Lewes

Borough

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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 240 in 1790 rising to over 500 in 1818

Population:

(1801): 4,422

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
16 June 1790HON. HENRY PELHAM154 
 THOMAS KEMP149 
 Henry Shelley89 
26 May 1796THOMAS KEMP215 
 JOHN CRESSETT PELHAM156 
 William Green127 
23 Aug. 1802LORD FRANCIS GODOLPHIN OSBORNE2142081
 HENRY SHELLEY179169
 Thomas Kemp173164
29 Oct. 1806THOMAS KEMP  
 HENRY SHELLEY  
4 May 1807THOMAS KEMP  
 HENRY SHELLEY  
10 May 1811 THOMAS READ KEMP vice Kemp, deceased  
13 Jan. 1812 GEORGE SHIFFNER vice Shelley, deceased  
7 Oct. 1812THOMAS READ KEMP313 
 GEORGE SHIFFNER164 
 James Scarlett153 
13 Mar. 1816 SIR JOHN SHELLEY, Bt., vice Kemp, vacated his seat219 
 James Scarlett200 
16 June 1818SIR JOHN SHELLEY, Bt.274 
 GEORGE SHIFFNER258 
 Hon. Thomas Erskine112 
 Henry Baring27 

Main Article

‘Perfect quietness’ was not to be expected at elections for Lewes, where the electorate more than doubled in this period.2 Thomas Pelham, Baron Pelham (created Earl of Chichester in 1801) had since 1774 been content to return one Member and found it prudent to recommend one of his family. The other seat had been filled since 1780 by a wealthy townsman, Thomas Kemp of Lewes Castle, but there were regular contests from 1768 until 1806 and they were resumed from 1812.

In 1790 Pelham’s son and Kemp were opposed by Henry Shelley, scion of a local family, who had made an unsuccessful bid for the countenance of government, given to Kemp. Thomas Pelham* informed his father that there was no doubt of his brother’s and Kemp’s return ‘notwithstanding many unfair dealings on Shelley’s part, particularly among some of your tenants’ (the Pelhams could control some 80 votes).3 His prediction was justified: Pelham and Kemp shared 121 votes, while 39 plumped for Shelley; only 16 electors did not poll, though others were rejected. Kemp’s proposer was also Pelham’s seconder, a further hint at the coalition of the sitting Members against their challenger.

Kemp’s ‘weekly bounty of pea broth’ issued to a thousand people in the winter months of 1794-5 was calculated to increase his popularity, but by January 1796 it was clear that opposition could be expected from another quarter. An anonymous address to the ‘independent electors’ promised a platform of immediate peace negotiations, parliamentary reform, repeal of the Test Act, abolition of the slave trade and restoration of civil liberties. The candidate championed by an Independent Club at Lewes turned out to be ‘Citizen’ Green, a radical Whig (and a Lewes elector), of Fendon Place. The Pelhams were the more vulnerable, having meanwhile committed themselves to Pitt’s administration while Kemp opposed the war, and having been obliged to substitute a cousin for the unsatisfactory Henry Pelham. Lord Pelham’s brother-in-law Lord Sheffield exerted himself on their behalf. Even so, the cry ‘was strongly in favour of Kemp and Green’, wrote Thomas Pelham, ‘but I understand that Green has no votes’.4 On the poll Pelham defeated Green for second place. Green, proposed by the attorney Chatfield Turner, who had nominated Shelley at the previous election, had 50 plumpers, but Kemp and Pelham shared 142 votes. Thirteen voters were rejected and 15 did not vote.

John Pelham had been a Member for only a year when he became temporarily insane and his sponsors decided he would not do. A ‘proper successor’ was the problem: Thomas Pelham suggested another cousin, Lord Leslie, or failing him ‘some person in the county’ such as John Fuller* of Rose Hill, or William Stephen Poyntz*, or Sir John Shelley*, all of whom might be relied on not ‘to cultivate any interest to our prejudice’.5 By the end of 1801 their choice fell on Lord Francis Godolphin Osborne, whose sister Thomas Pelham had recently married. Early in 1802 the Pelhams’ agent advised them to publicize their intentions, lest their delay enable others to ‘make a disturbance’. He mentioned an interest being shown in the borough by William Tufnell, a Chichester barrister.6

In fact it was Henry Shelley, the candidate of 1790, who challenged Lord Francis and Kemp and narrowly defeated the latter, who demanded a scrutiny, fixed for 16 Aug. 1802. It made no difference to the result, but Kemp, aggrieved by the number of voters who had divided their votes between the Pelham nominee and Shelley, rather than with him, gave up the coalition with the Pelhams. The latter were, theoretically, strengthened by inheriting the Sussex property, much of it in Lewes, of Sir Ferdinando Poole, Bt., who had regularly proposed the Pelham candidates at elections. (Lord Minto commented, ‘I don’t know whether they are related but they are connexions as Harry Pelham was Lady Poole’s lover, and would have made him a cuckold if he had been able’.) But Thomas Pelham, who in 1805 succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Chichester, had no wish for a repetition of the contest of 1802 and on the morning of the election of 1806 withdrew his nominee, enabling Shelley and Kemp, both well inclined to the Grenville ministry, to come in unopposed. For this he received the thanks of the borough.7 So ended the personal association of the Pelhams with Lewes elections.

The peace of Lewes was not disturbed in 1807, and on Kemp’s death in 1811 his son and heir came in quietly. George Shiffner, who looked to the Pelham interest for support, withdrew then, but came in on Shelley’s death a few months later. An opponent, Col. Colin Macaulay of the Indian army was nominated, but withdrew before the poll.8 At the ensuing general election a third man appeared in the person of James Scarlett*, Kemp’s brother-in-law. According to Thomas Creevey, Scarlett’s standing was ‘the consequence of a patriotic deputation in search of a candidate upon popular principles’ which ‘found its way to Scarlett through [Richard] Sharp* who had declined it’. Scarlett, who was supported by Macaulay’s sponsors of earlier that year, was to be at no expense.9 The show of hands was in favour of Kemp and himself; but on the poll Shiffner shared quite as many votes with Kemp as he did and narrowly defeated him. Kemp evidently did not dare to encourage the impression that he was out for both seats, though his nominator was the man who seconded Scarlett’s nomination. Scarlett’s prospects seemed better when he came forward on Kemp’s retirement in 1816 and the show of hands was in his favour, but after leading for two days he was again defeated on the third. After the election he claimed that his successful opponent Sir John Shelley ‘was not the man who ought to have opposed me’; and the story was that ‘Sir John some time ago requested to have a list of Mr Scarlett’s friends in the borough, with a view to support his interests!’ But, like the retiring Member, Shelley was an opponent of Catholic relief, a stand that Kemp had recommended as a prerequisite in his farewell address.10

Shiffner and Shelley coalesced in 1818 against a third man, Lord Erskine’s younger son, replacing Scarlett, who could not face a third disappointment. Erskine was supported by the same clique that had invited Scarlett to Lewes, headed by William Elphick, breeches-maker. After 377 votes had been cast, Erskine persuaded Henry Baring* to join hi