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Right of Election:
in the freemen
Number of voters:
|18 June 1790||ROBERT GROSVENOR, Visct. Belgrave|
|THOMAS GROSVENOR I|
|20 Feb. 1795||THOMAS GROSVENOR II vice Thomas Grosvenor I, deceased|
|25 May 1796||ROBERT GROSVENOR, Visct. Belgrave|
|THOMAS GROSVENOR II|
|6 July 1802||ROBERT GROSVENOR, Visct. Belgrave|
|THOMAS GROSVENOR II|
|15 Dec. 1802||RICHARD ERLE DRAX GROSVENOR vice Belgrave, called to the Upper House|
|31 Oct. 1806||THOMAS GROSVENOR II|
|RICHARD ERLE DRAX GROSVENOR|
|6 May 1807||THOMAS GROSVENOR II|
|20 Oct. 1812||THOMAS GROSVENOR II||627|
|Sir Richard Brooke, Bt.||575|
|Edward Venables Townshend||537|
|26 June 1818||RICHARD GROSVENOR, Visct. Belgrave||813|
|THOMAS GROSVENOR II||737|
|(Sir) John (Grey) Egerton, Bt.||607|
The Grosvenors of Eaton Hall, about four miles from Chester, held one seat continuously from 1715 to 1874, and both for 36 of the 76 years between 1754 and 1830. They enjoyed great influence with the corporation and the guilds and had a large number of houses in the city, obtained on lease from the crown, which were let for short periods at low rents. Their interest was underpinned by their great wealth, derived from landed property in Cheshire, North Wales and Middlesex, where the fashionable residential developments of Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico on their Ebury estate added substantially to their income in the 18th and 19th centuries. Effective opposition was difficult but not impossible to mount, and there was considerable hostility among the citizens to Grosvenor domination and to the self-electing corporation’s control over municipal affairs.1
In 1784 when Richard, 1st Baron Grosvenor, was made an earl, the independents unsuccessfully put up John Crewe of Bolsworth against the sitting Members, Thomas Grosvenor, the earl’s brother, and Richard Wilbraham Bootle, a Lancashire landowner, both of them former participants in the abortive St. Albans Tavern venture who were now supporting Pitt. For the next six years the independents, led by Ralph Eddowes, a merchant, fought a legal battle to try to establish their right under the city’s original charter, since abrogated, to participate in the election of members of the corporation. Although they obtained a favourable decision in the Lords early in 1790, they were financially exhausted and in too much disarray to enforce the ruling, which the corporation simply ignored. Eddowes, on whom most of the cost had fallen, gave up the struggle in disgust and later went to live in America.2
The Whigs evidently considered the possibility of contesting Chester in 1790, for William Adam* sent an ‘enquiry concerning the state of politics’ there to an unknown correspondent, but the reply was not very encouraging.3 Wilbraham Bootle made way for Grosvenor’s son Lord Belgrave, a junior member of Pitt’s ministry, who came in unopposed with Thomas Grosvenor. On the latter’s death in 1795 he was quietly replaced by his son and namesake, a soldier. When Belgrave succeeded as 2nd Earl shortly after the 1802 general election he brought in his cousin Richard Erle Drax Grosvenor, brother of the surviving sitting Member. They were unopposed in 1806 when Lord Grosvenor, having become estranged from Pitt and gone over to the Whigs after his death, was supporting the ‘Talents’. Gen. Grosvenor followed his line, but Richard proved refractory and it was later alleged that Lord Grosvenor discarded him at the dissolution in 1807 because of his hostility to the Grenville ministry’s Catholic bill.4 The anger provoked among the freemen at large by the unexpected news that he was to be replaced by Col. Thomas Hanmer of Bettisfield, Flintshire, extended to some members of the corporation, who resented Lord Grosvenor’s failure to consult them. It was also said that Grosvenor’s employment of London workmen on the rebuilding of Eaton Hall heightened the hostile reaction to his attempt to impose a stranger on the city. As Gen. Grosvenor and Hanmer began their canvass on 2 May, Alderman William Seller and Col. Roger Barnston of the Chester volunteers, the unsuccessful fourth candidate in 1784, issued an invitation to John Egerton of nearby Oulton Park, who promptly offered himself as an ‘independent’. Sir Stephen Richard Glynne of Hawarden, a candidate for Flint Boroughs, claimed that he had been ‘offered votes out of number’ at Chester and ‘could have come in with the Grosvenor interest without a chance of a contest’, but thought that the freemen were so ‘indignant’ that Grosvenor ‘would have much difficulty in bringing in more than one’. Grosvenor bowed to the force of popular opinion, and at a hastily convened meeting of the corporation on 4 May the general, acting as his mouthpiece, endorsed Egerton, whose candidature was then formally approved. Hanmer duly retired and Egerton came in unopposed with Grosvenor. Even so, he was said to have spent £3,000. Although the citizens of Chester were generally hostile to Catholic relief and Egerton was hailed as ‘a firm supporter of the Protestant Establishment’, anti-Catholic feeling seems to have played only a subsidiary role in the independents’ unexpected success, which was deemed ‘a very extraordinary event’.5
In a bid to reassert his authority over the corporation Lord Grosvenor informed them, 18 Sept. 1807, that he intended to serve as mayor for the ensuing year, thereby snubbing Sellers, whose turn it was. In the same speech, which provoked heated argument between the anti-Grosvenor Chester Courant and the pro-Grosvenor Chronicle, he was reported to have said that if Egerton was to be returned again for Chester, it must be on the Eaton Hall interest, and to have boasted of the great wealth which would enable him to uphold that interest. The independents responded with a public dinner, 9 Nov. 1807, when Barnston declared that Egerton would never submit to being returned as a Grosvenor nominee.6 The party rancour thus engendered was sustained by the newspaper war, entered the local elections in 1809, when the independents unsuccessfully challenged the corporation nominations for mayor and second (‘popular’) sheriff, and caused disturbances the following year. According to the independents, the Grosvenors sought to cow the freemen by threats of eviction, unjustified prosecutions, refusal of public house licences to Egerton supporters and partisan administration of the Owen Jones charity fund. At the 15th birthday celebrations of Grosvenor’s eldest son Robert, Viscount Belgrave, 27 Jan. 1810, it was announced that at the next general election Thomas Grosvenor would be partnered on the Eaton interest by Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory. Egerton declared his intention of standing and his committee canvassed for him. At a corporation meeting in March, when Brooke and six other Grosvenor nominees were made freemen, Lord Grosvenor attacked the Perceval ministry, accused his enemies of trying to divide the corporation and criticized Egerton for his silence in the House. In reply, John Bennett and Robert Brittain defended Egerton and charged Grosvenor with electoral bullying. Egerton visited Chester in April and rallied with his leading supporters.7
All three declared candidates came forward in 1812 when the independents, seeking a colleague for Egerton to prevent second votes going astray, issued an invitation to the local banker Hugh Robert Hughes of Bache Hall, brother of the Whig William Lewis Hughes*. He declined, but on the morning of the election Egerton was joined by Edward Venables Townshend of Wincham. Gen. Grosvenor was reasonably sure of success and the real struggle was between Brooke and Egerton, whom the Grosvenors attacked, unfairly, as a slavish supporter of government. Their opponents’ cry was one of electoral independence, supplemented by some exploitation of anti-Catholic feeling. Brooke’s weakness as a Grosvenor puppet was seized on and Egerton portrayed as a genuine independent who had exercised his honest judgment on all major issues in the House. Only 18 of the 1,188 freemen who voted cast plumpers; 569 voted for Grosvenor and Brooke, 545 for Egerton and Townshend. Egerton owed his majority over Brooke to 51 votes which he shared with Grosvenor. Of 77 gentlemen who voted, 43 supported the Eaton candidates, 27 the independents, while seven were cross-voters. Nine aldermen voted for Grosvenor and Brooke, two (Thomas Evans and Seller) for Egerton and Townshend, one (William Newell) for Egerton and Grosvenor, while one (Joseph Dyson) plumped for Brooke. No clear pattern emerges from an occupational analysis of the voting of the bulk of the electorate. There was considerable disorder, aggravated because the election coincided with the Michaelmas fair. Expenses were heavy, and one account put Egerton’s costs at £15,000, the Grosvenors’ at twice that. Egerton was said to have bought the former Grosvenor crown lease and the Grosvenors were accused of large scale bribery and intimidation. A later estimate put the number of new freemen enrolled in 1812 at 600.8
There was trouble at the local elections in 1813 when the retiring mayor, Samuel Bennett, having fallen out with the corporation over a personal matter, unexpectedly acceded to the independents’ usual request that the election of the entire corporation be thrown open to the freemen. The corporation chose Sir Watkin Williams Wynn* as mayor, while the independents not only picked Seller, but elected a whole complement of aldermen and councilmen, thus bringing two corporations into existence. The dispute went to law and was settled in favour of the old corporation. In the mayoral election of 1817 Seller beat Henry Bowers by 271 votes to 268, with Thomas Bradford in third place, but the aldermen exercised their right to choose from the two highest on the poll and nominated Bowers.9
Egerton’s vote for the continued suspension of habeas corpus in June 1817 prompted a number of his leading Whig supporters to disown him, and, after taking soundings, he announced early in December that he would not stand at the next election. Almost immediately Belgrave came forward and began a canvass, which was answered in kind by Egerton’s committee, despite his declaration of withdrawal. The bishop of Exeter wrote to Sidmouth, the Home secretary, 16 Dec. 1817:
Such is the weight of Lord Grosvenor’s purse and such the influence of Methodism and democracy among the middling classes in this place, that I fear Lord Grosvenor will walk over the course unopposed.
The seceders from the Egerton party expressed willingness to support Belgrave as the son of a reforming Whig, but only on condition that no attempt was made to return another Grosvenor candidate with him. They made an approach to Sir Samuel Romilly*, the eminent Whig lawyer, through their chairman Joseph Swanwick, who claimed that
some of those who, while they admired ... [Lord Grosvenor’s] political conduct, were still strongly attached to the independence of the city, have had a most satisfactory explanation with his lordship ... [who] has pledged himself not to oppose the introduction of a Member of liberal principles but, on the contrary, if he should appear to meet the approbation of the citizens, to give him his decided support.
Romilly replied that he was not prepared to fight a contest for the seat or even go through the customary process of electioneering. John Whishaw told Lady Holland, 28 Dec. 1817:
I have had letters from Chester, from which it seems that Romilly would only be supported by the dissenting interest there, which is far from considerable ... Lord Grosvenor is making great exertions, and is sure of bringing in his son ... and possibly ... General Grosvenor. The popular party have hitherto failed in finding a candidate who will stand the expense.
Next day Swanwick confirmed in a letter to Romilly that hopes of a compromise with Lord Grosvenor had been dashed:
We conceived that the foreground was perfectly clear; that all parties fully understood each other; and that the only opponent we had to contend with was the ministerial interest in the city. In this it appears that we have been mistaken, and that it is not impossible a second member of the Grosvenor family may be brought forward ... We ... have not acted upon light grounds: direct interviews with Lord Grosvenor, in the presence of his confidential agents, convinced both them and us, that the general was not to be brought forward, and that our nomination was perfectly agreeable ... but, owing to unpleasant rumours, we again saw Lord Grosvenor on Saturday evening last, when it appeared by no means so certain, that General Grosvenor would be withdrawn. Under these circumstances ... we thought ourselves called upon to close our intercourse on this subject with his lordship.10
In announcing that Romilly had declined, the Whig independents revealed the failure of their attempt to come to terms with Lord Grosvenor, stated that Egerton was acceptable in so far as his cause was merely that of electoral independence, but condemned his politics. Encouraged by the success of their canvass, Egerton’s committee, who sought to brand the seceders as an isolated faction who had tried to introduce Romilly under the aegis of Lord Grosvenor, invited their man to reconsider his decision. On 20 Jan. 1818 it was announced that Egerton was ‘ready to obey their call’. At the dissolution Gen. Grosvenor confirmed that he would stand again. The Whig independents were driven to reunite with Egerton’s friends, who agreed to introduce the Whig barrister John Williams, a native of Cheshire, as the token fourth candidate. The independents concentrated their attack on Gen. Grosvenor and his sparse voting record, claiming a monopoly of genuine independence for Egerton, who only arrived in Chester on the eve of the election. Williams, said to be detained in Cornwall on urgent business, did not appear until the fifth day. The Grosvenors again attacked Egerton as a servile ministerialist and vaunted their own claims, as oppositionists, to political independence. Egerton led for four days but was overtaken by Belgrave on the fifth. At the close of polling the next day he was still ahead of Grosvenor by 26 votes, but a survey of unpolled freemen convinced his committee that he had no chance. They conceded victory the next morning, but some zealots kept the poll open for two more days, during which Egerton received only 29 votes, as against 188 for Belgrave and 185 for Grosvenor. Of the 1,346 freemen who voted, only 13 cast plumpers; 734 voted for the Grosvenors; 521 for the independents, 24 fewer than in 1812. The 74 votes split between Belgrave and Egerton were far too few to give the latter any chance of holding on to the second seat. Of 65 gentlemen who polled, 37 voted for the Grosvenors, 20 for the independents, six for Belgrave and Egerton, and two voted for Egerton only. Eight aldermen voted for the Grosvenors, one (Evans) for Egerton and Williams, and one (Samuel Bennett) for Belgrave and Egerton.11
At the election for popular sheriff in October 1818 the independent candidate beat the corporation nominee by 652 votes to 571. A quarrel arising out of this and the mayoral election led to a duel between Belgrave and Egerton.12 On 22 Jan. 1819 petitions were presented from Egerton and Williams and a number of electors accusing the Grosvenors of illegal treating and bribery. The subsequent inquiry revealed plentiful evidence of corruption, but Belgrave was declared duly elected by ten votes to four, Grosvenor by 8 to 6.13 In 1819, the corporation nominees won hotly contested elections for mayor and second sheriff. Egerton, whose electioneering activities played havoc with his finances, tried again in 1820, but was beaten into third place by only 18 votes. There was an equally close result in 1826, and from 1830 onwards the Grosvenors restricted themselves to one seat at Chester.
Authors: M. H. Port / David R. Fisher
- 1. VCH Cheshire, ii. 134; J. Hemingway, Chester, ii. 400-1; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iii. 113-14.
- 2. Hemingway, ii. 402-5; G. L. Fenwick, Chester, 394; R. Eddowes, State of Facts (1788); J. Templar, Whole Procs. concerning Quo Warranto (1791).
- 3. Ginter, Whig Organization, 241-4.
- 4. Electioneering Interests in Chester (1807), 39.
- 5. Ibid. pp. iii. 9-18; Hemingway, ii. 406-7; VCH Cheshire, ii. 137; Glynne-Gladstone mss at St. Deiniols, G14, Glynne to his wife [c. 3 May], 27 May; G38, to his mother [2 May] 1807; NLI, Richmond mss 69/1233.
- 6. Electioneering Interests, 20-53; Hemingway, ii. 407.
- 7. Hemingway, ii. 407-10; Pprs. relating to Parl. Rep. Chester (1810), 1-19, 79-104; Hist. Chester Election, 1812, pp. vi-ix.
- 8. Hemingway, ii. 410-12; VCH Cheshire, ii. 137; Hist. Chester Election, 1812; Chester Pollbook (1812); PP (1835), xxv. 2623.
- 9. Pol. Hist. Chester (1814), 25-56; Hemingway, ii. 413-14.
- 10. Hist. Chester Election, 1818, pp. 1-5; Sidmouth mss; Romilly, Mems. iii. 319-23; Add. 51658.
- 11. Hemingway, ii. 415-16; Hist. Chester Election, 1818, pp. 15-73; The Late Elections (1818), 63-72.
- 12. Hemingway, ii. 418; Pollbook for election of Sheriff (1818); Edinburgh Advertiser, 3 Nov. 1818.
- 13. CJ, lxxiv. 26, 143-5, 187-8; Report of Procs. Chester Election (1819).