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 corporation

Number of voters:

30 in 1790 rising to about 70 in 18181


(1801): 2,248


21 June 1790SIR GILBERT ELLIOT, Bt.29 
  Double return. ELLIOT and LUSHINGTON declared elected, 23 Dec. 1790  
19 June 1795 CHARLES ABBOT vice Elliot, appointed to office  
27 May 1796CHARLES ABBOT  
30 Mar. 1799 LORD FRANCIS GODOLPHIN OSBORNE vice Richards, vacated his seat  
22 May 1801 ABBOT re-elected after appointment to office  
7 July 1802JAMES EDWARD HARRIS, Visct. FitzHarris  
26 May 1804 DAVIES GIDDY vice FitzHarris, appointed to office  
10 May 1805 ARCHIBALD JOHN PRIMROSE, Visct. Primrose, vice Penn, vacated his seat  
21 Apr. 1806 SIR JOHN SHELLEY, Bt., vice Giddy, vacated his seat  
16 Jan. 1807 HON. THOMAS BRAND vice Vansittart, chose to sit for Old Sarum  
11 May 1807SIR JOHN ST. AUBYN, Bt.  
29 July 1807 SIR JAMES STEVENSON BLACKWOOD, Bt., Baron Dufferin and Claneboye [I], vice Richards, vacated his seat  
10 Oct. 1812WILLIAM HORNE14 
 Sir Christopher Hawkins, Bt.3 
 Charles Trelawny Brereton33 
 William Leake 

Main Article

The principal interest in this corporation borough lay with Francis, 5th Duke of Leeds, heir to the Godolphin interest there. His hold on the borough had, however, been undermined by a decision of the House, made in 1775 and subsequently confirmed, whereby the right of voting lay not in the new corporation, created by a charter of 1774 on the Godolphin interest, but in the surviving old corporators, whose number had dwindled by 1787 to one, the obstinate octogenarian Richard Penhall. The duke decided to stand by the perverse decision of the House and engaged Penhall to return again his under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Bland Burges, and his former school fellow Charles Abbot in 1790.2

Meanwhile the ‘new’ corporation, inspired by Alderman John Rogers†, who was aided and abetted by his brother-in-law Sir Francis Basset* and the latter’s brother-in-law Sir John St. Aubyn*, two local gentlemen hostile to the duke, and friends of opposition, had increased their numbers and secured a King’s bench decision in favour of their right to do so (Rex v Pasmore, 1786). Writing to Capt. Payne, the Prince of Wales’s aide, Basset alleged (25 June 1789): ‘By the unanimous decision of the court of King’s bench, my friends have lately got the borough of Helston completely from the Duke of Leeds’. He went on to ask to have a Helston man appointed a supervisor of tin, rather than another nominee of the duke’s.3

The junta opposed to the duke brought forward Sir Gilbert Elliot (on the recommendation of Lord Malmesbury) and Stephen Lushington, another Whig looking for a seat, as their candidates and returned them unanimously; but Penhall insisted on holding his own election and returned the duke’s nominees. The sheriff of Cornwall, who had delivered his precept to the mayor and not to Penhall, made a premeditated double return, affixing the new corporation’s nominees first. The House, after hearing the most ingenious arguments by counsel for Penhall that he was the universal heir of the old corporation, this time decided in favour of the new, 23 Dec. 1790. Bland Burges wrote a disgruntled letter to Lord Auckland, 28 Dec.:

I congratulate you on the success of your brother-in-law Sir Gilbert Elliot who is seated for Helston at my expense. This is rather a curious transaction, as, in my cool judgment, there never was a decision more perfectly improper, or less to be supported either by law, evidence or common sense.4

The Duke of Leeds was less dogmatic. On 25 Sept. 1790 the Duke of Portland reported:

Basset writes me word that St. Aubyn and Rogers have determined (without prejudice to the present return and petition) to give up Helston upon account of the expense it puts them to. That they have signified their intention to the rest of the corporation who immediately dispatched three of their body to negotiate as B[asset] supposes with the Duke of Leeds. He asks me if we have any friend who would engage in it—but how can he without the corporation?

The duke came to an agreement with Basset whereby the latter gave up his interest at Helston in exchange for security from the duke’s intervention at Penryn. He became reconciled with the ‘new’ corporation, to which old Penhall was duly admitted, 14 Apr. 1791; it cost him £200 p.a. until a place could be found for Edward Rogers, who clinched the deal. At the same time he fell out with administration, resigning his office in 1791. This caused no embarrassment to the corporation, though it did give the duke’s nominees cause for reflection: by 1792 ‘every connection’ between him and Bland Burges was ‘at an end’. Nor would he have any truck with Sir Gilbert Elliot, who went over to the ministry as viceroy of Corsica and wished, if not eligible for re-election himself, to substitute his kinsman William Elliot*.5

The duke regarded himself as committed to Abbot on the first vacancy, and when Elliot was required to resign his seat at the end of 1795 in came Abbot, who was better disposed to administration than his patron. He was chosen unanimously and rebuked his constituents when they sent him a petition against the sedition bills. No resistance was expected from Lushington to his exclusion at the dissolution. In 1796 when Abbot’s friend Richards, ‘a perfect stranger (except by character)’ to the duke, became his colleague by an arrangement made the previous August, they were unanimously returned by 16 of the 19 electors. Abbot wrote to Richards:

I cannot be any man’s blackamoor, and if I should think it right to give a current support to one side, while our friend [the duke] should take a line decidedly opposite, although I should not conclude unnecessarily that he meant me to follow in his train, yet I should not be unprepared to quit upon notice. He and I never have exchanged one syllable upon politics.

He added that he saw no reason why they should not hold on to their seats (which had cost them only their 100 guinea subscriptions to the corporation building fund), at least until the duke’s second son came of age. There was a clash between Abbot and the duke in December 1797, but he emerged with his political independence secure. So it was that both supported administration until the duke’s death in January 1799. Both offered to resign, but, as agreed between them, Richards vacated his seat ‘to throw it into the hands of its natural representative’, the new duke’s younger brother. The latter took on half of his brother’s expenses. Abbot expected to find a seat elsewhere at the next election and was not consulted when in April 1800 the duke negotiated with ‘Mr Pierrepont’ for that contingency. By January 1801 his brother had decided not to sit for Helston again, nor would he interfere for ‘Robinson’, who wished to do so. Abbot, who wanted to transfer from Helston to Heytesbury before the dissolution, did not do so when the vacancy arose.6

The 6th Duke was much concerned about the expense of maintaining his interest and by January 1802 had secured paying guests for the next election. After it, he obtained a confidential report on Helston, October 1802, which examined the circumstances and attitudes of each member of the corporation and showed that while the mayor could be relied on as the duke’s agent, other corporators were less reliable and based their support on the expectation of favours, not least the clerical members, who expected preferment. Moreover, the duke’s property was unreliable, being based on leases for lives, and he had the ‘monstrous expense’ of maintaining public buildings, finding places for corporators and paying the poor and church rates (by now about £1,000 a year). The report concluded that the interest was ‘precarious’ and perhaps not worth continuing. Consequently, by September 1803, William Pitt was informed that

the Duke of Leeds has just signified to the electors of Helston ... that he means altogether to withdraw from any further connexion with them—it is impossible not to look with some degree of regret and alarm at the effects which must necessarily be produced in the representation by the forcible suppression in some cases and the voluntary abandonment in others of that great landed and family interest which has so long subsisted, the abatement of which tends to throw the power into the lower, because they are the most numerous, class of voters and by that means to introduce into the House illiberal, ignorant and turbulent persons.7

The vacuum caused by the Duke’s withdrawal had been anticipated by (Sir) Christopher Hawkins*, the Cornish borough-monger, who had some property at Helston and on 24 Oct. 1803 became the new patron of the corporation. On 14 Oct. he informed his brother:

While I was west ... I was informed of the Duke of Leeds’s determination to relinquish Helston and I was advised by some friends to make a proffer of my services. Even Davies Giddy gave me encouragement by saying in my ears he would take that step.

It was Davies Giddy who put Hawkins in touch with Thomas Grylls, mayor of Helston. Seven new freemen were created to celebrate the occasion, the first batch since 1786. This state of affairs was confirmed by the events of 1804 when Viscount FitzHarris, returned by the duke in 1802 at the request of Lord Pelham, was required to seek reelection on appointment to office under Pitt: the young man’s father Lord Malmesbury wrote in his journal, 16 May 1804: ‘Lord Pelham confirms me in his letter that the Duke of Leeds’s interest at Helston is on the decline, but he thinks the borough may still be carrie’. He added that Pitt was of the opinion ‘that if I could not re-elect him for Helston, they [the Treasury] must’. Next day Malmesbury informed Pitt that he had seen the Duke of Leeds, who referred him to Hawkins, having completely abandoned the borough. He believed that Hawkins would make ‘no great difficulty’ about returning his son, but Hawkins was already engaged.8

In the event the Duke of Leeds did not see it as his ‘bounden duty’ to revive his interest and Viscount FitzHarris had to find a seat elsewhere. Davies Giddy, Hawkins’s friend, who had property near Helston, was returned. Hawkins ‘soon ceased to retain his influence’. It seems that he sold the seat to Giddy for £5,000, but on condition of his supporting the administration, and, in March 1806, finding Giddy too independent and having found a higher bidder in the Prince of Wales’s friend Sir John Shelley, he required Giddy to resign his seat, despite an attempt by the latter’s friend Lord de Dunstanville to buy him off. Giddy found the patron’s conduct ‘unliberal and unexpected’ and so did John Rogers and Grylls, but it secured Hawkins patronage for two friends. He was rejected as patron by a resolution of the corporation and freemen, 29 Apr. 1807, because of ‘the late proceedings in the House of Commons’ exposing his corruption.9

An agreement then took place whereby the Duke of Leeds and Sir John St. Aubyn, who had intimated the resumption of his former interest at Helston after the election of 1806, took over joint patronage of the borough, ‘each having one Member and paying the borough burdens in equal moieties’. This agreement, accepted by the corporation on 29 Apr. 1807, operated at the ensuing election. The duke nominated in succession two friends of administration to one seat and St. Aubyn returned himself: he was backed by the interest of John Rogers, given in 1803 to Hawkins. In May 1812 St. Aubyn wrote to the mayor giving up his seat and interest and agreed, on being questioned, to pay his expenses until the dissolution. Thereupon a meeting of leading corporators agreed to offer full patronage to the duke once more, a suggestion that Sir Christopher Hawkins be approached being rejected, 8 Oct. 1812, despite the latter’s ostentatious offer of his services. The duke agreed to the bargain and early in October wrote to Grylls, who was his steward: ‘Sir, I beg leave to recommend Hugh Hammersley esq. banker and William Horne esq. barrister at law as proper candidates to be nominated to represent the borough of Helston in Parliament’.10

When his nominees arrived at Helston, they found that the mayor Peter Hill was hostile to the duke, owing to his not having obtained some favour in the past, and was supporting the pretensions of Sir Christopher Hawkins. The duke’s nominees sought to placate Hill, or rather his wife for Hill was deaf, but failed, and Hawkins went to the poll. He got nowhere, the Grylls brothers having energetically canvassed their fellow corporators for the duke, but he believed that the ‘commonalty’ favoured him and, in a petition against the return, alleged, among other things, that the duke exercised corruption to secure his friends’ return, 14 Dec. 1812. The House decided in favour of the sitting Members, 24 Mar. 1813, but resolved that ‘an illegal agreement has for some time existed between the Duke of Leeds and the greater part of the corporation’. Consideration of this resolution, which referred to the duke’s agreement to shoulder the expense of the poor rates for the corporation, was deferred until 21 June when, since the chairman of the election committee William Astell refused to act on it, Henry Swann, a friend of Hawkins, moved that the duke and four aldermen be prosecuted, alleging that seats had been sold for 5,000 guineas and that the clergy were the chief manipulators of the corporation. This was negatived, but a resolution inspired by Davies Giddy that leave be given for a bill to secure the ‘freedom and purity’ of elections in the borough (to be prepared by Davies Giddy, Bankes, Swann, Williams Wynn and Serjeant Onslow) was carried. It was passed on 2 July, but was rejected by the Lords on 13 July; it proposed the extension of the franchise to the two neighbouring hundreds, a suggestion made by Tremayne the county Member in the debate of 21 June. In the meantime, the corporation had hastily sought respectability by creating 22 new freemen in April 1813 and 48 more in the following month.11

The Helston election bill was reintroduced by Bankes and Swann in 1813, 1814, 1815 and 1816, but on each occasion rejected by the Lords. The reformers, in the face of growing indifference, gave up the struggle. Sir Christopher Hawkins did not. Having failed to win over the recorder John Rogers, who insisted on remaining neutral, he approached John Trevenen, a member of the corporation friendly to the duke, asking him to arrange for his brother-in-law Charles Trelawny Brereton* to have a seat, which Trevenen refused. Hawkins threatened on 2 June 1818 that he would expose irregularities in the corporation, and on 18 June at a public meeting advertised by him, presented Brereton with the support of four corporators, ‘exposed’ the irregularity of John Rogers being both alderman and recorder of the borough and demanded a new charter. He put up Brereton and William Leake against the duke’s brothers-in-law, Townshend and Hudson (who had canvassed in December 1817) but without success; nor were his subsequent quo warranto proceedings against the corporation effective, Chief Justice Abbot ruling that they were inspired by a partisan desire ‘to obtain parliamentary influence’. After much buffeting, the Godolphin interest still prevailed in 1820, though opposition to its ‘monopoly’, abetted by Sir Christopher Hawkins, continued.12

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. For a list of freemen admitted see H. Spencer Toy, Hist. Helston (1936), 603-6, which also gives a detailed account of the impact of parliamentary elections on the corporation in this period.
  • 2. Oldfield, Boroughs, i. 83; Spencer Toy, 266.
  • 3. Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 460.
  • 4. Minto, i. 362; Blair Adam mss, list of Whigs without seats, 1789; Add. 28066, f. 36; 34434, f. 391; CJ, xlvi. 13, 134.
  • 5. Ginter, Whig Organization, 213; PRO 30/9/1, pt. 1/2, Brooks to Abbot, 4 Nov. 1801; 30/9/12/2, Leeds to Abbot, 29 Jan. 1792, 10 Oct. 1794, 23 Aug. 1795; NLS mss 11137, f. 63; 11138, ff. 71, 79, 93; Colchester, i. 9.
  • 6. Add. 28067, f. 188, Leeds to Richard Glover* (who had hoped to be returned by him), 8 Apr. 1798; PRO 30/9/32, ff. 303, 329, 331; 33, f. 15; Colchester, i. pp. xviii, 59; Corresp. of Lady Williams Wynn, 50.
  • 7. Add. 33109, f. 58; 33110, ff. 48-49; PRO 30/8/132, f. 173.
  • 8. Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DDJ 2122, ff. 29, 41, 78; W. Suss. RO, Hawkins mss, vol. 7; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 307; Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to Pelham, 14, 15 May, reply 15 May, Malmesbury to Pitt, 25 May 1804; PRO 30/8/155, f. 135.
  • 9. Cornw. RO, Gilbert mss diary, 28 Mar. 1806; Johnstone mss 2122, ff. 160, 166, 167, 178, 198, 200; 2124; Add. 37415, f. 21; Parl. Deb. xxvi. 797.
  • 10. Spencer Toy, 286, 287-9; Johnstone mss 2128; CJ, lxx. 323.
  • 11. CJ, lxviii. 59, 344, 586; Parl. Deb. xxv. 284; xxvi. 621, 796.
  • 12. Parl. Deb. xxvii. 49, 179, 195; xxix. 449, 788; xxxiii. 296, 887; Spencer Toy, 304; Hawkins mss 7, Sir C. to J. Hawkins, 30 Sept. 1818; Johnstone mss 2128-32.