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 householders paying scot and lot

Estimated number qualified to vote:

322, rising to about 4701


3,574 (1821); 3,537 (1831)



Main Article

Tamworth, which lay partly in Staffordshire and partly in Warwickshire, had ‘extensive wharfs and warehouses on the canal’, two large wool stapling establishments and numerous corn and cotton mills, including that of the Peel family on the River Tame.2 The self-elected corporation of two bailiffs (one for each county) and 24 capital burgesses, including the high steward, received praise from the municipal corporations commissioners, who concluded that ‘the objects of municipal government have been satisfactorily attained in this borough; that the governing body have been judiciously selected; justice well administered and the revenues carefully applied to public purposes’. Nor did it appear that as regards the ‘exercise of the elective franchise’ they had ‘been subject to the operation of any undue local influence’, or that ‘the power thus vested in the body had been in any respect abused’.3 For many years the representation had been shared amicably between the manor interest of Drayton Basset, acquired in the 1790s by the ‘cotton king’ Sir Robert Peel, Member since 1790, and the Tamworth Castle interest of the 1st Marquess Townshend, whose family had returned one Member since 1765. At the 1818 general election, however, following the death of the 2nd marquess in 1811 and the enforced sale of all his Castle estates, Peel contested and narrowly secured the second seat for his younger son William Yates Peel of Bonehill Cottage, Tamworth, in the face of fierce opposition from the 2nd marquess’s younger son, Lord Charles Townshend of Rainham Hall, Norfolk, Member since 1812, whose supporters accused Sir Robert of committing ‘as cruel and unworthy an act of political profanity as ever disgraced the annals of electioneering’.4 Bitter recriminations followed, but Townshend’s petition against the return was unsuccessful.

At the 1820 general election Townshend offered again in opposition to Sir Robert and William Peel, who had just served a one-month prison sentence for threatening to horsewhip the author of libellous attacks on his father circulated during the last contest.5 Anticipating yet another bitter struggle, Sir Robert, who was ‘disposed to be faint hearted’, summoned his eldest son Robert, the rising ministerial star, to ‘leave town without delay to assist ... in canvassing’; but despite being encouraged ‘to the combat’ he decided to retire. William Peel and Townshend were returned unopposed.6 In the House the Liverpool ministry was generally supported by Peel and opposed by Townshend, but the latter joined the Peels in opposing Catholic relief, against which petitions reached the Commons, 18 Apr. 1825, and the Lords, 21 June 1822, 9 May 1825.7 Peel presented petitions complaining of agricultural distress, 20 Feb. 1821, and the duties on publicans’ licenses, 5 Mar. 1824, and for repeal of the corn laws, 26 Apr. 1825. Petitions for the abolition of slavery reached the Commons, 1 Mar., and the Lords, 24 Feb. 1826.8 A bill for repairing the road between Tamworth and Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire received royal assent, 27 June 1823.9 In August 1823 William Peel considered running for the recordership of the borough, but his father threw ‘cold water’ on the notion, preferring to ‘let the corporation select their own man’.10 False rumours of an impending dissolution during the late summer of 1825 prompted him to try to gain another potential electoral advantage by employing ‘some person on the spot’ to secure and issue the writ.11

At the 1826 general election Peel and Townshend were again returned unopposed, Lord John Townshend, nominal head of the family and Lord Charles’s uncle, having assured Robert Peel, home secretary since 1822, of his ‘readiness to give your family any little support I may be able to offer in case there should be a contest’, to which Peel had replied that his father had ‘no thoughts of proposing at the ensuing election more than one of his sons’, trusting that ‘the success of one without any exertion on our part’ would be ‘unquestionable’.12 A petition against alteration of the corn laws reached the Lords, 4 May, and the local Dissenters petitioned the Commons against the Test Acts, 8 June 1827, the repeal of which was opposed by Peel and supported by Townshend.13 Peel, who was a commissioner of the board of control, 1826-7 and under-secretary at the home office, 1828-30, followed his elder brother’s political line by reversing his opposition to Catholic emancipation, on which Townshend abstained. A petition against the measure was presented by Peel, 2 Mar. 1829, and another reached the Lords the following day.14

At the 1830 general election William Peel prepared to vacate, having the previous year promised Robert, whose role in Catholic emancipation had cost him his Oxford University seat and seen him take a berth at Westbury, that ‘my seat is always at your command’.15 His ‘friends’, however, ‘formed themselves into a committee and declared their intention of nominating him’, and on 15 July issued a handbill asking the electors ‘to withhold the promise of their votes’, which threw the borough into ‘a state of great excitement’ and prompted preparations for another ‘strenuous contest’ in ‘opposition to the Peel interest’. A flag was hoisted over Tamworth Castle bearing the pink and blue colours of Townshend, who hoped that the freemen ‘would never suffer the borough to be closed by any family compact’. On hearing of these proceedings Robert, who had recently succeeded to the baronetcy, informed his agent, 20 July, that ‘rather than relive those feelings which former election contests excited’, he would ‘a thousand times forego forever the representation of Tamworth for myself and every member of my family’ and ‘would at once retire’. Two days later William Peel publicly ‘requested that his friends would abandon their present determination to put him in for nomination’, to which he ‘could not consent’, citing the ‘acrimonious feelings’ that had accompanied ‘former election contests’. ‘Some rumours about intended opposition’ continued, but ‘little weight’ was now attached to them. Defending his support for Catholic emancipation at the declaration, Robert Peel explained that the concession had been made ‘with a view to public good, though he had not done it without the loss of many of his nearest and dearest friends’. He and Townshend, who urged the necessity of reduced public expenditure, were returned unopposed.16

Petitions against slavery reached the Commons, 15 Nov. 1830, 29 Mar. 1831, and the Lords, 15 Apr. 1831.17 Robert Peel was appointed the town’s last high steward in December 1830.18 He nominally led the Tory opposition to the Grey ministry’s reform proposals, which Townshend supported. A petition in favour of the reform bill, by which Tamworth was scheduled to lose one seat, was presented to the Commons, 22 Mar. 1831.19 Three days later Peel, in an attack on the inconsistency of the returns used to compile the disfranchisement schedules, compared Tamworth, with a population of 3,500 in the borough but 7,500 in the whole parish, with the Whig minister Lord Lansdowne’s borough of Calne, ‘where the parish population of 5,600 had been used’, and concluded that ‘there is no just principle upon which Calne should be protected and Tamworth disfranchised’. On 18 Apr. 1831 Lord John Russell conceded that the parish ‘was very extensive, consisting of towns and hamlets distinct from each other’ but ‘all united in the assessment of church-rates’, and announced that the borough would retain both Members.

At the 1831 general election there was speculation that Peel would retire and ‘try for Dover, supported by the influence of the duke of Wellington’, warden of the Cinque Ports, but he and Townshend offered again. Reports that Thomas Attwood† of Birmingham, founder of its political union, would declare, but would ‘only be nominated in order to give him a right to speak, should Sir Robert Peel in his address go into the question of reform’, circulated until the day of election, when rumours that he was about to arrive ‘with 10,000 of the political union members’ created ‘a scene of unusual animation’, before being ‘discountenanced’ by John Bramwell, their local spokesman. Townshend, who stood as a ‘steady friend of reform’, and Peel, who protested that it was particularly ‘unjust that of 500 or 600 burgesses who had enjoyed their right of voting from the time of Elizabeth to the present day, 400 should be deprived of that vote forever and their rights transferred to the inhabitants of other places in the neighbourhood’, were again returned unopposed.20

Russell, in a veiled reference to Peel’s objections to making representation dependent on population, 24 June 1831, pointed out that if ministers had based the schedules on tax returns alone, which were ‘well known to vary according to the caprice of the tax-collectors’, they would have ‘disfranchised Tamworth, a town having six or seven thousand inhabitants’, and preserved the Whig duke of Bedford’s borough of Tavistock, which had no more than 2,692. By the Boundary Act the borough was duly enlarged from 0.3 to 17.9 square miles to include the whole ecclesiastical parish, containing ‘some 7,118 inhabitants’, which gave the new constituency 528 houses worth £10 or above and a registered electorate of 586.21 Both Members were returned unopposed at the 1832 general election, Peel having declared to Littleton, the Whig county Member, that ‘he should never attempt the second seat’ as he ‘valued peace, and the good will of his neighbours more than power in the borough’.22 At the dissolution of 1834, when Peel as the new premier issued his celebrated Tamworth manifesto, Townshend retired, having recently reacquired Tamworth Castle for his family, and was replaced by William Peel, who sat until 1837. Townshend’s cousin and heir Captain John Townshend was returned as a Liberal, 1847-53. Peel sat until his death in 1850, and members of his family represented the borough for much of the nineteenth century.

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xl. 15; D.G. Stuart, ‘Castle and Manor’, Trans. Lichfield and S. Staffs. Arch. Soc. (1967-8), ix. 59.
  • 2. PP (1831-2), xl. 13; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1828-9), 736; Staffs. Dir. (1834), 381; (1851), 616.
  • 3. PP (1835), xxv. 634.
  • 4. Staffs. RO, Dyott mss D661/19/1/38.
  • 5. N. Gash, Secretary Peel, 296.
  • 6. NLI, Vesey Fitzgerald mss 7858, pp. 169-71, Peel to Fitzgerald, 6 Feb., Grant to same, 9 Feb.; Hatherton diary, 21 Mar.; Staffs. Advertiser, 4 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. CJ, lxxx. 314; LJ, lv. 258; lvii. 168.
  • 8. CJ, lxxvi. 91; lxxix. 125; lxxxi. 114; LJ, lviii. 56.
  • 9. LJ, lv. 821.
  • 10. Add. 40605, f. 246.
  • 11. Add. 40381, f. 445.
  • 12. Add. 40385, ff. 319-21; Staffs. Advertiser, 10 June 1826.
  • 13. LJ, lix. 273; CJ, lxxxii. 534.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxiv. 94; LJ, lxi. 108.
  • 15. Add. 40398, f. 138.
  • 16. Worcs. RO, Lechmere mss, Dowager Lady Gresley to Sir A. Lechmere, 11 July; H. Brougham, Result of General Election (1830), 17; Add. 40401, f. 70; Lichfield Mercury, 16, 23, 30 July, 6, 13 Aug.; Staffs. Advertiser, 24, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830; H. Wood, Borough by Prescription, 64, 65.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxvi. 74, 454; LJ, lxiii. 438.
  • 18. Wood, 67.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 415.
  • 20. Lichfield Mercury, 29 Apr., 6 May; Staffs. Advertiser, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 21. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 432; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 326; xl. 13.
  • 22. Hatherton diary, 14 Dec. 1831.