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:

94 in 18311

Number of voters:

78 in 1831


3,015 (1821); 3,308 (1831)2


 HENRY VANE, Visct. Barnard37
 Charles Barry Baldwin21
9 June 1828COURTENAY re-elected after appointment to office 
 Henry Vane, earl of Darlington28
 Henry Vane, earl of Darlington39

Main Article

Totnes, a market town situated on the western bank of the navigable River Dart, midway between Plymouth and Exeter, lay at the heart of a ‘rich agricultural district’ known as the South Hams. It consisted principally of ‘one good street nearly three-quarters of a mile in length’, which led to the river where a bridge, rebuilt in 1828, connected the town to the ‘handsome eastern suburb’ of Bridgetown, in the neighbouring parish of Berry Pomeroy. Some of the inhabitants were employed in agriculture and fishing, but with the virtual disappearance of woollen cloth manufacturing the town’s prosperity depended on its role as a trading centre for the surrounding area, importing coal, culm and timber, and exporting corn, cider and other agricultural produce. The monthly cattle market was ‘one of the finest ... in the West of England’. Its favourable location made Totnes ‘one of the most eligible places for business and residence in the kingdom’ and there was a substantial ‘genteel ... population’.3

The borough comprised the town and the ‘most populous portion’ of the parish of Totnes. Local power was exercised by the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, 13 other aldermen and an indefinite number of freemen, from whom the aldermen were elected by the aldermen and resident freemen; all held their offices for life. The franchise was vested in the freemen, who were created by the aldermen ‘from such persons as they think proper’ and a majority of whom were non-resident. Control of the corporation was exploited to ‘forward the interests’ of the Adams family of Bowden House who, with their relatives the Bentalls and Marshalls, supplied six of the aldermen in 1825. It was reported in 1834 that 24 freemen were connected ‘by blood or marriage’ with the Adams’ and another 12 were similarly related amongst themselves or with the aldermen. This dominant family network was able to return one Member throughout this period. A radical newspaper declared in 1830 that Totnes was ‘as corrupt a borough as the villainy of the borough system presents’ and alleged that the corporators and their relatives were being ‘provided for at the public expense’. William Dacres Adams, for instance, was a commissioner of woods and forests, while the physician Richard Marshall was barrack master at Chatham and his son a clerk in the treasury. Thomas Peregrine Courtenay, Adams’s brother-in-law, who was returned for the borough from 1811, used his long tenure as secretary to the India board to obtain employment with the East India Company for the sons of his supporters. After the death of the duchess of Bolton in 1809, control of the rival Powlett family interest, which had operated throughout the eighteenth century, was left in a confused state. The duchess’s property passed to her maternal grandson William Frederick Vane, second son of William Henry Vane, 3rd earl of Darlington, the Whig boroughmonger and former Member for Totnes. Vane assumed the surname Powlett on coming of age in 1813, but he was returned for County Durham in 1815 on his father’s interest. For reasons that are unclear, the management of the Powlett interest was left in the hands of the steward, the attorney George Farwell, who seems to have followed his own political line. Farwell had an independent power base, as he was the town clerk and an alderman, his uncle and brother became aldermen, he was connected by marriage to Richard Marshall and his family were in partnership with the Bentalls in the Totnes Bank. There was also an ‘independent party’, led by the recently elected alderman William Doidge Taunton and supported by some of the resident freemen, who were anxious to ‘prevent the borough and its public rights from becoming the property of two or three families, to their own exclusion’. Totnes politics were determined by the shifting alliances between these three groups. In 1820 Courtenay was returned unopposed with John Bent, a supporter of Lord Liverpool’s ministry who was related by marriage to the Farwells.4

The inhabitants sent a ‘numerously and respectably signed’ address of support to Queen Caroline in October 1820, and the following month the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties was marked by a ‘general illumination’ in which only the corporation declined to participate. It appears that the mayor summoned ‘above 100 mob constables’, but so few responded to his call that the aldermen were ‘compelled to turn mob constables themselves’ and patrolled the streets all night. Nevertheless, ‘the windows of the mayor’s house, with a few others, were shattered’. A loyal address to the king was organized, but it was claimed that this only received 68 signatures from ‘the body corporate and its hangers on, and government dependents’.5 The inhabitants sent up petitions to the Commons for repeal of the coal duties, 1 Apr. 1824, 25 Feb. 1825, and the mayor, freemen and inhabitants petitioned both Houses for revision of the corn laws, 10, 17 May 1825.6 Anti-Catholic petitions were forwarded to Parliament by the clergy and the inhabitants, 13, 19 Apr. 1825.7 Early in 1822 Powlett’s elder brother, Lord Barnard, received a requisition from resident members of the independent party, who were ‘desirous of restoring the good understanding which formerly subsisted between your lordship’s family and the corporation’, inviting him to stand at the next election. It was pointed out that ‘the number of voters ... has been of late years greatly reduced’ and that the influence which the signatories had over ‘a large proportion of the non-resident freemen and their connections’ would be sufficient to secure Barnard’s return. Taunton, alderman John Toms, the Rev. Samuel Lane and Captain Farmery Epworth visited Barnard in London where, according to Epworth’s later account, an understanding was reached that ‘your lordship was to bring over ... your ... steward and his party and thereby obtain the mayoralty for the independent gentlemen, whose turn it was, and place the independent interest in a situation to command one representative’. In the ensuing events, Barnard’s real motives are difficult to establish, as is the extent to which Farwell was ignoring instructions and playing his own game. Contrary to the wishes of the independent deputation, Barnard immediately approached Courtenay, who ‘presented him with a list of the electors and assured him of his success’, and some time afterwards the Adams-Bentall-Marshall interest and the Farwells agreed to provide ‘mutual support’ in order to secure Courtenay and Barnard’s return. To the disgust of the independents, who claimed to have received renewed assurances from Barnard that he would prevail on Farwell to co-operate with them, they found their opponents acting in concert to fill aldermanic vacancies and block Taunton’s election to the mayoralty. Facing ‘annihilation’, they resolved in December 1824 to withdraw their support from Barnard, who seems to have been genuinely surprised. Taunton explained that the independents felt they had ‘been the dupes and victims of the coalition’ and that Barnard, through ‘supineness, neutrality and want of exertion’, had ‘abandoned them to their enemies’ and was now ‘virtually [their] nominee’. Consequently, in 1825 the independents introduced a new candidate, the barrister Charles Barry Baldwin. However, tensions were also apparent during that year in the relations between the ‘coalition’ partners, with Edward Marshall complaining to Barnard about the ‘hostile proceedings’ of ‘Farwell and his party’, who had ‘aggrandized themselves’ within the corporation ‘at our expense’. It was alleged that Farwell had broken an agreement to allow William Bentall to fill an aldermanic vacancy and had put forward his own candidate, Bent’s brother Thomas. In order to secure Bent’s election, Farwell had ‘coalesced with the Taunton party’, and they had subsequently created ‘20 new burgesses, the mutual friends of that coalition’, and tried to remove three members of the Adams-Bentall-Marshall interest from the aldermanic bench on the ground of non-residence. Although in September 1825 the supporters of Courtenay and Barnard confirmed their ‘former agreement’ to lend reciprocal support at the next general election, Marshall warned Barnard that the ‘misconduct of your agent would have put your return at hazard’ had they not held him in such high regard. Marshall suspected that

the Farwells see with regret the necessity of substituting your lordship for Mr. J. Bent, and that his restoration at a future election is now their chief object, as the majority of their newly chosen freemen are his personal connections and friends. In this plan they may possibly succeed, but most certainly not without the sacrifice of your lordship to gratify Mr. J. Bent’s ambition, as they well know that they have not the remotest chance of returning him conjointly with you, although they may perhaps be able to turn out Mr. Courtenay.8

Prior to the dissolution in June 1826 a canvass for Barnard revealed that of the 63 freemen eligible to vote, 39 (including four of the requisitionists of 1822) supported him, 23 were hostile or doubtful and one would not attend the election. On the hustings, William Dacres Adams and the recorder, Walter Prideaux, introduced Courtenay, while Christopher Farwell and Prideaux sponsored Barnard. Baldwin, whose published address had emphasized his opposition to Catholic relief, was nominated by Taunton, who expressed his determination to ‘free the town from [its] degrading and contemptible thraldom’, and seconded by the Rev. John Taylor, who professed no uncharitable feelings towards ‘that party with which I have co-operated on former occasions’. Courtenay maintained that he was ‘as independent as any man’ and did not regard himself as ‘the representative of any party of the electors but of the whole body’. Barnard dwelt at length on the requisition he had received from ‘parties now supporting another interest’, which prompted an explanation from Taunton, and declared that he was ‘no adventurer ... or one who comes amongst you to create a division of parties’. Baldwin said that he too was ‘no adventurer (looking steadfastly to Lord Barnard)’ and was ‘exercising the rights of an Englishman in appearing before you’. After a show of hands, a poll was conducted and Courtenay and Barnard were declared elected; Baldwin pledged himself to ‘appear before them at any future election’. Some dissatisfaction was later expressed that Totnes had returned two supporters of Catholic relief.9

The Unitarians petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 22 Feb. 1828.10 On 18 Dec. 1828 a meeting of the clergy of the archdeaconry agreed, ‘with few exceptions’, an anti-Catholic petition, which was forwarded to Parliament, 17, 26 Feb. 1829. Nothing was sent at that time by the inhabitants, who were presumably represented in the large Devon petition against emancipation, but on 23 Feb. ‘about 600’ people, including the mayor, General George Adams, Archdeacon Froude, Thornton Bentall and George Farwell, attended a meeting of the South Hams district at the assembly rooms, where a Protestant address to the king was ‘unanimously adopted’.11 Courtenay supported emancipation, as did Barnard, who had been styled earl of Darlington since his father’s promotion to the marquessate of Cleveland in 1827 and like his father had gravitated towards the duke of Wellington’s ministry. The inhabitants petitioned the Lords for Jewish emancipation, 27 Apr. 1830.12 There is little documentary evidence with which to trace political developments in the borough between 1826 and 1830, but at some point Courtenay evidently abandoned his coalition with Darlington and formed a new one with Baldwin and the independent party. In 1827 15 freemen were created and the following year another five were enrolled, which may have been a move to restore the Adams-Bentall-Marshall interest’s control of the corporation. When Courtenay sought re-election on changing office in June 1828, he was returned unopposed after ‘Mr. Best’ (presumably Bent) ‘declined the contest’.13 Following the dissolution in July 1830 Darlington wrote to the leader of the Commons, Peel, requesting that government influence be brought to bear on Courtenay, who claimed he was ‘bound in honour’ to support Baldwin at ‘the ensuing election’. Darlington had proposed to Courtenay that their parties should ‘act jointly together’ after the election, but ‘to this he positively refused to give any answer [and] furthermore said, if Baldwin’s party were willing to continue with him, he should be willing to continue with them’. He was convinced that ‘the object of both Baldwin and his party is to make such a union with Courtenay as to destroy my interest in Totnes for the future’. Any action that the government may have taken proved ineffectual. William Dacres Adams and Thornton Bentall nominated Courtenay, and Prideaux and Toms introduced Darlington, while Baldwin’s only known sponsor, Taylor, eulogized his ‘independent principles’ and ‘firm attachment to the established Protestant reformed religion’. The show of hands produced ‘a very considerable minority’ for Darlington, who demanded a poll. By half-past-one, Courtenay led by 54 votes to Baldwin’s 41 and Darlington’s 27, and it was proposed that the poll should be closed. This was resisted by Joseph Blake, a London attorney, who expected ‘further arrivals’, but shortly afterwards the closure was agreed and Courtenay and Baldwin were declared elected. It was later stated that 75 freemen had voted.14 Darlington was subsequently returned for Saltash.

On 30 Aug. 1830 a reform dinner was held at Totnes to celebrate Lord Ebrington’s victory in the county. The mayor, William Bentall, ‘endeavoured to check the exuberance of joy’ by arresting two boys for letting off firecrackers, and the inhabitants responded by breaking his windows.15 In December 1830 the inhabitants paying direct taxes organized a petition to Parliament, which called for the restoration of their municipal rights by extending the parliamentary franchise to persons of ‘respectability and property’ resident in the borough; the signatories included two aldermen, Toms and John Cole, and the petitions were presented by Lord Radnor and Ebrington, 4, 11 Feb. 1831.16 Some 300 landowners and other inhabitants of the South Hams met at the Seven Stars, 12 Mar., when a motion in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform bill was proposed by Jasper Parrott of Dundridge House, who declared that ‘nothing less than the proposed plan will satisfy the well-judging and reasonable part of the people’. The attorney James Cornish, in seconding, condemned Courtenay for wanting to amend the bill so that it became ‘nugatory’. A committee was formed to organize petitions to both Houses, which were presented by lord chancellor Brougham and Ebrington, 18, 19 Mar.17 Courtenay and Baldwin both opposed the bill, which proposed to enfranchise the £10 householders, disfranchise the non-resident freemen and reduce the borough’s representation to one seat. The mayor, Taunton, sent a memorial to the home secretary Lord Melbourne, 14 Apr., in which he pointed to the borough’s ‘opulence and respectability’ and to the fact that by adding the suburb of Bridgetown its population would be raised above 4,000, enabling it to retain both Members.18 At the ensuing general election Courtenay and Baldwin were challenged by Darlington, another opponent of the bill, who declared in his published address that he would fight to preserve ‘the just rights of Totnes’. William Dacres Adams and Thornton Bentall again introduced Courtenay. Taylor, ‘who holds two if not three valuable livings’, proposed Baldwin, but after describing the reform bill as ‘infamous’ he was shouted down. Prideaux nominated Darlington and ‘in no measured language lashed the corporation for their venality’; Captain Charles Farwell seconded. Courtenay and Baldwin attempted to speak but were ‘hissed down’. Darlington was given a hearing and explained that he would have supported the bill ‘had it not tended to reduce the number of representatives’, adding that ‘the right taken from rotten boroughs should in every instance be transferred to large towns’. After Courtenay and Baldwin were declared elected they were ‘saluted with continual yells, hisses and execrations’, and that evening their effigies were paraded through the streets and then quartered and burned. It was later reported that 78 freemen had voted.19

Baldwin reiterated the arguments contained in the memorial against the borough’s inclusion in schedule B of the reintroduced reform bill, 2 Aug. 1831, and he was supported by Courtenay, who protested at the unjust treatment of the freemen and warned that a £10 household franchise would make Totnes ‘more susceptible of bribery than ... at present’. However, Lord John Russell saw no ground for removing Totnes from the schedule. The inhabitants petitioned the Lords for the bill’s speedy passage, 30 Sept., declaring that it ‘alone [would] restore the constitution to its true and legitimate principles, promote the general prosperity and avert the calamitous consequences of a national revolution’.20 Following the bill’s rejection there were riotous scenes in the town, provoked by the mayor’s refusal of a request from ‘some of the most respectable inhabitants’ to summon a public meeting in the guildhall. The reformers proclaimed their own meeting and, ‘finding the vestry locked against them, broke open the door and ... proceeded to business’, which consisted of voting for an address to the king. While the meeting was in progress a ‘professional gentleman’, known as an anti-reformer, abused the crowd outside and was ‘pelted with stones and mud’ before they smashed the windows of his house and demolished his gig. Later that evening ‘he was burnt, in company with the mayor, in effigy’, and the windows of several other anti-reformers were broken.21 A letter in a local newspaper in November shows that a political union had been established, but no details have survived.22 By the criteria adopted in the revised reform bill of December 1831 Totnes, which contained 473 houses and paid £1,107 in assessed taxes, was placed 87th in the list of the smallest English boroughs and thus narrowly escaped from schedule B. The inhabitants petitioned the Commons to withhold supplies until the bill was passed, 23 May 1832.23 On 19 July 1832 there were elaborate celebrations of the bill’s passage, involving an estimated 20,000 people from the surrounding district, and next day Russell dined with the reformers and heard speeches by Parrott and Cornish.24

The boundary commissioners recommended that the borough limits be extended to cover the whole of the parish and to include the manor of Bridgetown, where many houses and warehouses had recently been built. Nevertheless, Totnes was one of the smallest two Member boroughs in the reformed electoral system, having only 217 registered electors in 1832, of whom 175 were householders and 42 freemen.25 At the general election that year Parrott and Cornish were returned ahead of a Conservative. Cornish retired in 1834 and was replaced by another Liberal, Lord Seymour*, the eldest son of the 11th duke of Somerset, whose ownership of the manor of Bridgetown and other land had given him a direct influence in the borough. Parrott retired in 1839 and after two expensive contests, the first a double return, Baldwin was elected as a Conservative and shared the representation with Seymour until 1852. During the second half of the nineteenth century the population of Totnes diminished as a result of agricultural decline and the drift of affluent residents towards the seaside towns. The borough acquired a growing reputation for electoral corruption, and after a royal commission in 1866 found evidence of widespread bribery and the creation of fictitious votes, it was disfranchised in 1868.26

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 592.
  • 2. Ibid. 70-71. Figures for the borough only.
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 270-1; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 502-4; PP (1835), xxiii. 645; P. Russell, Totnes, 71; W. Hoskins, Devon, 504-8.
  • 4. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), ii. 302-5; PP (1835), xxiii. 639-46; Western Times, 4, 25 Sept., 13 Nov. 1830; Add. 43507, ff. 42-45.
  • 5. Alfred, 10 Oct., 21 Nov. 1820, 2 Jan. 1821.
  • 6. CJ, lxxix. 242; lxxx. 128, 426; LJ, lvii. 780.
  • 7. CJ, lxxx. 321; LJ, lvii. 537, 592.
  • 8. Add. 43507, ff. 34-50; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 592-3; Alfred, 27 Sept. 1825; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 15 June 1826.
  • 9. Add. 43507, ff. 51-52; Devon RO D1579A/12/19; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 15 June; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17, 24 June; Alfred, 20 June 1826.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxiii. 96.
  • 11. Ibid. lxxxiv. 85; LJ, lxi. 46; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 Dec. 1828, 28 Feb., 7 Mar. 1829.
  • 12. LJ, lxii. 227.
  • 13. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 592-3; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 14 June 1828.
  • 14. Add. 40401, f. 155; 40501, f. 238; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 12 Aug. 1830; PP (1830-1), x. 105.
  • 15. Western Times, 4 Sept. 1830.
  • 16. Ibid. 18 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 240; LJ, lxiii. 203.
  • 17. Western Times, 12, 19 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 406; LJ, lxiii. 339.
  • 18. PP (1830-1), x. 131.
  • 19. Devon RO D1579A/12/20; Western Times, 7 May 1831; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 592.
  • 20. LJ, lxiii. 1025.
  • 21. R. Devonport Telegraph, 15 Oct.; N. Devon Jnl. 20 Oct. 1831.
  • 22. Western Times, 12 Nov. 1831.
  • 23. Besley’s Exeter News, 20 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 332.
  • 24. Besley’s Exeter News, 29 July 1832.
  • 25. PP (1831-2), xxxvii. 265-7; xxxviii. 131-2; (1835), xxiii. 645.
  • 26. Russell, 86-87, 90-95; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 129, 154, 164; Somerset Letters, 86-90; PP (1867), xxix.