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:



(1801): 1,027


21 June 1790PAUL BENFIELD 
20 Feb. 1792 SIR JAMES SANDERSON vice Benfield, vacated his seat 
11 Feb. 1794 FRANCIS GLANVILLE vice Hopkins, deceased 
27 May 1796SAMUEL SMITH I 
 James John Vassar 
22 Nov. 1796 PHILIP METCALFE vice Smith, chose to sit for Leicester 
 James John Vassar 
8 July 1802CLAUDE SCOTT11
 George Augustus Pollen1
 Charles Saxton
 Charles Henry Bouverie
 Bowcher Smith
 Maurice Bisset
8 May 1807SIR GEORGE BOWYER, Bt.10
 Hon. Bartholomew Bouverie3
 Bowcher Smith3
 Sir Vicary Gibbs
 James John Vassar
30 Jan. 1810 ABEL SMITH vice Bowyer, vacated his seat 
2 Jan. 1813 PETER PATTEN vice Saxton, chose to sit for Cashel 
8 Feb. 1817 SIR WILLIAM ABDY, Bt., vice Hicks Beach, vacated his seat 

Main Article

Malmesbury was completely controlled by Dr Edmund Wilkins, the local apothecary and receiver-general, as high steward of the borough, between 1775 and his death in May 1804. He retained ten of the corporation for an annuity of £30 against the security of a £500 bond from each of them. From 1789 he expected his paying guests to support Pitt’s administration, which in 1792 paid him £269 17s. out of the secret service fund on account of the election. Paul Benfield was required to vacate in 1792 after acting with opposition. Opposition had been disappointed in their hopes that Wilkins would sell them the seats in 1790 as in 1784, and the 15th Earl of Suffolk, from whose father Wilkins had usurped his influence, was induced to try his strength in 1790, but gave up without going to a poll.1

At the general and by-elections of 1796 James John Vassar of Winchendon, Buckinghamshire, nominated by assistant burgesses, attempted to open up the borough by calling into question the right of election, which he and his supporters alleged in petitions was ‘in the burgesses at large’. These were unavailing, as was a further petition of 24 Apr. 1798, which was not pursued.2 Wilkins’s hold remained secure against opportunist opposition in 1802, and at his death in May 1804 he left £500 to be distributed among the corporation in lieu of arrears, except to Robert Hill, who had voted and petitioned for Col. George Augustus Pollen* in 1802. Control then passed to his agent, the banker and (since 1790) solicitor at the stamp office, Edmund Estcourt of Tetbury, brother of Thomas Estcourt*, who defeated Lord Peterborough in a canvass for the high stewardship of the borough and took up residence at Culver House.3

Estcourt raised the corporation’s annuities to £50 and survived a very revealing scrutiny of the electoral management of the borough on the petition of some of the burgesses in February 1807. The petitioners’ case made much of the fact that the electors were obscure and illiterate and that Estcourt did not accommodate relatives or guests but merely friends of his. Saxton and Bouverie, who did not pursue a petition alleging bribery and treating, were put up by the Earl of Radnor, who ‘meditated a surprise’ upon Malmesbury, but hesitated as to which member of his family he would put up with Saxton and left him to campaign. Saxton met with ten denials and three refusals to promise from the corporators, but counted on the petition. The threat of this apparently frightened Estcourt into suggesting a compromise before the election, but it was refused. In 1807 four candidates appeared to oppose Estcourt’s nominees, but despite Bouverie’s petition, his hold remained unshaken. He charged Gell, recommended by his nephew Thomas Grimston Estcourt*, £4,000 for his seat.4

Before the 1812 election Estcourt disposed of his interest to the borough-monger Joseph Pitt*, who accommodated friends of administration, without having to face any further opposition. John Campbell, later lord chancellor, reported in his memoirs ‘a whimsical conversation’ between Pitt and his agent ‘for this enlightened and independent borough’ at the election of 1812:

after some talk as to who the Members were to be, the agent said ‘You must take care, Sir, to make the burgesses remember the names before going to the town hall on Tuesday’. Pitt: ‘I will take care of that. I will write them down.’ Agent: ‘That won’t do, Sir, for the burgesses cannot read’.

In 1818 he sold the nomination of both Members for the term to Archibald John Primrose*, 4th Earl of Rosebery. To such venality Malmesbury was exposed by default, according to the obituary of a neighbouring country gentleman, Robert Holford of Westonbirt: ‘He was never in Parliament; had he, however, been at all anxious for senatorial honours, the borough of Malmesbury (contiguous to their estates) was, during his father’s lifetime and since, open to receive him’.5

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1804), i. 484; India Office Lib. mss Eur. C. 307/5, ff. 137, 139; Oldfield, Boroughs, ii. 222; PRO 30/8/229, f. 352; Ginter, Whig Organization, 14, 71, 107-8, 173-4, 253, 258-9.
  • 2. CJ, lii. 35, 101, 158, 561; liii. 486, 641, 659.
  • 3. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. v. 171-95; CJ, lviii. 38, 95; PRO 30/29/8/2, f. 171.
  • 4. CJ, lxii. 33, 40, 192, 680; lxiii. 24, 168; NLW, Coedymaen mss 30, Saxton to Williams Wynn, 27, 30 Oct. 1806; Glos. RO, Sotheron Estcourt mss, Estcourt to Gell, 29 Apr. 1807.
  • 5. Add. 40216, ff. 44, 48; 40280, ff. 80-82; Hon. Mrs Hardcastle, Life of Lord Campbell, i. 286; SRO GD46/17/49, Stewart Nicholson to Stewart Mackenzie, 9, 14 Feb. 1818; Gent. Mag. (1838), ii. 444.