Middlesex

Double Member County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 3,500

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
2 May 1754Sir William Beauchamp Proctor 
 George Cooke 
7 Apr. 1761Sir William Beauchamp Proctor 
 George Cooke 
27 Nov. 1766Cooke re-elected after appointment to office 
28 Mar. 1768John Wilkes1297
 George Cooke827
 Sir William Beauchamp Proctor802
14 Dec. 1768John Glynn vice Cooke, deceased1548
 Sir William Beauchamp Proctor1272
16 Feb. 1769John Wilkes re-elected after having been expelled the House 
16 Mar. 1769John Wilkes re-elected after having been expelled the House and declared incapable of being re-elected 
13 Apr. 1769John Wilkes re-elected after having been expelled the House and declared incapable of being re-elected1143
 Henry Lawes Luttrell296
 William Whitaker5
 LUTTRELL declared elected, 15 Apr. 1769 
20 Oct. 1774John Wilkes 
 John Glynn 
28 Oct. 1779Thomas Wood vice Glynn, deceased 
14 Sept. 1780John Wilkes 
 George Byng 
22 Apr. 1784William Mainwaring2118
 John Wilkes1858
 George Byng1792

Main Article

In 1754 and 1761 Sir William Beauchamp Proctor and George Cooke were returned unopposed for Middlesex. Beauchamp Proctor, a Whig, had represented the county since 1747, Cooke, a Tory, since 1750; and they seemed likely to continue to hold their seats without the peace of the county being disturbed. But below the apparently placid surface of Middlesex politics radical changes were taking place, which were to lead at the general election of 1768 to an eruption of devastating intensity.

In February 1768 John Wilkes returned to England from France, whither he had fled four years earlier. In his absence he had been convicted for libel and blasphemy, expelled the House of Commons, and declared an outlaw. The issue of general warrants, which he had first raised, had now been settled; and his personal fortunes appeared desperate. It was essential for him to be in Parliament, and to arrive with éclat; to be smuggled in for a nomination borough would not do. He needed a constituency of importance, where his powers of demagogy could be exploited. He first stood for London, where he came bottom of the poll; and then, two days before the election for Middlesex was due, declared himself a candidate for the county. With no property in the county, no money to support an expensive contest, and no time to canvass the constituency, it seemed impossible that he could succeed. Yet, in a poll of just over 2,000, he had a majority of 465 over Cooke and 485 over Beauchamp Proctor. ‘I am persuaded’, wrote Lord Camden,:1 ‘that no person living, after Wilkes had been defeated in London, would have thought it possible for him to have carried his election for the county of Middlesex.’ And Benjamin Franklin commented:2‘It is really an extraordinary event to see an outlaw and exile, of bad personal character, not worth a farthing ... immediately carrying it for the principal county.’ What was the explanation of Wilkes’s extraordinary success?

His adversaries attributed his victory to mob rule, ‘many of the freeholders on the other side’, wrote Grafton,3 ‘being prevented, or intimidated, from giving their votes’. The poll was certainly small, but according to the Public Advertiser (30 Mar. 1768) it was conducted ‘with the greatest regularity and order: there was not the least insult or violence offered to any elector that polled for either party’. The by-election in December 1768 took place under the shadow of a court mob, yet the Wilkites won a convincing victory. It seems clear that Wilkes’s opponents were misled by the result of his candidature for the City of London, and assumed, naturally but incorrectly, that he had shot his bolt.

The main reason for Wilkes’s success in Middlesex is that he had, either by accident or design, hit on the one county in the kingdom where his campaign might produce a response. Middlesex was by far the most urbanised of all the counties, and Wilkes’s victory demonstrated the extent to which Middlesex was dominated by London. The voting strength of the hundred of Ossulstone, in which the urban development had taken place, was more than twice that of the other five hundreds combined. Moreover, a very large proportion of the freeholders of Middlesex were in business. The London voters included not only merchants, brewers, attorneys, distillers, and manufacturers, but also what contemporaries called ‘the little freeholders’—cheese-mongers, upholsterers, grocers, booksellers, weavers, ironmongers, undertakers, apothecaries, plumbers, drapers, watchmakers, turners, cashiers, and carpenters. These shopkeepers and small tradesmen provided the bulk of Wilkes’s following: they were less subject to intimidation and control than the tenant farmers in the other county constituencies. Moreover, there were few large landowners in Middlesex. In 1779 John Robinson wrote:4

Indeed, I find that although there is great riches within the county, yet there are not many rich individuals, and that it is one of the first estates to have £1,200 in land within the county ... There can therefore be no great following, but the Duke of Northumberland’s.

In no other county could the weight of numbers have been pitted against influence with such success. Even in Middlesex, influence would probably have triumphed had it been thrust squarely into the struggle from the beginning, but there are signs that the sitting Members underestimated the challenge. Scores of gentlemen did not trouble to record their votes, and when, by December, they realised their mistake, their opponents had tasted blood.

The voting itself was strictly on class lines. The gentry and clergy supported Beauchamp Proctor and Cooke almost to a man. Wilkes’s worst area was the hundred of Elthorne, where Cooke had property: here he polled no more than 13% of the votes cast. His vote was strongest in the troubled areas of East London. In the five rural hundreds as a whole, Wilkes polled 31% of the votes cast, but in the Tower division of Ossulstone hundred (Mile End, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Whitechapel, Limehouse, and Spitalfields) it rose to 61%, and in the riverside parishes of Shadwell and Wapping to 74%. No less than 1,000 of his 1,292 votes were plumpers.

The commercial class as a whole gave Wilkes strong support. A sample of 200 merchants shows that Cooke received 88 votes to Beauchamp Proctor’s 93 and 118 to Wilkes. But a more revealing analysis can be made by separating the larger merchants from the shopkeepers. A sample of 50 larger merchants gives 33 votes to Cooke, 33 to Beauchamp Proctor, and only 18 to Wilkes: a corresponding group of shopkeepers gives 12 to Beauchamp Proctor, 14 to Cooke, and 38 to Wilkes.

It is not easy to see why the shopkeepers should have given such strong support to Wilkes. London in the spring of 1768 was the scene of constant riots: there was unemployment and hardship among the poor, resulting in strikes and violence. Yet, in times of riot the shopkeepers might well have turned towards the forces of law and order for protection, as they did during the Gordon riots. The mob was, for Wilkes, a double-edged weapon: scarcely any of the marauding bands of coal-heavers, hatters, sailors, chairmen, weavers, and watermen had the right to vote, and if they got out of hand they could easily frighten off the moderate freeholders.

The platform on which Wilkes campaigned was negative. His advertisement to the freeholders merely reminded them of his sufferings in the cause of general warrants, and declared that vigilance was essential. His speech on the hustings at Brentford was no more specific. Only later, with Wilkes an unenthusiastic spectator, was a coherent programme of reform drawn up, demanding shorter Parliaments, a place bill, and a more equal representation of the people. But however obscure his policy, his tactical flair was exhilarating and his electoral organization excellent. He was helped, too, by the economic distress following a bitter winter: the throngs of unemployed roaming the streets made it easy to whip up the incidents on which a demagogic campaign depends. In short, three factors combined in 1768 to turn this discontent into an articulate protest: a demagogue of outstanding ability, a Government that handled the situation most maladroitly, and a group of reformers who seized the opportunity to create a genuine radical movement.

Wilkes’s victory set in motion a series of events that dominated Middlesex politics for two decades. The poll had been orderly, but as soon as it closed pandemonium broke loose, as the mob forced householders to light up in honour of their champion. Wilkes’s next move was to surrender himself. Though his outlawry was quashed, he was sent to prison for twenty-two months. In June 1768 he had a stroke of good fortune. One of the first Members of the new Parliament to die was his fellow Member for Middlesex George Cooke: the resulting by-election gave Wilkes the chance to keep the pot boiling by putting up his lawyer, Serjeant Glynn, against Beauchamp Proctor. The campaign lasted for six months, and canvassing was intense. On this occasion the ministry exerted all its strength to defeat the Wilkites. Gentlemen streamed to Brentford to give their votes to Beauchamp Proctor, and the Government offices in the Holborn division were combed to find electors. Of the 27 clergy who voted, 25 were for Beauchamp Proctor, and two for Glynn. A few freeholders had changed their allegiance since March, but gains and losses cancelled out: Beauchamp Proctor gained slightly on persons voting for the first time. The division between the greater and lesser business people was even more marked than before. A sample of 90 larger merchants shows that 64 votes went to Beauchamp Proctor and 26 to Glynn; 90 smaller men gave 28 to Beauchamp Proctor and 62 to Glynn. Beauchamp Proctor, determined to resist Wilkes’s mob, brought his own bravos with him: when they got out of hand, polling was brought to a standstill. Ultimately, Glynn carried it by a majority of over 250. The following month Wilkes’s followers organized themselves into the Supporters of the Bill of Rights Society.

Until Parliament met no one was certain what attitude Administration would adopt. Several members of the Cabinet were reluctant to intervene, but the King was peremptory. ‘The expulsion of Mr. Wilkes’, he wrote on 25 Apr., ‘appears to be very essential and must be effected.’5 Wilkes, too, was anxious for a showdown. Rejecting Grafton’s offer of reconciliation, he presented a petition as soon as Parliament reassembled, outlining all his grievances. Lord North explained to his father:6

The Administration was well inclined to do nothing upon the subject of Mr. Wilkes, but he was resolved to force this cause upon them ... I do not see how it can end without his expulsion; he has brought it on himself.

Accordingly, on 3 Feb. 1769 the House voted by 219 to 137 to expel him. Nothing could have been of greater benefit to Wilkes: ‘His popularity increased in proportion to his difficulties’, wrote the Annual Register, ‘and his persecution, as it was termed and generally understood, raised him new friends in every quarter.’ He was put in nomination, and re-elected without opposition. The House again expelled him, and declared that he was incapable of being re-elected into that Parliament.

But Wilkes persisted in standing for re-election. This time he was threatened with an opposition from an eccentric merchant, Charles Dingley, who, however failed to reach the hustings. To Lady Chatham, Dingley wrote:7

The timidity was so epidemic that I had not one freeholder to attend me, or upon the hustings, as I could see; but of the adverse party in number three or four hundred, who all bore upon me to prevent my getting to offer myself as a candidate. Could I have got to have offered myself, I believe four to five hundred would have polled for me.

Wilkes was therefore once more returned, and once more expelled and declared incapable of being re-elected. In an address to the freeholders of Middlesex, Wilkes put his case:8

The question is, whether the people have an inherent right to be represented in Parliament by the man of their free choice, not disqualified by the law of the land ... This contest has now become of the most interesting nature. It is between the present Administration and all the electors of Great Britain.

Wilkes maintained that the Commons had no right to declare him incapable of election, and that, by doing so, they were usurping the power of the whole legislature. His opponents retorted that the House of Commons had always been the sole judge of its own membership. But beyond the legal niceties, there emerged broader themes. It seemed to many, who were by no means sympathetic to Wilkes himself, that the Government, in proscribing a man it found obnoxious, was striking a blow at the rights of the electors. The friends of Administration, on the other hand, saw the agitation for Wilkes as pure faction. Dr. Johnson wrote in his pamphlet, The False Alarm: ‘That this man cannot be appointed one of the guardians and counsellors of church and state is a grievance not to be endured. Every lover of liberty stands doubtful of the fate of posterity, because the chief county in England cannot take its representative from a gaol.’ The very nature of the House of Commons was brought into discussion: was it a free and independent assembly, responsible only to the electors, or could the Crown and Administration control its membership? Hence the Wilkes controversy became the seed-bed of genuine movements towards constitutional reform—a consequence certainly unforeseen by Wilkes, whose original intention had been merely ‘to raise a dust or starve in a gaol’.

Meanwhile the position was stalemate, unless a candidate could be found to oppose Wilkes. On 24 Mar. 1769 Henry Lawes Luttrell, an army officer and a determined enemy of Wilkes, came forward. An Irishman, with no property in the county, he was in many ways a most unsuitable candidate; yet the best the Government could get. The situation was complicated by the intrusion of two freak candidates, David Roache, a swashbuckling Irishman, brought in, it was said, as a foil to Luttrell,9 and William Whitaker, a lawyer, with Rockingham connexions. The poll itself was conducted with great calm and despatch. The extent to which the Ministry was now discredited can be seen from the voting. Of 150 merchants who had voted for Beauchamp Proctor in December, only 12 could bring themselves to support Luttrell, while of 150 who had voted for Glynn, 96 came forward for Wilkes. Luttrell’s vote came almost entirely from the larger merchants and the court, with a handful of clergy: the names of George Selwyn, Stephen Fox, John St. Leger Douglas, Lord Palmerston and Lord Bateman indicate the type of supporters Luttrell could boast. Roache declined the poll; Whitaker polled 5, Luttrell 296, and Wilkes 1143. The House of Commons then declared Luttrell duly elected, and for the rest of that Parliament he shared the county representation with Serjeant Glynn.

All the cards were now in Wilkes’s hand, and he played them skilfully. The issue had been resolved into one simple point, and that of great constitutional significance. Instead of encouraging the mob to excesses, Wilkes and his friends acted with restraint. A meeting at Mile End approved a petition setting forth the grievances of the freeholders, and it was presented ‘as decently and respectfully as if it had come from Scotland’.10 Other petitions followed from London, Surrey, Westminster, Yorkshire, and many of the counties and boroughs in the kingdom. In the meantime, a series of trials kept the controversy before the public. The City of London, which in 1768 had put Wilkes at the bottom of seven candidates, in 1770 elected a follower of Wilkes, Richard Oliver, to Parliament. The following year, Wilkes headed the poll for sheriff of London, and just before the general election of 1774 was chosen lord mayor.

The one faint hope for the Ministry in 1774 was to secure Wilkes’s defeat on the hustings: if he were elected, they could have no reason for expelling him again. There were some indications that the flame was burning itself out, and the radicals had quarrelled bitterly among themselves. Nevertheless, the ‘timidity and want of zeal’ of the gentlemen of the county was the despair of Lord North and the King. North reported the views of one possible candidate, James Clitherow of Boston House, William Blackstone’s brother-in-law:11

Mr. Clitherow not only persists in refusing to stand himself, but assures Mr. Robinson that there is no country gentleman in the county who will offer himself, or is likely to be well supported, and gives it as his opinion that the only possible way of our succeeding will be to wait and see if, from the division amongst the faction, any gentleman not connected with Government will step forth, and in that case to give him our assistance. He says that from his knowledge of the county he can venture to pronounce, that a candidate set up by Government will be infallibly defeated.

The Administration continued to beat up for volunteers, but with such little success at first that they were obliged to content themselves with advertising that ‘Two Gentlemen of Fortune and Honour’ would come forward.12 At length Sir Charles Raymond and Clitherow were pressed into service, but Raymond deserted before the enemy was even sighted. North succeeded for a few hours in getting him back into the arena, ‘upon condition that he need not attend the poll, but be allowed to go to Bath for his health’, but the meeting at which they were to be nominated was taken over by Wilkites, and the whole scheme fell through again.13 Glynn and Wilkes were elected unopposed. When Wilkes presented himself as the Member for Middlesex no objection was offered.

The Wilkes controversy now faded into the background, though Wilkes made an annual motion to have the record of his expulsion expunged, and annually it was defeated. In 1779, on the death of Glynn, the Ministry made another abortive attempt to raise an opposition in the county. Well aware that an avowed supporter of the Government could not succeed, North gave his assistance to George Forster Tufnell, standing on the Duke of Northumberland’s interest, who, though associated with Opposition, was less extreme than George Byng, whom the radicals wished to bring in. John Robinson assured the King:

The Duke of Northumberland has had a very full, explicit, and satisfactory explanation with Mr. Tufnell, although Mr. Tufnell has in general hitherto gone against Administration.

And the King agreed that Northumberland should receive financial support.14

At first Byng was uneasy, since he had no money to spare for a contest. On 11 Oct. 1779 he wrote to the Duke of Portland:15

Many of my Tower Hamlet friends are shaken, they are steady to me, but I cannot work them up to promise absolutely against Tufnell and they canvass insidiously. Our acting in Parliament together and his attention to their business has given him a secondary interest.

But the Ministry, with its instinct for doing the wrong thing, came to his aid. Tufnell and Byng were both sitting Members. North promised the Chiltern Hundreds to Tufnell and refused it to Byng, on the grounds that his opponent was first in the field. The result was that Byng, who dreaded a contest, was provided with an excellent excuse to withdraw, while Tufnell, damned by this public avowal of the Ministry’s favour, was forced to decline. Byng’s place was taken by Thomas Wood of Littleton as locum tenens. To Portland, Byng wrote:

I am reduced by Lord North to the most desirable situation. It is publicly declared that Mr. Wood is to hold only a temporary seat, this not the management of a select committee, but avowed in the face of the county, the request of the freeholders at large; I have the pleasure to assure you that there is a spirit in them beyond even what I thought. ... Mr. Wood is sent home. He is not to canvass, nor to do any one act at any one period that can incur expense.

Wilkes accepted the arrangement, being anxious to bind Wood’s following to him at the general election,16 and Wood was returned unopposed. When the general election came, in September 1780, he made way for Byng, who was elected with Wilkes. Despite rumours that a ministerial candidate would make a surprise appearance at the hustings, the Government seems to have made no attempt to intervene.17

Byng and Wilkes took different views of the Coalition in 1783, and at the following election a contest ensued. Wilkes and William Mainwaring stood on a joint interest as supporters of Pitt; Byng as a Foxite. Mainwaring, a lawyer, was chairman of the Middlesex and Westminster quarter sessions, and could rely upon powerful support from his fellow justices: he was also given £1,000 towards his election expenses by the Treasury.18 Wilkes was therefore in the novel position of receiving royal assistance—an irony which his opponents were quick to exploit. A typical caricature represented ‘the reconciliation of the two Kings of Brentford’: Wilkes is seen embracing George III as ‘the best of princes’, and is greeted in return as ‘the worthiest of subjects and most virtuous of men’. All his old slogans were refurbished for use against him. ‘We must not let it be said or thought that the county of Middlesex is resigned to the overbearing influence of the Crown,’ wrote Portland.19 Byng’s task was by no means hopeless. Wilkes had already lost much of his popularity: one of his agents warned him that his enemies

assert that you are seldom in the House and a man of no business (but upon very extraordinary occasions) ... and I am fearful that they will succeed in their election unless there is a speedy canvass and other necessary means attended to.20

At fifty-seven, Wilkes was no firebrand, and his campaign was sluggish. Nevertheless, he played on old loyalties by emphasizing Pitt’s attempts to promote parliamentary reform. Byng, while professing himself a friend to reform, took the Burke line and refused to give specific undertakings: Wilkes and Mainwaring, on the other hand, pledged themselves to accept instructions from their constituents.

The struggle lay between Wilkes and Byng. Now that the landed classes were divided among themselves, the voting pattern was much less clear than in 1768. East London, Wilkes’s old hunting ground, continued to give him solid support: Poplar, Shadwell, Limehouse, Whitechapel, Hoxton, and Wapping gave him 229 against 112 for Byng. Spitalfields and Ratcliff, however, favoured Byng by 52-41. In the market towns the polling showed no clear pattern. Enfield supported Wilkes 73-47, Staines 34-20, Uxbridge 32-18, and Hillingdon 18-3, but Hendon gave Byng 16-10, Hayes 10-6, and South Mimms, where he lived, 32-6. In the event, Mainwaring was easily first, while Wilkes took second place by a mere 66 votes. Byng at once demanded a scrutiny, but it did not start until 14 May, and the preliminaries were accompanied by such acrimony that he declared he would raise the matter by petition instead. In fact no further steps were taken, Byng probably being deterred by the size of Pitt’s majority in the House of Commons.

In 1790 Wilkes came forward once again as a candidate, but he was a spent force. At the freeholders’ meeting, held at the Mermaid Tavern, Hackney, he was accused of neglecting parliamentary business, and Mainwaring and George Byng jun. were adopted by such majorities that Wilkes ‘silently retired’, and made no appearance at the hustings the following day.21

Author: J. A. Cannon

Notes

See G. Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty.