Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the burgage holders
Number of Qualified Electors:
125 in 17111
Number of voters:
67 in 1702, rising to 118 in 1711
|26 Feb. 1690||SIR WILLIAM MORLEY|
|28 Oct. 1695||SIR WILLIAM MORLEY|
|26 July 1698||SIR WILLIAM MORLEY|
|Sir Henry Peachey|
|8 Jan. 1701||JOHN LEWKNOR|
|28 Nov. 1701||JOHN LEWKNOR|
|17 July 1702||JOHN LEWKNOR||60|
|9 May 1705||ROBERT ORME|
|4 May 1708||LAURENCE ALCOCK||77|
|MEREDYTH vice Orme, on petition, 8 Mar. 1709|
|4 Oct. 1710||LAURENCE ALCOCK||93|
|28 Dec. 1711||JOHN PRATT vice Orme, deceased|
|29 Aug. 1713||JOHN PRATT|
The right of election at Midhurst lay in the burgage holders and potentially the strongest interest lay with the lord of the borough, who controlled the appointment of the returning officer, the bailiff, who was chosen annually at the capital court by a jury selected by the lord’s steward. In this period the lordships of the borough and the manor of Midhurst, although technically separate, were both held by the viscounts Montagu of the neighbouring Cowdray estate. The electorate grew throughout the period as a result of the splitting of burgages and the contrivance of the steward, who managed to get further properties within the manor accepted as burgage tenements, thereby strengthening the Montagu interest. It is almost impossible to estimate the exact number of burgages held by any one person because many of them were vested in trustees, with the name of the real owner never appearing, a practice which led to much litigation in a later period.6
In 1690, Francis Browne, 4th Viscount Montagu, owned the largest single block of burgages, about 20; however, the family’s Catholicism and association with James II probably account for their circumspection for the first ten years of the period, during which time the Tory Lewknors of neighbouring West Dean, who owned at least 16 burgages, dominated local politics. In 1690 the sitting Members, John Lewknor and his stepfather Sir William Morley, both Tories, were returned, a result they repeated in the next two elections. In 1695 it was reported that Morley might be replaced by Lewknor’s cousin by marriage, William Knight (formerly Woodward), but this proved premature. An unsuccessful Whig challenge was mounted in 1698 by Sir Henry Peachey* of Newgrave, Petworth, who petitioned against Morley, but withdrew his petition before it could be heard.
Although rivals in the Restoration period, the Montagus and Lewknors evidently came to an agreement in the first 1701 election, when Morley made way for Laurence Alcock, another local Tory, who had succeeded to his family’s estates in 1699 and had recently come of age. Alcock’s father had been the steward of the borough in the 1690s and Alcock himself received the continued support of Montagu. Alcock and Lewknor continued to sit in the second 1701 Parliament. In the first Parliament of Anne’s reign, a third Tory, Robert Orme, of nearby Woolavington, contested but was easily defeated. Lewknor stood down in 1705, probably because of failing health. He gave his full support to Alcock, writing that he had received a visit from local supporters who had told him that, provided Alcock met their expenses, they would ride with him to the election:
My Lord [Montagu] having called on me in his return from you on Friday and acquainting me he had left full instructions with you in relation to Midhurst makes it not fit or decent for me to give any directions to Gordon [Lewknor’s agent], but have ordered him to pursue such as he shall receive from you, and as to whatever expense you think safe to promise . . . be pleased to accept me for your partner.
Orme stood again and he and Alcock were returned unchallenged.7
Lewknor died in 1707, leaving his estates, including the Midhurst burgages, to William Knight who, in the next two elections, gave his interest to Orme. The 4th Viscount Montagu died in April 1708 to be succeeded by his brother, Henry Browne, who had been secretary of state to the exiled James II in 1691. The 5th Viscount had reputedly killed a priest and spent most of his life in hiding, and consequently did not play a direct part in Midhurst elections, but the family’s interest continued to be exercised by Alcock. Nevertheless the eclipse of the Montagus may have encouraged the establishment of another interest: the 6th Duke of Somerset was extremely active in West Sussex elections and in 1708 put up a Whig candidate, Major-General Thomas Meredyth, against Orme, and personally canvassed on his behalf. Although Meredyth gained 19 single votes (and a further nine which were disallowed), it was not enough. Meredyth’s petition against Orme was heard at the bar of the House on 8 Mar. 1709, when counsel claimed on his behalf that he
had a great majority of the residents within the borough whose titles were clear and indisputable and Mr Orme’s consisted chiefly of persons altogether unknown there and of the menial servants of Mr Knight and Mr Orme, yet such was the partiality that these were admitted to vote without showing their titles.
It was claimed that others had been refused, ‘although they either produced their titles or had vouchers for them and no other person offered to vote for these premises’. The votes disallowed were all plumpers for Meredyth, and in some degree his allegations appear justified as four of them voted unchallenged in subsequent elections. For the sitting Members it was claimed that Meredyth was ‘a total stranger’ to the borough until the Christmas before the election, when his agents announced ‘that a gentleman would stand for Parliament man . . . and would be very acceptable to the trades people, in employing mercers, tailors, hatters and shoemakers in clothing and accoutring his regiment’. It was further alleged that Somerset came to Midhurst with Meredyth and six weeks before the election recommended him to the electors, saying that the promises would be honoured and ordering them to give Meredyth single votes. Several of the tradesmen were treated at Petworth, the Duke’s seat, and on the day of the election, ‘the Duke was at the door that went into the hall, and solicited votes for the petitioner’. After a ‘hard struggle’, occasioned, according to Hon. James Brydges*, by ‘the solicitation of some great lords’ against Meredyth and the siding of some Whigs with the opposition, two divisions were held and the election was decided in favour of Meredyth, who was duly seated in Orme’s place.8
Before the 1710 election a rumour circulated that Orme’s gout would prevent him standing. The 2nd Duke of Beaufort wrote to him on 14 Sept. 1710, on behalf of William Ward*, who was considering standing at Midhurst, explaining that Ward
looks upon Mr Alcock’s interest to be superior to anybody’s there; therefore has nothing to say in relation to him, but that you or he might succeed against a Whig recommendation. He proposes to meet you, and if your interest is thought more likely to carry it, to submit to you, and on the other hand hopes, in case it proves otherwise, you will return the favour.
Beaufort wrote in a similar vein to Alcock, asking for his second votes for Ward if Orme desisted. In the event Orme did stand with Alcock, and Ward did not contest, but Somerset put up Meredyth again for the Whigs and was said to have treated for Meredyth in the town. Unfortunately for Meredyth, the voters seemed to have remained remarkably consistent, but with a slight increase in favour of Alcock and Orme. After his inevitable defeat, Meredyth’s petition alleging partiality on the part of the bailiff was presented but never heard.9
At the end of October 1711 Somerset strengthened his interest by buying 18 burgages from Montagu, perhaps in expectation of the by-election occasioned by Orme’s death earlier that year. William Knight, the Tory who had inherited John Lewknor’s interest, put up and was opposed by the prominent Whig lawyer, John Pratt, who had been defeated at Marlborough the previous year, partly on account of his refusal to act as counsel for Dr Sacheverell. Despite this handicap Pratt, standing on Somerset’s interest, was returned, his victory assisted by nine previously consistent Tory voters who gave their votes to Pratt (with only two switching in the opposite direction), although exactly how this may be related to the sale of burgages to Somerset is difficult to determine. Alcock did not stand in 1713 and with his withdrawal Montagu’s influence appears to have ended until the 1720s. Pratt held the seat in 1713, when Knight was also elected, and these two remained the borough’s MPs until the end of the period.10
Authors: Paula Watson / Sonya Wynne
- 1. Cowdray Archs. ed. Dibben, 295.
- 2. Hants RO, Knight mss 18M61, box 29/bdle K/6, Midhurst poll, 17 July 1702.
- 3. Cowdray Archs. 311.
- 4. Ibid. 312.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Ibid. pp. xx–xxii, 28, 196–200, 294–5.
- 7. Knight mss 18M61, box 29/bdle K/6, Midhurst poll, 17 July 1702; K/34, Lewknor to Alcock, 21 May 1705.
- 8. West Suss. RO, Cowdray mss 4813/5, Midhurst poll, 4 May 1708; Cowdray Archs. 317; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/0139/2, Brydges to James Stanhope*, 17 Mar. 1709.
- 9. Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Beaufort to Orme, 14 Sept., same to Alcock, 15 Sept. 1710; Bath mss at Longleat House, Portland misc. pprs., report to Robert Harley*, n.d; Cowdray mss 4813/11, Midhurst poll, 4 Oct. 1710.
- 10. Cowdray Archs. 312; Cowdray mss 4813/17, Midhurst poll, 28 Dec. 1711.