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Right of Election:
in the freeholders
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
|27 Feb. 1690||SIR JOHN PARSONS|
|25 Oct. 1695||SIR JOHN PARSONS|
|Hon. Thomas Windsor|
|22 July 1698||STEPHEN HERVEY||120|
|Sir John Parsons||111|
|3 Jan. 1701||SIR JOHN PARSONS|
|21 Nov. 1701||SIR JOHN PARSONS||72|
|17 July 1702||SIR JOHN PARSONS||82|
|8 May 1705||SIR JOHN PARSONS|
|29 Nov. 1707||JAMES COCKS vice Hervey, deceased|
|3 May 1708||JAMES COCKS|
|SIR JOHN PARSONS|
|6 Oct. 1710||SIR JOHN PARSONS||132|
|26 Aug. 1713||SIR JOHN PARSONS||143|
The largest of the three pocket boroughs in south-east Surrey, Reigate became as much of a battleground for territorial rivalries as nearby Bletchingley and Gatton. The lordship of Reigate manor was the most important interest, providing its owner with an influence over the annual election of the bailiff, the borough’s returning officer. As several petitions indicated, the choice of bailiff proved a significant electoral advantage, particularly as the extent of the franchise remained in doubt. Browne Willis* affirmed that it was the ‘freeholders who elect the Members’, but there is much evidence to suggest that the vote was restricted to owners of specific burgage properties within the borough. Despite several petitions, the House never delivered judgment on the Reigate franchise, although in the early 19th century the county’s historians ascribed the vote to ‘freeholders of messuages or burgage tenements within the precinct of the borough’. Less equivocally, the fluctuating size of the poll in the Augustan period highlighted the manner in which political rivals manipulated the electorate to advance their respective causes. Moreover, the practice of installing outsiders as Reigate electors before the major contests of 1698 and 1710 ensured that less than a third of the voters were local residents. It was inevitable that the Revolution would have a significant impact on the borough’s politics for the crown had secured complete control of the manor in 1687. After the flight of King James the lordship remained in royal hands, but no Court candidate was advanced at the elections of 1689 or 1690. The borough’s other leading proprietor, the Tory Sir John Parsons, was not slow to take advantage of such royal indifference. According to the county historians, the Priory estate which Parsons had bought in 1681 included ‘many burgage tenements’, and at the election of 1690 he managed to secure both seats for his family. He thus gained sweet revenge over his Whig rival Thomas Vincent† of Fetcham, whose petition to the previous Parliament had unseated Parsons. Vincent twice petitioned against the return of the younger Parsons, claiming that he had been elected ‘by the majority of legal electors’. However, the committee failed to report on the Reigate contest.1
The election of 1695 proved a much sterner test of the Parsons interest, the new Court having clearly awakened to the electoral value of the lordship. As early as December 1690 there had been signs that the King wished to grant the manor to his close ally Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Monmouth, whose family had sold Reigate Priory to Sir John Parsons. However, Monmouth did not become lord of Reigate, and neither did Hon. Edward Russell*, who complained bitterly of his own failure to obtain the manor in May 1691. Rather surprisingly, the King was actually prepared to lease part of the manor to Sir John Parsons only a few months before the contest of 1695, but it was already clear that a challenge would be offered to the sitting Members. In May of that year John Parsons had been removed as steward of the manor and replaced by Hon. Thomas Windsor*, a colonel whose favour at Court had already led to his appointment as a gentleman of the privy chamber. Windsor’s candidacy was also promoted by his family’s ownership of an estate at nearby Flanchford, but an even greater local interest was provided by his running mate, the former Whig Member for Reigate, Roger James†. Despite such considerable opposition, Parsons once again triumphed by ensuring the return of both himself and his son. The losing candidates petitioned the House against ‘the undue means and incompetent votes’ which, they claimed, had secured victory for their rivals, but the elections committee again failed to report.2
Although grudgingly respected by local observers as one of the most powerful figures in south-east Surrey, Sir John Parsons could not repeat his family’s double victory of 1695. The limits of his influence were shown in the course of the subsequent county contest, for even though he managed to engineer the transfer of the county poll from Guildford to Reigate, he could not secure a Tory victory over the master of the shire, Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt.* As if to emphasize his superior local standing, in the subsequent Parliament Onslow acted as the main sponsor of a bill to repair the highway between Reigate and Crawley, a measure which received the Royal Assent on 1 Apr. 1697. A much more worrying development for Parsons, however, was the emergence of Lord Somers (Sir John*) as an electoral rival at Reigate. In April 1697 William granted the manors of Reigate and Howleigh (Hooley) to Joseph Jekyll* in trust for Lord Somers, a gift which, among other revenues, enabled the newly appointed lord chancellor to support his dignity as peer of the realm. The local balance of power was immediately transformed, and for the rest of the period the rivalry between Parsons and Somers determined the borough’s electoral course. Somers soon displayed an eagerness to secure both seats for the Whig cause, directing his secretary, George Adney, to transfer a number of local properties to his friends in preparation for the Reigate poll. As a result, such Whiggish luminaries as the dramatist William Congreve and the bookseller Jacob Tonson became nominal property-holders at Reigate, as well as a host of Somers’ legal and political associates, most notably Hon. Spencer Compton*. For his own part, Parsons installed several Tory outsiders as local electors, including Sir Basil Firebrace* and Reginald Marriott*. Somers paid an indirect compliment to the thoroughness of his rival’s campaign by altering his candidates on the eve of the poll. His initial choice had reportedly fallen on ‘Adney and Hetherington’, almost certainly Richard Adney and Humphrey Hetherington, two London lawyers who acted as trustees for Somers’ fee-farm revenues and who were subsequently listed in the 1698 poll. However, on the day of the election Somers was represented by two legal figures with much stronger local links, Stephen Hervey and Edward Thurland. Such was the bitterness of the division that only 13 of the 225 electors chose to ignore the party line, permitting the Somers interest to prevail ‘against the riotous expenses and factious cabals of his numerous opponents’.3
Although a decisive victory for Somers, the 1698 election proved the only occasion on which he managed to take both Reigate seats. Parsons had only been beaten with considerable effort and cost, and after the traumas of the 1698 Parliament, Somers was naturally more inclined to seek an electoral accommodation with his Tory rival. On 19 Dec. 1700 Robert Harley* was informed that Somers was ‘mustering his last list against the Reigate election, but he will hardly be able to exclude Sir John Parsons’. This assessment was endorsed the day before the poll by a report which confidently predicted that Parsons ‘is to come in, by consent, with Mr Hervey at Reigate’, an accurate forecast of the ensuing result. However, in the process of engineering this compact Somers had failed to take into account the feelings of the discarded Thurland, whose resentment drove him to contest the election of November 1701. In a poll whose size was well below half that of 1698, Thurland finished only eight votes behind Hervey, and would have pushed him even closer had he managed to secure some of the votes which went to Haestrict James, the son of former Reigate Member, Roger. There was little hope of successfully challenging the return of Parsons, but Thurland later petitioned the House against the ‘threats, promises and many undue means’ employed by Hervey. However, once again the election committee did not report on these allegations. A few months later Thurland was presented with another chance to gain his revenge, but the higher turn-out at the election of 1702 indicated that Somers had taken greater care to meet his opponent’s challenge. Parsons again finished as outright winner, and Hervey achieved a more comfortable margin of victory over Thurland. James, however, made the most significant gains in this contest, largely through attracting the second votes of Hervey’s supporters, whose Whiggish opinions James no doubt shared. Although both the losing candidates had performed creditably in this contest, for the next eight years the accommodation between Somers and Parsons went unchallenged. However, the county poll of May 1705 revealed the very real potential for electoral conflict at Reigate, for more than a third of the borough freeholders backed the Tory candidate, Edward Harvey*. Moreover, even though the election of 1705 had passed off peacefully, the delicacy of the party accord became evident in April 1707 when reports suggested that financial difficulties would force Parsons to sell the Priory. Jekyll advised Somers that ‘it would be a mighty good thing to buy out Sir John’s interest’, but Parsons did not sell. Given Parsons’ worries, it is not surprising that the by-election called on the death of Hervey saw an unopposed return for Somers’ nominee, his nephew James Cocks, who also went on to share the seats with Parsons at the general election twelve months later.4
Only with the impetus provided by the Sacheverell affair was the party compact at Reigate broken. Some six weeks before the poll Somers was already trying to drum up support for the Whig interest, and the poll later revealed that he had managed to bring in as electors (Sir) Charles Cox* and Sir William Scawen*, as well as his Kit-Cat colleague Sir Godfrey Kneller. Parsons also sought to recruit external support, most notably Sacheverell’s City allies Sir George Newland* and his son William*. However, Parsons took a risk by enlisting a fellow London businessman, John Ward IV of Hackney, as his running-mate, for the latter had no strong ties with the borough. Conversely, Somers chose to run Cocks alongside a gentleman of an established local pedigree, William Jordan† of Gatwick. The size of the poll actually exceeded that of 1698, and once again few electors strayed from party ranks. On this occasion it was the Tories who benefited most from the discipline of their supporters, and their superiority over their local rivals was even more marked among the Reigate freeholders who voted at the subsequent county election. Still flush from such a notable electoral victory, in July 1712 Ward presented the Queen with the borough’s only loyal address of the period. Issued on behalf of the ‘burgesses, freeholders and inhabitants’ of Reigate, it chiefly rejoiced in ‘the glad tidings of an approaching peace’. While predictably lauding the merits of ‘so wise’ a ministry, the address also criticized those allied powers which sought to prolong the war ‘at a very unequal expense of your subjects’ blood and treasure’. The cost of the prior electoral contest was perhaps uppermost in the minds of Reigate’s major proprietors at the election of 1713, for by the time of the poll Parsons and Somers had evidently resolved their differences once more. Thurland foolishly tried to upset their plans by running as an independent, but finished a very distant third. Having recently distinguished himself as a ‘whimsical’ Tory over the French commerce treaty, Parsons was a much more attractive proposition for Whig voters, and he managed to gain the support of all but seven of the 150 voters. It was ultimately the lordship of Reigate which proved the more durable of the rival interests, and within a decade Somers’ successors had established so complete a dominance over the borough that their nominees were rarely challenged for the rest of the century.5
Author: Perry Gauci
- 1. Bodl. Willis mss 48, f. 143; Manning and Bray, Surr. i. 289, 295; W. Hooper, Reigate, 73.
- 2. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, pp. 150–1; Manning and Bray, 287–8, 304, 307; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 367; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1069, 1133.
- 3. BL, Evelyn mss 488, 740; Cal. Treas. Bks. xii. 108; W. L. Sachse, Ld. Somers, 138; Memoirs of Life of John, Ld. Somers , 42; Surr. RO (Kingston), 445/1, Reigate poll, 1698; HMC Portland, iii. 598.
- 4. HMC Portland, iii. 639; iv. 10–11; Surr. RO (Kingston), 445/1, Reigate polls, 1701, 1702; Somers mss 371/14/01/15, Jekyll to Somers, 4 Apr. 1707; Manning and Bray, 321–2; Surr. Polls of 1705; 1710 (IHR).
- 5. Surr. RO (Kingston), 445/1, Reigate polls, 1710, 1713; Surr. RO (Guildford), Midleton mss 1248/3, f. 129; London Gazette, 24–26 July 1712.