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:

over 2,500 but under 3,000

Number of voters:

2,298 in 1826


31,425 (1821); 36,293 (1831)


 Charles Pelham Villiers1055
30 July 1830GEORGE SCHONSWAR1564
 Thomas Gisborne Burke869

Main Article

Hull, ‘one of the principal seaports of the United Kingdom’, had a thriving fishing industry, was an important banking centre and boasted ‘some of the finest [wind]mills in the kingdom for grinding corn’.1 Its electoral corruption, the subject of a royal commission investigation in 1854, was described as ‘universal’ before the Reform Act by a contemporary historian, who recorded how

votes were purchased without any scruple, and almost without disguise, at a regular market price ... In those times the seat of no Member, by however large a majority, or however recently he might have been elected, was safe from the superior claims of a ‘third man’ upon the very next occasion ... The freemen always looked upon an election, not as an occasion for expressing their share in legislation but simply as an opportunity for obtaining a price for a marketable commodity; they looked upon him to be the best candidate who was the best paymaster.2

James Robert George Graham*, the successful Whig candidate in 1818, wrote of Hull as ‘a pit of fathomless corruption’, where

the flagrant abuse of polling money exists to such an extent that not 200 men out of 3,000 ever vote without the payment of two guineas for their single and four for their double suffrage. Thus even the return without a contest amounts to 3,000 guineas.3

Artisans and labourers constituted two-thirds of the large freeman electorate, of whom about a quarter were non-resident. There was no single dominant interest. John Mitchell, Member since 1818, had supposedly been sent to Hull by the Liverpool ministry, but although the patronage of various customs offices gave government a stake, their influence declined in this period.4 Local mercantile opinion was expressed through the corporation, the Trinity House and the Dock Company. In the past they had occasionally acted in concert, but no such co-operation occurred in this period. The Yorkshire Whig grandee Earl Fitzwilliam, who had inherited the Rockingham interest and relied on the Sykes family of Hull to manage his affairs there, had backed and largely financed Graham in 1818. The election of 1820 was the last in which he interfered and his son, Lord Milton*, hardly concerned himself with the borough. In consequence, their interest passed to the Sykes family.5

At the 1820 general election Graham declined to stand again, fearing the expense of another contest, but advised Fitzwilliam that a Whig candidate would probably succeed ‘because I have formed something like an interest there on the ruins of Mr. [John] Staniforth’s† and have now some friends in the corporation and the Trinity House’. Informing the Rev. Richard Sykes, Fitzwilliam’s chief agent, and the Whig Commons leader George Tierney of his decision, he told them that the Whig Pascoe Grenfell* was considering offering. Graham delayed the public announcement of his resignation in the hope of enabling the Whig candidate to benefit from the ‘magic influence’ of declaring as the third man. The Hull Advertiser, suspecting his intentions, announced his withdrawal and reported that ‘there have been parties beating up for recruits for the standard of a third man for several nights past, even before it was ascertained there would be either a first or second’. Sykes believed that Mitchell, who was ‘very weak and very unpopular’, would not return to Hull, but he announced his intention of standing again. When Grenfell opted for Penryn, Sykes approached Alderman Edward Alderson, who had acted for Graham in 1818, but to no avail. Sykes had assured Fitzwilliam that his brother Daniel would come forward if no other candidate could be found, and he duly stood with Mitchell. On the hustings he was emphatically the popular candidate, while Mitchell, as in 1818, had a rough reception. Bricks were thrown at him and his carriage was destroyed. When he attempted to address the electors he was shouted down, and all hope of chairing him was abandoned. The local press was at a loss to explain this hostility, but Richard Sykes put it down to Mitchell’s support for the Liverpool ministry, telling Fitzwilliam that he was so unpopular that ‘had Graham been here, beyond all doubt your Lordship’s interest would have returned two Members’. He added that a flag had been carried about on election day ‘by a shabby little mob’ in support of Thomas Jonathan Wooler, the radical editor of the Black Dwarf. Rumours of a contest came to nothing and the Members were returned unopposed. Daniel Sykes advised Fitzwilliam that although the election expenses did not exceed £300, it would be ‘smart to distribute some gratuity’, which he estimated at £2,000. Fitzwilliam, however, did not contribute and the Sykes family covered the costs.6 Petitions reached the Commons for relaxation of the corn laws, 14 Mar., 13 May 1822, 24 Mar. 1825, and the abolition of slavery, 8 May 1823, 15 Mar. 1824, 20 Feb. 1826.7 Both Mitchell and Sykes were active on behalf of the town’s commercial interests. Sykes, the busier of the two, promoted the new Hull docks bill and took up the case of the local freeholders who, unless they were also freemen, were effectively disfranchised. (As Hull was a county of itself, they were ineligible to vote for Yorkshire.) He introduced a bill to remedy the situation, 27 Apr. 1826, but it was overtaken by the dissolution.8

Shortly before this a notice appeared declaring that ‘a third man ... highly connected by family, strongly opposed to Catholic claims and a strong advocate for free trade and cheap corn’ was prepared to start if the electors so desired. Between 500 and 700 responded to a request to sign a requisition, and on the strength of it Augustus John Henry O’Neill, an Irish landowner, offered. The Rockingham commented that ‘we suspect that he does not know all who may be useful to him in his electioneering campaign, or he would not have presented himself as third man, when neither a first nor second has entered the field’. His agent Dymoke Wells, who had failed at Beverley in 1818, paved the way for him, and had a rapturous reception. The mayor, George Coulson, made enquiries about O’Neill with government, and Lord Clanricarde, under-secretary at the foreign office, strongly endorsed him. Mitchell, who was reported to have failed to pay the polling money for the last election, declined to offer again. Although government sought a replacement they offered little by way of financial inducement to prospective candidates. John Norman Macleod*, laird of the Isle of Skye, who had been trawling for a seat, and John Macarthur, son of ‘the Father of New South Wales’, were offered support, but both refused to stand. Nor did anything come of reports that Robert Wilmot Horton*, the colonial under-secretary, would offer.9 A few days before the election Sykes was criticized for his support of Lord John Russell’s bill to curb electoral bribery, which gave rise to fears that he wished to deprive the voters of their polling money. His friends, both Whig and Tory, met to request him to stand again, but he initially declined. A requisition was immediately launched to persuade him to change his mind, and after 1,000 signatures had been obtained he consented to offer. The day before the nomination Sykes was joined by Charles Pelham Villiers†, a nephew of the earl of Clarendon, who claimed the mantle of ‘the true third man’, as it was his declaration that forced a poll. He was in Hull to assist his brother in his canvass for Hedon. He stood as a Tory, though his views on free trade were very liberal and his position on Catholic relief caused some consternation: he was unwilling to concede all their demands but would not pledge himself always to vote against them. Like all candidates for Hull, he attacked slavery and promised to assist the shipping interest. Although Alderman Bolton spoke in favour of O’Neill and the mayor nominated Villiers, it was Sykes who was reproached for being the corporation candidate, an accusation which he denied. There was ‘considerable rioting’ during the election. O’Neill led from the start with Sykes and Villiers neck and neck, but Sykes eventually secured second place. At the declaration the crowd refused to hear him, while O’Neill, who was given an enthusiastic chairing, complained that the electors had ‘failed, no matter what the cause, whether from bribery or influence, in returning the man who was evidently the choice of the people’. Villiers attributed his defeat to his late start, the impact of the out-voters and other unspecified ‘means of influence’.10

O’Neill secured support from 67 per cent of the 2,298 who polled (747 as split votes shared with Villiers, 495 shared with Sykes, and 295 as plumpers). Sykes received votes from 50 per cent (190 shared with Villiers and 453 as plumpers), and Villiers from 46 (118 as plumpers). Cries from the crowd had asserted that Sykes owed his success to bringing up out-voters from York, and the pollbook reveals that he received 23 votes from the 27 York electors, compared with O’Neill’s eight and Villiers’s four. As a proportion of his total vote, however, out-voters in general accounted for 27 per cent of his support, as against O’Neill’s 30 per cent and Villiers’s 26 per cent. The requisition presented to Sykes had been the work of the leading interests in Hull, and he received support from 75 per cent of the 305 gentry and merchants who polled, compared with 41 per cent for Villiers and 27 for O’Neill.11 Following an exchange of insults at the close of the poll, some of Villiers’s supporters attempted to get up a petition against Sykes’s return, but this went no further. O’Neill hailed his success as that of the ‘independent freemen’ over ‘powerless Whiggism’, but he seems to have owed it largely to the depth of his purse. It was later alleged that the election had cost him £12,000, though he claimed his expenses were no higher than £4,700. The cost to Sykes is unknown, but a subscription was opened to assist him.12

Sykes evidently lost votes by his support for Catholic claims, against which petitions were presented by O’Neill, 19 Feb., 6 June 1827, 29 Apr. 1828, 26 Feb., 10 Mar. 1829.13 Favourable ones were brought up by Sykes, 9, 16, 27 Feb. 1829.14 When either spoke in the House on the subject he was usually challenged by the other, each stating his own to be the majority view in Hull. Their clashes provoked heated press controversy and in 1829 prompted a public meeting to ascertain the true feelings of the town towards the Wellington ministry’s proposed concession of emancipation. Both declined invitations to address the ensuing rally in the market place, which was attended by an estimated 8,000 people, 7 Mar. 1829, when the Tory mayor, Alderman Bolton, praised O’Neill and attacked Sykes for assuming that he had been returned on account of his political principles. The resulting petition contained 7,648 signatures, a number which O’Neill claimed represented nearly the entire adult male population. After the passage of the relief bill he wrote to the mayor that ‘had every town in England acted as Hull has done, we might yet have preserved our constitution’. Hull, with its large and active Nonconformist element, was certainly exceptional in the vehemence of its anti-Catholicism: the Methodists in particular were prominent in support of the Tories and in opposition to Catholic claims.15 Petitions reached the Commons for better protection of the shipping interest, 16, 19 Mar. 1827, repeal of the Test Acts, 22 Feb. 1828, and the abolition of slavery, 17 June 1828, 8 June 1830.16 In 1828 Sykes resumed his efforts to enfranchise the county of Hull’s freeholders, but to no avail. Local merchants were disgruntled over the navigation laws and the reciprocity system, and a general depression in trade and delays in the construction of the new junction dock compounded their problems. Despite his endeavours on their behalf, Sykes was made a scapegoat. The Catholic issue and his own worries about expense meant that he privately saw no future for himself in Hull at the next election.17

In 1830 Sykes duly retired to contest another seat, at the same time assuming the role of Whig agent at Hull. O’Neill, who had failed to pay all his money from the previous contest, went through the motions of seeking a requisition asking him to stand again, but as this received few signatures, and none of any consequence, he withdrew. A number of candidates were rumoured. Stephens Lyne Stephens*, a ministerialist cavalry officer, visited Hull and Serjeant Thomas Wilde*, a Whig barrister, was reported to be certain to offer. Several merchants issued an address inviting Graham to stand, while other men touted included Villiers, Colonel James Wilson*, Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith and Charles Hopkinson, a London banker. No one had declared when Thomas Gisborne Burke, an Irish gentleman and cousin of Clanricarde, offered as the ‘third man’, and for a while he had the field to himself.18 Meanwhile Sykes had received an application from Gilbert John Heathcote*, whom he advised what steps to take, estimating his costs at £5,000 in the event of a poll. Sykes took the precaution of advertising Heathcote’s intentions, in order to deter others, and informed him that he had also lined up William Battie Wrightson of Cusworth, near Doncaster, another Whig. Although he stressed that Heathcote would receive all his assistance if he came, he could not guarantee success as ‘these things are determined at Hull by accident of the moment, and not by relation to any political principle’. Freemen of all parties, who were keen to have another candidate, preferably a townsman, met in numbers a week before the election, when Alderman George Schonswar proposed John Broadley, a Hull merchant. He preferred to continue campaigning on behalf of Richard Bethell* in the county but in turn nominated Schonswar, who declined and left the meeting. A requisition to him was quickly put in motion, however, and in a wholly unprecedented development, its signatories renounced all claim to polling money. The following day Schonswar, buoyed by the prospect of a free return, agreed to stand. A few days later Heathcote, who had been preparing to cross the Humber and whose entry to the town had been advertised, unexpectedly declined, despite being told by Sykes that ‘everything looks fair for you’. An unopposed return appeared possible, but Sykes ensured that Wrightson, whom he had in waiting at West Ella, come forward, forcing a poll.19 In the ensuing contest Burke appealed to the lower classes, Schonswar portrayed himself as the local man, while Wrightson, though he claimed independence, was clearly the Whig candidate and was prepared to pay. He and Burke clashed on the hustings, where Burke accused him of financial involvement with the rival port of Goole. He denied the charge and retorted that Burke, as an Irishman, had no knowledge of Yorkshire affairs. The issue of parliamentary reform was not raised. Schonswar headed the poll from the start and Wrightson soon secured a large majority over Burke. Of the 2,173 who polled, Schonswar received votes from 72 per cent (843 as split votes shared with Wrightson, 452 shared with Burke and 269 as plumpers). Wrightson was supported by 56 per cent (178 shared with Burke and 192 as plumpers). Burke, whose defeat was attributed to a lack of ‘proper introductions’ and an inefficient committee, received votes from 40 per cent (239 as plumpers). At Schonswar’s celebration dinner, Broadley declared his victory to be a defeat of the ‘old system’, by which the burgesses had ‘redeemed their character’. Accusations of bribery, however, were levelled at Wrightson, whose accounts reveal that the seat cost him £5,402 between 1830 and 1832. Threats from Burke’s supporters caused his chairing to be postponed for four days. Over 500 special constables were sworn in for the occasion, but this did not prevent him from being attacked and struck by several stones. Sykes believed he had been misled as to his standing in Hull and that he could probably have come in again.20

Petitions for the abolition of slavery were presented to the Commons, 10, 15 Nov. 1830.21 Planta, the ministry’s patronage secretary, had advised Peel, the home secretary, that government had gained one seat at Hull.22 This claim was based on the assumption that Schonswar would support ministers, though it is curious that Planta had not reckoned O’Neill as a supporter. In the House, however, the two new Members acted in concert, presenting various petitions from Hull, including two for reform, 9 Feb., 19 Mar. 1831, and supporting the Grey ministry’s reform bill.23 A reform association was founded in early 1831 and local support for the bill was strong and widespread. The 1831 general election was the quietest in memory. The sitting Members offered again, Schonswar being invited by the freemen on the same terms as before, and Wrightson paying no polling money this time. The usual placards appeared stating that a third man would declare, but none did. Both Schonswar and Wrightson spoke enthusiastically in support of the reform bill and, for the only time between 1715 and 1868, the same two Members were returned at consecutive elections.24

By the Reform Act, the old borough was combined with the neighbouring town of Sculcoates and the settlements of Drypool, Sutton and Stoneferry, and Southcoate, to produce a constituency with a population of almost 54,000 and a registered electorate of 3,863 in 1832.25 Bids to obtain separate representation for Sculcoates, whose population had grown to over 13,000 by 1831, or to secure an additional Member for the reformed constituency, came to nothing. In August 1831 James Acland, who had contested Bristol in 1830, became active in Hull and published his Portfolio, in which he proposed radical reform and attacked Schonswar and Wrightson. As early as October 1831 he was presenting himself as a candidate for a future election, and with his associates he set up the Hull and Sculcoates Political Union. In response, a Conservative Society was founded in August 1832. For various reasons neither Member stood at that year’s general election, when two Liberals defeated a Conservative and another Liberal. The elections of 1830 and 1831, when candidates were returned without payment, proved to be aberrations. The Reform Act, despite its disfranchisement of out-voters and enlargement of the constituency, failed to change Hull’s ingrained habits.26

Author: Martin Casey


  • 1. E. Baines, Yorks. Dir. (1823), ii. 227, 251.
  • 2. J.J. Sheahan, Hist. Hull (1864), pp. 322-23.
  • 3. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F49/57.
  • 4. N.E. Lincs. AO, Tennyson mss, J. Daubney to C. Tennyson, 30 Jan. 1820.
  • 5. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), v. 277
  • 6. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F49/25-28, 57; Hull Advertiser, 18, 25 Feb., 10 Mar.; Hull Rockingham, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. CJ, lxxvii. 107, 254; lxxviii. 296; lxxix. 161; lxxx. 259; lxxxi. 81.
  • 8. Hull Advertiser, 12 May, 2, 13 June 1826.
  • 9. Hull Rockingham, 20 May, 3, 10 June; Macleod of Macleod mss 1061/5, Macleod to wife, 14 June; Mitchell Lib. Sydney, NSW, Macarthur mss ML A2911, Macarthur to fa., 18 July 1826.
  • 10. Hull Rockingham, 17 June; Yorks. Gazette, 17 June 1826.
  • 11. Hull Pollbook (1826).
  • 12. Hull Advertiser, 16 June; Hull Rockingham, 23 Dec. 1826; PP (1854), xxii (ii), 927.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxii. 190, 522; lxxxiii. 282; lxxxiv. 85, 120.
  • 14. Ibid. lxxxiv. 14, 34, 89.
  • 15. Hull Advertiser, 27 Feb., 10, 13 Mar. 1829; R.W. Ramm, ‘Political Activities of Dissenters in E. and W. Ridings of Yorks. 1815-50’ (Hull Univ. M.A. thesis, 1964), passim.; J. Wolffe, Protestant Crusade in Britain, 1829-60, p. 51.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxii. 327, 335; lxxxiii. 95, 443; lxxxv. 527.
  • 17. G. Pryme, Mem. Daniel Sykes, 36.
  • 18. Hull Advertiser, 9, 23 July; Hull Rockingham, 10, 16 July 1830.
  • 19. Lincs. AO, Ancaster mss XIII/B/5b, g, h, k; Hull Packet, 13 July 1830; W.A. Gunnell, Hull Celebrities, 453.
  • 20. Hull Advertiser, 30 July, 6, 27 Aug.; Hull Rockingham, 31 July; Hull Packet, 3 Aug. 1830; Hull Pollbook (1830); Hull RO, Battie Wrightson mss A224a; Pryme, 36.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxvi. 52, 74.
  • 22. Add. 40401, f. 132.
  • 23. CJ, lxxxvi. 226, 407.
  • 24. Hull Advertiser, 15, 29 Apr.; Hull Rockingham, 16, 30 Apr. 1831.
  • 25. PP (1831-2), xl. 305-7; P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work, 259.
  • 26. Hull Portfolio, 20 Aug.; Hull Advertiser, 21 Oct. 1831, 6, 27 July, 3, 10 Aug. 1832.