Pontefract

Borough

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 burgage holders

Number of Qualified Electors:

265 in 17381

Number of voters:

rising from 96 in 1690 to 250 in 1713

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
25 Feb. 1690HON. HENRY DAWNAY65
 SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt.60
 Sir Godfrey Copley, Bt.42
 Mr Saville16
 Mr Slingsby2
 Robert Lowther2
 John Frank1
 Mr Phiney1
 Sir John Ramsden, Bt.1
28 Oct. 1695SIR WILLIAM LOWTHER80
 ROBERT MONCKTON78
 Sir John Bland, Bt.63
 Henry Dawnay, Ld. Downe16
 Mr Saville1
29 July 1698SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt.108
 JOHN BRIGHT72
 Robert Monckton71
 Sir George Tempest, Bt.14
 Sir William Lowther4
 Henry Dawnay, Ld. Downe2
 John Ramsden2
 Sir Roland Winn, 2
 Mr Hanfield1
 Mr G. Hewlett1
 Mr Higslen1
 Sir William Ramsden, Bt.1
  Election of Bright declared void, 17 Jan. 1700 
1 Feb. 1700JOHN BRIGHT68
 Robert Monckton61
 William Lowther1
9 Jan. 1701SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt.84
 JOHN BRIGHT87
 William Lowther58
 Sir George Tempest, Bt.5
 Henry Dawnay, Ld. Downe4
 Sir William Lowther4
 Robert Monckton4
 John Saville3
 Robert Lowther2
 William Stable2
 Sir Rowland Winn, Bt.2
 Mr Milford1
 Mr ? Oxlby1
 Mr Smith1
 George Wakefield1
25 Nov. 1701SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt. 
 WILLIAM LOWTHER 
20 July 1702SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt. 
 WILLIAM LOWTHER 
14 May 1705SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt. 
 WILLIAM LOWTHER 
10 May 1708SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt.130
 WILLIAM LOWTHER118
 Patience Ward111
11 Oct. 1710SIR JOHN BLAND, Bt.133
 ROBERT FRANK121
 William Lowther Bt.113
 Patience Ward91
1 Sept. 1713ROBERT FRANK154
 HON. JOHN DAWNAY148
 William Lowther117
 Robert Monckton812

Main Article

During James II’s reign Pontefract’s corporation, which consisted of a mayor elected annually by the borough’s burgesses, a recorder and 12 aldermen, was remodelled on three separate occasions. The extent of the confusion this created in corporate government was indicated by the three large-scale re-elections of existing aldermen between 1688 and 1691 in an effort to secure the legal standing of the corporation in accordance with the 1676 charter. Corporate disputes were, however, common throughout the 1690s. A number of elected aldermen refused to serve, and mayoral elections became so fiercely contested that in February 1695 an order was passed to prevent treating and bribery therein. The following year saw the removal of the borough’s recorder, leading to a dispute which came before the Privy Council in 1698 and the indictment in the court of aldermen of the mayor who had effected the change of recorder ‘for divers misdemeanours and breaches of trust’. The removal of this former mayor from the aldermanic bench was reversed in 1700 after he had obtained a writ of mandamus. The paucity of illustrative material for these events makes it difficult to establish the relationship between corporation in-fighting and parliamentary elections. These elections were dominated by members of the local gentry, predictable in a borough enfranchised in 1621 through the efforts of such notables. Pre-eminent among the gentry interests were those of the Lowthers of Swillington and the Blands of Kippax. The heads of these families behaved at Westminster as Whigs and Tories respectively, and both were supported by a number of other significant interests. For example, the Tory Dawnays, who had held one of Pontefract’s seats from 1661 to 1689, appear to have supported the Blands following Lord Downe’s transfer in 1695 to a county seat, while the Franks, a prominent corporation family, also listed themselves under the banner of the Blands. The Lowthers formed a close alliance with the Wards of Tanshelf, who, after the Restoration, had become the principal patrons of Dissent in Pontefract’s environs. In the 1710s the Evans list noted an Independent congregation at Pontefract, and though the congregation was estimated to number only around 40, they included several families of influence. An Anglican clergyman was so convinced of the influence of Dissent that in 1697 he described Pontefract as a ‘schismatic town’. The strength of gentry influence stemmed in large part from the burgage franchise. Families with electoral aspirations were able to bolster their interests through the purchase of large numbers of burgages, though never enough in this period to place the borough in the total control of an individual family or coalition of families. The most significant development concerning the electorate, however, was its remarkable growth due to burgage splitting. The 96 voters who polled in 1690 had almost trebled in number by 1713 to 250, and comparison of the 1708, 1710 and 1713 elections demonstrates that this high rate of growth was matched by a rapid turnover of voters.3

The 1690 election witnessed a contest between a number of Tory candidates. One of the outgoing Members, Hon. Henry Dawnay, was joined by Sir John Bland, 4th Bt., whose seat was only three and half miles distant from Pontefract; Sir Godfrey Copley, 2nd Bt., another Tory squire with land in the West Riding of Yorkshire; and a Mr Saville, possibly a relation of the Marquess of Halifax (Sir George Saville†) who had sat for the borough in 1660. It may be that Saville’s candidacy was not pursued with any great enthusiasm as he gained only 16 votes, but the pattern of polling at this election is otherwise difficult to interpret. That only six voters polled for Bland and Copley may suggest antagonism between the two, but the fact that nearly a third of voters polled for Dawnay and Copley while approximately the same proportion polled for Dawnay and Bland suggests that Dawnay did not join his interest to either Bland or Copley. Dawnay headed the poll, and the 16 voters who supported Bland and Saville were crucial to Bland’s defeat of Copley for the second seat. Neither Dawnay or Copley stood in 1695, the former being elected for Yorkshire and the latter for Thirsk. Bland’s claims to a seat were contested, however, by two Whigs: his uncle Sir William Lowther, and Robert Monckton, a protégé of the Whig magnate the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†). Accounts of local reaction to Lowther’s candidacy differ greatly. Lowther himself claimed that upon his visit to the borough in September he ‘tendered my service . . . and having no discouragement from them I resolve to stand’, but an Anglican clergyman confided to his diary

that Sir William Lowther, a Presbyterian, hearing of a great meeting of the townsmen of Pontefract together, he goes thither, and sends them in, in the first place, a dozen of bottles of claret, and then a dozen more, by which time, thinking they had been a little drunk, he makes bold to go amongst them, and, after having complimented them exceedingly, he at length begins to tell them what he did drive at, to wit, of getting their votes that he might be made a Parliament man, and did tell them so many fine things, and what favours and kindness he would bestow upon [them], so that they scarce knew what to say. But immediately one Stables, sitting at the end of the table, took him up saying, ‘Sir William, we thank you for your wine, but, had we understood that this was the design thereof, we would have rather been without. And for our votes, I must tell you truly, if I had ten thousand I would not give one of them to you, nor to any such Commonwealth’s man as you are’. ‘I a Commonwealth’s man!’ (says Sir William) ‘I defy it; I scorn to be scandalized so,’ etc. Upon which, and a great many more words, Sir William challenged Mr Stables to the door. To which Mr Stables answered, ‘To the door! I scorn to come to the door with any such Presbyterian rascal.’ Upon which Sir William drew at him; but the company rose up against him bid him get him gone; what he had to do to intrude into their company, and to disturb them. And so Sir William went away, cursing and swearing how he would be revenged of them. Thus this Mr Stables saved the votes of all his company; for undoubtedly, if he had not stood up to him, he had got all their votes.

The same observer later recorded that Lowther had been elected ‘after he had cleared himself of being a Puritan’. Lowther topped the poll, with Monckton defeating Bland for the second seat, 56 of the 119 voters polling for the two Whigs. The cause of Bland’s defeat lay in the lack of a partner as, though 19 burgesses either plumped for Bland or voted for Bland and a write-in candidate, 21 voters polled for Bland and Monckton. Bland petitioned against the return, alleging the ‘threatening’ of voters by the mayor and partiality in judging the qualification of those who claimed the right to vote, but he was granted leave to withdraw.4

Lowther demonstrated no interest in standing again in 1698, when Sir George Tempest, 2nd Bt., and John Bright contested the seat with Bland and Monckton. Tempest’s candidacy probably stemmed from his marriage in 1694 to a cousin of Pontefract’s senior alderman John Frank, while Bright, son of the Whig (Sir) Henry Liddell*, had in 1688 succeeded to part of the estates of his maternal grandfather at Badsworth five miles from Pontefract, assuming his grandfather’s surname. Bright narrowly defeated Monckton for the second seat, Bland comfortably heading the poll and Tempest finishing a distant fourth. That 57 of the 140 voters polled for Bland and Bright may indicate an alliance of interests, and any suggestion that the Whigs Bright and Monckton had stood jointly is dispelled by the fact that only 19 burgesses voted for this combination of candidates. Given the narrow nature of his defeat it is scarcely surprising that Monckton petitioned against the return, alleging that Bright’s election had been procured by ‘corrupt and illegal methods’. Monckton renewed his petition on 16 Nov. 1699. His case rested upon the claim that eight of Bright’s voters had no right to vote, for reasons ranging from accepting bribes to burgage splitting and lack of burgage property. Bright’s response was to concede Monckton’s claims concerning only one of his voters; to allege that Monckton’s agents had failed, contrary to an agreement made at the start of polling, to raise these objections between the close of the poll and the making of the return; and to question the right of 12 of Monckton’s voters. The committee had been convinced by Bright’s case but a motion that he was duly elected was defeated in the Commons, two Whigs telling in the minority. A motion that Monckton was duly elected was defeated without a division and a new writ was ordered. Bright and Monckton renewed their rivalry at this election with the former carrying the election by seven votes, a victory that led to a petition from the ‘majority of the aldermen and burgesses’ of Pontefract, alleging that the partiality of the returning officer had deprived Monckton of his rightful place at the head of the poll. The petition was referred to the committee, but no report was forthcoming before the prorogation.5

News of a possible dissolution had reached Pontefract by September 1700, when Monckton was urged to visit the borough as quickly as possible in order to ‘lay such a foundation as will not be easily overthrown’. Monckton chose, however, to be returned on Newcastle’s interest at Aldborough. Bland and Bright stood again and William Lowther II, son of the Member in 1695, offered his services, having received a single vote in the 1700 by-election. Father and son were both Whigs but the dispute at this time between the two led Sir William to campaign against his son’s return, alleging that he only stood to ‘protect himself from his just debts’, and this no doubt contributed to the comfortable victory enjoyed by Bright and Bland. As in 1698, the electorate did not split along partisan lines; of the 130 who polled, over half voted against party lines and only a quarter voted for both Whig candidates. Bright declined to stand at the second election of the year, and it seemed likely that a three-cornered contest would take place between Bland, William Lowther and Robert Lowther of Ackworth, cousin of both William and Sir William Lowther but unlike them a Tory. Sir William Lowther initially gave his interest to Bland and Robert Lowther but following the intervention of Archbishop Sharp, who was arbitrating the dispute between the two William Lowthers, he pledged to remain neutral. Perhaps as a consequence, Robert Lowther withdrew from the election and Bland and William Lowther were returned unopposed, as they were again in 1702. That a comfortable compromise between the Tory Bland and the Whig Lowther had not developed, however, is clear from the 1705 election. In May 1704 Bland’s supporters in the borough, fearing an imminent dissolution, had written to urge him to secure his interest in the borough. As mayor until autumn of that year Bland would have been ineligible to stand at any parliamentary election before the choice of a new mayor and he claimed to be unconcerned at this prospect as he ‘had satisfied my curiosity enough, and had been at so much expense and trouble about elections and attending the Parliament that I was resolved to decline the service this next election’. By March 1705, however, Bland’s inclinations had changed and the news that William Lowther and ‘Mr Ward’ were treating the borough led him to make plans to ‘go over the next week to secure my point’. Lowther’s partner was Patience Ward, nephew of the Sir Patience Ward who had sat for the borough during the Restoration period and a Dissenter. The will of Ward’s uncle had left £6,000 to purchase lands for him in the West Riding, and the purchase of property at Hooton Pagnell from Robert Byerley* in 1704 would appear to have been the springboard for Ward’s entry into Pontefract politics. He chose to withdraw before a poll, however, and Bland and Lowther were again returned unopposed.6

The same three candidates stood in 1708 and the election was pursued to a poll, where the extent of burgage splitting since the last contested election was clearly evident from the increase in voters from 130 in January 1701 to 207 in 1708. Bland described the election as ‘the warmest we have had in these parts’ and, despite his claim that Newcastle had sent ‘his myrmidons [John] Bright and [Robert] Monckton’ to manage the election of Lowther and Ward, Bland secured the first seat. Over half of those who polled registered split votes in partisan terms, while less than a quarter of those who voted supported both Whig candidates. The poll book suggests that the unity of Lowther and Ward disintegrated towards the end of the poll when, with Bland having already secured one seat and Lowther holding a small lead over Ward, a number of voters plumped for Ward in what appears to have been a last gasp, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to defeat Lowther for the second seat. A significant number of burgesses also polled for Lowther and Bland towards the end of the poll, presumably to preserve Lowther’s lead over Ward. Despite this apparent late divergence, Lowther and Ward again formed a joint interest at the 1710 election while Bland was joined by the borough recorder and Tory Robert Frank. Following the election Bland questioned the usefulness to him of Frank’s candidacy, informing Robert Harley* that the recorder had ‘declared but a week before the election to let me bear the expense and so came in upon my single votes, which I should not have submitted to, if I had not preferred her Majesty’s service above all things’. Bland may well have been exaggerating his role at Pontefract in order to press his claim upon Harley for a place. Whether or not his claims were accurate it was certainly true that Lowther and Ward were unable to defeat the Tory pairing. With two Whig and two Tory candidates, the distribution of votes settled into a partisan pattern, with only 28 voters polling across party lines, but more striking was the continuing increase in total voters to 230 and the phenomenally high rate of turnover, as only half those who voted in 1708 returned to the poll in 1710. If such a high rate of voter turnover is indicative of electoral manipulation by the respective interests it would seem that Bland and Frank were the more effective, as 66 of the 115 new voters voted for both Tory candidates as opposed to only 44 who supported both Whigs. A similar pattern emerged at the 1713 election, though with different candidates. Lowther had failed in 1712 in his attempt to secure the election of ‘a Whig mayor for Pontefract’. He now stood in alliance with Monckton, who having followed his patron the Duke of Newcastle in supporting the ministry in the 1710 Parliament found that he had lost the support at Aldborough of Newcastle’s successor, the Whig Lord Pelham (Thomas). It has been conjectured by one modern historian that the decision to forward Monckton’s candidacy may have been made in the hope that Monckton’s links to the Court and kinship with Lord Strafford would weaken the Tory interest. If this was the intention it clearly failed. Frank again offered his services, on this occasion in alliance with Hon. John Dawnay, son of Lord Downe, Bland standing down because of ill-health. Strafford lent his support to Dawnay and Frank, despite the difficulties his agent encountered by Dawnay’s failure to ‘offer to make any interest till it was very late’, and Dawnay defeated Lowther by a comfortable margin for the second seat with Frank heading the poll. Only 33 of the 250 burgesses polled across party lines, and as in the previous election a high rate of turnover was evident with 100 polling who had not voted in 1710, 62 of whom supported both Tory candidates. The balance of political power in Pontefract had appeared to have swung decisively in favour of the Tories, but from 1715 Lowther waged a determined campaign to establish control of the borough. By 1720 his exploitation of allegations of the prevalence of Jacobite sympathies in Pontefract’s corporation had allowed him to establish a position of dominance in the town’s politics, and when parliamentary elections again became contentious at the end of the 1720s the nature of the conflict was a contest between rival Whig patrons rather than the partisan hostility which had been evident in Anne’s reign.7

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison

Notes

  • 1. Bodl. Willis 15, f. 124.
  • 2. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Galway mss 12259/2–9, pollbks.
  • 3. Quinn thesis, 197, 212; Pontefract Corp. Bk. ed. Holmes, 151, 163, 166, 172–4, 177, 185, 205, 211–12, 216–20, 223–5, 236–7;