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 140 in 1792, over 300 in 1812


(1801): 2,324


19 June 1790SIR FRANCIS BASSET, Bt. 
31 July 1797 WALLACE re-elected after appointment to office 
9 June 1800 WALLACE re-elected after appointment to office 
 John Milford84
 Henry Swann62
1 Nov. 1806HENRY SWANN162
 John Trevanion Purnell Bettesworth Trevanion108
 William Wingfield41
 BETTESWORTH TREVANION vice Hawkins, on petition, 4 Feb. 1807 
9 May 1807HENRY SWANN 
10 Oct. 1812HENRY SWANN163
 George Robert Hobart116
 Sir Christopher Hawkins, Bt.98
 Hon. Andrew James Cochrane Johnstone1
 John Lavicount Anderdon145
  Swann declared not elected on petition, 26 Feb. 1819, and no writ issued before the dissolution 

Main Article

The principal property owners at Penryn were Sir Francis Basset, its recorder; the Duke of Leeds, who held the manor and some leases from the bishop of Exeter; the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe and Mr Trefusis. The two former, who were then political opponents, agreed to return one Member each in 1790, Basset returning himself and the duke his friend Glover, at no charge to the latter: an opportunist had offered £4,000 for a seat for the borough.1 By 1795, however, Basset, who had returned both Members in 1784 and might have done so again in 1790 but for his challenge to the duke’s interest at Helston, had gone over to government and agreed with the duke not to interfere at Helston in exchange for security at Penryn. He thus became sole patron.2 Writing to Pitt on 9 June 1795 he spoke of being ‘threatened with something of an opposition at Penryn’ and added, ‘it may be necessary for me to canvass when I go down in the autumn—I should be glad to know the candidate you mean to recommend by October’. On 28 Aug. 1795 he asked for the name of this candidate at once, as well as for places for electors. On 20 Sept. he wrote: ‘I mentioned yesterday that I should have two seats at your service’ (‘only the expense of the election’ being his price). He would be glad to bring in any of Lord Arden, Mr East, Mr Gordon, Mr George Hardinge or Mr Metcalfe, who were well known to him. In the event he accepted other nominees; Sylvester Douglas alleged that his price was £1,500 to £1,800 On 27 July 1797 Lord de Dunstanville (as Basset had now become) complained to government of the short notice given him of Wallace’s seeking re-election and that his applications for patronage had not been attended to. He threatened to give up the expense of his borough interest.3

In 1802 De Dunstanville met with opposition from John Milford of Exeter, a merchant and banker, and Henry Swann, a lawyer who alleged later that he owed his introduction there to Lord Moira and a promise to answer for £2,500. The patron’s nominees, though strongly supported by the corporation, had to be pushed home and his opponents’ petition of 24 Nov. 1802, alleging bribery and corruption, promised to succeed, but for the conclusion of a compromise whereby Milford and Swann received 4,000 guineas compensation for their expenses, out of which £1,600 balance was distributed by Swann in the borough, allegedly for a ‘breakfast’. ‘Black’ Swann, thereby established a foothold in the borough which he never relinquished. Lord de Dunstanville was sufficiently discouraged to wish to give up the borough and in 1803 he did so. On 29 June 1803, informing his nominee Sir John Nicholl of it, he claimed that the late contest had cost more than £11,000 and, though he thought his interest ‘would at a future election again succeed’, he washed his hands of Penryn.4

On 26 Sept. 1803, Sir William Elford* wrote to Pitt:

I have learnt much of the state of the borough, the patronage of which has been long held by Lord Dunstanville—the party supporting him consist of the whole corporation and the upper classes of inhabitants, by whom his friends ... were returned at the last election—the petitioners Mr Milford and Mr Swann were I believe induced to withdraw their pretensions by being paid the amount of their expenses. Had the petition been decided on, a void election would probably have been the consequence ... Lord Dunstanville possessing the chief property in and about the town has long found that besides the ordinary expenses incident to all patrons, he has sustained a great annual loss by the low rate at which all his leases were granted to the voters, and having but one daughter and therefore no strong motive for keeping up his borough connexions has signified his intention to the corporation and his other friends no longer to interfere in their concerns.By all the intelligence I can gain, this party with tolerable management must be preponderant, and the annual expenses consisting of a dinner or two and the payment of a manager would amount to £200 or £250 a year ... I learn that soon after Lord Dunstanville withdrew himself, the leaders of the party applied to Mr Addington to beg he would recommend a patron and that they are much disgusted at having received either no reply at all or a most unsatisfactory one.

Elford added that if Pitt had some ‘private or political friend’ interested in the patronage of the borough, now would be the time to act. On 7 Jan. 1804 Elford sent him a letter from a local placeman seeking to interest Pitt in finding an ‘eligible patron’, to whom the expense would be ‘trifling ... merely giving a dinner and sending an agent’. On 26 June 1804, Elford advised Pitt that he must come to a decision about Penryn: he did not, and the vacuum was inevitably filled by Sir Christopher Hawkins.5

Hawkins claimed to have been approached by both parties in the borough and to have reconciled them in a public canvass; he was encouraged by the belief that Lord de Dunstanville, whom he had made acquainted with his proceedings, 25 July 1805, intended to sell his property in the borough. In November 1805, as afterwards appeared, Hawkins drew up an agreement with eight of his supporters, labelled ‘the Town party’, at Penryn, whereby each voter would get 24 guineas for his pains and 10 guineas would go to the overseers and for newspapers; Hawkins subsequently claimed that the agreement was abandoned by him, owing to the defection of most of the signatories. By April 1806, he had come to terms with Henry Swann, who was again contesting the borough: they joined forces in an attempt to discourage Lord de Dunstanville from reviving his interest.6 Hawkins tried to secure Treasury support, and King, secretary to the Treasury, informed Lord Grenville, 5 July 1806, that Hawkins seemed to have a stronger interest now than Lord de Dunstanville and was willing to accept government nominees for seats at his disposal, in return for places for his friends. Hawkins does not appear to have obtained satisfaction, for on 19 Aug. 1806, Lord de Dunstanville having decided to revive his interest and put up two candidates, Swann wrote to Lord Grenville asking him what his intentions were.7

A contest ensued in which Lord de Dunstanville’s nominees, who won over 26 voters bribed by Hawkins, were defeated and petitioned against the return, alleging bribery and corruption. Although Hawkins tried to refute their allegations and sought Lord Grenville’s protection, he called no witnesses before the committee and lost his seat to Trevanion. (Swann was not implicated and defended himself in the House, while Lord de Dunstanville’s other nominee, Wingfield, came in on the latter’s interest at Bodmin instead.) Hawkins, who narrowly escaped being expelled the House, came in for another seat and, with his adherents, was ordered to be prosecuted for bribery, 22 Apr. 1807: he was acquitted in 1808, after a new Parliament had been elected, but the affair still rankled in the minds of himself and Lord de Dunstanville. The bad relations between them led to a duel in the summer of 1810 (neither was hurt) and to further clashes, in the law courts for libel and at Penryn elections.8

In 1807, however, with Hawkins in disgrace, there was a compromise: Swann came in on his own interest and Lemon, heir to a Cornish estate, on Lord de Dunstanville’s; the latter’s second candidate Adm. Sir Charles Pole* stood down. An electors’ petition alleging bribery, treating and the use of Lord de Dunstanville’s name by Lemon was found frivolous by the House. In November 1807 De Dunstanville heard that Swann meant to resign his seat and offered Lord Sidmouth to bring in Charles Cockerell*. Nothing came of this and in 1808 De Dunstanville thought of selling his property at Penryn, where he could command 15 or 20 votes and one seat at least. He asked Sidmouth if he could recommend a purchaser. But in November 1811 he was accepting Sidmouth’s nominees for the next election, Gell and J. Weyland (the latter cried off). In 1812 Hawkins returned to the fray, without success. De Dunstanville, who had been seeking to preserve his hold on the borough by means of his influence with the corporation and canvassed through his agent Reynolds and his friend Davies Giddy*, put up two candidates, Hobart and Gell. One of them, Gell, was returned, but Swann headed the poll. De Dunstanville was confident that Swann could be unseated for bribery, but equally sure that he could not secure the seat for Hobart on a fresh election (Hobart’s bills already amounted to some £1,500). Swann, as the Member friendly to administration had secured places for electors, and he went on to claim credit for obtaining a £350,000 contract for local stone (half of which rewarded local labour) used in building Waterloo Bridge, and for attempting to have the packet service transferred from Falmouth to Penryn.9

De Dunstanville had some difficulty in finding a suitable candidate for the next election. It was not he who offered Sir Robert Thomas Wilson* a seat at Penryn for £3,000 in 1816, which the latter eventually refused. One party of electors were prepared to invite (Sir) Manasseh Masseh Lopes* to step in, if not other adventurers. In the event, Lopes’s nephew Ralph Franco* declined the offer. In September 1817 De Dunstanville offered to put up his friend Sidmouth’s second son, but Sidmouth thought the borough should ‘rather be shunned than sought; considering the certainty of a heavy expense, and the uncertainty of a successful result’. His fears proved well founded: John Anderdon, the son of a London merchant and son-in-law of William Manning*, benefited from the refusal of Pownoll Bastard Pellew* to stand and became the corporation favourite, hoping to profit from a wave of dissatisfaction with Swann. He seems to have been put to some expense, only to find that many of the promises he received in return were not honoured. Sir Christopher Hawkins and Swann, who had more or less announced that he would not pay the electors their usual price of £24 a vote, were returned.10

Anderdon petitioned against the return, 22 Jan. 1819, alleging bribery by Swann, who was unseated on 26 Feb.: the House did not declare Anderdon elected, but resolved that Swann, three agents and eight bribed electors, should answer for their irregularities. Much was made of the fact that Penryn had already come to the notice of the House in 1807 and that the bribery oath was not administered there. Meanwhile, the issue of a new writ was suspended until the report of the Penryn committee was printed. When it was, there was a heated debate, 8 Mar. 1819, in which Sir Charles Burrell failed to obtain from ministers a select committee of inquiry, but was given leave for a bill to prevent corruption at Penryn. Despite this a canvass was started in Penryn on 26 Mar. on behalf of Anderdon (by his brother) and of John Shand (by Swann). As the corruption was not general, the expedient of extending the franchise (to include Falmouth and Penzance) was preferred to disfranchising Penryn and transferring the seat elsewhere (Chorley petitioned for the honour). The bill was carried on 22 June 1819, but the Lords would not have it and it had to be renewed next session (7 Dec. 1819). It had not been carried at the dissolution.11

Swann was tried for bribery at Bodmin on 11 Aug. 1819; indignant at what he considered to be unfair treatment, he ridiculed the charges against him, involving a mere £35, at a time when Treasury boroughs were sold for £4,000 with impunity. He exposed the electoral system at Penryn, alleging that the electors were usually paid £24 for a plumper and £12 for a single vote. One witness alleged that Swann was ‘always inquiring into every poor man’s business’, when at Penryn. Swann admitted that he had relieved their ‘distresses’ and that he usually did so through their womenfolk, ‘who had an unbounded influence over the men at Penryn’. He was made a scapegoat, having been found guilty on two out of six counts, and was confined in King’s Bench, but at large again in time to contest the next election, when he regained his seat.12 No new writ had been issued before the dissolution, and a bid by Lord John Russell II* to prevent the issue of one for the general election was thwarted in the Lords, 25 Feb. 1820.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, i. 96; Add. 28066, f. 36; 33110, f. 49.
  • 2. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iii. 213; Portland mss, PwV 107, Basset to Portland, 28 July 1794.
  • 3. PRO 30/8/111, ff. 412, 416, 418; 131, f. 111; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 67.
  • 4. R. Cornw. Gazette, 5, 12 June 1802; Oldfield, Key (1820), 129; CJ, lviii. 14; Merthyr Mawr mss L/195/3.
  • 5. PRO 30/8/132, ff. 168, 172, 177.
  • 6. Fortescue mss, J. King to Grenville, 5 July 1806; Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DDJ 2122. f. 14; Coode mss CF 4776, Hawkins to De Dunstanville (draft), 25 July 1805; Parl. Deb. viii. 619; ix. 504, 509.
  • 7. Fortescue mss; Coode mss 4730-4741.
  • 8. CJ, lxii. 10, 19, 102, 350, 354; Fortescue mss, Hawkins to Grenville, 16 Feb.; Courier, 25 Apr. 1807; Colchester, ii. 122; Farington, vi. 269; Sidmouth mss, De Dunstanville to Sidmouth, 20 Aug. 1817.
  • 9. CJ, lxii. 279; lxiii. 302; R. Cornw. Gazette, 2, 9 May; Sidmouth mss, De Dunstanville to Sidmouth, 29 Nov., 9 Dec. 1807, [Sept. 1808], 5 Nov. 1811, 17 Oct., 16, 27 Nov.; West Briton, 2 Oct. 1812; The Late Elections (1818), 254.
  • 10. Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Exmouth, 21 Sept. 1817; R. Cornw. Gazette, 30 May, 6, 13, 27 June 1818; The Late Elections, loc. cit.; Taunton Courier, 25 June 1818.
  • 11. CJ, lxxiv. 24, 168, 256; R. Cornw. Gazette, 27 Mar. 1819; Parl. Deb. xxxix. 712, 736, 906, 936, 999, 1117; xl. 332, 384, 802, 1293; xli. 814, 1297, 1612.
  • 12. Oldfield, Key, loc. cit.