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:

over 7,000


24 June 1790SIR JOHN WODEHOUSE, Bt. 
15 Nov. 1797 JACOB HENRY ASTLEY vice Wodehouse, called to the Upper House 
 Hon. John Wodehouse3516
 Hon. John Wodehouse3365
  Election declared void, 19 Feb. 1807 
14 Oct. 1812(SIR) JACOB HENRY ASTLEY, Bt. 
24 May 1817 EDMUND WODEHOUSE vice Astley, deceased3896
 Edward Roger Pratt3321

Main Article

The dominant figure in county politics throughout this period was Thomas William Coke of Holkham: a Foxite Whig of boundless self-confidence, worth £20,000 a year, he could not stomach his exclusion from the county seat in 1784, as he was ‘not conscious of having done anything to forfeit his position’.1 His first object was to regain the seat, which he did with ease in 1790. Subsequently he aimed to secure the return of two Whigs for the county, which he achieved from 1797 to 1817, when a third attempt to contest this monopoly was successful. ‘King Tom’ was obliged to share the honours with a Tory thenceforward.

Coke’s bid to recapture his seat was his professed ambition at the Holkham centenary celebrations of the Glorious Revolution in 1788, and in December of that year Humphrey Repton, the landscape gardener, drew up for him ‘A general view of the influence operating on elections for the county of Norfolk’, in which it appeared that of the 150 gentlemen who influenced at least 20 votes apiece, 79 were for Coke (most of them in the north of the county), 60 (mostly in the south) were for Sir John Wodehouse, a Pittite who had come in in 1784 and ousted Coke, and only 11 for Sir Edward Astley, the veteran Member, who had gone over to Pitt in 1784, but deserted him before the Regency crisis.2 So far was Coke from regarding Astley on this account as a potential partner—he blamed him for his exclusion in 1784—that he resolved to stand alone; indeed, his friend William Windham* pointed out that Coke would do better to coalesce with Wodehouse, who also resolved to stand alone, and thus exclude Astley without the expense of a contest. This was not necessary, since Astley, about whose standing again there had been doubts expressed in October 1787, made it clear in the spring of 1789 that he would retire. The possibility of Lory Suffield’s son, William Assheton Harbord*, standing was mentioned, but he would not join Astley. Coke thus achieved his first ambition quietly and led the opposition at the loyal and alarmist county meetings on sedition in July 1792 and on defence in April 1794.3

Coke’s election address of 20 May 1796, which deplored the war and prayed for the restoration of the constitution of 1688, was found ‘dictatorial’ and he was promised opposition, since the county would ‘not suffer Mr Coke, because his resources, with respect to fortune, are so commanding, to cram his political creed down their throats, without an indignant struggle on their parts’. The difficulty was to find a suitable opponent, ‘a friend of government and a gentleman of respectability in the county’, with whom Sir John Wodehouse might be induced to coalesce. On 25 May Brampton Gurdon Dillingham of Letton offered to stand, but his ‘insignificance’ was a handicap, and when he approached Wodehouse he found that the latter had already promised Coke to be neutral. Dillingham and his friends at Norwich now looked for another man. Col. Harbord was again thought of, but he did not have his father’s consent.4 Robert John Buxton* was then named but, though not unambitious of a county seat, he thought the circumstances unpropitious: Coke, against whom he had no personal animosity, had already canvassed, and Wodehouse, although he had raised £15,000 by subscription, of which £10,000 was his own contribution, could ill afford a contest. Accordingly on 31 May Buxton declined, in a manner which, Wodehouse thought, ‘cannot but operate to his advantage whenever the county have an opportunity of testifying their good opinion of him’. Instead, Thomas Hare of Stow Bardolph who, though of an old parliamentary family, was ‘little known in the county’, agreed to stand as ‘a zealous supporter of our King and constitution’, but ‘was soon convinced that he had no prospect of success; in retiring however’, reported Buxton who claimed credit for stopping the contest, ‘he has put in his claim upon the first vacancy; how far the county will admit of this claim, is in my opinion doubtful’.5

Coke’s opponents in 1796 thought he got in unopposed ‘for want of time only’, though Wodehouse believed Coke’s opponents were ‘very ill concerted and totally void of all plan’. Wodehouse was expecting a peerage and had been prepared to make use of it to avert a contest. He satisfied himself by consigning Coke to a ‘disappointed faction’ of ‘adventurers in politics’ in his address of thanks; but when he was offered the peerage in 1797, he found that there was no reliable friend of government to replace him and professed to be prepared to refuse the honour on discovering that Coke, who in April 1797 promoted a county meeting to petition for Pitt’s dismissal from office, was secretly sponsoring the candidature of Col. Jacob Astley, son of the former Member. The latter, on behalf of his heir, absent in Scotland on military duty, disclaimed any political commitments, despite attempts to draw him out. Wodehouse did not refuse the peerage and Astley, who was first in the field and pushed forward by his parents, came in unopposed, completing Coke’s triumph. Astley could not have afforded a contest. As it was, he did not need to accept Coke’s offer of financial help. Buxton was the only possible opponent mentioned.6

As expected, Jacob Astley’s politics leaned to opposition, and in 1802 Coke was obliged to come to his rescue when he was opposed late in the day by Lord Wodehouse’s heir, Col. John Wodehouse, who proceeded to canvass. Astley’s character as a landlord and a husband had come under attack; he blamed ‘overgrown farmers’ who wished ‘to name a county Member unconnected with the county gentlemen’, while his wife appeared on the hustings to deny that he beat her. Windham, who after his defeat at Norwich, was invited to offer for the county by his friends, reported on 7 July:

There is an amazing impatience at the present state of representation of the county, I mean in respect of the personal unpopularity of one of the Members ... Sir Jacob Astley, and of the situation in which he stands as a second Member, brought in and continued solely under the protection of the vast property of Coke.

Windham was sponsored on 11 July but could not afford a contest, and after an ineffectual appeal to Buxton to stand, relied, like Wodehouse, on a subscription. Although about £7,500 was raised for him, he found that it did not deter Coke from maintaining Astley and he doubted if Wodehouse would join forces with him and divide expenses. Wodehouse made way for Windham, but being sure of a borough seat, Windham decided in turn to make way for and support Wodehouse in the first contest since 1768. Coke had less to fear from Wodehouse, but he was hard put to it to carry Astley. Wodehouse led the latter until the sixth day, thanks to his strength near Norwich, and he obtained in all 2,794 plumpers, out of 3,528 votes. At the close of the poll, at which 7,251 voted, Wodehouse was 95 votes behind and his friends demanded a scrutiny: Wodehouse attacked Coke for ‘converting the county of Norfolk into a borough’. The scrutiny was the first county one since the statute of 25 Geo. III c.84 had ‘laid down the law on the subject’. The expenses of the election were estimated at £35,000, and the acrimonious scrutiny which disallowed 478 votes but in which Wodehouse was obstructed by Coke’s counsel, Alderson and Mackintosh, added to the expense. This was covered by subscription, with £6,000 to spare for Coke and Astley. Wodehouse threatened, but did not pursue, a petition.7

In 1806 Coke found a stronger partner, though one from whom he had long been estranged, in Windham, now a secretary of state, who earlier that year had hoped Coke would accept a peerage and let him in for Norfolk. Astley could not afford another contest and prudently made way for Windham, 21 Aug., not without subscribing £2,000 himself and getting his connexions to subscribe towards £11,000 raised for Windham and Coke’s expenses. Wodehouse had begun a canvass in August, a few days before Windham, but Windham hoped that with Coke’s, Astley’s and government support, and that of his own friends at Norwich and elsewhere, he would be secure. He had brushed aside the distraction of a peerage offer (19 Sept.). It was, however, a near thing: Windham was vulnerable as an office holder who had changed sides and was obliged to push government influence to the point of intimidation, and by his own neglect of their interest at Great Yarmouth alienated the family of the lord lieutenant, Townshend, who decided on a sullen neutrality after having supported the Whigs in 1802. A subscription was raised to indemnify Wodehouse.8 Coke and Windham spent £33,000 on the election and subsequent petition and the total cost of the election was estimated at £60,000 or £70,000. The sequel was surprising: a petition was presented against the Whig victors at the instigation of two Tory matrons of Norwich, Mrs Berney and Mrs Charlotte Atkyns,

who having rode through the streets of Norwich holding a pole bearing the colours of Colonel Wodehouse ... some of Coke and Windham’s party placed two prostitutes in a barouche and drove them about in imitation of those ladies. Mr Coke said that on hearing of it, he did what he could to prevent it, but found one of his nephews at the head of the mob, which he could not stop.

Coke and Windham got Lord Erskine to write to Mrs Berney to warn her that, the petition being in the name of her son Thomas Berney, she was damaging his prospects in county life by saddling him with such a dubious proceeding. Windham, who was sure of a seat for New Romney, negotiated for a compromise by which he would vacate his seat in favour of Wodehouse if the latter wished for it and prevent a petition at Great Yarmouth from being pursued; but nothing came of this and it was not difficult for the committee to unseat him and Coke, as treating and the use of government influence could be proved against them; bribery was ‘clearly proved’, but ‘not found’ against them, so they were able to take their seats elsewhere. Coke exchanged seats with his brother Edward, who was joined by Sir Jacob Astley as Whig substitute. Wodehouse, who had connived at treating, honourably refused to take advantage of this opening, and despite a rumour that a younger brother of his, together with a candidate sponsored by the Berneys, would stand, there was no opposition.9

The loss of his county seat in this manner was a cruel disappointment to Windham, who might otherwise have held it for life, and in April 1807 when he found that he had no prospect of a seat in the next Parliament, he appealed to Astley to make way for him, giving him full credit for having ‘rescued’ the county ‘from the difficulties in which they were placed’. Astley’s refusal ‘to give up what he had acquired’, in which Windham reported ‘he is of course fortified by all on the opposite side who hold out the idea of support of him, and of determined opposition to me’, dashed any such hopes. Wodehouse could not afford another contest and Coke and Astley were returned unopposed in 1807 and 1812. Sir Robert John Buxton was approached in 1807 and urged on by Col. Harbord, but he declined, and nothing came of a plan of Sir Edmund Bacon’s to promote a Townshend candidate.10

Astley’s death in 1817 occurred shortly after Coke had organized a county petition for the dismissal of ministers, which provoked a strong counter-declaration, 12 Apr. In a bid to preserve the Whig monopoly of the representation, Coke sponsored the candidature of Astley’s cousin and brother-in-law, Edward Roger Pratt of Ryston (Astley’s heir being a minor, but known to be ambitious of standing in the future). This dynastic approach, added to the growing resentment of Coke’s dictatorship of the Norfolk political scene, strengthened the hand of the opposition, which came from Edmund Wodehouse, Lord Wodehouse’s nephew, in whose favour the peer’s heir this time stood down. Wodehouse was an avowed supporter of administration and they of him; he was aided by subscription. The dowager Lady Astley spent £20,000, Pratt himself £5,000 and Coke £10,000: the latter also caused no small indignation by offering to bet Wodehouse £10,000 that he would lose. Pratt was promised 3,773 votes and the contest was expected to be close, but by ‘mismanagement and treachery’, according to Lord Albemarle, he was defeated. ‘The interference of government and the threats of the parsons’ operated ‘to an extent unequalled in any contested election’, according to Albemarle: the clergy were ‘violent, virulent and absolutely ferocious against Coke’ and ‘the mob of Norwich ... so worked up against Coke that [he] would not be safe from assassination if he ventured to appear in the streets. The hustings are in the possession of Wodehouse’s mob—all our voters are ill used and the old and infirm are afraid to go to Norwich.’ Wodehouse regarded his victory as a vindication of the independence of the county; and the cordial reception he met with in his canvass suggested that Coke had alienated many of the gentry who formerly supported him and was losing his grip on the yeomanry, ‘the people saying that Norfolk is not to be nose-led, not to be governed by one man’.11 Thus Coke was obliged to share the county representation with a Tory: in 1818 when the Whigs were euphoric after their victories at Norwich and Great Yarmouth, Philip Hamond of Swaffham was pressed to stand for the county on their interest by the yoemanry club at Norwich, but declined for want of resources.12 There was no change until 1830.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Norf. Chron. 26 June 1790.
  • 2. B. D. Hayes, ‘Pols. in Norf. 1750-1832’ (Camb. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1957), 263-5, citing Holkham mss.
  • 3. Holkham mss, Windham to Coke, 12 Nov. 1788; Corresp. of Rt. Hon. John Beresford, i. 331; Norwich Mercury, 4 Apr. 1789; Norf. Chron. 7 July 1792, 19 Apr. 1794.
  • 4. Norf. RO, Colman Lib. mss 27, addresses 1796; PRO 30/8/194, f. 103; Add. 37908, f. 165; Hayes, 270 citing Holkham mss, Taswell to Coke, 26 May, Coke to Saffrey, Goodwin and Fawcett [27 May], Unthank to Coke, 28 May, Kerrich to Coke, 28 May; Norf. RO, Hamond mss, Rev. Hoste to Hamond, Sat. [28 May 1796].
  • 5. Holkham mss, Albemarle to Coke, 5 July; PRO 30/8/141, f. 239; 191, f. 11; Add; 37908, ff. 261, 271; Norf. Chron. 4 June; Hamond mss, Lubbock to Hamond, 30 May, Hoste to same, 30 May, Stuckey to same, 1 June 1796; W. Suff. RO, Grafton mss 423/807.
  • 6. NLW mss 12433 (Wigfair mss 33), f. 52; PRO 30/8/191, f. 11; True Briton, 6 June 1796; Morning Chron. 28 Apr., 25 Sept.; Norf. Chron. 16 Sept., 18 Nov. 1797; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1611; Hamond mss, Astley to Hamond, 15, 16 Sept., reply n.d.; addresses, 19, 22, 24 Sept.; Salmon to A. Hamond, 18 Oct., Coke to same [3 Oct.], 5, 29 Nov., reply 30 Nov., Coke to P. Hamond, 19 Oct.; Mrs Astley to A. Hamond, 10 Nov. 1797.
  • 7. Narrative Procs. at the election for Norfolk (1802); Bury and Norwich Post, 21 July; Hamond mss, Astley to Hamond, 27, 31 [May], 13 June, 2 Aug., Hulton to same, 7 July; Add. 37906, f. 7; 41854, ff. 315, 317, 318, 320; The Times, 8, 9, 15, 16 July; Norf. Chron. 17, 24, 31 July 1802; Copy of the Poll (1806), 23; Bucks. RO, Hobart mss H98-100; Hayes, 278 citing Holkham mss, Rishton to Coke, 15 Aug. 1803; HMC Fortescue, vii. 99; Windham Pprs. ii. 195; Blair Adam mss, Mackintosh to Adam, 20 Aug. 1802.
  • 8. Add. 37849, f. 36; 37885, f. 1; 37906, f. 226; 37908, f. 352; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 183; Copy of the Poll (1806); HMC Fortescue, viii. 292, 394, 397, 407,, 423, 437; Grey mss, Windham to Howick, Fri. evening [22 Aug.], 23, 29 Sept. 1806; NLS mss 3795, ff. 155-6; Bevan Trust mss, Sir R. J. Buxton to Sir R. C. Glynn, 19 Nov. 1806.
  • 9. Add. 37885, ff. 194, 197; 37908, ff. 362-3, 390; Farington, iv. 138, 144; Ketton-Cremer, A Norfolk Gallery, 215-37; Stirling, Coke of Norfolk (1912), 329; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 193-4, 197; CJ, lxii. 21, 142; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 25 Feb.; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20 Feb.; Norf. Chron. 3, 17 Jan., 14 Feb.; Bury and Norwich Post, 11 Mar. 1807.
  • 10. Add. 37886, ff. 235, 272; Fitzwilliam mss, box 71, Windham to Fitzwilliam, 26 Apr.; Camb. Univ. Lib. Buxton mss, Buxton to Harbord, 21 Feb., to Wodehouse, 24 Feb.; Norf. Chron. 28 Feb. 1807.
  • 11. Copy of the Poll (1817), 23, 29; Norf. Chron. 3, 10 May 1817; Farington, viii. 167; Norf. RO, Wodehouse mss, election corresp.; Grey mss, Albemarle to Grey [16], 22, [23], 28 May; Add. 38833, f. 314; 40293, f. 71; 51593, Albermarle to Holland, 1 June; Norf. RO Walsingham (Merton) mss, Stracey to Walsingham, 20, 21, 23, 26, 28 May 1817.
  • 12. Royal Lib. Windsor, Farington diary, 23 June Norf. Chron. 27 June; Hamond mss, Anne to Philip Hamond, Wed. [June], Packe to Anne Hamond, 21, 24 June 1818.