St. Germans


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:

see text

Estimated number qualified to vote:

23 in 18311


651 (1821); 672 (1831)2


12 Feb. 1823ARBUTHNOT re-elected after appointment to office
7 June 1827JAMES LOCH vice Arbuthnot, vacated his seat
31 July 1830CHARLES ROSS
17 Dec. 1830WINTHROP MACKWORTH PRAED vice Hardinge, vacated his seat
30 Apr. 1831CHARLES ROSS

Main Article

St. Germans, an ‘inconsiderable town’ with ‘no claims to notice but its antiquity’, was situated on the side of a valley next to a creek, on the south-eastern coast of the county. Most of the inhabitants were fishermen, the houses were said in 1824 to be ‘continually decreasing’ in number and the weekly market was merely ‘nominal’.3 The borough comprised ‘the greater part but not the whole’ of the town, and it covered only 40 of the 9,000 acres of the parish of St. Germans, the largest in Cornwall. It was not incorporated, and local power was exercised by the portreeve, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, who was appointed annually at the court leet of the lord of the manor, John Eliot†, 1st earl of St. Germans of Port Eliot, whose family had controlled the borough since the sixteenth century. There was a tradition that the franchise was vested in all householders resident for a year, but no contested election had taken place since 1640 and the true position in the early nineteenth century is difficult to establish. Oldfield claimed in 1816 that the franchise had been restricted by ‘setting up an artificial freedom’ and that there were just seven voters, whereas other sources stated that the franchise had been limited to ‘what are termed the proprietors of burgage tenements’, of whom in 1830 there were ‘not ... more than 12 non-resident and 14 resident’. In 1831 the portreeve reported that the electorate consisted of ‘persons occupying certain lands in freehold within the borough and paying a fixed annual sum to the lord’, who were called ‘free tenants’, and of ‘certain inhabitants ... who owe suit and service to the court leet [and are] sworn as jurymen’, who were known as ‘censors’. He estimated the number of electors at 31, but later revised this figure to 23.4 Lord St. Germans, a Tory, maintained firm political control over the borough and nominated both Members. In 1820 he returned Charles Arbuthnot, an official in Lord Liverpool’s ministry, and Seymour Bathurst, a Guards officer and son of a cabinet minister. His son William, who succeeded to the earldom in 1824, returned Arbuthnot again in 1826 with Charles Ross, a distant relative.5 When Arbuthnot vacated in 1827, St. Germans nominated the Whig barrister James Loch, who shared his pro-Catholic sympathies and supported Canning’s coalition ministry. In January 1829 the prime minister, the duke of Wellington, was informed that St. Germans agreed with him ‘on every point [except] Catholic emancipation’, but, as he believed ‘a crisis is approaching which can be averted only by a measure originating with government’, he felt ‘compelled to withdraw his support’ from the duke unless an announcement of immediate action was made.6 Loch naturally supported the subsequent emancipation bill while Ross, an anti-Catholic, diplomatically absented himself from the House. In 1830 Ross, who had recently been appointed to office, was returned with another minister, Sir Henry Hardinge. Hardinge vacated later that year and the liberal Tory barrister and poet, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, reputedly ‘bought the seat for £1,000 for two years’.7

Anti-slavery petitions were sent to Parliament by the Wesleyan Methodists, 18 Mar., 13 Apr. 1831.8 The Grey ministry’s first reform bill proposed to allow St. Germans to retain one seat, as the population of the parish exceeded 2,000. Ross and Mackworth Praed opposed the measure and were returned at the 1831 general election. On reintroducing the bill, 24 June, Lord John Russell announced that ministers had decided in the case of St. Germans to depart from their rule of classing together a borough within a parish of the same name, and that it would therefore be disfranchised completely. He explained that it was ‘merely a straggling village’ and that the number of £10 houses was ‘so extremely small’ that political control would be placed in ‘the nomination of a few individuals’. Ross protested against this decision, 26 July, maintaining that the borough was ‘not declining’ and that there were sufficient £10 houses in the parish, ‘one of the richest ... in Cornwall’, to complete the constituency. However, Russell remained adamant that the borough, which contained only 15 £10 houses, was ‘too small and insignificant to bear a part in the representation’, and he observed that it would be impossible to make a constituency ‘without going a distance of seven or eight miles’. Smith Stanley, the Irish secretary, made it clear that ministers regarded St. Germans as a ‘nomination borough’ and expressed their unwillingness to ‘swamp the voters of the town’ by introducing ‘a large rural population’. Mackworth Praed concluded that the government no longer considered it ‘necessary to conciliate the landed interest’. Peel, Croker and other Tory spokesmen accused ministers of being arbitrary and inconsistent, and the division to confirm the borough’s place in schedule A was only carried by 260-212.9 The new criteria adopted in the revised bill of December 1831 confirmed St. Germans’s fate, as it contained 124 houses and paid £63 in assessed taxes (these were in fact the figures for the town), placing it 12th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. It was duly disfranchised in 1832 and absorbed into the Eastern division of Cornwall. In 1868 the town was reported to have ‘considerably improved ... its appearance’ since the 1832 Reform Act, owing to its railway connection and the construction of ‘some handsome villas’.10

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 582.
  • 2. Ibid. (1831), xvi. 263; (1831-2), xxxvi. 38. Figures for the town, not the borough. The borough population was said to be 535 in 1831 (ibid. (1831), xvi. 86-87).
  • 3. S. Drew, Hist. Cornw. (1824), i. 651-2; ii. 278-84; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 163; Parochial Hist. Cornw. ii. 43-44, 58.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 98; (1831-2), xxxvi. 38-39, 582; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 245-7; Drew, i. 651-2; Pigot, 163.
  • 5. Add. 38458, f. 312; 76134, Ross to Spencer, 19 Oct. 1825.
  • 6. Wellington mss WP1/988/14.
  • 7. W.T. Lawrance, Parl. Rep. Cornw. 279.
  • 8. CJ, lxxxvi. 405; LJ, lxiii. 413.
  • 9. M. Brock, Great Reform Act, 215-16.
  • 10. Parochial Hist. Cornw. ii. 58.