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 and freeholders

Number of voters:

about 1,300


(1801): 16,827


17 June 1790JAMES BULLER I1106
 Sir Charles Warwick Bampfylde, Bt.550
27 May 1796JOHN BARING 
5 July 1802JAMES BULLER I786
 Edmund Granger444
6 Oct. 1812JAMES BULLER I 
 Thomas Northmore293

Main Article

Exeter’s period of high commercial prosperity ended with the decline of the Devon cloth industry from the mid 18th century. Largely untouched by the industrial revolution, it retained the traditional life and social structure of a cathedral city and provincial capital, rooted in rural society.1 As a constituency it was open but expensive. There was a tradition of lavish entertaining, known as ‘quilling’, and the cost of bringing the many nonresident freemen to the poll was high: in 1818 freemen outnumbered freeholders in the poll by two to one.2 Strangers stood no chance of success and all the Members in this period had strong local or at least county connexions. The self-perpetuating corporation or ‘chamber’, from which dissenters were excluded until the 1830s, had the strongest single interest. Overlapping and allied to this was the influence of the cathedral. Opposition to the chamber and city establishment came mainly from leading resident dissenters, usually merchants and prosperous tradesmen, who, resenting their exclusion from a share in the control of local affairs, were prone to exaggerate the corporation’s corruption and inefficiency.3 Southey wrote in 1802 of the Exonians that ‘their politics are as little progressive as their police’,4 but the city was by no means barren territory for Whigs, though radicalism made little significant headway in this period.

James Buller of nearby Downes came forward with chamber support in November 1789 and initiated an expensive bout of quilling which drew in the sitting Members, John Baring, once the wealthiest clothier in Exeter and a sleeping partner in the London finance house, who supported government, and Sir Charles Bampfylde of Poltimore, whose greatest handicap was not his Whiggism but the parlous state of his finances. In March 1790 Baring abstained on the repeal of the Test Act, while Bampfylde, against his own conscience, so he later claimed, voted against repeal, feeling ‘compelled to it by his connections’ in Exeter. It was observed that Baring’s ‘pusillanimous’ conduct had angered many of his constituents and might even cost him the second seat which lay between him and Bampfylde, Buller being already assured of success.5 At the general election Buller polled almost as many votes as his rivals put together and Baring narrowly took second place, despite a late report that ‘the court’ was ‘doubtful of the contest at Exeter, where Sir C. Bampfylde dances with the butchers’ wives and gains more ground than his opponents expected’. Bampfylde, desperate for a refuge from his creditors, pinned his hopes on the outcome of a petition lodged in the names of several freemen against Baring’s return, alleging bribery, treating and polling illegal votes, but on 23 Mar. 1791 the election committee divided eight to seven in favour of Baring’s retention of the seat. Buller’s election expenditure was put at £16,000, Baring’s at £10,000 and Bampfylde’s at £8,000.6

A presumably rehabilitated Bampfylde offered himself for the next general election in July 1795 and by September it had been ‘settled by a compromise’ that Buller was to make way for him.7 He and Baring were unopposed in 1796. Baring retired in 1802 and Buller reappeared to join Bampfylde as the chamber’s approved candidates. They were challenged by Edmund Granger, a local merchant standing on ‘independent principles’. According to one report Buller, ‘universally the favoured candidate’, was explicitly linked with Granger in an attack on Bampfylde, ‘but on the fixed principle that the election was to be conducted without any kind of expense’. Buller, it was said, obtained many second votes from the supporters of both other men but Bampfylde was forced to spend heavily to bring in outvoters to defeat Granger, who received the support of about a quarter of the total electorate.8

There was no disturbance in 1806 or 1807, when both the sitting Members had chamber support. When Bampfylde announced his intended retirement early in 1811, ‘the corporation and principal people of the city’ invited William Courtenay, son of a former bishop of Exeter and a member of one of the oldest families in Devon, to replace him, notwithstanding the scandal surrounding his second cousin and head of the family, the 3rd Viscount Courtenay of Powderham Castle, who had to fly abroad at about this time to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences.9 Courtenay accepted and was returned unopposed with Buller in 1812.

Buller’s announcement of his intended retirement at the next general election in October 1816 brought two candidates immediately into the field. Robert William Newman, who belonged to an old Dartmouth family which had prospered in the Newfoundland-Portugal trade, though he himself had as yet little landed property in Devon, was sitting Member for Bletchingley. A regular and consistent voter with opposition from 1816, but an opponent of Catholic relief, he claimed to be ‘perfectly unconnected with any political party’. William Arundel Harris of Lifton, who also had property in Cornwall, followed, denouncing parliamentary reform and ‘subversion’ in church and state. In November 1816 a meeting of about go resident electors invited Thomas Northmore of Cleve House, an amateur geologist and founder member of the Hampden Club, to stand as the opponent of local and national tyranny and corruption. Northmore declined, but promised to come forward if 300 electors would pledge him their support: following the example of reforming candidates elsewhere, he would neither canvass nor spend any money. A committee of his supporters, claiming to represent ‘industrious mechanics’ and the ‘lower classes of tradesmen’, was formed and engineered a meeting which resolved to return him without personal expense, and produced a requisition with the necessary 300 subscribers. In response to Northmore’s subsequent calls for economical and parliamentary reform and denunciations of both Whigs and Tories, Newman declared his support for moderate reform. Courtenay announced that he would seek re-election but Harris, claiming that there was a widespread wish to return Buller free of expense, withdrew on 13 Dec. 1816, only to come forward again eight days later, having ascertained that Buller definitely would not stand. In the electioneering which ensued Northmore exaggeratedly described Courtenay, a general but by no means slavish supporter of government, as a ministerial lackey (he held a sinecure worth £850 a year) and made much of his support for the continuance of the property tax in defiance of popular feeling in the city.10

Lady Holland told Francis Horner, a friend of Courtenay, on 20 Jan. 1817:

Northmore [is] a man of character and abilities who will not ask votes, but declares he is ready to be the attorney in Parliament of the electors of Exeter. His partisans, less scrupulous, have obtained out of 600 votes the promises of the majority and Courtenay’s difficulties are increased by a very general opinion of Lord Courtenay having declined to advance money in case of a contest.11

At the dissolution of 1818 Harris withdrew, professedly because his duties as sheriff of Cornwall during the previous year had prevented him from keeping up his interest, though it was rumoured that the chamber feared that his remaining a candidate might drive Newman, to whom they were not well disposed, to coalesce with and assist Northmore. The latter predictably accused Courtenay and Newman of combining against him, attacked Courtenay as a sinecurist and charged Newman with trying to buy success with food and drink. After the first day’s polling he was only 14 behind Newman, but thereafter he fell steadily away and eventually failed to muster his much-vaunted 300 ‘unbought’ votes.12

Analysis of the pollbook13 suggests that there was an implicit if not an official junction between Courtenay, easily the strongest candidate, and Newman, probably the lesser of two evils in many eyes. Between them they shared the votes of 510 electors, which represented 70 per cent of Courtenay’s total and 82 per cent of Newman’s. Of Northmore’s 293 votes, 144 were plumpers; Courtenay received 135, almost a fifth of his total, and Newman only 51, less than a tenth of his. Sixty-four voters (six per cent of those who polled) split between Newman and Northmore, and 85 (nine per cent) between Courtenay and Northmore.

Freemen and freeholders generally distributed their votes between the candidates in roughly similar fashion, though only 18 freeholders (5 per cent of the total polled) plumped for Courtenay, as against 117 freemen (18 per cent), while 59 per cent of the voting freeholders split between Courtenay and Newman, as against 48 per cent of the freemen. While the relative proportions of freemen and freeholders among the supporters both of Courtenay and of Newman corresponded almost exactly with their distribution among the electorate as a whole (66 per cent freemen, 34 per cent freeholders), Newman drew slightly more of his votes (39 per cent) from freeholders.

Of 152 gentlemen and clergy, 132 voted for Courtenay, whose consistent support for Catholic relief clearly did him no harm even in a city notorious for its anti-Catholicism, 105 for Newman and only 17 for Northmore. For 16 local officials the corresponding figures were 15, 12 and one, and for 20 attorneys 17, 14 and none. The chamber was lukewarm towards Newman, who received the second votes of seven of the 15 corporators who polled, but none of them voted for Northmore. Those who plumped for Northmore included seven gentlemen, two bankers and one merchant, but they were mainly artisans, craftsmen and tradesmen, with fullers, bakers, smiths, shoemakers and tailors most prominent. The voters who split for Northmore and Newman were similarly composed, but from all numerically significant occupational groups Courtenay obtained almost as much and in most cases substantially more, support.

Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher


  • 1. See W. G. Hoskins, Industry, Trade and People in Exeter, 1688-1800 and R. Newton, Victorian Exeter .
  • 2. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 286; R. Cullum, Exeter and Devon Addresses (1818), 120.
  • 3. PP (1835), xxiii. 498.
  • 4. Letters from England (1807), i. 28.
  • 5. A. Jenkins, Exeter (1841), 219-20; Add. 35392, f. 162; Devon RO, Bastard mss, address to Protestant dissenters [June 1790].
  • 6. Bland Burges mss, Mary Anne to James Bland Burges, 13 June 1790; Ginter, Whig Organization, 130, 228-9; CJ, xlvi. 17, 342; Morning Chron. 28 Mar. 1791; Trans. Devon Assoc. lxii (1930), 207.
  • 7. Oracle, 8 July, 14 Sept. 1795.
  • 8. The Times, 3, 14 July 1802.
  • 9. Horner mss 5, f. 23.
  • 10. Cullum, 5-54.
  • 11. Add. 51644.
  • 12. Cullum, 80-119.
  • 13. Ibid. 120-30.