Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 4,000


23 June 1790WILLIAM PLUMER1830
 William Hale1031
1 June 1796WILLIAM PLUMER1244
 Samuel Ferrand Waddington408
10 July 1802WILLIAM PLUMER1940
 William Baker891
11 Feb. 1805 WILLIAM BAKER vice Lamb, deceased1556
 Hon. Thomas Brand1072
12 Oct. 1812HON. THOMAS BRAND 
23 June 1818HON. THOMAS BRAND 
29 Nov. 1819 HON. WILLIAM LAMB vice Brand, called to the Upper House 

Main Article

Hertfordshire was described in 1819 as ‘a county, in which there is no certainty’.1 James Cecil, 1st Marquess of Salisbury, who aspired to predominance, discovered this in 1790. He had procured the return of Viscount Grimston, a fellow supporter of Pitt, in the contest of 1784; but now the Whigs turned the tables on him. Grimston, having obtained an English peerage with Salisbury’s assistance, made way for William Hale junior of King’s Walden, his brother-in-law, ‘who had nothing to recommend him but Lord Salisbury’s friendship’. George Capel Coningsby, Viscount Malden* had an eye to the vacancy too, but Pitt dissuaded him from standing in Hale’s way. William Baker of Bayfordbury, defeated at Hertford,

who never thought of the county till the day of nomination ... found the general cry of the freeholders so violently against Lord Grimston’s bargain for a peerage, and his being succeeded by Mr Hale ... that he offered himself and carried the election after a very hard-contested poll.

At his nomination, Baker produced a string of resolutions humiliating the aristocratic conspirators and in his address of thanks, 23 June, claimed ‘the triumph of principle over influence in its strongest hold, of manly openness of conduct over mystery and chicane, of independence over power’. He thought that ‘even the majority of those who from pre-engagement, connection, etc. voted against me actually rejoice in my success’. Hale spent nearly £4,000 of Lord Grimston’s money in vain. Baker was supposed to have won considerable support from the dissenters, who might have been more inclined to Viscount Malden had he stood, as his father, a former lord lieutenant of the county, had presbyterian sympathies. In any case, the Duke of Portland, the Whig leader, hailed the result as ‘the most brilliant event’.2 In five out of eight hundreds, the majority were for Plumer and Baker; in Dacorum and Hitchin for Plumer and Hale, and in Cassio plumpers for Hale.

Baker’s success rankled with his ministerial opponents; his resignation from the Friends of the People in June 1792 alienated his more radical supporters, though he confronted them at a county meeting. Opposition to him was led by Thomas Brand of the Hoo, Samuel Whitbread II* and George Byng*, and Brand chaired an association ‘for purposes similar to that in London’. Baker doubted if it would damage him: he found that even Lord Grimston approved his stand. On 14 Nov. 1795 he carried a loyal address at a county meeting against a ‘milk and water’ address proposed by his colleague Plumer and in the face of a violent attack from Whitbread. In 1796 the candidature of Waddington, a London radical defeated at St. Albans, was directed against Baker the ‘turncoat’, not Plumer, though the sitting Members had offered jointly on 26 May. According to one observer:

Waddington has not a foot of land in the county, nor I believe anywhere, though he talked of his qualification in Wales, and had the impudence to brag upon the hustings of having £70,000 to invest in the county. He had more votes than I should have expected (though only 400) but half of them seem to have been got by surprise, and the other half were a league of dissenters.

In their joint address of thanks, 3 June, Plumer and Baker claimed, ‘we have the advantage of any itinerant candidate’.3

In 1802 Baker, who had not only supported the war against France, but criticized the peace, was overthrown by what he termed ‘the most preposterous coalition’ arising out of ‘twelve years’ dormant spleen’. On the eve of the election, an address appeared from the Hon. Peniston Lamb, Lord Melbourne’s heir, who claimed that Baker was so unpopular with a majority of the freeholders, that if he did not stand against him, some one else would. Lord Salisbury, Lamb’s instigator, who had drawn Lord Grimston into the plot, wrote to the prime minister’s brother Hiley Addington, 11 July 1802:

The popular cry raised against Mr Baker by a considerable body of dissenters was brought to that pitch that they would have put up any person whether he had or had not either property or connections in [the county] and might have carried this point. That being the case, [‘I thought it’ erased] it was thought expedient to try to turn the tide, and Mr Lamb a neighbour and a very good man was yesterday proposed at Hertford to represent the county. He only came from London on Friday evening, and therefore the state of the poll last night at seven o’clock when the books were closed and adjourned will surprise you. Mr Plumer 951 Mr Baker 469 Mr Lamb 465. It may perhaps be improper for me to request the government support in favour of Messrs Lamb and Plumer, but I beg leave to explain that by adopting this plan Mr Lamb secures Mr Plumer’s second votes.

Lamb, who went on to defeat Baker, was proposed by Hale, Baker’s opponent in 1790: so nothing was omitted that might humiliate him. Except in the hundreds of Odsey, Edwinstree and Hertford, freeholders preferred to vote for Plumer and Lamb rather than Plumer and Baker. In his farewell address, 12 June, Baker marvelled that the aristocratic influence he had thwarted in 1790 could align itself with Jacobinism and did not envy Lamb the tightrope he now had to walk. Lamb was soon involved in a dispute with Plumer over election expenses.4

Baker’s revenge came sooner than expected, owing to Lamb’s death in January 1805. His competitor was the Hon. Thomas Brand, son of his advanced Whig critic of 1792, supported by many of the dissenters, by Joseph Halsey* and by Lord Salisbury, recently deprived of his Household place. Both Salisbury and his wife wished Brand to marry their daughter, Lady Georgina Cecil. Salisbury this time failed to secure Lord Grimston’s co-operation, though he obtained William Hale’s. He would have preferred to avert a contest by a suitable replacement for Lamb, but neither Lamb’s brother William, nor Halsey would do. The prime minister Pitt supported Baker, as the lesser of two evils; and so did the other leading interests in the county, as Baker discovered in a bustling canvass of which he left a classic account. Brand secured the writ and Plumer’s professed neutrality was abused in his favour. Despite this, and Whitbread’s attack on him as a warmonger on the hustings, Baker was successful and nothing came of a threatened petition against him for treating. He denounced the machinations of Hatfield House in his address of thanks. By now he had come to regard the implacable Lady Salisbury as his enemy-in-chief, and he was not surprised to learn that she had formed a ‘Foxhunting Club’ to keep up Brand’s pretensions, consisting of ‘Hale, Heysham, Brand, the Melbournes and Lord Frederick Beauclerk’.5

Baker’s conduct exposed him to a further threat in 1806: he had been well disposed to Pitt’s second ministry and critical of the Grenville ministry. On this account Earl Spencer, as a cabinet minister, could not support him this time, though he decided to take no part against him. The decision was enough to determine Brand’s withdrawal. He informed Whitbread that without Spencer’s support (which he believed would entail Lord Grimston’s) he stood no chance. He believed himself sure of a borough seat (Shaftesbury) and although Grimston offered to support him with Baker and, refusing a coalition, Plumer offered to retire in his favour, he insisted on returning the compliment. This was arranged by their mutual friends Hale, Halsey, Byde and Wilshire. Plumer had secretly offered to retire if the Hon. William Lamb* had stood with Brand, to keep Baker out, but government could not obtain Earl Spencer’s sanction for this. So Baker and Plumer were unopposed. Plumer was in very poor health and it was readily supposed that Brand, who failed at Shaftesbury, might soon step into his shoes. Baker’s address of thanks referred to Brand’s handsome conduct on the occasion, though he knew there was no goodwill intended to him.6

In 1807 Plumer retired in favour of Brand and could not be induced to change his mind. He was averse to a contest, but did nothing to encourage a compromise, which was the outcome, Baker retiring in favour of Sir John Sebright, one of his zealous supporters in 1805, who professed entire independence. Baker, incensed by a pro-Catholic speech made by Brand after his election, boasted that he and Sebright could have beaten Plumer and Brand, or any others, in a contest.7

The county remained uncontested until 1832, but the compromise was not necessarily secure. In May 1812 Sebright, who leaned towards opposition, felt obliged to canvass because of the activities of Lady Salisbury, who had already done so on behalf of her son, Lord Cranborne*. On 13 Sept. 1812 the report was:

I find the contest is not only likely to go on but that Lord Cranborne and his family are much more sanguine than ever in their expectation of success from the very satisfactory and gratifying assurances of support they have received from the far greater number of the respectable families in the county.

A Whig agent claimed that government did everything they could ‘in favour of Lord Cranborne’. Yet Cranborne, who boasted of 1,500 promises, withdrew and contested Hertford instead (where he was defeated).8 It may be that he had hoped to avert a contest for the county: Brand’s mother Lady Dacre was very ill and he would be a peer when she died. In that case, the Whigs would have been divided: Brand was grooming William Hale junior as his successor to the seat, but the grandees of the party preferred William Lamb, though Hale was better known locally and Lamb did not favour parliamentary reform. Hale was willing to stand a contest against Cranborne, and his father to finance it. Lamb was confident he would succeed. Whitbread thought Cranborne could beat either of them, so it was as well Lady Dacre recovered.9 In 1815, when Lamb’s father obtained an English peerage, he was supposed out of the running for a county seat, but when Lady Dacre died in 1819 it was he who obtained the Whig preference over Hale and Brand’s brother. He refused to stand (being then Member for Peterborough) unless there was ‘a very general feeling’ in his favour, and allowed Hale to address the county before himself coming forward: but the support of such key figures as William Plumer, Earl Spencer, Lord Verulam (formerly Grimston) and, not least, of Lord Salisbury, encouraged him to do so and he obtained Hale’s withdrawal in his favour.10

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Fitzwilliam mss, box 99, Lamb to Fitzwilliam 24 Oct. 1819.
  • 2. Herts. RO, Verulam mss F26, Salisbury to Grimston, Sunday night, Byde to same, 12, 28 Sept.; Baker mss 1, f. 95; PRO 30/8/155, f. 32; Spencer mss, Baker to Spencer, 20 June, Spencer to his mother, 25 June; Public Advertiser, 22, 25, 28 June, 14 July 1790; Ginter, Whig Organization, 197.
  • 3. Baker mss, A letter to William Baker esq. from a Herts. freeholder (1792); Add. 37914, f. 51; Portland mss PwF237-9; Oracle, 16 Nov. 1795; Verulam mss F28, Waddington’s address, 30 May; Berks. RO, Benyon mss C10, Mason to Benyon, 24 June; Morning Chron. 26 May, 1 June; True Briton, 1, 3 June 1796.
  • 4. Sidmouth mss; Verulam mss F30, Lady Salisbury to Grimston, Fri. evening, Lamb to same, 9, 13 July 1802, 21, 24, 31 July 1803; Baker mss 3, ff. 331, 334, 336-8; The Times, 13, 16 July 1802.
  • 5. Verulam mss F31, Salisbury to Grimston 24, 26 Jan., Baker to same, 25 Jan., 16 Feb., Hale to same, St. [Jan.], Estcourt to same, 29 Jan.1805; Baker mss 3, ff. 352-4; P. Jupp, British and Irish Elections, 1784-1831, pp. 68-77.
  • 6. Grey mss, Whitbread to Howick, 9, 14 Oct., 5, 7 Nov., Tierney to same, 19 Oct.; Spencer mss, Baker to Spencer, 15 Oct., [4 Nov.]; Baker mss 3, ff. 371, 372, 375; Verulam mss F32, Grimston to Brand, 16 Oct., reply 20 Oct.; F324, Grimston to his das. Harriot and Charlotte, 27 Oct. 1806.
  • 7. Spencer mss, Sebright to Spencer, 26 Apr., Halsey to J. King, 26 Apr.; Morning Chron. 5 May 1807; Baker mss 3, ff. 379, 381.
  • 8. Add. 35650, ff. 176, 325; Grey mss, Goodwin to Grey, 1 Nov. 1812; Leveson Gower, ii. 458.
  • 9. Whitbread mss W1/1925-8; Add. 51576, Whitbread to Holland, 30 Oct., 1 Nov.; Spencer mss, Lamb to Spencer, 3 Nov. 1812.
  • 10. Add. 51584, Tierney to Holland, 30 Nov. 1815; Morning Chron. 4 Oct.; Add. 35652, ff. 72, 274; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F49/74, 75; Fitzwilliam mss, box 99, Thanet to Fitzwilliam, 20 Oct.; Spencer mss, Althorp to Spencer, 17 Oct. 1819.