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

Number qualified to vote:



1,322 (1821); 1,424 (1831)


27 June 1820WILLIAM LEAKE vice Finlay, vacated his seat 
10 June 1826(SIR) CHARLES FORBES, bt. 
30 July 1830(SIR) CHARLES FORBES, bt. 
2 May 1831(SIR) CHARLES FORBES, bt.13
 George Julius Poulett Scropenil

Main Article

The borough of Malmesbury, ‘very pleasantly situated on an eminence’ in the hundred of the same name, comprised the parish of the Abbey and parts (known as ‘in-parishes’) of St. Paul, Malmesbury and St. Mary, Westport. According to the boundary commissioners, it was

not a place of any trade, and not a considerable thoroughfare ... There are no new buildings in the suburbs, nor any indications of increasing prosperity: a cloth factory was established above 20 years ago; but it is now abandoned and has been converted into a corn mill. It contains very few houses which appear to be occupied by persons of independent circumstances, and has altogether the air of a place on the decline; it must now be considered as an entirely agricultural town.1

Its poverty was reflected in the composition of the corporation, whose elderly and for the most part illiterate members were almost all labourers, though there were also a number of craftsmen.2 By the Commons decision of 13 Dec. 1722, confirmed on 10 May 1797, the right of voting was deemed to be in the ‘alderman and twelve capital burgesses only’, and the 24 assistant burgesses and up to 280 commoners or freemen played no part in the electoral process.3 The capital burgesses, from whom the alderman (who also acted as returning officer) was chosen each year, were elected from the assistants on the occurrence of a vacancy, and the numbers were generally kept at the maximum of 13 electors.4 Since 1812 the patron and high steward had been the Cirencester attorney and banker Joseph Pitt, of nearby Eastcourt House, who was Member for Cricklade and had electoral interests there and at Wootton Bassett. He continued the practice of his predecessors Edmund Wilkins and Edmund Estcourt, who paid each voter £30 (raised to £50 in 1804) by concealing the money beneath each corporator’s plate at an annual feast. The recent difficulties created by contested elections (1802-7) were no longer experienced, as the new patron was fully in control of his so-called ‘Pitt’s pensioners’, who were ‘rogued out’ and deprived of their £50 annuity at the least manifestation of insubordination.5

Pitt returned paying guests, who were of a generally ministerialist bent, though on occasion they acted independently. Thus, at the instance of the 4th earl of Rosebery, the Scots Charles Forbes, an East India agent and former Member for Beverley, and Kirkman Finlay, a Glasgow merchant and former representative of his native burgh, were elected by all 13 voters at the general election of 1818, as they were again two years later. However, Finlay was soon replaced by the London attorney William Leake, former Member for Mitchell, at a by-election in June 1820, when ten corporators were present (one of the three absentees being dead).6 The inhabitants addressed Queen Caroline later that year, but in December a loyal address to the king was agreed at a town meeting.7 Following local consultation, a bill to enclose Malmesbury Common or King’s Heath was introduced to the Commons, 8 Feb. 1821, and, assisted in its passage by Pitt, it received the royal assent on 8 June. It divided the land between the commoners and greatly reduced the level of parish relief.8 A Malmesbury anti-slavery petition was presented to the House by Robert Gordon, Pitt’s colleague at Cricklade, 20 Mar. 1826.9 On 23 May that year Joseph Pitt junior was elected high steward in the room of his father by 11 of the corporators.10

During the speculation about the possibility of a dissolution in the autumn of 1825, the Devizes Gazette commented that ‘the very learned and independent electors of Malmesbury will "do as they are bid"’.11 The same newspaper noted at the time of the general election the following year that

so far, however, as Mr. Pitt (the patron) having rendered himself obnoxious to the immaculate voters, we have good information for stating, that if he were to introduce ‘Little Waddington’12 as a fit object for their choice, he would without doubt be elected.

This assertion was made to counteract the effect of a curious affair which came before the Bow Street magistrates on 31 May. One William Collins of Clapham Road argued that, as Pitt was unpopular with the electors, anyone ‘who would feel inclined to advance £1,700 to redeem a bond which Mr. Pitt held of the corporation for that amount would be certain of being returned’. Acting on behalf of Lieutenant-Colonel Burgess Carnac of the Life Guards, Collins had intended to go to Malmesbury to negotiate with the publican William Robins Seale, ‘the leading and influential man in the corporation’, but he claimed, in order to explain why he had apparently decamped with Carnac’s money, that he had been threatened and robbed of it by Seale’s nephew. Collins was acquitted of theft through lack of evidence, and it was supposed by the paper that Carnac had got his money back, and that the story, which evidently had some factual validity in it, had been carefully glossed over.13 Whatever the truth of it, Forbes, now a baronet, was again returned unopposed and evidently purchased the second seat for his less active but similarly minded son John. Another of the voters having died, there were only 12 names on the election entry in the court book.14 A Malmesbury petition for repeal of the Test Acts was presented, 6 June 1827. Another for abolition of colonial slavery was brought up by John Benett, the county Member, 11 July 1828, and one for mitigation of the punishment for forgery was presented by Gordon, 12 May 1830.15 A further vacancy not having yet been filled, the Forbeses were returned without opposition by 12 of the voters at the general election of 1830.16

Alderman Matthew Wood of London presented and endorsed the surprisingly pro-reform petition of the corporators of the ‘snug borough’ of Malmesbury, 11 Feb., and John Wood, Member for Preston, brought up another anti-slavery petition, 21 Feb. 1831.17 Under the Grey ministry’s reform proposals, announced on 1 Mar., Malmesbury was scheduled to lose both its seats, since it had a population of less than 2,000. It was reported locally that a meeting on this subject had been refused

from the fear that, in the course of the discussion, the public would become acquainted with a most distressing circumstance; namely, that many of the leading burgesses in that corporation had received parish relief, under the title of alms. We hear that the reason why so few public meetings have been held in the borough of late is that it is many years since they have had a mayor that could either read or write.18

However, a reform petition from the gentry and clergy of the town and vicinity was presented by Benett, 18 Mar.19 Lord John Russell informed the committee on the reform bill, 18 Apr., that as a result of the omission of adjoining areas, the population figure for Malmesbury was too low (being, in fact, only the population of the in-parish of St. Paul) and should have been over 2,000 (or 2,834 according to the 1831 census), thus allowing the borough to be transferred to schedule B.20 Both Members voted against reform, 22 Mar., 19 Apr. 1831, and thereafter.

At the general election of 1831 there were high expectations of the emergence of a reform candidate. This eventually proved to be ‘Scrope of Castle Combe’, presumably the geologist George Julius Poulett Scrope†, who also contested Chippenham at this election (though in the House, 30 July, Sir Charles Forbes identified him as his brother, Charles Poulett Thomson*). Pitt proposed the sitting Members to the 13 electors, ‘several of whom experienced considerable difficulty pronouncing the un-English word Forbes, otherwise than Fobs, Hobs, Foorbes, Foards, Sir John Foarbs, etc.’ Their opponent

was also proposed, and his energetic and close appeal to the electors, in which he gave a complete exposé of borough trafficking, enlivened by the introduction of ludicrous anecdotes connected therewith, produced an electrifying effect on a most crowded assemblage of persons, and elicited an universal expression of applause. The hooting, gibes and taunts which were bestowed on the corporation, were almost past endurance.

Another report of the violent mood of the crowd described how

whether owing to the indignity offered to the inhabitants by the non-appearance of the two Members, or to the imputation cast upon the veracity of a dozen of their independent and respectable townsmen, the effigies of Sir Charles and his son, one bearing a label with the inscription ‘Oh what shall I do!’, the other with ‘Oh I do deserve it!’ were on the evening of the election paraded and flogged through the streets, accompanied by an immense multitude of spectators; and, amidst the din of as discordant sounds as ever proceeded from the human voice, these two worthy personages were then consigned to the flames.21

Presumably following Pitt’s instructions, the four capital burgesses who had votes for Cricklade plumped for the supposed anti-reformer Thomas Calley* at the election there in early May.22 Copying a report in a London paper, the Devizes Gazette of 19 May alleged that Sir Charles Forbes had ‘kicked at’ the price of 12,000 guineas, and had since stated that ‘he will not pay as much for the borough of Malmesbury as on the last occasion, for he conceives that it [the Parliament] will be too short to remunerate him for his outlay’.23 Poulett Scrope chaired a reform dinner in Malmesbury, 30 May, when several speakers praised the 16th earl of Suffolk of nearby Charlton Park for his assistance to the cause, and rotten boroughs were roundly condemned. Gordon instanced the case of Malmesbury itself:

Here are 13 burgesses, forming a corporation, who regularly sell themselves, at so much a year, to an individual and, at his command, not only elect his nominees, but swear on the oath of God that they receive no pay for their votes; when it is notorious that they have an annuity, and a present to boot for them.

Nathaniel Partridge of Stroud, who had nominated Poulett Scrope at the election, stated that he ‘little imagined that the capital burgesses would expose themselves to so much derision ... Really, the downright ignorance and stupidity of these burgesses exceeded any thing I could have imagined’.24

John Croker cited the treatment of Malmesbury as an example of ministerial inconsistency in a debate on the reintroduced reform bill, 19 July 1831. On the motion to include it in schedule B, 30 July, Sir Charles Forbes made a robust speech in its defence, claiming that he was as independent a Member as those for London, Middlesex or Westminster. This drew the riposte from Reynolds Moreton, Member for Gloucestershire, that he was so independent that the electors were ignorant of who he was. Forbes then explained the circumstances of the recent election, concluding that it was not surprising that his opponent had failed with the voters, ‘when one of the arguments he urged to them was that that should be the last time of their returning two Members to Parliament’. Gordon, who declared that ‘if ever there was a borough which deserved the name of a nomination or a corrupt or rotten borough, it is this’ and that Forbes ‘represents only himself and his own money’, then described the system of bribes, which were now again reduced to £30:

When an election is expected, the 13 constituents of this borough are invited to a dinner. They are first plentifully served with a repast consisting of beef and pudding, or some such viands; after which a plate apparently containing nothing but a cheesecake, is placed before each burgess, on raising up which confection, certain bank notes, to the amount of £30, make their appearance. The honest electors, of course, are perfectly ignorant of the course of this proceeding, but, notwithstanding, manage to convey this sum without observation to their pockets and when the election takes place vote for their entertainers.

Forbes indignantly denied the allegations about the ‘cheesecake dinners’, which Gordon admitted he could not prove, and amid signs of impatience from other speakers, the partial disfranchisement of the borough was agreed without a division. A petition from the inhabitants in favour of the reform bill was presented to the Lords by Lord Radnor, 3 Oct. 1831.25 Resolutions in support of the unseated ministers were agreed at a town meeting, 18 May, and the eventual passage of the revised bill was celebrated at a reform festival in August 1832.26

With 637 houses, of which 170 were valued at £10 or more, and paying assessed taxes of £346, Malmesbury was placed 65th on the final list of condemned boroughs and was duly deprived of one of its seats by the Reform Act. Its boundaries were extended to include the out-parishes of St. Paul, Malmesbury and St. Mary, Westport, as well as eight other parishes.27 At the 1832 dissolution the two Forbeses retired from Parliament, and the interest was evidently surrendered by Pitt, some of whose estates were sold to Joseph Neeld* in the 1840s. As had been expected, Lord Andover, the eldest son of Suffolk, whose family had a latent local interest, was returned without opposition as a Liberal at the general election in December 1832, when there were 291 registered electors. Only one former elector, the staymaker Joseph Sparks (with five other members of the corporation as a whole) was named on the return, and the corporators were also largely deprived of their right of voting at Cricklade, which had long been a point of contention there.28 Though it was claimed that Malmesbury was ‘quite regenerated by the reform bill’, it was to remain under the control of the earls of Suffolk for the next 40 years.29

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 803; PP (1830-1), x. 85; (1831-2), xl. 107; VCH Wilts. xiv. 146.
  • 2. PP (1835), xxiii. 214, 215.
  • 3. Ibid. (1831), xvi. 171; CJ, xx. 77; lii. 561.
  • 4. The borough records, which include admission books for the capital and assistant burgesses, are in the possession of the Old Corporation of Malmesbury. A printed List of Malmesbury Commoners by S.D. Box is at Wilts. RO, Malmesbury borough recs. G21/1/42.
  • 5. HP Commons, 1754-90, i. 417-18; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 422-4; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 1 Aug. 1825; Devizes Gazette, 1 July 1830; J.T. Bird, Hist. Malmesbury, 157, 158; S. Hudson, Hill Top Town, 89-94; VCH Wilts. v. 218, 219; xiv. 155.
  • 6. Full View of Commons (1821), 24; Malmesbury Old Corporation, court book.
  • 7. The Times, 13 Sept.; Devizes Gazette, 21 Dec. 1820.
  • 8. CJ, lxxvi. 48, 115, 118, 125, 249, 336, 337, 366, 426; Wilts. Inclosure Awards ed. R E. Sandell (Wilts. Rec. Soc. xxv), 133; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 19 Apr. 1830; R. Luce, Hist. Malmesbury, 194.
  • 9. CJ, lxxxi. 188; The Times, 21 Mar. 1826.
  • 10. Malmesbury Old Corporation, court book.
  • 11. Devizes Gazette, 22 Sept. 1825.
  • 12. Presumably the radical bill sticker and alleged child molester Samuel Waddington: see The Times, 10, 19 Apr. 1823.
  • 13. Devizes Gazette, 8, 15 June 1826.
  • 14. Malmesbury Old Corporation, court book.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxii. 521; lxxxiii. 522; lxxxv. 410.
  • 16. Malmesbury Old Corporation, court book.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxvi. 237, 278.
  • 18. Devizes Gazette, 3 Mar. 1831.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 402.
  • 20. M. Brock, Great Reform Act, 158.
  • 21. Devizes Gazette, 5, 19 May; Salisbury Jnl. 9 May 1831; Malmesbury Old Corporation, court book; Bird, 222, 223.
  • 22. Cricklade Pollbook (1831), 17-19.
  • 23. B. Hodge, Hist. Malmesbury, 21.
  • 24. Devizes Gazette, 2 June; Salisbury Jnl. 6 June 1831; Bird, 214-22.
  • 25. LJ, lxiii. 1038.
  • 26. Devizes Gazette, 24 May, 30 Aug. 1832; Bird, 226-9.
  • 27. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 60, 61, 202, 309, 480; xxxvii. 96, 97; xl. 107-9; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 70, 432.
  • 28. Devizes Gazette, 7, 14, 21 June, 13 Dec.; The Times, 4 Oct., 29 Nov. 1832.
  • 29. Devizes Gazette, 24 Jan. 1833; Gash, 205, 432.