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 burgage holders

Number of voters:

about 96


(1801): 3,388


19 June 1790FREDERICK PONSONBY, Visct. Duncannon 
30 Mar. 1793 LORD JOHN TOWNSHEND vice Duncannon, called to the Upper House 
9 Apr. 1804 WILLIAM CAVENDISH vice Hare, deceased 
30 July 1804 No return made 
25 Mar. 1805 JOHN WILLIAM PONSONBY, Visct. Duncannon, vice Cavendish, vacated his seat67
 Thomas Edward Wynn Belasyse125
25 Feb. 1806 TOWNSHEND re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

The 5th Duke of Devonshire, whose father had acquired the nomination to one seat by marriage in 1758 and the other by purchase in 1762, controlled 74 out of 96 burgages. These were conveyed either for life or ad hoc to his tenants, none of them residents of Knaresborough, and the Members, who were relatives or friends of the duke on the Whig interest, were if possible returned by proxy.1 The duke was a mild patron: on one occasion when he voted with government from alarm at the Jacobin menace, his Knaresborough nominees were reported to have waited on him next morning offering to resign their seats, only to be humorously rebuked: ‘I never interfere with your vote—I don’t see why you should interfere with mine’. It was said that his only proviso was that they should vote for a bill to prevent cruelty to animals.2

After the unsuccessful bid made in 1784 to challenge the duke’s control on behalf of the resident householders, the borough was quiet until July 1804, when William Cavendish vacated to contest Aylesbury and young Viscount Duncannon offered in his place. He was paraded in effigy on an ass labelled ‘Ponsonby Pinchgut’ and a riotous mob hindered the election, forcing the burgesses to retreat. The bailiffs, unable to obtain due protection from justices or constables—or from the volunteers, who joined in—made no return of a Member and could report only their failure to do so. The Times tartly commented, 3 Aug. 1804, ‘The Cavendish family who support the mob at Brentford, will nevertheless, we presume, be very much displeased with the mob at Knaresborough’. The tale was told in an electors’ petition of 24 Jan. 1805, as a result of which the House ordered a new writ, 1 Mar., and the prosecution of the seven ringleaders of the ‘premeditated’ riot, 14 Mar. The moving spirit behind it was Joseph Mosey Allen, an attorney hostile to the duke’s interest. He was sentenced to six months in Newgate at the York assizes, 2 Aug. 1805, and two of his associates to three months, all of them being bound over for four years.3

The riot was apparently fanned by an attempt on the part of the duke’s new agent, John Carr, to keep down the cost of elections, which had risen steadily, by reducing treating. In 1784, despite a contest, total costs were under £150, while in 1802 they were nearly £500 and in April 1804 £564, without a contest: innkeepers’ bills and ‘transport’ costs accounted for the rise. James Collins, then the duke’s agent, alleged that he was powerless to prevent this, but Carr, who maintained that Collins connived at extravagance to boost his own popularity, was appointed joint bailiff with him to promote economy, and after the riot Collins was dismissed. The entitlement and grants of burgages were now closely supervised and by March 1805, 74 revised burgage votes were ready to support the duke’s interest. It was clear that ‘the avowed motives of the opposition are to make Knaresborough a scot and lot borough, upon similar grounds to which the borough of Pontefract was laid open’.4 The chosen champion of this challenge, whose candidature was already known to the duke in September 1804, was Wynn Belasyse, a brother of Glynn Wynn* married to the coheiress of the 2nd Earl of Fauconberg. That month Wynn committed the social solecism of visiting Castle Howard, the home of the duke’s daughter, and was duly labelled ‘nasty little upstart’. Nevertheless the Duchess of Devonshire wrote before the by-election:

I really believe there is nothing at present to fear from Knaresborough. It is a particular borough. When Lord Bessborough was Member a petition was presented [1784], but the House would not even hear it ... if the election goes on according to the rules of the borough he [Duncannon] must be chose. Since the burgesses are for the duke—or at least he has a sufficient majority—it will then rest with T. Wynn to petition and try if Parliament will open the borough. On the other hand he may bring votes as many as he pleases and perhaps gain the returning officer to give him a false return but this must be set right on a petition on our side till the borough is changed ...

The duke does not like Duncannon going there—as it would seem to allow the principle of its being an open borough and it will be time enough to try that kind of interest, when it is altered by Parliament which I do not suppose is likely. These boroughs are I allow as absurd as possible but whilst they exist in their present state they are actual property.5

On 25 Mar. 1805 Wynn was proposed by Robert Stockdale, and Duncannon by Lord George Cavendish, who condemned an attempt like that at Pontefract to destroy the ancient constitution of the borough. Inhabitant householders paying scot and lot proffered 125 votes (by another acount 92) on behalf of Wynn, but they were rejected and Duncannon was returned by the votes of 67 life burgesses. Unexpectedly, there was no petition and there was no further contest until 1830, but disturbances at elections recurred. On 25 Feb. 1806 Lord John Townshend, seeking re-election, was stoned, and saved the situation by a timely speech; and at the general election, 4 Nov. 1806, the populace dispersed 300 lead miners sent by the duke as constables and then took on the Scots Greys who were called in to quell them.6 The disfranchised residents were reported by the duke’s agents to be culpably encouraging ‘a very large body of Irish mechanics and labourers’ to raise hell on these occasions. Expenses continued to exceed £500, and though the transfer of election dinners to Harrogate was designed to keep them down, it only increased the disgruntlement of the inhabitants. In August 1808 Lady Bessborough reported that ‘the people at Knaresborough have still so much animosity against the D. of D., that we were desired not to stop there lest our carriage should be torn to pieces and we insulted’.7 As long as they found no advocate, however, the duke’s only problem was to decide on his nominees.

In 1806 he came to the rescue of Lord Ossulston, who was in debt, by returning him and obliging Duncannon to look for an Irish seat, which did not materialize.8 When the party leaders applied to him to seat George Tierney in 1812, rather than unseat Ossulston, who made only half-hearted efforts to find a seat elsewhere, the 6th Duke helped to finance Tierney’s return for Appleby. Had Ossulston been confident of a seat elsewhere, the duke had proposed to return Henry Cavendish as a stopgap till the arrangement could be completed.9 In January 1818 Lord John Townshend decided to retire and was reported to be doing so immediately in favour of Tierney, or failing him, Capt. Augustus Clifford*, but no change occurred till the general election, when the duke was able to return Tierney and Mackintosh, ‘what is so creditable to the employment of my parliamentary influence’. Mackintosh informed the duke, 29 Feb. 1820, that it would be a great satisfaction to Tierney and himself ‘if we can contribute in the least degree to render the inhabitants of Knaresborough more inaccessible to the seductions of the Radicals who surround them’.10

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. v. 298; Chatsworth Estate Office mss, Knaresborough deeds and docs.
  • 2. D. M. Stuart, Dearest Bess, 94; Chatsworth mss, Lady E. Foster jnl. 21 Jan. 1794.
  • 3. CJ, lx. 14, 112, 141; Parl. Deb. iv. 25; Chatsworth mss, Lockett to Devonshire, 26 Sept. 1824.
  • 4. Chatsworth Estate mss, Heaton to Collins, 21 July 1804, Shaw to Heaton, 14 Feb. 1805.
  • 5. Letters of Lady Harriot Cavendish, 95, 101, 108; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire to her mother, 22 Sept. 1804; Carlisle mss, Duchess of Devonshire to Lady Morpeth [c. Feb. 1805].
  • 6. The Times, 29 Mar.; Chatsworth Estate mss, Knaresborough poll, 25 Mar.; Lonsdale mss, Cavendish to Lowther, 28 Mar. 1805; Leveson Gower, ii. 43; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire to her mother [3 Mar.]; Hull Advertiser, 15 Nov. 1806.
  • 7. Chatsworth Estate mss, statement on the Knaresborough election, Jan. 1807, of circumstances of the borough, summer 1807; Leveson Gower, ii. 320.
  • 8. Carlisle mss, Lady to Ld. Morpeth, 19 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Devonshire to Grenville, 23 Oct. 1806.
  • 9. Hants RO, Tierney mss 21a, 21b; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 17 Sept., Sat. [3], 8, 10, 16 Oct., 12 Dec.; Grey to Holland, 13 Dec.; Add. 51545, Holland to Grey [7 Nov.], 10 Dec.; Chatsworth mss, Ossulston to Devonshire [26 Oct. 1812].
  • 10. Grey mss, Townshend to Grey, 24 Jan., Goodwin to Grey, 27 Jan.; Add. 51829, Devonshire to Holland, 9 Feb., 3 Mar. 1818; Chatsworth mss.