Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:

about 1,400


(1801): 11,520


18 June 1790ROBERT THORNTON818
 George Tierney638
 SIR JOHN PENNINGTON, Bt., Baron Muncaster [I]486
 Richard Shepley265
 John Prinsep488
 John Charles Tufnell161
30 June 1812 HART DAVIS vice Davis, vacated his seat 
12 Oct. 1812HART DAVIS810
 Daniel Whittle Harvey704
17 Mar. 1817 SIR WILLIAM BURROUGHS, Bt., vice Thornton, vacated his seat 
19 Feb. 1818 JAMES BECKFORD WILDMAN vice Davis, vacated his seat274
 Daniel Whittle Harvey182
 Peter Wright160

Main Article

‘Colchester without a contested election could hardly be Colchester in Essex’: only one election (1802) and two by-elections (1812, 1817) did not proceed to a contest in this period. With less than half of the large electorate resident in Colchester, such contests proved discouragingly expensive, because of the cost of transporting voters rather than because of venality. Robert Thornton, the only Member who sat for several parliaments in the period was finally ruined, so he thought, by his expense in 1812, in which election the candidates spent £40,000.1 An analysis of the poll books gives the following breakdown of the location of voters:



Although in some elections the country vote exceeded the inhabitant vote, the majority of the country voters lived within striking distance of Cochester; and if there was not a keen contest, as in 1796 and the by-election of 1818, when the candidates agreed not to draw them in, few outvoters polled.

In 1790 the two candidates in the by-election of 1788, George Jackson, a friend of government who was backed by the influential recorder Francis Smythies and the corporation, and, in opposition, George Tierney, who had ousted Jackson on petition, stood again. A third man, Robert Thornton, ‘unconnected entirely with any other party’, so he claimed on his canvass in January 1790, also stood. The scion of a well-known mercantile family, he informed John Robinson* that he was ‘sincerely ... attached to the present administration’ and explained, ‘I only ask for your kind support shared with any other gentleman to whom you may wish well’. Well supported by the London vote, he headed the poll and Tierney was defeated by Jackson, who obtained 297 plumpers. Tierney blamed ‘Bate Dudley’s manoeuvres, and the dissenters having all forsaken him’. Henry Bate Dudley had in April 1789 effected a coalition between Tierney’s friends and those of Sir Robert Smyth, 5th Bt., who had been converted to opposition and proposed to give up Colchester. Encouraged by this, Bate Dudley was attempting to obtain a compromise when the arrival of Thornton as thrid man foiled him. Tierney petitioned in vain. He gave up trying to prove corruption against both Members, after failing to prove disqualification against Jackson as a pensioner: the Members secured their point that they stood separately, not in conjunction.2

In 1796 Jackson withdrew and there was some speculation as to who would espouse the cause of government: among those interested were Sir George Beaumont* and William Taylor I*, but it was Lord Muncaster who offered. This time unexpected opposition, from a radical friend of Tierney’s, was feeble.3 In 1802 there was none, despite a threat from one Berners, but Muncaster, whose lack of attention to his constituents was remarked upon, made way for Denison on the corporation interest. Denison supported government and the candidates’ theme was ‘the blessings of peace’.4 In 1806 Denison prudently stood down in accordance with what he understood to be the new prime minister Lord Grenville’s wishes. William Tufnell, whose grandfather had represented the borough and who had demurred in 1802, stood as a friend of government instead. According to Creevey, the Prince of Wales tried to induce Tuffnell to stand down in favour of Sir William Smith, but Creevey ‘returned Prinney such a bill of fare of Tuffy’s merits and pretensions that I have no doubt old Smith in his turn will be asked to give way’. Tufnell and Thornton did not coalesce. Opposition came from John Prinsep*, but it was ineffective, though he brought in the London voters, and an electors’ petition was found frivolous.5 In 1807 Tufnell stood down in favour of his younger brother, who was heavily defeated and complained of the cry of ‘No Popery’ being used against him:6 the new friend of government was Richard Hart Davis, who before the election of 1812, when he proposed to fight Bristol, transferred his seat to his son.

The fiercest election in the period was that of 1812. When Hart Davis succeeded to his father’s seat in June, Daniel Whittle Harvey of Fearing, an attorney of local origin, and an instance, according to his enemies, of ‘abilities without character’ and ‘of decided levelling principles’, was propsed by his friends, but declined on that occasion. He came forward at the general election and led the poll on the first day, but was defeated on the sixth, thanks to the exertions of Joseph Holden Strutt* and the True Blue Club. Harvey had 289 plumpers, few of them from Colchester itself. His friends subscribed £2,500 for a petition, which failed, but began quo warranto proceedings against corporation, based on the irregularity that occurred in the mayoral election of 1813 and supported by the erstwhile recorder, Francis Smythies. Harvey and Smythies were outmanoeurved by the abeyant corporation, which petitioned for a new charter and secured John Round* as high steward under a fresh charter granted in 1818.7

Meanwhile Robert Thornton, who had weathered every election since 1790, had got into difficulties: he had been kept short of funds by government, who were said to be anxious for his success in 1812 and had given him a place, but for which, he afterwards claimed, he would have given up a contest that cost him £9,000. When the first rumours of Thornton’s approaching ruin reached Colchester in September 1814, the name of Gen. Francis Rebow of nearby Wivenhoe, son-in-law of a former Member, was mentioned as his successor, but Rebow declined; and when the Whigs attempted to make an interest for the wealthy Henry Baring*, friends of government decided that the best line was to prevent Thornton from vacating his seat. They need not have worried: the Barings’ agent and relative was ‘one of those well-fed country gentlemen who move much in the same degree of activity as an elephant’, and it was not until 1817 that Thornton’s seat was vacated. He was then succeeded by Sir William Burroughs who, being Irish, had to deny that he was a Papist. Harvey canvassed on a platform of parliamentary reform and hostility to the suspension of habeas corpus, but did not got to the poll against Burroughs, who favoured government retrenchment and relief of distress. By one account, Harvey admitted on the hustings that he had offered to retire for £2,000, the extent of his remaining election debts of 1812, but this had been refused.8

When in February 1818 Hart Davis resigned on grounds of illness (an illness that Harvey characterized as financial)9 Harvey went to the poll against his replacement as a friend of government, Wildman. To reduce the expense, the candidates agreed not to draw on distant voters and Harvey was again defeated. At the ensuing general election, however, he was in a