Cambridge University


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 doctors and masters of arts

Number of voters:

about 800


17 June 1790HON. WILLIAM PITT510
 GEORGE HENRY FITZROY, Earl of Euston483
 Lawrence Dundas207
18 Dec. 1792 PITT  re-elected after appointment to office 
5 Apr. 1794 EUSTON  re-elected after appointment to office 
17 May 1804 PITT  re-elected after appointment to office 
7 Feb. 1806 LORD HENRY PETTY  vice Pitt, deceased331
 John Charles Spencer, Visct. Althorp145
 Henry John Temple, Visct. Palmerston128
29 Oct. 1806GEORGE HENRY FITZROY, Earl of Euston 
8 May 1807GEORGE HENRY FITZROY, Earl of Euston324
 Henry John Temple, Visct. Palmerston310
 Lord Henry Petty265
27 Mar. 1811 HENRY JOHN TEMPLE, Visct. Palmerston, vice Euston, called to the Upper House451
 John Henry Smyth345
9 June 1812 JOHN HENRY SMYTH  vice Gibbs, appointed to office 
7 Oct. 1812HENRY JOHN TEMPLE, Visct. Palmerston 
17 June 1818HENRY JOHN TEMPLE, Visct. Palmerston 

Main Article

The combination of Pitt, the prime minister, and Lord Euston, son and heir of the chancellor of the university, the Duke of Grafton, had overpowered the Whig sitting Members in 1784. In March 1790 it became clear that the Whigs wished to avenge themselves: Lawrence Dundas* canvassed the university, accompanied by Lord John Townshend*, one of the victims of 1784, and encouraged by the Prince of Wales. The Whigs had failed to persuade Lord Mountstuart’s son, John Stuart* to stand. Dundas was a Trinity man and, standing alone, was trying to oust Euston, though it seemed an extraordinary proposition to contemporaries that ‘a Scotsman should get the better of the Duke of Grafton’s son at Cambridge’. The canvass was deplored by Dundas’s opponents as treating the university ‘like a mere common borough’ and The Times commented, 22 Mar. 1790, ‘we cannot reconcile it to any principles either of common sense or common gambling’. Pitt was as sanguine as ever; his friends gave their second votes to Euston, and Grafton was active on his son’s behalf. Dundas was easily defeated and the King hoped the large majority against him would ‘prevent the peace of the university being in future disturbed’.1 Twelve of the 16 heads of colleges had supported Pitt and Euston, only three (Peterhouse, Catharine Hall and Sidney) Dundas; and only at Sidney did Dundas win most votes, out of 23. His own college gave him 51 (no more than to Townshend in 1784) but Euston, also a Trinity man, received 130 there; and although Dundas came second at King’s College, the third in size, he was trounced at St. John’s, which vied with Trinity for numbers.

The King’s hopes were realized: there was no further contest until Pitt’s death in 1806. Pitt himself was reproached by his friends for not troubling to visit his constituency after the quiet election of 1796, but in 1802 he found his visit ‘not only quiet, but attended with every mark of zeal and cordiality’. In 1804 when a peerage for Euston was rumoured, Earl Spencer elicited from Pitt a renewal of a previous offer of support for the pretensions of his heir Viscount Althorp to the anticipated vacancy: but the rumour was false. Another potential candidate was Lord Henry Petty, said in 1802 to be ‘the most popular man who has been known for many years at that university’. His father Lord Lansdowne’s friends at Holland House regretted that Petty had not offered in 1802, Lady Holland choosing to believe that ‘he would beat Pitt hollow’. Since 1802 Lord Hardwicke had been flattered by hopes that his heir Viscount Royston might be sponsored by St. John’s College. Father and son were in Ireland when Pitt died, and it was too late, if not imprudent, to substitute Hardwicke’s half-brother Charles Philip Yorke*, Member for the county. Hardwicke had to be satisfied with obtaining the high stewardship of the university in preference to his rival in county politics, the Duke of Rutland.2

Before Pitt died, Petty and Althorp commenced a canvass: the ‘indelicacy’ of it was remarked upon. Fox, who on 22 Jan. 1806 had committed himself to Petty, heard only later that day of Althorp’s candidature, but still thought Petty ‘the properest’ and saw to it that he was, by stopping his canvass until Pitt died, whereas Althorp (on a premature report of Pitt’s death) had set off for Cambridge the evening before. Petty nevertheless had the start in applications; the Prince of Wales had been canvassing for him before Pitt died and it was of Petty that William Lamb* exclaimed, on receiving his, ‘D— him! Can no feeling but party enter his cold heart?’ The odds were also on Petty, who secured the writ; unlike Althorp he had distinguished himself in the House, and when during the next week Lord Grenville and Fox took over the government, he became chancellor of the Exchequer. Althorp’s father also received cabinet office and he himself minor office, but the potential embarrassment of two ministerialist candidates fighting it out was diminished by the general belief that Althorp was only staking his claim for the future and that, as Fox suggested, the two should come to an understanding, once their canvass was complete, that the weaker should make way for the stronger.3 This outcome should have been guaranteed, but was in fact discouraged by the emergence of a third candidate. Spencer Perceval*, counsel to the university, and Lord Lovaine* had been potential candidates among Pitt’s friends, and Lord Headley* had been proposed at Trinity but made way for Lord Palmerston, a political novice of St. John’s College, whose qualification as a master of arts was not obtained until after he had declared himself and who came forward ‘in the Court interest’. It could scarcely be an avowedly political contest, as the decorum of university elections did not admit of speechifying and the three candidates were too well acquainted with each other. Lord Malmesbury, Palmerston’s guardian, who instigated his candidature, claimed that ‘all St. John’s and a great part of King’s are with him and these more than balance Trinity’. Petty and Althorp were both Trinity men, but Petty was by far the stronger in the college. Althorp, who was otherwise said to be reliant on such scattered votes as his father could obtain from the goodwill of individuals like the Dukes of Portland and Rutland, had hopes that Palmerston would give up and that St. John’s, where the bishop of Ely professed friendship, would come over to him, to keep Petty out. Althorp admitted that Petty would beat him unless Palmerston withdrew, but it was on that speculation, which proved false, that he rejected Petty’s suggestion that he give up in Petty’s favour. Palmerston was an unknown quantity. He wrote, 28 Jan. 1806:

I am very glad to hear Lord Spencer declares Althorp shall not yield to Petty, ‘Divide et impera’ is true and applicable. The small colleges cannot but look with jealousy upon Trinity, when they see it start candidates for every honour in the gift of the university: the representation, the high stewardship and the Duke of Gloucester for the chancellorship ... I own I entertain strong hopes of success, if my two rivals do not coalesce.

One windfall came his way: the ‘Saints’, led by Dr Isaac Milner of Queens’, after catechizing him, adopted him, to the embarrassment of their parliamentary leader Wilberforce, who was engaged to Petty, the pupil of Priestley and friend to Catholic relief. Palmerston himself did not care about ‘the religious tenets’ of his voters. On the other hand, the Grenville ministry had neutralized Lord Euston, and as Palmerston recalled:

the Pitt party in the university was broken up. Most men thought that the new government would for many years have the disposal of the patronage as well as the command of the power of the country; and I stood at the poll where a young man circumstanced as I was could alone expect to stand, that is to say last.4

Petty’s victory was described by his friend Francis Horner*, who had feared the candidature of some big gun like the attorney-general, as ‘a signal victory of the independent and therefore calumniated members of the university supported by the young ones over the authorities. Out of 16 heads of houses, only three were for Lord Henry. The good cry of atheism was tried there.’ In fact, it appears that in their embarrassment six heads of colleges did not vote; five were for Palmerston, two for Petty and three for Althorp. Only at St. John’s did Palmerston take the lead, and only at Clare did Althorp get more votes than Petty. Trinity and St. John’s between them accounted for half the 600 votes. All Palmerston’s votes were plumpers. To a critic of the new ministry like Lord Redesdale, Petty’s success was an omen of the triumph of Fox over Lord Grenville in the government. Nothing came of a speculation that Petty’s not being formally in office when he was returned would necessitate his re-election.5

At the dissolution of 1806 Palmerston again set out for Cambridge, anticipating that a coalition between Petty and Euston would render his actual candidature futile: he had a seat arranged for him elsewhere. On arrival he found his expectations confirmed: Petty, with the ‘undivided’ support of government was expected to stand by Euston, who was also by now their known friend, if he were threatened. Palmerston’s only problem was how to publicize his perseverance until the next vacancy: an advertisement in the papers would be ‘infra dignitatem’ and a circular to all masters of arts a chore. His dilemma became clear when Lord Percy, who was at a loose end after his father had refused to let him stand for Westminster, came to Cambridge to try his chances, ‘on his way to the West’. Palmerston warned off the poacher, though Petty and Euston had circularized the electors in alarm.6

In 1807, Palmerston’s situation was dramatically reversed: he took office under the Portland ministry, and finding that Spencer Perceval felt unable to abandon his seat to stand as their champion at Cambridge, renewed his candidature. The ministry sent down its attorney-general Sir Vicary Gibbs (a King’s man) to join him, but Palmerston was not pleased to discover that ‘every supporter of the government who had but one vote to give was requested to give it to Gibbs’. Their committees must needs canvass separately. Of their opponents, Petty was now the weaker through his deeper commitment to the outgoing ministry. Euston had been obliged to present a petition from the university against the Catholic bill on 23 Mar. and now ‘the yell of "No Popery"’ was heard. Dr Samuel Parr reported: ‘on the walls of our senate house, of Clare Hall chapel, and of Trinity Hall, I saw the odious words, in large characters’. Petty himself complained to Lord Holland that the cry was ‘got up most successfully and prevails every day with increasing violence’, adding that the young tutors were being lectured on their responsibility for the future of ‘protestant youth’. Dr Joseph Allen, Althorp’s former tutor, reported from Trinity, in the same vein, that the master had ‘used threats with regard to the younger part of the society which would have disgraced the meanest boroughmonger’, but was not able to wean the college from its attachment to the old Members in Gibbs’s favour, nor was ‘No Popery’ swallowed there. When it became clear that Petty was doomed, there was talk of his withdrawing to let in Palmerston, rather than Gibbs: but this gave way to a bid to make sure at least of Euston’s return by splitting the votes of ‘about 100’ plumpers for Petty. This was necessary because on the eve of the election Palmerston and Gibbs had come to an agreement ‘that each should give the other the second votes of all his disposable plumpers’. At an adjournment towards the end of the poll, Palmerston was a couple of votes ahead of Gibbs, who complained that Palmerston’s unpolled friends would doubtless break the agreement. Palmerston found that this was precisely the intention of four whom he remonstrated with and prevailed on to give their second votes to Gibbs, who went on to beat him for the second seat by two votes. Palmerston subsequently admitted that Gibbs had been honourable in his conduct too: in fact, Gibbs had only seven plumpers in all, while he himself had 12. It does seem that ministers had not exerted themselves for Palmerston as they had for Gibbs. Lord Hawkesbury, it was reported, ‘takes credit to ministers for the election of Lord Euston’; the Duke of Rutland and Lord Camden solicited votes for Euston and Gibbs. Not surprisingly there were ‘faint hisses’ from the Johnians at the result.7

Of the heads of colleges, only one not voting, there was a single plumper, the master of St. John’s for Palmerston: eight were for Gibbs and Palmerston, one for Petty and Gibbs, one for Euston and Gibbs, two for Euston and Palmerston; and two (Trinity and Caius) for Euston and Petty. The notion that the St. John’s vote was better disciplined than that of Trinity (maintained as a truism by Francis Horner in January 1806) was disproved, as the two major colleges divided their votes for their favourites in much the same proportions. In all, 631 voted, 22 more than the year before.

The next vacancy was expected on the death of the Duke of Grafton: Palmerston was confident that when it occurred he would replace Euston as Member, and nursed his dons over whist and punch. He at first thought Lord Henry Petty might be his opponent; then there was talk of Lord Ellenborough’s heir, a fellow Johnian but not yet of age. In the event, Palmerston (then an office holder) was confronted by Lord Euston’s nephew Smyth when Grafton died in March 1811. Charles Skinner Matthews, Lord Byron’s friend and a son of John Matthews*, had intended to stand as an ‘independent pauper’. He was drowned in the Cam not long afterwards. Smyth had Lord Grenville’s support and most of the Trinity College vote, but was no match for Palmerston, who apart from St. John’s had the majority in ten colleges. On the other hand, the Duke of Gloucester defeated the ministerialist Duke of Rutland in the contest for chancellor of the university. Soon after the by-election, it was rumoured that Perceval meant to replace Gibbs in the other seat, but by the time Gibbs left the House with legal promotion in May 1812, Perceval was dead and Smyth came in unopposed.8

Neither at the general election of 1812, nor in 1818 was the political compromise disturbed. The Members were young men and no vacancy was foreseen; but against a background of lively undergraduate interest in politics, projects were formed. In April 1814 John Cam Hobhouse†, thinking Palmerston ripe for a peerage, made known his wishes to offer in future, thereby exciting the ambitions of Charles Grant II* in the other camp, as well as alarming more orthodox Whigs, on whom Lord John Townshend* had bestowed his son Charles Fox Townshend as their bright hope. Hobhouse, who canvassed, was warned off by the boy’s father. Palmerston in any case publicly denied the peerage rumour, 5 July. When in 1815 the Union debating society was formed, its promoters were Whigs and the university authorities stepped in to prevent current affairs being discussed, but ‘the ratio of Tories to Whigs as tested by the divisions in the Union was as two to one’. Young Townshend, who canvassed on a rumour of dissolution in the summer of 1816, took the promises of 300 votes to the grave with him, 2 Apr. 1817. Subsequently, Hobhouse promised not to disturb the peace at the next election, unless a second ministerialist offered: the result was a stalemate.9

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 502; Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 42; Add. 35391, f. 185; Spencer mss, Grafton to Spencer, 21 Mar. 1790; PRO 30/8/163, f. 132; Rose Diaries, i. 108; Geo. III Corresp. i. 608.
  • 2. Kent AO, Stanhope mss 735/12; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 4/40; Rose Diaries, i. 448; Stanhope mss 731/5; Lansdowne mss, Lady Holland to Caroline Fox, n.d.; Add. 35701, f. 219; 35706, ff. 318, 320, 327, 332, 333, 335; 35710, f. 227; 45041, ff. 124, 129, 133; 51736, Ld. Holland to Caroline Fox [June 1802].
  • 3. Fitzwilliam mss, X516/26, Fox to Fitzwilliam, 22 Jan.; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire to Hartington, 22 Jan., to her mother, 23 Jan. 1806; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2121, 2126; Horner mss 3, ff. 5, 7; Leveson Gower, ii. 164; Le Marchant, Althorp. 87.
  • 4. Add. 51658, Whishaw to Holland, 24 Jan. [1806]; Perceval (Holland) mss 11, f. 11; Stanhope mss 730/3; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 34; Creevey Pprs ed. Maxwell, i. 76; Spencer mss, Althorp to Spencer, 27, 30, 31 Jan.; Creevey mss, Petty to Creevey, 30 Jan. [1806]; Palmerston Letters (Cam. Soc. ser. 4, xxiii), 50, 53; Lytton Bulwer, Palmerston, i. 14, 368; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 256; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 64, 67; Horner mss 3, f. 15.
  • 5. Horner mss 3, f. 21; Add. 35718, f. 209; Palmerston Letters, 56.
  • 6. Malmesbury mss, Palmerston to Malmesbury, Fri. [17], 18, 26 Oct.; Berks. RO, Gibson mss D/ELb; Grey mss, Swinburne to Howick, 26, 31 Oct.; Add. 51658, Whishaw to Holland, 27 Oct. [1806]; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2276; Palmerston Letters, 68.
  • 7. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 381, 382, 387; Add. 45039, f. 79; 49185, f. 1, 51686, Petty to Holland, 2 May 1807; Lytton Bulwer, i. 18-22; Field, Mems. Samuel Parr, ii. 21; Spencer mss, Rev. Allen to Spencer, 6, 8, 12 May, Caldwell to Allen, 9 May 1807; Rutland mss, Rutland to Rev. Thoroton, 3 May 1807; Palmerston Letters, 85.
  • 8. Malmesbury mss, Palmerston to Malmesbury, 6 July 1809; Malmesbury Letters, ii. 204; Lytton Bulwer, i. 114; Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2941; Fortescue mss, Smyth to Grenville, 14, 19 Mar. 1811; Moore, Byron Letters (1875), 215; HMC Fortescue, x. 128.
  • 9. Add. 51570, Townshend to Holland, 3 July; Grey mss, Townshend to Grey, 3 July; Bucht mss, C. Grant sen. to J. Grant, 6 July 1814; Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iv. 517; Teignmouth, Reminiscences, i. 32, 48; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F82d, Maltby to Milton, 4 July [1816]; Add. 36456, ff. 101-161; Broughton, Recollections, i. 149, 158; Chatsworth mss, Tavistock to Devonshire, 17 Feb. 1818.