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

Estimated number qualified to vote:

81 in 18311

Number of voters:

78 in 1820


2,761 (1821); 3,293 (1831)2


 Charles Trelawny Brereton14
 C. Stirling11
 Lyndon Evelyn5
10 June 1826FRANCIS GODOLPHIN D'ARCY OSBORNE, mq. of Carmarthen 
1 Dec. 1830BROOKE PECHELL re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

Helston, a ‘thriving’ market and stannary town in the south-west of the county, on the London to Land’s End road, consisted chiefly of four ‘wide and well paved’ streets, which crossed ‘at right angles’. It was the focus for an extensive and fertile agricultural region to the south and east and a highly productive tin and copper mining district to the north and west, and its market was ‘justly ranked among the principal ones of Cornwall’. A ‘large proportion’ of the inhabitants were ‘employed as mechanics’, many of them being shoemakers, and some were engaged in pilchard fishing from the nearby harbour at Portleven. The general condition of the town was said to be ‘improving’, and ‘several families possessed of property in the county’ had taken up residence there.3

The borough comprised part of the parish of Wendron. The franchise was confined to members of the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, four other aldermen (who together formed the common council) and an indefinite number of freemen, chosen by the aldermen from among ‘the more discreet, honest and quiet men and inhabitants’ and from whom aldermen were elected by the aldermen; all were removable but usually held their offices for life. The freemen were mostly tradesmen or professionals and included several clergymen; about two-thirds were residents. It was reported in 1833 that the corporation was of a ‘more than ordinarily exclusive character’, being dominated by the Grylls family, who were ‘connected in various ways with many of the other members’, and that their ‘complete power ... over the constituency’ was ‘exercised ... without scruple’. George Osborne, 6th duke of Leeds, was the Tory patron and recommended both Members. A report prepared for him in 1802 had stressed that his property in the borough was small and gave him little influence over the corporators, whose loyalty was secured ‘at a monstrous expense’ through ‘public entertainments’, the erection and repair of public buildings, ‘liberal and sometimes extravagant provisions’ for influential individuals and payment of the whole borough’s poor and church rates, which amounted to £800-1,000 annually. In addition, there were ‘frequent calls from the corporators for patronage and provision for themselves and friends’, which the duke could not afford to ignore if he wished to maintain his ‘precarious’ interest. In 1803 Leeds relinquished his position, only to resume it in 1807. Sir Christopher Hawkins* of Trewithen, the Tory boroughmonger, acted as patron during the intervening period, but the public disclosure of his corrupt practices forced the corporation to repudiate him. However, he still harboured ambitions to regain the patronage and waged a lengthy campaign against the Leeds interest. His petition to the Commons after his unsuccessful candidature in 1812 brought to light the ‘illegal agreement’ whereby Leeds paid the rates, and this resulted in bills in five successive sessions to extend the borough’s franchise to the two neighbouring hundreds; all were rejected by the Lords. Meanwhile, the corporation sought to protect itself by admitting 70 new freemen in 1813. In 1818 Hawkins, acting with an ‘independent’ party among the freemen, sponsored two candidates who unsuccessfully opposed Leeds’s nominees, and the following year he initiated equally futile quo warranto proceedings against the corporation.4 The borough contained small numbers of Quakers and Baptists, but there was a flourishing community of Wesleyan Methodists who were estimated in 1823 to number 1,100.5

Following the death of George III in January 1820, Hawkins was advised by his agent, the attorney J. Roberts, to make an immediate canvass in anticipation of an early dissolution. Francis James, an insurance agent, claimed that the corporation were ‘very much afraid of their strength’, having ‘lost three of their supporters lately’, which had caused them to make ‘a new batch of ... freemen’ (nine were admitted before the election), but he remained confident that ‘we shall still be able to muster a strong opposition’. At the end of February a local newspaper reported that a ‘fierce contest’ was expected. However, Roberts warned that ‘our friends ... are anxious and uneasy’ and he pressed Hawkins for definite word of his intentions. In early March the Whig financier Pascoe Grenfell*, a native of Cornwall, arrived from London, but Roberts complained that he ‘treated us very cavalierly’ by driving immediately to the house of Pearse Rogers, ‘which of all places he ought to have avoided’, and refusing to see anyone else. On learning that neither Rogers nor his relative, the recorder John Rogers of Penrose, was prepared to support him, Grenfell declared that he would ‘have nothing to do with the borough’ and left to contest Penryn. Roberts lamented that ‘all is lost for want of energy and by bad conduct’, and he wrote that ‘our friends are ... mortified beyond measure’, advising Hawkins to ‘come over immediately and explain’.6 In the event, the opposition nominated three candidates, Charles Brereton, Hawkins’s son-in-law, who had stood in 1818, one Stirling and the Irish lawyer Lyndon Evelyn*. At the start of polling the opposition insisted that the bribery oath be administered to every voter, but this did not prevent the sitting Members, Lord James Townshend and Harrington Hudson, Leeds’s brothers-in-law, from being comfortably returned. Thomas Trevethan reported to Hawkins that many of the freemen ‘did not attend ... as under existing circumstances we could not succeed’, but there had also been some desertions and ‘our friends voted indifferently for our three candidates’, with some splitting for Townshend or Hudson. It was later stated that 78 had polled. The Members gave a dinner to ‘upwards of 100’ of their supporters at the Star, and ‘upwards of 200’ attended a ball and supper to the electors and their wives next evening. They left 100 guineas to be ‘discretionally distributed amongst the indigent labouring poor, who do not receive or apply for parochial relief’, and made a ‘handsome donation to the Helston Savings Bank’. A few days later, eight more freemen were admitted, including the Members.7 Trevethan observed that if Hawkins wished to ‘retain [his] interest’, a ‘considerable sum’ would be required in the form of ‘accommodation money’ to ‘keep ... together’ his friends, many of whom were in financial difficulty owing to the failure of Gundry’s Bank. He mentioned William Andrew as one who was in immediate need of a £300 loan. He also approved of the suggestion that Hawkins should ‘advance £3,000’ to help establish a rival to the Savings Bank, which was controlled by the corporation, but nothing apparently came of this. Over the next few years, Hawkins received various applications for loans or requests for help to procure patronage, such as a naval cadetship and posts in the East India Company, the customs and on turnpike trusts, some of which he was able to arrange. Trevethan sent an optimistic account of the prospects for securing the return of both Members, but warned Hawkins that he must ‘rely a little more on the advice of your friends’.8

On 15 Dec. 1820 a ‘numerous and highly respectable meeting of inhabitants’, chaired by the mayor Isaac Head, unanimously agreed a loyal address to the king moved by Alderman John Trevenen.9 A petition from the corporation and inhabitants for repeal of the salt duty, signed by ‘upwards of 400’ persons after a public meeting, was presented to the Commons, 24 May 1822, and they similarly pressed for repeal of the coal duties, 24 Feb. 1824.10 The mayor, Humphrey Grylls, chaired a public meeting, 18 Oct. 1822, when it was agreed to petition the treasury against removing Falmouth’s packet station to Plymouth, as ‘this borough must inevitably be seriously injured’ by any measure that deprived the parishes surrounding Falmouth of their ‘principal market for agricultural produce’; the Members were asked to present it.11 Anti-slavery petitions were forwarded to both Houses by the inhabitants, 17 Mar., 30 Apr. 1824, and by the corporation and inhabitants, 28 Feb., 1 Mar. 1826.12 By the autumn of 1824 quo warranto proceedings had been initiated in king’s bench against Trevenen, as a former mayor, and Grylls, Head and John Borlase, as aldermen, although the legal grounds for this challenge are unclear. In September 1825, when a general election seemed imminent, the recently elected Tory county Member, Sir Richard Vyvyan of nearby Trelowarren, arrived unexpectedly and conducted a ‘nocturnal canvass’ of the freemen. He reportedly ‘secured a decisive majority of votes’, declared his ‘determination to continue wholly independent of the corporate body’ and left before the ‘completely out-generalled’ aldermen could mobilize themselves. Trevethan afterwards reported to Hawkins that ‘canvassing seems to be at a stand’, although he suspected the aldermen were ‘like moles working in the dark’, and Roberts awaited instructions from Vyvyan as to the quo warrantos, which had been directed at certain freemen as well. Vyvyan paid personal visits to some of his supporters, including ‘Mr. Rogers’, possibly the recorder, who had ‘spoken to some of the voters’.13 However, early in November the independent party were dismayed to learn that Vyvyan had suddenly decided to ‘abandon’ them. Grylls and Borlase commenced a canvass on behalf of Townshend and Leeds’s heir, Lord Carmarthen, and Trevethan learned that ‘perhaps ... six or seven’ freemen who had pledged support to Vyvyan had ‘returned to the corporation’, as they ‘could not refuse’. An angry Roberts wrote that ‘the situation of our friends is ... a distressing one’, and he admitted that he was ‘at a loss how to act’.14 According to a local newspaper, Vyvyan had been persuaded to contest the county again by Lord Falmouth’s promise of a seat at Truro if required. It also emerged that Vyvyan had done a deal with the corporation, which made him a freeman, 3 Dec. 1825. His reply to an irate letter from Hawkins suggests that much deeper political currents had been at work. It appears that Vyvyan had made a ‘provisional promise’ to Grylls ‘not to interfere’ with him or his brother (presumably a reference to the quo warranto proceedings), provided he ‘secured me a seat for the next Parliament’, and that it was the ‘non-performance of this on the eve of a supposed election’ that had prompted him to canvass the borough. However, when Grylls informed him ‘that he would perform his part of the contract’, he had chosen to ‘make terms’ rather than ‘fight the battle ... with the corporation’. He explained that while ‘some of the freemen ... promised me their support in opposition to the corporation’, his majority had been ensured by ‘the promises of those who would have supported ... Grylls against any other individual’, and he believed that his majority was ‘so small that a violent attack on the corporation would have induced them by making new freemen to ... shut the door against me hereafter’. He admitted that he ‘could not have done without the quo warrantos’. Intriguingly, he also referred to a conversation with Hawkins in which

you told me that Mr. Borlase’s civility led you to suppose that the corporation would offer you the borough, but that it should be accepted only upon the proviso of its not injuring me. Am I not to make a treaty with the corporation while you propose doing so yourself! ... I will never be the champion of a party in the borough ... for the mere sake of opposition to the gentlemen of the town. Have you given up the idea of ever joining the corporation, if by that you could secure a seat?15

Hawkins circulated an address to the freemen, 28 Feb. 1826, in which he expressed regret at ‘a recent conduct not to be defended’, reaffirmed his determination to help promote ‘the independence of Helston’ and promised to ‘come forward whenever you may judge it proper to call on me’. At the general election that summer Hudson retired and Townshend and Carmarthen were returned unopposed; one of them apparently ‘expressed himself in rather decided terms’ about Vyvyan’s conduct.16

The Protestant Dissenters petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 12 June 1827, and the inhabitants sent up an anti-slavery petition, 12 June 1828.17 The merchants, tradesmen and shopkeepers, fearing a ‘serious depreciation’ in prices and a ‘general embarrassment of trade’, petitioned the Commons against the Small Notes Act, 11 Mar. 1828. Shortly afterwards Grylls reported to Vyvyan, who was trying to mobilise opinion in Cornwall against the Act, that it had caused ‘alarm to the agricultural interest which is already depressed’. He explained that he and Borlase had ‘written to ... Townshend privately on the subject’, while a ‘public letter addressed to our Members from the town at large’ had requested their support for ‘any measure tending to continue the circulation of one pound notes’.18 Following a requisition ‘avowedly’ originating from Trelowarren and signed by 29 Helston inhabitants, including Trevethan, Vyvyan chaired a meeting of the hundred of Kerrier on the Catholic question at the Methodist chapel, 7 Jan. 1829. It was attended by ‘between one and two thousand persons’, including ‘the principal yeomanry of the neighbourhood’. Grylls moved an anti-Catholic petition, which was seconded by the Rev. Derwent Coleridge, curate of Helston, and supported by several other clergymen, including the Methodist minister J. Thomas. Frederick Rogers of Breage, the recorder’s son, spoke in favour of emancipation, but only ‘four hands’ were raised against the motion. On leaving the chair, Vyvyan delivered a long speech reminding his audience of their ‘duty as Protestants and freemen to defend the constitution’ and ‘resist the ... violent priesthood of Ireland’. Vyvyan agreed to present the petition to the Commons, but for unknown reasons he did not; Falmouth presented it to the Lords, 6 Mar. 1829.19 Townshend abandoned his previous anti-Catholic stance and supported the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill, in accordance with the wishes of Leeds, a member of the royal household, but Carmarthen disregarded his father and persisted in opposing the measure. Hawkins’s death in April 1829 deprived the independent party of their champion. At the general election in the summer of 1830 Carmarthen ‘retired’, rumours of a canvass being conducted on Vyvyan’s behalf proved ‘wholly unfounded’ and Townshend was returned unopposed with his fellow Tory naval officer, Sir Samuel Brooke Pechell. Afterwards, ‘the carcasses of two fat bullocks and a suitable proportion of bread were distributed to the poor’, while the Members dined with the corporation at the Star; a dinner was later given to the freemen’s sons, and a ball and supper for their wives and daughters.20

The Wesleyan Methodists sent anti-slavery petitions to Parliament, 12, 16 Nov. 1830.21 Next month Brooke Pechell, who had been appointed a lord of the admiralty in Lord Grey’s ministry, was re-elected unopposed.22 On 15 Jan. 1831 the mayor, the Rev. Gervis Grylls, chaired a public meeting which agreed a petition to the Commons for repeal of the seaborne coal duty; it was ‘most numerously and respectably signed’ but apparently not presented.23 Whereas Townshend opposed the ministry’s reform bill, which proposed to reduce Helston’s representation to one seat, Brooke Pechell loyally supported it. A petition requesting the borough’s removal from schedule B was organized and signed by 81 individuals, 21 Apr. 1831, but Townshend was unable to present it before the dissolution.24 At the general election later that month Brooke Pechell, ‘having voted for the reform bill’, retired, and a Whig newspaper observed that the ‘mis-named freemen ... riveted their bonds more firmly’ to the prevailing ‘aristocratic influence’ by returning Townshend and Sackville Lane Fox, Leeds’s son-in-law, unopposed.25 When Townshend was given an overseas command, May 1831, Leeds expected him to resign his seat and offered the nomination to Wellington. However, Townshend was said to be in a difficult situation owing to his vote against reform, and some negotiations in the borough were needed before he could resign; in fact, he retained his seat.26 A memorial signed by 39 corporators and inhabitants, protesting at the ‘manifest injustice’ of Helston’s inclusion in schedule B, was forwarded to the government, 11 July 1831. It pointed out that though the borough’s population was under 4,000, it formed ‘an integral part’ of the parish of Wendron, whose total population was 6,864, more than that of the Whig-controlled boroughs of Calne and Tavistock, which retained both Members.27 By the new criteria adopted for the revised reform bill of December 1831, Helston, which contained 629 houses and paid £841 in assessed taxes, was placed 84th in the list of the smallest English boroughs and thus remained in schedule B. The corporation and inhabitants petitioned the Commons against the partial disfranchisement, 17 Jan. 1832. Croker, a prominent critic of the bill, took up Helston’s case, 23 Feb., arguing that it was being penalized for having retained its yeomanry cavalry, which reduced its liability to the horse tax. However, Lord John Russell was unwilling to introduce ‘a new principle’ into the scheduling calculations, and the House voted to confirm Helston’s fate by 256-179. On 2 Mar. Croker presented petitions from the corporation claiming that without the exemption for the cavalry (which had been called out in December 1830 to deal with local disturbances), the borough’s assessed taxes would have been £955, enough to lift it out of schedule B, and from the horse owners offering to pay the tax; the government was unmoved. An anonymous correspondent to The Times ridiculed the petitions, alleging that the cavalry was ‘a complete caricature of a military force’ and that most of the horses had been entered in it ‘for the sole purpose of avoiding the duty’. He also condemned the aldermen’s power to elect the freemen, which enabled them to fill the corporation with ‘the junior branches of their own families, their servants and immediate dependants, and such tradesmen as are either under obligation for support, or those whose needy circumstances compel them to have recourse to that accommodation which the corporation (from the possession of the only bank in the town) are enabled to afford’. Consequently, the borough exhibited a ‘servile obedience’ to the wishes of its aristocratic patron, but the reform bill at least proposed to remove ‘one half of the nuisance’. The corporation and the horse owners petitioned the Lords in a final unsuccessful attempt to preserve the borough’s full parliamentary privileges, 30 May.28 On 25 June 1832 the passage of the reform bill was celebrated by bell-ringing and a firework display, while ‘some of the houses were brilliantly illuminated and decorated with flowers’.29

The boundary commissioners reported that the only way to enlarge Helston’s limits to the required extent was by attaching ‘a part of the adjoining country’ in the parish of Wendron. In 1832 there were 341 registered electors, of whom 60 were freemen.30 At the general election of that year Townshend retired and Lane Fox was returned unopposed. Leeds continued to nominate the Member until 1841, through the use of extensive bribery and with the assistance of the Grylls and Borlase families, but Vyvyan then gained control and held the seat until his retirement in 1857.31 Helston was disfranchised in 1885.

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 531.
  • 2. Ibid. xxxviii. 78.
  • 3. S. Drew, Hist. Cornw. (1824), ii. 315-19; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 145; Parochial Hist. Cornw. iii. 177-83; H.S. Toy, Hist. Helston, 399-401, 405-15; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 77; (1835), xxiii. 514.
  • 4. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 77; (1835), xxiii. 509-14; Toy, 282-309, 603-6; P. Jupp, British and Irish Elections, 1784-1831,pp. 85-89; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 62-65.
  • 5. Toy, 346-54.
  • 6. Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DD/J/2128, letters to Hawkins from Roberts, 31 Jan., 28 Feb., 4 Mar., James, 1 Feb.; B/Helston/5, corporation election book, 3, 20 Jan., 8 Mar.; West Briton, 11, 25 Feb., 3 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. R. Cornw. Gazette, 11, 18 Mar.; Johnstone mss DD/J/2128, Trevethan to Hawkins, 12 Mar.; B/Helston/5, corporation election book, 14 Mar. 1820; PP (1830-1), x. 75.
  • 8. Johnstone mss DD/J/2128, letters to Hawkins from Trevethan, 12 Mar. 1820, 3 Nov. 1821 (quoted), Andrew, 16 May 1820, 20 June 1821, R. Williams, 9 Oct. 1820, R. Barth, 14 July 1821, Roberts, 5 Oct. 1822, H. Hall, 14 Apr., M. Coulson, 16 July 1823, A. Rogers, 8 Aug. 1825.
  • 9. R. Cornw. Gazette, 23 Dec. 1820.
  • 10. CJ, lxxvii. 294; lxxix. 90; West Briton, 24 May 1822.
  • 11. West Briton, 25 Oct. 1822.
  • 12. CJ, lxxix. 173; lxxxi. 114; LJ, lvi. 185; lviii. 61; R. Cornw. Gazette, 25 Feb. 1826.
  • 13. Johnstone mss DD/J/2128, letters to Hawkins from B. Follett, 25 Mar., Trevethan, 9 Oct., Roberts, 13 Oct., 7 Nov.; West Briton, 30 Sept. 1825.
  • 14. Johnstone mss DD/J/2128, letters to Hawkins from Trevethan, 4, 8 Nov., Roberts, 11, 14 Nov. 1825.
  • 15. R. Instit. Cornw. Henderson mss HH/16/91, Vyvyan to Hawkins, 10 Nov.; West Briton, 11 Nov.; B/Helston/5, corporation election book, 3 Dec. 1825.
  • 16. West Briton, 10 Mar., 9, 16 June 1826.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxii. 545; lxxxiii. 426.
  • 18. Ibid. lxxxiii. 156; Cornw. RO, Vyvyan mss DD/V/BO/47, Grylls to Vyvyan, 31 May 1828.
  • 19. West Briton, 2, 9 Jan.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 3, 10, 17 Jan. 1829; LJ, lxi. 130.
  • 20. West Briton, 16, 30 July; R. Cornw. Gazette, 17, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxvi. 60; LJ, lxiii. 100.
  • 22. West Briton, 10 Dec. 1830.
  • 23. Ibid. 21 Jan. 1831.
  • 24. B/Helston/270.
  • 25. West Briton, 6 May 1831.
  • 26. Wellington mss WP1/1184/27.
  • 27. PP (1831), xvi. 78-79.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxvii. 35, 160; LJ, lxiv. 245; The Times, 12 Mar.; Add. 51837, Rev. T. Stabback (?) to Holland [May 1832] suggests that he may have been the author of this letter.
  • 29. R. Cornw. Gazette, 30 June 1832.
  • 30. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 77; (1835), xxiii. 514.
  • 31. Toy, 310-15; E. Jaggard, Cornw. Politics in Age of Reform, 111, 119-21.