Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
1,257 in 1693; at least 1,405 in 1708
|4 Mar. 1690||SIR JOHN SOMERS|
|5 Dec. 1693||SAMUEL SWIFT vice Somers, appointed to office||682|
|COCKS vice Swift, on petition, 7 Feb. 1694|
|5 Nov. 1695||SAMUEL SWIFT|
|9 Aug. 1698||SAMUEL SWIFT||942|
|21 Jan. 1701||THOMAS WYLDE|
|25 Nov. 1701||SAMUEL SWIFT|
|4 Aug. 1702||SAMUEL SWIFT|
|21 May 1705||THOMAS WYLDE|
|17 May 1708||THOMAS WYLDE||1143|
|17 Oct. 1710||SAMUEL SWIFT|
|15 Sept. 1713||THOMAS WYLDE|
‘The people mostly subsist by woollen manufacture. The best broadcloth in England is made here.’ So wrote Rev. Thomas Cox in 1700. Worcester’s prosperity was based on this type of textile production, much of it intended for London and the export market. However, structural shifts in the economy, which led to the disappearance of the industry by 1750, were already causing severe dislocation and hardship. The problems besetting the trade no doubt explain the eagerness of the clothiers’ company to petition Parliament in the hope of influencing legislation in ways beneficial to the industry. Although they were not the only petitioners, they were certainly more persistent than the corporation or the other incorporated companies. This was consistent with the clothiers’ status within Worcester: between 1690 and 1710 over half the freemen admitted were clothiers. Since occupations are recorded for 50 per cent of entrants, at least a quarter of the electorate must have been clothiers, and probably a much higher percentage. Unfortunately, evidence explaining the role of this interest group in parliamentary elections is sparse, but it must provide the backdrop to any discussion of politics in the city. Similarly, the role of the corporation in elections was significant, if obscure. The most important executive functions were exercised by the mayor and six aldermen, assisted by ‘the 24’ and ‘the 48’, the former being of a higher status, much more closely associated with important business, and recruited from the ranks of the latter.3
The potential for disruption in civic affairs attendant upon James II’s reversal of policy towards parliamentary boroughs in 1688 was avoided at Worcester by virtue of a compromise which enabled those Whigs excluded in 1683, restored as ‘collaborators’ in March 1688, and who still wished to serve, to be re-elected to the corporation in November 1688. This same spirit of co-operation saw the unopposed election of two Whigs to the Convention. Publicly at least the appearance of harmony continued at the 1690 election, when Sir John Somers and William Bromley I were again returned unchallenged. However, considerable disaffection among Tories indicated that the fragile consensus within the city was about to disintegrate. To Dr Ralph Taylor, a future non-juring bishop, election day passed ‘with so great silence, and so little appearance, that it seemed to be a seizure rather than an election’. In his opinion, ‘if any gentleman of note but three days before the election would have appeared they would have thrown them out’.4
The fissures deep inside the body politic were cracked wide open in 1693. The catalyst was the appointment of Somers as lord keeper at the end of the parliamentary session in March. As a new writ could not be moved until Parliament reconvened, this left the whole summer for prospective candidates to engage in political manoeuvres. Matters were complicated, and passions inflamed, by the outbreak of riots in the city at the beginning of May over a shortage of grain and rumours that existing stocks were to be sold abroad. The depressed state of the clothing trade was generally held responsible, but some observers detected agitators at work, while others sought to smear political opponents. In June a Jacobite agent was seized in the city with ‘treasonable papers’ on his person, which the Whigs attempted to connect to Alderman Haynes, a leading Tory. The political repercussions of the riots, and the subsequent commission of oyer and terminer instituted to try the offenders, are not clear, but Somers was keen to obtain clemency for those condemned, on the grounds that they were poor men who had been led astray by others. By April 1693 Samuel Swift had entered the lists as a parliamentary candidate. Politically he was a Tory but one who had played a major role in uniting the corporation on his resumption of the mayoralty for two weeks in 1688. As a local merchant and alderman he obviously had local appeal, although some may have felt that he had failed in his duties as a magistrate in the recent riots. Initially, one of the Lechmere family was touted as his Whig rival, but eventually Charles Cocks, a local attorney and brother-in-law of Somers, stepped forward to oppose. Swift refused to be dissuaded from standing by Cocks, merely offering to relinquish the seat if Somers became eligible to sit in the Commons again. Thus from late August a contest appeared likely, the course of the campaign being illustrated by letters to Somers from Cocks and his agents. In late October Cocks asked Somers for his personal recommendation to the two most influential groups in the city, the clothiers’ company and the mayor and aldermen. From these requests it would seem that Somers was holding himself more aloof than Cocks thought wise, as was Bromley, who was warned that victory for Swift would result in a challenge for his seat as well at the next election. By November Cocks was predicting a ‘sharp’ contest for which he was preparing with vigorous canvassing: letters to Somers indicate approaches to the clothiers’ company (for which Cocks had worked in the 1680s), the dean and chapter, shopkeepers, Quakers and neighbouring gentry. As the contest grew more intense, violence erupted, Cocks reporting that there had been ‘two riots since Friday’ and ‘200 broken heads’. Furthermore, the importance attached to the result grew, so that Philip Bearcroft (one of Cocks’s agents) could couch it in the following dramatic terms: ‘if we lose it now we can never hope for the future, but if we carry it, it will so establish our interest that we need not fear any opposition for the future’. In the event Swift outpolled Cocks by over 100 votes, his total including nearly 300 clothiers, a figure which prompted Cocks to write, ‘I never knew them so false before’. It is likely that economic decline was responsible for this switch in their traditional political allegiance, but no evidence survives which demonstrates that contemporaries made the connexion. Having spent £700, Cocks was not going to surrender without a fight. Indeed, his first response was to challenge Swift’s return by producing his own indenture, signed by half the corporation. However, Swift’s return bore the crucial imprimatur of the sheriff of the city, the returning officer. With Swift accepted into the House, Cocks ensured the presentation of two petitions to the Commons, his own and one from the mayor and other citizens, both complaining of illegal practices. The chief issue on which the committee of elections took evidence, was the admission of freemen. A dispute had occurred over whether to admit freemen before the poll, thus allowing them to vote. The mayor, a supporter of Cocks, had disagreed with Alderman Haynes, with the result that many of those claiming to be eligible to vote could not do so. Cocks alleged that he enjoyed a majority among these men which, when the bribery and intimidation of other voters had been taken into account, would have given him victory. The corporation books substantiate the point concerning the numbers of men effectively disfranchised, because during the mayoral year 1693–4, 242 freemen were admitted (226 by apprenticeship), the vast majority of whom, according to the Journals, did not vote in the election. The Commons evidently believed Cocks, for they voted Swift out and Cocks in. While one of Robert Harley’s* correspondents might decry ‘the insolvency of the rabble in the late election at Worcester’, the townspeople’s reaction to the Commons’ verdict was unfavourable. The populace, including many of the wealthier citizens, demonstrated their disgust with the decision, shouting
hang Cox [sic]; Swift is our parliamentman or else the liberties of our city are invaded and lost. A cheat. A cheat. A Presbyterian cheat. All honesty went away with K[ing] J[ames]. Who caused the King’s head to be cut off? Who gathered hands to shed his blood? Who shot at the minister in Stoke pulpit?
The latter was a reference to Somers’ father, who had reputedly fired a pistol over a clergyman’s head in response to a Royalist sermon.5
The political manoeuvres attendant upon the 1695 general election illustrate that political divisions in Worcester were part of a broader configuration, encompassing most of the constituencies in the county. The principal problem for Bromley and Cocks was the electoral strength of Swift, as had been demonstrated in 1693. Even if Swift stood singly he would constitute a major threat and there were rumours that he would join with Sir John Pakington, 4th Bt.*, who was making ‘strong applications to the city’. Sir James Rushout, 1st Bt.*, pinpointed the Whig dilemma: ‘my intelligence says it will be hardly possible to overthrow Swift and that the best terms must be a composition for one of them.’ The question was which man would give way. Cocks sought the advice of Somers: ‘I must confess I cannot certainly know my interest here, but that I am rightly informed it is not less than it was. But I should be unwilling to meet with a baffle, and the more because I must stand by myself.’ His alternative course of action was to stand at Droitwich instead. According to Somers’ sister, Mrs Cocks, Bromley would rather have stood for the city than the county and would only have relinquished his seat to Cocks very unwillingly. In her opinion, ‘should they both stand it would cost a good deal of money and it is likely enough one of them may lose it’. The upshot was an agreement which saw Bromley and Swift returned unopposed in November 1695 and Cocks elected at Droitwich.6
Although the efforts to promote an accommodation at Worcester in 1695 were successful, the ambition of another Whig, Thomas Wylde, ensured a contest in 1698. The threat of a poll can be clearly seen in the 269 freemen admitted in the mayoral year 1697–8, compared with only 60 in 1695–6, and 30 in 1696–7. In May 1698 the Duke of Shrewsbury passed on to Somers the assessment of the dean of Worcester, William Talbot, that ‘Bromley has by much the greatest interest at Worcester, that he will be safe and the dispute lie between Wylde and Swift’. This prediction may have been a trifle over-sanguine as, after the poll, Somers reported to Shrewsbury, ‘I could not have imagined Mr Bromley would have had so great a struggle for his coming in’. Wylde had pushed Bromley hard, with Swift having the largest interest. It is possible that Bromley’s experiences at this election played a role in his decision to stand for the county in January 1701, leaving the field free for Swift and Wylde to be chosen without opposition. In October 1701, William Walsh*, a leading Whig, penned a lengthy missive to Somers discussing the prospects for elections in Worcestershire if William III could be persuaded to dissolve Parliament. In Worcester itself the Whigs were intent on capitalizing on the lukewarm nature of Tory support for measures against Louis XIV. Indeed, the city’s address lambasted ‘a treacherous party among us, who being blinded by private pique or interest, have expressed as little regard to the safety of their country, as the French King has done to the obligations of his treaties’. Such men included Swift, who was black-listed for opposing preparations for war. With Bromley committed to fighting the county seat, Walsh was full of suggestions for possible partners for Wylde. He laid down two alternative strategies aimed at defeating Swift:
one is spending money against him; the other resolving to spend none but take the advantage of his doing it and petition. The first is the only sure way, the other being only a back game which will be determined according to the inclinations of the House.
However, there was no contest in November 1701, possibly because, as Walsh had suggested, Swift kept an open house and intimidated prospective opponents from standing against him owing to the cost involved. There was no hint of another contest in the city until 1708. The number of freemen admitted between the mayoral years 1698–9 and 1706–7 confirms this: on average only 40 were admitted each year, the highest annual total being 74.7
Conversely, the number of freeman admissions rose to 171 in 1707–8, and in the 1708 election Benjamin Pearkes, a haberdasher and the current mayor, challenged the hegemony of Swift and Wylde, only to finish well adrift at the bottom of the poll. In the more auspicious circumstances of 1710 Pearkes tried again. The election was preceded by a visit from Dr Sacheverell to dine with the corporation in July, which saw the Whig magistrates, including Wylde, attempt to quell any popular manifestations of joy. In August and September, Dyer reported that two addresses were being promoted in the town: one was Tory and ‘very loyal’, the other signed by ‘Presbyterians, anabaptists, occasional men’ and other ‘riff-raff’. Originally, it was thought that Charles Cocks would stand, but the main contest was between Wylde and Pearkes. A week before polling, the Tory Earl of Plymouth was admitted a freeman and there followed ‘great entertainments’. Swift faced no opposition, but Wylde defeated Pearkes, who petitioned. In the following months Wylde and his supporters made strenuous efforts to collect evidence and mobilize their friends at Westminster. By February 1711 Wylde thought that his opponents aimed at a void election, but by the end of the month Samuel Pytts* was claiming the credit for persuading Pearkes to withdraw it. In 1713 Wylde was confronted by a different challenger, Berkeley Green of Cotheridge, who had been honoured by Sacheverell’s acceptance of his hospitality in 1710. Again Swift and Wylde triumphed, as they were to do in 1715.8
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. Barré thesis, 14.
- 2. Bodl. Willis 15, f. 92v.
- 3. Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. ser. 3, x. 91–97; viii. 8–9.
- 4. Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. viii. 18–20; Bodl. Ballard 35, ff. 48, 50.
- 5. M. Beloff, Public Order and Popular Disturbance, 60–62; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 91, 105; Hopkins thesis, 137; Wood, Life and Times, iii. 422–3, 425; HMC Portland, iii. 535; CSP Dom. 1693, p. 172; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1171, Somers to Portland, 20 June 1693; Ballard 13, f. 27; Surr. RO (Kingston), Somers mss 371/14/B1–6, 8–12, 15, Cocks to Somers, 26 Aug., 26 Sept., 23, 26 Oct., 11, 13 Nov., 9, 11, 12, 16, 31 Dec. 1693, 7 Jan. 1693[–4]; B7, Philip Bearcroft to same, 25 Nov. 1693; B13, 14a, ‘W. C.’ to John Burridge*, 9, 20 Dec. 1693; 14b, evidence of electoral malpractice; Hereford and Worcester RO (Worcester, St. Helen’s), Worcester clothiers’ company mss 705: 232/BA3955/7/v; Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. ser. 3, x. 101; Add. 70203, G. Nelson to Harley, 19 Dec. 1693; Bodl. Rawl. lett. 94, f. 375 (Horwitz trans.); W. L. Sachse, Ld. Somers, 2.
- 6. Somers mss 371/14/J4–5, Rushout to Somers, 3, 10 Aug. 1695; 01/7, Cocks to same, 31 Aug. 1695; 01/19, Mary Cocks to same, n.d. [31 Aug. 1695].
- 7. Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. ser. 3, x. 101; Somers mss 371/14/E14, Shrewsbury to Somers, 11 May 1698; B20, Walsh to same, 26 Oct. 1701; Shrewsbury Corresp. 554; Flying Post, 21–23 Oct. 1701.
- 8. Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. ser. 3, x. 101; Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletters, 12 July, 19 Aug., 5 Sept. 1710; HMC Portland, iv. 550, 625; Strathmore mss at Glamis Castle, box 74, bdle. 8, newsletter 14 Oct. 1710; Hereford and Worcester RO (Worcester, St. Helen’s), Cal. Wm. Lygon letters, 334, 366, 403, Wylde to Lygon, 7 July, 23 Oct. 1710, 10 Feb. 1710–11; Katharine Wylde to same, 27, Jan., 6 Feb. 1710–11; 414, 421, Pytts to same, 10, 25 Feb. 1710–11; Ballard 21, f. 226.