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 inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

about 600


(1801): 4,130


18 June 1790HENRY BATHURST, Lord Apsley302
 Robert Preston253
 PRESTON vice Master, on petition, 10 May 1792 
20 Sept. 1794 MICHAEL HICKS BEACH vice Apsley, called to the Upper House 
 Thomas Bayly Howell231
 Thomas Bayly Howell226
12 Oct. 1812HENRY GEORGE BATHURST, Lord Apsley464
 Joseph Cripps318
17 June 1818HENRY GEORGE BATHURST, Lord Apsley412
 Richard Estcourt Cresswell40

Main Article

The strongest interest at Cirencester belonged to the Earls Bathurst, whose house and park adjoined the town and who, as lords of the manor, appointed the steward and bailiff, the returning officers. Their influence was all-pervading, but it fell considerably short of total electoral control of a borough where a sizeable proportion of the adult males had the vote. They commanded the return to one seat only, while the other usually went to local men or neighbouring landowners. In 1785 the Master family, whose property lay within the town on the site of the former abbey, reasserted their interest, older even than the Bathursts’, after a lapse of 36 years. A spate of contests in the 1760s and 1770s had shown the existence of a significant independent element within the borough, and, after a period of tranquillity, four of the six general elections between 1790 and 1812 were fiercely contested.

In 1790 the sitting Members, Lord Apsley, the 2nd Earl Bathurst’s son, and Richard Master, younger brother of the county Member, received a late challenge from an outsider, Robert Preston, a Scottish nabob and wealthy London merchant, who had been government Member for Dover in the 1784 Parliament. Government apparently intervened on behalf of Apsley, a lord of the Treasury, whose return was probably certain, but Master beat Preston into third place by only nine votes. Although Preston polled 101 plumpers, and over 75 per cent of Master’s votes (203) were shared with Apsley, there was considerable cross-voting: 97 electors split between Apsley and Preston, 55 between Preston and Master. Preston petitioned against Master’s return, alleging the admission of illegal votes by the steward and bailiff, who was Joseph Pitt*, a local banker and solicitor on his way to becoming a Wiltshire borough-monger. In 1792 the election committee found for Preston and ruled, in accordance with a resolution of 1709, that the inhabitants of the Abbey, the Emery and Spiringate Lane, which lay outside the ancient hundred of the borough, were not entitled to vote.1

When Bathurst’s death removed Apsley to the Lords in August 1794 there was no replacement available from the immediate family. Michael Hicks Beach, a wealthy landowner and the recent purchaser of Williamstrip Park, about eight miles away, whose previous owner had sat for Cirencester from 1774 until 1785, came forward, presumably obtained the new earl’s support and was returned unopposed. He and Preston were attacked in 1796 by Thomas Bayly Howell of Prinknash Park, about nine miles from Cirencester, a friend of Lord Lansdowne’s reprobate son Lord Wycombe*, who accused them of forming ‘a secret combination of very discordant interests’. It was later said that ministerial influence was exercised against him. He polled respectably, but was comfortably beaten. He petitioned, charging Preston with bribery and illegal treating, while a number of electors complained of an infringement by the returning officers of the regulations governing due notice of election. Neither petition was followed up.2

Howell continued to cultivate an interest in the borough by buying up houses and erecting tontines and tried again in 1802. According to Edward Loveden*, who thought Preston, a staunch Pittite, would be ‘hard run if not beaten’, Howell now enjoyed some ministerial support through the exertions of Matthew Surtees, prebend of Gloucester and brother-in-law of Lord Chancellor Eldon. After a three-day poll in which 468 electors voted and 34 were turned away, Hicks Beach and Preston were successful. They shared the votes of 227 electors (82 per cent of Preston’s total, 62 per cent of Hicks Beach’s), while 56 of Howell’s 226 votes were plumpers; but there was again much cross-voting, with 127 splitting between Hicks Beach and Howell (over half the latter’s total) and 43 between Preston and Howell. Shortly after the election it was reported that Pitt, now steward of the manor, had laid the first stone of 23 tontine houses intended to accommodate ‘those persons who may be deprived of their houses’ as a result of their votes. Certain electors petitioned, accusing Hicks Beach and Preston of treating, but their case was quickly dismissed by the committee of inquiry.3

While there was no contest in 1806, there was no lack of controversy. Preston, who was in Scotland when Parliament was dissolved, claimed that on his arrival in London he was told that there was a general desire for a quiet election and that Joseph Cripps, a local clothier, banker and brewer, had resisted calls to stand and pledged himself to support Preston if he appeared. When Preston went to Cirencester, however, he found that a ‘direct and personal opposition’ to him had been started on behalf of Cripps, whose advantage was so overwhelming that he withdrew. Cripps, claiming to have responded to ‘the unanimous voice of the inhabitants’, denied Preston’s allegations of underhand conduct. One apologia for him gave the following version of events. At a public meeting on 22 Oct. 1806 he declared that he would support the sitting Members, but this statement was against the sense of the meeting, many of those present arguing that Preston had forfeited support by his neglect of the constituency and pressing Cripps to stand. This Cripps declined to do, even when Preston failed to appear at the expected time. He came the next day, but Cripps’s friends insisted on starting a canvass on his behalf. The banker acquiesced in this, but refused to canvass in person. Another commentator claimed that at the meeting Cripps had agreed to stand only if Preston did not come, argued that the peace of the borough—Cripps’s professed chief object—would have been preserved by his acting in accordance with this declaration, as there was no prospect of another third man appearing, and alleged that he did in fact canvass, though admittedly not on the first day. In March 1812 Joseph Pitt was credited by the hostile Lord Suffolk, who denounced him as an upstart borough-monger, with returning one Member for Cirencester ‘from a corrupt influence’. This was probably an exaggeration, but Pitt may well have played a part in the promotion of Cripps’s candidature in 1806.4

There was no disturbance in 1807. In 1812 Bathurst, a member of Liverpool’s cabinet, put up his eldest son, as he had planned to do since his coming of age in 1811. Both Hicks Beach and Cripps stood their ground. In the ensuing expensive contest, which lasted six days and polled 573 voters, Cripps was just edged out by Hicks Beach. The young Scots lawyer John Campbell, who acted as assessor at Pitt’s request, wrote that at the close of the fifth day

Cripps was completely exhausted. Beach was only six ahead of him, but had about a dozen more to poll. It was then agreed between them that, in consideration of all thoughts of a petition being dropped, Beach’s majority should not be raised above six.

Cripps complained of the surprising vigour with which Hicks Beach had fought against him. Campbell was under the impression that Hicks Beach had been ‘put up by Pitt’ who, according to the historian of Cirencester, had turned against Cripps. It may be significant that Pitt returned Hicks Beach’s son for Malmesbury at this general election. In 1816, Oldfield represented the outcome as the capture of both seats by the Bathurst interest, but the patterns of voting do not support this interpretation. Two hundred and thirty-seven voters split between Apsley and Hicks Beach, but only 19 fewer voted for Apsley and Cripps, while 80 divided their favours between Hicks Beach and Cripps. There were only 40 plumpers, 22 of them for Cripps. It seems likely, in any case, that over a period of 16 years Hicks Beach, irrespective of any backing which he received from Pitt, would have built up an interest in the borough independent of the Bathurst influence.5

Hicks Beach did not stand in 1818, when Bathurst and Cripps combined to crush the token opposition of Richard Estcourt Cresswell of nearby Bibury, son of a former Member for Cirencester. Apsley and Cripps remained in undisturbed possession of their seats at the next five general elections.

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Glocester Jnl. 21 June 1790; K. J. Beecham, Hist. Cirencester (1887), 178; Hist. Cirencester (1842), 121, 140-1; W. R. Williams, Parl. Hist. Glos. 170; CJ, xlvi. 41; xlvii. 12, 479, 781-2, 784; Oldfield, Boroughs, ii. 49.
  • 2. Add. 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland [5 Jan. 1801]; Berks. RO, Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 23 May 1802; Glocester Jnl. 23, 30 May 1796; CJ, lii. 43, 45, 95, 97.
  • 3. Hist. General Election of 1802, p. 29; Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 23 May; Bristol Jnl. 10 July; Glocester Jnl. 12 July 1802; Beecham, 179; Cirencester Pollbook 1802 (London Guildhall Lib.); CJ, lviii. 41, 404-5, 411-12; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections (1804-5), 466-7.
  • 4. Glocester Journal, 27 Oct., 10, 17, 24 Nov., 1 Dec. 1806; Beecham, 179; Add. 51826, Suffolk to Holland, 28 Mar. 1812.
  • 5. NLI, Richmond mss 72/1597; Gloucester Jnl. 13 Oct. 1812; Life of Lord Campbell ed. Hardcastle (1881), i. 288-9; Beecham, 179; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iii. 486.