Higham Ferrers


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

Background Information

A single Member constituency

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:



861 (1821); 954 (1831)


11 Feb. 1822CONSTANTINE HENRY PHIPPS, Visct. Normanby vice Plumer, deceased
3 Aug. 1830HENRY GREY, Visct. Howick
14 July 1831CHARLES CHRISTOPHER PEPYS vice Milton, chose to sit for Northamptonshire
6 Oct. 1831JOHN GEORGE BRABAZON PONSONBY vice Pepys, vacated his seat

Main Article

The pocket borough of Higham Ferrers remained under the complete control of the Whig 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam, who owned all but ‘five or six’ of its 171 houses and dominated the corporation of a mayor (the returning officer), seven other aldermen and 13 capital burgesses, which kept a tight rein on freeman admissions.2 Fitzwilliam, the town’s recorder, continued to use the seat to accommodate friends or Members useful to the Whigs until the borough’s disfranchisement. Since 1812 he had returned the veteran William Plumer, who by the time of the 1820 general election was almost 84. On 17 Feb. 1820 Plumer told Fitzwilliam that he would understand if he preferred to return ‘a more useful and a more efficient representative’, though he believed that ‘I stand very well in the good graces of the electors ... this, however may be mere flattery’. Fitzwilliam approved his re-election, 20 Feb., but five days later Plumer notified him that his poor health would prevent him from attending the nomination. The mayor, Richard Barmby, assured Plumer, 1 Mar., that this would not matter and he was duly returned unopposed in absentia.3 The day Plumer died, 17 Jan. 1822, Henry Brougham* asked Fitzwilliam’s nephew Lord Duncannon*, himself a former Member, to use his influence to obtain the seat for the rising Whig Lord Normanby, if Duncannon’s brother William Francis Spencer Ponsonby* was not to have it.4 Fitzwilliam duly returned Normanby, but Lord John Russell* later told Lady Holland that although he had not dared to ask, he would have preferred it to have gone to his friend John Nicholas Fazakerley*.5 Normanby presented a petition from the farmers and landholders of Higham Ferrers complaining of agricultural distress, 14 Mar. 1822.6 On 22 Mar. 1826 Fitzwilliam’s local agent Samuel Allen reported that there was a great deal of anxiety in the area occasioned by ‘the failure of a large shoe factory’. He sought Fitzwilliam’s approval for the local trustees of the turnpike to employ those who had lost their jobs in straightening the road, and enclosed a petition for the abolition of slavery, which reached the Commons, 21 Apr. 1826.7

At the 1826 general election Normanby transferred to Malton, another of Fitzwilliam’s boroughs, to make way for Duncannon, who ran the risk of being defeated in county Kilkenny.8 In the event Duncannon was successful and his brother Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby was returned as a locum. The 6th duke of Bedford informed Lord Holland, 3 Sept., that Fitzwilliam had agreed to bring in his son Russell after his defeat in Huntingdonshire, but Russell was returned for Bandon Bridge instead and Ponsonby occupied the seat for the rest of the Parliament.9 At the 1830 general election Lord Howick, son of the Whig leader Earl Grey, was returned. A Higham Ferrers petition for the abolition of slavery reached the Commons, 29 Mar. 1831.10 At the 1831 general election Fitzwilliam’s son Lord Milton, who by now had assumed control of his father’s affairs, decided to return himself. This meant displacing Howick, now colonial under-secretary, much to the disapproval of George Dundas*, a lord of the admiralty, who advised Milton that the arrangement would ‘not suit’ the Grey administration, 29 Mar.11 Undeterred, Milton, who was unable to attend in person owing to ‘family arrangements’, went ahead, only to find himself nominated for the county by local reformers as Lord Althorp’s colleague, forcing a controversial contest, 4 May.12 Advised that he would succeed, Brougham, the new lord chancellor, sought Althorp’s help in securing Higham Ferrers for his brother James Brougham*, 11 May, but to Brougham’s fury Milton refused.13 Duncannon, now first commissioner of woods, requested the seat for his son, John George Brabazon Ponsonby*, 21 May, and next day Edward Smith Stanley*, the Irish secretary, asked Grey whether Sir John Byng*, who had been defeated in county Londonderry, might have it if Milton was successful. Grey, replying to Smith Stanley, 27 May, urged Byng to see Milton, but warned that he probably intended to put in a locum for his son William Charles Fitzwilliam until he came of age.14 Milton duly declined Byng’s approach and one from Charles Hill of Wellingborough, the chancery barrister who had nominated him for the county, citing ‘what would be said and what would be thought’, 30 May.15 Following his return for the county Milton instead invited Frederick Ponsonby, Grey’s brother-in-law, to fill the vacancy, but he declined and suggested James Duberly of Gaynes Hall, Huntingdonshire, another of Grey’s kinsmen. Nothing, however, came of this.16 On 8 June 1831 Milton offered the seat to Charles Christopher Pepys, a lawyer who audited the Fitzwilliam accounts, whom Brougham had unsuccessfully suggested for Malton at the general election. Pepys was returned the following month.17

The reform bill proposed to disfranchise Higham Ferrers. Milton, aware of the need for Pepys to have a seat after it had passed, arranged for him to transfer to Malton in September 1831, when he was replaced by Duncannon’s son.18 Despite the prospect of losing their representation, the corporation and inhabitants petitioned the Lords in favour of the bill, 4 Oct. 1831.19 Number 25 in the list of small English boroughs in schedule A of the reform bill, Higham Ferrers’s extinction as a parliamentary borough, which had not experienced a contest in over 100 years, was confirmed without dissent in committee, 20 Feb. 1832.

Authors: Martin Casey / Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 43.
  • 2. Ibid. (1835), xxvi. 204.
  • 3. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F49/67, 68, 70.
  • 4. Bessborough mss.
  • 5. Add. 51679.
  • 6. CJ, lxxvii. 108.
  • 7. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F65/86; CJ, lxxxi. 270.
  • 8. Castle Howard mss, Lady Carlisle to Morpeth, 1 June 1826.
  • 9. Add. 51663.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxvi. 455.
  • 11. Fitzwilliam mss.
  • 12. Northampton Free Press, 3, 10 May 1831.
  • 13. BL, Althorp mss.
  • 14. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. G83/118.; Grey mss.
  • 15. Fitzwilliam mss vol. 732, p. 33.
  • 16. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. G8/19; G83/120.
  • 17. Fitzwilliam mss vol. 732, p. 35.
  • 18. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. G83/135.
  • 19. LJ, lxiii. 1045.