Yorkshire

County

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

Background Information

Number of voters:

over 20,000

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
25 June 1790HENRY DUNCOMBE 
 WILLIAM WILBERFORCE 
7 June 1796WILLIAM WILBERFORCE 
 HENRY LASCELLES 
12 June 1802WILLIAM WILBERFORCE 
 (HON.) HENRY LASCELLES 
13 Nov. 1806WILLIAM WILBERFORCE 
 WALTER RAMSDEN FAWKES 
20 May 1807WILLIAM WILBERFORCE11806
 CHARLES WILLIAM WENTWORTH FITZWILLIAM, Visct. Milton11177
 (Hon.) Henry Lascelles10989
16 Oct. 1812CHARLES WILLIAM WENTWORTH FITZWILLIAM, Visct. Milton 
 (HON.) HENRY LASCELLES 
25 June 1818CHARLES WILLIAM WENTWORTH FITZWILLIAM, Visct. Milton 
 JAMES ARCHIBALD STUART WORTLEY 

Main Article

In Fox’s often quoted words, ‘Yorkshire and Middlesex between them make all England’. Of Pitt it was likewise alleged that Wilberforce was to him ‘the whole people of England’, because he represented its most populous county, Yorkshire, as his friend and had ousted the Whigs.1 Wilberforce and his colleague Duncombe, the nominees of the Yorkshire Association in 1784, when at the instigation of the Rev. Christopher Wyvill it came out in favour of Pitt, had then held at bay their Foxite challengers, Weddell and Foljambe, sponsored by the 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam, who had led the Whig secession from the Association that year, when it was clear that he could not make of it the political instrument intended by his late uncle the Marquess of Rockingham. The Whigs licked their wounds and at first wished to keep up the pretensions of their thwarted candidates; but when, late in 1784, Wilberforce’s health raised a question, Viscount Downe*, whose uncle had represented the county, was spoken of as their potential candidate on a vacancy, though it was realized that lack of organization, as at the general election, would make his chances slight.2 Nor in the spring of 1788, when it was rumoured that the sitting Members would offer again, pledged to each other, or, soon afterwards, that Wilberforce’s ill health would open a seat, did the Whigs feel that they had made any headway, particularly in the West Riding, where the woollen trade had created ‘one compact body united by common feelings and a common interest’. Foljambe warned Fitzwilliam that they were not ready for a trial of strength. Others urged that Downe would prove a better candidate than either Foljambe or Weddell at a by-election, his social rank being in his favour and a foil to Wilberforce’s lack of ‘social consequence’. In April 1788 Downe was accordingly sponsored by Fitzwilliam as prospective candidate and he was publicly endorsed. It was not clear who might on the other side replace Wilberforce: Sir Robert Hildyard was mentioned, as was Lord Mulgrave, but the question was rendered superfluous by Wilberforce’s recovery and his friends’ insistence that he would offer again. Downe now indicated to Fitzwilliam that his candidature applied only to a vacancy: he had no intention of standing against Wilberforce at a general election. Fitzwilliam urged him to persevere and frighten off Wilberforce by the very prospect of a contest, particularly as some of Wilberforce’s friends were prepared to support Downe if Wilberforce stood down. But Downe would not consent, no machinery was set up beyond an indecisive committee, 6 Nov. 1788, and the dissolution was not imminent. Fitzwilliam failed to persuade Sir Thomas Lister to replace Downe and Weddell’s health put him out of the question, while Foljambe cried off at the end of 1788, seeing that the Regency crisis further hampered the Whig cause in the county. On 19 Apr. 1789 Fitzwilliam was informed by an agent ‘we stand very ill in the county and .. . as things now are, we must rest content’.3 The Whigs were discouraged by the flow of addresses favourable to Pitt from Yorkshire on the King’s recovery and had to be satisfied with a petty trial of strength over the election of a coroner for the West Riding in April 1790. They offered no opposition to the sitting Members at the ensuing general election. Wilberforce nevertheless had a county election book ready, in which all the significant electors were noted, as he jokingly remarked, down to ‘whether he likes the leg or wing of a fowl best’.4

Fitzwilliam’s temporary junction with government in 1794 threw the Yorkshire Whigs into confusion, and although they meant to take advantage of his absence in Ireland and of Wilberforce’s peace motion of 30 Dec. 1794, seconded by his colleague Duncombe who had remained a friend of parliamentary reform, it soon became clear that the county Members’ gesture had not won popular support in Yorkshire (the trading interest liking the war) any more than it had pleased Pitt. On 1 Dec. 1795 an informal meeting to condemn Pitt’s coercive measures was countered by Wilberforce, who had since repented. Duncombe, however, opposed coercion and remained conscious of ‘having differed from my constituents, and differing from them still upon a great constitutional question’, and this, together with infirmity, so he informed his colleague on 7 Jan. 1796, would ensure his retirement at the dissolution.5

There were several potential replacements for Duncombe. Of these Lord Morpeth* and Walter Spencer Stanhope*, ‘whose vanity ... led to think the county might accept of him’, were not serious contenders. Duncombe’s nephew Charles was ready but late in starting and little known; and Walter Fawkes of Farnley came forward, ‘connected with no party’, but in fact as a moderate Whig, with Fitzwilliam’s secret blessing. Government looked to Harewood House for its champion, but it was ‘no secret’ that Edward Lascelles’s elder son Edward ‘had a great aversion to offer himself for the county’. The situation was saved by the younger son Henry stepping into the breach. Wilberforce was too unwell to canvass; but thanks to his politeness and assiduity as county Member was as secure, he was assured, ‘as if the county were your own private borough’. At the nomination meeting, 30 May, Wilberforce, who ‘avowed Pitt and his measures for the most part’, was carried by acclaim and disposed to support the strongest of the other candidates, provided he was safe. Duncombe fared badly on the show of hands; between Lascelles and Fawkes it was nearly equal, though reported to favour the former. The sheriff ‘could not take upon him to decide which had the majority’, but Duncombe’s withdrawal and his uncle’s declaration for Lascelles, as well as the too obvious commitment of Fawkes to the Whigs, prejudiced the latter’s chances. An inconclusive conference between Wilberforce’s, Lascelles’s and Fawkes’s friends designed to secure the former’s alliance with one or other of them, at which Lascelles’s party offered better terms, was followed by Fawkes’s withdrawal to save the peace of the county. Wilberforce had been under pressure from his supporters in the West Riding to back Lascelles, but having stressed at the nomination that he stood unconnected, would not yield. Fawkes had protested against the sale of the county to ministers via Harewood House in his nomination speech, and, in declining, pointedly explained that ‘he would spend no more of Lascelles’ money than necessary’. So, in the Whig view, ‘Pitt has got the county by purchase’. Lascelles’s father’s peerage was assured. The morning after he had given up, Fawkes opened a letter which Charles Brandling* had neglected to give him promising him the support of the Whig grandees, Fitzwilliam, Norfolk and Devonshire: but he believed it would only have caused him to hesitate longer about giving up.6

Although he became lord lieutenant in 1798, Fitzwilliam, through his aversion to peace and parliamentary reform, continued to handicap Whig efforts in Yorkshire. William Bosville of Thorpe thought of standing, but, despite rumours of a contest, none transpired in 1802, when Wilberforce and Lascelles conducted a thorough canvass and the former was guaranteed a subscription if necessary. It was reported to Fitzwilliam that the pair were coolly received at Leeds and Huddersfield and that a ‘respectable independent man such as Fawkes’ might beat Wilberforce, who was careful at his nomination to apologize for neglecting to visit his constituents.7

In 1806 the time was ripe for Fawkes’s candidature: Fitzwilliam was in office and obtained Lord Grenville’s concurrence in labelling Lascelles an enemy to government, while Wilberforce had been better disposed. Fawkes was Fitzwilliam’s chosen candidate, with his heir Lord Milton canvassing for him and machinery set up to engineer his return. Of canvassing expenses of £1,590, all but £250 was met by a subscription, in which Fitzwilliam was facile princeps. Lascelles had blotted his copy book by his offensive manner in resisting, on behalf of the clothier entrepreneurs, the enforcement of restrictive practices in the woollen trade demanded by the textile operatives, or ‘manufacturers’ as they were then called, of the West Riding. Wilberforce had himself drafted the report of the committee of inquiry into the woollen trade of 14 Mar. 1806 which recommended the abolition of restrictive practices upheld by the institution of cloth dressers, but had not alienated them to the same extent. In any case, his campaign for the abolition of the slave trade had gained him the abiding affection of the Methodists if not of the dissenting interest, while Fawkes espoused the same platform, leaving Lascelles, the Barbados slave-owner, in unpopular isolation. Fawkes’s cultivation of the West Riding clothing operatives was so successful that of 9,056 promises for him, 6,582 were from the West Riding, underlining its crucial role in Yorkshire elections. Lascelles, whose support from most of the landed gentry was unavailing, withdrew a week before the election, complaining afterwards of ‘the common cause made against me by the clothiers, and the secret and matured arrangement with which I had to contend’. He might also have complained of the inefficiency of his chief agent Edward Wolley, who was also acting for Fitzwilliam’s nephew Dundas in the York election. Lascelles’s friends had urged, after a neutral start, a coalition with Wilberforce, and the latter did not think the rumour of a secret junction between him and Lascelles unreasonable, but he saw that Fawkes would beat Lascelles and remained ‘scrupulously and conscientiously neutral’. The election had taken him by surprise and been attended by rumours of his retirement, but he was safe and sure of financial backing. His election address emphasized his strict independence, as became a premier knight of the shire. He marvelled at his success, 7 Dec. 1806: ‘I never attend races or even assizes, which Members for Yorkshire before me used to do; and yet I have been elected five times, and never with more unanimity than the last’.8

Fawkes was not thought articulate enough in the West Riding where, however, there was ‘a degree of jealousy among the merchants to see one of themselves starting to take a lead of this kind’. He did not rise to the occasion. After a ‘rather too florid’ speech at nomination, he declined to speak on the address in Parliament and developed an aversion to constituency business. Rather late in the day for Fitzwilliam’s comfort, he declined in the face of a contest in 1807. To prevent Lascelles’s restoration, Fitzwilliam put up his son Lord Milton. The contest that ensued was one of the most memorable of the unreformed parliamentary elections, though more for its excitement and expense than for its political content. Excitement was guaranteed in a closely fought 15-day contest with over 22,000 actors and supporting mobs and sideshows; expense was anticipated—Fitzwilliam spoke of spending £150,000 or losing £4,000-5,000 p.a. and Lascelles relied on his Barbados estates. In fact, Fitzwilliam, covered by loans, spent nearly £100,000 and Lascelles only a few thousand less; Wilberforce, who prided himself on the support of ‘volunteers’ against the others’ ‘regulars’, rebuked such extravagance in spending a modest £28,000, enabling him to return half the £64,000 raised for him by subscription in Yorkshire and by his friends all over the country.9

Although Lord Milton, supported by Fawkes, who used stronger language, stood by the record of the outgoing Whig administration in the face of the ‘No Popery’ cry, which was met with a retort of ‘No Peculation’, his ultimate success over Lascelles for second place was a triumph of organization rather than of principle, much as the Whig pundits claimed the latter. His canvass for Fawkes in 1806 had paved the way. A formidable central committee of 19 gentlemen supervised the work of local committees and 67 attorneys were employed as agents, while a virtual monopoly of regional means of transport was secured. The support for Milton, who canvassed for plumpers, from the West Riding cloth operatives proved decisive in the long run, providing him with 7,625 votes in the Riding, which contributed 60 per cent of the voters. Nevertheless, he all but conceded victory and had to scour the whole county and country to overtake Lascelles: though promised nearly 11,000 in advance. Wilberforce, beaten in the West Riding even by Lascelles, who thought he had most to fear there, held the advantage in the other two, with a strong lead in his own East Riding, which placed him at the top overall. It was his least comfortable success and the show of hands had been against him; wedded to neutrality, politically ambiguous, but more sympathetic to the new ministry, he was vulnerable to accusations of a covert understanding with Lascelles. He had none, but was unable to control the activities of some of his volunteer agents. When, after initially leading Lascelles, Milton trailed behind him until the last few days, Milton’s supporters handled Wilberforce roughly on the hustings on this subject, until he sickened and could no longer put in an appearance. He felt obliged subsequently to write a pamphlet in his own defence. Yet Lady Bessborough who regarded the contest as ‘madness’, since the expense proved nothing, could marvel that Wilberforce ‘without a sixpence’, headed the poll ‘from mere weight of character in such an election as this, when money is supposed to do all. I hear Mr Lascelles says he wishes his father would give him the money instead of the seat.’ Lascelles proceeded to come in for Westbury, as he might have done all along. Wilberforce believed that, had not many of Milton’s supporters who had promised him a vote been deluded by the cry of coalition with Lascelles into plumping for Milton, he might have obtained 20,000 votes.10

In a skit entitled ‘The Gentle Denial’ which appeared in the Morning Chronicle, 2 June 1807, in reply to Lascelles’s ‘But dearest Saint! our plans concealing though joined, we must appear as two’, Wilberforce says: ‘Sweet sugar cane! at double dealing you need not furnish me my cue’. Lascelles’s defeat stung his friends into proposing a petition on his behalf. To quote Lady Holland:

A petition against Milton was ready, and upon the point of being presented, but he judiciously procured one also against Wilberforce, which, being held in terrorem, inclined Wilberforce to exert and pledge himself on behalf of ministers who came forward and promised to drop the petition against Lord Milton, if he in return would stipulate that the one against Wilberforce should be dropped.

This deal averted the inconvenience of a fresh election. It was remarked in the following year that the hostility to Wilberforce expressed at the election had ‘worn away, and he is secure if there were an election tomorrow’. After a jamboree of Milton’s friends in August 1809 Wilberforce, apropos of the ‘standing committee formed for the preservation of the Whig interest in Yorkshire, especially for insuring its triumph in all elections’, remarked wryly to Lord Muncaster: ‘It is really curious to see these people such ardent patriots (only because they were turned out of office) that such fellows as we, who never had any connection with office, are treated as a set of place hunting ragamuffins.’ A year later Milton was reported as having lost ground in the West Riding—not that Lascelles, who was expected to stand again, had gained it from him.11

In the autumn of 1811 Wilberforce began to contemplate retirement from the burden of the county representation, and early in September 1812, when it was again reported that Lascelles was standing, made up his mind to it. The dread of a contest had nothing to do with it, he claimed, nor need the county have an unwelcome candidate foisted on it through the same fear, as long as his own example was borne in mind. Knowing that Lascelles had been canvassing Pontefract, and hearing that he had also notified Wentworth House that he did not mean to stand for the county he wondered whether he ought to change his mind. His notice of retirement of 22 Sept. 1812, which was a source of consternation, had been misconstrued as a tactical retreat and the door was thus left open for him, but he issued a confirmation of retirement. Meanwhile James Stuart Wortley had come forward, ostensibly as a replacement for Wilberforce, 26 Sept. On 29 Sept. he appeared in the Cloth Hall at Leeds and declared his independence in politics, jibbed at parliamentary reform and offered to present a peace petition if required, without endorsing it, and to vote for Catholic relief if the establishment were safeguarded. He admitted that his views coincided more with Lascelles’s than Milton’s and was not well received. His critical motion in the House (21 May 1812) caused him to be mistrusted. Fitzwilliam was informed that the clothiers were urging a stable companion for Milton—the name of William Joseph Denison* was mentioned. Fitzwilliam was clearly of the opinion that he could do nothing to sponsor what would be regarded as a bid for monopoly, while Milton had no preference between Wortley and Lascelles, believing he could beat them both. A bid started by Henry Brougham to run Wilberforce with Milton aroused mixed feelings among the Whig grandees and was dished by Wilberforce’s veto.

Wortley, who claimed Lascelles’s assurance that he would not compete with him for the county seat, was disgruntled when it became clear that Lascelles’s friends planned to extricate him from this difficulty by offering him the seat he could not honourably solicit. There was some sympathy for Wortley’s grievance; he played on it with publicity and an avowal of ‘strictly independent’, with Pittite principles; and he was better received at the Cloth Hall on 10 Oct., but that day Lascelles’s friends formed their election committee and it became obvious that one of the two men would have to give way. On 12 Oct., after the tribute to Wilberforce, Wortley was proposed by Sir Robert Hildyard, who had so often sponsored Wilberforce, and seconded by Richard Bethell, who arraigned Lascelles’s conduct. Hall Plumer, proposing Lascelles, explained that he had been put up, unconsulted, by his friends, and Lascelles confined himself to endorsing this and did not, like the other two candidates, exhibit at length his views on the questions of the day. The show of hands being for Wortley and Lascelles, Milton asserted his confidence in his superiority through his canvass and complained of the foisting of a candidate on the county by a requisition (that of Lascelles’s committee) signed by not one country gentleman. Wortley found that he could not vie with the £45,000 subscription raised by Lascelles’s party, £30,000 of it offered by Lord Middleton, and withdrew to his borough seat, grumbling that, had he known that Lascelles was to be put in nomination against his own professed wish, he could not have come forward. ‘An independent freeholder connected with trade’ asserted against this that Wortley was made aware of Lascelles’s intentions and chose to pay no heed at the time.12

John Beckett of Leeds, deploring the bad management of this election, in which the government had so little to say, pointed out that ‘five minutes’ conversation’ would have enabled either Wilberforce or Lascelles to walk over; but the former was hasty, and the latter, despite his father’s recent elevation to an earldom, morose and prepared to punish the county for his previous rejection. The adoption of Lascelles by the Leeds junto of merchants was resented by the landed interests aligned behind Milton and Wortley, giving them common ground, and after the election Milton reported that the joke of the day was ‘that I am the sole Member for the county of York, and that Lascelles is Member for the borough of Leeds’. He noted, however, that the show of hands at the election was greater for Lascelles than for himself, and it was suggested to him that the success of Lascelles’s canvass in the West Riding was a warning not to wait for a declared opponent in future.13

Thus, to Wilberforce’s regret, the representation of Yorkshire fell into the hands of ‘two rich and powerful noblemen’. In 1814 Milton’s sponsor at the election of 1812, Sir Frederick Wood, advised him that the Whigs must have their next candidate ready—presumably Denison would be the man—as it seemed likely that Lascelles (now the ailing heir to his father’s earldom) would give way to Wortley, and enable Richard Bethell of Rise, whose politics were those of Wortley and who aspired to the county with an income of £16,000 p.a., to obtain it eventually by Wortley’s method. Whig politics in the county were hampered by the Fitzwilliam veto on parliamentary reform, of which Milton had been the mouthpiece on the hustings in 1812. This prevented the county from assuming any prominence in the campaign against the renewal of the property tax in 1815.14 Fitzwilliam had no thought of a second Whig candidate for the county, and when Lascelles duly announced his retirement on 6 June 1818, he acquiesced indifferently in Wortley’s stepping into his shoes. Wortley’s political professions emphasized his common ground with Milton rather than the contrary. Milton was detained by illness at Ryde and, eschewing a canvass by substitute, hoped only for a quiet return. Some anxiety was caused by the machinations of the Leeds junto of ‘Blues’ who were reported to be keen to rally the West Riding to subscribe for a third man, rather than see the county represented by ‘a Whig and a half’. The names of Frederick John Robinson, Charles Duncombe, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt, Richard Bethell and John Beckett were mentioned, but in the end the only candidate they could find was ‘the madman ci-devant quack doctor’, Martin Stapylton of Myton, who had also interfered in the city election and who solicited Wortley’s second votes on the grounds that his forebear Sir Miles Stapylton had stood in conjunction with a Wortley in 1734. When Stapylton was ruled out, an eleventh-hour invitation was sent to Sir Thomas Slingsby, who also declined.15

Thus there was no opposition to Milton and Wortley in 1818 and Fitzwilliam commented of the full and unanimous meeting that endorsed their nomination:

It has embodied the country against the junto of Leeds. Whigs and Tory have united to keep down the assuming spirit, and presumptuous pretensions of that little click, who in their arrogance thought all the gentlemen of the county were to be subordinate to the dictates of Beckett’s back parlour.

The compromise united the landed interest of the county and tended to curb extremism on both sides. The stand taken by Fitzwilliam against the government on the Peterloo affair in 1819, which cost him his lord lieutenancy, was too much of a concession to the radicalism he professed to keep at bay to gain him the sympathy of Wortley, who sought to moderate the Whig onslaught on government and gained a tactical victory.16

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Life of Wilberforce (1838), ii. 133; Fitzwilliam mss, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 26 Nov. 1797.
  • 2. Fitzwilliam mss, box 37, Plummer to Fitzwilliam, 12 Apr., Parker to same, 26 Apr., Dring to same, 10, 28 Nov. 1784.
  • 3. N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/59; Fitzwilliam mss, box 39, Dring to Fitzwilliam, 9 Feb., 17 Mar., Wentworth to same, 18 Mar. 1788; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/133, 134, 142, 145, 147, 149, 151, 153, 159-61, 171; F115/1.
  • 4. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/174, 183; F115/17, 18; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 75.
  • 5. Add. 47569, f. 52; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F31/36; Heber Letters, 93; Morning Chron. 7 Dec. 1795; Life of Wilberforce, ii. 76, 114, 118, 150-1; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), ii. 570.
  • 6. Morning Chron. 14, 26, 28 May, 2 June; True Briton, 23 May, 3, 10 June; E. Riding RO, DDSY/101/67, Broadley to Sykes, 19 May, 2, 4 June 1796; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/198-201, 204, 206; Wyvill mss 7/2/102/1-10; Life of Wilberforce, ii. 152-4.
  • 7. Grey mss, Grey to Wyvill (copy), 12 Jan. 1801; Northumb. RO, ZBL224, Mrs Beaumont to Blackett, 8 Feb.; The Times, 8, 15 June 1802; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F41/33; W. Riding RO, Bull. 5 (May 1962), 10; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 51-52.
  • 8. E. A. Smith, ‘The Yorkshire elections of 1806 and 1807; a study in electoral management’, Northern History (1967), ii. 62; HMC Fortescue, viii. 392-4, 406; Wilberforce Corresp., ii. 100; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. G12, state of the canvass [Nov.]; E209, Hawkesworth to Fitzwilliam, Sat. [Oct.], Fawkes to same, Sunday [Oct.];, Sinclair to same, 22 Oct., Parker to same, 28 Oct.; Lonsdale mss, Muncaster to Lowther, 26, 29 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Wilberforce to Grenville, 1 Nov.; Harewood mss, Lascelles to Frank, 12 Nov. 1806; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 275-86.
  • 9. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E210, Heywood to Fitzwilliam, 2 Oct.; Grey mss, Fitzwilliam to Howick, 23 Nov. [1806]; Smith,