Lyme Regis


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 30


2,269 (1821); 2,621 (1831)



Main Article

Jane Austen wrote of Lyme Regis, a small port and market town, that

as there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, the old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.1

Lyme suffered a severe economic decline in the eighteenth century, but it was rescued from obscurity by its increasing popularity as a genteel watering place; the courtesan Harriette Wilson described it as ‘a sort of Brighton in miniature, all bustle and confusion, assembly rooms, donkey riding, raffling, etc., etc.’2 It was during this period that the cabinet maker’s daughter Mary Anning became celebrated for her discoveries of fossils in the neighbourhood.3

The borough, which lay within the parish of Lyme Regis, comprised the old town, the tithing of Colway and, by long practice, the inhabited part of the Cobb. The right of election was in the freemen, resident and non-resident, who were theoretically unlimited in number; but the franchise was effectively in the hands of the corporation, which consisted of the mayor, 15 capital burgesses and a similar number of co-opted freemen. One or two freemen were added to the corporation each year, presumably to keep the electorate at about 30, at least two-thirds of whom were non-resident.4 The resident freeholders asserted that the charter gave them the right to vote as a constituent part of the ‘commonalty’ (as at Poole), but these claims had been dismissed by the Commons, for instance after the last contest in 1784. In any case, since the 1750s the borough had been entirely under the control of the Fane family, and the Pittite 10th earl of Westmorland of Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, lord privy seal in the Liverpool administration, had returned Tory and anti-Catholic relations since he came of age in 1774.5 He and several other kinsmen were members of the corporation, and his interest was presumably pecuniary, as in 1831 it was said that he did not have ‘an inch of land nor any visible influence in the borough’, but that ‘there is a custom house, all the officers of which have hitherto been filled by dependants of the earl’.6

At the general election of 1820 Westmorland again returned his nephew, the soldier John Thomas Fane, who had sat since 1816, and his cousin, the London banker Vere Fane, who was first elected in 1818. Writing to the advanced Whig John Cam Hobhouse* to inform him of the nature of the franchise at Lyme, 30 July 1820, the local attorney John Doble Burridge of Stoke St. Mary, Somerset, noted that ‘the present voters amount to about 30, more than 20 of whom are non-residents and have no property in the borough’. He hoped that his statement might ‘have a tendency to reform’ and assured Hobhouse that ‘any opposition candidates would meet with a strenuous support in the freeholders of the borough in any attempts to relieve them of political thraldom by an intolerant corporation’.7 A loyal address to the king, presumably instigated by the corporation, was prepared in response to the Queen Caroline affair in January 1821.8 A petition from 20 freeholders complaining that the franchise was confined to a limited number of Westmorland’s ‘dependants and friends’ was presented to the Commons by another advanced Whig, John George Lambton, 12 Apr.9 Hobhouse, who moved to have it referred to the committee of privileges as a blatant example of aristocratic interference, received Whig and radical support, but objections were raised, and his motion was lost by 82-33. The Lyme harbour bill, which was sponsored by the Members, received royal assent, 8 June 1821.10

A freak storm in November 1824 caused considerable damage to the Cobb, which, as ‘a useful refuge for small vessels’, was repaired with grants from the corporation and the ordnance.11 A further government award was opposed by the radical Joseph Hume in the committee of supply, 3 June 1825, when his amendment to refer it to a select committee was defeated by 66-15.12 Lyme petitions against the coal duties were presented to the Commons, 23 Mar. 1824 (by John Fane), 3 Mar. 1825. Anti-slavery petitions from the inhabitants were brought up in the Lords, 21 June 1824, 28 Apr. 1826, and presented to the Commons by James Scott, Member for Bridport, 20 Apr. 1826.13 Henry Hoste Henley of Leigh House, near Chard, Somerset, the lord of the manor, brought an action against the corporation for negligence in failing to maintain the sea walls, as a result of which his property was badly damaged. He won his case, but the corporation, despite enormous costs, continued to appeal until the Lords decided in his favour in 1834.14

Perhaps mindful of the possibility of a dissolution, Westmorland and the Members dined with the corporation, 28 Aug. 1825. When the general election occurred the following summer, Vere Fane retired and John Fane was joined by another army officer and ministerialist, Henry Sutton Fane, Westmorland’s second son, who was actually in St. Petersburg.15 The borough records contain an ‘account of favours distributed at the general election’ that year.16 Westmorland was among the hardline ministers who, in early 1827 resigned rather than serve under the pro-Catholic Canning; anti-Catholic petitions from the town were prepared, but apparently not brought up.17 Petitions for repeal of the Test Acts were presented to the Commons from the Protestant Dissenters by Edward Berkeley Portman, the county Member, 13 June 1827, and from the members of the established church, 20 Feb. 1828. Henry Fane brought up a petition from the merchants, agriculturists, traders and inhabitants for repeal of the Small Notes Act, 16 June 1828.18 In early 1829 anti-Catholic petitions, each containing over 400 signatures, were forwarded to both Houses, and William Daniel, comptroller of the custom house, commented to the town clerk, George Smith of Axminster, just across the border in Devon, that

never was there a more decisive display of anti-Popish feeling; it is not even so much the numbers as the respectability and intelligence of the first hundred signatures; the opinion of the town could not have been shown more strongly. I suppose you will write to his lordship, who we are sure must be highly gratified, having always been so staunch a supporter of the Protestant cause.19

The petitions were presented to the Commons by John Fane, 11 Feb., and the Lords, perhaps by Westmorland, 13 Feb. 1829. John Fane also brought up a petition from the churchwardens, overseers and select vestry against the liability of landlords bill, 12 May 1830.20 The sitting Members were returned unopposed at the general election that summer, when several hundreds of pounds were again distributed as electoral favours.21

Anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Lords, 11 Nov., 13 Dec. 1830, 18 Apr. 1831, and the Commons, 15, 16 Dec. 1830, 13 Apr. 1831.22 The resignation of the duke of Wellington after defeat in the division on the civil list, from which both Members were absent, 15 Nov. 1830, was greeted with expressions of joy in Lyme, the inhabitants ‘considering the change will be attended with reduction of taxation and reform in Parliament, and that right speedily’. There were reports of local disturbances during the ‘Swing’ riots late that month.23 Reform petitions from the freeholders, householders and inhabitants were presented to the Commons by Lord John Russell, 17 Feb., and to the Lords by Lord Brougham, 4 Mar. 1831.24 With a population of between 2,000 and 4,000, Lyme was placed in schedule B in the Grey ministry’s reform bill, but this did nothing to dampen the reforming ardour. The first and second readings of the bill produced further celebrations, addresses to the king and another reform petition, which was presented to the Commons by Portman, 23 Mar.25 Westmorland, who denounced the bill as revolutionary in the Lords, 19 Apr., had the sitting Members, who both voted against it, returned unopposed at the general election the following month. This was despite the prevailing reform activity in Lyme, during which Richard Spencer of the Cobb, a naval captain, chaired a gathering in support of an opponent to Henry Bankes* for the county, 28 Apr., and John Calcraft* was enthusiastically adopted as the reform candidate when he conducted his canvass, 3 May.26 Of the 57 Lyme freeholders who voted at the Dorset election, 37 split for Portman and Calcraft, one voted for Portman and Bankes, and ten plumped for Calcraft, while only nine plumped for Bankes.27 A meeting of the friends of reform, 24 May, agreed an address of thanks to the king for granting a dissolution and at another, again chaired by Spencer, 8 June 1831, a committee was formed to choose a reformer as the town’s candidate for the next election. From the large number of individuals considered, including Henley, John Melville of 16 Upper Harley Street, London, who was connected with an East India house and had been recommended by Hume, was initially chosen.28 However, he was soon challenged by another reformer, William Pinney†, son of Colonel John Frederick Pinney† of Somerton Erleigh, Somerset, and there began a period of intensive canvassing lasting for over a year.29

When, during his speech attacking the whole purpose of schedule B, 15 July 1831, the Tory John Croker asked if there were any boroughs on that list which were not nomination boroughs, Portman unwisely shouted out ‘Lyme Regis’. Croker, taking him to mean that it would cease to be a proprietary borough after the passage of the bill, argued that the second seat might just as well have been retained. The partial disfranchisement was, however, agreed without a debate or a division, 29 July, when one of the Members (probably Henry Fane) simply stated that ‘any opposition being utterly useless, I shall make none’. Perhaps in an attempt to shore up the Westmorland interest, 17 new freemen were admitted, 29 Aug., but another 13 or more who declined were fêted by the reformers.30 On 13 Sept. Spencer chaired a meeting which resolved to support as a candidate in the Dorset by-election only someone who would ‘unequivocally declare his approval of the reform bill’, and such was the state of excitement that a group of anti-reformers was viciously attacked.31 Of the 85 Lyme freeholders who polled, 67 voted for the reformer William Ponsonby*, and only 18 for Lord Ashley*.32 A reform petition, which was adopted on 21 Sept., and another were forwarded to Lord Grey, and it was presumably he who presented them to the Lords, 3, 4 Oct.33 Westmorland voted in the majority against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 7 Oct. The news of the bill’s defeat was greeted with dismay in Lyme, where a reform address to the king was agreed on 12 Oct. 1831, and, angry at Ponsonby’s narrow defeat, the reformers joined in the subscription for his petition to the Commons. Bitter quarrels between the two Lyme reform candidates continued and nothing came of a proposal to establish a political union.34 A petition from the inhabitants to withhold supplies until the revised reform bill had been passed was presented to the Commons, probably by Hume, 1 June 1832.35

Lyme, with 449 houses, of which 283 were valued at £10 or more, and assessed taxes of £735, was placed 70th on the list of condemned boroughs and was duly deprived on one seat by the Reform Act. The boundaries were enlarged to include the rest of Lyme parish and the neighbouring parish of Charmouth, which increased the number of £10 houses to 367. Only 183 of the 836 registered electors polled at the general election of 1832, when Westmorland’s heir, the Conservative Lord Burghersh†, a diplomat and former Member, beat Melville into third place, but was defeated by the Liberal Pinney, who sat until 1842 and again from 1852 to 1865.36 This marked the end of the influence of the Fanes, who were also ousted from control of the corporation by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. It was largely owing to their neglect that Lyme ‘had the appearance of being such a poor and inconsiderable place’, and its remaining seat was abolished in 1868.37

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. J. Austen, Persuasion, ch. xi.
  • 2. G. Roberts, Hist. Lyme Regis (1823), 119-20, 130-1, 137; C. Wanklyn, Lyme Regis, A Retrospect (1927), 141-2; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 286; Harriette Wilson’s Mems. (1929), 463.
  • 3. Wanklyn, 229-32.
  • 4. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 229, 548; xxxvii. 351-3; (1835), xxiv. 643, 645-6; Dorset RO, Lyme Regis borough recs. DC/LR B6/5, 11.
  • 5. Wanklyn, 144-7; C. Wanklyn, Lyme Leaflets, 103-16; J. Hutchins, Dorset, ii (1863), 50; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 375-6; HP Commons, 1754-90, i. 266-7; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 134.
  • 6. Lyme Regis borough recs. B6/11, 13; Spectator, 1 Jan.; The Times, 5 Aug. 1831.
  • 7. Add. 36458, f. 419.
  • 8. Lyme Regis borough recs. D2/4.
  • 9. Ibid. L1/14C; CJ, lxxvi. 256.
  • 10. CJ, lxxvi. 154, 178, 184, 219, 425.
  • 11. Wellington mss WP1/808/8; G. Roberts, Hist. and Antiquities of Lyme Regis (1834), 174-5; Wanklyn, Lyme Regis, 125-6.
  • 12. The Times, 4 June 1825.
  • 13. CJ, lxxix. 204; lxxx. 158; lxxxi. 263; LJ, lvi. 448; lviii. 261; The Times, 24 Mar. 1824, 21 Apr. 1826.
  • 14. Wanklyn, Lyme Regis, 154-5; PP (1835), xxiv. 654; The Times, 20 Mar., 20 June 1828, 24 Nov. 1831, 26 June 1834.
  • 15. Western Flying Post, 5 Sept. 1825, 12 June 1826.
  • 16. Lyme Regis borough recs. D2/4.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. CJ, lxxxii. 555; lxxxiii. 87, 435; The Times, 14 June 1827.
  • 19. Lyme Regis borough recs. D2/4; Dorset Co. Chron. 12 Feb. 1829.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxiv. 22; lxxxv. 411; LJ, lxi. 31.
  • 21. Lyme Regis borough recs. D2/4.
  • 22. LJ, lxiii. 40, 169, 452; CJ, lxxxvi. 175, 182, 483.
  • 23. Dorset Co. Chron. 25 Nov.; Western Flying Post, 6 Dec. 1830.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxvi. 264; LJ, lxiii. 291; The Times, 18 Feb. 1831.
  • 25. Sherborne Jnl. 17 Mar.; Western Flying Post, 28 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 423.
  • 26. Western Flying Post, 2, 9 May; Dorset Co. Chron. 5 May 1831.
  • 27. Dorset Pollbook (1831), 12-13; The Times, 19 May 1831.
  • 28. Dorset Co. Chron. 26 May, 16 June; The Times, 15 June 1831.
  • 29. Dorset Co. Chron. 21, 28 July, 11 Aug., 1, 22, 29 Sept., 3 Nov. 1831.
  • 30. Lyme Regis borough recs. B6/5; Sherborne Jnl. 8 Sept. 1831; Wanklyn, Lyme Leaflets, 86.
  • 31. Dorset Co. Chron. 15 Sept., 6 Oct. 1831.
  • 32. Dorset Pollbook (Sept.-Oct. 1831), 16-18.
  • 33. Sherborne Jnl. 29 Sept., 6 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1036, 1043.
  • 34. Sherborne Jnl. 20, 27 Oct., 3, 10 Nov.; Som. RO, Henley mss DD/TOR/323, Melville to Henley, 27 Sept. 1831, 10 Nov., reply, 11 Nov. 1832.
  • 35. CJ, lxxxvii. 364.
  • 36. PP (1831), xvi. 90-91; (1831-2), xxxvi. 62-63; xxxvii. 352-3; xxxviii. 141-2; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 73-74, 76, 96, 204-5; Wanklyn, Lyme Regis, 163-5; Dorset Co. Chron. 20 Dec. 1832.
  • 37. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 141; (1835), xxiv. 647, 655; Dorset RO, Lyme Regis Mus. mss D/LRM C1/4.