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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 350


(1801): 2,159


 Hans Winthrop Mortimer67
 William Bryant67
26 June 1793 PAUL BENFIELD vice Grant, appointed to office 
27 May 1796PAUL BENFIELD224
 James Milnes143
 William Dawson105
 Mark Wood I109
 James Dashwood106
 Hon. Thomas Brand124
 James Ramsay Cuthbert124
 Paul Methuen129
 William Hicks Beach129
 Charles Wetherell  
 Edward Kerrison 
 WETHERELL and KERRISON vice Bateman Robson and Gurney, on petition, 19 Feb. 1813 

Main Article

Every general election was contested at Shaftesbury between 1761 and 1812, as a succession of would-be patrons were overthrown by the expense and corruption of the borough. In 1784 the ‘Asiatic interest’ of Sir Francis Sykes* was defeated by Hans Winthrop Mortimer, who carried the second seat as well. Mortimer had been on the scene since 1771 and owned the majority of the houses (about 200). The next to him in terms of property, with 110 houses, was William Bryant, clerk of the papers in King’s bench. Sykes sold his 30 houses to Sir John Call*, acting as ‘ostensible proprietor’ on behalf of another nabob Paul Benfield, who was advised that he would get 8,000 guineas from government for the two seats. In 1790 Mortimer

had the application from the Treasury for the purchase of the borough ... but not accepting the terms which were offered him, two ministerial candidates were sent down to oppose his interest, and Mr [Walter] Whitaker, the late recorder, who is an attorney in Shaftesbury, and had been Mortimer’s agent was prevailed on to undertake the management of opposition to his late employer.

Thereupon Mortimer and Bryant joined forces against the ministerial nominees, Duncombe and Grant. The latter, assisted by Sir John Call, were successful, largely because Whitaker persuaded most of Mortimer’s tenants to desert him. He had forecast that Mortimer would muster no more than 69 votes. His reward was to become receiver-general of the stamp duties for Dorset at £600 p.a. The defeated candidates’ petitions were unavailing and Mortimer was reported anxious to sell his property. He was by now near ruin, and the Duke of Portland was informed in September 1790 that it would be ‘a great bargain owing to his present situation’.1

Benfield took advantage of Mortimer’s plight. He became recorder in succession to Whitaker and acquired a mortgage on Mortimer’s property. In 1793, on a vacancy, he was returned unopposed, and in September 1794 he was informed by Whitaker that a last bid by Mortimer and Bryant to form a ‘junto’ against him was a ‘dying gasp of the two desponding Herods’, and that ‘the two seats’ were at his command. Bryant’s property now went begging to satisfy his creditors (November 1794). James Milnes* of Wakefield was informed of the opening by Lord Lauderdale in January 1795. The latter reported that Milnes could secure a seat for £4,000, payable on his return, the only condition being that he had not ‘antecedently sat in Parliament’. Milnes was further informed that the borough was no ‘close one’: ‘on the contrary it generally has been contested, but in this instance both parties, in consequence of a compromise, join in the sale and no money is to be advanced till the purchaser is secured’. Milnes purchased Bryant’s property. In October 1795 Benfield was reported ‘about to resign Shaftesbury’, but he did not, and when Milnes canvassed for himself and his business partner Dawson in May 1796 he aligned himself with his banking partner Boyd and defeated them. Milnes had spent ‘upwards of £17,000’ for nothing. He negotiated the sale of his property to Benfield, evidently for £13,300. Benfield had paid ‘not more than about six thousand pounds’ of the purchase money when he went bankrupt in 1799. The Treasury, his principal creditor, sold his Shaftesbury property in April 1801 to Mark Wood I* for £35,000. Wood discovered that Benfield had not made good his purchase from Milnes, which was a matter of litigation, and that his was an insecure investment. Before the year was out, Richard Messiter, ‘a popular jolly attorney banker and brewer’, had placed himself at the head of ‘the anti-nabob corps’ and offered to return his friend Edward Loveden Loveden free of charge. Loveden wrote after a visit to Shaftesbury, 27 Dec. 1801:

volunteers enrolled their names with him previous to my visit and they confirmed to me what they had promised to him. Benfield had no right to one part he sold Wood and Wood’s claim was decided against by the chancellor last Monday.2

Wood’s agent Bowles wrote indignantly to Charles Abbot, 15 Feb. 1802:3

Local news would be to give you the history of the basest ingratitude witnessed in the annals of the world’s history. Col. Wood the Member for Newark, has purchased of government the property lot of Benfield with the arrears of rent due thereon, being in most cases six years, in many, more ... with these pretensions Col. Wood offers himself and friend as joint candidates for the representation at the next election. He is ably supported by almost everybody of the least respectability and I have no doubt of his ultimate success, but many of his ragged rascally tenants have not only refused to pay him any rent, but have actually promised that privilege of voting which they ought not to possess in favour of Mr Loveden Loveden and any person he may choose as his colleague. However as the Col. is making (as he ought) an example of these men, I doubt not many of the others may yet come to a sense of their duty. Messiter supports them, and to countenance their proceedings, tells them that Col. Wood has nothing to do with the property tho’ the decree of the court of Exchequer has been printed and distributed amongst these very people... . I will take it for granted, that Col Wood as a supporter of the present ministry, has your wishes for success.

At the ensuing election Loveden joined forces with Robert Hurst, an experienced electioneer and a protégé of the Duke of Norfolk. Hurst’s introduction to the borough was arranged by none other than William Bryant (who had refused to be a party to the sale of his property). Wood at first chose Lord Dartmouth’s brother Capt. Legge as his running partner, but in the end it was his brother-in-law Dashwood who joined him: they were defeated. Loveden wrote, ‘They now say the character of the town is retrieved, they have been bought and sold but not represented for thirty years’. Wood, who claimed to have spent £15,000 to maintain his interest, was not ‘beaten out of the field’ as Loveden believed. He did not succeed in unseating Hurst on petition, but he prepared to try again. On 23 June 1804 he came to terms with the recalcitrant Bryant, buying him out of debtors’ prison and promising a job for Bryant’s son, on condition of his keeping out of Shaftesbury.4

By 1806 Loveden, having abandoned Messiter, was Wood’s nominee, together with Sir Home Popham. Messiter, along with John Calcraft*, a member of the Grenville government, supported Thomas Brand* and James Ramsay Cuthbert* against them. Wood wrote to Lord Wellesley, 24 Oct. 1806:

notwithstanding that his lordship [Grenville] and the public have been informed of a very formidable attack making against my property by two gentlemen sent down by Mr Calcraft (an agent of government) and notwithstanding that this unexpected opposition must give me a good deal of trouble, and incur a very considerable expense, yet ... I could assure his lordship I had every reason to believe that those deputies of Mr Calcraft stood not the smallest chance of success and that I had in consequence named two gentlemen equally attached to Lord Grenville: so that at all events Lord Grenville may reckon on Shaftesbury the same whichever way the issue of this contest may terminate.

During these last four years I have had upwards of £30,000 of my purchase money, in consideration of my agreement for the purchase of the Shaftesbury estate, lodged in the Exchequer, and to this hour have never had conveyed to me a single cottage of this property.

It is in this situation ... that an agent of government sends down two gentlemen to combat with me, and to rob me of the political interest which it is obvious to every person, could have been the sole and only object of my making the purchase.

Far be it from me however to impute to government the smallest blame upon this account. From circumstances within my own knowledge, government was not apprised of what Mr Calcraft had done: and unfortunately Mr Calcraft has suffered himself to be circumvented by a Mr Messiter, a most worthless Shaftesbury attorney, who, at the same time that he stood pledged to me by the most solemn pledge and engagement to support my interest, came up to treat with Mr Calcraft for the sale of my borough and positively pledged himself to bring in two Members. Mr Messiter’s letter pledging himself for ever to support my interest, I put into the hands of Lord Moira to show Lord Spencer; and a stronger instance of depravity and villainy seldom occurs.5

When Wellesley sent this letter on to Lord Grenville, the latter replied that he knew nothing of Calcraft’s intervention and had intended no hostility to Wood. In any case Calcraft’s candidates failed and an electors’ petition against the return (2 Jan. 1807) was not pursued. Wood nevertheless considered selling his property to Sir John Sinclair* and Lord Breadalbane for £40,000 in December 1806. Wood’s nominees (Loveden and Wallace) had to face another contest, presumably instigated by Messiter, in 1807, when Wood aligned himself with the Portland administration. It cost him more than £10,000, so he said; Wallace’s contribution towards this was £3,000. Evidently weary of this expense, Wood negotiated to sell the estate in February 1808 to Sir John Nicholl* and his nephew Robert Peter Dyneley for £50,000; £10,000; was paid down, but litigation over the property ensued and Nicholl tried to get out of the purchase; his nephew took it up, but did not pay for it. Wood threatened to publish the negotiations and went so far as to obtain the Speaker as referee of the case. The decision went against Wood, who refused to accept £10,000 from Sir John Nicholl as compensation.6

In 1812 Dyneley, after consulting Wood, put up Wetherell and Kerrison as supporters of administration and Messiter continued his opposition to the patron by sponsoring Bateman Robson and Gurney. The latter were at first returned, but unseated on petition when the returning officer was held to have been in error in refusing the votes of 27 who had not paid the last poor rate. The patron’s candidates were awarded a majority of four. Dyneley went on to buy out Messiter; he already owned ‘three fourths’ of the borough, but wished to sell it as a ‘close and certain’ borough. According to Wood writing to Col. McMahon, 18 Oct. 1813, Dyneley, who gratified Wood by consulting him on the disposal of his parliamentary interest, ‘until my money be paid’, was treating with a party for the sale of the borough at £55,00. Wood hoped that ‘the philistines’ would not ‘get hold of Shaftesbury’, meaning enemies of administration. He need not have agonized; the borough was sold, by John Dyneley, his brother Robert having died in 1815, to the Earl of Rosebery for the above mentioned sum and the latter’s nominees were unopposed in 1818. John Cam Hobhouse, who was present, wrote:

We sat boozing and roaring till near eleven. After Shepherd and I left them fighting began. The Englishman is nowhere so degraded an animal as at a borough election. The franchise is the greatest curse that can befall a town.

In July 1819 Shaftesbury changed hands again. Lady Holland reported that Lord Grosvenor gave £60,000 for it. ‘It is reckoned a cheap snug purchase £10,000 a year in land. Why did Lord Rosebery sell it?’.7

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, i. 196; India Office Lib. mss Eur. C. 307/1, ff. 15, 19; 4, ff. 2, 4, 6, 24, 42; CJ, xlvi. 47, 53; xlviii. 13, 371; Ginter, Whig Organization, 215.
  • 2. India Office Lib. mss Eur. C. 307/5, f. 262; Egerton 2137, ff. 149, 150, 162; Oracle, 15 Oct. 1795; Leeds Intelligencer, 23 May; Northampton Mercury, 11 June 1796; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/140/29; Sidmouth mss, Wood to Sidmouth, 2 Oct. 1812, enc. ‘Statement of facts by way of a case’; Parl. Deb. v. app. xcv; Berks. RO, Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 27 Dec. 1801.
  • 3. PRO 30/9/1, pt. 1/2.
  • 4. The Times, 21, 25 June; Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 8 July 1802; CJ, lviii. 55, 60, 145; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections (1803), i. 18, 93; PP (1809), xi. 231.
  • 5. HMC Fortescue, viii. 402.
  • 6. Ibid. 403; CJ, lxii. 40; R. Mitchison, Agricultural Sir John, 206; Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 11 May 1807; Geo. IV Letters, i. 330; ii. 524; Add. 38368, f. 206; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iii. 407.
  • 7. CJ, lxviii. 12, 178; U. Corbett and E. R. Daniell, Controverted Elections (1821), 265; Geo. IV Letters, i. 330; Add. 47235, f. 25; 52172, Lady Holland to Allen, Thurs. [22 July 1819].