Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in persons paying church and poor rates, resident or non-resident

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 500


2,743 (1821); 3,033 (1831)


10 Apr. 1830HENRY CHARLES STURT vice Ashley Cooper, vacated his seat
11 Oct. 1831HON. ANTHONY HENRY ASHLEY COOPER vice Ashley, vacated his seat

Main Article

Dorchester, Thomas Hardy’s essentially agricultural Casterbridge, was the county town of Dorset, in which its quarter sessions (exclusively so from 1825) and county and election meetings were held. Dismissed as a ‘dreary melancholy town’ by Lady William Russell, whose husband was stationed there in the mid-1820s, another visitor at that time, Sir Stephen Glynne*, described it as ‘surrounded by beautiful avenues of trees’ and ‘small, but neat and regularly built’.1 The borough comprised the whole of the parish of All Saints, most of the parish of St. Peter and part of the parish of Trinity (from which Frome Whitfield and Colliton Row were excluded), but did not extend into the poor suburb of Fordington. It was governed by a corporation made up of the mayor, two bailiffs, six aldermen and six capital burgesses; a powerless common council of a governor and 24 freemen, to whose number the Members were invariably added, continued to have a separate existence.2 By the Commons ruling of 18 May 1720, the right of voting was vested ‘in the inhabitants of the said borough paying to church and poor, in respect of their personal estates; and in such persons as pay to church and poor, in respect of their real estate within the said borough’. The non-resident element and poor record keeping made it difficult to quantify the number of electors, but it was reckoned to be about twice the greatest number of voters in the 30 years to 1831, which had been the 229 polled in 1806. One reply to a home office circular estimated the number in respect of personal estate at 158, and of real estate (out of a maximum of 510) at 340, making a total of 498, of whom perhaps a half were non-resident.3

As Thomas Oldfield put it, the franchise was ‘pregnant with the greatest political inconvenience’ because it encouraged manipulation of the leases by which the borough was controlled: for example, many pieces of land ‘which are entirely waste, and covered with rubbish and weeds, have the right of suffrage annexed to them, and are considered as the most valuable voting property, because they admit of no inhabitant to give his suffrage for his personal effects’.4 As was clearly shown on two early nineteenth century plans of the borough, the tenements were indeed largely divided up between the joint patrons, who nominated one Member each, a system which was condemned in radical publications.5 The larger and more influential proprietor was a former Member, the 6th earl of Shaftesbury, chairman of committees in the House of Lords, whose family had long had an interest there and who served as lord steward. He had brought in supporters of the Liverpool administration since inheriting his title and interest in 1811, and in June 1819 returned the Welsh judge Charles Warren. The other patron, another inactive ministerialist, was the London banker Robert Williams of nearby Bridehead, who had succeeded his father as Member in 1812 and thereafter nominated himself. He and Warren were again returned unopposed at the general election of 1820.6

A loyal address to the king was proposed by the veteran local attorney and Shaftesbury’s agent Thomas Gould Read at a meeting of the corporation and inhabitants, 11 Dec. 1820, when an amendment ‘that it be not considered as conveying any judgement whatever respecting the late measures’ of ministers against Queen Caroline was defeated.7 Petitions from the innkeepers, licensed publicans and victuallers against the beer bill were presented to the Commons, 15 July 1822, 7 May 1824, by Masterton Ure and Robert’s brother William Williams respectively, who were both Members for Weymouth.8 In the summer of 1825 it was remarked as odd by one correspondent in the county paper that amid the national anti-Catholic activity there had been no Dorchester petition against relief. Following a meeting of inhabitants, 16 May, a petition was brought up against the Weymouth harbour bill, 18 May 1825.9 Although in January 1824 it had been supposed that the ageing and discredited Warren might vacate and so provide a route back to the Commons for the Irish barrister John Leslie Foster*, he did not retire until the dissolution in 1826.10 Williams was joined instead by Shaftesbury’s second son William Ashley Cooper, who, like his older colleague, vaunted his local connections and praised ministers on the hustings. They were returned unopposed and, as Williams put it, ‘under the most satisfactory circumstances’.11

Petitions from the Protestant Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts were presented to the Commons, 25 May 1827, 13 Feb., and to the Lords, 25 Feb. 1828.12 Read took a prominent part in the town meeting to approve an anti-Catholic petition, when Thomas Fisher, a Dorchester grocer and tea dealer, attempted to move as an amendment that there should be no local action on this question, but attracted only three votes.13 Williams presented the petition to the Commons, 24 Apr., and John Calcraft, Member for Wareham, who insisted that there had been a great difference of opinion at the meeting, brought up a Dorchester petition for relief the following day. These anti- and pro-Catholic petitions were presented to the Lords by Shaftesbury, 21 Apr., and Lord Holland, 5 June. Landowners’ petitions against alteration of the corn laws were brought up in the Commons by Edward Berkeley Portman, the county Member, 19 May (when Williams presented the corporation’s petition against the alehouses licensing bill), and in the Lords by the duke of Newcastle, 12 June 1828.14 At Read’s instigation, another meeting on 27 Feb. 1829 unanimously resolved to address the king against emancipation and to forward anti-Catholic petitions to both Houses, which were presented on 3 Mar. by Williams and Shaftesbury. However, petitions for emancipation were brought up by Portman in the Commons, 6 Mar., and by Lord Suffield in the Lords, 9 Mar.15 Williams continued to vote, as he always had, against Catholic claims, and Ashley Cooper, who in fact favoured relief, was forced to do the same, 6 Mar., by Shaftesbury, who divided against emancipation in the Lords, 4, 10 Apr. 1829.16

Ashley Cooper resigned in April 1830, supposedly to take up a diplomatic appointment, and at the by-election that month Shaftesbury’s nephew, Henry Charles Sturt of Crichel House, Wimborne Minster, former Member for Bridport, was returned unopposed as an independent country gentleman. However, Fisher, alleging undue aristocratic influence on the part of the patron, insisted that Ashley Cooper, whose services ‘amounted to nothing’, had been removed because of differences with his father, and he twice asked Sturt if he would offer again on behalf of the free interests of the voters if he was in future rejected by Shaftesbury.17 Sturt, who was Conservative Member for Dorset, 1834-46, took his leave at the general election later that year in order to make way for Shaftesbury’s eldest son Lord Ashley, who had sat for New Woodstock since 1826. He and Williams were elected unopposed on the basis of their unchanged principles in support of the Wellington administration, in which Ashley was a junior minister. Fisher, who conceded that both men made worthy Members, complained that the franchise was illegally confined in a few hands and objected to the partisan Read acting as returning officer in his capacity as mayor.18 Dorchester was at one end of a belt of disturbances that swept through the county during the ‘Swing’ riots in November 1830.19 Following a meeting of the Independents, 17 Nov., anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Commons (by Ashley), 8 Dec., and the Lords (probably by Shaftesbury), 13 Dec. 1830.20 No petitions were forthcoming on the Grey ministry’s reform bill, under which Dorchester was scheduled to lose one seat, but both Members voted against it, 22 Mar., 19 Apr. 1831. As was the usual practice, each candidate nominated himself on the hustings, 30 Apr., when the sitting Members, who attacked both the partial disfranchisement of their borough and the reform bill in general, were returned without opposition.21 In the general election for Dorset, 18 of the Dorchester freeholders plumped for the anti-reformer Henry Bankes*, 11 split for the reformers Portman and Calcraft, and six voted for Portman and Bankes.22

Having obtained a public meeting, 18 July 1831, the Rev. George Wood, vicar of Trinity, proposed the adoption of a petition for the preservation of both seats, and although the ever recalcitrant Fisher moved an amendment to petition in favour of the bill, and Thomas Abbot, a resident gentleman, argued that it was better to have one truly independent Member than two nominated ones, Read and others spoke in its support, and it was agreed with only two dissentient votes.23 It was presented and endorsed by Williams, 28 July, before the debate in the committee on partially disfranchising Dorchester that day.24 This began with a long speech from Ashley, who argued for the retention of both Members on the grounds that there would be over 300 £10 electors, that it was a ‘thriving and respectable’ county town, that if enlarged its population would be above 4,000 and that it was free from any proprietary or corrupt influence. His views were echoed by Williams, Henry’s son George Bankes and the Tory leader Peel, whom Shaftesbury thanked the following day.25 But ministers, who were concerned to prevent any changes which might obstruct the bill’s future progress, were adamant that the population criteria had to be adhered to, and their motion passed by 279 votes to 193. The amendment of George Pigott to omit Dorchester, Guildford and Huntingdon from schedule B, 15 Sept. 1831, was negatived without a division.

When in the autumn of 1831 Ashley resigned to contest the county as an anti-reformer, his brother Henry Ashley Cooper, an army officer in temporarily poor health, was put up to replace him. The reformers endeavoured to bring forward the Waterloo veteran George Lionel Dawson Damer†, a younger son of the 1st earl of Portarlington, whose brother Henry was the incumbent sheriff of Dorset. As he was making his way from Ireland, his agents attempted to nominate him, but this was obstructed by the corporation, who refused him the necessary prerequisite of being first elected to the common council. On the hustings, Fisher objected to this and launched into his usual diatribes against illegal influence, but Ashley Cooper was duly returned as an anti-reformer. Such was the violence that ensued after Ashley’s victory for Dorset that special constables had to be sworn in to keep the peace in the town. It was claimed that while a majority of the inhabitants of Dorchester were in its favour, only a minority were delighted at the defeat of the reform bill in the Lords, although of the 45 Dorchester freeholders whose votes were accepted in the county contest, 35 voted for Ashley and only ten for the defeated reformer William Ponsonby*.26 On 30 Mar. 1832 the inhabitants resolved to support Henry’s other son William John Bankes, Member for Marlborough, for the county, if Portman fulfilled his threat to resign his seat.27 Petitions against the proposed plan of education in Ireland were presented to the Lords, 29 Mar., and to the Commons, 10 May 1832.28 After reconsideration, the boundary commissioners advised the inclusion of the outlying parts of the three parishes and the village of Fordington in the borough. In its enlarged state, with 748 houses, of which 423 were worth over £10, and taxes assessed at £2,530, Dorchester therefore fell outside the criteria for disfranchisement under the revised reform bill, being about 117th in the final list of condemned boroughs.29 Lord John Russell announced that it would be excluded from schedule B, 12 Dec. 1831, and it was left unaffected by the Reform Act. Shaftesbury retained his influence, and at the general election of 1832, when there were 322 registered electors, he returned his son Henry, who sat as a Conservative until 1847, while Williams was the other Conservative Member until the dissolution in 1834, when he made room for his like-minded son Robert, who held the seat until 1841.30

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Walk round Dorchester (1820), 2-3; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 282; J. Hutchins, Dorset, ii (1863), 336-8, 405-7; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 123, 125, 127, 128; Procs. Dorset Natural Hist. and Antiq. Field Club, xliv (1923), 95.
  • 2. PP (1831), xvi. 89-90; (1835), xxiv. 613-15; C.H. Mayo, Municipal Recs. of Dorchester, 434.
  • 3. CJ, xix. 363; PP (1830-1), x. 69; (1831), xvi. 169; (1831-2), xxxvi. 88-89, 518; xxxviii. 137, 139; Mayo, 439-42.
  • 4. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 350-1.
  • 5. Ibid.; Dorset RO, Williams of Bridehead mss D/WIB P1; Dorset RO, Dorchester borough recs. DC/DOB 26/12, 13; Dorset RO, q. sess. recs. D1/OE 1; PP (1835), xxiv. 617-18; Peep at Commons (1818), 6-7; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 12 June 1826; [W. Carpenter], People’s Bk. (1831), 128-9; Key to Both Houses (1832), 318.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 133-4; Oldfield, Key, (1820), 50; Salisbury Jnl. 13 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. Western Flying Post, 18 Dec. 1820.
  • 8. CJ, lxxvii. 426; lxxix. 336; The Times, 16 July 1822, 8 May 1824.
  • 9. Dorset Co. Chron. 19 May 1825; CJ, lxxx. 436.
  • 10. Add. 40304, f. 214; 40360, f. 128.
  • 11. Dorset Co. Chron. 8, 15 June 1826; Add. 40386, f. 129.
  • 12. CJ, lxxxii. 490; lxxxiii. 45; LJ, lx. 73.
  • 13. Dorset Co. Chron. 17 Apr. 1828.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxiii. 265, 268, 360, 361; LJ, lx. 208, 511, 532.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxiv. 98, 109; LJ, lxi. 108, 141.
  • 16. Ellenborough Diary, i. 334, 336; Lady Holland to Son, 99.
  • 17. Dorset Co. Chron. 8, 15 Apr.; The Times, 15 Apr. 1830.
  • 18. Dorset Co. Chron. 22, 29 July, 5 Aug.; The Times, 2 Aug. 1830.
  • 19. E. J. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 99.
  • 20. Dorset Co. Chron. 27 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 157; LJ, lxiii. 169.
  • 21. Dorset Co. Chron. 28 Apr., 5 May 1831.
  • 22. Dorset Pollbook (1831), 24-25.
  • 23. Dorset Co. Chron. 21 July 1831.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxvi. 707.
  • 25. Add. 40402, f. 97.
  • 26. Dorset Co. Chron. 29 Sept., 6, 13, 20, 27 Oct., 3, 10 Nov.; The Times, 11, 13 Oct. 1831; Dorset Pollbook (Sept.-Oct. 1831), 41-42.
  • 27. Dorset Co. Chron. 5 Apr. 1832.
  • 28. LJ, lxiv. 133; CJ, lxxxvii. 304.
  • 29. Sherborne Jnl. 1 Dec. 1831; PP (1831-2), xxxvii. 309-11; xxxviii. 138-9; (1835), xxiv. 613.
  • 30. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 204, 438; Dorset Co. Chron. 6, 13 Dec. 1832.