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 freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 180

Number of voters:

87 in 1824


2,806 (1821); 3,267 (1831)


7 Mar. 1820JOHN WILLIAM ROBERT KERR, earl of Ancram78
 Samuel Wells7
14 May 1824JAMES STUART vice Ancram, called to the Upper House65
 Samuel Wells22
9 June 1826JOHN CALVERT 
30 July 1830JOHN CALVERT 
 Samuel Wells 
 Henry Sweeting 
 Samuel Wells6
 James Duberley5

Main Article

Huntingdon, the birth place of Oliver Cromwell, was separated from the borough of Godmanchester by the River Ouse.1 It lacked the ‘stir and bustle’ usually associated with a county town, but continued to flourish in this period. William Cobbett† described it as ‘one of those pretty, clean, unstenched, unconfined places that tend to lengthen life and make it happy’.2 Electorally, it had been under the control of the Montagus of Hinchingbrooke, earls of Sandwich, since the reign of Charles II. Municipal authority was vested in a self-elected body of a mayor and 12 other aldermen, who were largely indebted to the Sandwich family for places in the stamp office or other public departments.3 The patronage requests made between 1819 and 1824 by Mary, Dowager Lady Sandwich, who managed the family interest following the death of her husband the 6th earl in 1818, underline its importance for control of the borough, where the Montagus owned little property. Of the aldermen in 1823, according to the Huntingdon Gazette, four held civil or other places secured on the Sandwich interest: for example, Owsley Rowley of Priory Hill, St. Neot’s, steward of the Sandwich estates and supposed manager of the borough, was receiver-general of assessed taxes, ‘with two or three snug registerships in the West Indies’; while the alderman and former Member William Augustus Montagu’s sinecure at the board of stamps was worth over £1,000 a year. By 1829 the majority of aldermen were either pensioners or placemen on the Sandwich interest.4 Admissions to freedom by purchase and the disposal of the leases of St. John’s Hospital were all strictly confined to political partisans. By the end of this period the corporation owed the 7th earl of Sandwich (who came of age in November 1832) £2,000 for legal expenses, and were in debt to the town clerk for at least a further £2,700.5

Samuel Wells, the radical Huntingdon attorney, was instrumental in bringing the corporators to book over the maladministration of the hospital. The exposure of corruption by a chancery judgement in January 1820 was seized on by Weston Hatfield, the proprietor of the Huntingdon Gazette, and fuelled the latent hostility of the anti-corporation party.6 At the ensuing general election Frederick Montagu, the illegitimate son of the 5th earl of Sandwich, who had stood as a stopgap in 1818, was ineligible as mayor. He was replaced by the 6th marquess of Lothian’s son Lord Ancram, half-brother of Lady Sandwich, who estimated the expense of the election at £300 or £400, which the Hinchingbrooke interest was not prepared to meet. Ancram and John Calvert of Albury Hall, Hertfordshire, the other sitting Member, were duly put forward, but the election witnessed the first challenge to the Sandwich hegemony since 1741.7 Wells, the natural choice of the anti-corporation or Orange party (subsequently Blue in line with the county independents), was unable to oblige because of his responsibilities as under-sheriff. In a published address, he reserved his candidature for a future occasion and avowed himself the implacable enemy of venality and corruption. He denounced the restriction of the franchise to the freemen and declared his intention of establishing the voting rights of the inhabitant householders paying scot and lot.8 He was nevertheless nominated by Charles Dawes of Huntingdon, after Calvert and Ancram had been proposed by Sir Alured Clarke and seconded by Alderman David Veasey. Edward Maile seconded Wells’s nomination. Dawes attacked Calvert as a sinecurist and government ‘puppet’ but after a few hours polling he and Ancram were easily returned.9

According to the Gazette, a petition for restoration of the freemen’s chartered rights was got up in April 1820; but it seems not to have reached the Commons.10 The clash in the autumn of 1820 between the independents and Montagu’s successor, Sir John Arundel, over the Queen Caroline affair highlighted the subservience of the corporation to the Sandwich interest. Wells and Dawes promoted a loyal address to the queen, while Arundel dismissed the anti-corporation party as ‘ragamuffins’. The abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties prompted an illumination by the independents, which the authorities tried in vain to curb.11 In December 1820 a group of out-voters met in London, under the auspices of Hatfield and Wells, to consider a strategy for liberating the borough from ‘political and corporate profligacy’. More than 30 freemen enrolled as members of the Huntingdon Independent Burgess Club at a reconvened meeting in February 1821; and Wells, who had promised financial assistance, addressed their first general meeting in October, when he attacked the corporators’ truckling to Hinchingbrooke and their complicity in the misuse of the charity estates. The Gazette was the mainstay of this movement, and throughout 1822-3 Hatfield lost no opportunity of denouncing the corporators, whose election of William Poyntz, Member for Chichester, as high steward at the behest of Lady Sandwich in 1823 was grist to his mill.12

Early in 1823 Lady Sandwich set aside her wish to bring in Montagu in order to further his naval career.13 In April 1824 Ancram succeeded as 7th marquess of Lothian, and to fill his place James Stuart, a former East Indian civil servant, was brought forward. Presumably in anticipation of the by-election, the freedom was offered to a number of Hinchingbrooke loyalists, and 14 had been sworn in by December 1823.14 Henry Sweeting, a former mayor and sometime solicitor to the trustees of the 6th earl of Sandwich, who was now estranged from the corporation, declined to stand on this occasion, but reserved his challenge for the next general election. Wells, undismayed by Stuart’s wealth or the ‘threatening aspect’ of Hinchingbrooke House, came forward to oppose the present system of ‘political sycophancy and unblushing corruption’. The election preliminaries were acrimonious and protracted. Stuart, who was sponsored by Sir Richard Bickerton and Arundel, declared his determination to support ministers. Wells, who was proposed by Hatfield and Dawes, presented himself as the ‘poor man’s friend’ and ridiculed Stuart’s assertion of the country’s prosperity. He branded Bickerton as a sinecurist, in company with Calvert, and stigmatized Lady Sandwich, who attended the hustings, as the mainspring of corruption. By the close of the first day’s polling Stuart led Wells by 56 to 12. The Sandwich party, who were challenged over the misappropriation of the new freedom admission fees, had perhaps overestimated their strength. On the second day their opponents tendered the votes of the inhabitant householders. George Pryme, lecturer in political economy at Cambridge University and an active independent, put the case for their eligibility. It was at length agreed that as the majority of householders were ready to vote for Wells, they should be considered as having done so. An agreement was signed whereby the validity of the disputed votes was to be decided by a committee of the House of Commons. Stuart was declared duly elected with a majority of 43 legal votes. Wells congratulated the independents and claimed that the Sandwich hegemony had been broken. An attempt was made to overturn Lady Sandwich’s carriage.15

Wells’s petition, presented on 21 May 1824, complained that the returning officer had illegally rejected the votes of several householders who had good title, but it was not considered until 24 Feb. 1825. On 1 Mar. the committee dismissed Wells’s claim that the right of election was in ‘the commonalty or burgesses ... being the inhabitant householders paying scot and lot’, and ruled that, as Stuart’s counsel argued, it was in ‘the mayor, aldermen and burgesses ... being members of the corporation’. An appeal was lodged by James Adams and several other householders, 5 July, but Parliament was prorogued the following day. Their renewed petition, bearing more than 80 signatures, was submitted on 7 Feb. 1826, when Wells was admitted a party to the appeal. The committee reported, 17 Apr. 1826, in favour of the corporation’s counter-petition (20 Mar.).16 Horace Twiss*, one of the counsel for the defence, had reported to Lady Sandwich that the difficulty which stood in the way of a completely favourable decision was an old by-law requiring the residence of the burgesses. He ‘got rid of’ this objection and Lord John Russell, the petitioners’ spokesman, acquiesced, on the principle that no by-law could restrict the right of voting for a Member of Parliament.17 In the aftermath of the election the corporators, notwithstanding their professed indifference to the petition, had treated the ‘poorer classes of householders’; and the counter-petition and subsequent celebrations cost Stuart in excess of £3,000.18 George Frederick Maule, the town clerk, once an independent but now Lady Sandwich’s factotum, hoped to defray something of the cost by charging £300 to the relators in the equity suit over St. John’s Hospital. Lady Sandwich agreed to pay more than £1,500 towards the legal expenses, but Stuart, who had hardly enjoyed two sessions, complained that Calvert ought to bear his share. Wells and the anti-corporation party were alleged to have been backed by outside help.19 Rainier Montagu said that Sweeting had made a pawn of Wells, and was himself a tool of the Whig lawyer Henry Brougham*. Montagu’s re-election as mayor for 1824-5 drew criticism from the Gazette.20 The common council’s exclusion of the burgesses from the management of the commons by the abolition of the leet court in 1824 had alienated many of the freemen and strengthened the hand of the opposition.21 Licensed innholders and victuallers of Huntingdon petitioned the Commons for repeal of the duty on their licences, 26 Feb. 1824.22

Rumours in April 1826 that one of the sitting Members would resign in order to provide William Henry Fellowes, the senior county Member, with a safe seat proved to be unfounded.23 At the general election in June Calvert and Stuart, who had recently been elected a director of the East India Company, offered again. At the nomination Hatfield acknowledged that a contest would be futile, but felt bound to register a token protest. He challenged Stuart to deny that he was pledged to vote against Catholic relief and pilloried Calvert for never having voted in favour of either reduced taxation or civil liberties. He concluded by proposing Sweeting, but had no intention of demanding a poll, since the independents had no wish to prejudice their cause or expose their friends to the coercion of the Hinchingbrooke lackeys. He professed to have little doubt that Sweeting would succeed on a future occasion. Dawes urged the burgesses to rally to the cause of ‘liberty and purity of election’. Calvert and Stuart were duly elected after a show of hands, but according to the Gazette, not more than 15 were held up.24

Edward Griffith, a common pleas lawyer, had already been employed by the anti-corporation party to research the history of the borough’s elective franchise. In 1827 he published A Collection of Ancient Records relating to the Borough of Huntingdon, which argued that it was in the burgesses or resident householders. A meeting of dissident freemen and householders, 16 Oct. 1827, condemned the aldermen for riding roughshod over their rights.25 Subsequent meetings throughout 1827-8 were supported by an increasing number of disaffected freemen. The corporation’s high-handedness over the stocking of the commons, their covert revision of the by-laws and obstruction over requests to inspect the original charter and corporation accounts, as well as the sale of freedoms and misapplication of funds, were the subjects of criticism.26 By early 1828 a series of expensive lawsuits had left the corporation deep in debt, which, according to Alderman John Saville Dobyns, amounted to something in excess of £2,000. The creation of freedoms, the mayor Samuel Cooch explained to Montagu, could not resolve their difficulties: on the contrary, it would involve them in further lawsuits, as there are ‘factious spirits abroad who are determined to try the right of so doing’. He reminded Montagu not only that their downfall might topple the sitting Members, but that the corporation’s insolvency was a direct result of their slavish support of a ‘certain interest’. Montagu, however, had no money at his disposal, and Lady Sandwich had already ‘impoverished herself’ in defraying their expenses. The corporation proposed to mortgage the commons, but Dobyns, one of the senior aldermen, warned Montagu that this would antagonize the freemen. The corporation’s alienation of property and creation of ten non-resident freemen in 1829 prompted calls for a petition against abuses and set further legal actions in train.27 The mayor and aldermen petitioned the Commons against Catholic relief, 8 Dec. 1826, but freeholders and inhabitants of Huntingdon and Godmanchester petitioned both Houses for emancipation, 30 Mar. 1829.28 Protestant Dissenters of Huntingdon petitioned the Commons, 6 June 1827, 21 Feb. 1828, and the Lords, 17 Apr. 1828, for repeal of the Test Acts.29

The same Sandwich nominees came forward in 1830. Wells appeared in the field on the eve of the election and Sweeting complied with a requisition to stand. Irregularities over the conduct of the election, particularly the mayor’s appointment of Maule as his assessor, drew a storm of protest. William Hatfield attacked Calvert and Stuart for their refusal to expand on political questions and proposed Sweeting, while Wells delivered an animated exposé of borough corruption. Calvert and Stuart were duly elected, notwithstanding a show of hands of ten to one against them. Only seven were held up for Stuart and five for Calvert, but they were deemed to have the majority of legal votes. Weston Hatfield protested against the mayor’s decision but declined to press for a poll. Sweeting and Wells entered a formal complaint and expressed their determination to petition against the return.30 Wells duly lodged a petition, 15 Nov. 1830, protesting against the partial conduct of the mayor as returning officer and the unconstitutional influence of the Sandwich family over the nomination of freemen and the conduct of elections; but he failed to enter into recognizances.31 Huntingdon Independents and Wesleyan Methodists petitioned the 1830 Parliament for the abolition of slavery.32

At a public meeting called to petition for the repeal of assessed taxes, 26 Jan. 1831, Robert Fox, a Godmanchester surgeon, regretted that the 33 requisitionists had not directed their attention to the more important object of parliamentary reform but, like Dawes and William Hatfield, he supported the resolutions. The petition was carried unanimously and only Sir John Arundel registered his dissent.33 Lady Sandwich’s displeasure at his acquiescence in the meeting forced the mayor, David Rowley of Priory Hill, to defend his decision on legal and pragmatic grounds. The petition was not endorsed by the corporation and he was at a loss to understand her embarrassment. He told her candidly that Huntingdon had changed with the times and that it was impossible to ‘adopt her advice’ and check expressions of popular opinion:

Picture to yourself for one moment the petition they would then have sent. Would they not in the most savage manner have detailed the past history of Huntingdon and your house, instanced my refusal, that I was a placeman, your creature, and have adduced the whole as a strong practical argument in favour of reform and their petition?

He resented the charge that he had abandoned his principles and the ‘interests of old friends’ and, anticipating her anger over his assent to a reform meeting, maintained that Maule’s views were not representative of the influential townsmen. He considered Maule’s threat of evictions in response to a requisition signed by some 50 townsmen, who merely wished to petition in favour of reform, to be little short of madness. At the same time, he acknowledged that the ‘cause of all our miseries is the want of a paper and the villainous conduct of [Weston] Hatfield’.34 The petition reached the Commons on 17 Feb. 1831.35 According to the Gazette, the reform meeting, 23 Feb., was one of the most numerous and respectable ever held. Fox proposed the petition and set out the case for reform, with particular reference to the state of affairs at Huntingdon. The petition was unanimously carried and, like that from Godmanchester, was entrusted to Russell, a former county Member, and one of the framers of the Grey ministry’s impending reform scheme.36 Lady Sandwich, enraged by the ingratitude of the townsmen, who had ‘derived no little advantage’ from Hinchingbrooke patronage, wrote that ‘Mr. Hatfield can say nothing more mischievous than that he has already attempted, and I confess I cannot say that he ever made me shrink from, or fear his utmost efforts’. Rebuking Rowley for the corporation’s feebleness, she told him that she had been toying with the idea of dissolving her political association with the borough and, as if to shock the corporators out of their defeatism, added that perhaps Weston Hatfield ‘may be a very proper representative’. Even so, she was determined to visit Huntingdon, where the ‘eye of the master or mistress’ was much wanted.37

By the first reform bill of March 1831 Huntingdon was scheduled to lose one seat. Calvert and Stuart voted against it, 22 Mar., 19 Apr. Both retired at the ensuing dissolution, when Lady Sandwich placed their seats at the disposal of the Tory leader Peel. He offered one to Maurice Fitzgerald*, who declined it.38 The new Sandwich nominees were the eminent barrister Jonathan Frederick Pollock and Peel’s brother Jonathan. With the exception of Wells perhaps ‘standing to annoy’, Maule anticipated no difficulty in returning them.39 After an early canvass, as Pollock told his niece some days before the election, there was no doubt that he and Peel would be returned.40 Wells later spoke of the misconduct of their election agent and was ready to provide evidence of bribery and corruption. Pryme, who had agreed to oppose the Sandwich interest, withdrew, 29 Apr., on discovering that a great number of burgesses ‘still adhered to the system of corrupt influence’ and had promised their votes to Hinchingbrooke House. He was replaced by Captain James Duberly of Gaynes Hall, another of the Huntingdonshire independents. Peel claimed to be a ‘moderate reformer’ and expressed approval of some aspects of the bill, but objected to the reduction in the number of Members and the infringement of Huntingdon’s chartered rights by the disfranchisement of non-resident freemen. Pollock presented himself as a ‘friend to reform’ and, like Peel, welcomed a number of the bill’s features, though he criticized the partial disfranchisement of Huntingdon when boroughs with fewer £10 householders were to retain two seats. The independent spirit of a number of freemen, such as David Veasey, who went ‘great lengths’ in support of reform, and Charles Veasey, who demanded assurances over the extension of the borough franchise, demonstrated the popular enthusiasm for reform and a certain defiance of the Sandwich interest. Wells offered as a supporter of the whole bill and denigrated moderate reform as the last refuge of borough mongers. After one vote had been recorded on his behalf he made a formal objection to the corrupt practices of his opponents’ election agent. The poll closed after a few hours and Peel and Pollock were returned with 68 votes each to Wells’s six and Duberley’s five. According to the Gazette, the borough had again been sold to perfect strangers ‘like stock fish at Billingsgate’.41

Appealing to Lady Sandwich against her decision not to interfere in corporate matters, 25 July 1831, Maule begged her to reconsider and at least subsidize the mayoralty in order to safeguard her son’s interest. He predicted that his influence and property together with ‘some sparks of gratitude’ would secure the return of the Member under the reformed system.42 In the debate on Huntingdon’s inclusion in schedule B, 29 July, Jonathan Peel argued in favour of it retaining two Members on the grounds of its position as a county town, the high rate of assessed taxes and the number of £10 houses. He appealed to the Whig Lord Milton’s local knowledge and urged ministers to consider uniting the borough with Godmanchester, but the motion to deprive Huntingdon of one seat was carried without a division. On 15 Sept. George Pigott tried to exclude the three county towns of Dorchester, Guildford and Huntingdon from schedule B, but his proposal was brushed aside. On 19 Sept. Peel presented a petition from the corporation against the partial disfranchisement of the borough, and the following month both he and Pollock distributed game to their ‘supplicant supporters’.43 Inhabitant householders of Huntingdon petitioned the Lords in favour of the reform bill, 7 Oct. 1831.44 On the basis of the disfranchisement criteria adopted for the revised reform bill, Huntingdon was reinstated as a two Member borough. Some inhabitants petitioned the Commons against the general register bill, 8 Feb. 1832.45 A meeting of over 100 householders adopted a petition for the Commons to withhold supplies until reform was secured, 14 My 1832, but it was not sent up.46

The Boundary Act enlarged the area of the constituency from 1.9 to 10.5 square miles by including Godmanchester, while the extension of the franchise to the £10 householders more than doubled the number of electors from about 180 (90 of whom were resident in 1831) to 384.47 The Sandwich interest endured, and the borough remained in Conservative hands until 1885.

Author: Simon Harratt


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 369-70.
  • 2. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 76-77.
  • 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 213; Oldfield, Key (1820), 87; PP (1835), xxvi. 209-12.
  • 4. Add. 38280, f. 87; 38292, f. 52; 38279, ff. 349, 379; Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 28 Dec. 1822, 4 Oct. 1823, 28 Feb. 1829.
  • 5. PP (1835), xxvi. 211.
  • 6. The Times, 18, 20 Jan.; Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 22, 29 Jan. 1820.
  • 7. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 12, 26 Feb. 1820.
  • 8. Ibid. 4 Mar.; Hunts. RO, Godmanchester borough recs. box 16, bdle. 5, Wells’s election address, 7 Mar. 1820.
  • 9. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 10. Ibid. 29 Apr., 13 May 1820.
  • 11. Ibid. 7, 14, 21 Oct., 18, 25 Nov. 1820.
  • 12. Ibid. 23, 30 Dec. 1820, 6 Jan., 3, 24 Feb., 25 Aug., 27 Oct., 3 Nov. 1821, 28 Dec. 1822, 4 Jan., 5 July, 16, 30 Aug., 20 Sept., 4 Oct., 13, 27 Dec. 1823.
  • 13. Add. 38292, f. 52.
  • 14. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 13 Dec. 1823.
  • 15. Ibid. 1, 8, 15, 22 May 1824; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 534.
  • 16. CJ, lxxix. 394, 460; lxxx. 9-10, 120, 123, 139, 641; lxxxi. 16-17, 140, 191, 227, 228, 246.
  • 17. Hunts. RO, Sandwich mss Hinch/8/190.
  • 18. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 29 May, 5 June 1824.
  • 19. Sandwich mss 8/198-200; 8/214/1, 2.
  • 20. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 2 Oct. 1824.
  • 21. Ibid. 13, 27 Nov., 4 Dec. 1824.
  • 22. CJ, lxxix. 70.
  • 23. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 8, 15, 22 Apr. 1826.
  • 24. Ibid. 6, 27 May, 10 June 1826.
  • 25. Ibid. 20 Sept., 27 Oct. 1827.
  • 26. Ibid. 8 Dec, 1827, 19, 26 Apr., 3, 10, 17, 31 May, 16 Aug., 6 Sept., 4, 25 Oct., 29 Nov., 13 Dec. 1828.
  • 27. Sandwich mss 11/68-70; Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 14, 28 Feb., 7 Mar., 18, 29 Apr., 29 Aug. 1829.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxii. 521; lxxxiv. 182; LJ, lxi. 309.
  • 29. CJ, lxxxii. 521; lxxxiii. 90; LJ, lx. 176.
  • 30. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 31. CJ, lxxxvi. 80-81, 136.
  • 32. Ibid. 47, 175; LJ, lxiii. 76.
  • 33. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 22, 29 Jan. 1831.
  • 34. Sandwich mss 8/274.
  • 35. CJ, lxxxvi. 264.
  • 36. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 5, 19, 26 Feb. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 309.
  • 37. Sandwich mss 8/275.
  • 38. PRO NI, Fitzgerald mss MIC/639/14/7/21.
  • 39. Sandwich mss 8/149/2, 6.
  • 40. CUL, Pollock mss (Add. 7564) A/4, Pollock to E. Alexander, 26 Apr. 1831.
  • 41. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 30 Apr., 7 May; Pollock mss A/4, Pollock to Alexander, 2, 4 May 1831.
  • 42. Sandwich mss 8/274.
  • 43. CJ, lxxxvi. 855; Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 1 Oct. 1831.
  • 44. LJ, lxiii, 1071.
  • 45. CJ, lxxxvii. 82.
  • 46. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 12, 19 May 1832.
  • 47. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 432; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 80-81, 203, 534.