St. Albans


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 and in householders paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 600


(1801): 3,038


 Thomas Clutterbuck117
27 May 1796HON. RICHARD BINGHAM (Lord Bingham)378
 Samuel Ferrand Waddington208
23 June 1800 WILLIAM STEPHEN POYNTZ vice Bingham (Earl of Lucan [I]), vacated his seat 
 Joseph Thompson Halsey201
 John William Ponsonby, Visct. Duncannon275
25 Jan. 1809 DANIEL GILES vice Grimston, called to the Upper House110
 Robert Williams III55
 Daniel Giles289
26 Feb. 1818 WILLIAM TIERNEY ROBARTS vice Halsey, deceased298
 Lord Charles Spencer Churchill262
 Christopher Smith217

Main Article

The leading interests were those of Lords Spencer and Grimston, who had returned a Member each since 1768. Earl Spencer’s was the stronger, based on his hold over the corporation and sustained by loans, the support of the local dissenters and superiority among the outvoters;1 but he was on the defensive after 1784, when his Whig nominee William Charles Sloper narrowly defeated Lord Salisbury’s brother-in-law, a third man who shared the Grimstons’ ministerial politics, although an open alliance was not thought advisable. Sloper, who was not popular with the corporation, was secretly dropped by Spencer, who replaced him after an ineffective overture to his cousin Wilbraham Tollemache with his brother-in-law Bingham. So he informed his mother, who had hitherto managed his interest in the borough, on 31 July 1789; and on 13 Aug. he reported that his agent Townsend had conveyed the news to the Kinders, the leading corporation family.2 He did not inform Sloper of his dismissal until 23 Mar. 1790, then regretting ‘the disagreeable necessity of being obliged to give way to the unreasonable humours of the sort of people we have to deal with’. Sloper complied, 25 Mar. On the day of dissolution, 11 June, Spencer accompanied Bingham on his canvass. With regard to the other seat, he reported:

Lord Grimston is to be made an English peer, and in return for the assistance of Lord Salisbury towards this object of his, he is to bring in young Mr Calvert instead of his brother, who, as I understand, is to retire.

Lady Spencer informed her mother-in-law, 15 June:

My brother, thanks to you and your successful care of your son’s interest at St. Albans made the most extraordinary good canvass ever man made, and Lord Grimston but a very middling one. We thought that Richard and Calvert would come in without any bustle, but yesterday morning Lord Spencer heard that Lord Grimston was sending down all the outvoters in a violent hurry ... Lord Spencer began sending down voters on his part, and though Lord Grimston had the start of us, I hear more were sent down on our side than on his, and all his have decidedly given us promises of their votes.

On 17 June Spencer informed his mother of their success,

notwithstanding a great alarm and bustle created by the arrival of a third candidate (Mr Clutterbuck of Watford) who stood avowedly in opposition to the Grimston interest on account of the transfer that was supposed to have been made of that interest to Lord Salisbury in the person of Mr Calvert junior. He came only Tuesday night at seven o’clock but canvassed all night and got so much ground that he was enabled to poll 117 votes, most of whom gave their other votes to us. At seven last night however, Mr Clutterbuck found it advisable to decline proceeding any further ... His lordship met with some severe rebuffs in the course of the election.

The Spencers were jubilant: ‘our interest is now established more triumphantly than it ever was before’, and Spencer noted that the London freemen took to their new Member. ‘We were afraid of giving them the money as usual, till the Parliament has met, and the time for petitioning has elapsed, for fear of any advantage being taken of it.’

Calvert, whose father had paid election bills of £450 for him, subscribed to the following agreement with Lord Grimston, 13 June 1790:

On this day in the presence of my brother Mr William Grimston, Mr John Calvert with the approbation of his father having been recommended to the borough of St. Albans by me as a fit person to represent it in the ensuing Parliament did faithfully promise and assure me that he never would even attempt to make any independent interest in that borough, that he would court no popularity, nor that he would visit the borough at any time without my knowledge and approbation. That he would never canvass or offer his services to the borough without my consent and that he would resign any pretensions to his seat for that place whenever I should call upon him to do so.

On 18 July 1790 Grimston informed Calvert: ‘The secrets of the borough I shall keep to myself: it would be unhandsome to trouble you with what you have too much delicacy to enquire after’.3 Calvert was further humiliated early in 1791 when the pretence that Grimston’s brother had given up his seat from a wish to retire from Parliament was disproved by his return for another borough; and it was the current rumour that Calvert had given ‘three or four thousand guineas’ for his seat.4 Meanwhile, Spencer having contributed generously to the building of a new market house, Grimston took up the abortive St. Albans canal project to boost his interest.5 Their political rivalry was ended by Spencer’s conversion to the government in 1794 (when he also acquired office and Admiralty patronage): and in 1795 both Calvert (so instructed by Grimston) and Bingham refused to present a petition against the sedition bills, it being left to the county Member to do so.6 A counter-petition from St. Albans followed.

Grimston’s son and heir was expected to be his candidate at the next election and indeed canvassed, 29 Mar. 1796, but was not of age at the dissolution. In anticipation of this, Grimston had found a substitute in his kinsman Bucknall, who was prepared to pay up to £400 expenses, support ministers and prevent ‘a disciple of Tom Paine’ from securing a seat, as he assured Grimston, 28 Apr. 1796.7 He was referring to the candidature of Samuel Waddington, a radical of London mercantile stock, who had appeared at St. Albans on 3 Mar. Waddington had chaired the meeting held at the Paul’s Head tavern in London against the sedition bills. He was invited to St. Albans by Alderman Kingston and dined with about 150 adherents at the Bell and Red Lion. Grimston was informed that he returned to town ‘well pleased’ and that ‘a great deal of rancour was displayed by the leaders of this faction against both our present Members and those who supported them, but particularly against your family’. The correspondent, John Cowper, added:

I am convinced that no stone will be left unturned to poison the minds of the lowest class of voters and to secure their votes, and that they are secretly aided in this business by our worthy Doctor P[reedy] and some other gentry of r[adical] principles.

To meet Waddington’s claim that neither sitting Member would offer again, Bingham and Grimston’s son had canvassed. In his address the ‘Frenchified’ radical advocated peace, tax relief and commercial growth. He denounced the influence of the crown and aristocracy and posed as champion of the electors’ independence. A ministerial paper gloated over Waddington’s failure; on the second day of the poll he burst into tears and retired ‘to the tune of 6,000 guineas’. He alleged that his opponents spent £16,000; in fact, Grimston spent £3,100. Spencer, who spent about the same, wrote, 27 May:

Everybody agrees that without our assistance, Mr Bucknall would have lost it, but ... I am extremely happy that Waddington is driven away, and Kingston and all his rabble have found that they cannot carry things in the manner they flattered themselves they could. I hope this will secure us a little peace in the place for some time to come.

Grimston’s friends likewise thought the fruitless expense would be ‘a complete warning’ to intruders.8 No chances were taken and in 1800, when Bingham succeeded to the Irish peerage and anticipated becoming a representative peer after the Union, Spencer induced him to vacate his seat beforehand, to prevent ‘all caballing and intrigue at St. Albans’ (4 June). Spencer’s cousin Poyntz was substituted, without ‘any of the bustle and irritation which has usually attended these operations at St. Albans’.

Peace was preserved in 1802 when, Grimston’s heir being now eligible, Bucknall discovered a declining state of health and made way for him. Francis Kingston and the town clerk John Boys, the ringleaders of 1796, had temporarily deserted their banners. But in 1806 Kingston stirred up an opposition from an unexpected quarter: Halsey, nephew of the Whig county Member William Plumer. After a three-day contest Halsey, who had at first been ahead of Grimston on the poll, conceded victory. On 3 Nov. he wrote a palliative letter to Lord Grimston.9 William Baker* informed Spencer next day;

Though it is evident that Mr Halsey’s unprovoked conduct at St. Albans had the strongest tendency to create disturbance in the county, I think there is but one opinion as to that proceeding being wholly unjustifiable, whether Mr Plumer was at the bottom of it or not.

Grimston was given to understand that the reason for Plumer’s aggression was that he had supported the pretensions of the Hon. Thomas Brand* to the county, endangering Plumer’s tenure. Plumer, writing to Spencer on 10 Nov., denied that his nephew had even consulted him, describing him as ‘a young man of honourable principles but of high spirit and enterprise’. Spencer, then a cabinet minister, was meanwhile being reproached by such Whigs as Whitbread for not getting Poyntz to join forces with Halsey, who supported the ministry, against Grimston, who did not. The fact was that the family were concerned only for their own interest. The dowager Lady Spencer had written, 2 Nov. 1806, ‘Poyntz’s personal interest ... adds so much to our strength that there cannot be any fear of his success’.10 Nevertheless, Poyntz could not afford the expense of St. Albans elections and in December 1806 welcomed an invitation to stand for Sussex. Spencer at once proposed substituting his nephew Viscount Duncannon (31 Dec.) and on that account refused an application from Halsey for his backing, though he also believed Poyntz had changed his mind (1 Jan.). There was certainly a possibility of it, though by 26 Apr. 1807 Spencer learnt that Poyntz had definitely decided against St. Albans. He helped Duncannon to canvass the outvoters. In the borough Duncannon met with ‘wicked and foolish’ clamour against the Grenville ministry’s Catholic relief proposals. Spencer found his agent Harrison ‘nervous’ and admitted that Duncannon might have to take second place in the poll, believing that Halsey (who was again offering) would defeat Grimston, ‘not ... even a good thing for us, but they manage so very ill that it cannot be helped’. He had again refused to contemplate an alliance proposed by Halsey. Spencer’s mother reported ‘much violence between Grimston and Halsey, so as to come to personal altercation, but of all this we are perfectly clear’ (27 Apr.). Grimston’s agent Story, who had failed to induce his master to take advantage of the ‘No Popery’ clamour, also regarded the contest as one between Halsey and Grimston and was concerned only to secure defecting voters from the Spencers.11 Nevertheless, it was Duncannon who was bottom of the poll by 13 votes. He had more plumpers (71) than the other two candidates; but, significantly—and in defiance of Lord Spencer’s strategy—he shared more votes with Halsey than with Grimston, though not as many as Halsey shared with Grimston.

Spencer wrote to his mother, who was loath to ‘examine the poll’, 6 May 1807:

The first inclination of my mind is to give up all thoughts of interfering any more in the electioneering at the place, and of course to have nothing more to do with the corporation. It seems pretty evident now that we shall never have another election there uncontested, and though the contests are not very expensive ones, the constant recurrence of them, added to the occasional expenses of mayoralties, etc. are considerations which under my present circumstances must have some weight in my determination. If the Parliament should last its usual time, the present sitting Members will have abundant opportunities to confirm their interest, and the attention necessary to be paid to the corporation will all be trouble and expense thrown away.

On 29 July 1807 Spencer and his heir duly resigned from the corporation and on 2 Sept. he resigned as high steward. Lord Grimston took over, though the corporation remained ‘up to the eyes in debt to the Spencer family’.12 So it was that when Grimston’s son went up to the Lords in December 1808, causing a vacancy at St. Albans for which no member of his family was available and the dowager Lady Spencer was applied to, she replied that her family would take no part. She wished Duncannon could have the seat, but would not ‘for the world subject him to another disappointment, or indeed stand another contest’. On 13 Dec. she set off for Althorp, ‘to avoid hearing of the election’. She informed her daughter that

a great many people, of different descriptions, want William Poyntz to stand, and have sent to him, but I fancy he will not venture to do it without your brother’s support. They have thought likewise, in case he will not, of one of the Lambs, but they wisely and positively decline it.13

The cost of even an uncontested election was now estimated at £1,200. The Lambs were not averse to supporting the pretensions of a wealthy Whig neighbour, Daniel Giles of Youngsbury, who filled the vacancy after defeating an opportunist candidate Robert Williams III*. Williams did not follow up his petition against the return.

According to the Lambs’ mother Lady Melbourne, writing to Giles in September 1811, by which time she had an eye to his seat for her son William:

at the time of election you often stated that you had no intention of making an interest for yourself, and that what you were then doing, William would profit by at some time and you never have since yet hinted to me that you had changed your intentions.

Giles replied, 11 Sept., that he had indeed been prepared to stand back for one of the Lamb brothers:

I was of course bound to stand the hazard of the contest. It turned out favourably and I obtained the seat but most assuredly not according to my understanding as a mere tenant for another, though as I have already said, if the application had been made to me at an earlier period I should without difficulty have given way to William and instead of cultivating an interest and making engagements on my own account should have readily co-operated with him in preparing the way for his future success.14

In any case, Lady Melbourne had not managed before the dissolution in September 1812 to persuade William Lamb to commit himself: she quoted him as saying that he was well out of it ‘as it would infallibly have ruined him’, though she believed he ‘might have come in for very little money and kept it at a small expense’. Lamb did not deny it, but he could not afford even ‘a moderate yearly expense’; and he had doubts whether Giles could secure his re-election, which proved justified.15 Lord Spencer thought Lamb would be foolish ‘to embroil himself with his neighbours’ and had ‘no wish for any change’, since Poyntz had a ‘snug’ seat elsewhere.

Giles, who had joined forces with Halsey to keep a third man at bay in 1812, was defeated, though Halsey headed the poll. The third man was Christopher Smith, a London merchant and alderman, described by Giles as ‘Mr Perceval’s friend’ and invited by a faction in the corporation as a supporter of administration. Smith had not been the first candidate thought of for a contest. In 1811 John Sharpless, a London voter, described by his enemies as an ex-convict, sponsored Sir Jonah Barrington, the Irish lawyer, at a meeting of 30 outvoters near London. Barrington, who canvassed, was thought to have ‘not a particle of chance in succeeding’, and by February 1812 Smith had replaced him, encouraged by Sharpless and by John Monckton Hale, the electioneering attorney. Samuel Robert Gaussen* was thought of as a more respectable local candidate, but he left it too late and did not live to see the election. The Halsey-Giles coalition attempted to discredit Smith as a renegade radical and secured the neutrality of the Grimstons; Lord Spencer would take no active part for them. His agent Harrison claimed credit for doing all he could for them ‘with propriety’ and for urging Giles to persevere when discouraged by an unpromising canvass. He insisted that both Halsey and Giles had neglected the outvoters. Smith received 107 plumpers. Nothing came of a petition contemplated against him for bribery.16

On Halsey’s death early in 1818 the first candidate in the field was Robarts, a London businessman willing to ‘bleed freely’. His uncle George Tierney the Whig leader procured him the blessing of Lord Spencer, who had no other candidate in mind, but was anxious to thwart a bid by Lord Charles Spencer Churchill (who applied to government for support) to stake his claim to the dwindling Spencer heritage at St. Albans.17 Lord Charles’s father, who had some property in the borough, wrote in vain for Spencer’s support, 16 Jan. 1818; so he had to depend on Dr James Preedy’s promise to bring him in ‘without expense and by his own personal influence’. Lady Spencer reported, 26 Jan. 1818:

Lord Charles Spencer alias Churchill alias gander alias gaol bird has been canvassing St. Albans accompanied by his two respectable friends John Ward and Irreverend Preedie [sic] and met with a very cold reception.

She put this down to his having ‘not a farthing to rub against another’, while Robarts had money to throw away. When Lord Charles next day asserted that he was standing ‘with the most eager support of the Spencer family’, he was repudiated and a further stratagem of his to mislead the electors into thinking that Spencer and his son Althorp (who canvassed for Robarts) were at variance also failed. Nevertheless, Spencer Churchill reappeared at the ensuing general election and defeated Alderman Smith for second place. Smith’s supporters were greatly disappointed at his poor showing, claiming that it was a matter of broken promises; they prepared to fight again next time.18

By the end of this period the Spencer interest was a shadow of what it had been and the Grimston interest had been hamstrung for want of a family candidate since 1808. Meanwhile St. Albans had become an unmanageable borough.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. H. F. C. Lansberry, ‘Politics and Govt. in St. Albans 1685-1835’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1964), summarized in I.H.R. Bull, xli. 47-57.
  • 2. Spencer mss, from which, unless otherwise stated, this account is drawn.
  • 3. Herts. RO, Verulam mss F34.
  • 4. Ibid. F28, undated handbill 1796; Morning Chron. 11 Feb. 1791.
  • 5. HMC Verulam, 145.
  • 6. Verulam mss F27, Calvert to Grimston, 27 Nov., to Boyd, 1 Dec. 1795.
  • 7. Ibid. F27, Grimston’s address, 23 May 1796; F35, ff. 130, 136, 140; HMC Verulam, 168.
  • 8. True Briton, 21 Mar., 30, 31 May; Morning Chron. 8 Mar., 21 May 1796; Waddington, A third letter to the Rt. Hon. George Tierney (1806), 32; HMC Verulam, 163, 169.
  • 9. Verulam mss F324, Story to Grimston, 21 Oct., Grimston to his das., 27 Oct.; F32, Halsey to Grimston, 3 Nov.; Fortescue mss, Townshend to Grenville, 31 Oct. 1806.
  • 10. Grey mss, Whitbread to Howick, 5 Nov. 1806; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 150.
  • 11. Fitzwilliam mss, X516/12, Ld. Bessborough to Lady Fitzwilliam, 9 May [1807]; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 157; Warrenne Blake, Irish Beauty, 75; Verulam mss F32, Story to Grimston, 27, 29 Apr. 1807.
  • 12. Gibbs, Corpn. Recs. of St. Albans, 159-160; Herts. RO, Giles mss C6, Brown to Giles, 25 Mar. 1811.
  • 13. Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 180-1.
  • 14. Lady Airlie, In Whig Society, 121-5.
  • 15. Roden mss, Lamb to Lady Melbourne, 9 Oct. 1812.
  • 16. Giles mss C6, handbill, 21 Oct., Kingston to Giles, 22, 23 Oct. 1811, [c. Mar.]; election handbills; Hart to Giles, 6, 8, 10 Mar., 20 Apr., Preedy to same, 11 Oct. 1812; Add. 35650, f. 140.
  • 17. Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey [26 Feb. 1818]; 40279, f. 62.
  • 18. The Late Elections (1818), 2. According to Gibbs, 168, the poll figures were Churchill 306, Robarts 291 and Smith 218.