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 inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

about 500 rising to about 700


(1801): 3,097


21 June 1790JOHN SMYTH414
 Charles Mellish 
 John Anstruther 
20 June 1791 SMYTH re-elected after appointment to office281
 Robert Monckton Arundell, Visct. Galway130
 John Walsh
9 May 1794 SMYTH re-elected after appointment to office 
30 May 1796ROBERT MONCKTON ARUNDELL, Visct. Galway 
7 July 1802JOHN SMYTH 
 John Savile, Visct. Pollington324
11 May 1807JOHN SAVILE, Visct. Pollington487
 John Smyth344
 John Savile, Visct. Pollington311
 Ellis Leckonby Hodgson175
22 Dec. 1812 JOHN SAVILE, Visct. Pollington, vice Lascelles, chose to sit for Yorkshire356
 Ellis Leckonby Hodgson268
 Thomas Bent Hodgson7
18 June 1818JOHN SAVILE, Visct. Pollington365
 John Balfour60

Main Article

The electoral conflict at Pontefract in 1790 took the form of a contest between inhabitant householders and burgage owners over the right of election, in dispute since 1768. John Smyth and William Sotheron, neighbouring landowners and the sitting Members, represented the householder party, whose candidates had been declared elected by committees of the House in 1783 and 1784, when parliamentary reform was in the air, contrary to the decisions of previous committees. The two major burgage proprietors were John Walsh of Warfield, Berkshire, and Robert, 4th Viscount Galway, whose concerns had been jointly managed since 1767 by Thomas Taylor. Galway’s connexion with the Yorkshire Association had placed him in a difficult position as a burgage proprietor, so in 1790 he instructed Taylor not to give out any of his conveyances and unexpectedly canvassed the householders with Sir Rowland Winn, 6th Bt., of Nostell Priory, whose family were long-standing friends of the householder party. Although he did not go to a poll, his ‘generous and disinterested behaviour’ and his ‘affability and goodness of heart’ on the canvass encouraged the Leeds Intelligencer to predict his election on the first vacancy.1 Walsh, hearing of Galway’s conduct, wrote to Taylor on 18 June:

Lord Galway does me great injustice in imputing a want of communication to me; but the truth is he has always had a bias to this measure. ... You will do everything that is necessary and all that is to be done is a quiet tender of the burgage votes, which of course will be rejected. I have not a wish for a double return.

Charles Mellish of Blyth, Galway’s half-uncle, who evidently was not in sympathy with Galway’s decision to surrender his property rights, and John Anstruther*, a Whig barrister, accordingly stood on the proprietary interest and 46 votes offered for them were rejected. They and a group of burgage holders petitioned the House in favour of the burgage right, but the committee appointed to try the petition resolved on 9 Mar. 1791 that the right of election lay in the inhabitant householders. On 30 May, Walsh and Mellish lodged an appeal, which came too late to be heard during the session.2 Galway’s reaction was to issue a handbill on 31 Mar., admitting that the decision had ‘in some degree affected what might have been called my property’ but, claiming to be ‘a very zealous advocate for promoting an equality in the parliamentary representation from principle’, he accepted the committee’s ruling and announced that he had resolved to offer himself on the first vacancy. Yet on 11 Apr. Taylor wrote to an acquaintance:

I have this morning learnt from Lord Galway’s steward that his lordship has given him orders to give notice to Mr Smyth, and his party, that he (Lord Galway) would not give them any further opposition in matters of election at Pontefract. Why his lordship should choose to commit himself in this manner I cannot divine, because although the inhabitants would not at the late election choose him to be their champion against the interests of his own family, I am of opinion that in case the burgage tenure should be annihilated, when that happens he would have a very safe seat in Parliament on the other ground. Besides (admitting it to be wise that his lordship should give up contests at Pontefract) I see no use in giving notice of it, on the contrary it is giving an advantage against his friends who will not join Mr Smyth’s party, but on Lord Galway’s deserting them will seek out for another leader.

If Galway, who was in financial difficulties, decided to sell his property, Taylor felt that other members of his family should purchase it.3

In June 1791 a by-election caused by Smyth’s appointment to office further complicated the situation. Walsh himself stood on the proprietary interest and votes offered for him were again rejected. Galway was put forward on the householder interest but was defeated by Smyth. He may have been nominated without his consent, for he was still at this time co-operating with the other burgage owners. Charles Mellish had told Taylor on 12 June that Galway ‘proposes to me and encloses a letter from Mr Walsh to that purpose, that I should stand on burgage tenure’; he refused because, if successful, ‘it would oust Walsh of a seat he ought to have’. And as late as 23 Dec. 1791 Portland informed Mellish, after a conversation with Galway:

He talked of Pontefract, in many respects unintelligibly, but very explicitly declared he would never renounce or desert his claims to the burgage tenure right as long as they could be defended.

But it was Walsh alone who petitioned on 14 Feb. 1792 against the right of election adopted at the by-election. Neither this petition nor his appeal of May 1791 were heard during the 1792 session, and he submitted two similar petitions in December 1792, heard in March 1793, when the franchise was again resolved to be in the inhabitant householders.4

As no further appeal was allowed, the right of election was now settled conclusively. But although the borough was thus technically open, the enlarged electorate, 545 strong in 1796,5 did not for some time show any desire to throw off the established interests. Smyth was re-elected unopposed in 1794, and on Sotheron’s retirement in 1796 Galway quietly took over the other seat. In the spring of 1801 Galway decided to retire and in consultation with Earl Fitzwilliam chose as his successor Richard Benyon, the husband of his niece. Benyon accepted the proposal, having been told by Fitzwilliam ‘that he might look to an expense of £1,400 or £1,500; but that he might consider the success as certain; but open as the borough now is, there was no saying, that there would not be an opposition’. Yet when he investigated the borough more closely, Benyon began to have doubts. Galway’s agent told him in January 1802:

There are about 550 voters at Pontefract of whom 90 are tenants, to whom 60 others may be added as certain, making about 150, which is a good interest to begin with and whilst Lord Galway continued to attend Parliament, the majority of the inhabitants was so much in his lordship’s interest that it was almost impossible to overthrow it.

In the case of another candidate being offered it is impossible to know how popular opinion may change—I hope with spirited exertion one of the family may be returned. However this cannot be certain, but must remain for trial.

On 10 Jan. Benyon forwarded this statement to Fitzwilliam, who with Bryan Cooke* began to canvass the leading gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Pontefract. By 24 Jan. Benyon, having heard that Smyth had canvassed for double votes and fearing ‘an union between Lord Harewood and Mr Smyth’, had determined to decline Galway’s offer, unless he could ‘by depositing some certain sum’ be secured in his election. But on 8 Feb. he told Fitzwilliam that, after consulting Galway and his agent, he had agreed to undertake a trial canvass. The Galway party, however, did not move quickly enough to prevent a third candidate, William Wrightson† of Cusworth, from publicly announcing his candidature on 23 Feb., as ‘a known friend to the extended right of suffrage’. According to William Lee of Grove, Wrightson, who had heard rumours of Galway’s resignation, had secured the support of Sir Rowland Winn as early as 22 Jan., and on 22 Feb. Wrightson wrote to Fitzwilliam regretting that their views clashed but stating that he had ‘now gone too far to recede’. Cooke correctly surmised that there was ‘not much to be apprehended from Wrightson’s opposition ... he has so much caution in his composition, that he will not sacrifice his money without almost a certainty of success’. Although he canvassed in March, he declined to stand shortly before the election. John Henry Smyth* held himself in readiness to stand with his father in case of opposition, but Benyon and Smyth were elected unopposed.6

In 1806 the established interests came under attack from a more considerable landed family, the Saviles, earls of Mexborough, of Methley Park, who put forward Viscount Pollington. Galway’s interest was stronger than in 1802, as his new candidate Robert Pemberton Milnes, a cousin by marriage and shortly to become his son-in-law, brought to the Galway tenantry ‘the interest which his own respectable family, residing near the town, naturally creates’; and it was Smyth whom Pollington threatened. Henry Francis Mellish, the son of Charles, who was in the process of selling the family estate at Blyth, put out an advertisement stating his future pretensions to a seat, but declined to stand because he was to be sent on service with his regiment, and although his name was mentioned in 1807, he never contested the borough.7

By 1807 Pollington had become ‘the popular candidate’ and the contest lay between Smyth and Milnes. On Smyth’s defeat, Benjamin Boothroyd commented:

In the course of twenty years a new race had sprung up; many strangers had come to reside in the borough; and it is natural to suppose that these would not feel all the respect for the old representatives which his tried friends might wish. In short these being wholly indifferent to past transactions, prejudices or expectations might influence.

Galway’s death in 1810 completed the destruction of the old interests and on 17 Sept. a local observer Joseph Armytage wrote to Lord Lowther:

Nothing can equal the variety of the jarring political interests of the town of Pontefract ... Lord Galway is dead, so wretchedly poor his borough interest and burgage tenures (being crown lease) carrying 183 flat votes is to be sold. They ask £40,000 for it. Can the Milneses raise this sum? They talk of Lord Harewood (who has a good natural interest in the borough) buying it! I have my doubts whether Bob Milnes (even if his family purchased) would come in; he has lost his popularity and John [Henry] Smyth ... has gained upon them so much, I make no doubt he will be first upon the poll! Pollington, since his election, notwithstanding the blustering promises of his family, has never employed bookseller, tailor, mercer, draper, nor any tradesman in the borough, who seem now heartily ashamed of having chosen such a mountebank, such an ass! Lord Hardwicke’s [his father-in-law] visit with him to Pontefract is in vain. Lord Mexborough and his family will not probably now pay their summer visit to the country till about the 25th December.8

Armytage’s predictions were not altogether accurate. Smyth found a seat for Cambridge University and dropped out of the picture. Milnes was still sufficiently popular to be returned at the head of the poll in 1812, when Pollington and Harewood’s son contested the second seat. Pollington was initially optimistic, writing to Hardwicke on 30 Sept. after ‘by far the best’ canvass he had ever had, ‘if the voters only keep their promises I shall not only be returned, but be at the head of the poll. The cry of no Popery has been attempted, but I am glad to say has hitherto completely failed ... It was Mr Milnes who brought it forward.’ He remained confident until his defeat, when he claimed that Lascelles’s bribery had bought off more than a hundred of his votes, and complained also of the intervention of Ellis Leckonby Hodgson, whose friends’ second votes had gone to Lascelles.9

Hodgson, a Liverpool merchant who had married a sister of the Whig Col. John Dixon of Gledhow and resided at Stapleton Park close to Pontefract, had told Fitzwilliam in 1806 that he had ‘volunteered 25 years under the banner of Mr Fox and his friends’, although there is no evidence that he made any use of his political views at Pontefract. He again stood unsuccessfully as Pollington’s rival in the by-election of December 1812 caused by Lascelles’s election to the county seat. When his defeat was inevitable, he also had a few votes polled for his son in the hope that he could take advantage of a petition presented in 1813 complaining of Pollington’s bribery and the returning officer’s partiality. The charges made against the returning officer were deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’ and Pollington’s election was confirmed. To retain his interest at Pontefract, Pollington had been forced to spend over £13,000 in the two contests. Harewood too was presented with a bill for £5,321 for Lascelles’s election, but he does not appear to have had the establishment of a permanent interest in mind. He finally refused in December 1812 to purchase Galway’s property, for which he had been in negotiation for two years, and although he continued to contribute modest sums to the Pontefract charities, when asked to finance a balloon ascent at the races in 1814 his son replied, ‘I have amused the inhabitants of Pontefract sufficiently with terrestrial things and shall therefore not interfere with those of a celestial nature, nor will my father, as he says, at present’.10

In 1818 Milnes’s retirement left the second seat open to newcomers. In March the Yorkshire reformer Godfrey Higgins of Callow Grange was approached by a group of electors, led by a grocer named Graham. Higgins totally disclaimed ‘all the contemptible trickery which is so often resorted to at elections’, insisted that the management of the election must ‘entirely rest’ with the electors and suggested the formation of a committee on the Westminster model.11 Pontefract evidently was not ready for such advanced organization and at the election Thomas Houldsworth, a Manchester manufacturer better known as a sportsman, shared the representation with Pollington. A last-minute intervention from a third man, John Balfour of London, perhaps the Member for Orkney in 1790 and again in 1820, lasted for only a day, and he left claiming that he had been brought to Pontefract under a wrong impression. There had already been a hoax, a local gingerbread seller having been disguised as Sir George Wombwell, in whose name an address had been issued.12

Author: J. M. Collinge


  • 1. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Galway mss 12,250/82; Leeds Intelligencer, 22 June, 6 July 1790.
  • 2. Galway mss 12,250/80; Pontefract corpn. recs., poll bk. 1790, ex. inf. the town clerk; CJ, xlvi. 16, 276, 661.
  • 3. Galway mss 12,250/94, 95.
  • 4. Leeds Intelligencer, 28 June 1791; Galway mss 12,250/97; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Mellish mss 169-108; CJ, xlvii. 378; xlix. 11, 18, 297, 397.
  • 5. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F38/1.
  • 6. NLW mss 17158, f. 9; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F38/2, 4, 6, 12, 17, 19, 24; Leeds Intelligencer, 28 June; Lansdowne mss, J. H. Smyth to Petty, 17 June 1802.
  • 7. B. Boothroyd, Pontefract (1807), 481; The Times, 31 Oct. 1806; Leeds Intelligencer, 4 May 1807.
  • 8. Boothroyd, 481; Lonsdale mss.
  • 9. Add. 35650, ff. 365, 392, 395, 403.
  • 10. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E210; Leeds Mercury, 19, 26 Dec. 1812; CJ, lxviii. 109, 346; Leeds Mercury Supplement, 5 Feb. 1881; Harewood mss, Pontefract election acct. 10 Apr. 1813, Lascelles to Menzies, 6 Sept. 1814.
  • 11. Pontefract corpn. recs., Higgins to Graham (copy), 27 Mar. 1818.
  • 12. Leeds Intelligencer, 22 June; Edinburgh Advertiser, 26 June 1818.