II. The Elections

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



Henry Pelham, first lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons since 1743, died on 6 March 1754, in the midst of preparations for the general election. The Duke of Newcastle, his brother and successor as head of the Treasury, upon whom now devolved the management of the election, had to be informed of all Pelham’s plans. This was done by Pelham’s election manager Lord Dupplin, his ‘very faithful secretary’ John Roberts, and the secretary to the Treasury James West. Between them they supplied Newcastle with a mass of papers, which provide an electoral survey more complete than is available for any of the three following general elections, and is only equalled by John Robinson’s surveys for the elections of 1780 and 1784. Among them are some of Pelham’s original lists (undated, but partly or wholly in his hand) of ‘persons to be provided for’, ‘persons not settled’, ‘places and persons destined for them’, etc., none of them complete or systematically arranged. There are lists drawn up for Newcastle’s information, summarizing what Pelham’s three assistants could recollect or extract from his surviving correspondence; and day by day memoranda dealing with the election campaign as it developed. Most comprehensive of all is a document entitled ‘The Present State of Elections for England and Wales’, undated but placed by internal evidence between 16 and 21 March 1754.

In this document the names of the candidates are given for each constituency, together with remarks about the state of the election. Sometimes these are very short: ‘Lord Godolphin’s interest’, ‘Mr. Gashry can best inform’, ‘a strong contest’, etc.; but some also give a brief picture of the various interests in the constituency. At a superficial glance it would appear that the Treasury was concerned with almost every constituency in England and Wales, and had directed a nation-wide planting out of candidates. But many entries in the ‘Remarks’ column go far to correct this impression. Against many constituencies the only entry is the word ‘Tories’—obviously a Whig election manager had nothing to do in such places. For Chester no candidates are named: ‘Two Tories’ is the remark under that heading—Newcastle either did not know or did not care who they were. And in many constituencies the electoral prospect is sufficiently indicated by the name of the patron. Where contests took place, it is not easy to see any common link between the constituencies or evidence of a nation-wide electoral campaign. Possibly the two bitterest contests of this general election were in Oxfordshire and at Appleby: Oxfordshire a contest between Whigs and Tories in a constituency of 4,000 electors; Appleby a fight between two Whig magnates for control of a pocket borough, with no real voters and no political issues involved. In Oxfordshire the Treasury could provide financial help for the Whig candidates, but could directly influence very few voters; at Appleby it did not interfere for it could do nothing. In fact, there was no Treasury directed country-wide campaign in 1754 and the role of the Treasury was confined to placing certain candidates in certain constituencies: with the majority of constituencies it had little, if anything, to do.

In which constituencies was the Treasury actively concerned? In the Newcastle manuscripts there is a document, dated 15 March 1754, which begins:

The Duke of Newcastle went through (with Lord Dupplin and Mr. Roberts only) the list of Members of the House of Commons for the general election, as produced by Mr. Roberts.
The following names of places and persons had been settled by Mr. Pelham with Lord Dupplin at Richmond in last January, and was copied by Mr. Roberts.

Then follows a list of 35 constituencies, with the names of 65 candidates selected for them (in five constituencies only one seat was available for Government candidates). Sixteen of these constituencies were in Cornwall and the names of the Cornish borough-mongers are prominent in the list: Lord Edgcumbe, Lord Falmouth, John Buller, Edward Eliot, etc. Of the remainder, two were Admiralty boroughs (Dartmouth and Plymouth), one a Treasury borough (Orford), three seats had been sold to Government by Thomas Pitt (one at Okehampton, two at Old Sarum), two were controlled by Henry Fox (at Malmesbury) and two by George Bubb Dodington (at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis), etc. In all, 3 x of these constituencies were controlled by private patrons, and only four by Government. But not all of the 65 candidates for these constituencies were Government nominees: at least 20 seats were filled by the patrons themselves, their relatives or friends, independently of Government. This leaves 45 seats for Government candidates, and to this figure can be added about 25 more (not on the list) which the Government also had at its disposal (in other Government boroughs, the Isle of Wight boroughs, and seats sold to the Government by patrons). Thus, out of a total of 513 Members elected by English and Welsh constituencies, only about 70 were found their seats by the Government, almost all in pocket boroughs. And even this figure is too high if it is taken to mean the number of men personally chosen by Newcastle and on whose loyalty he could depend. The candidates had to be selected in co-operation with the patron and his wishes had to be taken into account: few patrons were prepared to give the Treasury carte blanche in respect of nomination to a borough. The Admiralty seats were filled by the first lord of the Admiralty, not by the Treasury, and naval officers or Admiralty officials had first claim upon them. Lastly, it must be remembered that most of the candidates with whom Newcastle was in some way concerned in 1754 had been nominated by Henry Pelham and their loyalty to their new chief had yet to be proved.

As well as acting as a sort of electoral clearing house (though on a small scale) for candidates and patrons—putting them in touch with each other and regulating the financial arrangements—the Treasury also partly financed candidates. This was done through the secret service account, or the King’s private account to give it its better title—money for which the King was not accountable to Parliament. In round figures, almost £25,000 from this account was spent in 1754 on 22 English constituencies, of which £5,000 was spent in vain: John Dodd, who received £2,000 for his election campaign at Reading, was beaten by one vote; Robert Tracy, a candidate at Worcester, received £1,000, and when refused a further subsidy gave up the contest; and the defeated Government candidates at Walling-ford took another £2,000. In addition, the Government paid £3,000 towards the expenses of the Whig candidates in Oxfordshire, who were seated only as the result of a party vote in the House. £1,800 was spent on aiding the two Government candidates at Westminster against an opposition that stood little chance of success—but then, Westminster was a prestige constituency and a very expensive one. The remaining £15,000 was spent on 17 constituencies: nearly £1,500 at Tregony; £1,000 each at Ilchester, Barnstaple, Steyning, Minehead, Bramber, New Shoreham, Evesham, and Newark; £800 at Chippenham; £700 at Camelford, Grampound, and Newport (Isle of Wight); £500 at Honiton and Dunwich; £300 at Shaftesbury; and £200 at Totnes. In eleven of the 22 constituencies where the Treasury subsidized candidates there were contests, and at Worcester a contest was only averted at the last moment. In the remaining ten constituencies, the money was paid to borough patrons on behalf of candidates who considered they had a claim on Government for their election expenses and were able to bully the Treasury into admitting it.

£2,500—about one-tenth of the Government’s expenses in the English constituencies—was spent on shoring up Newcastle’s private electoral interest. At Newark, where Newcastle and the Duke of Rutland each recommended to one seat, there was an opposition sponsored by the vicar of Newark, who owned considerable property in the borough and was always making trouble for the patrons. Newcastle and Rutland were victorious, at the cost of about £1,700 of which £1,000 was paid from secret service money. And £1,500 was spent on buying off John Fuller, the leader of the malcontents in Newcastle’s borough of Lewes; he was provided with a seat at Tregony and thus prevented from giving Newcastle any opposition at Lewes.

Besides the money spent on English constituencies, £1,800 was spent on Scotland. £1,000 went to the Duke of Argyll, who managed the general election for the Government in Scotland, to be spent at his discretion; and £800 was given to Thomas Leslie, an impecunious army officer, son of the Earl of Rothes, who was threatened with an opposition in Perth Burghs. Leslie pleaded so piteously for assistance that Newcastle must have been hard-hearted indeed (which he was not) not to have helped him. This was really a charitable donation, and at the next general election in 1761 Leslie was again pleading for financial help.

The total Government expenditure at the general election of 1754 was much less than was spent by the Whigs and Tories in Oxfordshire or by Lord Thanet and Sir James Lowther at Appleby. Nor would the Government’s majority have been much smaller had it spent nothing at all: most of the subsidized candidates could have brought themselves into Parliament at their own expense but saw no reason to refuse Government aid if they could get it. Jobbery and charity, rather than any political purpose, dictated this expenditure. A typical case is that of Charles Whitworth, who first received £1,000 towards the expenses of his election at Minehead and then a pension of £400 a year to enable him to keep up his position as an M.P. The game of trying to live at the expense of Government was a favourite one with mid-eighteenth century politicians, and in 1754 there was no strong political cause to lead them away from Government.

In the 1754 election 62 constituencies went to the poll,1 excluding the Scottish districts of burghs. The contests can be subdivided as follows:

contests in 40 English counties
17in 32 English boroughs with an electorate of 1,000 or over (the large boroughs)
10in 28 English boroughs with an electorate of at least 500 but below 1,000 (the medium boroughs)
24in 143 English boroughs with an electorate below 500 (the small boroughs)
3in 12 Welsh counties
1in 12 Welsh borough constituencies
2in 30 Scottish counties


What were these contests about and how far was there a common issue involved?

The five English counties which went to the poll were Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, and Rutland. Two of these were purely local contests, with national issues playing little part: in Herefordshire an outsider tried to break the hold of two of the leading county families, the Cornewalls and the Harleys, on its representation; and the contest in Rutland was a fight between the three leading peers in the county. The other three county contests were between Whigs and Tories. Kent, represented in the Parliament of 1747 by two Tories, only one of whom stood again in 1754, was successfully contested by two Whigs; and in Hertfordshire a candidate backed by some of the leading Tory country gentlemen and an independent element in the county, stood against the two sitting Whig Members. Oxfordshire was the classic case of a Whig v. Tory contest, the one contest carried on in 1754 wholeheartedly in terms of an old cause and ancient loyalties; and the last. Nor was Oxfordshire again contested during the remainder of this period. In a few other counties opposition was mooted but not pressed to the poll, as in Cornwall, where an interesting and unusual manoeuvre was attempted by Admiral Boscawen to break through the monopoly of a few inter-married Tory families by promoting the candidature of a third Tory, but was soon abandoned; and in Dorset, where Lord Digby, a Whig, toyed with the idea of standing for the county against two Tories, but desisted because of the expense. In most counties the representation was settled by the county meeting.

Of the 17 contests in the large boroughs, eight turned on purely local issues, and three were fought in terms of corporation versus independent candidates. In only six were there contests based on matters of national interest: Bristol, London, Southwark, Evesham, Colchester, and Nottingham; and even in these the contests were fought in terms of traditional loyalties rather than of concrete political issues and programmes. At Bristol, the Tories broke the electoral compact with the Whigs and put up two candidates. But their successful candidate, Richard Beckford, was only a Tory by courtesy: a few years later his brother, Alderman William Beckford, who backed Richard’s candidature at Bristol, was to boast that he had always been a Whig. William Beckford himself was returned for London, together with Sir John Barnard, as the candidates of the party of small merchants and tradesmen, defeating two Government supporters. At Southwark, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, who had Tory connexions, was defeated; Edward Rudge who, though voting with Government, received Tory support, was defeated at Evesham; and Charles Gray, a Tory, was successful at Colchester but unseated on petition. At Nottingham, where the Duke of Newcastle, leader of the Whigs, and Lord Middleton, leader of the local Tories, had concluded a compact by which each side was to return one Member, John Plumptre, a second Whig candidate, stood without Newcastle’s support and was defeated. Among the large boroughs which did not go to the poll the only one where political issues seem to have played much part was Exeter, where the Anglican-dominated corporation refused to endorse the candidature of Humphry Sydenham, one of the sitting Members, because he had voted for the Jew bill.

Six of the ten contests in the 28 medium boroughs were of a purely local character. Of the remaining four, the contest at Berwick-upon-Tweed could hardly be said to involve a political issue, though Government was concerned in it: Newcastle gave Government support to John Wilkes against John Delaval, in retaliation for the Delaval family’s interference at Newark; but all three candidates were Whigs. At Maldon, John Bullock, a Whig, but supported by the Essex Tories, defeated one of the Government candidates; here, local issues were far more important than national politics. Sudbury and Reading had straight political contests. At Sudbury, Richard Rigby, a Bedford Whig, failed against two Government candidates; and at Reading, John Dodd, who had received £2,000 from Government for this election, failed by one vote against a Tory and a Bedford Whig. ‘... The electors, principally of the court side, have been remarkably venal’, wrote an observer. ‘... The electors on the Tory side are comparatively upright.’ The Tory candidate came top of the poll; but money, rather than party feeling, decided the issue between the two Whigs.

In short, in 100 English constituencies (the counties and large and medium boroughs) in 1754 there were 32 contests, of which only 12 had any national significance. In Wales, only the election for Carmarthen was fought on party lines. In Scotland, Ross-shire was contested by Kenneth Mackenzie, son of an attainted Jacobite peer, and James Stuart Mackenzie, brother of Lord Bute and nephew of the Duke of Argyll; but there is no evidence that Kenneth Mackenzie’s success was due to pro-Jacobite feeling.

Naturally, in the small boroughs almost all contests were fought without any reference to the candidates’ political allegiances. There was the appearance of a political contest at Newport (Cornwall), where two Bedford Whigs were defeated by two Government supporters, but the real issue at stake was whether Humphry Morice or the Duke of Bedford was to control the borough. Similarly, Bedford tried to revive his interest at Camelford, where both seats had been placed at the disposal of Government, but did not press the issue to a poll. At Wallingford two Government candidates were defeated by Richard Neville Aldworth, a Bedford Whig, and John Hervey, a Government supporter. Hervey had been invited to contest Wallingford by a group in the corporation, about half of whom were for, and half against, the Administration; their purpose in inviting him was ‘to recover the credit of the borough and get it out of the hands of the lower people’. Hervey told Aldworth that if elected he would continue to vote with Government, but refused to make any public declaration which he believed would have lost him some support. So there was, after all, a political flavour to the Wallingford election. Still, when Henry Pelham named two Government candidates to stand against Hervey and Aldworth, no political consequences followed. ‘Hearken, Hervey’, said Pelham, ‘we’ll fight it out in the country and be good friends in town.’

Hervey and Pelham were not the only ones to fight it out in the country and remain good friends in town. One of the most controversial contests of this general election was at Mitchell (Cornwall), where Robert Clive and John Stephenson stood against Simon Luttrell and William Hussey. The leading members of the Administration were deeply divided over this election, and for once Newcastle and Hardwicke were on opposite sides and Henry Fox and Hardwicke (who loathed each other) on the same side. Fox, Hardwicke, and Lord Sandwich, a Bedford Whig in opposition to Government, supported Clive and Stephenson, who were returned; and Newcastle used his majority in the House of Commons to have the defeated candidates, Luttrell and Hussey, seated on petition. The result, as far as Government was concerned, was the same either way, for all four candidates were disposed to support Newcastle’s Administration. Here, as elsewhere, party politics and personal friendships cut across parliamentary allegiances, and there was no straightforward line-up on the Government or the Opposition side.

In 1754 the only organized group in opposition to Newcastle’s Administration was the Bedford Whigs. The Tories, a body of about a hundred Members, were separated from Administration by a gulf of temperament, rather than of politics. They did not wish for office, and since on crucial questions they did not vote as a bloc they were not a force in politics. The general election of 1754 was not a contest between Government and Opposition, nor was it a device for testing public opinion on political issues (there were none in 1754, with the possible exception of the Jew bill). Its outcome resultant of a number of local forces, personal rivalries, struggles for local consequence and importance.

When the election was over the Duke of Newcastle, always anxious and needing to be reassured, deputed Lord Dupplin to draw up lists of the House of Commons and calculate the size of the Government’s majority. Dupplin calculated that the Government had gained 33 seats and lost 22; and this was his forecast of political allegiances in the new Parliament (excluding five Members who had died since the elections and allowing for Members returned for more than one constituency):

Opposition Whigs (i.e., the Bedford group)42


The Government Members were divided into two groups: one classed on an occupational or professional basis, the other according to their known (or assumed) political affiliations and tendencies; and in some of the lists the two criteria of division intercross with confusing results. The 202 Members classed on an occupational basis comprise 87 country gentlemen, 45 placemen holding office at the pleasure of the Crown, 20 army officers, 20 merchants, 12 naval officers, ten placemen for life, and eight ‘lawyers and placemen’. (It must be remembered that these groups are not complete, e.g., many army officers and merchants are classed according to their political affiliations, not their occupations.) Presumably Dupplin felt that these 202 Members classed on an occupational basis would look to the Duke of Newcastle alone as their political chief. The other 166 Government supporters were ranged by Dupplin under their several leaders as follows:

Prince of Wales34
Henry Fox and the Duke of Cumberland                                                
Duke of Argyll15
Lord Powis8
Duke of Rutland6
Horace Walpole6
Lord Hartington6
Lord Rockingham4
Lord Ravensworth3


Finally, there is a residual group entitled ‘For, of various connexions’, which includes 58 names.

Reassured by Dupplin’s lists, Newcastle wrote on 14 May:

The Parliament is good beyond my expectations, and I believe there are more Whigs in it, and generally well-disposed Whigs, than in any Parliament since the Revolution. ... The great point will be to keep our friends together, and that they should do right when they are chose. For from the enemy we have nothing to fear.

But who were the enemy? and who were Newcastle’s friends? Eighteen months later, when foreign policy became the burning question in the House of Commons, the Duke of Bedford’s party had joined Newcastle’s Administration and the Opposition was formed round a nucleus of the Prince of Wales’s friends, whom Dupplin had counted in May 1754 as Government supporters. Even the men on whose behalf Newcastle had particularly exerted himself at the general election of 1754 were not to be depended upon when a real political issue came before the House. Among those who voted against Newcastle on the treaties with Russia and Hesse in November 1755 were Samuel Martin, whose election at Camelford had been partly financed by the Government; George Amyand, who had received £1,000 from the Treasury for his election at Barnstaple; and Richard Hussey, one of the candidates on whose behalf Newcastle had fought the election petition at Mitchell. And the leader of the Opposition in November 1755 was William Pitt, returned in 1754 for Newcastle’s own borough of Aldborough.

When Newcastle was making his arrangements for the leadership of the House of Commons after Henry Pelham’s death, Pitt had warned him:

Indeed, my dear Lord, the inside of the House must be considered in other respects besides merely numbers, or the reins of government will soon slip or be wrested out of any minister’s hands.

It is a revealing comment upon Dupplin’s calculations; and the Parliament of 1754 was to show that something more than a paper majority was necessary to lead the House of Commons.



The Parliament of 1754 ran its full course, and was dissolved on 20 March 1761. George III had then been five months on the throne, and, with the eagerness and naüvety of youth, was burning to rid himself of his grandfather’s ministers and reverse the policy of the previous reign. To inaugurate a reign of virtue and purity, he gave orders that no money was to be issued from the Treasury for the general election. Newcastle wrung his hands and complained to his friends: how was he to manage the election with no money at the Treasury’s disposal? It seemed to him a dire omen for the future. But in the event, it did not have the consequences which George III had hoped for and Newcastle had feared: it did not inaugurate a reign of virtue and purity and it made little difference to the composition of the new House of Commons.

This general election took place at a time when there was no organized Opposition in the House of Commons, and thus, to an even greater extent than in 1754, there was no political issue to divide the electorate and distinguish the candidates. The questions which were to lead to political divisions in this Parliament—the Peace of Paris, the expulsion of Wilkes and the question of general warrants, the taxation of America, the regulation of the East India Company—were as yet in the future, and in 1761 politicians harped on the prospects of unanimity under a new King rather than of party conflict. The nation was in the midst of a successful war, and with the accession of Bute, the King’s favourite, to the Pitt-Newcastle Cabinet, all the front-rank politicians were comprehended within the Government fold. There were strains and stresses between the three principal members of the Administration, and Bute’s favour with the King threatened both Newcastle’s control of patronage and Pitt’s conduct of the war, but in March 1761 no issue had yet arisen which could lead to a breach in this uneasy coalition.

In 1754 there was only one market where borough owners could sell their seats, and it was to Newcastle, as head of the Treasury, that candidates went in search of constituencies. But in 1761 Newcastle was the aged minister of a dead monarch. Pitt disliked election business and would not meddle with it: he never took the trouble to cultivate a constituency himself nor to win the friendship of borough owners. He owed his following in the House of Commons to his successful conduct of the war, not to his electoral interest; and, provided his close friends were accommodated with seats, he was indifferent as to who ran the general election. Those who were ambitious or thought they could forecast political trends, who considered themselves disobliged by Newcastle or had old scores to pay off, hastened to pay their court to Bute, the favourite of the young King, the man of the future. George Bubb Dodington, who had been excluded from the Pitt-Newcastle coalition, and who, though approaching seventy, still fancied his chances in the new reign, offered two seats at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis to Bute. But Bute had no taste for electioneering, nor had he the knowledge and experience to do the work. Even had he wished to do so, he would have had to use the Treasury machine; and Bute, who wanted Newcastle as an ally against Pitt, did not care as yet to antagonize the Duke. Lord Shelburne encouraged Bute to inform himself of the state of the constituencies, but judging from the list Shelburne prepared for Bute’s information, there was a lot Shelburne himself had to learn. In fact in 1761 there was only one person capable of managing the general election. ‘The new Parliament’, said Bute, ‘would be the King’s, let who will choose it’; and it was better to leave it to Newcastle, the old and experienced hand, than to venture himself, untried and ill-informed. Newcastle’s fear of Bute’s interference in the conduct of the general election, like so many trifles that harassed his mind, was a neurotic symptom, not a calm assessment of political probability.

When, after many delays and postponements, Bute submitted to Newcastle the list of those whom the King wished to see brought into Parliament on the Government interest, it contained only three names: Lord Parker, to whose election for Oxfordshire in 1754 the Treasury had contributed, and who was returned in 1761 on the Government interest at Rochester; Thomas Worsley, a close friend of Bute who had taught the King to ride, and whom Newcastle placed in the Treasury borough of Orford; and William Breton, the King’s privy purse bearer, for whom Newcastle failed to provide and who never sat in the Parliament of 1761. In addition, by the King’s command Newcastle arranged a seat at Harwich for Charles Townshend, his great-nephew, who under the Pitt-Newcastle coalition had been kept in minor court office far below his pretensions, and who now swore allegiance to Bute (‘for a time only’, as Bute with foresight expressed it). Other friends of Bute, such as Samuel Martin or Sir Edward Turner, were also brought in by Government as they had been in the Parliament of 1754; but the majority of Bute’s friends were returned by private patrons (John Richmond Webb at Bossiney, Charles Jenkinson at Cockermouth) or on their own interest (John Morton at Abingdon, Sir John Cust at Grantham).

Newcastle’s apprehension that Bute would interfere in the Treasury’s conduct of the general election arose from disputes in constituencies where Bute was not directly concerned, and which indeed caused him considerable embarrassment. These were the results of old feuds in which former followers of Leicester House, the Prince of Wales’s party, worsted under George II, now tried to obtain their revenge in the more favourable circumstances of the new reign. Henry Bilson Legge, the chancellor of the Exchequer, had insisted on contesting Hampshire at a by-election in 1759, and had forced Simeon Stuart, the candidate favoured by Bute and the Prince of Wales, to withdraw. Legge had been closely allied with Bute and Pitt in 1756-7, and George III, resenting his behaviour in Hampshire, had conceived a strong aversion to him. In 1761 Legge and Stuart were again the candidates in Hampshire, and the King gave orders that the Government voters (numerous in this county) should be allowed to vote as they pleased. It was a petty act of resentment and also a gesture in favour of virtue and purity, but since Legge and Stuart were unopposed, had no consequences. Still, it provoked Newcastle, who protested to Fox:

the Duke of Bedford hates or despises Legge, and the Duke of Devonshire, and Mr. Pitt hates or despises Legge, and Lord Bute hates or despises Legge, and I don’t care a farthing for Legge ... but whilst he is chancellor of the Exchequer ought not he to have the Government interest?

Before the election came on, however, Legge was dismissed, which at least put an end to one of Newcastle’s worries.

The dispute in Hampshire in 1759 was really a squabble between two local magnates, the Duke of Bolton backing Legge, and Lord Carnarvon, son of the Duke of Chandos, backing Stuart, each of whom tried to find protection at court. Carnarvon, a headstrong and touchy young man, also had political ambitions in Radnorshire, and at the general election of 1761 tried to enlist Bute’s help against the old established interests there who looked for support to Newcastle. Carnarvon set out to deprive Howell Gwynne of his seat for Radnorshire and of the lord lieutenancy of the county, ostentatiously obtained the King’s permission to stand at the general election, and then demanded Treasury support. Newcastle shuffled as he always did on such occasions, made promises to both sides, and then found he could not keep his engagements. Carnarvon asked Newcastle to secure for him the support of Thomas Lewis, the sitting Member for New Radnor Boroughs, and to make sure of Lewis’s compliance raised an opposition to him in his constituency. All this Newcastle regarded as a challenge to what he called ‘the Whig interest’ (which he identified primarily with himself and his friends), and he complained of the ‘little weight he had in the Closet’ and that ‘the Whigs were given up in many parts of England’. In the end Carnarvon secured Radnorshire and Government found a seat for Gwynne at Old Sarum; Carnarvon was unable to stop the contest in New Radnor Boroughs and Thomas Lewis’s long supremacy there was ended. The election of 1761 had great significance in Radnorshire, but it was fought in terms of local interests and was not a struggle between Whigs and Tories or between Newcastle and Bute.

In 1761 there were 53 contested elections, as against 62 at the general election of 1754:

contests in 40 English counties
15in 32 large boroughs
6in 28 medium boroughs
20in 143 small boroughs
1in 12 Welsh counties
1in 12 Welsh boroughs
5in 30 Scottish counties
1Scottish burgh (Edinburgh)


Of these only a few are worth singling out for comment as distinguished by anything more than local interest.

The county of Durham went to the poll for the second time within six months—a most unusual proceeding for an English county. One seat was normally conceded to the Earl of Darlington, while the other was left to the choice of the country gentlemen. Rejecting the advice of the bishop of Durham, who had considerable weight in elections, ‘to follow, not to force, the bent of the county’, Darlington at the by-election of 1760 had put up a candidate for the seat hitherto held by a country gentleman; and, with the bishop’s reluctant support, had succeeded. Newcastle, to whom Darlington appealed for the Government interest, was very embarrassed, for Darlington’s candidate Robert Shafto came of a Tory family while Sir Thomas Clavering, the candidate of the country gentlemen, was unimpeachably Whig. At the general election the contest was repeated with the same candidates, and again Darlington was successful. In the city of Durham also, Darlington, with the support of the corporation, attempted to break the Lambton-Tempest control of the borough; his candidate was defeated, was returned at a by-election in December 1761 by three votes on a poll of over 1,500, but was unseated on petition.

The Hertfordshire election of 1761 well illustrates the confused and unpredictable nature of county politics. In 1754 two Whigs, standing on a joint interest, had defeated a Tory; and in 1761 Jacob Houblon, a Tory who had represented Hertfordshire 1741-1747, came forward against Charles Gore, one of the sitting Members, and Thomas Plumer Byde, another Whig. Byde had the support of some prominent City men with estates in the county and also of the Dissenters, who were very numerous in Hertfordshire, and came out top of the poll. Gore and Houblon, the one Whig, the other Tory, were supported by most of the county’s aristocratic families and also by some leading Tories. Houblon won the second seat, defeating Gore by nearly 300 votes. Gore’s vote slumped from 1,727 in 1754 to 1,244 in 1761; and while in 1754 he had a majority of nearly 500, in 1761 he lost his seat by nearly 300. A result such as this, not uncommon in an independent county like Hertfordshire, where there was no dominant aristocratic interest, can hardly be explained in terms of party or national politics.

The Gloucester borough election of 1761 was the last to be fought in this constituency in terms of the old Whig-Tory alignment, but the issues were confused, an indication that that alignment no longer corresponded to the facts of political life. In 1754 each side had returned one Member, George Augustus Selwyn, a Whig, and Charles Barrow, a Tory. The Tories had wanted to try for both seats and Powell Snell had declared his candidature on the Tory interest, but Selwyn and Barrow stood as joint candidates and Snell had been forced to withdraw. In 1761 Snell stood again, and Barrow the Tory again preferred to join with a Whig rather than with another Tory, which would have brought down on the Tory candidates the resentment of those voters who disliked the prospect of one party gaining control of both seats. Barrow came out top of the poll and Selwyn just behind him, with a majority of nearly 400 over Snell. To illustrate the confusion between party names and realities, here are the subsequent records of the two successful candidates: Barrow, the Tory in 1761, became a devoted member of Lord Rockingham’s self-styled Whig party and ended his life a follower of Charles James Fox; Selwyn, the Whig in 1761, supported Lord North throughout the American war and subsequently the younger Pitt.

At Exeter in 1761 there was an unsuccessful attempt by two Whigs, sponsored by the Government and supported by the Dissenters and ‘those who were termed the low church’, against two candidates named by the Anglican-dominated corporation. At Lichfield, the Tories made their last stand against the Whigs, whose strength had been increasing in recent years; and a study of this election throws some light on what the words Whig and Tory meant in Staffordshire. Lichfield had an electorate of about 700, with a wide franchise which included 40 s. freeholders, burgage holders, and freemen paying scot and lot. The Whigs were the followers and dependants of Lord Anson and Lord Gower, who were trying jointly to close the borough; and the Tories were the independent party, headed by a few local country gentlemen, who were trying to keep the borough open. There were five contests between 1747 and 1761, and the defeat of the Tory in 1761 (he was returned through the partiality of the returning officer but unseated on petition) marked the end of the independent interest. Lord Gower and the Anson family returned one Member each for the remainder of this period; and even after 1784, when they differed in politics, they continued to co-operate at Lichfield.

At Canterbury, another open borough with about 1,500 voters, Bute and Newcastle together were unable to secure the return of their candidates. Newcastle backed Sir James Creed, one of the sitting Members, a London merchant and director of the East India Company, and Bute William Mayne, a Scottish merchant who appears to have had no connexion with Canterbury. Their opponents, Richard Milles and Thomas Best, were local country gentlemen, and received support from both Whigs and Tories. ‘No Scotch, no foreigner’, was the cry at Canterbury; and the success of Milles and Best shows how little Administration could do, even when both parts of it were united, against strong local feeling.

One contest at this general election, almost unnoticed by the politicians at court and in Administration alike, was a portent for the future. In Westmorland Sir James Lowther took a further step towards monopolizing the parliamentary representation of the northwestern counties. Lowther himself was returned head of the poll, and his follower John Upton won the second seat, but only 26 votes on a poll of 2,000 separated Upton from the candidate of the independent freeholders. It was the first sign of popular opposition to Lowther, and a foretaste of the bitter contests that were to rend Cumberland and Westmorland at the next general election.



The Parliament of 1761 was dissolved on 11 March 1768: the last Parliament before the first Reform Bill to live the full seven years of its allotted life. The three statesmen who had dominated the political scene seven years earlier were no longer on the stage. Bute had retired from office in 1763, unable to cope with the strains and stresses of political life, his ideals and visions having vanished at the first touch of reality; and after 1766 he played no part in politics. Newcastle was an old and ailing man with only a few months to live and was of little consequence even in his own party. Chatham, as Pitt had now become, had formed his Administration in July 1766 with the avowed object of abolishing party distinctions; within six months his plans had been thwarted by his impracticable and arrogant temper, and since March 1767, a sick man mentally and physically, he had been absent from court and cabinet. The leading men in 1768 had been of very small account seven years earlier: the Duke of Grafton, first lord of the Treasury, the effective head of Administration since Chatham’s withdrawal; his leader in the House of Commons, Lord North; and the leaders of the two Opposition parties, Lord Rockingham and George Grenville.

The general election of 1768 took place at a curious time in politics: there was a lull between two periods of intense political conflict over important issues of policy and principle. The debate about American policy which arose over the repeal of the Stamp Act had gradually died down during 1767, and the colonies’ reaction to the recently imposed Townshend duties had not yet made sufficient impact in Britain to revive it. The two Opposition parties, those of Grenville and Rockingham, owed their origins to a time when their leaders were in office, and had carried with them into opposition the policy with regard to America which they had followed in office. Grenville was the stern and relentless defender of the rights of Great Britain over the American colonies; Rockingham, while he did not deny that Britain was sovereign in America, advocated moderation and caution. Chatham’s Cabinet contained men who had belonged to both leaders and followed no clear line: Grafton and Henry Seymour Conway were survivors from Rockingham’s Administration and had taken the lead in the repeal of the Stamp Act; Lord Hillsborough, in January 1768 appointed colonial secretary, and North followed Grenville on American affairs; while Shelburne and Camden were adherents of Chatham who, differing from both Grenville and Rockingham, denied the right of Great Britain to tax the colonies. With the Cabinet such a jumble of different opinions, no clear lead was given to the nation; nor was the American issue so urgent as to impinge on the political consciousness of the electors. ‘It is from the next Parliament’, wrote Newcastle on 12 November 1767, ‘that this country must be saved, and the cause of those who wish it best be supported.’ There were indeed grave issues at stake in 1768, but they were rarely presented to the voters at the general election and they occupied little of the thoughts of politicians.

Little material exists for a study of the Treasury’s activities at this election. There is almost nothing in Grafton’s papers, and the papers of Thomas Bradshaw, Grafton’s secretary to the Treasury and his chief assistant in the management of the election, have not been found. Nor are there any secret service accounts for the period of the Chatham-Grafton Administration. It is probable that in 1768 the Treasury’s activities were much less than at any other general election during this period. Grafton was a disciple of Chatham, and Chatham not only disliked electioneering himself but deprecated Treasury interference in elections. In 1766 he had given his consent to the transfer of the Treasury borough of Orford to Lord Hertford, and had gone out of his way to antagonize Lord Edgcumbe, who commanded five seats in Devon and Cornwall. (1768 was the only general election of this period at which Edgcumbe did not accept Government candidates for his boroughs.) And here is another example of Chatham’s dislike of the Treasury’s interference in elections. In the autumn of 1766 Grafton had received a memorandum from Chase Price, M.P. for Leominster, who probably knew better than any man the electoral situation in Radnorshire and New Radnor Boroughs. The stewardship of the King’s manors in Radnorshire was about to become vacant, and Price pointed out the tremendous electoral advantages this office gave in both constituencies. He urged Grafton, as first lord of the Treasury, to assume it himself, which Grafton was inclined to do until told by Chatham that it would be improper for the head of the Treasury to hold an office which conferred electoral advantages. When, therefore, the stewardship fell vacant in 1768 Grafton gave it to Lord Oxford, who henceforth had the strongest interest in Radnorshire.

Chatham’s reluctance to see the first lord of the Treasury interfere in elections reinforced Grafton’s disinclination to take the trouble upon himself: negligent of his duties and fond of his pleasures, he had no taste for the difficult and tiresome work of electioneering. It was Lord Holdernesse, lord warden of the Cinque Ports, not Grafton, who drove Lord George Sackville out of Hythe; and it may be presumed that Grafton left much of the detail of the general election to Bradshaw. Still, Grafton did take care of his personal friends and men to whom he had obligations, on one occasion with little regard for the feelings of the constituency concerned. He nominated Lord Villiers for Dover, where the Treasury had some influence, and thus provoked an opposition, for the borough wanted a local man and disliked carpet-baggers sent down from the Treasury. Like other election managers of the period, Grafton used the influence of his office to buttress his personal interest. Sir Charles Davers, who was opposing him at Bury St. Edmunds, was bought off with one of the Treasury seats at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, though Davers was in opposition to the Administration of which Grafton was the head. On the other hand, John Bindley and Samuel Touchet, the two men who had assisted Charles Townshend, late chancellor of the Exchequer, in his revenue plans, were left to fend for themselves without Government assistance. Bindley contested Reading and Touchet Shaftesbury, expensive and venal constituencies, and both were defeated.

Nothing illustrates better Grafton’s inertness than his failure to drive Newcastle out of those constituencies which more properly belonged to the Treasury. Newcastle had built up his interest at Rye and Seaford with Treasury support, and his hold on both boroughs now depended on the personal loyalty of their managers. Firm and resolute action by Grafton could have won them back for the Treasury. But despite Newcastle’s fears of Treasury intervention, there was none, and he was allowed once more to nominate the candidates as he had done in the days of his power.

It would have been embarrassing for Grafton to have opposed men with whom he had been allied in opposition to Bute and Grenville and with whom he had served in the Rockingham Administration. Ministries changed swiftly during the first ten years of George III’s reign and political principles rarely governed their composition. In 1766 Grafton had served alongside Newcastle and Rockingham in the Cabinet which repealed the Stamp Act, and one of the leaders of the opposition to that measure had been the Duke of Bedford; two years later, Bedford’s friends formed a majority of Grafton’s Cabinet, and Newcastle and Rockingham were the leaders of the Opposition. The enemies of yesterday were the colleagues of today, and none could tell who would be the colleagues of tomorrow. And so Grafton ignored Bradshaw’s suggestion about finding a candidate to oppose Admiral Keppel at Windsor, and let Newcastle know that he would not oppose him at Lewes. Only when party differences became acute, as they did some ten years later, did political factors count for more than personal in determining the approach to elections.

Yet in 1768, 83 constituencies went to the poll, 30 more than in 1761, a figure only surpassed during this period at the general election of 1774. An analysis according to the different types of constituencies, as has been done for the general elections of 1754 and 1761, gives the following figures:

contests in 40 English counties
1in 2 universities (Oxford)
14in 32 large boroughs
8in 28 medium boroughs
38in 143 small boroughs
3in 12 Welsh counties
2in 12 Welsh boroughs
9in 30 Scottish counties


In the large and medium English boroughs there were 22 contests as against 21 in 1761 and 27 in 1754; in the small boroughs, 38 as against 20 and 24. In the combined English, Welsh and Scottish counties there were 20 contests in 1768, compared with 10 in each of the two previous general elections. It is difficult to find an explanation for these differences. Had political feeling been high, it would have been manifested in the larger boroughs as well as in the counties. The increased number of contests in the small boroughs is the first indication of what was to become towards the end of this period a definite trend: the increasing difficulty of managing small boroughs and defending them against the attacks of outsiders.

The county elections in Berkshire and Derbyshire were purely local contests. So too was the election in Huntingdonshire, where the Earl of Sandwich and the Duke of Manchester, though politically opposed to each other, joined their interests to maintain their monopoly of the county representation. The contests in Cumberland and Westmorland, arising from the attempt of Sir James Lowther to dominate the parliamentary representation of those two counties, were also local though not exclusively so. The independent freeholders opposed to Lowther found a leader in the Duke of Portland; and since Portland was one of the magnates of the Rockingham group and Lowther voted with Administration, the struggle between the two took on a political complexion. This was increased by the Treasury’s action in granting Lowther a lease of part of Portland’s Cumberland estate, held by Portland on a Crown grant which Lowther maintained was invalid. One can sympathize with Portland’s indignation, and the struggle of the freeholders of Cumberland and Westmorland against an overbearing tyranny. But the leaders of the Rockingham party elevated this local dispute to the dignity of a political conflict and invested it with issues which it did not possess. Lowther’s success in gaining Treasury support was taken as evidence of the influence of Bute behind the scenes (Lowther was Bute’s son-in-law), and Portland’s eventual success as a victory for what Rockingham and Newcastle liked to call ‘the cause’. But Lowther came of as good a Whig family as Portland, and both were to take the same line in opposition to the American war. Moreover, after Lowther had secured his return for Cumberland through the partiality of the returning officer, the Treasury could not or would not save him from being unseated by the House of Commons. In the end, he lost both seats for Cumberland, both for Carlisle, and one for Westmorland: a convincing proof of the strength of the independent freeholders when united against even such a powerful magnate as Lowther, but not a victory for a political principle or cause.

Essex was contested by Whigs and Tories, to use Burke’s words, ‘on the business of a century ago’. Political attitudes and allegiances, once based upon principle, had hardened in this county until they had become fossilized. At the by-election of 1759 the Essex Whigs, unable to find a suitable candidate of their own complexion, had been driven to adopt a Tory and call him a Whig. To this extent had the old party names become meaningless, and their further remoteness from reality was illustrated at the by-election of 1763. John Conyers was supported by the erstwhile Tories and John Luther by the erstwhile Whigs, but both candidates applied for the interest of prominent members of the Grenville Administration and declared themselves its supporters. In 1768 Sir William Maynard, the former Tory, a supporter of the Grafton Administration, and John Luther, the Whig, an opponent, stood on a joint interest, and carried it by a large majority against two candidates put forward by a group of Old Tories. This provincial rivalry, based upon long standing family connexions and traditions, still counted for more in Essex politics than the opposition between the two sides at Westminster.

The extent of Essex’s political immaturity can be seen from a comparison with its neighbouring county Middlesex: the difference was between the politics of an almost purely agricultural county and a highly urbanized one. The Middlesex election of 1768 was the surprise event of that general election, and the issues arising from it were to dominate politics for the next two years. The sitting Members at the dissolution, George Cooke and Sir William Beauchamp Proctor, both Government supporters, had held their seats unopposed since before 1754 and confidently expected re-election. Two days before the election was due John Wilkes, a returned outlaw awaiting sentence for blasphemy and libel, who had been defeated on the preceding day in the city of London, declared his candidature for Middlesex. Wilkes had no programme and no time to canvass the county, he was supported by none of the leading peers or gentlemen, and yet he won by a majority of more than 400 over both his opponents on a poll of about 2,000. Here was a political sensation and a portent for the future. Wilkes’s success in the most urbanized county in England was due mainly to the support of the smaller shopkeepers, tradesmen, and craftsmen. This was the first election during this period where the voting followed class lines, and marks the rise of a new political factor: urban radicalism. A class of electors whose aspirations and interests had hitherto met with little consideration, now chose Wilkes for their representative in the Commons. The measures subsequently taken by Grafton’s Administration against Wilkes, his repeated expulsions from the House of Commons, and finally the seating of his defeated rival as M.P. for Middlesex, only strengthened the movement he had begun, and accelerated the spread of radicalism from the metropolitan area into the provinces.

But in 1768 there was as yet little sign of this outside Middlesex. The electors, where they were politically conscious, seemed occupied by past issues. In the bitterly contested election for Norfolk, one pair of candidates was attached to Lord Rockingham and the other pair to George Grenville. Yet the election was not fought on the issue of American policy, so recent and still unresolved, which sharply divided Rockingham and Grenville, but on the dead issue of the legality or otherwise of arrest by general warrant in cases of seditious libel. Local issues also counted for a good deal in determining the result of this election, and general warrants appeared more as a shibboleth to distinguish the two sides. The only other county constituency in which general warrants appears as an issue at this election was Somerset, which did not go the poll. And even here it was mixed up with the far more relevant and locally comprehensible topic of Dashwood’s cider tax of 1763. One of the candidates, Sir Charles Kemys Tynte, felt obliged to publish an advertisement denying that he had voted for the cider tax: on the contrary, he said, he had gone down to the House of Commons, wrapped in flannel and suffering from the gout, to vote for the repeal of ‘that odious and detestable tax’. The canvassing returns gave Tynte and his colleague a large majority, and John Trevelyan declined the poll.

Among the boroughs there were four very expensive and riotous contests: at Carlisle, Colchester, Northampton, and Preston. Carlisle was a straight fight between two candidates on the Lowther interest, and two candidates of the independent freemen, sponsored by the Duke of Portland: of the 694 freemen who voted at this election, only five split their votes between the two sets of candidates. At Colchester, a borough with 1,500 voters, many of them venal, a body of electors had been searching since November 1767 for a ‘third man’ to oppose the sitting Members. He eventually materialized in the person of Alexander Fordyce, the banker, and was defeated by only 24 votes, after having spent, it is said, £14,000. The Northampton election was the famous ‘contest of the three earls’, in which Lords Halifax, Northampton, and Spencer (all, incidentally, supporters of Grafton’s Administration) fought for control of the borough at an almost ruinous expense to themselves. The Preston election, one of the fiercest of the century, was an attempt by Lord Strange, son of Lord Derby, to wrest control of the borough from the corporation.

At Leicester and at Coventry there were contests between candidates on the corporation interest and candidates of the independent party. At Coventry the corporation party, who called themselves Whigs, put forward Henry Seymour Conway, son of Lord Hertford, a prominent courtier, and Andrew Archer, who was attached to the Rockingham group; the political sympathies of the unsuccessful candidate, Walter Waring, are unknown at this time and certainly played little part in his defeat. At Leicester the Whig magnates intervened in the election and gave it something of a political colouring. Here the corporation was Tory, and the independent party turned to the Duke of Portland to find them candidates. Portland recommended Booth Grey, his relation by marriage, and Eyre Coote, a soldier who had made his reputation in India and was anxious to return there. To judge from Portland’s correspondence this was a straight fight between two Whigs and two Tories. But, as at Coventry, the opposing sets of candidates did not line up on a party basis: John Darker and Edward Palmer, the corporation candidates, were very independent men, not likely to attach themselves to any party; Grey was a Rockingham Whig; and Coote, who returned to India shortly after his election, was a Government supporter. The electorate did not vote on party or political lines and the corporation itself was divided, a substantial minority voting for the independent candidates. In short, what appears at first sight to have been a straightforward contest resolves itself on examination into something of a free-for-all; which is what one might expect in a large urban constituency where the voters were not accustomed to think in terms of national parties.

At King’s Lynn, where the electorate numbered about 300, Crisp Molineux, a friend of Wilkes and Chatham, raised the issue of general warrants, and directed his attack particularly against Sir John Turner, standing for re-election, who had been a member of Grenville’s Treasury Board. But whether general warrants was an important issue in this election, or whether it was raised simply because Molineux felt intensely about political matters, is hard to say. In any case, in the context of 1768, it was irrelevant.

This general election marks the beginning of a great change in British politics. Neither in 1754 nor in 1761 was there an Opposition, aspiring to office, to contest the election on party lines; nor was there the essential prerequisite, a deep division in the electorate on political questions. In 1754 and 1761 the old allegiance of Whig and Tory still meant something in the constituencies, though that meaning was increasingly unrelated to divisions in the House of Commons. But by 1768 the names of Whig and Tory were hardly used at all. Elections were still decided primarily upon local issues, and the hardening of party lines at Westminster, as yet scarcely begun, was not reflected in the constituencies. In Middlesex there had been a new development and a new issue raised; a new force was to play its part in the large urbanized electorates. But in 1768 this was only just emerging: radicalism had scarcely touched the metropolitan constituencies of Westminster, Southwark, and Surrey; and in the provinces it was still submerged. The historian with his hindsight can see developments which were invisible to contemporaries.



Grafton resigned in January 1770, sick of an office he had never desired, the duties and responsibilities of which he found distasteful; and was succeeded by Lord North. North could hardly have taken office at a more critical moment: the re-emergence in 1769 of Chatham into active politics and his announcement that he would oppose the action taken by the Government over the Middlesex election had been followed by the withdrawal from the Cabinet of two of his followers, Lord Camden, lord chancellor, and Lord Granby, commander-in-chief. Neither had been replaced by the time North assumed the post of first minister. The Rockingham party had increased in strength during the first session of the new Parliament, and was now about to unite with Chatham against what seemed to be a tottering and discredited Administration.

North brought to his task qualities of courage and coolness few had suspected him to possess, and his position as a Member of the House of Commons gave him an advantage denied to his two predecessors. By the end of 1771 his Administration was secure, and the two wings of the Opposition, Chatham’s and Rockingham’s, at odds with each other, were in confusion. Enjoying the confidence of both the Crown and the House of Commons, North was in a stronger position than any minister since Bute. In 1773 he successfully tackled the problem of regulating the government of the East India Company’s territories. Then in 1774 came the greatest challenge to his statesmanship, when news reached England of the attack on the East India Company’s ships in Boston harbour (‘the Boston tea party’). The problem of relations with the American colonies, dormant since 1770, now had to be faced. In the spring of 1774 North introduced into the House of Commons a series of measures to restore British authority in America: bills to close the port of Boston, to regulate the government of Massachusetts Bay, and to ensure the administration of justice in the colony. In May he introduced the Quebec bill, to fix the boundaries of Canada and give a political and ecclesiastical constitution to the colony. On 22 June 1774 this busy and momentous session, one of the most fateful in the history of the British Parliament, came to an end.

The decision to dissolve Parliament, nine months before a general election was due, seems to have been taken very shortly after the end of the session. It is mentioned in a letter from North to the King of 6 July, and at that time was probably known only by the Cabinet and the secretaries of the Treasury. Grafton, who had resumed office in 1771 as lord privy seal but not as a member of the Cabinet, did not know of the decision to dissolve as late as 6 September, when he returned Lord Petersham for Thetford. The Opposition, though they knew that Parliament must be dissolved no later than the spring of 1775 and should therefore have spent the summer in completing their plans, were taken completely by surprise. ‘This manœuvre of the ministry has taken me very much unaware’, wrote Rockingham to Portland on 1 October, ‘and I am not a little perplexed with it.’

What were the reasons for North’s decision to dissolve prematurely? In a letter to the King of 27 September he wrote:

As a premature dissolution of Parliament renders the necessary preparation almost impossible, Government cannot expect to be so strong in the next House of Commons as if we were at the natural end of the Parliament. Lord North hopes that his Majesty will not think him to blame if some important elections succeed contrary to his wishes. Many good consequences will result from a sudden dissolution, but some seats in the House of Commons will probably be lost by it.

Some reaction was to be expected from America to North’s punitive legislation but the British Government was resolved to make a decisive stand. ‘The die is now cast’, wrote the King on 11 September. ‘The colonies must either submit or triumph. I do not wish to come to severer measures, but we must not retreat; by coolness and an unremitted pursuit of the measures that have been adopted, I trust they will come to submit.’ Obviously, it was better for the Government to face the next stage of the American dispute with a new Parliament, rather than be caught by it in the middle of preparations for a general election. But there is nothing to suggest that North dissolved in order to obtain a vote of confidence from the electorate or to strengthen his majority; and indeed such ideas were alien to the political practice of his day.

The morale of the Opposition on the eve of the general election was as low as it could possibly be. Chatham, after his brief reappearance, had virtually retired from politics; and his lieutenant Shelburne, with only a handful of followers, seems to have been negotiating with the court. Rockingham was now approximating to the position of a modern leader of the Opposition: he was the only politician in either House with a following sufficiently large to be called a party. Yet his following was sadly depleted since the struggle over the Middlesex election in 1769-70, when the Opposition had numbered between 150 and 200. North’s punitive legislation had hardly been challenged in the House of Commons: the Boston port bill had been unopposed; Rose Fuller’s motion to repeal the tea duty, when Burke made his celebrated speech on American taxation, had been defeated by 182 votes to 49; and in two divisions on the bills regarding Massachusetts Bay the Opposition had numbered only 24 and 64 respectively. Some of the most able opponents of the Government over the Middlesex election, men such as Lord George Germain, Charles Wolfran Cornwall, and Constantine John Phipps, had now crossed the floor of the House or were about to do so. William Dowdeswell, leader of the Rockingham Whigs in the House of Commons, was seriously ill with tuberculosis and not expected to recover: ordered abroad by his doctors, he died the following year. Charles James Fox, who was to become Dowdeswell’s successor, had not yet made the decisive break with Government. To add to Rockingham’s misfortunes, his trusted friend Sir George Savile, M.P. for Yorkshire, was reluctant to stand again at the general election. ‘I confess indeed’, wrote Rockingham to Portland on 1 October 1774, ‘that I think that all politics are now in so low a state and so little likely to revive, that I should feel a hesitation in giving encouragement to an expectation that we can continue long to drudge on in such unsatisfactory and so unthanked a laborious occupation.’

There was another reason for the Opposition’s poor morale. However sympathetic they were to the American cause, few of them were prepared to defend the Boston rioters or to deny the Government’s contention that if punitive action were not taken against the colony, Great Britain would virtually have renounced her sovereignty in America. The Opposition did not contest the principle of North’s punitive legislation: they merely contended that the measures proposed against Massachusetts Bay were excessively severe and that they should be accompanied by some attempt at conciliation. This is the reason why the Boston port bill was unopposed and the numbers against the other bills so small. Only one division list has been preserved for this period, that of 6 May on the third reading of the bill to regulate the administration of justice in Massachusetts Bay. Most of the 24 who voted against the bill that day were radicals or independent Members: not half a dozen were followers of Rockingham. Neither of the Burkes voted, nor their close friend Lord Verney; none of the Cavendishes appear in the list; nor Savile, nor the Members particularly connected with Portland and Richmond. William Baker’s story that the Opposition had gone that day to Newmarket might account for the absence of Fox but not for that of Burke or Savile.

The truth is that neither Government nor Opposition had the faintest notion of the deep and widespread resentment felt in America against North’s legislation, nor of the impetus it would give to American nationalism. It was only in the following year, when it was seen that North’s policy had driven America to take up arms and led to the imminent outbreak of civil war, that an opposition to that policy arose. It was not North’s rigorous policy that roused the Opposition, but the attempt to enforce that policy by war.

At this election America was mentioned as an issue in not more than ten constituencies, and then always as part of an attack by Opposition candidates against the Government. It was not made an issue by Government candidates and the Government did not ask the electors to endorse their policy. The only county election in which American policy appeared in the candidates’ programme was Middlesex, where the Government were unable to find anyone to oppose John Wilkes and John Glynn. Here, discontent in America was merely one in a catalogue of grievances for which the candidates pledged themselves to obtain redress, and there is no evidence that it occupied a prominent place in the minds of electors. In three large urban constituencies, Bristol, London, and Westminster, America figured on the programme of the Opposition candidates, and at Bristol, where Edmund Burke was one of the candidates, it received particular mention. Burke dealt with the Government’s American policy in his speech on the hustings, but judging from broadsheets issued during the election campaign the Quebec bill was singled out by the opponents of Government as a more reprehensible measure than the Boston port bill or the legislation against Massachusetts Bay. Radicalism had been growing rapidly in Bristol since 1769, and the Quebec bill was particularly obnoxious because it gave toleration to Roman Catholics (eighteenth-century radicalism was fiercely anti-Catholic). At Worcester, Southwark, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Great Yarmouth, American policy may have been discussed by the Opposition candidates, but in each constituency it could only have been a minor issue.

Also, in two of the small boroughs the American question figured prominently in the speeches of Opposition candidates. At Cambridge, where the electorate numbered about 150, there had long been a party, led by the Dissenters, opposed to Government influence in the borough. At a meeting in the guildhall they drew up a statement binding the candidates, if elected, to oppose the Government’s American policy, and press for increased toleration for Dissenters and a more equal representation in Parliament. The statement was signed by the Opposition candidates, Thomas Plumer Byde and Samuel Meeke; the Government candidates of course would not subscribe to it. About three-fifths of the electorate voted for the Government candidates, and about two-fifths for the Opposition; but to what extent political motives dictated their voting is hard to say.

At Milborne Port, with an electorate of about 120, there was a fierce contest for control between Thomas Hutchings Medlycott and Edward Walter. They were the two largest property owners in the borough and until 1772 by an amicable arrangement had held one seat each. Then they had quarrelled, and now each was bent on driving the other out of the borough. One would hardly expect a struggle for power in a corrupt borough to be fought on political issues, but political issues were certainly brought in. One of Medlycott’s candidates was Temple Luttrell, brother of the famous Colonel Henry Lawes Luttrell, the instrument by which the Government had ousted Wilkes from Middlesex in 1769. Temple Luttrell, however, was an out-and-out pro-American, of great enthusiasm and energy, but naïve, intemperate, and reckless. His colleague, Charles Wolseley, professed the same political sentiments, though his real inclination seems to have been to go with Government (he was apparently hard up and anxious for a job). Medlycott and Wolseley attacked the Government’s American policy which they asserted would bring on a civil war in America, and denounced the Quebec Act as ‘shocking to the feelings of humanity’ because (so they alleged) it ‘empowered the Catholics to persecute’. How far this mixture of sense and nonsense had any effect on the electors of Milborne Port can be seen from the course of the election. Owing to the complexities of the borough’s constitution there were four possible returning officers and three polls were taken: two of these polls were won by Medlycott’s candidates and the third by Walter’s. It was left to a committee of the House of Commons to straighten out the tangle and declare Medlycott’s candidates duly elected. And one can hardly avoid the suspicion that they would have been elected whoever they were, and that nobody at Milborne Port in 1774 would have bothered his head about America had not one of the candidates been Temple Luttrell.

The second feature of the 1774 election was the spread of radicalism from Middlesex throughout the metropolitan area and into some large provincial cities. North was doubtful at first whether the Government could hold a single seat in the three Middlesex constituencies. In the county itself no candidate could be found to stand on the Government interest. The best the Government could hope for in London was that the more extreme radicals would be defeated. But radicals filled three out of the four seats, and the fourth went to Richard Oliver, who regularly voted with the Opposition but had broken with Wilkes. Among the defeated candidates were John Roberts, a Government supporter, and William Baker, a follower of Rockingham. At Westminster Wilkes early set up two candidates, and Lord North had a great deal of trouble to persuade the Duke of Newcastle to allow his son to stand as joint Government candidate with Lord Percy. Eventually Newcastle agreed, and the Government won a great victory: Percy and Pelham Clinton were returned with majorities of more than 2,000 over the Wilkites. Still, Wilkes and his followers had won five out of the eight seats for the county of Middlesex: an extraordinary achievement for a man who seven years before had been a political outcast.

In the metropolitan constituencies of Surrey, radicalism had spread more slowly. Nathaniel Polhill, a Wilkite, headed the poll for Southwark, but the second seat went to Henry Thrale, a Government supporter. In the Surrey county election a curious situation arose. Sir Joseph Mawbey, a Southwark distiller, a strong opponent of Government and a parliamentary reformer, had been canvassing the county for some time. Mawbey had about him the air of the nouveau riche and was very much disliked by the upper crust of the county. A number of would-be candidates appeared against him, some supporters of Government, some of the Opposition. George Onslow, who had represented Surrey since 1761 but had now grown so unpopular that he stood little chance of being re-elected, persuaded the county meeting, irrespective of their political feelings, to rally behind the candidature of Sir Francis Vincent and James Scawen as the only way to keep out Mawbey. Onslow was a leading spokesman for the Government in the Commons and a member of North’s Treasury Board, while the two candidates he sponsored both voted with the Opposition. The manœuvre came off and Mawbey was defeated, only to be triumphantly returned at a by-election a year later.

Radical candidates also contested five provincial cities, all large open constituencies. At Bristol radicalism had been growing steadily since 1769, and Henry Cruger, born in America and settled in Bristol as a merchant, had long been adopted as the radical candidate. He came head of the poll, and the second votes of his supporters helped to return Edmund Burke, although Burke made it quite clear that he had little sympathy with radicalism. Here was a great triumph for the Opposition, or it would have been had the two candidates and their party organizations been able to work together. But events in the next few years were to show that radicalism was as distasteful to Whigs like Rockingham and Burke as it was to the court; and the triumph of 1774 was never repeated. At Worcester, Sir Watkin Lewes, a Wilkite, who had twice been defeated at by-elections within the last twelve months, was again defeated; but the figures on the poll showed that there was a substantial volume of support for radicalism in Worcester. At Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Constantine John Phipps and Thomas Delaval, supported by the radicals, made a poor showing against the sitting Members. Neither Phipps nor Delaval was a radical, nor was the issue fought solely on political lines: there was a dispute about the corporation’s right to let out the town moor for cultivation which figures far more prominently in election propaganda than national issues. At Bedford, Sir William Wake, a Northamptonshire country gentleman, was elected with the support of the radicals; and John Trevanion, a friend of Wilkes, was returned unopposed for Dover.

For the general election of 1774, as for that of 1768, there is little material for a study of the Treasury’s campaign. There are a few letters from North to the King, but almost nothing in North’s private papers, and no secret service accounts for this period have been found. This was the first election managed by John Robinson, who became secretary to the Treasury shortly after North took office and remained with him until 1782. Robinson was taken ill in the middle of the election and his duties were assumed by William Eden. According to North, writing in 1782, the election cost the Government ‘near £50,000’, which was about double the Government’s expenses in the general election of 1754. This increased expense, however, does not necessarily represent an increase in governmental activity in elections, but probably merely reflects the inflation which affected elections as well as everything else. The average price demanded by a patron for a safe seat in 1754 was £1,500; in 1774 it had risen to about £3,000. The amount which had to be laid out on a contested election had presumably increased in the same proportion.

Judging by the number of contests, there was a greater desire to enter Parliament in 1774 than at any other general election in this period. The 95 contests were distributed among the constituencies as follows:

11 contests in 40 English counties

20 in 32 large boroughs

14 in 28 medium boroughs

35 in 143 small boroughs

4 in 12 Welsh counties

2 in 12 Welsh boroughs

8 in 30 Scottish counties

1 Scottish burgh (Edinburgh)


The figure of 11 county contests is astonishingly high, and it is hard to say why there should have been so many. The contests in Cumberland and Westmorland were the aftermath of the great struggle of 1768. Lowther and Portland had reached a compromise which they hoped would bring about an electoral settlement; but in each county there was a party which opposed the dictates of the two principal magnates. Hence the contests of 1774, both rather forlorn attempts. Six other county contests were of purely local interest: those in Cornwall, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Northumberland, Sussex, and Warwickshire. To say that these were of local interest does not imply that they were of no significance politically, but rather that their significance was not immediately reflected at Westminster. The contest in Northumberland was a great determinant in county politics. The Duke of Northumberland had hitherto been content with the recommendation of one Member for the county and had left the other to the choice of the country gentlemen. At this general election he made a bid for both seats, and the result confirmed the unwritten compromise of one Member for the Duke and one for the country gentlemen. The contest in Sussex, on the other hand, was a struggle amongst the country gentlemen themselves; the seat of Lord George Lennox, brother of the Duke of Richmond, was not in dispute. The contest in Warwickshire, though entirely local, was of great political significance, for it established the right of the industrial area round Birmingham to have one of the county Members specially devoted to its interests.

The contest for Surrey has already been discussed in connexion with the growth of radicalism. Those for Bedfordshire and Essex, though primarily local, had overtones derived from national politics. In Bedfordshire, Lord Upper Ossory, as yet still attached to the court, and Robert Ongley, also a follower of North, were challenged by Thomas Hampden, who had the backing of a number of Opposition leaders, including Burke and the Duke of Portland, as well as supporters of the Administration, such as Sir George Osborn, who were opposed to the influence of the Duke of Bedford in Bedfordshire politics. The contest for Essex, another forlorn attempt, arose out of that for Maldon. Lord Waltham had been persuaded to contest Maldon by his father-in-law John Coe, a leading Dissenter, and his brother-in-law, John Luttrell (brother of Temple Luttrell, who contested Milborne Port). Waltham had been defeated and had then, at the last moment, decided to contest Essex, to be defeated even more decisively than he had been at Maldon.

The numbers of contests in the large and medium boroughs also show substantial increases on the figures for 1768. There was no influx of new men to contest these constituencies nor any indication of unusual political excitement. Perhaps the very absence of political questions stimulated contests: where a serious political issue was at stake, men were prepared to compromise rather than let in an opponent. But when the issue was primarily local or personal, the disposition to compromise was less.

In present-day politics local government elections rarely arouse as much excitement as parliamentary elections, and the question as to who shall govern the nation appears to the electors more momentous than who shall govern their county or their borough. In the second half of the eighteenth century this attitude was reversed, for the central government did not make as much impact as the local authority on the lives of the masses of the people. Hence it was that in large freeman boroughs, politics frequently turned on the conflict between the corporation party and the independents, a conflict spiced by religious differences. Coventry was a typical borough of this kind, and a study of its politics shows that local issues could be as engrossing and as momentous for the lives of its citizens as any question of national politics. Local politics were not necessarily personal or sordid in their nature or lacking an idealistic element. At the Coventry election of 1774 the corporation candidate was badly defeated; and an address to the freemen, printed in the poll book, read:

Permit me to congratulate you on the noble stand you have made in support of the liberty, freedom, and independency of this great city. Your children’s children-nay, lasting posterity, will from this great example learn to know that no body corporate has a right to exert undue power, or trample with impunity on the privileges, franchises, and freedom of the people.

Though expressed in hyperbolical language, this declaration was sincere.

York provides a typical example of an election in a large urban constituency untroubled by political issues on the eve of the American war. In this city, conscious of its dignity as the capital of the largest English county and the seat of an archbishop, the feud between the corporation and the anti-corporation party was not strong. There had been no contest since 1758, and during that time Lord Rockingham, leader of the largest Opposition party at Westminster, had built up his interest in York to the point where he could influence the choice of both Members. This he had done through the Rockingham Club, a group of York tradesmen, civic and ecclesiastical leaders, and neighbouring country gentlemen, devoted to his interests at York but not all of whom sympathized with the line his party took in national politics. In 1774 the sitting Members, Lord John Cavendish and Charles Turner, both prominent members of the Opposition, stood for re-election; and were opposed by Martin Bladen Hawke, of an old Yorkshire family and son of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke. At the previous general election, when his father had been first lord of the Admiralty in the Chatham Administration, Hawke had been returned for the Admiralty borough of Saltash. But after his father’s resignation in 1771 Hawke had wavered in his support of Administration, and by the dissolution was no longer reckoned by Government as on their side. There was thus no clear-cut political division between the candidates and neither political nor local issues were prominent. As a result the election degenerated into an orgy of eating and drinking; there was rioting in the town; and Turner was insulted because he objected to treating. Yet York was not a corrupt constituency, and at the next two general elections was the scene of real political conflicts. There was little political difference between the candidates in 1774, but that has never yet prevented election contests.

In the remaining English constituencies two trends are noticeable at this general election: the increasing number of attacks on Government boroughs, and the intrusion of the nabobs into the venal constituencies.

At Rochester and Sandwich, two medium sized constituencies, the Government candidates met with differing fates. At Rochester Robert Gregory, a friend of Rockingham, defeated one of the Government candidates, Admiral Thomas Pye, who seems to have made himself peculiarly unpopular in the town; while at Sandwich two Admiralty nominees easily routed Lord Conyngham, a Government supporter who claimed a personal interest in the borough. The independent party at Portsmouth very nearly succeeded in carrying one seat against the Government; but at Queenborough Sir Piercy Brett, who had been returned as Government candidate in 1768 and now voted with the Opposition, was well beaten.

The nabobs, retired East Indians ‘gorged with the spoils of the East’, and anxious for a seat in Parliament either as a symbol of their newly acquired wealth or a safeguard against investigation into the means by which they had obtained it, made their first appearance in the two venal constituencies of Shaftesbury and Hindon. At Shaftesbury, Thomas Rumbold and Francis Sykes are said to have paid twenty guineas a man, and though returned were unseated on petition. Hans Winthrop Mortimer, their defeated opponent, prosecuted Sykes for bribery and secured £11,000 damages. And at Hindon also, Richard Smith won a seat by bribery only to lose it on petition.



The Parliament elected in 1774 was dissolved on 1 September 1780, more than a year before a general election was due under the Septennial Act. By 1780 the war against America, or, as the British Government regarded it, the rebellion in the American colonies, had been in progress for five years. Divided purposes had from the beginning marked its conduct: the British Government was never quite certain whether its aim was to wage war, ruthlessly and destructively, or to induce deluded and misguided subjects to return to the comforting care of the mother country. Coercion and conciliation had gone hand in hand, and both had been pursued half-heartedly. France and Spain, seeing in Britain’s difficulties the opportunity to avenge their losses in the seven years’ war, had come to the aid of independent America; and by 1780 North’s Administration was conducting a worldwide war. British power was attacked at its focal points: on the seas, in India, and in the Mediterranean; and an attempt to invade the homeland had been foiled less by the alertness of the Government than by the incompetence of the enemy. By 1780 it was generally acknowledged in Government circles that even if the rebellion should eventually be suppressed, the object which the British Government had originally in mind, the raising of a revenue in America, was unattainable. Yet, short of complete subjugation, the war could only be ended by Great Britain acknowledging the independence of the United States—a price which a section of the Opposition was prepared to pay, but which was not yet acceptable to the mass of the nation. And so North continued a policy in which he had no faith, while the King hailed each victory in America as evidence that the tide of rebellion was slackening—‘Have you realized’, asks the American in Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘that though you may occupy towns and win battles, you cannot conquer a nation?’ Like a man caught in a traffic jam, the British Government could neither move forward nor get out, but had to sit and wait.

Little of this was reflected directly in the House of Commons. On the continuance of the American war, North had a comfortable majority; and even on motions criticizing its conduct, the Opposition had so far failed to make much impression on the House. But since 1779 there had been a movement, both in Parliament and in the constituencies, ostensibly not directed against the war policy of the Administration, and supported by friends and enemies of Government alike. Its aim was the reduction of unnecessary Government expenditure, the abolition of sinecures, and the curtailment of political pensions, by means of which, according to the Opposition, Administration maintained a corrupt majority. It took concrete parliamentary shape in February 1780, when Burke introduced his economical reform bill. On a motion for an account of pensions, 21 February, and on the clause of Burke’s bill which abolished the Board of Trade, 13 March, the Government was defeated; Jennings Clerke’s bill to prevent Government contractors sitting in the House passed the Commons without a division; and though Burke’s bill was eventually withdrawn because emasculated of what its author considered its essential provisions, on 6 April 1780 the Government suffered its most serious defeat of the session when a resolution proposed by John Dunning, Lord Shelburne’s friend, ‘that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’ was carried by a majority of 18 votes. Dunning’s motion summarized in one pithy sentence the stock grievances of all Opposition parties against all Governments throughout the century, and indeed of independent men in general. But when on 24 April Dunning introduced a further resolution, that Parliament should not be prorogued until measures had been taken to reduce the influence of the Crown, the Government had a majority of 51. The House was content to make an abstract enunciation of grievances but not to take practical steps towards their redress, as if to symbolize both its dissatisfaction with North’s Administration and its lack of confidence in the Opposition.

Harassed in Parliament, waging war against a coalition of three nations, with Europe unfriendly and Ireland in political turmoil, the Government received yet another shock when in June the Gordon riots terrorized London. At the end of June, North took two decisions: he opened negotiations with Rockingham for a coalition Administration, and he placed before the Cabinet the question of an early dissolution of Parliament.

The negotiations with Rockingham failed because there was no basis for a coalition. Rockingham demanded an end to the American war, even at the price of acknowledging the independence of the United States; a programme of economical reform; and a majority in the Cabinet. For there was in 1780 a real difference of policy between Government and Opposition, and no possibility of an adjustment between them. During the summer, as favourable news was received of General Clinton’s campaign in the southern colonies, opinion in the Cabinet hardened in favour of an early dissolution. In July John Robinson began to draw up a survey of the constituencies, in preparation for the general election. It was at the same time a state of opinion in Parliament and a forecast of what the politics of a future Parliament might be. And since there was still no absolutely clear-cut division between the two sides, as is shown by the existence of a large body of Members who supported North on the American war yet were sympathetic to the Opposition’s programme of economical reform, Robinson’s attempt both to survey the politics of the House and to forecast its future politics could only be conjectural.

Robinson reckoned 290 Members to be supporters of Government and 233 of the Opposition; 19 more he classed as ‘hopeful’ and 16 as ‘doubtful’. About the new Parliament he could not have the same degree of certainty and the number of ‘hopefuls’ and ‘doubtfuls’ in his calculations increased. His figures were: Government 252; Opposition 189; ‘hopeful’ 47; ‘doubtful’ 70. He then went into a further analysis of the ‘hopefuls’ and ‘doubtfuls’ and produced the figures of 343 for the Government and 215 for the Opposition. Robinson thus expected the Government to increase its majority at the general election, which was presumably the reason why he himself favoured a dissolution. But in February 1781, when he came to analyse the new House, he reckoned the Government’s strength at 260 and the Opposition’s at 254. Mr. I. R. Christie, who has made an exhaustive study of this general election in his book The End of North’s Ministry, 1780-1782, considers that Robinson’s calculations before the election were ‘far wide of the mark’ and that the Government ‘were greatly deceived in their expectations’. It is important to understand exactly why and how.

In the first place, the Government was losing ground in the boroughs under patronage. Before the general election two leading borough-owners, Sir James Lowther and Sir Lawrence Dundas, had gone over to the Opposition, and in consequence the Government lost some fifteen votes in the House of Commons. In this type of constituency there were in 1780 only about 55 seats available for Government candidates, 24 in Government boroughs and 31 belonging to private patrons, as compared with 70 in 1754. Most of the borough owners with seats to dispose of continued to accept Government nominees with the significant exception of Edward Eliot, who had resigned from the Board of Trade on the outbreak of the American war and now offered his surplus seats to the Opposition leaders. Rockingham recommended both Members at Grampound and one at St. Germans, and Shelburne recommended one Member at Liskeard, each candidate paying £3,000 for his seat. Among the Government supporters who lost their seats as a result of Eliot’s defection to the Opposition were his relation Edward Gibbon, the historian, and his close friend Benjamin Langlois. Another striking defection at this election, partly forecast by Robinson, was that of the Government manager at Dartmouth, Arthur Holdsworth, who returned himself and Lord Howe, both now supporters of the Opposition.

Secondly, there was a movement of opinion against Government in the open constituencies, the extent of which was insufficiently appreciated by the Government’s election manager. Robinson had a unique knowledge of the boroughs under patronage, and could forecast with tolerable accuracy the politics of the men who would represent them (but not how their politics would change under the stress of circumstances). But in the counties and the larger boroughs, where in any case it was difficult to forecast election results, Robinson was handicapped by his failure to perceive the larger trends in politics. He was what we should call today a back-room boy or a Central Office man: preoccupied with details of patronage, he rarely spoke in the House or visited the constituencies. He was completely out of touch with opinion in the nation at large, which indeed for him hardly existed. Precise, methodical, an indefatigable worker, he thought of politics in terms of administration and method rather than of policy and ideas. Opposition to the King’s Government seemed to him factious, and those who led it to be weak or wicked men intent on their own self-advancement. That Rockingham or Charles Fox might be sincerely opposed to the policy of war in America or that there might be a case for economical reform, seems never to have occurred to him. There is hardly a line in his correspondence to suggest that he realized that there might be genuine differences of opinion on political questions or that men might go into opposition through honest conviction. He looked at politics from the point of view of a patronage secretary and seriously under-estimated the strength of popular feeling against Government.

A few examples taken from the counties will illustrate Robinson’s failure to appreciate the state of public opinion. In Bedfordshire he expected Lord Upper Ossory, a friend of Fox, and Lord Ongley, a Government supporter, to be returned again. ‘I put Lord Ongley down for [the Government]’, wrote Robinson in his survey, ‘because he generally is so except in some of the questions of economy, and I think he may be mostly depended upon if attended to and humoured a little.’ But Ongley, as a result of his support of the Government, lost the backing of the Bedford interest, managed during the minority of the 5th Duke by Ossory and the Duchess of Bedford, which was given to St. Andrew St. John, another friend of Fox. Ongley canvassed the county, decided he had no chance, and withdrew.

In Hampshire, Kent, and Yorkshire Robinson tried to induce Government supporters to stand, professing to believe that only a little spirit (and plenty of money) was needed to ensure success. His friend Charles Jenkinson wrote to him from Winchester about the Hampshire election: ‘Anyone may be chosen for this county that Government pleases without either trouble or expense. The Opposition has had a meeting and say they will not put up a second candidate.’ Probably no single sentence could illustrate better the short sightedness of the Government election managers. In December 1779 Sir Richard Worsley, financed by £2,000 from secret service funds, had contested Hampshire as a Government candidate and had been soundly beaten. Now Robinson and Jenkinson proposed to put him up again and expected him to be returned ‘without either trouble or expense’. In the event, Jervoise Clarke Jervoise and Robert Thistlethwayte, both inclined to the Opposition, were returned unopposed. In Kent also, Robinson was sure that a Government candidate could be returned: ‘Kent I find every day would do, was there but a good man. But we have no ardour amongst our friends.’ It was no light matter to undertake a contest for Kent, with its 8,000 voters, when the sense of the county was strongly in favour of economical reform. In his survey Robinson had hoped that Lewis Thomas Watson, son of Lord Sondes, might be persuaded to stand, but the best that Robinson could say of him was that he was ‘not very averse to Government’ and ‘in time may not be averse’. Charles Marsham and Filmer Honywood, both determined opponents of North’s Administration, were returned unopposed.

It is in his estimate of the situation in Yorkshire that Robinson showed most clearly of all his neglect of the factor of public opinion. He recognized indeed that Sir George Savile, Rockingham’s close friend and one of the leaders of the movement for economical reform, was certain of being re-elected. Savile’s colleague, Edwin Lascelles, had voted with the Rockingham party until the outbreak of the American war, had then gone over to Government (apparently through honest conviction), but in the divisions on economical reform in the spring of 1780 had again voted with Opposition. Robinson wrote in his survey:

Mr. Lascelles is threatened with an opposition for his conduct, which though he voted with Opposition has been imputed to be with a view to his election, not from principle, and by his management he has not pleased the other side. The Patriots despise him, the friends of Government in Yorkshire are disgusted with him for his trimming. However no one had yet publicly stood forth, and an opposition for the county of York is so very serious a matter in point of expense, for the person attacking as well as the person attacked ... and Mr. Lascelles having ready money to fight with and a fortune not easily hurt, it is probable that weight may deter the part from an attempt against him.

One would hardly guess from this that Yorkshire was the centre of the movement for economical reform, and that the Yorkshire Association, formed to secure that reform, was a powerful factor in the county’s politics. In fact, a more ludicrous summing up of Yorkshire politics on the eve of the election could hardly be imagined: Lascelles, despite his having antagonized both sides, would probably not be opposed because he had ready money and ‘a fortune not easily hurt’. Had not others too? When Henry Duncombe, an out-and-out opponent of Administration, announced his candidature, and secured the support of both Rockingham and the Yorkshire Association, an election fund of over £12,000 was subscribed in support of him and Savile. Lascelles wisely decided not to contest the election, and retired to his pocket borough of Northallerton.

Since November 1777 the King had been putting aside £1,000 a month from his privy purse to form a fund for election purposes; and at the general election of 1780 the Government spent about £62,000. This compares with the sum of £27,000 spent on the general election of 1754, the last election for which figures are available. Altogether the Government disbursed about £103,000 in 1780, but of this sum £31,000 was recouped from Members on whose behalf seats had been bought. The King’s election fund was too small to meet all the claims upon it, and in December 1780 North had to borrow £30,000 from Drummond’s bank.

As in 1754, so in 1780, a large part of the Government’s money was spent in vain: over £8,000 in trying to keep Charles Fox out of Westminster; £4,000 in Surrey, where Admiral Keppel was one of the Opposition candidates (the only English county on which the Government spent any money at this election); and over £4,000 in London. Here, at least, the Government got some value for their money, for although their candidate Richard Clarke came bottom of the poll, Government intervention led to the displacement of John Sawbridge, an extreme radical, by Nathaniel Newnham, a more moderate man whom Robinson hoped might be induced ‘to be more friendly’. But Newnham was bitterly opposed to the American war and consistently voted against Administration; while Sawbridge, whose exclusion was particularly desired, returned to Parliament as M.P. for London at a by-election in November 1780. In all, over £16,000 was spent on the three metropolitan constituencies of London, Westminster, and Surrey, and the only Government Member returned was Admiral Sir George Rodney, who would probably have been elected anyway and who spent most of the next two years at sea.

Besides this sum, almost £10,000 was spent in other open constituencies without any return to Government in the form of votes in the House of Commons. In the turbulent and populous constituency of Gloucester, George Augustus Selwyn’s interest had been decaying for years and in 1780 the chances of his re-election were doubtful. Yet Robinson not merely pressed him to stand but found a partner for him, and £2,600 was spent from the Government’s election fund in a vain attempt to gain both seats. Besides over-estimating the degree of support for Government at Gloucester, Robinson had seriously misjudged his man: Selwyn had not the stomach for a hard-fought contest, and he and his colleague abandoned the struggle the night before the poll. The Government also spent £1,500 at Stafford, where two Opposition candidates were returned after a contest; and £2,900 was given to Henry Dundas, who vainly attempted to oppose the interest of Sir Lawrence Dundas (a recent convert to Opposition) in Edinburgh and Orkney and Shetland. John Clevland received £1,500 for Barnstaple, and £650 was spent at Penryn to buttress the Government interest there; yet in neither constituency were Opposition candidates concerned: these were fratricidal contests between Government supporters. To sum up: about £25,000, out of the Government’s total expenditure of £62,000, brought returns wholly incommensurate with the outlay.

About £14,000 was spent in helping to finance the expenses of eleven candidates who had some claims on Government (North, like Newcastle before him, could be cajoled into spending money against his better judgment); £4,000 was spent on buying a seat at Tamworth for John Courtenay; and nearly £4,000 was paid to Thomas Hutchings Medlycott to help him gain control over both seats at Milborne Port (which were, of course, placed at the disposal of Government). Anthony Bacon and Thomas Orde, who contested the venal borough of Aylesbury, received £1,600; £2,900 was spent at Taunton, where North was recorder and was hoping to establish an interest; and over £4,000 was spent in trying to keep out of Parliament two members of the Opposition who had made themselves especially objectionable to Government, Temple Luttrell at Reading and Admiral Augustus Keppel at New Windsor. Both were defeated; but Keppel was immediately nominated a candidate for Surrey and was returned with a comfortable majority. Thomas Onslow, the defeated Government candidate, received £4,000 from the Treasury. When Peniston Portlock Powney first undertook to oppose Keppel at New Windsor, he had asked for only £1,000 from Government; but before the general election was over North had spent above £6,000 in trying to keep Keppel out of the House (£2,000 at Windsor and £4,000 in Surrey), the only result being that Keppel had exchanged a shaky seat at Windsor for a perfectly safe one for Surrey. In truth, there was not much planning or even purpose behind the Government expenditure at this election, and on more than one occasion (Windsor is the obvious example) North incurred far greater expenses than he had ever intended. Of all Government subventions at this general election, that at Bristol brought the greatest results. At the cost of only £1,000 to the Treasury, Edmund Burke and Henry Cruger were defeated and both seats at Bristol gained for Government supporters. It is true that Burke and Cruger contributed to this result by quarrelling between themselves, but tribute must also be paid to the excellent organization built up since the débâcle of 1774 by the Government supporters in Bristol. Where there was good local organization, as at Bristol, Government money was well spent; where it was absent, as at Gloucester, the money was thrown away.

The decision to dissolve prematurely again took the Opposition leaders by surprise as it had done in 1774. ‘I am exceedingly vexed at the sudden dissolution of Parliament’, wrote Rockingham on hearing the news. ‘I think it a wicked measure in the advisers.’ (‘Unprepared’ would have been a good motto for Rockingham.) Yet he and the other leaders of Opposition managed their elections very well. Rockingham in particular faced a delicate situation in Yorkshire, for he was confronted with the Yorkshire Association, a challenge to his own authority in the county and an advocate for a much more radical system of reform than he cared to see. In addition, his great friend Sir George Savile, the source of much of his strength in the county, had declared his support of the Association’s programme. In Henry Duncombe, Rockingham found a candidate for Yorkshire acceptable both to himself and the Association; but in York city his influence was directly challenged.

The Association tried to obtain a pledge from Rockingham’s candidates at York, Charles Turner and Lord John Cavendish, that if elected they would support measures for parliamentary reform and shortening the duration of Parliaments. Turner, who advocated these measures, was prepared to give such a pledge, but Cavendish refused and the Association threatened to run a candidate against him. With Cavendish wishing to back out and Turner prepared to go over to the Association, Rockingham’s interest in York was seriously threatened; but he kept his head, got his candidates started off on their canvass, and gave Cavendish some very sensible advice. ‘I have particularly desired Lord John’, Rockingham wrote to his wife, ‘to state that he looks to the approbation and support of the citizens of York and that he shall not submit to be catechized by persons who are not under that description.’ In the end the Association’s threat did not materialize and Rockingham’s candidates were returned unopposed.

In the five metropolitan constituencies, returning twelve Members to Parliament, the Opposition carried eleven seats, the only Government success being Rodney’s election at Westminster. Middlesex returned Wilkes and George Byng, a Rockingham Whig, unopposed; London, three professed radicals and Newnham, an independent Opposition candidate; while in Southwark Dr. Johnson’s friend Henry Thrale was beaten by two radicals. Mawbey and Keppel in Surrey, and Fox at Westminster, complete the tally of Opposition Members returned for the London constituencies-almost a clean sweep. Rather surprisingly, radicalism seems to have lost ground in the provinces. Radicals were defeated at Worcester and at Bristol; none appeared at Newcastle-upon-Tyne; and at Nottingham, where opposition to the American war was strong, John Cartwright, standing on a programme of parliamentary reform, was decisively beaten.

In 1780 there were 76 contests taken to the poll, a reduction of 19 from the very high figure for 1774:

2 contests in 40 English counties

1 in 2 universities (Cambridge)

19 in 32 large boroughs

13 in 28 medium boroughs

32 in 143 small boroughs

1 in 12 Welsh counties

1 in 12 Welsh boroughs

6 in 30 Scottish counties

1 Scottish burgh (Edinburgh)


By no means all of these contests, even in the open constituencies, were straight fights between Government and Opposition or concerned political issues. The contest for Cambridgeshire, for example, was a very confused one, with three candidates each standing separately on their family interest. In that respect Sir Sampson Gideon, the defeated candidate, was much weaker than his opponents, Lord Robert Manners and Philip Yorke, scions of the two principal aristocratic houses in the county; but an additional reason for Gideon’s defeat was that he had been a too-faithful supporter of North’s Administration and had not voted for any measure of economical reform. In other large constituencies, such as Norwich and Coventry, local issues were probably more important than national; while the vast majority of the small boroughs, the Welsh constituencies, and the Scottish were contested along familiar lines, with little reference to national politics.

Still, when all allowances have been made for local issues in large constituencies and the weight of property and long established interests in small constituencies, it remains true that this was the first general election during the period to have important political questions at stake on which two parties held diametrically opposite opinions. It has been said that no Government in the eighteenth century ever lost a general election, which is really meaningless, for under eighteenth century conditions a general election was not a contest between Government and Opposition. But North’s ministry in 1780 certainly suffered a moral defeat. The following table is based on the voting records in the new Parliament of Members returned for the English open constituencies:

Type of constituency Government supporters Opposition supporters
Metropolitan area (London, Westminster, Middlesex, Surrey, Southwark)111
English counties outside metropolitan area1561
Provincial boroughs, with over 1,000 voters                                                      


It was in the medium and small boroughs and in Scotland that the Government found its majority. But many of the representatives of the smaller boroughs sat on their own interest and were independent alike of Government and Opposition. If they were to lose confidence in North, his Administration would be doomed.



The general election of 1784 was the last act in a political drama which had begun in December 1781 when the news reached England of Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Whatever hopes North’s Administration had of regaining the revolted provinces had to be abandoned, and North was compelled to assure the House of Commons that it was no longer intended to prosecute offensive warfare in America. Yorktown broke the morale of the North Administration; on 27 February 1782 the Opposition carried a motion for abandoning the attempt to reduce the colonies by force, and the policy pursued by North since 1775 was in ruins. He himself recognized that the end had come at last, but it took some little time to convince the King; and it was not until 20 March that George III faced the fact that a motion for North’s dismissal would certainly pass the House and agreed to accept his minister’s resignation.

The struggle for power which began on North’s resignation and was terminated only by the general election of 1784 was really a search for a minister who could command the confidence of both the Crown and Parliament. This was the recurring problem in eighteenth century politics. It had been raised in 1754 by the death of Henry Pelham, and was only settled when Newcastle joined Pitt in July 1757. The death of the King was always followed by a crisis in the ministry, for in a period when the sovereign was an active partner in government he could not be expected to take over automatically his predecessor’s ministers. The crisis was unusually prolonged at the accession of George III and it was not until 1770 that a minister was found who could command the confidence of both Crown and Commons. The crisis which began in March 1782 was rendered more serious by differences of political principles as well as by conflicting personal ambitions, and by the fact that Charles James Fox, the man who seemed most to possess the confidence of the Commons, was peculiarly disliked by the King. After Fox and North had in February 1783 joined their forces to bring about the defeat of Lord Shelburne on the issue of the peace treaties, the King, though sorely against his wishes, was compelled to accept the Coalition. Only in December 1783 did he find in the younger Pitt a minister prepared to stand against Fox in the House of Commons.

Even today, the details of the negotiations which led to Pitt’s assumption of office are by no means completely known, yet it seems clear that Pitt must have agreed to take office even before Fox’s East India bill was defeated in the Lords on 17 December. That defeat was followed the next day by the dismissal of Fox and North and the appointment of Pitt as first lord of the Treasury. When Fox had taken office in April he had enjoyed the confidence of the Commons, and it should have been his task (which he hardly even attempted) to secure the confidence of the Crown. Pitt, on taking office in December, had the full backing of the Crown, and within three months was well on the way to winning the support of the Commons. On 12 January 1784, when Parliament reassembled after the Christmas recess, Fox had a majority of 54, but on 8 March he carried a resolution against the continuance of Pitt’s Administration by one vote only.

Parliamentary conflicts, when they are fought on a two party basis, resemble the operations of war: superior strategy and better morale will often succeed against numerically larger forces. When Rommel took over command of the German army in France at the end of 1943, he realized that the only way to stop the expected invasion of Europe was to defeat the allied forces on the beaches: if once they effected a lodgement and penetrated inland, the Germans were doomed. A similar situation faced Fox in the House of Commons in 1784. If he could drive Pitt out of office within the first few days after Parliament reassembled, the King would have to take back the Coalition, and Fox’s position would be even stronger than in April 1783. But if Pitt survived the first few days of the parliamentary assault and showed no signs of yielding, the morale of Fox’s troops would fall and their numbers gradually decrease. This, in the event, is what happened, in spite of Fox’s efforts to rally his troops, and of the active encouragement of the Prince of Wales, who several times watched debates from the gallery. By 10 February, when the Morning Post published a list of Members who had left Fox, the result of the battle was hardly any longer in doubt. Fox’s failure to sweep away Pitt in the January offensive led to frustration and dejection among his followers, and it was henceforth through their abstaining or being absent from the House, rather than from positive desertions, that Fox’s majority decreased. Motions of no confidence in the Administration were ignored by Pitt, and Fox could not be sure that his followers would go with him if he pressed the drastic measure of refusing supplies. That was the last step of all, only to be contemplated if supported by strong and vocal public opinion outside the House, the declaration, in fact, of a revolutionary situation. His decision not to oppose the passage of the mutiny bill on 9 March was Fox’s admission of defeat.

It may be asked why, since Pitt knew on taking office that he would be in a minority, he did not advise an immediate dissolution. Several reasons can be given. There was no precedent for a dissolution by a ministry on taking office, though the Rockinghams had contemplated it in July 1765, and Dowdeswell had advised Rockingham in July 1767 that if he succeeded in forming an Administration he should proceed to the election of a new Parliament. But Pitt could not, in any case, dissolve immediately: the Treasury needed time to make arrangements with candidates and borough owners, and, above all, to learn which Members of Parliament were friendly to the new Administration and which were not. Moreover, had Pitt dissolved without meeting Parliament or after his first defeat in the House, he would have triumphed only by the use of the King’s prerogative. It was essential to weaken Fox’s position in the House itself, to beat him with his own weapons. And, in deference to a substantial body of independent opinion which was pressing for a union between Fox and Pitt, it was desirable to show that such a union was impossible except by admitting Fox’s charge that Pitt’s Administration was unconstitutional. Finally, it would have been difficult to dissolve Parliament until the supplies had been voted.

On the East India bill, the Fox-North coalition had a majority of about 100; according to the list published by Stockdale on 19 March 1784, Fox shortly before the dissolution had a majority of 13; and Pitt’s majority after the general election was about 120. Had Pitt held on a little longer before dissolving, Fox’s majority might have vanished altogether. The general election of 1784 was the ‘crowning mercy’, the rout of an already beaten army. In that case, why was it necessary to dissolve at all? Would not Fox’s followers have gradually melted away until Pitt had a safe majority? They probably would, but even so Fox would have been left with a formidable following. For many of North’s friends, returned in 1780 when North was in power, held seats under Government control or sat for boroughs where the patron was now disposed to support Pitt’s Administration. It was clearly undesirable, for example, to allow George Augustus North to continue to represent the Treasury borough of Harwich, or to allow the seats placed at the disposal of the Opposition by Edward Eliot in 1780 to continue to be held by men who now followed Fox. A general election would be an opportunity to drive those followers of North, who still remained faithful to him, from the constituencies which he had found for them in 1780. In this rout North’s men would suffer more than Fox’s, for Fox’s friends had been returned by patrons the majority of whom still remained faithful to him. The Members who lost their seats at the general election of 1784 were nicknamed by contemporaries ‘Fox’s martyrs’, but most of them were really followers of North.

The decision to dissolve was taken on wider grounds than those of electoral mechanics. Ever since Pitt’s assumption of office, addresses had been coming in from the constituencies, expressing approval of the change of Administration and condemning Fox’s East India bill. It was clear that there was a large volume of support for Pitt in the nation, and obviously it was wise to take advantage of that support while feeling against Fox was running high. The general election of 1784 was unique in this period as being an appeal to the nation at large upon a political issue. It was not so much an appeal by one party against another, as are general elections today, but rather an appeal by the executive branch of government against the legislature. Ever since the revolution of 1688 harmony between these two branches had been essential, and, in the absence of anything like the party system, that harmony was often disturbed. Thus, in 1784, while the King, the head of the executive, wished to have Pitt as his first minister, one branch of the legislature (the House of Commons) preferred Fox. The only way this deadlock could be overcome was by an appeal to the nation at large, the supreme arbiter in political disputes.

There were thus two aspects to the general election of 1784. On the one hand, it was a new Administration clearing out the followers of the old ministry from the constituencies under its command; on the other hand, it was an appeal to public opinion. The interpretation of this election has long been a matter of dispute between historians: some have seen Pitt’s victory as the result of John Robinson’s skilful manipulation of the old engines of influence and patronage; to others, it was a triumph of public opinion. It was, of course, both these things at the same time. In constituencies under patronage, public opinion had little chance to express itself; and in constituencies where political feeling was strong, no amount of influence was of any avail.

Two qualifications have to be made to the view that the election was managed by Robinson, using the methods he had long practised under North, and that, because it was so much a matter of influence and patronage, he was able to forecast the result of the election with almost mathematical precision. Firstly, the election was not managed by Robinson, but by George Rose, Pitt’s secretary to the Treasury; and secondly, Robinson, far from making a correct forecast of the result of the election, seriously overestimated the majority Pitt would receive and was wrong in most of his forecasts of election results. It has been shown that at the general election of 1780 Robinson completely neglected the influence of public opinion; in 1784 he did so again, with even more disastrous results as far as his election forecasts were concerned, for in 1784 public opinion played a much larger part than it did in 1780. And, what was even worse, in his appraisal of the political conduct of Members, he made insufficient allowance for the degree of party connexion and feeling.

Robinson had left the Treasury with North in 1782, but during the period of the Shelburne Administration he was frequently consulted on the state of parties in the House of Commons. In March 1783, for example, after Shelburne’s defeat on the peace preliminaries, Robinson drew up, probably with the assistance of Henry Dundas, a survey of political allegiances in the House. He had tried in vain to dissuade North from joining with Fox, and early in December 1783 was asked to prepare a survey of the House and of the constituencies, together with a forecast of the composition of the House after a general election. He placed his unique experience and knowledge of constituencies at the service of Pitt’s Administration, but the management of the election, the work of interviewing patrons and candidates, bringing them together and regulating their financial arrangements, was done by George Rose. Robinson looked after Harwich, which he had managed for the Treasury under North, and intervened in the election at Ipswich (only a few miles from his house at Harwich); but it is clear that Rose had the main responsibility for the conduct of the election. Robinson’s part was mainly that of supplying information and advice, which the inexperienced Rose was greatly in need of. (Rose’s first estimates of the number of seats available to Government and of the amount of money required, were so inaccurate as to be almost useless.)

Robinson’s survey of December 1783 considered the constituencies under the following headings: English counties; English boroughs, open; English boroughs, close (i.e., under patronage); Wales; Scotland. The Members of the existing House were classified according to their attitude towards Pitt, as ‘pro’ (viewed from Robinson’s angle, i.e., opponents of the Coalition), ‘hopeful’, ‘doubtful’, and ‘contra’ (i.e., supporters of the Coalition). There are notes on the patronage or influence in each constituency, together with an estimate of which way the constituency might go at a general election; and finally a forecast of how the newly-elected Members might be expected to behave towards Pitt’s Administration after a general election. Robinson was thus trying to make two forecasts: of the Members who might be returned at a general election, and of the way they would react towards Pitt’s Administration. Here are the results of his survey of the existing Parliament and of a future Parliament:

Existing Parliament

Future Parliament

English counties                        

English boroughs,



English boroughs,




Thus, in the new Parliament there were expected to be 182 Members (nearly a third of the House) about whose political allegiance Robinson could not be sure. If, however, we add the ‘hopefuls’ to Pitt’s total and the ‘doubtfuls’ to Fox’s, Pitt’s following becomes 369 and Fox’s 189—a majority of 180 for Pitt.

Before proceeding to analyse Robinson’s forecasts in the light of the results, it is well to be clear as to what the general election was about. The two sides were personified, almost as at a modern general election, in their respective leaders: it was Pitt and the King versus Fox and (to a much lesser extent) North. The propriety of Fox joining with his old enemy North in an ‘unnatural coalition’ was hardly an issue in any constituency, but much rather a brickbat to hurl at Fox when all other weapons had been exhausted. It was generally recognized that with three parties in the House, a coalition of two of them against the third was almost inevitable. Nor was parliamentary reform a serious issue in most constituencies. Much more important was Fox’s East India bill. Fox could rightly complain that Pitt had come to power by doubtful means, through a backstairs intrigue and the King’s intervention against the East India bill in the House of Lords. Such action would today be regarded as highly unconstitutional. Yet it did not make anything like the impression on the electorate which Fox’s East India bill did. To the eighteenth century it was the India bill, not the King’s intervention against it, which was unconstitutional. Its merits or defects as a plan to reform the government of India were hardly discussed at all, but it was denounced as an attempt by Fox to arrogate to himself the patronage of the East India Company. And here, without doubt, the popular image of Fox as a confirmed gambler, ruined and desperate for money, did him infinite harm. ‘God forbid the patronage of India should go to the Crown’, said Lord Fauconberg at the Yorkshire meeting of 25 March 1784, ‘but shall it go to Charles Fox? Is he a man of such virtue?’ And here are a few examples from the reports of Lord Fitzwilliam’s agents of the state of feeling against Fox in Yorkshire: ‘[The merchants of Wakefield] are so hot at present and angry with Charles Fox upon his India bill that many of them are not to be talked to’ (11 February); ‘The people have no idea but that Mr. Fox wants to get the better of the King and be the lord protector’ (8 March); ‘The received notion amongst the inferiors in many parts is that Mr. Fox was attempting to dethrone the King and make himself an Oliver Cromwell’ (26 April). The comparison of Fox with Cromwell (and it was not intended to be complimentary to either) was particularly common. Those voters who saw the election on political lines thought of it not so much as a contest between Fox and Pitt as between Fox and the King. Fox, always insensitive to public opinion, had not realized that enthusiasm for reducing the influence of the Crown was waning, and that a reaction had begun in favour of the Crown. Pitt, on the other hand, was defending prerogatives of the sovereign, which the majority of subjects believed the sovereign should possess.

To return to Robinson’s survey of December 1783. In the English counties, he forecast a majority for Fox of 29 against 22, with 18 hopeful for Pitt and 11 doubtful. In no case did he assume that Pitt would win a seat as the result of a contest. In fact, in 38 counties he thought the same Members would be returned, and in only two (Cumberland and Monmouthshire) did he suggest that there might be a change. In the case of Cumberland he was wrong, in that of Monmouthshire substantially right. Robinson thought Pitt would gain six seats through their present occupants changing their political allegiance, and in only two of these was he correct.

But, above all, what he did not forecast was the substantial swing of opinion towards Pitt in the counties. If we count the ‘hopefuls’ with Pitt and the ‘doubtfuls’ with Fox (which will be done henceforthfor the other groups of constituencies), it will be seen that Robinson expected each side to win 40 county seats. In fact Pitt won 48 seats, Fox 29, and three Members were classed as doubtful. Pitt made 12 gains in the English counties: two in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, and one in Dorset, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Surrey, Suffolk, and Yorkshire. None of these was forecast by Robinson. Humphry Sturt, a friend of Rockingham, whom Robinson expected to be again returned for Dorset, was refused nomination by the county meeting because he had supported the Coalition. Thomas William Coke of Holkham, whose seat for Norfolk Robinson believed to be impregnable, was met at the county meeting with the cry ‘No Fox! No Coalition! Pitt and the King for ever!’; spent three days canvassing the county, and received so little support that he declined the poll. Probably the most surprising result of all was the election in the neighbouring county of Suffolk, where Robinson expected Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury, another friend of Fox, to be again returned. Bunbury was first elected for Suffolk in 1761 when under age, and with the single exception of the Parliament of 1784, represented the county until 1812. At this general election he was defeated by a man of little standing in the county, Joshua Grigby, who only became a candidate shortly before the election. When Bunbury declined the poll at the end of the first day he had received only 739 votes, as against 1,283 for Grigby and 1,652 for Sir John Rous, both supporters of Pitt.

It seems that in East Anglia the run against Fox was very great. But it may also have been that Norfolk and Suffolk, both independent counties, resented their Members taking so decided a political line, instead of trying to maintain the attitude of independence and detachment from parties which was supposed to be the hall mark of the county Member. In the election for Yorkshire there was a mixture of local and national issues. The Yorkshire Association, strongly pro-Pitt and for parliamentary reform, backed Henry Duncombe and William Wilberforce, against the candidates of Lord Fitzwilliam and the Fox-North party. Some of the animus against Fitzwilliam was due to his attempting to assume, as a matter of property and hereditary right, the lead in county affairs which had been slowly and laboriously acquired by his uncle Rockingham; but the defeat of Fitzwilliam’s candidates (they retired the evening before the poll) was also a great triumph for Pitt.

In the open boroughs, Robinson forecast 138 seats for Pitt and 94 for Fox. He had hoped to gain 28 seats in this type of constituency but had to be content with 15: the result worked out at 125 for Pitt, 96 for Fox, and 11 doubtful. He expected to lose six seats: two at Barnstaple, and one at Wallingford, Truro, Pontefract, and Bishop’s Castle. This forecast was 100% wrong. Pitt did not lose a seat at Wallingford or Truro; at both Pontefract and Barnstaple he gained, instead of losing, one; and the forecast at Bishop’s Castle was based on the assumption that Henry Strachey and William Clive were supporters of Pitt: in fact they were supporters of Fox and remained so after the general election.

There were 25 Members sitting for the open boroughs whom Robinson expected to be returned to the new Parliament but to change their political allegiance: 11 were to become supporters of Pitt and 14 were to be reckoned as ‘hopeful’. Of the 11 Members who were expected to swing over to Pitt, only two, Lord Lincoln and Sir Charles Farnaby, did in fact do so, while Sir Henry Clinton remained attached to Fox but was replaced at the general election by a supporter of Pitt. The other eight followers of Fox who were expected to change remained with Fox and retained their seats.

Robinson also hoped to gain nine seats in seven constituencies by turning out followers of Fox. In nearly all of these constituencies Government had considerable influence-indeed, it is difficult to understand why the Treasury boroughs of Harwich, Hastings, and Rye were included in this section of Robinson’s survey, since they could hardly be described as open constituencies. One might, therefore, expect these forecasts to have been reasonably near the mark. In fact, Robinson made only five gains where he had expected nine: two at Hastings, and one each at Hedon, Harwich, and Sandwich. At Plymouth, the Admiralty lost one seat to the independent party; and at Rye the Treasury manager revolted against his masters: he accepted the Treasury’s nomination of Charles Wolfran Cornwall, the Speaker, for one seat, but returned a Foxite for the other. ‘Measures were taken for Winchelsea’, wrote Rose to Robinson on 31 March, ‘but were defeated by the people there deserting their own cause.’ The Treasury interest in this borough was, in fact, practically extinct, and two followers of Fox were returned.

Even in the two groups of constituencies where public opinion played little part and where the results of the elections could most easily be forecast—the English boroughs under patronage and the Welsh constituencies—Robinson was unduly optimistic. In the English close boroughs, he expected Pitt to gain 131 seats (including the ‘hopefuls’) and Fox 46 (counting the ‘doubtfuls’). The actual figures were 109 for Pitt, 61 for Fox, and 7 doubtful. In Wales, Robinson’s forecast was: Pitt 18, Fox 6; and the result: Pitt 9, Fox 12, and 3 doubtful. The Government’s defeat in Wales was due mainly to the fact that some influential Welsh families, including the Morgans of Tredegar and the Vaughans of Crosswood, remained loyal to Fox and did not, as Robinson expected, swing over in support of the Administration.

In England, Robinson underestimated the force of public opinion; in Scotland, where public opinion could hardly express itself in elections, he underestimated the strength of party connexion among the Scottish Members. One can almost reconstruct the reasoning behind his forecast of the situation in Scotland. The Scottish Members had as a rule supported every Administration since the death of Henry Pelham. There had been one exception-the first Rockingham ministry (but in this case there had been special circumstances to account for the opposition of the Scots); and the Scots had also been divided in their attitude towards Shelburne’s Administration and the Fox-North coalition. But that had been a time of intense party conflict, and Robinson obviously expected that when the general election of 1784 had established Pitt’s majority, party feeling amongst the Scottish Members would die down. No doubt Henry Dundas gave assurances that he could take care of the Scots. During North’s Administration the Scottish Members had voted almost in a block for Government, and Robinson and Dundas confidently expected the return of those halcyon days. And so Robinson in his survey counted 40 Scottish Members as attached to Pitt, two hopeful, two doubtful, and one only (the Member for Orkney and Shetland, a constituency controlled by Sir Thomas Dundas) as a downright opponent of Pitt. In fact, the Scottish Members divided in pretty much the same proportions as the English: 24 went with Administration, 15 with the Opposition, and 6 were classed as doubtful. The element of party had come to stay, in Scotland as well as in England.

Robinson knew more than any man of the political allegiances within the House of Commons and of the Members’ relations with their constituencies, and if his forecast of the state of parties in the new House was inaccurate, it was because the task he had been given was impossible. Within less than two years there had been four Administrations, and in a period of confusion and instability no one could accurately forecast the political inclinations of a House of Commons, most of whose Members owed their seats neither to the Crown nor to a patron. It must be remembered that the survey was drawn up before Pitt had taken office and before the first manifestations of political feeling in the constituencies had begun. No one in December 1783, for example, could be expected to foresee the whirlwind which blew Bunbury out of his seat for Suffolk or caused Coke to abandon Norfolk. Even in our own time, when the science (or art) of testing public opinion has been refined to a high degree and when there is a mass electorate thinking largely along party lines, the result of the general election of 1945 took politicians of all parties by surprise. Robinson had no devices at his disposal for testing public opinion, and the extent of its manifestations at this general election was new in his experience. His inclinations and temperament led him to undervalue the strength of party feeling and overrate the attractive pull of Government. If in these observations on the general election of 1784 his reputation as a political manager has suffered, it is largely because historians have exaggerated his ability to influence the results of that election and forecast the politics of the Members who would be returned.

Of course Pitt had in 1784 all the resources and advantages of the Treasury at his disposal and he made full use of them. The Treasury boroughs were not as safe as they had been before the passing of Crewe’s Act disfranchising the revenue officers, but that measure had hardly affected the boroughs under private patronage. Edward Eliot still commanded six seats in Cornwall, and all six were disposed of to supporters of Pitt’s Administration. Sir James Lowther’s nine Members were counted on the Government side (and with the Opposition in 1788 when Lowther was persuaded to desert Pitt on the Regency bill). Lords Falmouth and Edgcumbe, the Cornish professional borough-mongers par excellence, returned candidates friendly to Government. Sir Francis Basset, alone of the great Cornish borough-mongers, went with the Opposition. Richard Rigby said in the House on 4 February 1784, with reference to the Government’s plans for an early election:

That House had seen four peerages within the last month, and he understood there was a promise of thirteen or fourteen more. It was not a little extraordinary that three out of four were bestowed on gentlemen from Cornwall, a county that was ever remarkable for more of what was called rotten boroughs than any other county in the kingdom. It was extraordinary that they should happen to be created just then.

It was a little late in the day for Rigby, who for fourteen years had held the office of paymaster-general under North, the most lucrative office in the gift of the Government, and had used the vast balances of money entrusted to his care to enrich himself, to complain of Government for favouring borough owners. But in fact, of the four peerage creations mentioned by Rigby, only two were given to borough owners: Thomas Pitt, William Pitt’s cousin, who controlled both seats at Old Sarum, and Edward Eliot, who had in any case applied for a peerage while Shelburne was minister. Still, the idea was current that Pitt intended to strengthen his electoral prospects by ennobling those who could return Members of Parliament. In May, after the results of the election were known, there was a batch of peerage creations which included Lord Bulkeley, already a peer of Ireland, who controlled two seats in Wales; Charles Cocks, who had placed his seat at Reigate at Pitt’s command; and Sir James Lowther. In addition, Lord Paget, who had wrested control of Anglesey from Bulkeley, was created Earl of Uxbridge. The remaining five creations were of men who had no electoral interest. A further batch of four creations in July was also unconnected with the general election. All Administrations used the peerage to reward men who had supported the Government in the constituencies, and Pitt was no more lavish in this respect than his predecessors.

The Government’s expenses in 1784 were very much smaller than North’s in 1780 and, in spite of the fall in the value of money and the increased price of seats, were not much more than Newcastle spent in 1754. Pitt spent nearly £32,000 (this does not include the amount used to subsidize newspapers), and most of it, as was usual with Government money at election time, was spent in vain. The enormous sum of £9,200 was expended in trying to keep Fox out of Westminster, and a further £2,000 in an attempt (which, however, very nearly succeeded) to oust the obnoxious Sawbridge from his seat for London. Stafford took £400 and returned two friends of Fox; £2,500 was spent in Berkshire and £1,000 at New Windsor, constituencies where the King felt his personal prestige involved, but where the Opposition candidates stood little chance anyway. At Colchester, where the Government spent £2,500, its candidate was only returned after a petition. These constituencies accounted for £17,000, and it could hardly be claimed that Government received value for its money. Elsewhere, over £6,000 was spent on five open constituencies where there were contests between supporters of the Government and the Opposition (Great Yarmouth, Middlesex, Rochester, Southwark, and Surrey), and in each the Government candidates won. It is surely a supreme stroke of irony that John Wilkes, for so long a thorn in the flesh of Government, an avowed enemy of every form of corruption and secret influence, should have retained his seat for Middlesex only by the skin of his teeth and with the help of £1,000 from the King’s election account. £1,000 was spent on Hastings, where the Government interest was in jeopardy and where for the first time during this period there was a contest: this was a borough which had cost little before the disfranchisement of the revenue officers. Also, five Government candidates (at Lostwithiel, Great Bedwyn, Bossiney, Lymington, and Chipping Wycombe) received help towards the purchase of their seats in pocket boroughs: a total of over £6,000.

Pitt appears to have gained about 85 seats at this election, and Fox about 17. Pitt’s gains were in the following types of constituency: 12 in the English counties; 2 in the reformed and enlarged quasi-county constituency of Cricklade; 21 in open boroughs with electorates of at least 500 voters; 7 in smaller open constituencies; 14 in Government-influenced boroughs; 6 in Scotland; 11 as the result of purchasing borough seats from patrons; and 12 in closed boroughs, where the patrons replaced friends of Fox by friends of Pitt. Of Fox’s 17 gains, 10 were in English pocket boroughs, 3 in Scotland, and only 4 in open English constituencies. The only English county where a Foxite replaced a follower of Pitt was Derbyshire. The three large open boroughs where the same change took place were Hereford, where Fox’s friend, Lord Surrey, had considerable influence; Bedford, where William MacDowall Colhoun, a very shady character, stood as a Pittite and immediately after his election joined Fox; and Maldon.

Another way of showing Pitt’s triumph in the open constituencies is by means of a table (shown overleaf), similar to that drawn up for the general election of 1780.

It is clear from this table that the swing against Fox was much greater in the London area than in the provinces. The two Foxites returned in the metropolis were Fox himself at Westminster, where he had a strong body of supporters but even so had to fight the longest and one of the hardest contests of the period; and John Sawbridge, who came fourth on the poll for London, with a majority of only nine over a follower of Pitt and more than 1,400 votes behind the next successful candidate.

Type of constituency


of Pitt                   


of Fox                 


Metropolitan area (London, Westminster,

Middlesex, Surrey, Southwark)


English counties outside

metropolitan area


Provincial boroughs,

with over

1,000 voters                                                                                



There seem to be two reasons why Fox did so much worse in London than in the rest of the country. Parliamentary reform was much more an issue in London than elsewhere, and Pitt was its champion while Fox, by his alliance with North, had seemed to betray the cause of reform. Secondly, there were no patrons in the metropolitan constituencies and the middle and lower classes had a much greater chance of making their opinions felt in elections. In many of the provincial counties and boroughs there was no contest and the issue of Pitt v. Fox was never presented to the electorate. In Sussex, for example, the county representation was divided between the two greatest landowners in the county, as it had been in 1780: one seat went to Lord George Lennox, brother of the Duke of Richmond, and the other to Thomas Pelham, son of Lord Pelham. The fact that Lennox happened to be a follower of Pitt and Pelham of Fox was incidental; had both been either Pittites or Foxites the result would have been the same. Similarly, the Duke of Portland, the titular head of Fox’s party, divided the representation of Cumberland with Sir James Lowther and of Nottinghamshire with the Duke of Newcastle, with the result, as far as the House of Commons was concerned, that both parties gained one Member for each of these two counties. The electoral pattern was reproduced as it had been on former occasions, irrespective of party politics, and both elections were unopposed: there was far more excitement in Cumberland in 1768, when no political issue was at stake, than there was in 1784. Many of the large towns too were under the influence of patrons, and it seems probable that the results in London are a more accurate indication of urban opinion than those in the provinces.

Here is a table of contests for comparison with previous elections:

7 contests in 40 English counties

1 in 2 universities (Cambridge)

18 in 32 large boroughs

12 in 28 medium boroughs

35 in 143 small boroughs

1 in 12 Welsh counties

1 in 12 Welsh boroughs

8 in 30 Scottish counties

It will be seen that there were 75 contests in England and Wales at the general election of 1784, and eight in the Scottish counties-more than in 1780 but less than the record figures for 1774.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke

End Notes

  • 1. All contests at this and subsequent general elections, and by-elections, are set out in Appendix I. For the omission of the Scottish districts of burghs, see p. 44.