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

Number of voters:

about 100


(1801): 10,989


19 June 1790JOHN COTES
21 June 1800 GEORGE WILLIAM GUNNING vice Bridgeman, called to the Upper House
18 June 1818(SIR) ROBERT HOLT LEIGH, Bt.

Main Article

There are a number of obscurities in the electoral history of Wigan, where the admission of freemen was regulated by a complicated municipal constitution. In-burgesses were chosen at the annual Michaelmas court leet from inhabitants paying scot and lot by the jury of the court, which was itself composed entirely of in-burgesses. The mayor had the power to create honorary freemen, generally known as out-burgesses, who had the right to vote in mayoral and parliamentary elections, but it would seem that only two such creations could be made by each mayor.1

The 3rd Duke of Portland built up an interest in the 1760s, returned both Members in 1768 (after a contest) and 1774, but in 1779 made a deal with Sir Henry Bridgeman*, who had succeeded to the Shropshire and Staffordshire estates of the Newports, earls of Bradford. The Bridgeman family had held the advowson of Wigan since the Restoration and the rector was lord of the manor. Precise details of the transaction are not known, but in a handbill of 1820 it was alleged that Portland had sold his interest to Bridgeman for £6,000.2 Bridgeman’s eldest son came in on a vacancy in 1780 and again at the general election, when he and a kinsman of Portland defeated Sir Richard Clayton of Adlington, nephew of a former Member, whose overtures for an accommodation Portland had rebuffed. On young Bridgeman’s death in 1782 he was replaced by John Cotes, a Shropshire man and son of the late rector. He and Henry Bridgeman’s eldest surviving son Orlando, who had come of age in the interim, were unopposed in 1784. On the face of it, Bridgeman now controlled both seats, but it is clear that Portland still had considerable influence. The two were personal friends and political allies and, whatever were the terms of their electoral arrangement, they co-operated harmoniously at Wigan. According to Oldfield, ‘the mode of securing the electors is by lending each individual a limited sum of money upon bond, and not exacting payment, with any extreme severity, while they preserve their political allegiance’.3

There was no disturbance in 1790, but there is evidence that Portland and Bridgeman, who was created Lord Bradford in 1794, could not afford to be complacent. On 7 Oct. 1794, recommending Thomas Barton, the mayor, for inclusion in the commission of the peace, and one Hugh Bullock, to whom ‘solely and exclusively for some years past has the preservation of the borough belonged’, for a financial reward, Cotes told Portland of the recent Michaelmas elections, in which he and George Bridgeman, rector since 1790, had worked with Bullock:

the contest lay 12 jury burgesses on our side, 11 on theirs, the 11 forming one impenetrable phalanx, the 12 composed of as many views as their number consisted. It was not in the decision of a single question that the matter lay; their decision must all be brought to one and the same point on each and every occurrence, and nothing short of the whole number could substantiate any act. Influence, arrests, the making intoxicated, and then carrying away in the dead of night ... and very many other arts were all practised. Luckily we have conquered them all, added a sufficient number of new votes to our own list and taken from their jury by the appointment of most of them to the offices of aldermen etc.

In 1795 Clayton, soliciting a diplomatic appointment, promised Pitt that ‘my interest will now go with the Duke of Portland’s at Wigan’, and there was no trouble in 1796.4

When Bradford’s death removed Orlando Bridgeman to the Lords in June 1800, he was quietly replaced by his brother-in-law George Gunning, but three months later the controlling interests were overturned. The prime movers in this opposition appear to have been John Vause, the new mayor, and William Clayton, an attorney, who was mayor in 1801 and 1803 and later became town clerk. At the Michaelmas elections they contrived to secure the admission of enough new freemen to outnumber the supporters of the sitting Members. The beneficiaries of this coup were Robert Holt Leigh, a local squire, and John Hodson, a wealthy cotton manufacturer in the town, who immediately offered for the next general election. Apparently their majority was ‘very inconsiderable’ and the local agents of the Bradford interest favoured taking the matter before the courts in an attempt to have the hostile freemen disqualified, but Bradford and Gunning decided against it.5 Shortly before the general election of 1802 Bradford’s supporter James Baron reported that Gunning had no chance, as ‘the whole of the new burgesses will upon the present occasion remain so attached to Leigh and Hodson, in whose interest they were made, as to ensure their return’; but his agent John Heaton thought it important not to abandon all hope of reviving the Bridgeman interest:

It remains now to be considered between your lordship and Mr Gunning whether a point should be made for his appearing at the election on your account ... or whether some other measure short of that can be adopted by inducing some other gentleman to appear there ... to represent your lordship’s interest for the purpose of retaining that chance which, with a view to power, should not lightly be given up. The ground upon which your lordship stands, if not at this moment wholly abandoned, may give a check to your present opponents. In the course of time it may also ... operate to some good in your lordship’s favour ... I submit to your lordship whether you are not warranted ... to incur some expense and trouble at the present moment. The new candidates ... are not in the best harmony with each other, and although the body of electors whom they have been so instrumental in making ... may not be induced ... to vote in favour of any third person at the next election, yet ... before another ... they may, by attention and management ... be induced to see things in another point of view ... In that interval also there is the probable chance of reviving or improving the constitution of the borough upon which your lordship’s interest has hitherto been founded.

Gunning, who acquired a seat at Hastings, was unable to go to Wigan, but with Heaton he concocted a farewell address which held out the prospect of his standing on a future occasion. It had been thought that Cotes, who was to obtain a seat for Shropshire in 1806, would attend the election, but if he did, he did not contest the issue with Leigh and Hodson.6

A week before the general election of 1806 Lord Lindsay, the eldest son of the 6th Earl of Balcarres, whose marriage had brought him the former Bradshaigh property at Haigh Hall, issued an address declaring their intention of reviving the Bradshaigh interest by staking Lindsay’s claims to election on a future occasion. At the same time Balcarres wrote to both Leigh and Hodson, disclaiming any wish to create opposition now or in future, but asking each for an assurance that ‘you will regard the pretensions of Lord Lindsay as standing next to your own’. Leigh, whose grandfather had been legal and financial adviser to the Bradshaighs, returned a personal expression of his ‘friendly disposition’ towards Lindsay’s success in the event of a vacancy, but declined to commit himself further before consulting Hodson, who for himself refused to answer until he had seen Leigh. Balcarres tried to expedite matters by suggesting to Earl Spencer, the Home secretary, that if Hodson, who was said to be tired of Parliament, could be made a baronet, it would be ‘a card in my hand’ which ‘might possibly affect even the present election or would greatly accelerate the future reorganisation of this seat’.7 Nothing came of this and the Lindsays had to wait until Leigh retired in 1820 before they were able to realize their expectations.

Gunning, without a seat from 1806 until 1812, was apparently in Wigan at about the time of the 1807 general election and may have canvassed, but there was no contest. Before the municipal elections later that year he and Lord Bradford’s henchmen considered trying to revive their interest. An open assault was ruled out of the question and it was decided that ‘the safest way was to feel our ground’ carefully and secretly, by employing Baron and others as ‘private’ agents on the spot. In 1808, one of these agents, William Mercer, suggested giving quarterly dinners to Bradford’s friends as a means of securing them and of making converts to his interest, ‘which still increases’. Bradford sanctioned the scheme, but warned that extreme caution must be exercised.8 When the Bridgemans tried to reassert their influence at the poll in 1820 they were defeated.

Authors: M. H. Port / David R. Fisher


  • 1. See M. Cox, ‘Sir Roger Bradshaigh and the electoral management of Wigan, 1695-1747’, Bull. Rylands Lib. xxxvii. 120-64; ‘Observations’ on Wigan municipal constitution (Wigan RO, ref. AB); PP (1835), xxiii. 130.
  • 2. Wigan RO, MMP 25/675.
  • 3. Oldfield, Boroughs, i. 347, where he ascribed the patronage to Portland and Bridgeman. In the 1792 edition of Boroughs, ii. 197, he had mistakenly named Cotes’s father, who had died in 1775, as co-patron with Bridgeman.
  • 4. Portland mss PwF3105; PRO 30/8/125, f. 29.
  • 5. Bradford mss, Rev. Latham to Bradford, 15 Nov. 1800, Gunning to same, 21 Oct., Baron to same, 10 Dec. 1801.
  • 6. Ibid. Baron to Lowten, 1 June, Heaton to Gunning, 15, 26 June, to Bradford, 16 June, Gunning to Heaton, 16, 25, 30 June 1802.
  • 7. Spencer mss, Lindsay’s address, 25 Oct., Balcarres to Leigh and Hodson, replies 26 Oct., Balcarres to Spencer, 26, 27 Oct., Spencer to Balcarres, 4 Nov. 1806.
  • 8. Bradford mss, Heaton to Bradford, 10 Sept., reply 11 Sept., Gunning to Bradford, 14, 27, 30 Sept. 1807, Mercer to same, 24 Nov., reply 5 Dec. 1808.