Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:

about 400 rising to about 550


(1801): 3,478


19 June 1790JOHN CLEVLAND162
 Richard Wilson I91
28 May 1796JOHN CLEVLAND196
 William Devaynes121
 Richard Wilson I84
 John Clevland72
4 Aug. 1804 HUGH FORTESCUE, Visct. Ebrington, vice Pellew, vacated his seat 
1 Nov. 1806HUGH FORTESCUE, Visct. Ebrington269
 William Devaynes151
 Hugh Fortescue, Visct. Ebrington161
 Sir Jonathan Miles2
16 Jan. 1812 WILLIAM BUSK vice Thellusson, deceased191
 Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes, Bt.168
 William Busk182
 Sir Henry Clements Thompson199
  Lopes’s election declared void, 9 Mar. 1819, and no new writ issued before the dissolution 

Main Article

In 1816 Oldfield wrote of Barnstaple: ‘If any one borough in the country is more corrupt than another it is this. The expenses of a candidate at a contested election here, is from ten to thirteen thousand pounds.’1 While this was a gross exaggeration, there can be no doubt that money was the key to the borough and that corruption grew steadily worse during this period. With the freedom attainable by birth or seven years’ apprenticeship to a resident freeman (and, in rare cases, by purchase or gift of the corporation) the electorate grew in size and also in fickleness and avarice. Only about a quarter of the electors were resident in Barnstaple, and the London outvoters in particular became an increasingly important element, well placed to find wealthy and gullible carpet-bagger candidates and to extort financial rewards for their support. Government had some influence, derived chiefly from the disposal of local customs patronage, but it had been seriously weakened by Crewe’s Act of 1782. According to the municipal corporations commissioners, the corporation as a body did not interfere in elections, its members having been ‘generally divided in opinion upon the merits of the candidates’.2 A few neighbouring landowners had some natural influence in the borough, but nothing strong enough to provide the basis for an invulnerable interest; even John Clevland of nearby Tapeley, who sat for Barnstaple for almost 36 years on the interest first established by his father in the 1750s, was sent packing by the mercenary element in this period.

In 1790 Clevland and his colleague William Devaynes, a rich London banker whose only connexion with Barnstaple seems to have been a venal one, easily defeated Richard Wilson, an impecunious and paranoiac Irishman, married to the half-sister of the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. According to the historian of Barnstaple, almost all Wilson’s votes were plumpers. His petition against Clevland’s return, alleging bribery, corruption and intimidation, was deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’ and he protested against the decision in a public address.3

Devaynes continued to support government but Clevland, having opposed them in the 1784 Parliament, remained suspect in ministerial eyes, even though there is no record of his having done so in this period. In 1793, recommending a friend for the collectorship of customs, he complained to Pitt that Devaynes had ‘lately had two good places to my one’. It was Devaynes, nevertheless, who was ousted by Wilson in 1796, even though Clevland ‘received many rude answers’ from his constituents at the election, as he told Pitt when renewing his complaints of deprivation of patronage shortly afterwards.4 Wilson, also a doubtful quantity as far as ministers were concerned, soon fell foul of them over local patronage, apparently having submitted large claims which were not entertained. He was ‘determined’, so he told Windham, the secretary at war, ‘not to walk out of Barnstaple’, but he got no satisfaction and on 7 Mar. 1797 sought to correct the minister’s impression that he had ‘arranged matters with Mr Clevland as to the vacant places’:

all that passed between us when I desired your interference was simply this. I said that all the people whom I had applied for had voted for Clevland and me and that therefore he could not be supposed to have any objection to my list, the more especially as I was a new Member who was supporting government, although it had exerted all its influence to defeat my success ... You observed ... that ‘Clevland might complain, as he had always been a friend to administration’. ... I cannot help remarking ... that it is somewhat extraordinary that the merits of Mr Clevland had not been more attended to previous to my application ... His new fledged importance I resign him the full reward of. I shall never more interefere with his patronage.5

Within a week Wilson was voting with opposition and he continued to do so throughout the 1796 Parliament.

In December 1800 Sir Edward Pellew, a distinguished naval officer, accepted an invitation from the London outvoters to announce his candidature for the next vacancy: ‘if I don’t find it too expensive’, he told a friend, ‘I shall probably succeed, but I will not contest it at any greater expense than a few hundred’. Whether it was before or after Pellew’s intervention that Clevland, who may have found his interest on the wane and had hopes of obtaining a seat for Callington, informed the recorder of Barnstaple that he would make way for Pellew at the dissolution is not clear; but according to Pellew’s friend St. Vincent, first lord of the Admiralty in Addington’s administration, Clevland subsequently ‘in positive terms’ told him of his intention of retiring and recommending his friends to support Pellew. In March 1802 a group of London outvoters met to declare their support for Devaynes’ attempt to recapture the seat. At the dissolution Clevland, disappointed in his hopes of another seat, made a late bid to hold on to Barnstaple, but he and Wilson were badly beaten at the poll by Devaynes and Pellew, who probably both had government support. Pellew’s election and successful resistance to Wilson’s petition cost him £2,000, by his own admission.6 The evidence adduced before the committee of inquiry indicated that his agents had offered money and places to Wilson’s supporters and that sums of three and four guineas had been paid to several outvoters under the guise of travelling expenses, but the prosecution did not insist on the illegality of such payments. In Pellew’s defence it was argued that the mere offer of a bribe, unaccompanied by any actual promise or gift and not accepted by the voter, did not constitute a disqualifying offence.7

When Pellew vacated his seat in July 1804 Lord Ebrington, son of Earl Fortescue, lord lieutenant of Devon and high steward of Barnstaple, who had extensive property in the surrounding area, was returned unopposed (at the only uncontested election in this period), though it was reported that Joseph Hunt* of the Ordnance and George Woodford Thellusson, a London merchant, had also offered.8 As Lord Grenville’s nephew, Ebrington had the backing of the ‘Talents’ ministry in 1806. Sir William Smyth of Hill Hall, Essex, a friend of the Prince of Wales, had shown an interest, but hastily withdrew on learning that, ‘instead of being seated for £2,500’, he ‘was to enter upon a canvass’ and ‘run all risks and trouble of a contested election’. The second seat was fought over by Devaynes and William Taylor, a Scottish lawyer, who was apparently expected to support government and whose return, managed by John Stanbury, a native of Barnstaple who had become a clerk at East India House, was later reported to have cost £3,000, the going rate in ‘travelling expenses’ for London outvoters who cast plumpers being £16 each.9

In 1807 Thellusson stood as a supporter of the Portland ministry, Ebrington as their avowed opponent. Portland evidently asked Lord Rolle and other local ministerialists to support Taylor, but too late to have much, if any, effect. Thellusson, as Rolle reported, ‘carried it with as high a hand as Lord E. did at the former contest’, but Taylor, shorn this time of Stanbury’s assistance, only narrowly beat Ebrington, who seems to have been handicapped by lack of money and his support for Catholic relief. The fourth candidate, Sir Jonathan Miles, sheriff of London, may have been a more serious contender than the derisory two votes with which he is credited in the published poll figures suggest, for Lord Buckingham, Ebrington’s uncle, feared that he and Taylor might coalesce against his nephew and that ‘one of these gentlemen who has least chance will pay his expenses by turning over his votes to the other’. The Fortescues made no further attempts in this period to press their interest at Barnstaple, though when it was reported in 1808 that Taylor intended to vacate his seat, Huskisson, secretary to the Treasury, expressed the view that it would not be ‘possible for us again to beat Lord Ebrington in that borough’.10

In April 1810 William Busk, a London merchant with Whig sympathies, canvassed Barnstaple against the next vacancy, armed with a note of recommendation from Whitbread. He boasted of an encouraging reception but was sufficiently worried by the efforts of ‘some of the Tories’ to portray him as a ministerial wolf in Whig clothing to prevail on some of the leading residents to write to Whitbread to verify his credentials. In July 1811 groups of both the Plymouth outvoters and the resident freemen publicly condemned Taylor and Thellusson for alleged betrayal of pledges and promised support for Busk, vetoing at the same time the candidature of Barrington Pope Blachford*, a Canningite. At the by-election of January 1812 caused by Thellusson’s sudden death, Busk beat Sir Manasseh Lopes, who had invested some of his enormous wealth, derived from the success of his Jewish ancestors as Jamaican sugar planters, in extensive estates around Plymouth, and who evidently went to Barnstaple on the spur of the moment at the invitation of one Yeomans.11

Within days Busk, Lopes and Sir Eyre Coote, a rich Irish soldier, declared their intention of standing at the next general election, and by the time of the dissolution, when Taylor retired, Lopes’s ‘interest was known to be the strongest’, according to Busk. Lopes topped the poll and Coote beat Busk into third place. Writing to Lord Holland, 11 Oct. 1812, Busk reported that he had made an arrangement with Lopes and his supporters for ‘an exchange of a considerable number of votes’, but that it had been undermined by ‘the most open bribery’ on the part of Coote. The prospect of adding to the heavy cost of two contested elections within nine months deterred him from petitioning.12

Despite his disgrace in a flagellation scandal in 1816, Coote was invited to stand again in 1818, but he declined. Potential candidates mentioned in the press included Michael Nolan, an Irish barrister, Bourchier Palk Wrey of Tawstock Court, grandson of a former Member, and Christopher Smith*, lord mayor of London, but in the event the contest was between Lopes, Francis Molyneux Ommanney, a successful London naval agent, and Sir Henry Clements Thompson, a rather obscure one-armed naval officer, later described as ‘a mere adventurer’.13 Thompson finished a poor third, but lodged a petition accusing both his opponents of illegal treating and bribery.

When the case was considered, 5 Mar. 1819, the charges against Ommanney were dropped and the attack concentrated on Lopes, who was already due to go before the courts on charges of bribery at Grampound. Ommanney was declared duly elected, though the committee ruled that no notice could be taken of counsel’s declaration that evidence against him would not be adduced, and that evidence concerning the general corruption of the borough could not be disregarded, even if it implicated Ommanney. From the testimony of Mary and John Tossell, Robert Nill, Edward Harris, Robert Edwards and others, it appeared that Lopes’s agents, John Gribble, a local banker, and John Wilkinson, a grocer and hairdresser, had promised and paid £5 to resident electors who voted for their man, an increase of £2 on the going rate in 1812. Gribble himself confessed to having spent on Lopes’s account just over £3,000, which included payments of £5 to 38 residents, allegedly for ‘lost time’, and of £20 each to London outvoters (£10 if they had split their votes), supposedly to cover ‘travelling expenses’. He admitted to having discussed expenses with Lopes and another banker, John Law, before the election, but denied having made any promises of money in return for votes; indicated that similar payments had been standard practice at previous elections and alleged that it had been Ommanney’s agents who had set the pace, by raising the payments to residents from £3 to £5 and giving an extra £2 to London outvoters, in which he had been reluctantly forced to follow suit. Thompson, it was attested, had neither promised nor paid money for votes. On the strength of this evidence Lopes was unseated, 9 Mar. 1819, the House recommended to take remedial measures to deal with the ‘general system of corruption’ at Barnstaple and the issue of a new writ suspended.14

On 2 Apr. 1819 the House resolved to prosecute Lopes for bribery at Barnstaple and to introduce a bill to root out corruption in the borough by extending the franchise to the freeholders of the surrounding hundreds and restricting it to resident freemen. The measure, supported by a group of freeholders and householders, who in their petition painted the blackest possible picture of past malpractice, but opposed by the corporation, who professed willingness to use their power of creating honorary freemen to correct such abuses as existed, passed the Commons on 18 May 1819, having been stripped of the proposal to confine the freeman franchise to residents, but containing a clause preventing the creation of non-resident honorary freemen.15

The corporation and London outvoters employed counsel to resist its progress through the Lords, where the inquiry was reopened. Gribble, who after the Commons inquiry had conveniently destroyed the only copy of his financial transactions with Lopes, prevaricated and the hearing was suspended while a witnesses’ indemnity bill was rushed into law. On its resumption, Gribble elaborated on the exchanges between himself, Lopes and Law two weeks before the election, claiming that Lopes had set a limit of £2,200 on his proposed expenditure, whereupon he and Law, knowing that Ommanney had been sent for, had argued that half as much again would be necessary. There had been no talk of bribery, only of fair reimbursement of electors’ expenses, he insisted, and Lopes had stressed that he would not have a shilling spent illegally. Members of Ommanney’s committee also admitted to having made payments totalling about £4,000, but denied that they had constituted acts of bribery. There had been collusion between his and Lopes’s agents to ensure that the payment of electors who had cast split votes was shared equally between them. Nill, Edwards and Harris, key witnesses before the Commons committee, now changed their tune: they still admitted to having accepted £5 for ‘lost time’ from Gribble and Wilkinson after the election, but now denied that there had been a prior promise of financial reward for their votes, claiming that their earlier testimony to the contrary had been given on the instructions of Charles Leigh, a Barnstaple attorney retained by Thompson, who had kept them incommunicado and drunk in London before the Commons inquiry. When Leigh was called, 2 July, he was found to have fled the scene, but he was examined four days later and, attributing his flight to inebriation and confusion, strenuously denied the allegations of Nill, Edwards and Harris. Another witness, Day Jones, who had been served with a writ by Lopes, admitted that he had paid a few of the outvoters who had voted for Thompson, but maintained that even more of them, notably 27 from London, had been refused anything more than £10 for ‘expenses’ when they demanded money in advance of votes, and had consequently voted for Thompson’s opponents. On 7 July 1819 the Lords recommended the prosecution of Nill, Edwards and Harris. The prorogation of Parliament put an end to the bill’s progress and the issue of a new writ was suspended until the next session.16

At Barnstaple, meanwhile, Nolan, Wrey, John Atkins*, the current lord mayor of London, and Joseph Davie Bassett of nearby Umberleigh, who pinned his hopes on the extension of the franchise to the hundreds, were in the field as candidates for the vacant seat. At a North Devon county meeting held in the borough, 25 June 1819, Bassett’s resolutions in favour of public economies, to be embodied in a petition to the Lords, were carried by ‘a large majority’ against the opposition of the corporation. On 4 Aug. Lopes was tried at Devon assizes on the Barnstaple bribery indictment but, with Gribble, Nill and Harris sticking to the story which they had presented to the Lords, he was acquitted, ‘from defect of proof’.17

In December 1819 the Commons obtained a report of the proceedings before the Lords and delayed the issue of a new writ until 15 Feb. 1820. The King’s death intervened and on 18 Feb. 1820 Charles Williams Wynn successfully proposed the inclusion of Barnstaple within the terms of the writs suspension bill which Lord John Russell had introduced for Grampound, Penryn and Camelford. The bill passed the Commons but the corporation of Barnstaple, whose legal struggle against reform of the borough added considerably to the municipal debt, and the London freemen successfully petitioned to be heard by counsel against it on the second reading in the Lords. On 25 Feb. 1820 Lord Carnarvon, backed by his fellow Whig peers, Darnley, Lansdowne and Grosvenor, moved to discharge the order; but after Lord Liverpool and Lord Chancellor Eldon had spoken strongly against the measure which, they said, would effectively disfranchise Barnstaple without positive proof of widespread corruption, Lauderdale’s motion to kill the bill was carried by 22 votes to 11 and the electors of Barnstaple were able to look forward to another pay day.18

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Rep. Hist. iii. 300.
  • 2. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 495; (1835), xxiii. 430, 433.
  • 3. J. B. Gribble, Mems. Barnstaple (1830), 229; CJ, xlvi. 17; Morning Chron. 21 Mar. 1797; Oldfield, Hist. Boroughs, i. 250.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/123, ff. 147, 151.
  • 5. Add. 37876, ff. 148, 152, 247, 263, 268; 37877, f. 1.
  • 6. The Times, 8 Dec. 1800; C. N. Parkinson, Edward Pellew, 280, 286; PRO 30/8/366, f. 243; St. Vincent Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. lxi), 87; Bristol Jnl. 3 Apr.; The Times, 13 July 1802.
  • 7. CJ, lviii. 16, 203; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections (1804), 90-92.
  • 8. Bristol Jnl. 4 Aug. 1804.
  • 9. Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2215; Blair Adam mss, Loch to Adam [5 Nov. 1806]; LJ, lii. 851-2; PP (1826-7), iv. 486-91.
  • 10. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 10/4, 19; Devon RO, Earl Fortescue mss, Ebrington’s address, 2 May; Fortescue mss, Buckingham to Grenville [9 May] 1807; Perceval (Holland) mss C.11.
  • 11. Whitbread mss W1/1815-16; Hants RO, Blachford mss 186-7; Add. 48229, f. 135.
  • 12. Morning Chron. 29 Jan. 1812; Add. 51826.
  • 13. The Late Elections (1818), 7-8; Morning Chron. 5 Apr.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 6 June 1818; Gribble, 237; Marshall, R. Naval Biog. vi. 369.
  • 14. CJ, lxxiv. 31, 182, 201; Parl. Deb. xxxix. 933; U. Corbett and E. R. Daniell, Controverted Elections (1821), 192-4; PP (1819), iv. 231-83.
  • 15. CJ, lxxiv, 231, 279, 289, 303, 335, 346, 424, 428, 445, 452, 456; Parl. Deb. xxxix. 1390-2; xl. 274-84, 460-5.
  • 16. LJ, lii. 589-882 passim; CJ, lxxiv. 623.
  • 17. The Times, 1, 9 Apr., 18 June, 1 July, 9 Aug. 1819.
  • 18. CJ, lxxv. 26, 65; Parl. Deb. xli. 1612-14, 1615-21, 1635, 1637-42; LJ, lii. 15, 18, 21.