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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Estimated number qualified to vote:

over 500, rising to 730 in 18311

Number of voters:

548 in 1823


4,598 (1821); 5,563 (1831)


12 Feb. 1823SCARLETT re-elected after vacating his seat517
 Samuel Wells31
12 June 1826SIR ROBERT HERON, bt. 
9 May 1827SCARLETT re-elected after appointment to office 
22 June 1829SCARLETT re-elected after appointment to office 
2 Aug. 1830SIR ROBERT HERON, bt. 
24 Nov. 1830JOHN NICHOLAS FAZAKERLEY vice Milton, vacated his seat 
29 Apr. 1831SIR ROBERT HERON, bt. 

Main Article

The return of the Members for Peterborough had been under the complete control of the Whig 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam of nearby Milton, the principal property owner and custos rotulorum of the liberty, since 1786. The unusual jurisdiction enjoyed by the dean and chapter of the city’s cathedral over the soke of Peterborough and their power to nominate the returning officer (normally their steward) meant that their interest had always to be considered, but for many years they had been content to follow Fitzwilliam’s line. The return on vacancies of James Scarlett in February 1819 and Sir Robert Heron in November 1819, however, had vexed both local Whigs and Tories. Scarlett, an eminent barrister, was thought to have no connection with Fitzwilliam, and although his politics were Whig, the Liverpool ministry had previously offered him a seat. Heron, a Lincolnshire squire and Whig friend of Fitzwilliam’s son Lord Milton*, had been objected to by the high church party, headed by the new bishop, Herbert Marsh, and the archdeacon of Northampton, William Strong, ostensibly because of his suspect religious views, although Milton was convinced that the opposition was political.2

At the 1820 general election Scarlett and Heron offered again, professing their opposition to the Liverpool ministry. Speculation about an opposition came to nothing and they were returned unopposed.3 News of the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, which reached Peterborough, 11 Nov., was widely celebrated. Drakard’s Stamford News reported that ‘white feathers were instantly displayed in great numbers’, while the church bells were rung throughout the day, ‘notwithstanding the interposition of a pratting parson’. That evening beer was distributed courtesy of Fitzwilliam and the windows of several clergy were broken. When the Rev. Charles Pratt, a magistrate, committed a boy to prison for ‘wearing a seditious hat inscribed "Long live Queen Caroline"’ a mob ‘hunted [him] in full cry down the Long Causeway to his house’. There he turned on the crowd and fired his pistols, although they were only filled with powder. Alarmed, the magistrates banned an intended illumination, but the plan which had already ‘been laid aside ... was resumed solely on account of the[ir] officious interference and impertinent dictation’, and proceeded. The magistrates then requested a troop of lancers, who arrived the following week.4 Drakard’s claimed that the soldiers were sent at the insistence of the bishop, who had voted for the divorce bill, but a letter to the Morning Chronicle from Thomas Atkinson, clerk to the magistrates, claimed that Marsh knew nothing about it.5 On 15 Dec. a meeting was called by the magistrates to vote a loyal address to the king. As Strong was about to take the chair Milton, who had been forewarned, made his entrance, was immediately proposed as chairman and, to Strong’s fury, was placed in the chair ‘by acclamation’. The original address, proposed by Dr. Hopkinson, was ‘negatived by a vast majority’, and the amended address, complaining of the imposition of a military force on the city and objecting to ministers’ proceedings against the queen, was ‘agreed without a division’.6 On 16 Dec., however, Fitzwilliam notified Lord Holland, ‘I understand the enemy intend to send up the rejected one [but] that cannot be prevented’.7 A handbill circulated by John Gates, the bishop’s steward, 18 Dec. 1820, condemned the wording of the substituted address and again denied that the bishop had had anything to do with the summoning of troops. The annual ball for the benefit of the dispensary, under Fitzwilliam’s patronage, was held that day. The magistrates had declared that if it passed off without incident the troops would depart; nothing occurred, and they left next day.8 Both Members supported Catholic relief, against which petitions from the clergy and cathedral reached the Lords, 10 Apr. 1821, 30 May 1822.9 A meeting to petition against agricultural distress was held, 22 Feb. 1822, at which Fitzwilliam, in the chair, opened proceedings by

expatiating on the utter inefficiency of the relief proposed by ministers ... Milton followed and admirably exposed the absurdity of the bank loan to the parishes, and the fallacy of making the sinking fund a pretence against the reduction of taxation.10

The resulting petition was presented to the Commons, 5 Mar. 1822. That November, Scarlett took the Chiltern Hundreds in order to contest a vacancy at Cambridge University. Lord Lonsdale informed Lord Lowther*, 22 Nov., that if he failed Fitzwilliam might not be able to bring him in again for Peterborough.11 He was defeated at Cambridge, but Fitzwilliam was prepared to reinstate him. His public letter announcing his intention of returning and promising to explain his actions, 4 Dec. 1822, created a stir and on 1 Jan. 1823 William Cobbett† issued an attack on him, questioning his attachment to his constituents and announcing that he would oppose him ‘if circumstances admit’. The radical Sir Charles Wolseley, treasurer of the Great North Union, also published an address, 3 Jan., in which he denounced Scarlett, accused Fitzwilliam of ‘disgusting sycophancy’, and declared that before he had learnt of Cobbett’s intention he too had been prepared to come forward. Undaunted, Scarlett, ‘accompanied by several of the leading gentlemen of Peterborough’, canvassed during the first week of January. ‘If an election do take place’, remarked Drakard’s, ‘we are enabled to state ... independently of what is stated by Mr. Cobbett and Sir Charles Wolseley of their intentions, that a candidate is both ready and determined to oppose’.12 This was undoubtedly Samuel Wells, a radical attorney of Hartford, near Huntingdon (where he had been an unsuccessful candidate at the 1820 general election), and a devotee of Cobbett, who had entered into a correspondence with Milton criticizing his father’s action. In late January he formally declared, but Milton was confident, telling J. W. Parkins, 26 Jan.:

Notwithstanding Mr. Wells’s declaration to the contrary, I have every reason to believe that Mr. Scarlett will succeed at Peterborough. Of Mr. Wells’s prospects I do not have so favourable an account, indeed I have not learnt that he has obtained a single promise.13

On the day of the election, before proceedings began, Milton ‘harangued the populace from a wagon’, and when Wells arrived they debated ‘political questions’ before going to the town hall. There Wells argued with Gates, the returning officer, that the proceedings should be held outdoors, which was refused. Wells’s friends, led by his brother, then made a clamour to prevent Scarlett from speaking, but they were eventually prevailed on to desist. Scarlett defended himself against Wells’s attacks on the poor removal bill which he had introduced the previous session, claiming that Wells had misunderstood and misrepresented it, and explained his agreement with Malthus’s views on population. He denied that his candidacy for Cambridge was a slight on the people of Peterborough and insisted that his first priority would be to serve them. Alluding to Fitzwilliam, he defended the legitimate influence of property, but stated that he favoured parliamentary reform. Wells launched into a denunciation of Scarlett, but when he touched on the subject of the poor laws Scarlett intervened to point out that the proposed reforms referred to by Wells were those of Michael Nolan, Tory Member for Barnstaple. This ‘excited bursts of indignation and laughter, after which Mr. Wells was not very well heard’. The show of hands favoured Scarlett, but Wells demanded a poll, which Scarlett easily won by 517 votes to 31. At the declaration Scarlett claimed that his return had vindicated his conduct and promised to maintain his previous line in politics. Drakard’s, which normally supported Milton, ‘grievously lamented’ his involvement in the ‘detestable system of boroughmongering’ and denounced Scarlett as a ‘double-faced, double-fee stipendiary servile of any party in law or politics that will pay him best’, adding that Wells was ‘beyond all question the candidate of the people’. Neither Cobbett nor Wolseley appeared.14 Petitions against Catholic relief were presented to the Commons from the clergy, 17 Apr. 1823, 18 Apr. 1825, and the cathedral’s dean and chapter, 28 Apr. 1823, 18 Mar. 1825, and to the Lords from the clergy, 15 Mar., 16 May 1825.15 One in favour from the Protestant inhabitants reached the Commons, 19 Apr., and the Lords, 21 Apr. 1825.16 Petitions for the abolition of slavery were presented to the Commons, 24 May 1824, 20 Mar. 1826, and the Lords, 20 May 1826.17 A petition from local landowners and occupiers against alteration of the corn laws reached the Commons, 29 Apr. 1825.18

At the 1826 general election Scarlett and Heron were again returned unopposed. On the hustings Heron cited his support for Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery and parliamentary reform, but denounced free trade theories and demanded greater protection for ‘what he considered the first great staple of the country, the agricultural interest’. Scarlett eulogized Canning’s foreign policy and concurred in Heron’s comments except those on free trade, of which he approved.19 That October the lease of some cathedral property to Milton came up for renewal, and when he refused to pay a substantially increased rent it was granted to some Tories.20 Petitions against Catholic relief from the dean and chapter were presented to the Commons, 2 Mar. 1827, 21 Apr. 1828, and the Lords, 5 Mar. 1827, 1 Apr. 1828, and from the archdeacon and clergy to the Commons, 6 Mar. 1827, 28 Apr. 1828, and the Lords, 8 Mar. 1827.21 Scarlett’s appointment as attorney-general in the Canning administration that April necessitated his re-election. On the hustings he explained that he had accepted office because the new ministry was ‘determined to support every liberal principle’ and would make ‘every exertion ... to reduce the expenditure of the country and ameliorate every grievance if it could not remove them’. He was returned unopposed. There was no dinner as he left immediately for London on business, but ‘the poor were regaled with the usual quantity of stingo’.22 Petitions from the Dissenters for abolition of the Test Acts reached the Commons, 13 June 1827, 26 Feb. 1828.23 The bishop of Peterborough’s opposition to Catholic relief provoked a long letter in its favour, signed by ‘a Catholic’, which The Times published and commended to its readers, 27 Dec. 1827. It printed a rejoinder from ‘a Protestant’ four days later.24 When it became clear that the Wellington ministry intended to concede emancipation, the dean and chapter petitioned both Houses for ‘stringent securities’, 17 Feb. 1829. Petitions against the concession, which both Members supported, reached the Commons from the archdeacon and clergy, 17 Feb., and from the inhabitants, 10 Mar.25 Scarlett, who had lost office on the fall of the Goderich ministry was, with Fitzwilliam’s concurrence, appointed attorney-general in June. Milton, however, informed him on the 14th that he was disturbed by the support being given by government to the vehemently anti-Catholic George Bankes* for the vacant Cambridge University seat and that

unless the support given ... is disavowed, and disavowed immediately, I must abstain from giving any countenance to [your] election beyond what I have promised. What I mean is that I cannot be present at the dinner, and that I shall cause it to be well known in Peterborough why I absent myself.26

Scarlett was re-elected without opposition. The landowners and occupiers of the soke of Peterborough petitioned the Commons for repeal of the malt and beer duties, 12 May 1829.27

At the 1830 general election Milton decided to give up his Yorkshire seat and return himself for Peterborough. Because it was thought that Scarlett would more easily find another berth than Heron, he was asked to vacate, but in the event Fitzwilliam found room for him at Malton, his Yorkshire pocket borough.28 Milton issued an address and, although he declined to canvass, said he was happy to meet the electors in public to discuss his views. Heron, too, eschewed a canvass ‘in consequence of a recent severe indisposition’. They were returned without opposition, Milton telling his father, 5 Aug., that the election had ‘passed off very satisfactorily’ and that there ‘were never so many people assembled before ... I think there must have been 2,000 people on the market place’.29 The sudden death of Milton’s wife in childbirth, 1 Nov., prompted him to resign his seat a few days later. Although he initially declined to nominate a successor, his friends in the city approached his kinsman George Dundas, formerly Member for Orkney and Shetland, but he objected to sitting for an English borough. Asked again, Milton recommended the former Whig Member John Nicholas Fazakerley, who duly came forward, condemning Wellington’s declaration against parliamentary reform and declaring his support for a ‘practicable and wholesome’ measure. He was returned unopposed.30 Petitions for the abolition of slavery were presented by Heron, 15 Nov. 1830, 29 Mar. 1831, and to the Lords, 2 Dec. 1830.31

At the 1831 general election Heron and Fazakerley, who were both supporters of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, were returned unopposed.32 News of the bill’s final passage was greeted with ‘great elation’, 5 June 1832, and despite the objections of the clergy, the church bells were rung. That evening a union was formed by ‘the most respectable citizens ... to promote liberal principles’, and Milton presided at a celebratory dinner, 19 June 1832. Fazakerley, who was unable to attend, made a private visit the following week.33 The bill made no change in Peterborough’s representation, but the boundary commissioners recommended an enlargement of the existing limits if the number of £10 houses, which they estimated at 328, ‘be deemed insufficient’. The new borough was duly extended to include the whole of St. John the Baptist parish, which added 48 £10 houses from the hamlets of Dodsthorpe, Longthorpe, Eastfield and Newark, and produced a registered electorate of 773 in 1832.34 In addition, Peterborough was made one of the polling places for the new Northern division of Northamptonshire. Rumours that there would be a ‘third man’ at the 1832 general election came to nothing and Heron and Fazakerley were returned unopposed as Liberals. Although a Conservative interest established itself and contested the 1835 and 1837 general elections, the Fitzwilliam family maintained its dominance of the borough for most of the rest of the century.

Authors: Martin Casey / Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1831-2), lxxxvi. 565.
  • 2. Fitzwilliam mss, Milton to Fitzwilliam, 23 Nov. 1819.
  • 3. Drakard’s Stamford News, 10 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Ibid. 17, 24 Nov. 1820.
  • 5. Ibid. 24 Nov., 22 Dec. 1820.
  • 6. Ibid. 22 Dec. 1820.
  • 7. Add. 51593.
  • 8. Drakard’s Stamford News, 22 Dec. 1820.
  • 9. LJ, liv. 186; lv. 203.
  • 10. The Times, 2 Mar. 1822.
  • 11. Lonsdale mss.
  • 12. Drakard’s Stamford News, 3, 10 Jan. 1823.
  • 13. Fitzwilliam mss.
  • 14. Drakard’s Stamford News, 14 Feb.; The Times, 15, 17 Feb. 1823.
  • 15. CJ, lxxviii. 215, 258; lxxx. 226, 314; LJ, lvii. 123, 807.
  • 16. CJ, lxxx. 319; LJ, lvii. 609, 807.
  • 17. CJ, lxxix. 404; lxxxi. 188; LJ, lviii. 123.
  • 18. CJ, lxxx. 354.
  • 19. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 17 June 1826.
  • 20. E.A. Smith, Whig Principles and Party Politics, 380.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxii. 260, 281; lxxxiii. 254, 277; LJ, lix. 126, 142; lx. 152.
  • 22. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 12 Mar. 1827.
  • 23. CJ, lxxxii. 555; lxxxiii. 105.
  • 24. The Times, 27, 31 Dec. 1827.
  • 25. LJ, lxi. 47; CJ, lxxxiv. 41, 121.
  • 26. Fitzwilliam mss.
  • 27. CJ, lxxxv. 409.
  • 28. Brougham mss, Scarlett to Brougham [25 July 1830]; Fitzwilliam mss, Milton to Scarlett, 28 July 1830.
  • 29. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 31 July 1830; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F132/25.
  • 30. Add. 61937, f. 120; Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 27 Nov. 1830.
  • 31. CJ, lxxxvi. 74, 455; LJ, lxiii. 146.
  • 32. The Times, 7 May 1831.
  • 33. Drakard’s Stamford News, 8, 15, 29 June 1832.
  • 34. PP (1831-2), xxxix. 255; P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work, 260.