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 the corporation

Number qualified to vote:



4,010 (1821); 4,297 (1831)


10 Feb. 1823GEORGE CANNING vice Vansittart, vacated his seat
 JOHN CHARLES HERRIES vice Bathurst, vacated his seat
14 Dec. 1826TINDAL re-elected after appointment to office
16 May 1827SIR WILLIAM RAE, bt. vice Tindal, vacated his seat
4 Feb. 1828HERRIES re-elected after appointment to office
10 Feb. 1830HERRIES re-elected after appointment to office

Main Article

Harwich, a seaport on the north-eastern extremity of the Essex coast, contained a naval yard, was the base for government ships sailing to Holland and Germany and by the end of this period had become a popular bathing resort; but it was thought to be in ‘a declining state’ economically.1 It was a corporation borough controlled by the treasury, whose command had been restored in 1807 after a brief bid by some of the 32 electors to assert their independence. The key to the general subservience to the treasury of the self-electing, self-perpetuating and omnipotent corporation, which consisted of a mayor, seven other aldermen and 24 capital burgesses, was the patronage which was liberally bestowed on them and their families. The mayoralty was the preserve of a few individuals: only five men served in this period. Between 1817 and 1826 John Hopkins (d. 1828), a former surgeon who had been made clerk of the cheque and storekeeper of the navy, and Anthony Cox, a banker, packet agent and later a government pensioner, alternated. The others were George Graham, a resident shipbuilder occupying a government yard under a grant from the navy board to his father, a former mayor; John Bailey, the ordnance surgeon, and Thomas Cobbold, a resident brewer. Membership of the corporation was such an attractive proposition that the freedom, which was necessary to qualify a man for election as a capital burgess, was usually purchased (for £25); almost all vacancies were contested. In 1831 there were 71 freemen, about half of them resident, of whom 39 of course had no voting rights. The municipal corporations commissioner noted the striking extent to which members of the corporation had personally benefited from government patronage, which was habitually used to secure their loyalty after their initial appointment, and calculated that the current corporators and their immediate relatives drew over £7,000 a year from the public purse.2

At the general election of 1820 the sitting Members, Nicholas Vansittart and Charles Bathurst, respectively chancellor of the exchequer and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in the Liverpool ministry, came in again. Both subscribed generously to the fund for rebuilding the church of St. Nicholas, which was opened in December 1821.3 A year later Vansittart, acquiescing in his replacement at the exchequer by Frederick Robinson* (he became Lord Bexley and took over the duchy from Bathurst, who retired from public life) warned Lord Liverpool:

Harwich will require some attention. I have acquired some weight there and should probably have no difficulty in a re-election unless there was time for a previous cabal; but the second seat is not at all secure.

He noted that if George Canning, the new foreign secretary, who did not wish to resume his demanding seat for Liverpool, was sent to Harwich as his successor, ‘the corporation would be flattered and I believe there would be no difficulty, but they must have a man either of patronage, or éclat, or else a man who resides near enough to pay them a good deal of personal attention’.4 Canning was duly given the seat, but he was not pleased when he discovered that ‘contrary to my expectations, and full as much to my wishes and my convenience’, he was required to attend the election.5 Bathurst’s replacement was John Herries, once Bexley’s private secretary, who had just been appointed financial secretary to the treasury and was needed in the Commons. The former premier and home secretary Lord Sidmouth, a member of the cabinet without portfolio, who with his brother Hiley Addington, Member for Harwich, 1803-18, had helped to re-establish the treasury’s hold on the borough, complained privately to Bathurst (his brother-in-law) that ‘everything relating to Harwich has been miserably mismanaged, and final arrangements have ... been most unwarrantably made, without any communication with you’.6 None of this discord was evident at the election proceedings, when Canning indulged the civic sycophants, who doubtless hoped to profit from his powerful position, with a discourse on his foreign policy.7 In May 1825 the corporation, clergy and inhabitants petitioned both Houses against Catholic claims, and bells were rung to celebrate the defeat of the relief bill in the Lords.8

At the general election of 1826 Canning came in elsewhere and Herries, who had begun to build up a personal following in the borough while strengthening the treasury interest through patronage and attention to local commercial concerns, was returned again. It had originally been intended to give the other seat to Henry Goulburn, the Irish secretary, but his acceptance of the Irish primate’s offer to return him for Armagh enabled him to put the Harwich seat at the ‘disposal’ of Liverpool, who nominated the rising Tory lawyer Nicholas Tindal, a native of Chelmsford.9 He was quietly re-elected in December 1826 on his appointment as solicitor-general.10 The corporation, clergy and inhabitants petitioned the Commons against Catholic relief, 9 Feb. 1827, and the corporation did so alone, 9 May 1828.11 Some inhabitants petitioned the Commons for repeal of the corn laws, 12 Feb. 1827.12 Three months later Tindal vacated to stand for Cambridge University and was replaced by the lord advocate, Sir William Rae, who had been without a seat since 1826. His proposer John Sansum, attorney and ship agent, indignantly repudiated ‘a very invidious remark ... that the electors were not at liberty to choose whom they thought proper, but were obliged to elect any individual fixed upon by the higher powers’. He claimed that ‘more than ordinary pains had been taken to ascertain distinctly the sentiments’ of Rae, who stressed his hostility to Catholic relief and promised to resign the seat if Canning’s fledgling ministry departed from Liverpool’s policy of leaving the question open.13 Protestant Dissenters petitioned the Commons, 7 June 1827, for repeal of the Test Acts, which both Members opposed, 26 Feb. 1828.14 Three weeks earlier Herries had been safely re-elected after his appointment as master of the mint in the duke of Wellington’s administration.15 Local friendly societies petitioned the Commons against Courtenay’s regulation bill in April 1828.16 The corporation petitioned both Houses against Catholic emancipation in 1829, but Herries and Rae supported the measure with their colleagues. Herries was at pains to explain and justify to Cobbold his decision as a responsible minister of the crown to support emancipation, which he insisted would not undermine ‘our Protestant church and Protestant institutions’:

I have to request of you ... to take some opportunity ... for conveying to my friends and constituents ... [these] assurances on my behalf, and of soliciting for me the continuance of that confidence which they have hitherto reposed in me.

He subsequently defended himself in the same terms to a disgruntled constituent.17 In October Bexley at last agreed to go to Harwich to be sworn in as high steward (he had been appointed in 1823), and he took Herries with him to fly the ministerial flag. On his return from a two-day stay he told Sidmouth, 22 Oct. 1829:

We were received with every possible mark of honour and distinction, drawn into the town and feasted, on Monday by the mayor, and Tuesday by the corporation, in a better style than I ever saw there before, especially as respects the quality of their wine, which is not immaterial as that ancient corporation is quite as loyal and not more sober than formerly. It is also quite as Protestant; and I was a little afraid for Herries on that score, but he drank ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ as heartily as anyone, and assured them of his undiminished zeal for the cause, and the worthy mayor [Cobbold] is not so profound a logician as to attempt to inquire what the words now mean. We had indeed hardly any political conversation; and almost our whole time was occupied in discussing some points of difference between the corporation and the board of ordnance, which has by no means behaved in a conciliatory manner to the town.

He added that although there had been ‘an evident improvement in the appearance of the place since I was last there six years ago ... the inhabitants still complain, and I believe not unjustly, that Harwich has lost all the source of its prosperity’: the North Sea fishery had dwindled, the dock yard was empty, packets had been hit by competition from steam vessels sailing from London and the local barracks and military establishment had been reduced to a skeleton.18 Herries was re-elected in absentia after his appointment as president of the board of trade in February 1830, and the money saved on chairing was donated to the poor.19 Local bankers petitioned the Commons for mitigation of the punishment for forgery offences, 24 May 1830.20

At the general election that summer Rae, who found a berth in Scotland, was replaced by George Dawson, financial secretary to the treasury and brother-in-law of Peel, the home secretary.21 A few anti-slavery petitions were got up for the new Parliament.22 Both Members went out of office on the fall of the ministry in November 1830. Two months later a handbill from ‘an inhabitant householder’ announced an imminent public meeting to petition for ‘radical reform’, including the secret ballot, but it is not clear whether this took place. A petition in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, by which Harwich was to retain both its seats, was said to be in circulation in late March 1831, but it did not reach the Commons.23 When Parliament was dissolved following the defeat of the bill, Herries and Dawson, who had opposed it, canvassed the corporation, 23 Apr. On their departure that evening their carriage was ambushed and stoned. Next day Christopher Tower† of Weald Hall, near Brentwood, who later claimed to have volunteered his electoral services to Lord Althorp*, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Thomas Burch Western† of Aldham, near Colchester, a cousin of the veteran Whig county Member, arrived to canvass the electors as reformers. They were sent packing on the 25th, but Graham, who made arrangements to ensure a safe arrival for Herries and Dawson on election day, warned the former against the ‘most artful’ Bailey and advised him to secure at all costs the potentially ‘evasive’ Dr. Shearman, to avert the possibility of Tower’s finding a proposer if he turned up at the nomination. A meeting of over 100 of the inhabitants chaired by John Beddingfield Knocker, 26 Apr., appealed in vain to the corporation to return reformers; and two days later Graham told Herries that ‘the agitation is fast subsiding and I am under no apprehension but the day of election will pass off peaceably’.24 Yet no chances were taken: Herries and Dawson arrived at dawn on 30 Apr., and the election was held at noon. No other candidate appeared, and Herries, who mocked Tower’s absence, Dawson and their proposers and seconders were free to attack the ministry and the reform bill. They were formally returned by the 16 electors present. Their opponents consoled themselves by manhandling some of the corporators, forcing the abandonment of the chairing and proclaiming that the days of the select body’s hegemony were numbered. On 18 May Tower presented to the king the inhabitants’ address applauding the dissolution and the bill.25 Lord Duncannon*, the ministerial whip, strongly urged Lord Grey to authorize the removal of government patronage from Harwich to Great Yarmouth, whose Members were staunch reformers.26 To the apparent annoyance of the corporation, who were reportedly not happy with Herries’s ‘silence against the reform bill’ in the House, Tower promoted and financed an elaborate celebration of the coronation in September, when he and the veteran reformer John Disney of Ingatestone, endorsed by Knocker, made clear their intention of standing at the first election after the passage of the reform bill.27 While the corporation petitioned the Lords, via Bexley, against the measure, 27 Sept., the inhabitants petitioned in its favour, 5 Oct. 1831, when Lord Holland, a cabinet minister, stated that he had been ‘instructed to say, that with the exception of the corporation ... the petitioners believe that there is scarcely a man in the town who is not most anxious ... [it] should pass’.28 In February 1832 Graham apprised Herries of his grievance over the prospect of a politically motivated sale by public auction of post office property in Harwich, on which he had expended some £5,000; he also complained that ‘the alteration in the packet service’ would seal ‘the fate of this fast sinking place’.29 On 12 July 1832 Tower and Disney used the festival held to mark the enactment of reform for electioneering purposes and, in collaboration with Charles Hast, chairman of the Harwich reform committee, rallied their supporters.30

The Boundary Act made no change to the limits of the borough, which was coterminous with the parishes of St. Nicholas and Dovercourt.31 Tower’s reforming credentials were suspect and he lost some of his support during the summer of 1832. Nevertheless, at the general election in December, when the borough had a registered electorate of only 204 (of whom 186 voted), he was returned in second place with Herries, narrowly ahead of the radical reformer Nicholas Leader*, who had been put up as an alternative to him, and Disney.32 During the 1830s money gradually replaced government patronage as the key factor in Harwich elections.33

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), app. p. 296; PP (1835), xxvi. 2276.
  • 2. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 528-9; xxxviii. 179; (1835), xxvi. 2259-79; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 470; Key to Both Houses (1832), 333.
  • 3. The Times, 2 Mar.; Suff. Chron. 4, 11 Mar.; County Chron. 14 Mar. 1820; Colchester Gazette, 8, 29 Dec. 1821.
  • 4. Add. 38291, f. 211.
  • 5. Add. 40311, f. 12.
  • 6. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bathurst, 28 Jan. 1823.
  • 7. The Times, 6, 10, 18 Feb.; Colchester Gazette, 15 Feb. 1823.
  • 8. LJ, lvii. 749; CJ, lxxx. 391; Colchester Gazette, 14 May 1826.
  • 9. Surr. Hist. Cent. Goulburn mss Acc 304/67A, Goulburn to wife, 20 May; Colchester Gazette, 3, 10, 17 June 1826.
  • 10. Colchester Gazette, 18 Dec. 1827.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxii. 143-4; lxxiii. 335; Colchester Gazette, 10 May 1828.
  • 12. CJ, lxxxii. 155.
  • 13. Colchester Gazette, 12, 19 May 1827.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxii. 527.
  • 15. Colchester Gazette, 16 Feb. 1828.
  • 16. Ibid. 19 Apr. 1828; CJ, lxxxiii. 259.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxiv. 20; LJ, lxi. 19; Colchester Gazette, 7 Feb. 1829; Add. 57419, ff. 161, 163.
  • 18. Sidmouth mss; Colchester Gazette, 24 Oct. 1829.
  • 19. Colchester Gazette, 13 Feb. 1830.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxv. 463.
  • 21. Colchester Gazette, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvi. 56, 483; LJ, lxiii. 84.
  • 23. Colchester Gazette, 5 Feb., 26 Mar. 1831.
  • 24. Add. 57420, ff. 46, 48, 50; Colchester Gazette, 30 Apr. 1831; F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 312.
  • 25. The Times, 5, 25 May; Colchester Gazette, 7, 28 May, 10 Sept. 1831.
  • 26. Grey mss, Duncannon to Grey, 26 May [1831].
  • 27. Colchester Gazette, 10, 17 Sept. 1831; Add. 57420, f. 60.
  • 28. Ibid. 1, 15 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1012, 1060.
  • 29. Add. 57420, f. 88.
  • 30. Kent and Essex Mercury, 17 July 1832.
  • 31. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 179-80.
  • 32. Speech of D.W. Harvey, 27 Nov. 1832, pp. 7-9; The Times, 14 Aug., 22 Sept., 4, 30 Oct.; Kent and Essex Mercury, 21 Aug., 4, 18 Dec. 1832; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 67, 73, 453.
  • 33. Gash, 452-5.