Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Number of voters:
2,650 in 1796
|19 June 1790||SAMPSON EARDLEY, Baron Eardley [I]||1399|
|William Wilberforce Bird||1126|
|28 May 1796||WILLIAM WILBERFORCE BIRD|
|17 July 1802||FRANCIS WILLIAM BARLOW||1197|
|William Wilberforce Bird||1182|
|Jefferys’s election declared void, 8 Mar. 1803|
|30 Mar. 1803||PETER MOORE||1294|
|George Frederick Stratton||1146|
|17 May 1805||WILLIAM MILLS vice Barlow, deceased||819|
|29 Oct. 1806||PETER MOORE|
|4 May 1807||PETER MOORE||1464|
|Henry Conyngham Montgomery||703|
|5 Oct. 1812||PETER MOORE|
|25 June 1818||PETER MOORE||1180|
With over 2,500 electors, of whom some 30 per cent were outvoters, Coventry was an expensive constituency, difficult to manage.2 Contests had long arisen out of conflict between the corporation (and its allies) and the commonalty, among whom the largest group were the journeymen weavers in the silk factories. The wealth of Lord Eardley, whose colleague his brother-in-law Wilmot had local connexions, carried the day in 1784 when they stood as Pitt’s friends. In 1790, with corporation support, they again succeeded against a native Whig candidate, Bird, despite his influence as a silk master, the blessing of Lord Sheffield, defeated there in 1784, and the support of Sheridan in his campaign. His business was in London, where he expected most support, but even the London voters (at least those provided with four guineas each by Eardley) preferred his opponents by 214 to 143. Scarcely 20 voters split their votes between Bird and one of his opponents and in only three of the ten wards (one of them being the smallest) did Bird obtain the majority. Nevertheless, sporting the New Blue or Mazarine colours, he promised to return to the fray; and Eardley’s friends noted the defection of no fewer than 180 voters on whom they had counted, most of them apparently silk weavers, only one an outvoter.3
Although in 1795 Eardley distributed a Christmas box of 3s. to every freeman who would accept it, he was not expected to stand again; and so it proved when Bird resumed his efforts, with a partner, in the following month. The corporation looked for a new patron. They applied to Countess Craven, whose husband had been their Member, but her sons were minors and she would not meddle. Nor could Lord Hertford, whose son had been defeated as a Whig in 1784, be expected to oblige them. On 19 May Bird and Nathaniel Jefferys, the Prince of Wales’s jeweller (promoted by Sheridan) issued a joint address. The same day the town clerk Edward Inge appealed to Pitt to come to the corporation’s rescue. A canvass gave government a majority of 201 out of 1,756 resident voters—there were about 2,650 in all, nearly 400 in London. The response was negative: George Rose was not serious when he urged William Taylor I* to try Coventry. At length, on 23 May, two London merchants offered, explaining that they would not canvass in person. They were a forlorn hope and gave up after only a few votes had been polled, amid demonstrations of hostility by a Blue mob against the corporation Yellow.4
Jefferys, who had deposited £2,500 and subsequently spent more in anticipation of a poll, was crippled financially and although he denied (24 Oct. 1801) that he meant to stand down, was not in a position to spend again. As early as 1799 Tierney had been suggesting to Edward Hale Adderley that he might replace Jefferys at Coventry. Jefferys offered to withdraw in favour of any candidate proposed by his customer the Prince of Wales, claiming that the Prince (whether he knew it or not) could make some interest at Coventry. The fact was that Bird had decided to abandon Jefferys, who had taken the corporation side in promoting the Coventry poor relief bill in 1801 ‘which reduced their payments from 32 shillings to 12 shillings’, in favour of a new colleague, Peter Moore. Moore, a nabob Whig, planned to import Bengal silk to lure the weavers. In December 1801 he issued an inflammatory address, disdaining to support such ministers ‘as would set whole towns in flames, provided they could roast their own eggs’. The corporation, failing in an offer to Bird to bring him and Jefferys in without expense, prepared to resist the Blue candidates and boasted of the support of the drapers’ company, which had been withheld from them before; but they could not find candidates. Their best hope, (Sir) Robert Peel I* was one of four would-be candidates who were put off by the hostile reception given them by the Blue mob: ‘Parties run very high here and the candidate has a great deal of rough work to undergo, which is the reason scarcely anyone will stand’. In the event, the corporation backed Jefferys. There was a riot when he entered Coventry, 3 July 1802, and Capt. Barlow of the Guards who was stationed there offered to join Jefferys, his lieutenant-colonel having refused. The corporation patronized a subscription for them. Barlow engaged to pay £1,200, should the expense run above £3,000.5 As in 1790, the poll lasted nine days; 2,369 votes were cast as compared with 2,525. Bird and Moore secured a narrow majority of the resident vote, but lagged behind in the London and country vote. On 20 July The Times, announcing that ‘the triumph of the corporation and ministerial influence in that borough is complete’, attributed Bird’s defeat to his attempt to impose Moore as his colleague and to the violence of his partisans.
Bird and Moore petitioned against the return. Bribery, corruption and treating were their grounds; some electors also petitioned, alleging partiality and that Jefferys was not qualified. They also pointed out that supporters of Jefferys and Barlow had received charity payments due to them (receipt of White’s charity did not disfranchise at Coventry) only after the election. Jefferys, who had bestowed five guineas on outvoters for their trouble, was confident that bribery could not be proved. A subscription was raised to resist the petition. But he was unseated because his property qualification was not valid and took his leave of Coventry, a ruined man. The case against Barlow was not pursued as his counsel was prepared to prove treating by the petitioners.6 Bird made way for Moore in the ensuing by-election. Once more the corporation searched for a candidate to oppose him. From the barracks Patrick Maxwell urged his brother William Maxwell II* to come forward, but it was Col. Stratton, a Pittite recently defeated at Eye, who obtained their approval. Stratton spent over £6,000, so he informed Pitt in a plea for a baronetcy in 1805, but despite a self-confident address he was defeated, after a ten-day poll in which 2,440 votes were cast.7
Moore’s was represented as a victory ‘against the corporation, drapers, bankers, and gentry in the vicinity of Coventry’, or, as a subsequent memoir stated:
At the foregoing period there existed a coalition of the corporation with the drapers company, the bankers, and leading houses in the city. This extraordinary combination after making every possible exertion by means of promises bribes and threats polled 801 resident votes in favour of G. F. Stratton Esq.
On that occasion the independent interest alone consisting of the middling and lower order of citizens aided by a number of respectable manufacturers polled 885 freemen resident in Coventry, being a majority of town votes.
In London and country votes the independent interest had also a majority. The decision was consequently in favour of the independent interest although they had to contend with every possible obstacle to prevent their success.
An electors’ petition (28 Nov. 1803) alleging intimidation and riot, as well as bribery and corruption, failed.8
The Blue triumph appeared to be complete in 1805 when, on Barlow’s death, Bird introduced his cousin William Mills, ‘a Warwickshire lad’, whose background of commercial wealth made him acceptable to the corporation and even more so to Moore. He was to have been opposed by Col. Marriott from the barracks, but at length met with a feeble opposition from Charles Parry, the choice of the London outvoters. When Tierney justified his election treating bill in the House, 9 June 1806, he deplored the practice at Coventry of requiring a candidate to advance up to 2,000 guineas before an election. In the 1806 election some of the corporation urged Sir William Chambers Bagshawe to oppose the coalition of Moore and Mills, who supported the Grenville ministry, but there was no contest. Moore annoyed some of his more radical supporters by refusing to find a new colleague and first disavowing, then espousing, Mills as his partner.9 In 1807 two Irish officers appeared as their opponents, one of whom, Henry Conyngham Montgomery* wrote to their friend Sir Arthur Wellesley, 8 May 1807:
You have heard no doubt of Shaw and I being engaged in a contest at this place which our friends at the Treasury have led us into and which I wish they had never proposed to us with all their weight and influence—although we are furnished with every document to procure us their support. I hope however our expenses will not be considerable although they must be heavy. We have evidently a strong party in the town and we are opposed by Peter Moore who is detested by all, even by the party who support him, and they engaged to support him previous to our arrival in order to prevent a contest: we have had such fighting and bullying as never was seen.
The two officers fared badly at the poll and nothing came of their threat of a petition alleging intimidation.10 Mills and Moore distributed eight shillings each to those of their supporters who would accept it.
By 1811 there was mounting criticism of Mills, an inactive constituency Member. His sponsor Bird had gone to the Cape and he was described as ‘the mere automatum of the coalition’ [i.e. of the corporation and their allies], and as paralysing
everything which our other representative ... might be inclined to attempt in favour of the independent interest, as for a want of a colleague to act with him in defence and support of their cause P. Moore is prevented from taking a decided part or acting with effect in their behalf.
Nevertheless, the independent interest, emboldened by the success of meetings in support of Gwillym Lloyd Wardle*, (Sir) Francis Burdett* and the Lammas grounds ‘belonging to the freemen of the city of Coventry’, wished now ‘to obtain a colleague for P. Moore that shall do credit to the place and ... act a faithful and useful part in the House of Commons’. Their spokesman, J. Grant (addressing himself to Samuel Whitbread, 19 Oct. 1811), suggested that the corporation was now so unpopular that ‘one guinea expended in favour of the independent interest, would be equal to four times that sum expended on the opposite side of the question’. The neutralization of the London and country votes would be another great economy. Otherwise the cost might be £6,000 in all. Moore himself was not to be regarded as sacrosanct and if Whitbread thought he was not politically reliable a substitute would be welcome.11
This project proved idle: Mills did indeed refuse to face another contest in 1812, but the corporation tried to saddle Moore with a well-to-do native, the pious Joseph Butterworth of London, to pay his expenses. In fact Butterworth declined a coalition, professing independence of all party: ‘From a child I have seen the evil of party spirit at Coventry; and I am sure it is the bane of civil and political society’.12 The ‘united parties’ therefore (Moore himself being ill at Margate) procured a new running partner for him from government in William George Harris, son of a nabob general, who had no local connexions. This was evidently on the assumption that Butterworth would not now offer himself. ‘At the time of his acceptance it was signified to [Harris] that the expenses of the election provided there was no opposition would be from £1,000 to £2,000—and if an opposition took place—the united interest doubted not their strength would gain a triumph for £4,000’ (this would cover a four-day poll). Butterworth’s perseverance in standing marred this plan. It led to a canvass of London voters, and Gen. Harris (his son’s paymaster) was not available for consultation. From London the quest for outvoters proceeded to less plausible places. In short, ‘the reputed union’ was ‘a disunion—founded upon jealousies and envyings—from a want of a commander to the party to watch over their proceedings ... [Col. Harris] ought to have had a confidential agent to have watched that Coventry performed its part in the covenant agreed on. For want of him, outvoters were sent for ...’ This was the verdict on Harris’s retreat from a contest: there was also a suggestion that ‘if on the Wednesday preceding the election Col. Harris had appeared in Coventry ... his election would have been secure’. Of some £2,500 spent by Harris, nearly half went to the outvoters.13 In his farewell address, 5 Oct. 1812, Harris said, apropos of Butterworth, ‘I know that you have taken him up, not being able in your hasty and wide search, to obtain a better; and thus he may thank accident that has given him the victory’. What he had discovered at Coventry was, to quote his father:
parties going about canvassing for Moore and Butterworth ... heading and followed by all the respectable people and all of any note save two of the corporation ... with a mob greater than generally attends even successful candidates.
Peter Moore, nonplussed by this, attempted to disown Butterworth, but this misfired: on asking if his withdrawal would secure Harris’s success, he was assured that ‘he need not be surprised if they set up one to oppose him’. So it was that there were sure to be ‘considerable more Moore and Butterworth [votes] besides many of the latter’s friends giving plumpers to him’. In the event Harris made no use of his ‘already bought interest’ at the next opportunity, being advised that his Coventry agent James Harris (no relation) would not do: ‘we have no natural means of keeping up an interest ...’14
Butterworth kept his promise to be independent in the House, but in 1818 came under fire on the hustings because of a supposed leaning towards government. This time Peter Moore had an undoubted Whig as his partner: Earl Grey’s brother-in-law Edward Ellice, who was prepared to spend £5,000 to oust Butterworth and succeeded in doing so after an eight-day poll. Most of Butterworth’s votes were plumpers, the rest shared chiefly with Moore, who thereby secured more support in Coventry than his partner and headed the poll. No other candidate materialized, though Sir Henry Wright Wilson declined an offer to stand with a subscription; another to assist William Hone the radical was inadequate; Sir Charles Wolseley, Bt., another radical, appeared on the hustings, and William Cobbett and Thomas Jonathan Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf, were both suggested as candidates by London outvoters. Wooler was hooted down, and Cobbett, who had previously shown an interest, was in America and had to wait until the next election. Despite the hint of a gold cup from his constituents for faithful service in March 1819, Moore did not retire in 1820.15
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. According to A Correct Copy of the Poll (Turner, Coventry 1818) the state of the poll published at the close was inaccurate and Butterworth's total should have been 619. The same source suggests that if unpolled electors were added, the result would have been Moore 1,895, Ellice 1,715, Butterworth 906.
- 2. This article is based on T. W. Whitley, Parl. Rep. Coventry, 202-52.
- 3. A Correct Copy of the Poll (Piercy and Luckman, Coventry 1790), 87.
- 4. True Briton, 11 Jan.; Morning Chron. 20, 21, 25 May 1796; PRO 30/8/147, f. 201; 173, f. 290; 182, f. 87.
- 5. Farington Diary (Yale ed.), v. 1931; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 274; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1638; The Times, 27 Oct., 19 Dec. 1801, 7, 26 May, 7 July 1802; P. to W. Maxwell, 25 Feb. 1803, ex. inf. W. R. M. Maxwell.
- 6. CJ, lviii. 17, 52, 251; The Whole of the Evidence on the Trial of the Petition (Turner, Coventry, 1803); The Times, 1 Feb., 14 Mar. 1803.
- 7. P. to W. Maxwell, 25 Feb., ex. inf. W.R.M. Maxwell; The Times, 17, 19 Mar. 1803; PRO 30/8/181, f. 79.
- 8. A Correct Copy of the Poll (Turner, Coventry, 1803); Whitbread mss W1/1902; CJ, lviii. 339; lix. 18, 131.
- 9. Whitbread mss W1/1906.
- 10. Wellington mss; Coventry Mercury, 11 May 1807.
- 11. Whitbread mss W1/1902, 1906.
- 12. Morning Chron. 2, 9 Oct. 1812.
- 13. Kent AO, Harris mss C104/38, Hodgson to Gen. Harris, n.d.  and accts.
- 14. Ibid. C1/8; C25/59; C104/48, Hodgson to Gen. Harris [9 Nov.], Lushington to same [recd. 14 Nov. 1812].
- 15. The Late Elections (1818), 77; Add. 47235, f. 33; Melville, Cobbett, ii. 129; Grey mss, Ellice to Grey [4 Mar. 1820].