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:



2,922 (1821); 3,462 (1831)



Main Article

Costly litigation after the general election of 1790 had ensured that the representation of the Norfolk assize town of Thetford, straddling the Suffolk border, was controlled by the two largest local landowners, the 4th duke of Grafton, who was also the recorder, and the Catholic 11th Baron Petre. By arrangement with the mayor, ten aldermen and 20 common councilmen of the corporation, dominated by the Best, Bidwell, Burrell and Faux families prominent in the town’s brewing, coal, iron, paper and wool trades, they nominated a Member each. Freeman admissions were deliberately confined to the corporation and Members; the chartered provision for the annual election of the mayor (the returning officer) by a show of hands of all adult males was overlooked; and appointments were settled by the aldermen and patrons among themselves.1

Since 1818 the borough had been represented by two Whigs, Grafton’s second son, Lord Charles Fitzroy, a soldier obliged to spend much time abroad on account of gambling debts, and Nicholas Ridley Colborne of nearby West Hargham. Both were re-elected at the general election of 1820. No adjustment was made after Petre sold out to the financier Alexander Baring* in 1822, but at the general election of 1826 Baring’s heir William Bingham Baring, then of nearby Buckenham House, replaced Ridley Colborne. He, however, continued to represent Thetford interests following his return for Horsham.2 No opposition was raised in 1830, when both Members were replaced by younger brothers.3

Thetford politics were dominated in this period by the campaign to prevent the transfer of its Lent assizes and attendant business to Norwich, which the corporation, patrons and Members argued was a matter for the judges, not Parliament, to decide. Annual petitions and memorials for change from Norwich and the county magistrates were all countered, and Commons motions for inquiry withdrawn, 14 June 1824, and defeated by 72-21, 24 Feb. 1825.4 By December 1829, anticipating the appointment of additional judges under the 1830 Administration of Justice Act, the duke of Wellington’s ministry was ready to grant a commission, but the matter remained in abeyance until the Huskissonite Member for Norwich Robert Grant agreed to press for the change on his re-election after appointment as judge advocate in Lord Grey’s ministry, 30 Nov. 1830.5 Attempts to kill the resulting bill failed by 44-13 in the Commons, 23 May, and by 32-21 in the Lords, 14 June 1832; and notwithstanding the objections raised by the patrons and Lord Tenterden, chief justice of king’s bench, it received royal assent on 23 June, with effect from January 1833.6 A king’s bench ruling on 17 June 1832 restored the borough’s court of record, which had last sat in 1780.7

The state of the corporation-controlled Little Ouse navigation linking the town to Wisbech and King’s Lynn this was another locally important issue. The corporation and merchants joined the Bedford Level commissioners in petitioning successfully against the 1825 Eau Brink bill promoted by King’s Lynn, and in 1827 spent £4,200 on its own improvements. Like King’s Lynn, they petitioned and employed counsel against the Eau Brink commissioners’ 1831 bill, which became a casualty of the dissolution, and a compromise bill received royal assent, 6 Sept. 1831.8 Petitioning proceeded against slavery in 1823, 1824 and 1831, and the indictment in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 28 May, 1 June 1824.9 The maltsters, among them Leonard Shalford Bidwell, mayor in 1821, 1826, 1829 and 1832, organized petitioning against the 1827 Malt Act, 29 Feb. 1828, and the sale of beer bill, 4 May, 5 July 1830.10

The annual wool fair dinners in July, chaired by the Norfolk Member Coke, provided an occasional platform for merchants excluded from the corporation, like the radical founder of the fertilizer firm, James Fison, a Wesleyan Methodist whose principal trade was now in coal, corn, malt and wool.11 A reform meeting on 10 Jan. 1831, at which Fison was the main speaker, sensationally petitioned both Houses in protest at the franchise, claiming that the charter had been breached by the inclusion of five non-resident aldermen and three non-resident common councillors, and that a further six were non-ratepayers ‘in parental care’. They called for ‘such reforms as shall secure to the various classes of society in this ancient borough and in the kingdom at large their due share of influence in the choice of Members’.12 Fison’s separate complaint at the sale of the borough and the exclusion of Ridley Colborne was also taken up by the reformers of Bury St. Edmunds, where Grafton controlled one seat.13 The inhabitants petitioned, 25 Mar. 1831, and the Members voted for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, by which Thetford was scheduled to lose a Member.14

The decision of Alexander Baring, who as Member for Callington had opposed the bill, to unseat his pro-reform sons and come in for Thetford at the general election in May 1831 created a furore. After Baring and Fitzroy were nominated, Fison, backed by a crowd of 2,000, tried to exercise his right as a scot and lot payer by proposing in absentia the reformer George Keppel, Coke’s brother-in-law and son of the 4th earl of Albemarle. Ignoring the borough’s likely loss of a Member, he criticized Baring for removing Ridley Colborne, failing to support reform and more especially for tolerating slavery. Henry Bailey seconded, three votes were tendered and, in accordance with the Commons ruling of 1685, the mayor disallowed Keppel’s candidature and entered it in the assembly book as a minute before declaring Fitzroy and Baring elected.15

Thetford’s loss of a Member under the reintroduced bill was confirmed without a division, 30 July, and the inhabitants petitioned the Lords in its favour, 4 Oct. 1831. The patrons, however, lobbied successfully for its removal from schedule B, and it was excluded in the revised bill despite its low population (under 3,500) and assessed taxes (£886 17s. in 1830).16 The boundaries were unchanged and 146 electors (124 £10 householders and 22 corporators) were registered before the general election of 1832, when Lord James Fitzroy and Francis Baring were returned unopposed and with Fison’s backing.17 Excluding the return on petition of an outsider, Sir James Flower of Woodford, Essex, in May 1842, representation remained exclusive to the Fitroys and Barings until 1863. Thetford was disfranchised in 1868.18

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxix. 153; (1835), xxvi. 469-73; Norf. RO NRS ms 121 [W.G. Clarke, ‘Thetford’].
  • 2. Bury and Norwich Post, 15 Mar. 1820, 14 June 1826; Lansdowne mss, Baring to Lansdowne, 26 Aug. 1822.
  • 3. Bury and Norwich Post, 28 July, 4 Aug. 1830.
  • 4. The Times, 6 July 1820, 26 Feb., 11, 12, 16 June 1824, 25 Feb. 1825; Norf. Chron. 17 Jan. 1824, 19 June 1824; CJ, lxxv. 402; lxxvii. 276; lxxix. 473, 475, 491; lxxx. 123-4; LJ, lxiii. 105; Add. 40365, f. 273; 40366, ff. 33-35; 40384, f. 255.
  • 5. Wellington mss WP1/1065/60; Norwich Mercury, 27 Nov., 4 Dec. 1830; Brougham mss, Grant to Brougham, 26 Feb. 1831.
  • 6. CJ, lxxxvii. 261, 334, 337, 339, 343, 361, 373, 430; Bury and Suff. Herald, 23 Feb.; Brougham mss, J. Wodehouse to Brougham, 22 Nov. 1831; The Times, 4 Apr., 24 May, 15 June 1832; PP (1831-2), ii. 587.
  • 7. The Times, 18 June 1832.
  • 8. H. Hillen, Hist. King’s Lynn, 780-2; PP (1835), xxvi. 467; A. Crosby, Hist. Thetford, 81-82; CJ, lxxxvi. 410, 496, 685, 734, 826.
  • 9. CJ, lxxviii. 312; lxxix. 161, 430, 446; lxxxvi. 417, 455; LJ, lv. 707; lxiii. 105.
  • 10. Crosby, 76-77; CJ, lxxxiii. 117; lxxxv. 365; LJ, lxii. 807.
  • 11. The Times, 28 June 1820, 26 June 1827, 21 June 1828, 26 July 1831, 23 July 1832; Bury and Norwich Post, 16 July 1823, 22 July 1829; Norwich Mercury, 24 July 1830.
  • 12. Bury and Norwich Post, 12 Jan.; E. Anglian, 18 Jan. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 230; LJ, lxiii. 208.
  • 13. Bury and Norwich Post, 23 Feb. 1831.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxvi. 435.
  • 15. Bury and Norwich Post, 4 May; Norwich Mercury, 7 May 1831.
  • 16. LJ, lxiii. 1053; PP (1831-2), xxxi. 153; xxxvi. 592.
  • 17. Bury and Norwich Post, 19 June, 1 Aug.; The Times, 30 Aug.; Norf. Chron. 15 Dec. 1832; PP (1833), xxvii. 226.
  • 18. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 67, 217-18, 439; The Times, 7 Aug. 1834, 8 July 1837, 1 July 1841, 3, 5 May 1842; CJ, xcvii. 255.