Durham City


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

rising from at least 735 in 1698 to over 900 in 1710


3 Mar. 1690William Tempest 
 George Morland 
30 Oct. 1695Hon. Charles Montagu 
 Henry Liddell 
28 July 1698Hon. Charles Montagu673
 Thomas Conyers424
 Sir Henry Liddell, Bt.4081
13 Jan. 1701Hon. Charles Montagu590
 Thomas Conyers401
 John Tempest3002
1 Dec. 1701Hon. Charles Montagu 
 Sir Henry Belasyse 
24 July 1702Sir Henry Belasyse 
 Thomas Conyers 
14 May 1705Thomas Conyers148
 Sir Henry Belasyse129
 George Sheffield733
10 May 1708Thomas Conyers 
 James Nicolson 
12 Oct. 1710Thomas Conyers732
 Sir Henry Belasyse642
 James Nicolson4744
3 Mar. 1712Robert Shafto vice Belasyse, appointed to office474
 Anthony Hall4525
3 Sept. 1713Thomas Conyers 
 George Baker 

Main Article

Throughout this period Durham consistently returned a combination of members of the local gentry and men from families with strong connections to the corporation. Many of the successful gentry candidates also had links to the borough elite, so that it seems that possession of corporate office, or ties to others who held such office, played an important role in Durham elections. The corporation consisted of a mayor, 12 aldermen and 24 burgesses, the final group consisting of two representatives from 12 of the borough’s 16 livery companies, and the right of election lay in the freemen of all 16 livery companies. Durham’s charter, dating from 1602, had been granted by the then bishop of Durham, a fact which points to the other important influence in the borough’s elections, that of the bishop and Anglican clergy. The influence the bishop wielded as lord of the county palatine was augmented by the possession of two of Durham’s three manors by the bishop and cathedral clergy, and this interest was utilized throughout the period by Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, bishop of Durham.6

The 1690 election saw the unchallenged return of two Tories, George Morland, a Durham alderman, and William Tempest, a local landowner who owned one of the borough’s three manors. Both men appear to have suffered from ill-health in the later sessions of the 1690 Parliament and this may explain why neither stood at the 1695 election, though in Tempest’s case his loyalty to the Jacobite cause may have been an additional reason. By October 1695 a correspondent of Robert Harley* confidently forecast that Hon. Charles Montagu and Henry Liddell were ‘likely’ to take the Durham seats at the next election. Montagu had gained a number of local offices through the patronage of his uncle, Bishop Crewe, and despite the contrast between Montagu’s Whiggery and Crewe’s Toryism it seems that Montagu was the episcopal candidate at this election, as he had been in 1685. Like Montagu, Liddell was a Whig who had previously sat for the borough, and both men also owned Durham estates and were active in the region’s coal industry. It appears that one ‘Blackston’, possibly a member of the long-established Durham family of Blakiston, announced his intention to enter the lists, but a contemporary observer noted that shortly before the election ‘Blackston declined it and stood no poll’, so that Liddell and Montagu were returned unopposed. A more substantial threat to Montagu and Liddell was posed at the 1698 election by the candidacy of the Tory Thomas Conyers, who had married the daughter of a Durham alderman and in 1697 had obtained the freedom of the borough. On this occasion the contest was carried to the poll. No doubt due to support from Bishop Crewe, Montagu comfortably polled first place, but the contest for the second seat was closely fought, with Conyers defeating Liddell by just 16 votes. One report blamed Liddell’s defeat on ‘ill management’, specifically the ‘diffident’ support he received from Montagu and his managers, and suggested that Conyers’ narrow margin of victory might lead Liddell to petition against the result. Liddell, however, decided against this. The first election of 1701 also witnessed a three-cornered contest, though on this occasion two Tories contested the seat in opposition to Montagu. Conyers and Montagu were joined by John Tempest, son of the Member of the 1690 Parliament, who in March 1700 had inherited his father’s estate. A report of December 1700 may suggest that the possibility was raised of a Whig candidate standing in alliance with Montagu, it being observed that ‘if Mr Conyers and Mr Tempest can but join interests in that city, they may be a match for their opposers and one of them can come in’. No fourth candidate stood, however, and Montagu comfortably topped the poll, with Conyers defeating Tempest for the second seat. Despite his success in January 1701, Conyers did not stand at the second election of the year, Montagu instead being returned unopposed with the Tory Sir Henry Belasyse, member of a local gentry family and a professional soldier.

The accession of Queen Anne in March 1702 was celebrated ‘with great triumph’ at Durham, and the new reign heralded a period of Tory ascendancy in the city’s elections. Montagu did not stand at the 1702 election so that Belasyse and Conyers were returned unopposed, and the challenge to their election in 1705 posed little threat. George Sheffield, a Durham tanner, created ‘a party of the meaner sort’ and demanded a poll, but his credibility as a candidate was called into doubt by George Morland, who opposed Sheffield’s request ‘upon account of the candidate’s unfitness for such a post’, and Sheffield ‘gave up’ the contest in the early stages of the poll. A far more serious challenge to Conyers and Belasyse was made at the following election. Preparations appear to have begun several months previously, as from November 1707 a series of freeman admissions were made so that by May 1708 75 new freemen had been created. It is uncertain if these admissions were made at the behest of Conyers and Belasyse or in an attempt to undermine their interest, but by May the Tory interest had begun a vigorous campaign with the bishop returning from London a month earlier than was his usual practice. Plans were formulated for one of the candidates to ‘round the town in procession’ attended by the clergy and high church gentry; and reports circulated that Belasyse had begun to treat generously. The observer who reported these developments also noted, however, that ‘promises for the old ones are not current coin as formerly’, and a rival, Whig candidate had emerged. James Nicolson was a member of a wealthy family of aldermen, and the acceptance of the threat he posed to the re-election of Conyers and Belasyse was implicitly acknowledged by the efforts of the bishop and cathedral clergy to bolster the Tory interest. A local Whig reported that on the Sunday prior to the election

By order of the bishop and chapter as supposed, the school master preached before them at the cathedral in the morning and the same sermon in the afternoon to the mayor and aldermen at the market place church. The text was the verse [sic] of the 12th chapter of the 1st of Samuel, and the words, they say, by hard straining he perverted into the management of elections, on which his whole discourse ran, lashing all those who opposed Mr Conyers, concluding that damnation would be their future lot, if they did not repent of such an heinous sin as the attempting to reject so true and trusty a member of the church.

According to this same observer, this hearty endorsement of Conyers and the strength of Nicolson’s interest led Belasyse to withdraw from the election and allow Conyers and Nicolson an unopposed return. The same three candidates entered the lists in 1710, but on this occasion Nicolson found that political circumstances militated against his success. On Bishop Crewe’s return to Durham following his vote against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell he was met by over 5,000 people carrying a banner for ‘all who wished well to the bishop and Dr Sacheverell’. In August Belasyse wrote to Harley that the change in ministry had led the county of Durham to ‘now think their Church out of danger’, and that he had joined with Conyers ‘in order to throw out Nicolson’. Nicolson was not, however, prepared to retreat in the face of the Church interest. He was reported to ‘spend very high’ while Belasyse was said to ‘bleed [money] very freely’, and the animosity generated by the campaign was demonstrated when a Whig clergyman abused Belasyse’s wife, describing her as a ‘whore’. From August until the election 49 freemen were enrolled and one report suggested that Nicolson desisted before the poll due to the ‘great number of gentlemen made honorary [freemen]’ in the interest of Conyers and Belasyse. In fact Nicolson took the contest to the poll, though he was comfortably defeated by the Tory candidates. Belasyse’s appointment to office in 1712 precipitated a by-election at which neither Belasyse nor Nicolson stood. The latter was said to be unwilling to disoblige Bishop Crewe. The contest lay between Robert Shafto, understood to have the support of the Church interest, and Alderman Anthony Hall; and in March Shafto narrowly defeated Hall at the poll. Hall’s petition against Shafto’s return, alleging that Shafto had been guilty of bribery and had been obliged with votes from ‘persons receiving alms’, was presented to the Commons on 5 Apr. but was never reported from committee. Shafto did not, however, stand at the 1713 election, allowing the unopposed return of Conyers and his Tory son-in-law, George Baker.7

Author: Eveline Cruickshanks


  • 1. C. Sharp, Durham MPs, 36.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid, 37.
  • 4. Post Boy, 14–17 Oct. 1710.
  • 5. Newcastle Courant, 3–5 Mar. 1712.
  • 6. A. Heesom, Durham City and its MPs, 1–2, 19; Willis, Not. Parl. iii. 523–4; Six N. Country Diaries (Surtees Soc. xxvviii), 53, 57; Add. 70018, ff. 94–95; 70019, f. 312; Mems. of Dean Comber (Surtees Soc. clvii), 251–2, 253; N. Yorks. RO, Worsley mss ZON/13/1/248, J. Gibson to Thomas Worsley I*, 14 Dec. 1701.
  • 7. Six N. Country Diaries, 60, 63; Sharp, 37; Durham RO, Durham bor. recs. Du 1/59/19; Arch. Ael. ser. 4, xxiv. 16–17; G. Holmes and W. A. Speck, Divided Soc. 57; Add. 70278, Robert Price* to Harley, [Aug. 1710]; Bean, Six Northern Counties, 129; HMC Portland, iv. 570, 575; Clavering Corresp. (Surtees Soc. clxxviii), 101; Durham Dean and Chapter Lib. Sharp mss 82, ‘Durham City 1710’; Liddell–Cotesworth Letters (Surtees Soc. cxcvii), 69.