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 resident freemen

Number of voters:

about 600


(1801): 3,898


 George Townsend Sloper181
 Benjamin Bond Hopkins145
28 Feb. 1806 SHERIDAN re-elected after appointment to office 
 Thomas Sheridan165
 Sir Oswald Mosley, Bt.265
7 Oct. 1812RALPH BENSON482
 Richard Brinsley Sheridan255
19 June 1818BENJAMIN BENYON340
 Colin Macaulay150

Main Article

Stafford, which acknowledged no patron, was a constant drain on the purses of its Members, thanks to the size of the electorate, among whom journeymen shoemakers predominated. But money was not enough to maintain an interest there. Sheridan found the service of Joshua Drewry, editor of the Staffordshire Advertiser, useful. He came to grief in 1806 and in 1812, although he was inclined to attribute his failure in the latter election to the want of funds rather than admit that it was his neglect of his constituents that had caused it. It was observed in 1812, ‘The popular candidate in this town must always win’.1 From 1780 to 1806 the nabob Monckton and Sheridan, whom Monckton had introduced to the borough, were too strong for any opposition, although they parted political company after 1792. Sheridan wrote, 1 May 1807, ‘Stafford has long by agreement been one and one. Monckton secured Pitt’s neutrality in my favour and has always acted quite fairly.’2

The opposition in 1790 was opportunist: Sloper was a young barrister and Hopkins a former Member unprovided with a seat. Sir Elijah Impey was then reported to be visiting Stafford, ‘in return for many favours received from Sheridan’. The sitting Members were, however, in no real danger. Only five of the 18 members of the corporation voted against them, despite allegations that ‘the leading noble and courtly interests of the county, and a supposed unbounded Treasury credit’ were exerted for Hopkins, who was reported to have spent £6,000. He undoubtedly received £286 expenses from the secret service fund.3 In December 1794 a subscription was opened to oppose Sheridan (as well as his fellow Whig Courtenay at Tamworth), but there was no contest in 1796. In October 1795 Maj. John Scott* was one of two or three contenders. An unsuccessful canvass was attempted on behalf of John Williams (d.1810), serjeant-at-law, married to the mayor’s daughter and ‘supported by all the ministerial influence in the county’. An effort by Richard Whitworth of Batchacre Park to offer himself came to nothing after he had been attacked for petitioning against the return 15 years before: he was thus reproached in a squib ‘Dick, Dick, for shame. Why grudge the poor burgesses a drop of ale, for the sake of trying to screw a few pounds into your own pocket!’4

In 1802 a report that Capt. Whitby of the navy, son of a local landowner, would stand against Sheridan, proved groundless. Sheridan found an angel in Lord Thanet who supplied him with £2,500, and received an assurance from Addington that ‘no ministerial influence should be used against him and that his re-election for Stafford would be a circumstance no means disagreeable to them’. It was left to Whitworth to come forward again. He attacked the sitting Members as nominees of the corporation ‘consisting of 21 persons out of 500’ and reproached them for absenteeism. He promised the electors a third man; to quote Sheridan writing for the press:

it ended however in his proposing himself, which he retracted this morning [5 July] on the hustings and voted for our two esteemed Members. Mr Sheridan made an admirable speech and turned the charge of his long absence from the borough so cleverly as to excite the most enthusiastic applause.5

Sheridan was re-elected unopposed at the Prince of Wales’s expense when he took office in February 1806, but had a cheaper seat in contemplation when, on Fox’s death, he forsook Stafford and aspired to his chief’s seat for Westminster. He never recovered his prestige at Stafford. In 1802, when he had already thought of standing for Westminster if Fox retired, he had been confident that he could secure his son Tom’s return for Stafford; in 1806 he failed to achieve this. Tom was obliged to defend his father against ‘the charges of neglect and desertion which had been industriously circulated’. He was opposed by a naval officer, Mansel Philipps, who got two days start of him. Sheridan was obliged to deny that Philipps was also his candidate and that he had sold the seat for 3,000 guineas, as alleged by Henry Clifford the Catholic lawyer, whose brother was a local landowner and who was really responsible for Mansel Philipps’s introduction. Sheridan complained, moreover, that ‘this Treasury misunderstanding of the persons employed in the election arrangements may have lost my son a seat he was otherwise sure of’.6 Tom was routed; his father’s attempt to thwart Mansel Philipps by taking advantage of his petty debts and bonds and having him arrested was unavailing, and he dropped his threatened petition. Tom was no more successful in 1807; once again, the Sheridans were too slow. Sir Oswald Mosley* was sent down by Fremantle as the Whig candidate, commended by Lord Howick, who pleaded ignorance of Sheridan’s intentions when reproached by him for having ‘completely driven Tom out of Stafford’. Sheridan complained of Howick’s willingness to secure the assistance of the interest (about 60 votes) of the Catholic landowner Sir William Jerningham, 6th Bt., for Mosley, and alleged:

Three newcomers have broke into the borough all equally opposers of Tom and any of them getting Jerningham’s interest must beat him ... yet without condescending to ask me a single question, and contrary I believe to the decorum usually observed both by ministers and heads of opposition where an understanding prevails in a borough the arrangement is broken through and an intruder in a place I might call mine for six and twenty years is armed by you with power to throw out my son.

Mollified by Howick’s assurance that he was willing to put Tom Sheridan before Mosley, Sheridan set about securing the Jerningham votes for his son, sending an excuse to Monckton, who was ‘perfectly safe’, for their being withdrawn from him, but assuring Grey that he would give up every interest for Mosley if he found he had ‘a better chance’ than Tom. This is what he did find and Tom Sheridan withdrew. Of the other ‘intruders’, Joseph Hanson, the Manchester radical, had withdrawn in favour of Sheridan, and Ralph Benson, son of a wealthy Liverpool West India merchant, retired before the poll because of a ruptured blood vessel. Mosley was left at the bottom of the poll.7 He received more support from the corporation than Mansel Philipps and more votes from Monckton’s supporters, but not enough of them.

In November 1811 Mosley declined to stand at Stafford at the next election. Mansel Philipps was already out of the question. Sheridan, who wished to return to his ‘old independent seat’, accepted an invitation to stand again, displacing his son. There was bad blood between Mosley and the Sheridans owing to a loan of £1,000 from the former for electioneering, which the latter chose to regard as a gift, and Mosley threatened not to support Sheridan. In February 1812 Monckton announced his retirement through old age and Sheridan secured his support and that of the Leveson Gower family. He also planned to obtain a contract for £3,000 worth of shoes to be fairly divided among the borough’s many shoemakers, and in the House opposed the leather tax on behalf of his ‘former and probably his future constituents’. He secured the Jerningham interest with an assurance that his motive for foregoing a safe seat on the Prince of Wales’s interest was to be free to support the Catholic claims: Edward Jerningham reported during the election that he hoped to muster nearly 100 votes for Sheridan as ‘an unexpected opposition to Sheridan in this town has flung him entirely upon the strength of our interest’. As a reward he hoped for patronage for the family.8

Sheridan had expected opposition from the ministerialist Ralph Benson, but what he did not expect was that his ‘foolish confidence in his popularity, and his total negligence of the voters’ when he reached Stafford would actually provoke the burgesses, in their indignation, to seek out another candidate. Lady Morpeth reported Lord Granville Leveson Gower, 5 Oct., as saying:

Sheridan will be beat owing to his carelessness and indolence—he did not arrive for three days after he was expected, and when he did come, would not get up till one o’clock or call upon anybody—the consequence is that they are so angry that they would elect anybody in preference and have almost forced this Mr Wilson to stand, an officer who had no thought of it ... they have offered to bring him in for nothing and it is now thought that he and Mr Benson will be returned—poor Sheridan will look rather silly having said that he could even bring in another Member.

It appears that the indignant burgesses had proposed ‘the same distinction to Mr Chetwynd’, who declined. Wilson, ‘a respectable country gentleman’ and colonel of the local militia, whose politics were unknown, easily defeated Sheridan for second place.9 Wilson shared 286 of the 558 votes cast with Benson, though he was the least well supported by the corporation, all of whom gave Sheridan a vote. Sheridan complained that Whitbread had refused his application for assistance from the Drury Lane funds for his election; that he had distributed 560 meal tickets and calculated that nearly 400 electors turned their coats. He threatened to prepare a ‘correct list’ of them but this was his last stand at Stafford: the presentation to him of a silver gilt cup, 14 Apr. 1813, by his Stafford friends was a valediction to the days when he sat in Parliament ‘free, unfettered, and independent’.10

There was a free for all at Stafford in 1818. John Gladstone* who thought of standing with William Shand, a West India planter, was deterred by the rise in the price of a vote from 5 to 7½ guineas. Wilson did not offer and Benson retired at the last minute, while ‘Mr Wright the London banker’, who was expected to stand, did not materialize. Benjamin Benyon of Shrewsbury headed the poll on the radical interest, while a Welsh ironmaster defeated an East India general for second place.11 Benson, who was a shadow candidate at Liverpool, addressed the Stafford electors from there, 15 June, to deny that he had withdrawn in favour of Gen. Colin Macaulay, or been interested in both of them being returned, though he reminded them that at the previous election they had invited him to put up a friend to stand with him. Thomas Lewin, a barrister, who wished to offer himself, withdrew when he found ‘the votes previously engaged’: he was a relative of Benson’s. Nothing came of Gen. Macaulay’s threatened petition.12

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, ii. 92; Colls. Hist. Staffs. (Wm. Salt Arch. Soc. ser. 4), vi. 200; Farington, iv. 43; Jerningham Letters, ii. 24.
  • 2. Sheridan Letters ed. Price, iii. 4.
  • 3. Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 42; Public Advertiser, 21 June 1790; PRO 30/8/229, ff. 251, 352.
  • 4. Oracle, 15, 16 Oct. 1795; Morning Chron. 26, 30 May 1796; Sheridan Letters, ii. 36; Staffs. RO, Aqualate mss D.1788, p. 2, ‘Truth’s’ address, 1796.
  • 5. The Times, 26 June, 1, 8 July; Blair Adam mss, Richardson to Adam, Sunday [27 June 1802]; Sheridan Letters, ii. 185.
  • 6. Sheridan Letters, ii. 284, 291; Morning Chron. 30 Oct.; Staffs. Advertiser, 1, 8 Nov. 1806.
  • 7. Sheridan Letters, iii. 4-6; R. C. Rhodes, Harlequin Sheridan, 217; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 556.
  • 8. Sheridan Letters, iii. 135-7, 140, 149; Jerningham Letters, ii. 23; Rhodes, 232-4; Parl. Deb. xxiii. 790.
  • 9. PRO 30/29/6/8, f. 1430; Carlisle mss, Lady to Ld. Morpeth, 5 Oct. 1812; Whitbread mss W1/1983.
  • 10. Wm. Salt Lib., Stafford, memo by Sheridan [1812]; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iv. 222; Sheridan Letters, iii. 171; VCH Staffs. vi. 238.
  • 11. S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones, 103; Salopian Jnl. 13 May, 17 June 1818.
  • 12. The Late Elections (1818), 321.