become patrons of the borough, but even when their interests were joined they could not completely control it. During the earlier part of this period James West, recorder of St. Albans and its Member from 1741 to 1768, had considerable influence, and in 1780 Lord Salisbury began to cultivate an interest there. There was also a large number of venal voters who welcomed opposition to the established interests. These two boroughs, so similar in outward appearance, had only their outward appearance in common.
The remaining medium-sized freeman boroughs were all to some extent under patronage. In six of them there was no contest during this period: Grantham, Huntingdon, Ludlow, Monmouth, New Woodstock, and Wenlock. Influence over these boroughs depended less on property than on tradition supplemented by services to the corporation and freemen. Thus Oldfield wrote about Huntingdon in the 1792 edition of his History of the Boroughs:
The interest of the Earl of Sandwich is so powerful as always to return two Members; and this he effects not by weight of property, for his lordship has but one house in the whole town, but by his popularity, and the obligations he was enabled to confer upon some of his principal friends during his connexion with Lord North’s Administration.
Sandwich used his official positions and his interest in the East India Company to find places for Huntingdon freemen and their relatives; his interest at Huntingdon was based on the long-standing connexion his family had had with the borough and was buttressed by Government patronage. In a similar way the Townshend and Walpole families controlled Great Yarmouth. But Yarmouth had an electorate of about 800, and a strong party, led by the Dissenters, opposed to the corporation; and in 1784 the Townshend-Walpole interest was overthrown by a combination of anti-corporation feeling and support for Pitt’s Administration. Access to Government patronage, though useful, was by no means essential to control a freeman borough. The Duke of Devonshire held one seat at Derby throughout this period, though for most of the time his family were in opposition. The Martin and Dowdeswell families held Tewkesbury without Government patronage; nor did it save Sir John Turner at King’s Lynn from the challenge of Crisp Molineux, a friend of Wilkes and admirer of Chatham.
The Admiralty effectively controlled two of these constituencies, Plymouth and Sandwich; and maintained a precarious hold over one seat at Rochester. At Plymouth, where the electorate numbered about 200, Admiralty control was achieved through the corporation. There was no opposition until 1780, when there began a movement to extend the franchise to the freeholders; and the Admiralty lost one seat at the general election of 1784. At Sandwich (about 700 voters) the Admiralty increased its influence from one seat in 1754 to both in 1784. The credit for this remarkable feat (for in general Government influence in boroughs was declining during this period) belongs to Philip Stephens, secretary to the Admiralty 1763-95, and M.P. for Sandwich 1768-1806. ‘The inhabitants of this place’, Oldfield wrote about Sandwich in 1792, ‘are bound to this gentleman by every tie of gratitude, as there is scarcely a single family some part of which has not been provided for by him in the Admiralty, navy, or marines.’ Rochester had about the same number of voters as Sandwich, but there was a strong independent party among the artisans and small shopkeepers, and there were eight contests during this period. In 1765, when Grey Cooper, candidate of the newly-appointed Rockingham Administration, was opposed by John Calcraft, the Government went so far as to send three members of the Admiralty Board to Rochester to canvass the borough and ‘do any Admiralty favour that could procure a vote’. The old Duke of Newcastle was scandalized at this open avowal of Governmental influence in the borough. ‘Sure it was very imprudent in our friends to hold ... an Admiralty Board at Rochester’, he wrote to Rockingham. ‘The same thing might have [been] done without the éclat. Sir Robert [Walpole] dared not do that.’ Yet it seems to have been necessary, for Cooper had a majority of only 33 on a poll of over 500.
In fact these freeman boroughs could be a source of great trouble and expense to a would-be patron. Lord Gower allowed his tenants at Newcastle-under-Lyme to live rent-free, yet in 1774 nearly one-third of the electorate voted for a candidate in opposition to his interest. Gower and Lord Anson jointly controlled Lichfield but only after a long-drawn out struggle against a powerful independent party. There were five contests there between 1747 and 1761; and in 1761 the independent candidate received 313 votes out of a poll of nearly 700. At Wells, where the Tudway family had influence, there were five contests between 1754 and 1782, and in 1768 there was a large creation of honorary freemen to maintain the Tudway interest. And at Okehampton, as is described below (p. 49), both patrons in 1784 were anxious to end their connexion with a borough which had become both troublesome and unsafe.
The 34 smaller freeman boroughs, with electorates below 200, were mostly under patronage (in eighteenth century parlance closed) by 1754. In 16 of them there was no contest during this period; while six boroughs went to the poll at one election only. Bishop’s Castle, Cambridge, and Winchelsea, relatively open in 1754, had become closed by 1790. By then only five of these constituencies could be described as open boroughs.
The easiest way to control a freeman borough was to keep the electorate as small as possible. ‘I am not fond of numbers’, wrote Edward Milward, Government manager at Hastings, in 1761, ‘for I have reduced ours from near 60 to 30 within eight years past.’ Sometimes this process was taken so far that the freedom was restricted to members of the corporation, and the borough ceased to be a freeman borough in everything but name. An alternative way to control a freeman borough was to confer the freedom on none but trusted relatives or dependants of the patron. It was by this means that John Mortlock converted Cambridge into a pocket borough in the 1780’s. If a Government department controlled the borough, as the Treasury did Hastings, a judicious distribution of Government places would secure the electorate, provided care was taken to choose men who could not afford to lose their offices. In the last resort, the freemen had to be bribed. Edward Wortley Montagu maintained his influence at Bossiney by lending money to the freemen ‘on mortgage bonds and notes without any interest’, and by paying the salary of the schoolmaster: a not unusual combination of private and public benefactions. His successor, Lord Bute, found it necessary to make a direct payment at each election.
Yet even in the tiniest freeman borough the electors could sometimes show a surprising degree of independence, or at least make a show of it to frighten the patron and exact from him higher terms. ‘Although these people are never to be had without the perquisite’, wrote Lord Edgcumbe’s agent in 1769 about the electors of Bossiney, ‘they are sometimes so obstinate as not to be had with it.’ It cost John Offley £942 to be returned unopposed for East Retford in 1768, of which over £700 was spent on treating the 150 electors. Sir Jacob Garrard Downing controlled Dunwich by restricting the number of freemen to thirteen and allowing them to live rent-free, and to make assurance doubly sure obliged each man to sign a bond as a guarantee of loyalty. On Downing’s death in 1764 his widow hoped to succeed to his interest; but the freemen of Dunwich, regardless of their debts and their bonds, offered themselves in a body to Miles Barne. A similar change of electoral allegiance occurred at Grampound on the death of Lord Edgcumbe in 1758: the freemen, determined ‘to have no further connexions with the [Edgcumbe] family’, put the borough into the hands of Edward Eliot and William Trevanion.
At Lyme Regis, where the number of voters did not exceed 50, there was after 1777 a strong movement to free the borough from the control of the Earl of Westmorland; and it was only by the creation of seventeen honorary freemen that Westmorland maintained his interest. During the minority of the 5th Earl of Carlisle, his family’s hold on Morpeth was seriously shaken. According to a legal brief, drawn up in 1762:
For a long series of years the family of Carlisle had been accustomed to name the Members of Parliament ... From this almost uninterrupted possession they began gradually to regard it as part of their private property and ... having previous to the late elections treated the freemen de haut en bas and in such manner as they judged tyrannical and an insult upon their liberties, the whole corporation and those who wished well to it were in an uproar ... To such a height had this political contest inflamed the minds of the freemen, that any opponent of the family of Carlisle would have been received in Morpeth with open arms.
Note the use of the word ‘political’: for the freemen of Morpeth this was a real political issue, involving the very existence of their rights and liberties. A group calling themselves ‘the friends of liberty’ issued a declaration of independence, and began to fight the Carlisle family both in the law courts and at parliamentary elections. The phraseology and the slogans used by the opponents of Lord Carlisle are curiously like those later used by the Americans during the revolutionary war; and both the Americans and the freemen of Morpeth were fighting to maintain their independence of a patron too insistent upon his rights. But while the ‘sons of liberty’ in America threw off their yoke, the ‘friends of liberty’ at Morpeth ran out of money and had to surrender to Lord Carlisle.
The five boroughs still relatively open in 1790 were Hedon, Hythe, Poole, Totnes, and Wigan. Of these, three (Hedon, Totnes, and Wigan) were open only in the sense that in each constituency there were a number of would-be patrons struggling for control and the freemen had room to manœuvre. Hythe is a rare example of a borough which was closed in 1754 and open in 1790, reversing the trend in most constituencies. In 1754 the Duke of Dorset, lord warden of the Cinque Ports, controlled both seats. On Dorset’s death in 1765 his successor as lord warden, Lord Holdernesse, claimed the patronage of the borough; while Dorset’s son, Lord George Sackville, contended that his father’s interest was a personal, not an official, one. The issue was decided at the general election of 1768 when Holdernesse’s candidates won, largely because they had the support of Government. But in fact Hythe managed to throw off both the Sackville family and the lord warden. Poole, though it had only about 100 voters, was a very independent constituency, and was contested at four elections during this period. The corporation was controlled by a group of substantial merchants, and no one succeeded in building up a lasting interest there.
The third main group of English borough constituencies consisted of 37 boroughs where the right of voting was in inhabitants paying scot and lot, that is in inhabitant householders who paid the poor rate. In size of electorate these constituencies varied enormously, from 12,000 at Westminster, the largest urban constituency in Great Britain, to only two at Gatton, where no one lived within the bounds of the parliamentary borough and voters were put in specially at election times. The scot and lot franchise excluded the lowest and poorest element of the population, but included also many uneducated and needy voters. All but six of these boroughs were contested at least once during this period. Seaford, Shaftesbury, and Southwark were contested seven times; Great Marlow and Reading, six; Bridgwater, Penryn, and Westminster, five times. Scot and lot boroughs were most contentious places, and from the point of view of a patron very difficult to control.
Yet the six constituencies where there was no contest, together with Steyning (where the one contest in 1761 was a farce), were virtually pocket boroughs. In each, control over the representation was achieved through the ownership of property in the borough. One of the Duke of Newcastle’s Sussex agents wrote to him in 1767 about Steyning:
The state of the borough is this. There are 102 in number who claim a right of voting, but not more than 90 whose claim will bear a scrutiny. Out of this number Sir John Honywood has 40 tenants who at present are all disposed to stand by him, and about six or seven others who are full as closely attached to him as any of his tenants. This gives him nearly or quite a majority of the 90 real votes. The rest are all a rope of sand and may be had by anybody.
And in 1784 Thomas Cooke, mayor of Stamford and its returning officer, wrote about his borough (which had an electorate of about 500):
The interest of Lord Exeter ... is so great, arising from three causes, viz. his property, his employment of tradesmen, and his visiting and entertaining the gentry, that no one ever opposes those who are honoured with his recommendation, and the business of elections in this town for many years has been conducted from the beginning to the end in a mere formal, civil method between the agents of Lord Exeter, the candidates, and the mayor.
Aldborough (50 voters) was largely the property of the Duke of Newcastle, Amersham (70 voters) of the Drake family of Shardeloes; and in these constituencies the patron’s control was almost as complete as if they had been burgage boroughs. At Corfe Castle (100 voters) two local families shared the representation, and Eye (200) was under the patronage of Lord Cornwallis, whose seat of Brome Hall was just outside the town: both boroughs required care and attention and in neither was the patron’s hold beyond challenge. Gatton, often quoted as a typical rotten borough, was in fact an absolutely unique constituency.
Three scot and lot boroughs had electorates of 1,000 or above: Westminster (12,000), Southwark (2,000), and Newark (1,000). At Newark the Duke of Rutland and the Duke of Newcastle each recommended to one seat, but it was by agreement and compromise with other interests in the borough; and there were three contests during this period. Westminster and Southwark were part of the metropolitan area, and were strongly influenced by political movements emanating from London. From 1768 onwards London radicalism was the strongest force in these constituencies and at all elections political issues were dominant. Westminster was a prestige constituency, the seat of the court and of Parliament, and Government candidates were heavily subsidized by the Treasury—often with little result. The Members for Westminster were always of high social standing, and none but sons of peers or baronets were chosen during this period. Southwark, on the other hand, was a commercial constituency, and its representatives were always local businessmen or City merchants.
The remaining 27 scot and lot boroughs may be broadly divided into two types: the venal boroughs and the boroughs under some degree of patronage. These categories must not be taken as exclusive: many of these 27 boroughs exhibit characteristics of both types, and two (Milborne Port and Penryn) were both venal and under patronage to such an extent that to put them into either category would be misleading. The ten venal boroughs were Arundel, Callington, Great Marlow, Mitchell, New Shoreham, Reading, St. Ives, Shaftesbury, Stockbridge, and Wootton Bassett. None, except Reading, had an electorate of more than 300; and a remark made about Callington in 1768 applied to all of them: money ‘really was the constitution of the borough’. In 1754 the electors of Mitchell were described as ‘low, indigent people’, who would support any patron ‘from whom they have reason to expect most money and favours’. At Shaftesbury and St. Ives it was the custom to lend money to the voters against their notes of hand, which were later destroyed if they voted the right way—an indication not merely that the electors were venal but that they could not be trusted. And here are two examples to show the extent to which bribery could go in this type of constituency: at Wootton Bassett in 1754 Lord Bolingbroke paid thirty guineas a man, and his tavern expenses came to over £1,000; and at Reading in 1754 forty guineas is said to have been offered for a single vote—but then John Dodd, the defeated candidate, was beaten by a majority of one vote only on a poll of over 600.
Worst among the venal boroughs were unquestionably Arundel and New Shoreham, and both exhibit a form of organization common in venal boroughs—of voters banding themselves together into an association to sell their votes to the best advantage. A London newspaper, the English Chronicle, thus reported the general election of 1780 at Arundel:
It appeared that a majority of the electors had formed themselves into a society by the name of the Malt-house Club ... and that the Honourable Mr. Wyndham ... offered himself a candidate to this society to represent the borough in Parliament. The chairman of the club gave him to understand that as he was a gentleman of the neighbourhood and recommended by the Earl of Surrey they would give him the preference to any other candidate, provided he would speak so as for them to understand him. Mr. Wyndham told them he was an independent man and meant to remain so, that if they did him the honour to elect him their Member he would serve them faithfully and honestly to the best of his abilities. This was not the species of elocution adapted to the organs of the chairman, and he informed the honourable candidate that he might as well have said nothing. Sir Patrick Craufurd was then called in, and he, with a much keener perception of the peculiar style of oratory that would produce the best effect, told the Club that if they would honour him with their suffrages he would return the favour with a present of thirty guineas to each voter. Sir Patrick was given to understand that he spoke to the purpose, and the chairman pledged himself to the body to get another candidate ... who would speak in a language equally intelligible and convincing.
This other candidate was Thomas Fitzherbert, a self-made business man, who was ready to give £3,000 and who apparently gave it more discreetly than Craufurd had done. On the poll, Craufurd received 167 votes, Fitzherbert 131, and Wyndham 69; but the House of Commons declared Craufurd’s election void because of bribery.
At New Shoreham about 1760 a group of voters formed the Christian Society, originally a kind of friendly society, but which soon developed into an organization for selling the borough’s parliamentary representation. ‘Upon any vacancy in the representation of the borough’, one of the electors testified before the House of Commons in 1770, ‘the society always appointed a committee to treat with the candidates for the purchase of the seat, and ... the committee were constantly instructed to get the most money ... they could.’ The society preferred candidates who could place orders for building shipsþthe town’s main industry. The activities of the Christian Society having been revealed to the House of Commons, a bill was introduced disfranchizing the corrupt electors and including within the borough the 40s. freeholders in the rape of Bramber. The number of electors was by this means increased to about 800, and henceforth New Shoreham became virtually a county constituency in miniature, noted for its respectability.
It was clearly a costly business to try to maintain an interest in this type of borough, and patrons changed quickly. In 1754 Henry Fox controlled Stockbridge; by 1774 he had lost the borough to the Luttrell family. Lord Ilchester and Lord Shaftesbury, who in 1754 shared the patronage of Shaftesbury, found it too expensive to fight the nabobs who invaded the borough after 1771, and sold out. Lady Orford, who controlled Callington in 1754, had practically lost the borough by 1784; and William Clayton sold his parliamentary interest at Great Marlow in 1787. The tendency on the part of patrons to abandon their boroughs (or to be driven out if they remained) increased towards the end of this period with the growing wealth of the country and the greater competition for seats in Parliament; and with the growth of party an element of political idealism was introduced into the larger of the venal boroughs. Thus at the by-election at Reading in February 1782 Richard Aldworth Neville was obliged to declare that if elected he would not vote for the continuation of the American war.
Of the scot and lot boroughs under patronage, Seaford is an interesting example of a constituency which was controlled by deliberately restricting the size of the electorate. In 1754 the borough was managed by the Duke of Newcastle on behalf of the Treasury; the number of voters never exceeded 50, and was often less; and the majority of the corporation held places under the Treasury. Care was taken to ensure that only those thought to be reliably inclined to Government should be rated to the poor, and consequently Seaford seemed to be a safe Government borough. But there was a section of the electorate, mostly labourers and fishermen, who were unsuitable for Government service; and it was to them that George Medley appealed when he stood in 1761 against the Treasury candidates. One of Newcastle’s agents wrote to the Duke about a conversation he had had with an elector of Seaford:
I then asked him by what means it was possible that the lower class of Mr. Medley’s voters could attach themselves so firmly to him (almost a stranger) in opposition to your Grace, who has been a continued patron to them for so many years. He answered it was through animosity for many grievances and injuries they imagine they have suffered, and also in the firm confidence they place in Mr. Medley’s performing his promises whether he gains his point or not, such as erecting a free school at Seaford, procuring immediate admission into the hospitals (all expenses paid) for the poor people on any occasion, large donations every Christmas, etc.
Where the electors were poor but honest, schemes of social insurance instead of bribery were used to win them over. Similarly, at Fowey, which was a decaying port, Lord Edgcumbe and Jonathan Rashleigh in 1766 drew up plans for restoring full employment to the town: they were to fit out two ships to make a fishing voyage to Newfoundland and employ the electors of Fowey ‘in their respective occupations’.
Medley’s plan failed at Seaford because it did not appeal to the better-off class of electors who were capable of holding Government employments. Next, he won over the bailiff, and with his help began increasing the number of inhabitants rated to the poor. By now George Grenville was first lord of the Treasury, and was just as keen on maintaining the Treasury’s interest as Newcastle had been; the Crown challenged the legality of the bailiff’s actions in the courts, won its case, and thus for a time preserved its interest at Seaford. In 1774, when Stephen Sayre and John Chetwood stood against the Treasury candidates, their counsel stated before the House of Commons committee which tried the election petition:
It appeared that about fourteen of the voters for the sitting Members [the Treasury candidates] were custom house officers or boatmen, by which they got £30 a year. That exclusive of what they got in that way, several of them were in worse circumstances than several of the persons who were not rated [though entitled to be]. It seemed to be admitted that those who were not custom house boatmen were of sufficient substance to be rated.
The Treasury interest was weakened by the disfranchisement of the revenue officers in 1782, which opened the door to a host of candidates. The most persistent was Henry Flood, who in 1786 succeeded in getting his supporters at Seaford rated to the poor; and forced the Treasury to adopt new methods to retain its control over the borough.
The remaining non-venal scot and lot constituencies had electorates ranging from 250 to about 500, and are extremely difficult to classify. Wareham, which in the earlier part of the period was contested by the Drax and Pitt families, became almost a pocket borough in 1768 when John Calcraft acquired their property in the town. At Abingdon, Bridport, Dorchester, Leominster, and Wallingford, it is difficult to trace any permanent interest, and political managers were rarely able to predict the result of elections in these boroughs. John Robinson described Bridport in 1780 as ‘in a very dubious state’, and in 1784 wrote that it was very uncertain who would be returned. At Leominster, several neighbouring families had an interest but the borough was very jealous of its independence, and it was said in 1767 that if two brothers were to stand at Leominster ‘they must be clear of each other’. Yet political issues do not seem to have counted for much in these constituencies.
Seven of these boroughs had patrons: Bridgwater, Chichester, Lewes, New Windsor, Peterborough, Tamworth, and Warwick; yet none was a pocket borough, and each had at least two contests during this period. These boroughs had placed themselves voluntarily under patronage, usually that of a local magnate, because of the advantages which it brought them, yet in the last resort the patron was unable to enforce his commands. Local men were preferred to strangers, and it was generally understood that the patron would recommend to one seat only. At Chichester, John Page told the Duke of Richmond in 1760 that if he tried to recommend to both seats, he would finish by losing all his influence in the borough þa prediction which was very nearly fulfilled towards the end of this period. At Peterborough, where there were nearly 400 voters, most of them ‘very necessitous people not influenced by anybody’, Lord Rockingham warned his nephew, Lord Fitzwilliam, in 1775: ‘The attempt to have two and keep two will, I should fear, be an endless trouble and expense to you, and perhaps it would be wisest to avoid the temptation.’ In 1780 Lord Warwick provoked a revolt against his interest at Warwick by putting up two candidates. And even at Tamworth, where after 1768 the patrons, Lord Townshend and Lord Weymouth, had a very tight control over the borough, there was a large independent party.
The difficulties which could be encountered by the patron of one of these medium-sized scot and lot constituencies under some degree of patronage is well illustrated at Lewes which had an electorate of about 200. From 1754 to 1768 its patron was the Duke of Newcastle, but there was an undercurrent of hostility to Pelham family predominance, especially marked when from 1763 onwards Newcastle began recommending strangers. In January 1767 an agent reported to Newcastle a conversation he had had with a voter of Lewes:
He acknowledges that a spirit has arose among some of his All Saints neighbours not favourable to the election of strangers, and upon that account only ... they would rather have chosen to be represented by some neighbouring gentleman, and in his own mind he could not but think that such a plan would be reasonable and proper, and he could wish to see it brought about at the next election.
At the general election of 1768 Newcastle lost a Member, largely because he withdrew his support from the candidate the town wanted. Deeply hurt by what he called ‘the base and ungrateful behaviour of the town of Lewes’, Newcastle resolved to punish the electors: he would give no plate for the races and provide no entertainments; announced his intention to withdraw the assizes from Lewes; and gave orders to evict his tenants and dismiss his tradesmen who had voted against his candidates. This was displeasing to Thomas Pelham, Newcastle’s cousin and heir to his Sussex estates, who realized it would be the ruin of the Pelham interest at Lewes; and Newcastle’s friend, the Duke of Richmond, also strongly advised against it:
It will be a handle for them to say that your friendship for Lewes was only for the sake of choosing the Members, that you looked upon them as slaves who were not only to obey your orders but to guess your will, that the moment they presumed to think of choosing one gentleman of the town to represent them they were directly to meet with your Grace’s displeasure.
Newcastle relented, and declared that the tenants should remain, provided they would apologize. Most of them did; but the report of Newcastle’s agent shows that some of them also remained obdurate. Thus, James Hutchins, a tailor, would ‘say nothing as to future promises’; and Newcastle’s agent wrote about another voter, Thomas Cripps, a cooper:
Is very unwilling to leave his house, but says he will never acknowledge his being sorry for his manner of voting, because he has declared to his acquaintance that he never would use that expression. Says he will make no absolute promises as to future times, except that he will never be ungrateful.
Here is an aspect of eighteenth century electioneering often ignored: the ability of small men to defy a powerful patron. After Newcastle’s death in November 1768 the Pelham influence declined, and for the remainder of this period one Member at least was always a townsman.
A large Dissenting population, such as there was at Lewes, always provided a leaven of independence in a constituency. Similarly, political issues, when they arose, could be an incentive to throw off what was felt as the yoke of patronage. For example, at Bridgwater in the earlier part of this period three interests contended for the borough, but by 1768 Lord Poulett appeared to have the upper hand. In 1780 a group of electors opposed to the American war invited Charles James Fox to stand on a joint interest with Benjamin Allen, one of the sitting Members. Fox did not appear at the election, nor if he had been elected is it likely that he would have chosen to represent Bridgwater: he stood as the candidate of the Opposition, and those who voted for him presumably did so on political grounds. He was badly defeated; and Allen, his partner, though second on the poll, was unseated in favour of a Government candidate. Nevertheless, what matters is that the patrons had been defied. At the general election of 1784 Fox’s friends in the borough sponsored the candidature of Sir Gilbert Elliot, a prominent member of Fox’s party; but again the effort failed, Elliot receiving only five votes. Distinguished names were not sufficient to carry an election when there was no burning political issue; and in any case much depended on good local leadership and organization.
At New Windsor, on the other hand, the methods of influence and interest were used to serve a political purpose. Windsor was in more senses than one a royal borough, but since the death of the Duke of Cumberland in 1765 royal influence had been in abeyance; and at the dissolution in 1780 both Members belonged to the Opposition. One of them, Admiral Augustus Keppel, was particularly obnoxious to Government, and his defeat would be a great blow to the Opposition. Lord North persuaded Peniston Portlock Powney, a Berkshire landowner, to stand, and promised him financial support; and the King personally canvassed his tradesmen on Powney’s behalf. Keppel was defeated (but by only 16 votes), and George III became the effective patron of New Windsor. At the general election of 1784 candidates who supported Pitt’s Administration were returned, and in 1787 a Government candidate who had no connexion at all with the borough.
The fourth group comprised the 27 corporation boroughs, those in which the right of voting was confined to the corporation (one of them, Banbury, being a single Member constituency) and in none did the electorate exceed 60. It might be supposed that a closed, self-recruiting corporation, composed for the most part of small tradesmen and professional men, would be peculiarly liable to the influence of a patron; and in fact fifteen were pocket boroughs (Banbury, Brackley, Buckingham, Calne, Christchurch, Droitwich, Harwich, Lostwithiel, Marlborough, New Romney, Newton, Thetford, Tiverton, Truro, and Wilton). In thirteen of these there was no contest during this period, and the patron was usually a neighbouring country gentleman or peer, seated within almost walking distance of the borough: Lord Guilford at Banbury, Lord Temple at Buckingham, Lord Shelburne at Calne, the Duke of Grafton at Thetford, etc. Harwich was a Treasury borough, the majority of the corporation being composed of revenue or post office officials; and even after the passing of Crewe’s Act disfranchising the revenue officers in 1782 the Treasury remained in control.
The methods by which a patron maintained his interest in a corporation borough were many and various. Lord Pembroke packed the corporation of Wilton with his relatives and friends. Lord Shelburne owned extensive property in and around Calne and was lord of two adjoining manors. Lord Bruce (created in 1776 Earl of Ailesbury) employed the tradesmen of Marlborough, contributed to the relief of the poor, and gave prizes for the races (an important source of custom for the shopkeepers). His estate agent was a member of the corporation, and he secured an agreement that no new burgesses were to be created without his consent. To have access to Government patronage was, of course, an advantage but it was by no means essential; several patrons of corporation boroughs (e.g., Temple, Shelburne, Grafton, and Pembroke) were in opposition for long periods without effectively endangering their control.
The two pocket boroughs which were contested were Brackley and Truro. Without care and attention no corporation borough was safe; and local notables, often very much upon their dignity, had to be handled with tact and consideration. In 1754 Brackley seemed to be a complete pocket borough of the Duke of Bridgwater, but at the general election he lost one seat to a total stranger, Thomas Humberston, who bribed a majority of the corporation. Humberston’s success was helped by the fact that the Duke was a minor and absent on the grand tour: minors and absentees were fair game for borough adventurers. Truro revolted against Lord Falmouth in 1780, complaining that his ‘avarice, increasing with age, hath grossly abused a confidence as complete perhaps as unguarded, disinterested friendship ever placed in man’.
Something of the trouble involved in managing these small corporation boroughs can be seen at New Romney and Tiverton, neither of which went to the poll during this period. Sir Edward Dering at New Romney is said to have let out his property there to the electors of the borough at very easy rents; since he usually sold one of the seats to a Government candidate, he presumably recouped himself that way. His control of the borough had been won in the late 1750’s against fierce competition from Rose Fuller, one of the sitting Members. The object of their attention at New Romney was an almost illiterate old woman named Mrs. Tookey, who had two sons and two nephews in the corporation. In an electorate which never exceeded 40 and was often much less, the change of allegiance of even four voters could be decisive. By outstripping Fuller in flattery and blandishments to Mrs. Tookey, and by encouraging her wishes for the social advancement of her family, Dering secured the support of her relatives and with it control over the corporation.
At Tiverton personal rivalries, the opposition between the Anglican-dominated corporation and the Dissenters, and economic troubles in the cloth-making industry, combined to present a very confusing electoral picture. The chief interest in 1754 was in Oliver Peard, the most considerable merchant in Tiverton and receiver of the land tax for Devon. Most of the corporation were clothiers, and by lending money to them and allowing arrears of tax to accumulate, Peard secured the controlling interest in the borough. On his death in 1764 the Baring brothers, rich Exeter merchants and bankers, aspired to his office and influence; and the corporation were divided among themselves. The more considerable merchants
did not approve electing any man into the corporation ... by whom they should be kept in as absolute a state of dependence as that from which they had lately been freed; and ... did not think it would be promotive of the trading interest of the town that any merchant should be receiver of the land tax, as it would give an individual the command of large sums of money, a private advantage often exercised heretofore to the injury of other merchants resident in the town, by its being employed to monopolize the trade.
The smaller merchants and the cloth workers, on the other hand, welcomed the Barings who would bring employment to the town; rioting followed their dissensions and troops had to be called in to preserve order. Nathaniel Ryder, M.P. for Tiverton since 1756, formed an alliance with the leading men in the borough; John Duntze, an Exeter clothier, was elected into the corporation; and the receiver’s place was given to an ex-army officer, not engaged in trade. Henceforth Ryder and Duntze jointly controlled the borough, Duntze by bringing trade to the town, and Ryder by financing the cloth merchants when they were in need. Throughout this period the Dissenters agitated for the extension of the franchise to those paying scot and lot, but so long as there was full employment in the cloth-making industry their agitation was never formidable.
Eight corporation boroughs were disputed during this period: Andover, Bodmin, Bury St. Edmunds, Helston, Newport (Isle of Wight), Saltash, Scarborough, and Yarmouth (Isle of Wight). All were to some extent under patronage, yet none was completely closed. At Newport, Yarmouth, and Scarborough the Government had considerable influence, which was usually decisive. At Andover the Earl of Portsmouth recommended one Member, but on the understanding that he left the disposal of the second seat to the corporation. Bury St. Edmunds was disputed between three neighbouring families: the Earls of Bristol, the Dukes of Grafton, and the Davers family; and there were three contests during this period. Scarborough was similarly disputed and in addition had a reputation for venality. ‘The voters of Scarborough are happy in the present situation of things’, wrote a correspondent to the Duke of Rutland in 1787. ‘Three interests, and a contest inevitable!’ Yet in all fairness it should be said that Scarborough stuck to the Rutland family when they were in opposition from 1770 to 1782 and deprived of access to Government patronage. And even in a corporation borough, and a venal one at that, when there was a real political issue it had its weight in elections. At Scarborough in 1784 George Osbaldeston ‘was obliged publicly to explain away’ his support of Charles James Fox ‘previously to his being elected’.
Four corporation boroughs—Malmesbury, Devizes, Salisbury, and Bath—each in its own way maintained some degree of independence, though independence is perhaps too strong a word to describe the political state of Malmesbury, where the families of Howard and Fox long contended for the supremacy. During most of this period the real power in the corporation was Edmund Wilkins, a Malmesbury apothecary, who used his influence first in favour of Lord Suffolk, then of Lord Holland, and finally on his own account. From 1774 Wilkins held the lucrative office of receiver of the land tax for North Wiltshire, and from 1779 to 1782 he had a subsidy from Government of £700 per annum. He maintained his control by paying ten members of the corporation an annual retaining fee of £30 each and exacting from them a bond of £500 as a guarantee of their loyalty. And since he placed the representation of Malmesbury at the disposal of Government, it was naturally counted as a Government borough; and at the general election of 1784 John Robinson, the Government expert on elections, expected Wilkins to return two supporters of Pitt’s Administration. But Wilkins jumped on the wrong band waggon and returned two supporters of the Opposition; however, he soon realized his mistake, and at the by-election of 1789 accepted a candidate recommended by Pitt.
Devizes, Salisbury, and Bath were genuinely open constituencies. Devizes was controlled by substantial clothiers and its representatives were always local men: its recorder or a merchant engaged in the cloth trade; and in 1761 and 1765 it defied the attempts of Sir Samuel Fludyer, probably the richest London clothier, to secure a seat for his brother. Money alone was not a sufficient recommendation at Devizes: indeed, there seems to have been some hostility among the smaller merchants to Fludyer, who, if he had succeeded in getting a foothold, might by his wealth and business connexions have come to dominate the corporation both economically and politically.
The corporation of Salisbury was composed of small gentry and substantial tradesmen; bribery was unknown; local men were always chosen; and it was considered a great honour to represent the city in Parliament. ‘A seat for Salisbury’, wrote Lord Herbert in 1789, ‘is in my opinion a better thing than one in the House of Lords.’ Bath, also, was a dignified and independent constituency, and took pride in having chosen William Pitt as one of its representatives. Sir John Sebright wrote to Pitt on 28 March 1761, shortly after his election:
Conscious of the dignity of their choice and the honour they derive from it, it has been with great difficulty that your electors are persuaded to accept of the customary treats. They think their present election cannot be too distinguishable from all others by rejecting every appearance of interest.
The Members for Bath during this period were either local men or national figures.
To sum up it may be said that in corporation boroughs everything depended on the economic standing of the men who composed the corporation. If they were small men, economically dependent upon a neighbouring peer or country gentleman, they tended to align themselves politically under his lead. If there was no family of sufficient wealth or standing in the vicinity, then the wealthiest man in the corporation would assume the lead, as Peard did at Tiverton or Wilkins at Malmesbury. Only when the members of the corporation were sufficiently well-to-do and imbued with corporate pride and dignity, as at Bath or Salisbury, was the corporation borough able to remain independent.
A burgage is defined in Beatson’s Parliamentary Register as ‘one undivided and indivisible tenement, neither created nor capable of being created within time of memory, which has immemorially given a right of voting’. In other words, the franchise in burgage boroughs was attached to property, not to persons, and could not be increased or diminished; and they were predestined to become pocket boroughs. For if one man owned a majority of the burgages, he was in a position to control the representation of the borough, no matter the size of the electorate; and a Member who could say that he sat by burgage tenure was understood to have an absolutely safe seat. It was the usual practice in burgage boroughs to keep the houses empty until shortly before an election, when the patron would convey them to friends or dependants who would return the conveyances to him after the election was over. Boroughs were handed down from father to son like family heirlooms, or bought and sold, like other kinds of landed property, with the parliamentary representation allowed for in the purchase price. Thus in 1779 Sir Robert Clayton sold his burgage houses at Bletchingley for £10,000, though their intrinsic worth was only about £100 per annum; they comprised, however, all the burgages in the borough and thus gave their owner complete control over its parliamentary representation.
Even so, there were factors which made burgage boroughs not quite as safe as they appeared to be. Occasional conveyances for the purposes of elections were frowned upon by the House of Commons, and were attended with all sorts of legal difficulties. In the larger boroughs particularly, not all the burgages were held by the patron, and where there were real voters in a borough their goodwill had to be won. There was no contest at Malton throughout this period, but Lord Rockingham, the patron of the borough, always made his Members attend their election. At Horsham, Lord Irwin owned a majority of the burgages, but the returning officers were chosen at the court leet of the lord of the manor, the Duke of Norfolk. At Newport (Cornwall) the right of election was in burgage holders paying scot and lot, which meant that the voters had to be resident; and at Newtown they had to be freemen. Even burgage boroughs, unless they had a very tiny electorate, required care and attention.
During this period there were 29 burgage boroughs in England, with electorates ranging from 300 at Malton to seven at Old Sarum. Eight were in Yorkshire (out of fourteen boroughs in that county) and six in Wiltshire; the remainder were spread over ten counties. (Cornwall, pre-eminently a county of small boroughs, contained only one burgage borough.) By 1754 thirteen of these boroughs had become completely closed and in these there were no contests throughout this period. In eight boroughs both seats were under the control of one patron (though the patrons changed through inheritance and sale of property): Bletchingley, Boroughbridge, East Grinstead, Horsham, Malton, Old Sarum, Ripon, and Thirsk; in a further five the representation was shared between two patrons: Bere Alston (until 1780), Midhurst (until 1761), Northallerton, Richmond (until 1761), and Whitchurch (until 1774). No patron controlled more than one borough.
Four other boroughs were also to all intents and purposes closed, but because of peculiar circumstances there was a contest in each. At Petersfield in 1761 Edward Gibbon the historian challenged the hold of the Jolliffe family on the borough, in the belief that John Jolliffe, who had conveyed his burgages to his wife, could not legally re-convey them to dummy voters; but Gibbon did not proceed to the poll. In 1774 John Luttrell stood a poll, and on petition to the House of Commons unsuccessfully questioned Jolliffe’s right to convey the burgages. At Knaresborough in 1784 Sir John Coghill and Bacon Frank opposed the Duke of Devonshire’s candidates, contending that the right of election should be in the resident householders. An attempt was made at Heytesbury in 1754 to challenge the A’Court family’s control of the borough, and though it was foredoomed to failure it caused the family considerable uneasiness.
These were pitfalls which might entrap any borough patron, and generally their only result was to tighten the patron’s hold on the borough. The misfortune which befell Assheton Curzon at Clitheroe in 1780 was unique during this period: a deliberate attempt by one partner to cheat the other out of his share in the representation of the borough. Curzon and Thomas Lister held jointly 53 out of the 102 burgages and recommended to one seat each. But in 1780 Lister refused to agree to the conveyance of the joint burgages, and, having a majority of the remainder, proceeded to recommend to both seats. He deprived Curzon ‘of the natural advantages of his property’ without in any way changing the nature of the borough—a trick hard to justify by eighteenth century standards.
Of the remaining burgage boroughs, eight had contests: Appleby, Bramber, Cockermouth, Great Bedwyn, Newport (Cornwall), Newtown, Weobley, and Westbury; but by 1790 all were closed. At Westbury the Earl of Abingdon owned a majority of the burgages, but in 1754 his control of the borough was very insecure because the burgages were let on long leases. ‘As most of the tenants were poor’, wrote Abingdon’s attorney, ‘it afforded great scope for any adventurer to fight his Lordship with his own weapons.’ In the 1760’s the 4th Earl of Abingdon closed the borough by buying most of the independent burgages, packing the corporation with his own friends and dependants, and keeping the burgages unoccupied until shortly before an election.
Cockermouth and Appleby were both the objects of take-over operations by Sir James Lowther, whose electoral activities often resembled the business deals of a modern financial magnate. Cockermouth had about 280 burgages, and when Lowther began his campaign in September 1756 he held only 24, while his rival, Lord Egremont, had 80. Lowther’s tactics were masterly: he began by accusing his rival of the very thing he intended to do himself, namely of trying to close the borough, and appealed to the proprietors to join their burgages ‘into one common flock’, the better to resist Egremont, offering £120 for each burgage. When the proprietors held back, hoping for a better price, Lowther’s agents spread the rumour that he intended to buy only a limited number, and the poorer proprietors rushed to sell. Egremont’s agent thereupon proposed to buy twenty burgages at £500 each, but only seven were now available at that price. With Egremont falling back in the race and the price having increased, the more well-to-do proprietors began to sell; obviously, once Lowther had a majority the price would drop, and those smaller proprietors who had hitherto supported the Egremont interest now hastened to offer their burgages to Lowther. In a little over a fortnight Lowther had bought 134 burgages, at a cost of over £58,000, and had gained complete control of the borough.
A similar attempt by Lowther to take over Lord Thanet’s interest at Appleby was unsuccessful. At the beginning of 1754, when Lowther began to increase his burgage holding in the borough, Thanet retaliated, and purchased 65 burgages at a cost of over £18,000. He now held over 100, out of a total of 150, and could face the forthcoming general election with confidence. But he had paid dear to preserve his interest. ‘All his pretended friends’, wrote Lowther’s agent, ‘have obliged him to buy burgages at most exorbitant prices’; and Thanet himself admitted that he had been ‘made a prey of by a parcel of designing, avaricious scoundrels’ who had ‘no other interest at heart than that of enriching themselves’. At the general election Thanet carried his candidates against Lowther’s, and after protracted negotiations a compromise was reached whereby each patron agreed to nominate to one seat.
Ashburton was controlled for most of this period by Lady Orford and Robert Palk, but their joint interest was not overwhelming and there were contests in 1761 and 1784. Downton was contested five times between 1774 and 1784: if elections at Cockermouth and Appleby can be compared to deals on the stock exchange, those at Downton were more like the successive stages of a complicated lawsuit. The origin of the disputes at Downton can be traced to the will of Anthony Duncombe, Lord Feversham, who controlled the borough until his death in 1763. Feversham left his burgages partly to his distant cousin, Thomas Duncombe, and partly to his daughter Anne (who married Jacob Bouverie, 2nd Earl of Radnor); but the injunction that Anne’s burgages should be sold, and Duncombe given the first refusal, was overruled in Chancery. Hence arose a struggle between Duncombe and Radnor for control of Downton, which was still undecided in 1790. A similar, but much shorter, dispute over the provisions of a will arose at Heytesbury. In 1768 Pierce A’Court Ashe, who controlled Heytesbury, was persuaded by his wife to alter his will and leave the burgages to her, instead of to his nephew. After A’Court Ashe’s death, she sold the burgages to the Duke of Marlborough, who henceforth was able to nominate one Member.
The only burgage borough which could genuinely be described as open was Chippenham, where no single patron held sufficient burgages to reduce the smaller holders to insignificance. Moreover, these smaller holders were in the main substantial merchants and gentry, who banded together to keep the borough open. Though there was no contest during this period, elections cost money; and in 1790 the principal burgage owners signed an agreement with the corporation by which they were to make no new purchases and were to grant to their tenants leases of at least seven years.
Pontefract was a burgage borough until 1783, when the House of Commons determined that the right of election was in the inhabitant householders; and its story is an interesting example of the vicissitudes of borough owners if they insisted too strongly on the rights of property. Pontefract had about 325 burgages, and the patrons in 1754, George Morton Pitt and Lord Galway, had just about a majority between them. Most of the remainder were held in ones or twos by residents of the borough. Pitt and Galway worked closely together; and it was their custom at elections not to put in dummy voters but to canvass the electors, treat the inhabitants, and in general cultivate the goodwill of the independent burgage holders. It was expensive but it was worth it, for until 1768 no opposition was offered to the proprietary interest.
In 1766 Pitt’s burgages in Pontefract were bought by John Walsh, a nabob and friend and relative of Clive. Imbued with something of the spirit of an Eastern tyrant, he determined to treat Pontefract with a masterly hand and persuaded Galway to fall in with his plans: there was to be an end of canvassing and treating, and faggot voters were to be put in shortly before the election. Pontefract was to have a master and Pontefract did not like it: Lord Rockingham, who knew something of the independent spirit of Yorkshiremen, could have told Walsh he was heading for trouble. The burgage holders and the voteless populace alike, deprived of their election perquisites, resented Walsh’s behaviour; and at the general election of 1768 they persuaded Sir Rowland Winn, a local landowner, and his brother, to stand against the proprietary candidates. On election day the mob intervened, blocked up the entrance to the polling booth, kept out the faggot voters, and forced the mayor to return Galway (whom they acquitted of all offence) and Winn. The House of Commons declared the election void, and at a by-election in December 1768 the proprietary candidates were returned. But the fight went on, and in 1774 Charles James Fox and James Hare were persuaded to stand on the inhabitant householder franchise. Of course they lost, and the Commons confirmed the right of election to be in burgage holders. But in 1783 this decision was reversed and Pontefract ceased to be a burgage borough. By insisting too strongly on his proprietary rights, Walsh lost them altogether.
In brief, the position in the burgage boroughs was this: seventeen were closed by the time this period began and eight became so before it ended; three were to some extent open; and one had ceased to be a burgage borough by 1790. In none did an outsider without property in the borough stand any chance, unless he came with the recommendation of a patron; and in none did political issues count: these constituencies were impervious to public opinion, except as it affected the patron. Yet it should be remembered that both Charles James Fox and the younger Pitt first entered Parliament for a burgage borough; and Edmund Burke, after being rejected in 1780 by the electors of Bristol, found his way back to the House through the votes of the burgage holders of Malton. There was, after all, something to be said for the burgage boroughs.
The last group of English boroughs, the freeholder boroughs, comprised six constituencies: Cricklade, Haslemere, Ludgershall, Reigate, Tavistock, and the double constituency of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis (which returned four Members). None had electorates larger than 300, and they are best regarded as an appendage to the burgage boroughs. The right of voting lay with the freeholders, and if one person owned a sufficient number of freeholds he could control the borough with as much ease as if it were burgage tenure. Richard Rigby, thanking the Duke of Bedford for his election at Tavistock in 1754, wrote: ‘There does not seem to be a single negative to your will in the whole town, nor would it be very safe in any one to offer it.’ Ludgershall, Reigate, Tavistock, and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis were pocket boroughs, and in none of them was there a contest during this period. At Ludgershall there was some stirring of opposition, caused by the refusal of its patron, George Augustus Selwyn, to put himself to any trouble about the borough; but the storm did not break until the general election of 1790. At Weymouth and Melcombe Regis the Government had some influence, and the patrons habitually placed two seats at the Government’s disposal. With these qualifications, these four boroughs may be regarded as private possessions of their respective patrons.
At Haslemere the property was divided between four families, and there was a contest at each general election between 1754 and 1774. Following the death of Thomas More Molyneux in 1776 his property at Haslemere was bought by a Guildford attorney named Chandler, who soon added to it the estate of Philip Carteret Webb, another of the would-be patrons of the borough. Chandler now held sufficient freeholds to give him complete control, but he was concerned more to make a profit on the deal than to build up a parliamentary interest, and in 1780 he sold the freeholds to Sir James Lowther. It was a smart piece of business on Chandler’s part and effectively put a stop to contested elections at Haslemere, henceforth part of Lowther’s electoral empire.
The one freeholder borough not closed during this period was Cricklade. Cricklade had a unique franchise, which included copyholders and leaseholders as well as freeholders. No one owned sufficient property to control the borough and there were eight contests during this period. The franchise reached down into the lower levels of the population, and Cricklade had a well-deserved reputation for venality. The size of the electorate—about 200 voters-tempted would-be patrons; and in about 1780 the borough became a haunt of nabobs.
The sad story of Samuel Petrie, who repeatedly contested Cricklade between 1775 and 1790, shows the difficulties facing a champion of pure elections in a corrupt constituency. Petrie, when he first stood for Cricklade in 1775, took his friend John Wilkes to help with the canvass. Wilkes, however, ‘had not canvassed an hour ... before he discovered how the pulse of the voters beat’—‘Sam’, he is reported to have said to Petrie, ‘Wilkes and liberty will not do here. I see it must be hard money.’ And so it proved, for Petrie obtained only six votes. Nothing daunted, he stood again at the general election of 1780 against two wealthy East Indians, and this time got eleven votes. Not at all disappointed, for he had never really expected success, Petrie petitioned the House of Commons, and began actions for bribery against his opponents. This time he was successful beyond his expectations, for not only was one of the elected candidates unseated but Parliament passed a bill to enlarge the constituency by including in it the freeholders of the neighbouring hundreds. Cricklade thereupon ceased to be a small corrupt borough constituency; its electorate increased to about 1,000, and it became virtually a miniature county. Poor Petrie, who had ousted the nabobs, found their place taken by even more formidable competitors—independent country gentlemen. ‘My complaint to the House of Commons ... having produced this Act’, he wrote, ‘I thought my claim upon the new class of electors irresistible, and that avowing myself a candidate was of itself sufficient to ensure me the certainty of their franchise.’ But at the by-election of 1782 he was forced to decline on the second day of the poll, and at the general election of 1784 he received so little support that he withdrew. To add to the irony of the story, at these two elections most of his following came from the corrupt electors of Cricklade, against whom his battle for pure elections had been waged.
The franchise in the two universities was the same—in doctors and masters of arts, and at each it appears that about 500 actually voted, but as votes had to be cast in person it is probable that the number entitled to vote was higher. In addition, in both constituencies the representatives had to be members of the university. But apart from having the same kind of electoral structure, the two universities were as different as could be: Cambridge had a Whig tradition and Oxford a Tory, and these differences continued even after these names had lost their party connotation.
At Cambridge the chancellor had considerable influence and Government candidates were welcomed. The Duke of Newcastle, chancellor until his death in 1768, ran the university almost as if it were a Sussex borough; his successor, the Duke of Grafton, also thought himself entitled to recommend the representatives; and in 1784 William Pitt, first lord of the Treasury, was elected Member for Cambridge University. Oxford, however, was exceedingly jealous of its independence and Government candidates were not welcomed: candidates were not allowed to canvass, nor were they even admitted into the town while the election was in progress. Lord North, who for ten years held the offices of chancellor of the university and first lord of the Treasury, had never the influence at Oxford that Newcastle, or even Grafton, had at Cambridge. Cambridge returned prominent politicians such as Charles Yorke, William de Grey, and William Pitt; dependants of the chancellor, such as Edward Finch and Richard Croftes; and heirs to dukedoms, such as Lord Granby and Lord Euston; but every Member for Oxford University during this period was a squire from the Midlands, of little consequence in the House of Commons. Members for Oxford University had to be warm defenders of the privileges of the Church of England and independent of Administration; at Cambridge, especially during the last ten years of this period, elections tended to be fought on party lines.
The twelve Welsh counties each returned one Member to Parliament and the franchise was the same as in the English counties. In size of electorate they ranged from Caernarvonshire, with about 500 voters, to Denbighshire and Pembrokeshire, with about 2,000. Four had electorates below 1,000, and six had between 1,000 and 1,500. Electorally, therefore, the Welsh counties were smaller than the English, but otherwise a good deal that has been said about the English counties applies also to the Welsh; and in both countries the county representation was dominated by the landed classes. Contests were not frequent. Anglesey had four during this period; Pembrokeshire three; Caernarvonshire and Radnorshire two; five counties had one; and three (Cardiganshire, Denbighshire, and Flintshire) none.
In one important respect English and Welsh counties differed. The rivalry between gentry and peerage families, which was so marked a feature of English county politics, was altogether absent in Wales. Many of the leading Welsh families, whose estates would have entitled them to a peerage, such as the Morgans of Tredegar, the Wynns of Wynnstay, or the Owens of Orielton, had remained commoners. Others, such as the Philippses of Picton Castle, the Vaughans of Crosswood, or the Bulkeleys of Baron Hill, had accepted Irish peerages, and were eligible to sit in the British House of Commons. Only one son of a British peer sat for a Welsh county during this period: James Brydges, Marquess of Carnarvon, who represented Radnorshire 1761-1768; and he was an Englishman with but a peripheral interest in Wales.
The Welsh counties were exclusively the preserve of the country gentlemen and contests in them were struggles for local supremacy, fought with little reference to national politics. There does not seem to be a single Welsh county Member who owed his seat in any degree to the attitude he took at Westminster. Obviously the Welsh freeholders were much more amenable to their landlords than were the English, and the lesser gentry tended to follow the lead of the greater. The one occasion when a Welsh county Member was challenged for his political attitude was in 1784, when Sir Roger Mostyn, M.P. for Flintshire, was criticized for voting with the Fox-North party and against parliamentary reform. But Mostyn and his father had represented Flintshire unopposed since 1747, and no other candidate appeared at the general election of 1784. It is this absence of political content which makes Welsh county elections so lacking in savour—for no matter what a Welsh Member did at Westminster, it hardly affected his standing with his constituents. The Welsh county electors were far less politically conscious than the English, and the rural radicalism which began in England about 1780 found little support in Wales.
Four Welsh counties were entirely the preserves of one family: Breconshire, of the Morgans of Tredegar; Denbighshire, of the Wynns of Wynnstay; Flintshire, of the Mostyns of Mostyn; and Merioneth, of the Vaughans of Corsygedol. The only contests in these counties, in Breconshire in 1754 and in Merioneth in 1774, merely served to confirm the ruling family’s supremacy. In Caernarvonshire the Wynns of Glynllivon lost their dominant position, largely through their own fault, when the Bulkeley interest was revived after Lord Bulkeley came of age in 1773. Montgomeryshire was fought over by the Wynns of Wynnstay and the Herberts of Powis Castle; and Pembrokeshire by the Owens of Orielton and the Philippses of Picton Castle. In the remaining five Welsh counties (Anglesey, Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Glamorgan, and Radnorshire), electoral struggles were more complicated. There were in these counties three or four families all with an equal claim to the county representation, and the choice of a Member was often the result of a complicated series of negotiations, alliances, betrayals, and compromises.
The Welsh borough constituencies returned twelve Members of Parliament—one for each constituency. Five of them were single boroughs (Beaumaris, Brecon, Carmarthen, Montgomery, and Haverfordwest); and the remaining seven were groups of boroughs united for electoral purposes. The group constituencies of Caernarvon, Denbigh, and Pembroke each contained three boroughs; while Cardigan contained four, Flint and New Radnor five, and Cardiff eight.
To deal first with the single boroughs. At Beaumaris the right of election was in the corporation; at Carmarthen and Montgomery, in the freemen; and at Brecon, in the resident freemen. The electorate in each of these four did not exceed 100. At Haverfordwest the right of election was in the freeholders, freemen, and inhabitants paying scot and lot; and the electorate numbered about 500. One thing was common to these constituencies: they were almost complete pocket boroughs of neighbouring families. Beaumaris, Brecon, and Montgomery were entirely so, and were not contested during this period. At Haverfordwest there were two interests: those of William Edwardes of Johnston and of the Philipps family of Picton Castle; and it was understood that Edwardes should represent the borough on condition that he gave his support to the Philipps candidate in Pembrokeshire. There was no contest at Haverfordwest during this period, but from 1784 to 1786 Edwardes temporarily lost the seat to Richard Philipps, Lord Milford, who had been defeated for the county. The only one of these five boroughs which went to the poll during this period was Carmarthen, and that only served to confirm the hold of its patron, Griffith Philipps.
In six of the seven groups of boroughs the franchise was in the freemen or resident freemen; in Flint Boroughs it was in inhabitants paying scot and lot. The number of voters in these constituencies is not easy to determine, since it varied even within a constituency owing to the practice of creating new freemen when an election was imminent. The lowest number who polled during this period was 820 at New Radnor in 1774; the highest, over 3,600 at Cardigan in 1769. It seems probable that none of these constituencies had an electorate of less than 500.
Yet contests were not frequent. There were none in the Cardiff, Denbigh, Pembroke, and Flint groups; one only in the Caernarvon group; two in the Cardigan group; and four in the New Radnor group. There was no essential difference between these constituencies and the single boroughs: patronage, not public opinion, governed their politics. But these, being groups of boroughs, were more difficult to control than the single boroughs. To give one example: the eight boroughs which comprised the Cardiff Boroughs constituency were controlled by four patrons, and it was by adjustment and compromises between them that the representation was decided. The four uncontested constituencies came near to being pocket boroughs; the contest for Caernarvon Boroughs in 1784 was provoked by a quarrel within the Wynn family, which had hitherto controlled it; while at both Cardigan and New Radnor there were a number of families with parliamentary aspirations.
With the exception of Beaumaris, all the Welsh constituencies had, by eighteenth-century standards, large electorates; yet, as in the counties, the parliamentary representation was confined to a few families who lived in or near the constituency. Strangers rarely represented Welsh constituencies, unless they came at the invitation of a patron. The urban middle class, like the independent freeholders in the counties, docilely followed their social superiors. There is not one case during this period of an attempt by the electors to free themselves from the control of a patron, and bribery seems to have been little practised.
The extent to which the leading Welsh families had succeeded in monopolizing parliamentary representation may be seen by the study of one county, Pembrokeshire. Pembrokeshire contained three constituencies: the county (about 2,000 voters), Haverfordwest, and Pembroke Boroughs (each with about 500 voters). These three seats were at the disposal of three families: Owen of Orielton, Philipps of Picton Castle, and Edwardes of Johnston. Pembroke Boroughs was under the influence of Owen, Haverfordwest of Edwardes, while the county was fought over between Owen and Philipps. Every representative for a Pembrokeshire constituency during this period belonged to one of these three families or was a relation by marriage, and no one outside these families ever contested a Pembrokeshire constituency. The social structure of Wales was much more feudal than that of England, and in political development Wales lagged behind: party was not an element in the Welsh electoral scene and radicalism was as yet unknown.
The Scottish representative system was adapted from that in use before 1707 in the Parliament of Scotland, and the franchise had remained unaltered. 27 of the 33 Scottish counties each sent one Member to the House of Commons. Six of the smaller counties were grouped together in pairs and one of each pair alternated with the other in electing Members, Parliament by Parliament: Buteshire and Caithness; Clackmannanshire and Kinrossshire; Nairnshire and Cromartyshire. Thus, of the 45 Members returned by Scottish constituencies, 30 came from the counties—a much higher proportion than in England. But in Scotland the difference in status between the Members for the counties and those for the burghs was by no means so pronounced as in England. Indeed, the representation of the Scottish counties was hardly comparable with that of the English.
Except in Sutherland, which had a unique franchise, the electoral qualification was the same in each county: it belonged to freeholders possessing land valued at 40s. ‘of old extent’, and to owners of land held of the Crown rated at £400 Scots (i.e. about £35 sterling). In Sutherland the right to vote extended also to those who held land of the Earl of Sutherland, so extensive were his estates in this county.
By a 40s. freehold ‘of old extent’ was meant a freehold so valued according to the ancient valuation in use during the middle ages, (though by eighteenth century standards it was worth considerably more). The independent yeomen and smaller landholders were not enfranchised in Scotland, but only men of substantial property and those who held direct from the Crown. This immediate vassalage of the Crown was spoken of as a superiority, and the conveying of property giving the right to vote was known as ‘granting superiorities’. Moreover, the right to vote was attached to the superiority itself: if the property was mortgaged, the mortgagee (or wadsetter) could vote, and persons of large property could subdivide it, creating votes amongst their friends and relations which were known as life-rents.
The right of voting in Scottish county elections thus lay in the hands of a small number of substantial landowners, and in no county did the electorate exceed 200. In the majority of Scottish counties it did not exceed 100. All voters had to be entered on the roll of freeholders, which was made up annually at the Michaelmas head court of the county and immediately before an election. These head court meetings were frequently trials of strength between the contending interests, and it is not too much to say that a Scottish election began immediately after the last one had ended. The date of the election could itself be of critical importance, for a superiority, before it could give the right to vote, had to be held for at least a year and a day. In Dunbartonshire, at the general election of 1780, the sheriff, in the interest of the Duke of Argyll, arranged for the election to be held on 14 September, the day before the voters in the rival Elphinstone interest would be legally qualified. The Elphinstones, by filibustering and irrelevant speeches, prolonged the proceedings until after midnight, and then claimed that their newly-enrolled voters were duly qualified. The sheriff, on the other hand, argued that since the election had to be concluded in one day, he had to presume that the proceedings terminated on 14 September although they actually continued into the early hours of the next day, and accepted the old electoral roll minus the Elphinstone votes.
At the head court meeting the chair was first taken by the person who had last represented the county in Parliament (the commissioner). The court then proceeded to elect a chairman (the praeses) and a clerk. Since the praeses possessed a casting vote, his election was often decisive, as in Aberdeenshire in 1786, or in Stirlingshire at the general election of 1754 when James Campbell was elected by the casting vote of the praeses.
After electing the praeses, the meeting went on to consider the claims of those who had recently acquired the right to vote. The multiplication of votes is a notable feature in many of the Scottish counties during this period. In Ayrshire the electorate more than doubled between 1759 and 1788. In Sutherland it numbered about 10 in 1754; in 1757 the Earl of Sutherland created 23 new votes, and by 1788 there were 34 on the electoral roll. These votes were purely nominal, created by transferring property to reliable dependants. By resort to this device the large landowners were able to swamp the smaller men. In some counties, for example Linlithgowshire in 1784, more than half the number of votes on the roll were said to be fictitious. An Act of 1743 had attempted to curb the practice by compelling a voter, when challenged, to swear on oath that he was the real owner of the property for which he claimed the franchise and had not received it merely for electoral purposes (the trust oath). Though some landlords, like Sir James Grant of Grant in Inverness-shire in 1784 or John Ross Mackye in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in 1768, refused to make use of fictitious votes, the practice increased if anything during the period; and the imposition of the trust oath only disqualified the conscientious. At the Ayrshire election of 1774 five of David Kennedy’s voters refused to take the oath; but all twenty of Sir Adam Fergusson’s nominal voters, having been carefully coached, took the oath, and Fergusson won the election by a majority of thirteen. A decision of the House of Lords, following the Cromartyshire election of 1768, had given what appeared to be a legal sanction to the creation of nominal votes, and attempts to strengthen the law against them were unsuccessful.
The praeses’s decision to admit or reject votes could be challenged in the court of session, from which there lay a right of appeal to the House of Lords. It has been said that if you wish to break the law, take care to be advised by a good solicitor; and certainly electioneering in Scotland during this period was a hazardous business without a lawyer at your elbow. Elections, in fact, were frequently decided in the courts. In the Fife by-election of 1776 James Townsend Oswald defeated John Henderson by one vote (61 to 60), the legality of which was upheld by Lord Auchinleck, James Boswell’s father, in the court of session. Auchinleck, a supporter of Oswald, was accused by Henry Dundas of partiality, and Boswell was so incensed by the charge that he considered challenging Dundas to a duel. When it is remembered that many of the Scottish judges came from families with important electoral interests, the extent to which decisions of the courts of law could determine elections appears one of the most reprehensible features of the Scottish electoral system.
From all this it will be seen that county elections in Scotland in no way resembled those in England, but were more akin to the struggles in an English rotten borough. Public opinion could not express itself, and even property was denied its full weight. Influence in the Scottish counties, when it was not based on fictitious votes, was very largely a matter of the prestige derived from tradition and character. Gilbert Elliot, M.P. for Selkirkshire, wrote in 1760 about the influence of the Duke of Buccleuch in the county: ‘The Buccleuch interest is not so much to be estimated by the votes it can at present command as by the credit ... it bestows upon any candidate it adopts.’ The great influence in Scottish elections of the Duke of Argyll at the beginning of this period and of Henry Dundas at the end, was not due to the extent of their property but to their intimate connexion with Government.
It is no wonder then that Scottish county elections should sometimes descend to the level of farce. At the Cromartyshire election of 1768 the rival candidates, Sir John Gordon and William Pulteney, had six votes each. Gordon as commissioner (he had sat for the county when it was last represented in the Parliament of 1754) took the chair at the election meeting, gave his casting vote to himself for praeses, and having been installed straightway struck off one of Pulteney’s voters. At this stage the election degenerated into a brawl, and finally the meeting split up into two parties, each of which proceeded to elect its own candidate. The sheriff, faced with two candidates both claiming to have won the election, returned Pulteney; but it was only after the House of Lords had confirmed a verdict of the court of session that Pulteney could be certain of his seat.
In the constituency of Orkney and Shetland, where there were only seven voters in 1759, the Shetland landowners had never applied for Scottish charters and therefore did not possess the vote. There were real economic grievances in Orkney, which had their effect on parliamentary elections, though these involved only the larger landowners. At the head court of 1760 only one freeholder turned up, who proceeded to enrol voters opposed to the interest of the Earl of Morton, the patron of the constituency. At the election meeting the following year, the Morton party attended in full force, elected one of their number as praeses, and struck off all the recently enrolled voters. In Linlithgowshire in 1768, when the Earl of Hopetoun’s interest was attacked by the Dundases of Dundas, it was arranged to hold the election three days before one of the voters came of age. These examples are typical of the practices resorted to in Scottish county elections: weighty matters could indeed depend upon trifles.
Six of the Scottish counties were almost complete pocket constituencies, where the patron’s interest was virtually unchallenged: Argyllshire (Duke of Argyll), Banffshire (Earl Fife), Buteshire (Earl of Bute), Dumfriesshire (Duke of Queensberry), Peeblesshire (Earl of March, succeeded in 1778 as 4th Duke of Queensberry), Sutherland (Earl of Sutherland). The largest of these counties, Banffshire, had 120 voters; no other had more than 50, and Buteshire had only 12. Buteshire, with eight of its twelve voters relatives or friends of the Earl of Bute, was more of a closed constituency than many of the English pocket boroughs. In English constituencies, such as Bath and Salisbury, where the right of voting was confined to the corporation, there was far more independence and political feeling than in any of these Scottish pocket constituencies. Nor does this list exhaust the number of Scottish county constituencies where one family was predominant: it only comprises those where a family interest was so powerful as to be almost beyond challenge. In Kinross-shire (about 25 voters) there was a contest for supremacy which ended in about 1778 with the Graham family of Kinross in command of the constituency. There were contested elections in Orkney and Shetland in 1761, 1780, and 1784; but the principal landowner in the constituency (Lord Morton until 1766, and afterwards the Dundases of Kerse) always succeeded in getting his nominee elected. In Kincardineshire and Selkirkshire no election went to the poll during this period. In Edinburghshire (Midlothian) the Dundas family of Arniston and the Duke of Buccleuch between them controlled the county.
In the remaining Scottish counties the electoral picture was uniform. There were in each constituency at least two families, but usually three or more, with claims to the representation, and elections were won by creating a broad-based combination of interests. Alliances and counter-alliances were made, broke down, and were reformed, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. At one election, A and B would join against C; next, A and C against B; or perhaps A, B, and C would all unite against an outsider D. Family connexions and traditional rivalries determined these combinations and overrode differences on national politics. Here are some examples. In Berwickshire, the Humes, Earls of Marchmont, and the Homes, Earls of Home, were deadly rivals, and almost everyone with any interest in the county was on one side or the other. In Ayrshire, there were three peers, the Earls of Loudoun, Eglintoun, and Cassillis, whose divisions were the stuff of Ayrshire politics for almost twenty years. In Elginshire, there were at least four families with parliamentary aspirations: the Grants, the Duffs, the Gordons, and the Brodies; and they quarrelled incessantly until a body of independent freeholders formed an association against them in 1783. In Wigtownshire, the Earl of Galloway, the Earl of Stair, and the McDowall family struggled for the representation of the county.
Since there were only fifteen burgh constituencies (including the city of Edinburgh) the opportunity for compromise between county and burgh did not exist in Scotland to the same degree as in England. Instead, the Scots worked out their own system for avoiding expensive contested elections where the interests of the candidates were nicely balanced. One example will explain the nature of these compromises. At the election for Berwickshire in 1780 there were three candidates: Sir John Paterson, standing on the interest of his father-in-law the Earl of Marchmont; Hugh Scott, Marchmont’s grandson, standing in opposition to the Marchmont interest; and Alexander Renton. To ensure Paterson’s defeat, Scott and Renton came to an agreement by which Scott was to stand, with Renton’s full support, and if elected to vacate his seat after four sessions in favour of Renton. Similar electoral compacts are to be found in Haddingtonshire, the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and Renfrewshire; while in Lanarkshire in 1768 Daniel Campbell and John Lockhart Ross drew lots as to who should oppose the Duke of Hamilton’s candidate. The practice was strictly illegal, and if brought to the notice of the House of Commons resulted in the election being declared void. Following the Kirkcudbright election of 1780, when John Gordon of Kenmure and Colonel Alexander Stewart had made a compact of this nature, counsel for the third candidate, Peter Johnston, argued before the House of Commons committee which tried the election petition:
If such a practice were allowed, it would soon run all over Scotland. The English Members were indeed too apt to be dull and idle, and many of them slept away seven whole years. But the Scotch Members were ... of an active and bustling disposition and could do very pretty things in three or four years; so that when a bargain was struck up between two persons, one had only to go to Parliament for three years and get a snug thing, and then return to Scotland and send his partner to come up to London and do the same thing.
This in effect is what happened at the Wigtownshire election of 1784, when Andrew McDowall gave his interest to Keith Stewart, brother of the Earl of Galloway, on condition that if Stewart was appointed to the office of receiver-general of the land tax for Scotland (which would compel him to vacate his seat in the House), the Galloway interest would be given to a candidate nominated by McDowall. At the Kirkcudbright election of 1784 three candidates agreed to an electoral compact by which each was to hold the seat for two years, but because of unforeseen circumstances the arrangement did not work out as planned.
The electorates in the Scottish counties being so small, and almost all the voters being of the educated classes (and therefore eligible for Government appointments), the influence of Government in the Scottish county elections was considerable. William Adam wrote about the electors of Argyllshire in the survey of Scottish constituencies which he drew up for the Opposition in 1788:
The greatest part of them have very near connexions in the army or navy. Many of them are active, enterprising men, desirous of promotion, and the Duke [of Argyll] it is thought would be in a very troublesome situation unless he was acting with Administration.
‘The weight of Administration is great in this county’, wrote a prospective candidate for Edinburghshire in 1764; and John Robinson wrote about Kirkcudbright in his survey for the general election of 1774: ‘It is thought whichever [candidate] has the support of Government, he will carry the election, as the numbers run very near.’
To the statement that Government had considerable influence in Scottish county elections must be added one qualification: before 1782 (and especially during the period of North’s Administration) most Scottish Members voted regularly with Government as Government, irrespective of which group or party was in power; and at a contested election it was immaterial to Government which candidate was elected. The following extracts from Robinson’s survey for the general election of 1780 give examples:
|Berwickshire:||[After naming the candidates]: Whichever of these gentlemen come in will be a friend.|
|Haddingtonshire:||Whichever is returned will be a friend.|
|Kirkcudbright Stewartry:||The same to Government whoever succeeds.|
|Roxburghshire:||A contest. Issue uncertain, but whichever way a friend.|
When a contest threatened and all the candidates were Government supporters, it was embarrassing to give the Government interest to one candidate at the expense of the others. Lord Suffolk wrote to the Duchess of Hamilton in 1774 about the contest for Lanarkshire: ‘Administration for the most part does not choose to take an active and decided part in the contentions between great families ... equally well inclined to Government.’ After 1782, as will be seen later, party reared its ugly head among the Scottish Members as among the English, and Government began to take a more decided part in Scottish elections.
Yet it must not be supposed that the Scottish county electors were all robots, moving automatically according to the whims of great landlords, or disposing of their votes for Government favours. There is plenty of evidence to show that the Scottish voters could be just as independently minded as the English, and that in Scotland, as in England, tradition and family allegiances, rather than the weight of property, governed the pattern of voting. The voters of Inverness-shire in 1761 elected as their Member Simon Fraser, son of the Jacobite leader Lord Lovat, in defiance of the wishes of the Duke of Argyll, the Government electoral manager for Scotland, and the Duke of Newcastle, first lord of the Treasury. And when a great landowner was too insistent on his rights, or had made himself unpopular, or combined with others to dominate the county, the freeholders were apt to remember that they were independent electors. When in 1774 the three most powerful peers in Ayrshire, Lords Loudoun, Eglintoun, and Cassillis, joined in support of the candidature of David Kennedy, a considerable opposition was provoked, and an alternative candidate, Sir Adam Fergusson, set up. An elector warned Loudoun: ‘Such a county as Ayrshire will not allow any Member fixed upon in private by a few to be forced on them.’ The ‘triple alliance’, Lord Auchinleck told Kennedy, would mean ‘the annihilation of the gentlemen’s interest’. The independent freeholders found support from the Duke of Buccleuch; copied the example of the ‘triple alliance’ by creating twenty nominal votes; and succeeded in getting their man elected.
The opposition to Lord Marchmont in Berwickshire in 1780 was provoked by his choosing an unpopular man as his candidate. When a contest threatened in Perthshire in 1760 between two members of the Duke of Atholl’s family, Lord Breadalbane wrote to Lord Hardwicke: ‘A great many gentlemen of consideration dislike them both, that is to say they want to get out of the hands of that family.’ Most remarkable of all is the association formed in Elginshire in 1783 to campaign against the creation of nominal voters. They presented a petition to Parliament complaining that three-quarters of the electors on the Elginshire roll had no property in the county but were ‘in servile dependence’ upon a few ‘overgrown proprietors and lords superior’. At the general election of 1784 the association sponsored a candidate against one put up by the ‘overgrown proprietors’, but were defeated. As will be seen in the section on the Scottish Members (p.172), there were plenty of independent men in Scotland, but the electoral system did not permit them to exercise their full influence in the constituencies.
With the exception of Edinburgh, the Scottish burghs were combined in groups for the purpose of electing Members of Parliament: there were fourteen groups or districts, five of them having four burghs and nine having five burghs. The system of indirect election followed in them was unique in the eighteenth-century Parliament. At a parliamentary election every burgh council elected a delegate, and the delegates of each group then met together and elected the Member of Parliament. The elections to successive Parliaments were held at each burgh in the group in turn as the presiding or returning burgh for that general election and any by-elections which should occur. For convenience the fourteen constituencies (the groups or districts of burghs) are known in this History by the name of the burgh which was the returning burgh for the first Parliament after the Union.
In every group of burghs there were five votes (in groups of four burghs the returning burgh had a second vote which it could use in the case of a tie). Whoever, therefore, controlled three out of five burghs or two out of four (including the returning burgh), controlled the constituency. The burgh councils were small (none had more than 33 members and most not more than 20), and sensitive to the familiar pressures of influence and bribery, but the influencing and bribing had to be carried on in two or three burghs simultaneously. The prime object was to ensure that the councils elected suitable delegates; what followed afterwards, when the delegates met to elect the Member of Parliament, was usually no more than a formality. For this reason the Scottish burgh constituencies are omitted from our consideration of contested elections in the second section of this introductory survey. Some burghs, such as those in the constituencies of Anstruther Easter or Tain, were tiny places, little more than villages, whose political interests did not extend much beyond their own boundaries, and where the Parliament at Westminster seemed a very remote body indeed. Glasgow, already at the beginning of this period a populous trading and manufacturing city, was yoked for parliamentary purposes with four small burghs, who could out-vote it at election time.
In about half of these constituencies money counted for more than anything else in deciding elections, but the money was used rather to bribe the councils than to bribe individual voters. Thus in the Anstruther Easter group, where the by-election of 1766 was a contest between the Anstruther and the Erskine families, each of the burghs put itself up for auction with the object of paying off its municipal debts. Lord Kintore wrote about Elgin and Banff, in the constituency of Elgin Burghs: ‘They depend on no particular person, but are determined sometimes one way, sometimes another, from different motives, and generally the candidate who gives the most money has the best chance of their votes’; and Andrew Mitchell, when elected in 1755, made a contribution of £300 to the Elgin burgh finances. ‘These burghs’, wrote Robinson about the Perth group in his survey for the general election of 1774, ‘are very open, venal, and expensive, and few choose to engage in them’—a conclusion which would have been shared (at least as to the first part) by Thomas Leslie and George Dempster, the two Members who represented the constituency during this period. The constituencies of Dysart, Haddington, Linlithgow, and Stirling, all contained venal burghs; and Archibald Campbell, returned for Stirling Burghs after a hard contest in 1774, is said to have spent over £17,000 on his election.
A burgh found guilty of flagrant corruption could be temporarily disfranchised by order of the court of session, which would mean that there would be an election for a new burgh council and the burgh would not be allowed to send a delegate to the next general election. This occurred four times during our period: Inverkeithing (Stirling Burghs) was disfranchised in 1760; Pittenweem (Anstruther Easter Burghs) in 1767; Jedburgh (Haddington Burghs) in 1768; and Stirling (Stirling Burghs) in 1774. The disfranchisement of Jedburgh, which should have been the returning burgh at the general election of 1768, led to fierce disputes, for with the constituency of Haddington Burghs now reduced to four burghs, everything depended on which should be the returning burgh. Dunbar and Lauder both claimed it was their turn, and Haddington prudently nominated three delegates so as to be prepared for all eventualities. In the end, two elections were held, one at Dunbar and one at Jedburgh, and two returns made to the House of Commons, for the sheriff of Haddingtonshire accepted the return from Dunbar and the sheriff of Roxburghshire that from Jedburgh. On nine occasions during this period the election was decided by the casting vote of the returning burgh: Stirling Burghs and Wigtown Burghs in 1761; Anstruther Easter Burghs in 1766; Haddington Burghs and Inverness Burghs in 1768; Haddington Burghs in 1771; Wigtown Burghs in 1774; Dysart Burghs in 1780; and Glasgow Burghs in 1790. At the election for Inverness Burghs in 1768 Hector Munro and Sir Alexander Grant were the candidates; Munro was elected delegate for Fortrose, the returning burgh, and one can imagine with what pleasure he gave the casting vote for himself—a moment of exaltation which rarely falls to the lot of any candidate for Parliament. And one can imagine also the chagrin of Glasgow, which had been long accustomed to lord it over its four sister burghs, when at the by-election of February 1790 the delegate from Renfrew gave the casting vote against the candidate of the Glasgow council. So annoyed was the Glasgow council that it barely recognized the newly-elected Member John Craufurd, and transacted its parliamentary business through William McDowall, M.P. for Ayrshire. This may, however, have been something of a relief to Craufurd, for Glasgow had a great deal of parliamentary business and made heavy demands on its representative; Lord Frederick Campbell, who sat for Glasgow Burghs from 1761 to 1780, was glad in the end to move to the less exacting constituency of Argyllshire.
Six of the Scottish burgh constituencies can be described as under patronage, though the hold of their patrons was by no means unshakeable: patronage, in this case, merely meant that the constituency would give the patron the first preference provided he continued to look after the constituency to its satisfaction. The Duke of Argyll and the Earl of Bute between them controlled Ayr Burghs, but Ayr itself was a very independent burgh and in 1761 gave much trouble to both patrons: though prepared to yield, it would only do so after a prolonged courtship. In 1774 Argyll had serious doubts whether Bute’s candidate, Sir George Macartney, would be well received in Ayr because he was not a Scotsman; but Bute convinced him that Macartney’s having married Bute’s daughter and possessing a small estate in Scotland would compensate for the deficiency of his having been born in Ireland.
Anstruther Easter Burghs was normally controlled by the Anstruther family, but they lost their hold over the constituency in 1754 and had a hard fight to get it back in 1766. Dumfries Burghs usually elected a Member nominated by the Duke of Queensberry, but his candidate was defeated in 1784. The Duke of Argyll had considerable influence in Glasgow Burghs, but through the neglect of his agents he lost the by-election of 1790. The Duke of Hamilton had considerable interest in Linlithgow Burghs, a very expensive and exacting constituency. The Earl of Galloway controlled two out of the four burghs in the Wigtown constituency, and when either Wigtown or Whithorn was the returning burgh could usually get his man elected. But the Earl of Stair had also a good interest, and in 1784 he won control of Whithorn and was thus enabled to defeat Galloway’s candidate. In short, none of these constituencies was in the English sense a pocket borough, and Government had no influence except through the patrons.
While no Englishman ever represented a Scottish county during this period, six were returned for Scottish burgh constituencies. George Augustus Selwyn was returned by Lord Galloway for Wigtown Burghs in 1768, and on vacating his seat (he had also been elected for Gloucester) was replaced by Chauncy Townsend, a Treasury nominee. In return the Government bought a seat at Ludgershall (Selwyn’s pocket borough) for Lord Garlies, Galloway’s son, who as the eldest son of a Scottish peer was ineligible to sit for a Scottish constituency. Both candidates for Wigtown Burghs in 1774 were Englishmen—a unique occurrence in this period: William Norton on the interest of the Earl of Stair, and Henry Watkin Dashwood, brother-in-law of the Earl of Galloway. Stair hoped that Norton, who had been recommended to him by Sir Lawrence Dundas, would if elected be able to find a seat in England for Lord Dalrymple, Stair’s eldest son. But Norton, elected by the casting vote of New Galloway, was unseated on petition. The other two Englishmen returned for Scottish burgh constituencies were George Damer for Anstruther Easter Burghs in 1778 and Charles James Fox for Tain Burghs in 1784. Fox had also been elected for Westminster, but the returning officer’s decision to hold a scrutiny would have kept him out of the House; his return for Tain Burghs was on the interest of his friend and political follower, Sir Thomas Dundas. In addition to these, George Augustus Selwyn was the unsuccessful candidate on the Duke of Queensberry’s interest in Dumfries Burghs in 1784.
Finally there is Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, the only single burgh constituency north of the Tweed. The contrast between the electoral state of Edinburgh and that of London exemplifies much of the difference between the Scottish and the English representative systems. London (though its franchise was not the widest possible) had about 7,000 electors; Edinburgh had 33—the city council, slightly augmented for electoral purposes. In London, elections were decided in the main by public opinion, while Edinburgh always had a patron: the Duke of Argyll until his death in 1761; the Earl of Bute 1761-1767; Sir Lawrence Dundas 1767-1781; and then Henry Dundas. And there was a radically different approach in the two capitals to political questions. At the election of 1774 one of the candidates for Edinburgh promised never, except on a point of principle, ‘to clog the wheels of Government by voting against the Ministry’. A declaration of this nature by a candidate for London would have ensured his being bottom of the poll—if; after the reception his statement would have received, he had thought it worthwhile to go to the poll. The politics of Edinburgh turned largely on feuds in the council between the trades and the merchants, which were exploited by the politicians for their own advantage. Henry Dundas, who had long been trying to capture Edinburgh, wrote in 1781, shortly after the death of Sir Lawrence Dundas:
The party left by Sir Lawrence Dundas must be broke, and the town of Edinburgh brought under some respectable patronage on which Government can rely, for they must not be permitted to govern the town by a knot of themselves without the interposition of some such patron ... for if they do, the first good opportunity that offers some able individual who leads the rest will sell them to any rich man like Sir Lawrence.
The contempt for the electorate which is clearly expressed in this passage would hardly have been used by an English electoral manager for any but the most abject of rotten boroughs.
The word ‘interest’ has been used frequently in these pages; it will recur over and over again. What exactly was a parliamentary interest in the second half of the eighteenth century? On what basis was it founded and what was needed to cultivate and maintain it? Who were the great borough-mongers of the period, and what use did they make of their parliamentary interest?
An ‘interest’ in a constituency enables a patron or a Member of Parliament to influence the political conduct of the electors. Today it depends primarily on party feeling, and secondly on the personality of the Member and his relations with his constituency party. In the second half of the eighteenth century it resulted from a combination of three factors: the possession of landed property; services to the constituency; and the goodwill of the electors, which might be traditional or might be acquired.
Sir Francis Basset, the great Cornish borough-monger, in a pamphlet published in 1783 against parliamentary reform, argued that representation in the House of Commons was ‘of property, not of numbers’. The same idea was expressed in a different form by Thomas de Grey in a debate on the Middlesex election, 31 January 1770: the people, he maintained, were not the mass of the population but the ‘men of great property’ with ‘a great stake to lose’. In most constituencies the possession of landed property was an essential qualification for the franchise, and the large landowners seemed the natural representatives of an electorate of small landowners. Lord Rockingham in 1768 described a prospective parliamentary candidate as ‘a very good sort of man ... with a thumping landed property’, and obviously believed that this of itself entitled him to a seat in the House.
The possession of an estate in or near a constituency automatically gave some degree of parliamentary interest, depending on the size of the estate and the nature of the constituency. Sir James Lowther boasted in 1783 that he was ‘the owner of the land, fire, and water’ at Whitehaven, and described it as a town which had grown up under the ‘fostering care’ of his family. Because of this he could rely upon the votes of the inhabitants of Whitehaven in elections for the county of Cumberland, and had Whitehaven sent Members to Parliament it would have been a pocket borough of the Lowther family. Robert, Earl Nugent told the House on 13 April 1780, during a debate on disfranchising the revenue officers, that his seat at St. Mawes was perfectly safe even without their votes. ‘Five-sixths of the borough was his own property, his constituents were his tenants, and he was sure of his election.’ Lord Clive built up his interest at Bishop’s Castle by buying estates until the borough was surrounded by his property. Parliamentary interest acquired through the ownership of property was known in the eighteenth century as a ‘natural’ or ‘family’ interest.
Yet by itself property was rarely sufficient in any but a very small constituency or a burgage borough. It was a base on which to build a parliamentary interest, an essential foundation, but no more. Where there were real voters, they had to be wooed and cajoled; the patron had to show concern for their material welfare and respect their political and social prejudices. The interest derived from property had to be supplemented by services to the electorate. These could take several forms: the patron might become a benefactor to the town and procure Government appointments for its leading citizens, their relatives and friends. Access to Government patronage was a more important factor in the earlier part of the period than at the end, and it was perfectly possible to maintain a parliamentary interest without it. If the patron lived near the constituency he was expected to offer hospitality to the electors, to favour tradesmen with his custom, to help farmers in times of economic depression by reducing their rents, and even sometimes to lend them money. Cultivating a constituency was exacting work, and for a patron to take his interest for granted was the surest way to lose it.
Lord Shelburne wrote in his autobiography with reference to his experiences at the boroughs of Calne and Chipping Wycombe:
Family boroughs (by which I mean boroughs which lie naturally within the reach of cultivation of any house or property) are supposed to cost nothing: but I am sure from my own experience and observation that if examined into they will be found to cost as much as the purchase of any burgage tenure whatever, by means of what I call ‘insensible perspiration’. Like public taxes, the amount is not perceived for a great while, and by some people not at all, because it consists in paying always a little and most commonly a great deal too much on every article, and in every transaction you are confined to a particular set of tradesmen, and often to their connections in town, and can never control their charges. The rents of houses and lands must be governed by the moderation of voters. You must be forthcoming on every occasion, not only of distress, but of fancy, to subscribe too largely to roads, as well as every other project which may be started by the idlest of the people; add to this, livings, favours of all sorts from Government, and stewardships, if there is an intriguing attorney in the town, who under the name of your agent will deprive you of all manner of free agency upon your own property, and sometimes of the property itself, if it is a small one; without mentioning the charge and domestic disorder attending a great deal of obscure hospitality, and a never ceasing management of men and things. And after all, when the crisis comes, you are liable to be outbid by any nabob or adventurer, and you must expect all that you have done to go for nothing, and the most you can look for is a preference.
Sir Charles Hotham, of a leading Yorkshire family, wrote in similar vein:
I cannot help offering it as my most serious and earnest advice to those who shall succeed me to suffer no consideration to induce them to be drawn in to become representatives of Beverley or Scarborough. They are both too near their places of residence, and will entail upon them a slavery and expense that will know no end. If they will be in Parliament ... it should be much farther from home.
If the patron did not live near the constituency (and most patrons resided for part of the year in London), another set of problems confronted him. No constituency could be managed by remote control: an intimate and continuous acquaintance with its affairs was essential. To offer a five pound note to one man might secure his vote; to do the same to another might make an enemy for life. The patron had to know the ambitions and desires of the leading men in the borough, their friendships and enmities, the factions into which they were divided, and how much weight each carried in election affairs. Also, he had to have an agent in the borough, and the maintenance of his interest depended to a considerable degree on the agent’s zeal and fidelity.
The patrons of Okehampton in 1754 were Thomas Pitt and the Duke of Bedford, and the management of the borough was in two branches of the Luxmoore family, local notables in Okehampton. The patrons worked closely together, but there was jealousy and rivalry between the agents and sometimes contempt for their masters. On the death of the 4th Duke of Bedford in 1771 Thomas Pitt junior renewed the agreement with the Duchess of Bedford by which each patron nominated to one seat, and confirmed the arrangements for the choice of mayor and the election of freemen. Pitt’s agent, John Luxmoore of Fair Place, objected to the terms of this agreement; and Pitt wrote to him on 18 February 1771:
I received your letter of the 3rd instant ... I must tell you (and that very seriously) that I have not been used to receive a dictatorial style from any man; you will best judge whether it is a lesson I shall be inclined to learn from you. I am not to ask you whether you are averse or otherwise to any agreement I think fit to make for my peace and happiness; and as to anything further which I may endeavour for the peace, quiet, and harmony of the borough, I shall not think myself obliged to consult your pride, whatever character and figure you may have chosen to assume to yourself in the corporation ... Assure yourself whatever interest I have I desire to have it my own, and not to hold it at the will and discretion of another, who is to give me the law as he thinks proper and fight me with the very weapons I have put into his hands.
Possibly it was dissatisfaction with his agent, and the difficulty of replacing him, that made Pitt sell his estate and parliamentary interest at Okehampton; it was purchased by Lord Clive, and after Clive’s death was sold to Lord Spencer. Despite these changes of ownership, the two agents remained in effective control of Okehampton, and it required repeated coaxing and cajoling by their respective patrons to keep them in good humour and get them to work together. There was a contest in 1780, but the Bedford-Spencer candidates were returned. Then, at the general election of 1784, ‘Esquire’ Luxmoore, the Duke of Bedford’s agent, set up himself and a friend in opposition to the patrons’ candidates. He kept his intentions secret until almost the last moment, and, by persuading his brother the mayor to agree to the creation of thirty-five new freemen, carried both seats. The patrons were furious: they succeeded in having their candidates returned on petition, and after a series of lawsuits Luxmoore’s creation of freemen was declared invalid. But what had hitherto been a safe and comparatively cheap borough was now become an exceedingly insecure and expensive one, and both Bedford and Spencer felt it was no longer worthwhile maintaining their interests at Okehampton. Humphrey Minchin, Spencer’s Member for the borough, wrote to him on 7 November 1787:
I did understand that your Lordship for prudential and undoubtedly right reasons intended to dispose of your Devonshire estate ... I saw great difficulty attending it, because when Okehampton was purchased from Lord Clive it was supposed to be a perfectly secure borough ... but the contested elections, particularly the last, having proved the contrary, it appeared to me that few could be found to pay anything near what it had cost.
My [intentions] with respect to the borough of Okehampton were decidedly not to stand the expense and trouble of another general election there, and if between this time and that I could not find a purchaser for the estate, to take some convenient opportunity of informing the electors that I had no more to say to the borough interest in that place.
Spencer offered his estate to Bedford, who replied that he also intended to sell out. Eventually Spencer found a purchaser, but at a price ‘entirely fixed from a valuation of the estate, without considering at all the borough interest’. That interest, he told his mother, ‘I can consider ... as only a dead weight upon it and a cause of constant expense instead of profit’. Indeed, towards the end of this period there are signs that more than one borough owner was beginning to think his parliamentary interest to be ‘a cause of constant expense instead of profit’.
As well as being concerned for the welfare of the electors, the patron had also to respect the interests of other borough owners. He had to be prepared to compromise, to avoid what Chase Price called ‘the improvident exertion of power’, and not to stretch his claims too far. The electoral agreements which existed in Cornwall and Shropshire at the beginning of this period whereby the Whigs concerned themselves with the boroughs and left the Tories a free hand in the county, are typical of this kind of compromise. So also is the understanding by which a patron recommended to one seat and left the other to the free choice of the electors. ‘When I recommended Major-General Griffin to my friends at Andover’, wrote Lord Portsmouth to Newcastle in 1760, ‘I promised them that I would not interfere farther in the election’—i.e., he would leave the corporation free to decide who should be the second Member. For even in small boroughs consideration had to be paid to the wishes of the electors. James Buller, patron of West Looe (which had about 50 voters), refused Grenville’s recommendation of John Bindley in 1765 because it was popularly believed in Cornwall that Bindley was the originator of the odious cider tax. And at Launceston in 1758 Humphry Morice refused to accept Lord Tylney, a relative of the Duke of Bedford, because Bedford was unpopular in the west of England. ‘That is really not in my power, if it was ever so much my inclination’, he told Tylney. ‘I should lose my interest entirely by doing so.’
The 3rd Duke of Portland and the 2nd Duke of Newcastle, the leading magnates in Nottinghamshire, were on opposite sides politically for most of this period—Newcastle supported North’s Administration and afterwards that of Pitt, while Portland was one of the leaders of the Rockingham party. Yet in electoral affairs this political difference did not count, and they had an understanding that each would support the other against any third interest. When in December 1774 Lord Edward Bentinck, Portland’s brother, was threatened with an opposition in Nottinghamshire, Newcastle wrote to Portland:
The peace of the county, as well as every public and private consideration, makes me most sincerely congratulate your Grace and Lord Edward on Mr. Masters’ declining ... Your Grace will ever find me most desirous and ambitious of cementing the strictest cordiality and friendship between our families.
On his side Portland refused an invitation from Newark in 1769 to set up a candidate against Newcastle’s interest, or to heed a suggestion from William Burke in 1774 that Lord Edward Bentinck would prove a more popular candidate at East Retford than the one Newcastle had recommended. And here is the reason the Duke of Richmond gave Edmund Burke in 1774 for refusing to support Lord Verney in Buckinghamshire against Lord Temple’s candidate:
Although I have no political connexion, I have some remains of old family acquaintance with Lord Temple, and should not choose to offend him so much as I myself should feel at any other person for an endeavour to oppose a family interest. There are few things I would not do to oblige you; but I confess that, not knowing Lord Verney, and having no other reason to wish him better than Lord Temple, except for his friendship for you, I do not think it would be right for me to interfere where I have so literally nothing to say.
Both Richmond and Verney followed the political lead of Lord Rockingham, but political considerations had to give way to electoral interests. As a rule, patrons respected the rights of property and did not interfere in constituencies where they had no concern.
A lasting electoral interest could rarely be built on a foundation of bribery alone. Bribing electors was like paying blackmail: the more was paid, the more was asked. Henry Drummond, the banker, when invited to contest Northampton in 1774 on the interest of his uncle, Lord Northampton, refused to give money to the electors. ‘I ... told them’, he wrote, ‘I never should think a family interest worth preserving that was to be bought by money.’ Boroughs where the electors were to be bought were never safe. John Page, who had represented Great Grimsby 1727-1734, wrote about the borough in 1762:
I am very sure Lord Luxborough’s personal interest is stronger there than any man’s, because they have had more of his money than anybody’s and he has always been punctual to all his engagements ... and yet, should a dashing gentleman go down and offer three or four thousand, Lord Luxborough and Mr. Gore together could not get their man chose for less than was offered by a stranger.
This was only to be expected: for when the patron’s only recommendation was his money, there was no inducement to adhere to him if a candidate prepared to spend more money came along. The venal boroughs—Stockbridge, Hindon, Cricklade, New Shoreham—were boroughs without an established patron and in them elections were really free—corruption, wrote Gibbon in the Decline and Fall, was ‘the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty’. It flourished in boroughs where the electorate was for the most part poor and ill-educated, and where there was neither a patron nor a political issue to determine their voting.
Interest could rarely be measured quantitatively, and the simple statement that a patron commanded a certain number of seats in Parliament can only be accepted with qualifications. Consider, for example, the parliamentary interest of the Duke of Newcastle at the height of his power in about 1760. At Aldborough and Boroughbridge, which he used to call ‘my own two boroughs’, he could nominate the Members and there was no need for them to put in an appearance on election day. But one of the Members had to be Andrew Wilkinson, who managed the boroughs for Newcastle; he had some property of his own in the constituencies and could claim a seat almost in his own right. In Sussex, Newcastle claimed control over nine seats: one for the county, and two each at Lewes, Rye, Hastings, and Seaford. But the county seat had to be filled from the senior branch of the Pelham family; both Lewes and Rye preferred to have Sussex men represent them and grew restive when Newcastle began recommending strangers; and at Hastings and Seaford Newcastle’s influence lasted only so long as he was first lord of the Treasury—they were really Treasury boroughs, managed by him. In Nottinghamshire he could claim three seats: one for the county, one at Newark, and one at East Retford. The occupant of the county seat had to be a Nottinghamshire man, nor were strangers welcome at either Newark or East Retford. In short, only at his two pocket boroughs could Newcastle have safely recommended a stranger, and his ‘command’ extended to no more than three seats. Nor does this enumeration take into account the many compromises and adjustments Newcastle had to make with other patrons before his recommendations could be effective.
Cornwall, with its 21 boroughs, none of which had an electorate of more than 200, was pre-eminently the county of what might be called the professional borough-mongers. In 1754 twenty of its seats in Parliament were controlled by four men: Lord Edgcumbe and Lord Falmouth had six each, Edward Eliot and Humphry Morice had four each. The Cornish borough-mongers usually confined themselves to constituencies in which their families had an hereditary interest; rarely trespassed on each other’s preserves (obviously for fear of reprisals); and usually sold to the Government any seats they did not want for their families or friends. It is doubtful if they made much profit out of their borough transactions; indeed, Edward Eliot told Pitt in 1797 that the money he received for the sale of seats was barely sufficient to cover his expenses. No patron made a fortune out of borough-mongering.
By 1789 a new and formidable rival to the old established interests had entered Cornish borough politics. Sir Francis Basset had filched two seats from Lord Edgcumbe (one at Mitchell and one at Penryn), and two seats from Lord Falmouth (one at Penryn and one at Tregony). Edgcumbe was left with four seats (two at Lostwithiel, one at Bossiney, and one at Fowey). Of these, Fowey had been attacked by Basset, and Bossiney was in a perilous state since the passing of Crewe’s bill disfranchising the revenue officers. Falmouth’s holding had sunk to three (two at Truro and one at Mitchell): he had lost two seats (Penryn and Tregony) to Basset, and had sold his interest at St. Mawes to Lord Buckingham. Eliot alone had increased his seats, to six in 1790 as against four in 1754, by acquiring both seats at Grampound in 1758. Morice had sold the boroughs of Launceston and Newport to the Duke of Northumberland in 1775. In a paper written for Lord North he explained why he had decided to part with his borough interest:
An estate of £1,200 per annum in a manner given up to the supporting the boroughs and £3,000 besides annually expended for that purpose and keeping up the house, etc. The trouble of it, not to say anything of the expense, is more than Mr. Morice can bear with a constitution much impaired by the gout ... He lost a Member last year after all the trouble and expense he had been at, and notwithstanding the established interest he seems to have, he may be worse off next time. In order to keep up his interest he has been obliged to let a steward, who naturally is not any economist, act without control. By this means occasional expenses have been sometimes enormous, and he has done what he pleased in regard of the rest of Mr. Morice’s estates under his care, so that upon this account there is not any calculation to be made of the expense.
The biggest of the aristocratic borough-mongers in 1754 was the Duke of Newcastle, whose parliamentary interest had for fifty years been strengthened by the patronage of Government. On his death in 1768 his landed property passed to his heirs, but much of his parliamentary interest died with him: there was a personal element in borough-mongering which could not be transmitted to a successor. Aldborough, Boroughbridge, East Retford, and Newark passed to Henry, 2nd Duke of Newcastle; but whereas his uncle had controlled both seats at East Retford, he controlled only one. The Pelham estates in Sussex were inherited by the old Duke’s cousin, Thomas, Lord Pelham, but all that was left of Newcastle’s parliamentary interest was some influence at Lewes and in the county. Rye reverted to the Treasury, as had Hastings and Seaford before Newcastle’s death.
The Duke of Northumberland, who had no borough interest in 1754, acquired control of three constituencies by purchase: Bere Alston, Launceston, and Newport. The Duke of Portland spent a fortune in electioneering, and achieved very little for it. At the general election of 1768 he led the anti-Lowther party in Cumberland and Carlisle, and won both seats in these constituencies, but by 1780 he had yielded his position to Lord Surrey; in 1768 he won control of Wigan, a very expensive borough, but by the end of the period had surrendered his interest to Sir Henry Bridgeman; and his interventions at Callington and Coventry in 1768 were unsuccessful and never repeated. Even the vast resources of Lord Clive brought him but a meagre yield: he dabbled in some half a dozen constituencies yet Bishop’s Castle was his only lasting acquisition. Finally, towards the end of this period, the Earl of Surrey, who had turned Protestant, began to exploit his natural interest, hitherto dormant because of his family’s Catholicism. Surrey intervened in five constituencies: Arundel, Carlisle, Gloucester, Hereford, and Horsham; and by 1790 had succeeded in bringing three seats under his control.
The biggest borough-monger of all in this period was Sir James Lowther, and a study of his career throws light on the psychology of this form of political activity. Lowther set out to monopolize the parliamentary representation of Cumberland and Westmorland, and by 1784 controlled seven seats in these counties (one for Cumberland, one at Carlisle, two at Cockermouth, two for Westmorland, and one at Appleby). In addition he owned the pocket borough of Haslemere in Surrey, which he bought in 1780. Achieving this electoral empire cost him at least £100,000, and probably a good deal more. One of the richest men in England, he was a large landowner; developed the coal mines on his estates and engaged in coastal shipping; and supplied capital for the financial activities of Robert Mackreth, one of the great usurers of the age. In short, Lowther was a big business man, and his boroughs were a symbol of his success. Yet it was not simply the acquisition of a number of seats in Parliament that drove him on: had that been the case, he could have obtained a far larger electoral empire at a much smaller cost. In 1786 Lonsdale (as Lowther had then become) fought three elections within nine months: two at Carlisle and one at Lancaster. He spent over £50,000 in a vain attempt to acquire one seat at each of these constituencies, which even had he been successful would have been held on a precarious tenure (they were both open boroughs with large electorates). For less than half this sum he could have bought the borough of Gatton, which was then for sale, a complete pocket borough with no real voters. Between 1780 and 1784 he tried to buy Lord Egremont’s Cumberland estate, which would have strengthened his interest in that county, offering £5,000 above the price agreed upon by arbitrators together with an option on the borough of Haslemere. In other words, he was ready to trade two seats in a perfectly safe borough for the doubtful chance of being able to return a second Member for Cumberland.
Lowther’s electoral activities were not prompted solely by the desire to make a figure in politics through the acquisition of a following in the House of Commons. They resulted in large part from a passion for drive and domination, which he strove to satisfy by commanding the parliamentary representation of the counties where his estates lay. His Members (his ‘ninepins’ as they were called) surrendered their political independence as the price of their seats, and voted in a solid block the way Lowther dictated. But what did he achieve through his control of nine votes in the House of Commons? Though courted and flattered at moments of political crisis, he was neither esteemed nor respected; he never held office (though at least in the early part of his career his ambition looked in that direction); and his only gain for a lifetime’s borough-mongering was an earldom.
In fact, the possession of borough interest led none of these borough-mongers to high political office. Edward Eliot never rose higher than the Board of Trade; Humphry Morice and Lord Edgcumbe held court or sinecure offices only; and the Boscawens were politically unambitious. The peers were politically important because of their rank, not because of their boroughs. Electoral interest had a local, not a national, significance. The Morgans of Tredegar, probably the leading political family in South Wales, commanded three seats in the House of Commons during this period. Five members of the family sat in Parliament between 1754 and 1790 for a combined total of 85 years. Only two of them are known to have spoken in the House: John Morgan in 1772, to ask why there had been a delay in issuing a writ for Monmouthshire; and Charles Morgan in 1780, when he presented the Breconshire petition for economical reform. They never held, nor apparently ever desired, political office. But when in 1770 Lord North conferred on Thomas Morgan the lord lieutenancies of Breconshire and Monmouthshire, in preference to the family’s hereditary rival the Duke of Beaufort, the Morgans felt obliged to break off their contacts with Opposition and support North’s Administration.
If borough interest by itself did not confer a claim to office, neither did the lack of it prevent men from reaching the top. Neither the elder Pitt and George Grenville in the 1760’s, nor the younger Pitt and Charles James Fox twenty years later, had any borough interest. Henry Fox had none of his own, and Lord North’s family controlled only one seat in the House. To lead the House of Commons required entirely different qualities of mind and character from those needed to maintain an electoral interest, and it seems highly unlikely that the disposition towards both these types of political activity could be found in the same man.
The one exception to the general rule linking interest to property was the interest of Government. Wherever there were voters who held office under Government or were aspirants to Government favours or were employed by a department of Government, there was a potential Government interest; it was built upon the support of placemen and would-be placemen, just as a family interest was built upon property. The Government interest extended to every constituency where there were real voters, but in the majority of them it counted for little. As a general rule its strength varied inversely with the number of voters in the constituency. There were exceptions—Hampshire among the counties, and Dover and Sandwich among the larger boroughs; but it is clear that a small group of placemen would have more influence in a small constituency than in a large one. Even in large constituencies the Government interest could be decisive in a close-fought election, but only in conjunction with a private interest.
It is not always easy to say which were or were not Government boroughs. Obviously constituencies such as Ludgershall or Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, where the patron habitually placed one or more seats at the disposal of Government, were not. More difficult to classify are those constituencies where the Government interest was interwoven with a natural or family interest, such as the three Isle of Wight boroughs. They were invariably classed as Government boroughs in 1754, yet by 1784 there was little trace of Government interest. East and West Looe were sometimes counted as Government boroughs in 1754 because Government candidates were accepted in them, but in fact they were both under the control of the Buller family. At Dover and Hythe the Government had considerable influence, and could usually return one Member in alliance with a neighbouring family. At the beginning of the period the majority of borough owners were on the Government side and could count on Government support in elections: it is therefore less easy to isolate the Government interest in 1754 than at the end of the period when there was a clear division in the House of Commons between Government and Opposition.
In 1754 thirteen boroughs were controlled by the Government alone, yielding 25 seats in the House of Commons (at Sandwich the Government controlled only one seat). Six of these boroughs were controlled by the Treasury (Harwich, Hastings, Orford, Rye, Seaford, and Winchelsea); six by the Admiralty (Dartmouth, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Rochester, Saltash, and Sandwich); and one (Queenborough) by the Admiralty and the Ordnance. Only Rochester (600 voters) and Sandwich (700 voters) had electorates larger than 200. All were corporation or freeman boroughs, except Seaford, a scot and lot borough where the electorate was deliberately restricted.
The Treasury boroughs were all ports, and Treasury control was effected through the customs and excise officers. Harwich and Orford were the safest Treasury boroughs: both had electorates below 50 and in neither was there a contest during this period. But the Treasury surrendered its interest at Orford in 1766 to a private patron, Lord Hertford. Of the other Treasury boroughs, only Hastings was under its control throughout the period. Rye remained faithful to the Duke of Newcastle after his resignation in 1762; reverted to the Treasury after his death in 1768; but one seat was lost there in 1784. Seaford was lost in 1786, when Henry Flood succeeded in getting the electorate increased; and Winchelsea, where the Treasury interest was never very strong, was lost altogether by 1784. At the end of the period the Treasury controlled only five seats in these boroughs, whereas in 1754 it had controlled twelve.
The Admiralty boroughs were naval centres or dockyard towns, where the Admiralty was one of the chief employers of labour and Admiralty contracts were competed for by local business men. None of these boroughs was safe, and two—Dartmouth and Saltash—were lost during this period. The Admiralty boroughs had larger electorates than those influenced by the Treasury, and Admiralty control could never be as stringent. At Plymouth and Portsmouth there was a strong independent party, and at each borough in 1784 one seat was wrested from the Admiralty. At Rochester there were eight contests during the period; at Queenborough there were three; and Sandwich, with 700 voters, was described by Robinson in 1784 as ‘a borough of contests’: there were in fact a number of private interests besides that of the Admiralty. Thus the 13 seats controlled by the Admiralty in 1754 had fallen by 1784 to seven.
Crewe’s Act of 1782, which disfranchised the revenue officers, was intended to reduce the Government’s influence in elections. Its full effects were not felt until after 1790 and how far it succeeded in achieving its object is not easy to say. It was one reason why the Treasury lost Seaford, and it played some part in the decline of the Government interest at Rye, Portsmouth, and Plymouth. No doubt, also, it helped to reduce the Government interest in other boroughs where that interest was only marginal. But Dartmouth was lost two years before Crewe’s Act became law, and the disfranchisement of the revenue officers does not explain the loss of Saltash or Winchelsea. The Government interest was declining throughout this period, in correlation with the growth of party. And if Crewe’s Act failed to achieve all the Opposition expected from it, it was probably because they greatly overestimated the influence the Government exercised through the revenue officers.
Scarborough, for example, seemed a borough predestined to pass under Government control. It was a port, dependent to some extent on Admiralty orders for its shipping; and the franchise was in the corporation, a body of less than 50, about a quarter of whom were revenue officers. Yet, though Government had considerable influence, Scarborough never became a Government borough—indeed, Henry Pelham told the corporation in 1753 that it was ‘not at all proper’ for him to interfere in an election there. Lord Granby carried a Member at Scarborough in 1768 entirely through the influence of Administration, and yet from 1770 to 1782 when the Manners family were in opposition, they still held one seat at Scarborough. The corporation, wrote the Duke of Rutland in 1785, ‘starved with me in opposition on the empty diet of promise and expectation’. Nor did the Rutland family have an estate near the borough; their interest, in the Duke’s words, was ‘an artificial one, nourished in the hotbed of Government favour’—yet it survived the cold winds of opposition.
Rye remained faithful to Newcastle after he had gone into opposition in 1762 and successfully defied the Treasury. Yet it had an electorate of less than 40, about half of whom held places under Government. Its fidelity to Newcastle was not dictated by political motives: there was an old feud between Rye and Winchelsea, and Edwin Wardroper, the Government manager at Winchelsea, was trying to extend his control over Rye. Fear of Wardroper, not dislike of Treasury control, made the freemen of Rye remain faithful to Newcastle. Rye was managed by an oligarchy of its leading citizens, and the only way the Treasury could have won back the borough would have been by a purge of the oligarchy and a new creation of freemen—a remedy worse than the disease. Rather than follow such a course the Treasury preferred to wait. By 1767, when the danger from Wardroper had considerably lessened, Rye was ready to accept again a Treasury recommendation; but at the general election of 1768 Newcastle’s candidates were returned without Treasury interference. After Newcastle’s death in November 1768 Rye became once more a Treasury borough. But in 1784 William Dickenson, who had represented the borough since 1777, was again returned, although he was in opposition to Pitt’s Administration, together with a Government candidate.
The strength of the Government interest in any borough depended in a great degree upon the manager, and when the manager tried to misappropriate Government interest there was little the Government could do to stop him. The classic case during this period was at Dartmouth in 1780, when the Government manager, Arthur Holdsworth, having become sympathetic to the Opposition, refused to accept Government candidates and returned himself and Lord Howe. The Phillips family began as Government managers at Camelford, but by 1780 were in complete control of the borough; they still accepted a Government nominee for one seat, but as a favour not an obligation. Edmund Wilkins cultivated Malmesbury in the late 1770’s with a Government subsidy of £720 a year, and the Treasury naturally counted Malmesbury as a Government borough. But in 1784 Wilkins returned two Members of the Opposition, much to the indignation of George Rose, Pitt’s secretary to the Treasury. Harwich was managed from 1770 by John Robinson, secretary to the Treasury until 1782, which helps to explain why it was the safest Government borough; yet Oldfield, in the 1792 edition of his History of the Boroughs, described it as ‘formerly a Treasury borough’, now controlled by Robinson.
The same rule holds good for a Government borough as for one under private patronage: whatever the basis of an interest might be, whether in land or in Government favours, the constituency had to be nursed with care; and in the last resort the man on the spot had more sway with the electors than the more distant patron. It was as the result of assiduous courting of the electors that Philip Stephens, secretary to the Admiralty, increased the Government’s hold over Sandwich from one to both seats; and by the same means George III converted New Windsor into a court borough. Despite the growth of party during this period, there was little change in the essential nature of the patronage system.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. The constituencies are listed in Appendix I.