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:

192 in 18311

Number of voters:

146 in 1831


21,591 (1821); 31,080 (1831)2


8 Mar. 1820Sir William CONGREVE, bt. 
 Sir Thomas BYAM MARTIN 
9 June 1826Sir William CONGREVE, bt. 
 Sir Thomas BYAM MARTIN 
7 June 1828Sir George COCKBURN vice Congreve, deceased 
12 Feb. 1829COCKBURN re-elected after appointment to office 
30 July 1830Sir Thomas BYAM MARTIN 
 Sir George COCKBURN 
4 May 1831Sir Thomas BYAM MARTIN101
 Sir George COCKBURN91
 Hon. George Elliot63

Main Article

Plymouth, ‘one of the largest seaports in England’, was the easternmost of three adjoining towns situated on a peninsula between the Plym and Tamar estuaries, where they entered the English Channel. On the west bank was Plymouth Dock, renamed Devonport in 1824, the site of a major naval base and dockyard, which had grown spectacularly during the eighteenth century so that by 1801 its population exceeded that of Plymouth. Stonehouse, the smaller intermediate town, grew rapidly in the early nineteenth century owing to the location there of the royal marine barracks, naval hospital and victualling yard. Whereas the transition to a peacetime economy after 1815 caused much unemployment at Devonport, whose ‘growth slowed up’, Plymouth soon ‘forged ahead as a fishing port and ... commercial harbour’, engaged in foreign and coastal trade. Both towns benefited from the construction between 1812 and 1844 of the mile-long breakwater, which created ‘one of the largest and safest harbours in Britain’. Plymouth’s manufactures were ‘neither extensive nor numerous’, but included rope and sailcloth making, sugar refining, tanning, brewing and soap making. A ‘commodious’ market place was built in 1809. Other construction projects, such as the Royal Hotel and Theatre, built by the corporation at a cost of £50,000, helped to stimulate the economy, and in the suburbs there were ‘many handsome villas and rows of neat houses’.3

The borough comprised the parishes of St. Andrew and St. Charles. Local power was exercised by the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, 12 aldermen, 24 common councilmen and an indefinite number of freemen, created by virtue of birth (the eldest sons of freemen), apprenticeship or gift; all held their offices for life. Prior to 1803 the aldermen had dominated the corporation, but as a result of a legal judgement that year the freemen were empowered to elect the mayor, from among their number, while the general running of affairs was entrusted to a ‘committee of 21’ freemen. Mayoralty contests thereafter became regular and often acrimonious trials of strength between the aldermanic interest and the freemen, who also claimed the right to elect the aldermen, although this was not recognized until 1833. The Shoulder of Mutton Club provided an organizational base for the freemen, and its leading members in this period included the attornies Edmund Lockyer and Henry Woollcombe, Peter Birdwood and the splenetic former ship’s surgeon, George Bellamy. However, the aldermen had retaliated by passing by-laws in 1803 and 1807 which restricted the freedom to a master’s first apprentice and stipulated that those eligible for the award must take it up within two years. The effect was to ‘reduce the number of freemen belonging to the working classes and ... give additional influence to the wealthier part of the community’, and this became a ‘subject of great dissatisfaction to many of the inhabitants’. Proposals to increase substantially the number of freemen were blocked in 1812, 1817 and 1821.4 Plymouth corporation politics were generally insular, highly personalized and only tangentially related to parliamentary elections. For long periods the representation had been monopolized by the admiralty, which was a powerful presence on the corporation (many naval officers were aldermen and freemen) as well as being an important local employer. Since 1806, however, one seat had been filled by nominees of the prince of Wales, whose influence as high steward of Plymouth and duke of Cornwall may have been largely illusory but nonetheless provided a symbolic means of satisfying the desire for a representative of local interests. Sir William Congreve, controller of the royal laboratory at Woolwich, who was returned by the prince at a by-election in February 1818, received support from prominent members of the Shoulder of Mutton Club. At the general election later that year Congreve was returned with Sir Thomas Byam Martin, the controller of the navy, who had family connections with the town, ahead of Sir Charles Morice Pole, who had previously sat on the admiralty interest and felt that he had been duped into agreeing to retire. With the interests of the admiralty and the prince becoming increasingly indistinguishable, a pattern was established whereby Plymouth elected ‘two officials of government’. Among the inhabitants, religious Dissent was a reviving force in the early nineteenth century and there was a growing community of Catholic migrants from Ireland.5

In 1820 the publication of Congreve and Martin’s election addresses before George III had died was presumably a pre-emptive move to deter opposition, although the paucity of sources makes this impossible to establish. Congreve regretted that ‘the duration of my connection’ had been ‘too short to have enabled me to render any important services’, and Martin assured his constituents of his ‘earnest diligence to promote the interests of the town’. Both canvassed the freemen before being returned unopposed, after which they gave a ‘sumptuous dinner’ to over 150 electors and friends at the Royal Hotel.6 Following the mayor George Eastlake’s rejection of a requisition signed by 52 people, the wharfinger John Saunders chaired a public meeting at the London Inn, 1 Sept., when a petition to the Commons framed by Bellamy and the attorney Charles Bird, condemning the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, was agreed with ‘only two’ dissentients. The signatories ‘exceeded 2,000, all ... respectable male inhabitants’, and the petition was presented on 17 Oct.7 In November the news of the bill’s withdrawal ‘imparted to the faces both of ministerialists and oppositionists marked proofs of satisfaction’, and the ‘bells of all the churches were instantly set in motion’. Flags and streamers were hung in the streets and on merchant vessels in the harbours, the ‘victorious laurel and white favours’ were ‘exhibited in profusion’ and an ‘extensive illumination’ occurred, all of which ‘demonstrated the loyal, as well as the independent, sentiments of the inhabitants’. The new mayor, Richard Squire, convened a public meeting by requisition, 15 Dec., when the corporators Peter Tonkin and John Hawker moved a loyal address to the king, which was carried ‘with the exception of some opposing voices’, who complained of the exclusive nature of the proceedings. A public meeting at the London Inn chaired by Addis Archer, 26 Dec. 1820, agreed an address to the king, framed by Bird, which called for the dismissal of ministers, whose misgovernment was evident in the depression of agriculture and commerce, and recommended a ‘constitutional reform’ of the Commons to secure popular liberties. This ‘patriotic address’ was signed by ‘nearly 6,000 respectable men’, whereas the loyal address ‘with all the influence that could be employed, did not get 2,000 names’.8 Petitions from the merchants and ship owners for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Acts were presented to Parliament, 18, 19 Mar. 1823.9 Local businessmen petitioned the Commons for repeal of the duty on slate carried coastwise and of the coal duties, 9 Feb., as did the journeymen boot and shoemakers for repeal of the combination laws, 15 Mar. 1824.10 Anti-slavery petitions from the inhabitants were sent to Parliament in 1823, 1824 and 1826, and one for inquiry into the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara was forwarded to the Commons, 1 June 1824.11

In September 1825 a newspaper reported that preparations were being made ‘without disguise’ for an imminent general election and that the freemen were ‘disposed to invite a gentleman’; the names of Lockyer, William Langmead of Elfordleigh House, the son of a former Member, and Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes* were mentioned. Lockyer assured Congreve that he had no parliamentary ambitions and denied the rumours that he had promised to support Masseh Lopes, but he warned of the ‘very unpleasant feeling amongst many of the freemen’ that threatened Congreve’s position:

They complain of an almost inattention to their letters, and the loss of the patronage which [they] once enjoyed ... at least a supposed privilege of filling the places which fell vacant within the borough, particularly in the customs and excise, from both of which, by late regulations, they appear to be shut out ... If government wish to consider this a borough under their influence ... [this can be] effected without much trouble if they show an inclination to serve the freemen, whilst a contrary system may be attended with unpleasant effects ... Much as I may always wish your success, I cannot hold out a hope of it, unless the freemen are previously satisfied that their reasonable expectations will in future be gratified.

He advised Congreve to ‘form some direct understanding with the treasury’ and subsequently reported that his re-election was safe, ‘provided you appear clothed in the manner I have ... taken the liberty to hint at’, observing that ‘politics in this as well as ... most other places are in a very feverish state, for want of knowing what the next Court dress is likely to be composed of’. Congreve’s friends tried unsuccessfully to secure Bellamy’s election as mayor, in the belief that should an opposition arise at the general election ‘it may be of the greatest consequence to have the returning officer staunch’.12 As the prospects of an early election receded, so too did the rumours of a challenge to Congreve, but in the spring of 1826 Birdwood heard that Sir George Cockburn, a lord of the admiralty, was planning to offer in conjunction with Martin.13 Shortly before the dissolution in June there were inaccurate reports that Langmead had been invited to stand, but in fact a number of ‘respectable freemen’ had promised him their support ‘on the next vacancy’. In his address, Congreve explained that ‘severe indisposition has, for some time past, deprived me of the power of paying [adequate] attention to my constituents’, and he hoped to be spared ‘any manifestation of their displeasure’. His wish was granted and there was no opposition to him and Martin. During his canvass, Congreve’s ‘health would not permit him to leave his carriage’, whereas Martin appeared in ‘excellent spirits ... enlivened by the flattering reception he has everywhere received’, which was attributed to his ‘uniform gentlemanly attention’ to the borough’s interests. The day before the election Plymouth ‘became quite in a bustle’ when a bill was circulated promising a third candidate, reputed to be Serjeant Thomas Wilde*, but this was probably ‘a hoax’. Congreve was nominated by Hawker and Captain S. Pym, and Martin was introduced by Eastlake and Lockyer, who praised his efforts to promote local trade by ‘getting removed several restrictions under which it had previously lain’. Congreve and Martin were duly elected and gave the usual dinner to the freemen; ‘nearly 700 persons’ attended a subsequent supper and ball.14

The mayor, Richard Arthur, convened a public meeting by requisition, 5 Mar. 1827, when the Rev. John Hatchard, vicar of St. Andrew’s, and Bellamy were among those advocating a petition against Catholic claims. It was ‘very numerously signed’ and forwarded to Parliament, 12, 16 Mar.; a counter-petition was presented, 13, 23 Mar.15 The Protestant Dissenters sent petitions for repeal of the Test Acts to the Commons, 6 June 1827, and both Houses, 20, 21 Feb. 1828.16 Following the Devon county meeting, 16 Jan. 1829, ‘upwards of 2,300’ inhabitants of Plymouth and Devonport signed an anti-Catholic petition to Parliament, whereas ‘50 only’ signed the counter-petition. The parishes of St. Andrew and St. Charles organized addresses to the king against emancipation, containing 1,993 and 1,045 names respectively, and the Protestant Dissenters forwarded a similar petition to Parliament signed by 2,436 people, 6, 13 Mar. An address to the king in favour of emancipation was agreed at a meeting of the ‘friends of religious liberty’ chaired by the former parliamentary candidate Thomas Bewes of Beaumont House, 28 Feb. 1829, when the speakers included Eastlake, Woollcombe, the merchant John Collier, Dr. Joseph Cookworthy, the attorney John Bayly, the timber merchant Richard Bayly and the chemist John Prideaux.17

In April 1827 Congreve’s reputation was destroyed by the damning verdict of a Commons select committee which had investigated his role in the frauds perpetrated by the Arigna Iron and Coal Mining Company. It was anticipated that he would vacate his seat, and an insight into the organization of the borough is provided by an aspiring successor, William Henry Fremantle*, treasurer of the household, who told George IV’s private secretary that ‘although I am aware of the Plymouth arrangement, I am sure it must have occurred to you that by giving the nomination to the admiralty it deprives the present interest of the recommendation of a seat, which can never be got back’.18 Reports circulated in June that Congreve was about to retire and that Langmead’s friends would bring him forward, but it quickly became clear that Cockburn, the nominee of ‘the old interest’, was the destined successor. At a meeting of the Shoulder of Mutton Club the feeling was ‘unanimous’ in his favour. In fact, Congreve left the country before the ‘negotiation ... for his retirement’ could be completed;19 but when he died in May 1828 Cockburn issued an address stating that he felt ‘encouraged by the assurances of support ... sent to me spontaneously from very many individuals’. He was proposed by Hawker and Lockyer, who maintained that he was ‘held in the highest estimation by the king’ and the duke of Wellington’s government, and that during the canvass ‘they did not find one dissentient voice’. Bellamy, however, expressed concern at Cockburn’s pro-Catholic opinions and warned that he might be forced to oppose him on a future occasion. He also criticized the way the Shoulder of Mutton Club, ‘with a view to gloss over the opprobrium of past times’, had invited Cockburn to stand (which was admitted by Birdwood and Squire), and the attorney William Gregg complained that ‘the Club ought not to have applied to Sir George without first consulting the whole of the resident freemen’, although there would have been unanimous approval of him if it had. After a show of hands Cockburn was declared elected, and in returning thanks he assured his constituents that he had ‘always maintained ... the dignity and honour of the crown and the church’ but thought it was ‘the duty of Parliament to allow the Catholics a trial’. It appears that the Shoulder of Mutton Club, which was divided over a compromise proposal for corporation reform, dissolved itself soon afterwards.20 In February 1829 Cockburn sought re-election after being appointed to the admiralty board. A ‘numerous body of ... freemen’ assembled at the guildhall to ‘show the high esteem they entertained’ for his efficient services to the borough, and he was nominated by Woollcombe and Hawker, with Lockyer adding his approval. Bellamy made a long speech explaining that he could not endorse Cockburn because of his support for Catholic emancipation but that he would withdraw so that ‘the election might be unanimous’, which it was.21 Cockburn duly supported the government’s emancipation bill and Martin, who had previously opposed such a measure, dutifully fell into line.

The merchants and ship owners petitioned the Commons for protection for the shipping interest, 16 Mar. 1827.22 On 15 June a public meeting at Devonport resolved to petition the Commons for the town’s enfranchisement. Thomas Husband, the principal speaker, observed that Penryn was about to be disfranchised and other boroughs were likely to follow, and that Devonport must stake its claim to parliamentary representation; the petition obtained ‘considerably more than 6,000 signatures’ and was presented, 29 June 1827.23 An anti-slavery meeting summoned by Plymouth’s mayor, Richard Pridham, 23 May 1828, was ‘more numerously and respectably attended than any public assembly ... witnessed for a considerable time’, with ‘a number of ladies being present’; the resulting petition was presented to Parliament, 9, 10 June 1828.24 Local businessmen sent petitions against renewal of the East India Company’s charter in 1829 and 1830.25 The inhabitants petitioned for reform of the criminal law, 17, 18 Mar. 1830, and several petitions were forwarded that session against the death penalty for forgery.26 Shortly before the dissolution in July rumours circulated that Pole might offer or that ‘a candidate on the independent interest’ would stand, ‘one of the present Members being unpopular’, but these soon ‘subsided’ and there was no opposition to Martin and Cockburn. Woollcombe and Lockyer nominated Martin, and Lockyer (again) and Hawker sponsored Cockburn. Bellamy offered no opposition but delivered a lengthy address ‘on the general policy of the country, which he considered to be injurious to her interests’, and ‘sat down amidst loud cheering from his friends’. Martin and Cockburn were declared elected and the usual celebrations followed.27

Richard Bayly chaired a numerously attended anti-slavery meeting at which Woollcombe and Prideaux were among the speakers, 22 Oct., and the resulting petition was sent to Parliament, 15 Nov., 2 Dec. 1830, accompanied by several others from Protestant Dissenting groups.28 Following a requisition signed by 55 people, Bewes chaired a meeting to petition for parliamentary reform, 9 Feb. 1831. A 6d. admission fee meant that ‘the attendance was kept select’, and those present consisted of ‘gentlemen living on their fortunes, merchants, bankers, barristers, professional gentlemen and respectable tradesmen’, along with ‘a great many members of the corporation’. The Plymouth Herald declared that the town had ‘not for many years experienced such a meeting, such an union of parties’. Cookworthy, who moved the petition, observed that the list of requisitionists provided reassurance that ‘nothing is intended to create anarchy or confusion’, and he argued that reform was needed to ‘restore the fabric of the constitution, defaced by time and overgrown by the ivy of corruption’. He explained that the question of retrenchment had been omitted as ‘we hope for little in this way until the representation is improved’. He was seconded by Woollcombe and supported by Bird, and the petition was adopted ‘unanimously and by acclamation’. Benjamin Parham, a barrister, accepted the need for reform but hoped that in Plymouth’s case the corporation might put its own house in order by creating new freemen, thus forestalling ‘the interposition of Parliament’. The petition received ‘about 1,000 signatures’ and was presented to both Houses, 28 Feb.29 A requisition for a meeting of the corporation to consider freeman creations was signed by 57 freemen, ‘an unprecedented instance in borough politics’, and encouraged hopes that the interests of the wealthiest and most influential inhabitants might be united with those of the borough as a whole, at a time when it remained unclear whether a reform measure would affect Plymouth. Nicholas Lockyer, the mayor, presided at the guildhall, 26 Feb., when a resolution in favour of creating new freemen was ‘decided by an overwhelming majority’ and others detailing the mode of creation were adopted ‘nearly unanimously’. It was agreed that every freeman should be allowed to nominate two new ones, one of whom might be a father, brother or son, not necessarily resident in the borough, the other or both being inhabitant householders rated at £20. Over 200 freemen were subsequently admitted, mostly ‘professional men, merchants, tradesmen of the town, very few of the lower classes’, according to Woollcombe, but the corporation ‘robbed the concession of its virtue by debarring the new electors from the right to take part in the approaching [general] election’.30 The news that the Grey ministry’s reform bill, which proposed to leave Plymouth’s representation intact while opening the borough by enfranchising £10 householders and also stipulated that Devonport and Stonehouse should be added to it, ‘created very great dissatisfaction’, as Plymouth’s inhabitants feared they would be swamped by their larger neighbour and Devonport wanted its own Members. Bewes organized a meeting at short notice, 14 Mar., when Woollcombe and Eastlake moved a petition expressing support for the bill but requesting that separate representation be granted to Devonport and Stonehouse. The only dissentient was Bellamy who, amidst much hissing, called for a ‘true reform’ that extended political rights without destroying them, and warned that ‘such sweeping measures ... endangered [the] throne’ and ‘set up the sovereignty of the people’. He also stood alone in opposing the formation of a committee, chaired by Bewes, to monitor the bill’s progress and prepare a petition to the Lords if required. The Commons petition was presented by Lord Ebrington, the Whig county Member, 22 Mar. By the time similar meetings were held at Devonport and Stonehouse, 18 Mar. 1831, they were able to welcome the news that ministers, ‘chiefly [through] the efforts of ... Ebrington’, had conceded their case for separate representation.31

Cockburn, who had left office when Wellington’s ministry resigned, opposed the reform bill, but Martin, who had remained in his post, gave reluctant support to the measure. Contrary to rumours of his retirement, Cockburn announced on the dissolution in April 1831 that he would offer again. Martin was interviewed by the first lord of the admiralty, Sir James Graham, to ascertain whether he was willing to coalesce with an unnamed government candidate against Cockburn, but he replied that he would ‘stand alone’ and could not pledge himself to an unqualified support of ministerial measures. It is possible that he might have acquiesced in an alternative arrangement, proposed to Grey by William IV, and retained his office without a seat, but, fearing the government candidate might steal a march on him, he left early for Plymouth to commence canvassing. As he explained to his wife, ‘I must ... persist in the contest ... cost what it may’, for while he had ‘greatly to lament having left London before the receipt of Sir Herbert Taylor’s* [the king’s private secretary] letter ... at the time [it] seemed unavoidable’. Graham expressed the government’s view that since the election was ‘so far advanced’ it would prefer Martin not to withdraw, as this would ensure Cockburn’s success, ‘which we are anxious to prevent’.32 The government candidate proved to be George Elliot†, the secretary to the admiralty. He introduced himself as a ‘steady supporter’ of the reform bill and was endorsed by a meeting of 60 of the new freemen, including John and Richard Bayly and Cookworthy, who resolved to work for him. He denied a report that he had received £1,500 from the government to finance his contest. Cockburn delayed his arrival, but ‘his friends were in the field ... early ... and nothing was lost by his absence’. His prospects rested largely on the fact that ‘many of the electors’ had ‘bound themselves by pledges’ to him ‘several months since, before the question of reform was agitated’. Martin was considered to be safe, owing to his ‘long connection with the borough’ and support for reform, and his canvass indicated that he would head the poll with 95 votes to Cockburn’s 91 and Elliot’s 70. However, he complained to his wife that ‘the tricks that are going on exceed anything you can believe’, and he had heard that ‘the radicals of the town have entered into a subscription avowedly for the purpose of bribing the lower freemen’. He added that ‘in order to disappoint such efforts we have embarked a whole lot of them on board a steam vessel and put them the other side of the breakwater’. His son confirmed that there was ‘much tampering and venality of every kind going on’, and he found it necessary to reassure his father that ‘expense is no consideration’, whatever the consequences for the family. It was said that Plymouth had ‘not for many years been in such a state of excitement’: the walls were ‘placarded with addresses and observations’ and ‘an unusual number of electioneering squibs daily made their appearance’, most of which were directed at Cockburn, who issued an address denying that he was an ‘enemy to every kind of reform’.33 Two days before the poll, Ebrington arrived to bolster support for Elliot. He privately conveyed the government’s wish that Martin should now withdraw in Elliot’s favour, as Cockburn’s return seemed certain and it was ‘essential to the influence of the government in this part of the country’ that Elliot should not fail. Martin was angered to discover that Graham had previously instructed the admiralty agents in Plymouth to find a ‘popular candidate ... to oppose me, either a naval officer or a gentleman in the neighbourhood, mentioning by name Mr. Bewes’. Nevertheless, his response to the government’s request was more uncertain than his subsequent memoir suggested, for he told his wife that ‘I am ... most anxious to get out of the way by any means in my power if I can do so with a fair feeling and dealing towards those who are giving me such strenuous help’. Eventually, he concluded that he could not withdraw without damaging his public character.34

On the morning of the election the inhabitants were ‘seized with a mania’, as it became apparent that the reviled Cockburn would persist, and ‘dense masses in a highly excited state paraded the streets’. Martin later claimed that 15,000 ‘auxiliary radicals’ had been brought in from Stonehouse, Devonport and Cornwall, who were ‘heated with drink, armed with bludgeons and led on by previously selected chiefs, mostly distinguished Dissenters’. Captain Robert Rogers and the attorney Edward Jago nominated Martin, Hawker and Bellamy proposed Cockburn, and Bewes and Sir Michael Seymour, commissioner of the Portsmouth dockyard, sponsored Elliot. Martin, who admitted that he had lost votes because he would not pledge himself to the whole bill, promised to ‘promote reform and vote for it’ but asked to be allowed to consider the details on their merits. Cockburn objected to the bill on the ground that it gave voting rights to ‘one class of persons only’, whereas the existing variety of qualifications ‘admitted all the ... classes’ and was ‘one of the beauties of the constitution’; he also opposed the transfer of seats from England to Ireland. Elliot, who was ‘received ... by the most deafening shouts’, declared his support for the ‘principle of reform’ but maintained that such questions as a £10 or £20 franchise were ‘minor considerations’ to be settled in committee. He hinted that the government might make concessions to protect the rights of freemen’s sons. Eastlake announced that he would reluctantly oppose Cockburn, with whom he agreed on all issues other than reform, but Woollcombe, deputy chairman of the chamber of commerce, said that though a reformer he was one of those who had pledged support to Cockburn, because of his general services to the borough and a personal debt to him for finding a place for a nephew. The mayor declared the show of hands to be equal and polling commenced immediately. At the end of the day Martin led by 94 votes to Cockburn’s 84 and Elliot’s 54. Martin wrote to his wife that ‘the efforts of the admiralty have been unceasing and unsparing as to money in order to carry Elliot’s election’ and that ‘not one man sent by them has been allowed to divide his vote with me’; the few dockyard workers had also ‘gone against’ him. That night ‘bands of music paraded the town’ and ‘uproar and bad feeling were intensified’. Next morning, Elliot was drawn to the guildhall in a ‘handsome chariot’ with banners proclaiming ‘the People’s Champion’, ‘our king and reform’ and ‘England Expects’, but Cockburn and his friends were surrounded by an ‘infuriated multitude’ and pelted with ‘stones, offal and rubbish’. Finding the doors closed, as the mayor had not arrived, the crowd smashed the panes of glass in the east window until they were admitted. Martin arrived ‘unmolested’ and polling resumed, but it was ‘constantly interrupted’ and stones were soon ‘flying in every direction’, demolishing one of the front windows. Elliot joined the mayor in appealing for order and polling continued, but during the afternoon the crowd became increasingly ‘impatient of control’ and at about three o’clock ‘a tremendous rush took place’ and the barrier separating the public area from the table gave way. After ‘considerable delay’ order was restored and several votes were tendered by persons who were not first apprentices; these were rejected despite the legal arguments adduced by Serjeant Lawes, acting for Elliot. This may have been the reason why, about four o’clock, ‘another rush of the crowd took place’, forcing the mayor to read the Riot Act, although this ‘only tended to increase the already dreadful confusion’. The poll was closed ‘amidst a scene which beggars description. The table was crowded with persons standing on it, and nearly all distinction of persons appeared to be lost’. Martin still led by 98 votes to Cockburn’s 89 and Elliot’s 62. It was necessary to summon 120 soldiers to escort Cockburn back to his hotel, but notwithstanding this protection a hostile crowd consisting ‘principally [of] boys and persons of the lowest class’ stoned him and his friends, inflicting several serious injuries. That evening, crowds paraded the streets breaking the windows of Cockburn’s supporters and his effigy was burned on the Hoe. Proceedings the next day were more orderly, ‘a great number of the most respectable tradesmen’ having been sworn in as special constables and Cockburn and Elliot deciding to stay away from the guildhall. The poll was closed at 3.30 and Martin and Cockburn were declared elected. Elliot made a ‘triumphal circuit’ of the town in his chariot before departing, and promised to stand again if invited. Cockburn proclaimed his to be a ‘triumphant majority’, given the ‘influence ... exerted against me’ and ‘the popular excitement of this crisis’, while Martin privately thought the government had ‘had a lesson which they have not had in any other place’. Lord John Russell* lamented that a seat had been lost ‘for want of early government directions’.35

According to a list published in the newspapers, 146 freemen polled, of whom 69 per cent cast a vote for Martin, 62 for Cockburn and 43 for Elliot. Martin got 11 plumpers (11 per cent of his total), Cockburn got 15 (16) and Elliot 11 (17). Martin and Cockburn had 57 split votes (56 and 63 per cent of their respective totals), Martin and Elliot received 33 (33 and 52 per cent) and Cockburn and Elliot had 19 (21 and 30 per cent). Martin’s annotated copy of the poll provides addresses for all but four of the voters: of these 102 (72 per cent) were residents, including 14 from Stonehouse, Devonport and the surrounding parish. The 40 identifiable non-residents gave 25 votes (63 per cent) to Cockburn, including nine plumpers, and 17 each to Martin and Elliot (43). Martin was convinced that he owed his survival to the ‘cordial and determined support ... from the inhabitant voters’ and added that ‘the naval officers here ... behaved beautifully to Cockburn and myself’.36

On 22 Sept. 1831 a meeting organized by the ‘reform committee’ appointed in March agreed to petition the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill. Bewes, who presided, argued that a demonstration of support for reform was needed in order to counter the ‘wilful misconstruction of their silence’ that public opinion had changed. Cookworthy moved the main resolution, which was seconded by the Rev. John Macaulay, who warned the peers of the danger of resistance by pointing to the fate of the French aristocracy, but remained confident that ‘the issue of the conflict ... will be a bloodless one’. The petition received ‘upwards of 6,000 signatures ... one-third more than the last petition to the ... Commons’, and was presented, 30 Sept.37 When news of the bill’s rejection reached Plymouth, ‘all the shop windows’ and those of many private houses were ‘partially closed’, the church bells tolled and ‘colours were hoisted at half-mast from all the shipping in the port’. The reform committee summoned a public meeting, 13 Oct., which was held outside the Royal Hotel and attended by ‘between 5 and 6,000 persons’. Bewes, the chairman, advised the crowd not to despair and to do nothing to discredit the proceedings. Cookworthy moved an address to the king expressing confidence in ministers and calling for the use of ‘all constitutional means’ to secure the bill’s passage; it was seconded by Collier and ‘carried by acclamation’. The address, with 6,138 names attached to it, was forwarded to the home secretary Lord Melbourne for presentation, and a similar one from Devonport had ‘nearly 7,000 signatures’.38 Early in November the Tory bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, reported to Wellington that ‘the spirit is tremendously bad’ at Plymouth, where ‘the shopkeepers are almost all Dissenters’, and that he had been asked not to go there, ‘such is the rage of ... reform’. However, there were no serious disturbances. A political union was formed at Devonport and attracted over 150 members, but it was disbanded in December 1831 after the royal proclamation against these organizations.39 In an unprecedented display of political unity by the towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse, ‘upwards of 30,000’ people gathered on the Hoe, 16 May 1832, to attend a meeting organized by the reform committee. Hundreds of flags and banners were observed, including ‘three tricolours’. Collier presided in Bewes’s absence, and Cookworthy moved to petition the Commons to withhold supplies until the revised reform bill was carried, which was seconded by Thomas Woollcombe, chairman of the Devonport reform committee, and ‘carried unanimously’; it was presented by Ebrington, 23 May.40 On 28 June 1832 the bill’s passage was celebrated with a splendid ‘display of pageantry’ costing £5,000. A united procession of the trades of the ‘three towns’, one-and-a-half miles long, passed through streets with ‘triumphal arches’ erected across them, dinners were provided at ‘most of the inns’ and in the evening there was a ‘general and brilliant illumination, with grand displays of fireworks’.41

The boundary commissioners recommended that Plymouth’s boundaries should remain unchanged except for a small adjustment on the eastern side to incorporate some reclaimed land on which houses had been built. In 1832 there were 1,415 registered electors, of whom 115 were freemen (those created in 1831 had no voting rights to be preserved).42 At the general election that year Martin, who had opposed the reform bill after being dismissed from office, retired with Cockburn, and Bewes and Collier were returned unopposed as Liberals.43 They defeated Cockburn in 1835 and 1837 and held their seats until they retired in 1841. Plymouth usually returned two Liberals until the 1870s but this reflected the fact that, like Devonport, it was subject to considerable government influence.44

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 565.
  • 2. Ibid. (1831), xvi. 249; (1831-2), xxxviii. 128; figures for the borough only.
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 228-30; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 632-63, 689-91, 696-703; PP (1835), xxiii. 595-6; W. Hoskins, Devon, 208-10, 213-14, 453-60; C. Gill, Plymouth, 77-171.
  • 4. PP (1835), xxiii. 577-96; R. Worth, Hist. Plymouth, 160; H. Whitfeld, Plymouth and Devonport, 389-94, 443; G. Welch, ‘Municipal Reform in Plymouth’, Trans. Devon Assoc. xcvi. (1964), 318-38.
  • 5. Welch, 321-2; White, 651, 657-8; Gill, 163; Staffs. RO, Congreve mss D1057/M/O/2/1, 2, 7, 8; Western Times, 6, 13 Nov. 1830.
  • 6. Flindell’s Western Luminary, 8 Feb.; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 4, 11 Mar.; Alfred, 21 Mar. 1820. No Plymouth newspapers for 1820 have been located.
  • 7. Alfred, 5, 19 Sept. 1820; CJ, lxxv. 482.
  • 8. Alfred, 21 Nov., 19 Dec. 1820, 2, 30 Jan. 1821.
  • 9. CJ, lxxviii. 146; LJ, lv. 574.
  • 10. CJ, lxxix. 14, 161.
  • 11. Ibid. lxxviii. 278; lxxix. 155, 446; lxxxi. 129; LJ, lv. 665; lvi. 124; lviii. 80.
  • 12. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3 Sept. 1825; Congreve mss D1057/M/O/2/2, 3, 5, 7.
  • 13. Congreve mss D1057/M/O/2/8.
  • 14. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 13 May-17 June; Plymouth Herald, 20 May-24 June; Alfred, 6, 13 June 1826.
  • 15. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 10 Mar,; Plymouth Herald, 10, 17 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 326, 350; LJ, lix. 153, 158.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxii. 520; lxxxiii. 87, 90; LJ, lx. 54, 55, 57.
  • 17. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 31 Jan.; R. Devonport Telegraph, 28 Feb., 7 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 132; LJ, lxi. 136.
  • 18. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/51/11/6.
  • 19. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 16 June; Plymouth Herald, 16, 23 June; R. Devonport Telegraph, 16, 30 June 1827.
  • 20. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 31 May; Plymouth Herald, 31 May; R. Devonport Telegraph, 14 June 1828; Welch, 335.
  • 21. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 14 Feb.; R. Devonport Telegraph, 14 Feb. 1829.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxii. 327.
  • 23. R. Devonport Telegraph, 16, 23 June 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 605.
  • 24. Plymouth Herald, 24 May 1828; CJ, lxxxiii. 412; LJ, lx. 528.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxiv. 243; lxxxv. 30; LJ, lxi. 441; lxii. 61.
  • 26. CJ, lxxxv. 188, 330, 463; LJ, lxii. 130, 722, 726.
  • 27. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3, 10, 31 July; R. Devonport Telegraph, 24, 31 July 1830.
  • 28. Western Times, 30 Oct. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 38, 48, 56, 74, 106, 169; LJ, lxiii. 34, 38, 70, 136, 146.
  • 29. Plymouth Herald, 5, 12 Feb., 5 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 324; LJ, lxiii. 266.
  • 30. Plymouth Herald, 19, 26 Feb., 5 Mar. 1831; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 564-7; Devon RO, Acland mss 1148M/19/5, Woollcombe to Acland, 13 Mar. 1831; Whitfeld, 449.
  • 31. Plymouth Herald, 12, 19 Mar.; R. Devonport Telegraph, 12, 19 Mar.; Plymouth Jnl. 17 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 419.
  • 32. Plymouth Jnl. 7, 28 Apr. 1831; Martin Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. xix), 239-53; Add. 41368, f. 40.
  • 33. Plymouth Jnl. 28 Apr.; Plymouth Herald, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831; Add. 41368, ff. 40, 45, 56, 58.
  • 34. Martin Letters, 249-55, 260-62; Add. 41368, ff. 49, 54, 56, 64-66.
  • 35. Plymouth Jnl. 5 May; Plymouth Herald, 7 May; R. Devonport Telegraph, 7 May; Whitfeld, 449-51; Add. 41368, ff. 64-67, 71-72; 51680, Russell to Lady Holland [May 1831].
  • 36. Plymouth Herald, 7 May; Plymouth Jnl. 12 May 1831; Add. 41368, ff. 71-72, 85, 97-107.
  • 37. Plymouth Herald, 24 Sept.; Plymouth Jnl. 29 Sept. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1024.
  • 38. Plymouth Herald, 15 Oct.; R. Devonport Telegraph, 15 Oct.; Plymouth Jnl. 20 Oct. 1831.
  • 39. Wellington mss WP1/1201/13; R. Devonport Telegraph, 19 Nov., 10 Dec. 1831.
  • 40. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 19 May; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 24 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 332.
  • 41. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 June 1832; Whitfeld, 466-7.
  • 42. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 127-8; (1835), xxiii. 595.
  • 43. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 Dec. 1832.
  • 44. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 333-9, 446-9.