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

Number of voters:

over 2,000


(1801): 9,030


30 June 1790SIR GEORGE WARREN1015
 Richard Penn413
30 May 1796JOHN DENT 
14 July 1802JOHN DENT1235
 ALEXANDER DOUGLAS, Mq. of Douglas and Clydesdale1162
 John Fenton Cawthorne775
1 Nov. 1806JOHN DENT 
12 May 1807JOHN DENT1393
 John Fenton Cawthorne924
 Gabriel Doveton915
1 July 1818JOHN GLADSTONE1870
 John Fenton Cawthorne1063

Main Article

Lancaster was eclipsed by Liverpool as a port for the West Indian trade in this period. The consequent decline in the staple industries of shipbuilding and cabinet-making was never fully compensated by the developing cotton industry, though the town later enjoyed a revival of prosperity from the American, Russian and coastal trades. The freedom was obtainable by birth, apprenticeship, restricted gift of the mayor and two bailiffs and by purchase. A bye-law of 1796 set the minimum price of admission by purchase at ten guineas and in 1807 the practice was ended altogether. Oldfield wrote that the voters were ‘of the poorest order, being mostly journeymen shipwrights or cabinet-makers, not half of whom are housekeepers or tax-payers’, and went on to condemn ‘the most glaring corruption’ practised in the creation of freemen, whereby the fees of admission were

most generally paid by the opposing candidates, and the greatest number of freemen thus made turns the scale of the election. Hence ... he who has the most ships to build or repair, or he who will lay out a few hundreds in mahogany furniture, is most likely to carry his election.

One of the Members told the House in 1795 that he estimated the resident freemen at 400 and the nonresidents at 3,000. This was probably an exaggeration, but it is certain that fewer than one third of the electors were resident in Lancaster.1

On the vacancy created by the succession of Francis Reynolds as 3rd Lord Ducie in 1786, the wealthy Sir George Warren, who owned property in the Preston area in addition to his Cheshire estates and had sat for Lancaster by arrangement with the Reynolds family from 1758 to 1780, came forward. James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale, who had made an unsuccessful bid to add a Lancaster seat to his electoral empire in 1784, tried again, but Warren narrowly defeated his cousin after an expensive contest which was said to have cost the peer £25,000.2 Lonsdale who, like Warren, deserted Pitt on the Regency, did not give up, and in 1790 he started his acolyte Richard Penn. Warren persuaded the other sitting Member, Abraham Rawlinson of Ellell Hall, to stand down and support him, and then joined forces with John Dent, son of a wealthy London banker of Westmorland origin. It may be significant that the widow of his father’s late partner, Robert Child, married Lord Ducie in January 1791. Lonsdale was said to have threatened to ‘spend £50,000 rather than not have a seat there’, but a week before the election an agent in Liverpool reported that Warren and Dent were far better organized:

I had the full promises of eight freemen and some of them had taken their conduct money from me, and, behold, they most of them ... last night ... said that their masters were wrote to by their friends in Lancaster to insist upon their coming on the other side, or to discharge them of their employ ... this hurt them much and as it is natural to every man to take care of his bread, those who I had given them their conduct money returned it with tears in their eyes, as well as to my great mortification.

An equally gloomy report was received from Hornby, about eight miles from Lancaster:

If no proper and respectable persons be sent up into this neighbourhood the freemen are lost. The weight of metal in expenditures of the opposite party will certainly make an inequality of the voters if not speedily remedied. There has been that negligence that many of your warmest partisans have never been solicited.

Penn allegedly resorted to ‘the indiscriminate administration of oaths to the freemen’, but was heavily defeated. According to Oldfield, ‘1,800 voted, 700 of whom only live in Lancaster’. Over 300 new freemen were admitted in the year 178-90.3

Lonsdale at last secured a seat in 1796, when Warren retired and Penn came in unopposed with Dent. In March 1802 it was reported that the local man John Fenton Cawthorne, who had been expelled the House in 1796 after having been found guilty of fraud and embezzlement as colonel of the Westminster regiment of Middlesex militia, was trying to build up an interest for his friend the 10th Earl of Strathmore, who had just been made an honorary freeman, with the object of bringing in his brother at the impending general election. It later emerged that Cawthorne planned to stand himself and Lancaster elections revolved around him from this time until his death in 1831. Lonsdale died in May, seven weeks before the election, and his estates and viscountcy of Lowther passed to his cousin Sir William Lowther*, a Pittite. Lowther provided Penn with a seat elsewhere and, in an attempt to keep out Cawthorne, gave his interest, despite their political differences, to the Foxite Whig Lord Douglas, eldest son of the 9th Duke of Hamilton, who lived at Ashton Hall four miles from Lancaster and had sat for the borough 1768-72. Dent also received Lowther’s support, and he and Douglas comfortably defeated Cawthorne after a six-day contest. Over 700 freemen were admitted in the three months before the election, which was later said to have cost Cawthorne £3,000 and his opponents £14,000. Douglas and Dent shared 1,146 votes, while Cawthorne received 685 plumpers. Eight-five of the 1,936 electors who polled split their votes between Dent and Cawthorne. Lancaster residents numbered 572, only 30 per cent of the total electorate, but residents and non-residents divided their votes in roughly the same proportions. Cawthorne was accused of inciting disorder among the ‘rabble’ who were his main supporters, and of the 209 gentlemen who polled, 173 cast a vote for Dent, 154 for Douglas and only 56 for Cawthorne. Shortly after the election it was rumoured that the Duke of Hamilton was dying, and John Bacon Sawrey Morritt*, a Yorkshire landowner who had just been beaten at Beverley and was brother-in-law of one of the Lancashire county Members, was pressed by his brother, a resident of Ulverston, to offer for Lancaster in the event of a vacancy. He had no thought of doing so on his ‘own account’, but made a bid through Walter Spencer Stanhope* for Lonsdale’s support, claiming to ‘have sufficient connexions and interest in the town and county to add a considerable weight to his interest’. Nothing came of this speculation.4

Despite doubts as to his eligibility to re-enter the House, Cawthorne took ‘every pains to cultivate his interest in the borough’ and ‘expressed his determination to offer himself at the first vacancy’. In late May 1806, the Grenville ministry appointed Douglas ambassador to Russia. He was also to be called to the Lords in his father’s barony and the search began for a successor at Lancaster, though news of the impending vacancy was not made public. Initially, Douglas talked of recommending a friend, naming a ‘Mr Martyn’ (possibly Oliver Marton of Capernwray), and Lowther, who at this juncture was still maintaining an attitude of goodwill towards the Grenville ministry, agreed to back him; but three weeks later Lord Grenville told Lowther that Douglas now did not wish to involve himself or his father in any contest at Lancaster and would ‘prefer supporting any proper candidate whom you would recommend’. Lowther, informed by local intelligence that Cawthorne presented a formidable threat, if only that of expense, and grateful for this clarification of Douglas’s intentions, turned first to Morritt, but finding him unwilling to spend money, asked Grenville to delay the vacancy and name a candidate from ‘beyond the narrow limits of local connexions’. Grenville passed the buck back to Lowther, who by mid August was resigned to the fact that ‘the borough must be left at the mercy of Mr Cawthorne’ in the event of Douglas’s resignation, which he now had no wish to delay ‘on my account’. Later in the month, Lowther tried again to persuade Douglas to sponsor a friend, in which case

I would employ agents in all the parts where I had any interest, and send up all the voters free of expense, and I have reason to think, from an imperfect survey of a former canvass, that this number would have exceeded 400. This part of my interest has not been neglected, but the care of the local freemen, from ... the Duke of Hamilton living within seven miles of the borough, naturally devolved upon Lord Douglas. This interest ... has been totally neglected, and it is but too probable that Mr Cawthorne has availed himself ... [of it]. Notwithstanding all this, I should not have shrank from the trial had I been prepared with a candidate likely to give my exertions a fair trial, and notwithstanding the coolness of the Duke of Hamilton, who does not seem inclined to make the smallest effort on the occasion.

Grenville wondered if ‘any person of commercial connexions either in London or Liverpool’ could be found, ‘who would be disposed to incur the expense of an election now, on an engagement to receive the same support on a dissolution’, but nothing came of this.5

Douglas was still in occupation, haggling over the terms of his appointment, when Parliament was dissolved, and news of his retirement came as a surprise to many in Lancaster. Cawthorne duly offered, as did Dent. There was speculation among the Whigs that Lord George Augustus Henry Cavendish*, who lived at Holker near Lancaster, or one of his sons might start, and a report that Lord Sefton*, a Liverpool man, was on his way there; but two days before the election the naval administrator Sir Isaac Coffin* sought Lowther’s support, on the recommendation of Lord Minto, only to waive his pretensions the next day on learning that Lowther had persuaded his follower James Graham* of Kirkstall, Yorkshire, to stand. Lowther sought Dent’s co-operation, but found him unwilling to risk a contest:

the same circumstances you allude to [as] occasioning the delay of recommending a friend have most powerfully affected the views of all well-disposed persons in this town. Eight and forty hours’ notice only to commence a canvass which is meant to revive an interest once ... powerful, but now greatly dispersed; a committee yet to be appointed, and if properly so, to be composed of your own partisans, many of whom are implicated in a direct, contrary and hostile interest; the canvass of the Member friendly to your views finished, being taken for a single vote for himself alone; the Duke of Hamilton unconsulted ... I fear altogether offer difficulties of the most unpleasant nature.

There was no canvass for Graham, and Cawthorne, whom Lowther, now increasingly hostile towards the ‘Talents’ because of Grenville’s failure to come to terms with Pitt’s friends, suspected of having received financial aid from the Prince of Wales, came in unopposed with Dent.6

It was widely expected that Cawthorne’s right to sit would be challenged in the House, and in late December Grenville asked Lowther, in the event of his expulsion, to support Sir Oswald Mosley*, who had property in the Manchester area and would have stood for Lancaster at the recent general election, had he not ‘delayed his resolution till it was too late’. Another aspirant was Peter Patten of Bank Hall, Warrington, who, like Dent, was attached to Canning and was expected to oppose government if he came in. Fremantle informed Lord Howick:

The interests at Lancaster are Lord Derby, Lord Lowther, Duke of Hamilton, and Lord George Cavendish. The former I can write to and I should hope he would give Sir Oswald Mosley his support. Lord Grenville has written to Lord Lowther, but of course we can expect his support. The duke ... is engaged to Mr Patten as is likewise Lord George. In this case Mr Patten must come in ... and indeed Sir Oswald Mosley will not stand unless he has the promise of support from Lord Derby and the Duke of Hamilton and the government ... I must give him an answer tomorrow that he may determine upon going down to Lancaster. Patten is now canvassing.

Ministerial confidence in Lowther’s co-operation proved to be misplaced, for Grenville discovered that he had already committed himself to support Patten, on the recommendation of Lord Maynard, the nephew of Warren’s second wife.7

A petition was presented in the names of several electors, 2 Jan. 1807, seeking to void Dent’s election on the ground of illegal treating, but the petitioners failed to enter into recognizances. On 23 Jan. 1807 George Porter attempted to secure Cawthorne’s expulsion, and Lord George Cavendish presented a petition from Lancaster disputing the right of the House to invalidate his election when it had not been challenged by due process of electoral law. Ministers had promised Porter to remain neutral on the issue, but Lowther’s Member Robert Ward, noting the strong opinion of the legal officers against expulsion and ‘considering the almost certainty of Patten’s success’, suspected that they were ‘not so exactly neuter as they pretend’. A committee to consider precedents was appointed, and reconstituted with wider powers on 29 Jan. Its report was presented on 16 Feb. 1807, but Cawthorne was still in occupation when Parliament was dissolved by the Portland ministry.8 Dent and Patten coalesced and Cawthorne, who portrayed their opposition as the manifestation of ‘a spirit of factious persecution’ against ‘freedom of election’, found a partner in Gabriel Doveton, an East India officer, who had no known connexion with Lancashire but had plenty of money. Over 550 new freemen were admitted and it was reported that 300 voters were brought from London. Despite Cawthorne’s confidence, he and Doveton were well beaten. A petition was presented, accusing the victors of bribery and treating, but it lapsed, after the failure of the petitioners’ agent to secure an extension of the time for entering into recognizances. Dent threatened to reveal to the House ‘a scene of iniquity on this subject of a very extraordinary nature’ and, when introducing a bill to regulate the recognizances procedure, which failed, he alleged that none of the signatories of the 1806 election petition had been near Lancaster and that all had been bribed to put their names to it.9

In 1809 Dent announced that he would not stand at Lancaster next time and Doveton that he would offer again. Shortly before the general election of 1812 Lord Liverpool sounded Lord Lonsdale (as Lowther had now become) on the possibility of his starting his son Viscount Lowther*, who reported to his father an interview with the premier:

I said I could give him no answer, [n]or did I know whether you were about to exert your influence ... but that on account of the great expense I conceived you would not ... He then asked me if I had any objection to stand, to which I replied if it was an object to you or the government I should have no hesitation ... but it was a thing I was by no means ambitious of and if ... each return always cost £7,000 I must think it must be dearly bought as seats are at this moment to be purchased for £4,000. The general feeling against Cawthorne is so great that it is more than doubtful if he would be permitted to sit ... and in that case a seat might be for ever secure without the expense which would now be required.

The Lowthers decided not to interfere, Patten withdrew the day before the election and the borough was left to Doveton and Cawthorne, whose right to sit was not in fact challenged.10

Early in 1813 Cawthorne complained to Lowther that government were giving all the Lancaster patronage to Doveton and sought his intercession with the Treasury, as ‘he could be of the greatest service to us at another election’. Lowther found ministers disposed to ‘have nothing to do’ with Cawthorne but ‘ready to listen to any suggestion’ of Lonsdale’s, and there the matter seems to have rested. A month later, Lowther was approached by a resident of Lancaster on behalf of Dent’s former agent, who was of opinion that ‘as the people were so ashamed’ of Cawthorne ‘they would be searching for some respectable man very shortly’, and that a revival of the Lowther interest would be welcomed. Lowther was interested, but felt unable to speak directly to the agent because Dent, who had failed at Poole in 1812, had ‘not given up all hopes of again representing Lancaster’ with the support of the corporation, and, if the Duke of Hamilton were to die, of Lord Douglas, though Cawthorne thought he could ‘never’ come in again. Nothing came of these manoeuvres.11

In 1818, Cawthorne and Doveton offered again and were challenged by John Gladstone, a leading Liverpool West India merchant and orchestrator of Canning’s campaign there in 1812, who, through his own and his wife’s Scottish connexions, secured the ‘unqualified support’ of the Duke of Hamilton. The Lowthers remained neutral, as the borough was ‘divided into many parties’. Gladstone easily won and Doveton beat Cawthorne into third place by 93 votes in a nine-day poll of 2,490 electors. Over 830 new freemen were admitted. There was no obvious pattern to the voting. Gladstone had 317 plumpers, the other two 287 each; 823 voted for Gladstone and Doveton, 730 for Gladstone and Cawthorne, 46 for Cawthorne and Doveton. Only one in five of the voters gave a Lancaster address and there were significantly more voters for Cawthorne and Gladstone among them (37 per cent) than among the electorate as a whole (29 per cent). Gladstone’s claim that he was backed by ‘almost every respectable gentleman in the county’ was justified, for of the 227 gentlemen who polled, 175 cast a vote for him, 119 for Cawthorne and 75 for Doveton. Gladstone’s Liverpool friends subscribed £7,000 towards his expenses, which came to £12,000, and of the 313 Liverpool freemen who polled, 272 voted for him (137 as plumpers), 122 for Doveton and only 54 for Cawthorne. A petition charging the sitting Members with illegal treating was deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’.12

Authors: M. H. Port / David R. Fisher


  • 1. M. M. Schofield, Outlines of Economic Hist. Lancaster, 1680-1860, ii. 122-3; PP (1835), xxv. 1600, 1602-3, 1611; Lancaster Freemen Rolls (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. lxxxvii), i. p. vii; Oldfield, Boroughs (1792), ii. 182; Debrett, xliii. 526.
  • 2. Northumb. RO, Blackett mss Z B1 244, Sir E. to W. Blackett, 2, 12 Apr. 1786.
  • 3. Public Advertiser, 14 June; Sunday Chron. 20 June; Leeds Intelligencer, 22 June 1790; Boswell Pprs. xviii. 48; Lonsdale mss, Hinde to Lonsdale, 13 June; Saul to Penn, 22 June, Cragg to same, 23 June, Jepson to same, 25 June 1790; Oldfield, Boroughs (1792), ii. 182; Lancaster Freemen Rolls; W. O. Roper, Hist. Lancaster (Chetham Soc. n.s. lxii), ii. 271.
  • 4. The Times, 9 Mar., 13, 23 Apr., 12 June, 20, 21 July 1802; Lancaster Recs. 3-4; Lancaster Electioneering Pprs. (1802); Hamilton mss, Ford to Douglas, 27 Jan. 1803; Lonsdale mss, Watson to Lowther, 14 July 1806; Roper, ii. 258, 272; Lancaster Freemen Rolls; Sheffield City Lib. Spencer Stanhope mss, Morritt to Spencer Stanhope [1802].
  • 5. Fortescue mss, Douglas to Lauderdale [1 July], Lauderdale to Grenville, 2 July, Lowther to same, 26, 31 July, 16 Aug., 3, 12 Sept. 1806; HMC Lonsdale, 197-9, 201-3.
  • 6. Grey mss, Tierney to Howick, 19 Oct.; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E209; Lonsdale mss, Hubbersty to Lowther, 28 Oct., Coffin to same, 30, 31 Oct., Dent to same, 31 Oct.; Lancaster Gazette, 1 Nov. 1806; HMC Lonsdale, 202-3, 215.
  • 7. Fortescue mss, Grenville to Lowther, 27 Dec. 1806, reply 2 Jan. 1807; Grey mss, Fremantle to Howick, 29 Dec. 1806.
  • 8. CJ, lxii. 42, 77, 88, 128, 223, 226, 322; Parl. Deb. viii. 526-9; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 20, 23 Jan. 1807.
  • 9. Lancaster Recs. 31-33; Lancaster Gazette, 2, 16, 23 May; Morning Herald, 14 May 1807; Add. 20081, f. 57; Roper, ii. 258; CJ, lxii. 656, 759, 764; Parl. Deb. ix. 859-60, 1068, 1106.
  • 10. Lancaster Recs. 46-47, 63; Lonsdale mss, Liverpool to Lonsdale, 25 Sept., Lowther to same, 25, 26 Sept. 1812.
  • 11. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 25 [Feb.], [Apr.], 5, 12 Apr., Lowther’s diary, 7 Apr. 1813.
  • 12. SRO GD46/4/120/9; Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 9 Feb. 1820; Late Elections (1818), 164; Lancaster Recs. 104; Roper, ii. 258; CJ, lxxiv. 75, 283, 285, 298.