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 freemen and freeholders (1797)

Number of voters:

about 500


(1801): 4,199


19 Mar. 1792 WILLIAM DOWDESWELL vice Codrington, deceased 
30 May 1796JAMES MARTIN296
 Peter Moore168
 Philip Francis100
18 Dec. 1797 CHRISTOPHER BETHELL CODRINGTON vice Dowdeswell, appointed to office134
 Peter Moore52
 George Tollet11
5 July 1802JAMES MARTIN 
31 Oct. 1806JAMES MARTIN 
 John Martin124

Main Article

Oldfield commented in 1816 that Tewkesbury was ‘not subject to the control of a patron’ and its electors were ‘as free from improper influence as the defective state of our representation will admit’.1 Electoral influence was exercised through the corporation, who looked for Members among the neighbouring landowners. Although Tewkesbury was untainted by the cruder forms of bribery, it could be expensive. Members were expected to provide gifts or loans for municipal purposes and entertainment bills were sometimes high.

There was no opposition in 1790 to the reelection of the sitting Members, who were both well entrenched on old interests. Sir William Codrington, a Whig and wealthy plantation owner, had originally been returned in 1761 on the interest of his brother-in-law William Dowdeswell of Pull Court, which lay about four miles away across the boundary with Worcestershire. Dowdeswell died in 1775 and his eldest son Thomas, who showed no parliamentary ambition, came of age the following year. Codrington, whose own Gloucestershire property lay over 30 miles south of Tewkesbury, consolidated his position by paying for the erection of the town hall and buying up houses, at a cost of £4,000.2 James Martin, whose family had established an interest at Tewkesbury in the 1730s, was head of their London bank and succeeded to their property at Overbury, also nearby in Worcestershire, in 1794. A fiercely independent Member, generous philanthropist and strong humanitarian, he was very popular in the borough.

On Codrington’s death in 1792 his nephew William Dowdeswell, a soldier and younger brother of Thomas of Pull Court, came forward. According to the historian of Tewkesbury, John Embury, a local businessman, defeated in 1784, offered himself; the Society of Friends brought forward Capt. Thomas Lloyd of Cilgwyn; and Peter Moore*, a Whig nabob, canvassed after William Smith, rector of Birtsmorton, had announced that he was willing to spend £20,000 to £30,000. All retreated except Dowdeswell.3 Moore, who claimed to have been invited to Tewkesbury by a body of the freemen (about half the electorate), stood against Martin and Dowdeswell in 1796, in harness with his fellow Whig Philip Francis*. Embury also offered, but declined before the poll, which lasted five days. The Whig pair, whose cry was ‘emancipation’ of the townspeople from their ‘thraldom’ to the neighbouring gentry, sought to establish that the franchise lay with the freemen and inhabitant householders, but all the votes of the latter (249 for Moore, 241 for Francis) were rejected by the returning officers, who refused to grant a scrutiny. Moore and Francis claimed a victory on the basis of these votes and there were rival chairings. They petitioned, laying claim to a majority of legal votes and accusing the returning officers of partiality. In submissions on the right of election before the select committee, counsel for the sitting Members argued that it was in the freemen and ‘any person seised of an estate of freehold in an entire dwelling house’ within the borough; counsel for the petitioners, that it was in the freemen by servitude or copy (the corporation also had the power to create honorary freemen, though it was little used) and the inhabitant householders. The committee determined that it lay with ‘the freemen at large’ and ‘all persons seised of an estate of freehold, in an entire dwelling house within the ancient limits’ of the borough. Martin and Dowdeswell were declared duly elected and that part of the petition directed against the returning officers deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’. Shortly afterwards Francis was sued over an unpaid bill by a local publican and there were suggestions of an illegal agreement whereby Moore had agreed to pay Francis’s expenses.4

When recommending Dowdeswell’s appointment as governor of the Bahamas, which vacated his seat, in November 1797, the Duke of Portland informed the King that as the borough had been attacked in 1796 ‘some arrangement may be necessary to secure the election of a successor’ without undue expense, though there could be no doubt that another Whig attempt on the borough would fail. The writ was issued on 17 Nov. and Dowdeswell’s appointment not gazetted until the 20th; but this caution was rendered nugatory by the bailiffs’ inadvertent infringement of the regulations governing due notice of elections, which forced them to petition for a new writ, not issued until 13 Dec. Dowdeswell’s cousin Christopher Bethell Codrington, nephew of Sir William and his successor in the Gloucestershire and West Indian property, came forward and was challenged by Moore and by George Tollet of Betley, Staffordshire, a member of the Embury family who had changed his name. Codrington won easily. Of the 81 freemen who voted, 53 polled for him, 24 for Moore and 4 for Tollet. Moore’s supporters were mainly artisans and labourers.5

Had Moore secured a majority of freemen he would have petitioned to have the franchise confined to them, but as it was he merely claimed a majority of legal votes and alleged that Codrington, as one of the current bailiffs and ex officio returning officer, was ineligible. Another petition to the same effect, with an additional charge of bribery against Codrington, was lodged in the names of certain electors. A group of electors also lodged a petition challenging the right of election as determined in March, and the freeholders counter-petitioned. One Henry Fowke, advising Codrington, 4 Feb. 1798, to attend the meeting called for this purpose, warned him that if their opponents were successful ‘against the freeholders, the property in houses, which cost your late uncle £4,000 would be diminished in value very considerably’. The dispute over the right of election ended when both sides dropped their petitions and the select committee on Moore’s quickly dismissed it as ‘frivolous and vexatious’. On 9 Oct. 1798 Codrington gave 115 electors half a guinea each.6 There was no opposition to him and Martin in 1802 when, according to one report, they were f’ted at a dinner paid for by the leading inhabitants, which was ‘inverting the usual order of things, and highly honourable to all parties’.7

In August 1806 Codrington informed Lord Grenville, to whose Foxite colleagues in government he was opposed, that he was inclined to retire at the next general election and would like a peerage, which Grenville refused him. Just before the dissolution the 5th Earl of Berkeley, the largest landowner in Gloucestershire, wrote to Grenville:

My nephew Mr [Henry Augustus] Berkeley Craven may come in for Tewkesbury whenever he chooses it, having the property and commanding interest in that borough, but as I suppose Mr Codrington is with you and Mr Martin is almost at an end, my nephew will wait for an opportunity to come in quietly.

Grenville encouraged him to start his nephew, describing both sitting Members as opponents of the ministry and suggesting that Codrington might not contest the issue if threatened. Berkeley accordingly sent for his nephew, but Codrington, who told Grenville that if he had been made a peer he would have returned his brother as a supporter of government, stood his ground. So too did Martin, who had originally planned to retire in favour of his son, but changed his mind on being warned of the possible opposition. Another contender was Charles Hanbury Tracy, scion of a family of Welsh iron-masters who had married the heiress of the nearby Tracy property at Toddington; but he, along with Berkeley and Walter Honeywood Yate, a Gloucestershire reformer, declined to go to a poll.8

Martin made way for his eldest son John in 1807, but surprisingly he was beaten into third place by Hanbury Tracy, who may have spent heavily. Codrington’s expenses were about £1,300.9 He still had his eye on retirement to the Upper House and on 27 July 1811 was addressed on the question of his seat by his cousin John Edmund Dowdeswell, recorder of Tewkesbury since 1798 and youngest brother of William, Codrington’s prodecessor, who had recently succeeded to Pull Court. Dowdeswell admitted to wanting the seat, though he professed to be ‘by no means impatient’ for it, and was anxious so to arrange matters that he should come forward in immediate succession to Codrington, thinking that ‘great difficulties might be placed in the way of my ever representing the borough’ if he did not do so. He went on:

should you be determined on quitting ... one of the family will stand. Though I state this as a matter of certainty I do not see why you should come to any immediate determination ... If it should be settled between us, that I should start whenever you retired, and that there was a prospect of your retiring at the next dissolution, I would be in readiness for that event ... but ... you would at all times be at liberty to reconsider the determination ... Indeed the only thing that need be settled is ... who should start in case you did not. This I think the family interest requires, as otherwise a march may be stolen upon us while we are deliberating and nothing is more probable, should the King’s bodily illness continue, than that Tracy or Martin should abandon their intention of being candidates and in the event we must do the same.10

Codrington retired in 1812 and so did Hanbury Tracy. Dowdeswell and John Martin were returned in their places after an abortive canvass by Samuel Whitcombe of Gloucester.11 They were undisturbed at the next four general elections.

Authors: M. J. Williams / David R. Fisher


  • 1. Rep. Hist. iii. 493.
  • 2. Glos. RO, Codrington mss D. 1610 X16.
  • 3. J. Bennett, Tewkesbury, 260; Tewkesbury Yearly Reg. ii. 480-1.
  • 4. Bennett, 261; Morning Chron. 21, 24 May, 2 June; True Briton, 31 May, 4 June 1796; CJ, lii. 21, 307, 353-4; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections, 146-83; Tewkesbury Yearly Reg. ii. 482; Morning Chron. 27 Nov. 1797; Parl. Deb. vi. 509.
  • 5. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1644; CJ, liii. 83, 116, 128, 148; Debrett (ser.) 3), iv. 305; Colchester, i. 121; Codrington mss X17.
  • 6. Bennett, 263; Codrington mss X17; CJ, liii. 161, 180, 240, 487, 531, 545.
  • 7. The Times, 7 July 1802.
  • 8. Fortescue mss, Codrington to Grenville, 25 Aug., 20 Oct., Grenville to Codrington, 11 Sept., to Berkeley, 18 Oct., Berkeley to Grenville, 20 Oct.; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/191/12; Bristol Jnl. 1, 8 Nov. 1806; Bennett, 265.
  • 9. Codrington mss X17.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Bennett, 265; Add. 35650, f. 397; Bristol Jnl. 10 Oct. 1812.