Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen and freeholders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 7,000 by 1830

Number of voters:

6,385 in 1830


52,889 (1821); 59,034 (1831)1


9 Mar. 1820HENRY BRIGHT2997
 James Evan Baillie115
16 June 1826RICHARD HART DAVIS3887
 Edward Protheroe1873
 Edward Protheroe jnr.2840
 James Acland25

Main Article

A populous cathedral city and port, situated on the rivers Avon and Frome about eight miles from the Severn, Bristol had been ‘the commercial capital of the West of England’ until the onset of relative economic decline in the late eighteenth century, when it was overtaken by Liverpool. The costly and belated construction of new harbour facilities, completed in 1809, did nothing to reverse this trend, as large vessels still had difficulty in navigating the river connection to the sea. Bristol’s principal trade was in sugar from the West Indian colonies, but by 1820 many refineries had closed because of competition from Liverpool, and the plantations were in a depressed state owing to problems of overproduction and the prospect of slave emancipation. Trading interests were represented by the Society of Merchant Venturers and the West India Association. The glass making and brass founding industries were also in decline, as production shifted to rival centres in the Midlands and North of England. Similarly, Bristol’s role as a banking centre, market and entrepôt for a large hinterland covering much of South Wales, the South West of England and the West Midlands, had been undermined by the growth of Cardiff and improved canal links to Liverpool. Anxieties about diminishing trade made the corporation a target for political attack during this period, with the heavy burden of port and town dues being identified as the prime cause of the city’s problems. Nevertheless, Bristol was judged to be in a generally ‘prosperous’ condition, helped by such activities as brewing, soap manufacturing, tobacco processing and wine importation, and there was continued suburban growth in the neighbouring parishes of Clifton and Bedminster.2

The city encompassed 17 parishes and parts of two others. Local power was concentrated in the corporation, a self-perpetuating body consisting of a mayor and 12 aldermen, chosen from the common councilmen, and 30 common councilmen selected from the freemen; all held their offices for life. Two sheriffs were elected annually from the junior common councilmen and served as the returning officers for parliamentary elections. Wealthy merchants formed the ‘backbone’ of the corporation, and with manufacturers they accounted for about two-thirds of the personnel. The main body of electors were the freemen, who obtained their privilege through birth, marriage, apprenticeship or purchase (on an arbitrary scale rising to 100 guineas); the last category was ‘not numerous’. Bristol’s administrative status as a county meant that 40s. freeholders were also eligible to vote, but it was estimated that they only constituted one-fifth of the electorate in 1830. Large numbers of freemen were admitted before general elections (1,720 and 891 in the years ending 29 September 1813 and 1818 respectively), and such practices as the personation of sons and arranged marriages to daughters of freemen were not uncommon. Approximately one-third of the freemen were non-resident. Freemen and their families benefited exclusively or preferentially from various charities administered by the corporation and select vestries. The resulting culture of bribery and corruption was examined by a select committee in 1835, which learned that £16,895 was being distributed annually in the form of money, food, clothing, schooling and provision for widows and paupers, and that funds totalling £5,860 were available for granting free or cheap loans. In a large constituency where more than a quarter of adult males had the vote, elections were notoriously rowdy and drunken affairs which frequently descended into violence, sometimes perpetrated by hired ‘bludgeon men’. They were also extremely expensive, involving the payment of freemen’s admission fees (£3), treating on a massive scale, provision of fictitious employment, ‘polling money’ of 7s. 6d. per voter and elaborate chairing ceremonies: the Tory candidate at the by-election and general election of 1812 spent over £29,000.3

Bristol politics was shaped by the presence of institutionally entrenched Tory and Whig parties, identified with national as well as local issues, which had shared the representation since 1784. The Tory Steadfast Society and the less exclusive White Lion Club, which both met at the White Lion, had their counterpart in the Whig Independent and Constitutional Society, based at the Bush. Local newspapers covered the spectrum from the Toryism of Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal and the Bristol Mirror through the Whiggism of the Bristol Gazette to the reformism of the Bristol Mercury. Toryism continued to be the dominant force in the city until 1831. The Steadfast Society, whose members were drawn from the business elite, notably Thomas Daniel, chairman of the West India Association, John Haythorne, Abraham Hilhouse and Richard Vaughan, raised substantial election funds to support its chosen candidates. For many years its authority had been enhanced by its role as the conduit for government patronage, mainly customs and excise posts, worth around £20,000 per annum, but this was severely curtailed by a reorganization in 1819 which probably contributed to the Society’s diminished importance, relative to the White Lion Club, after 1820. On the other hand, Daniel and his fellow Tories had gained control of the corporation in 1812 and proceeded to consolidate their grip, transforming it into a predominantly Anglican body. They also mobilized a formidable election machine, with a central committee at the White Lion co-ordinating the work of parish committees staffed mainly by churchwardens and vestrymen, confirming the view that the influential vestries were essentially Tory electioneering clubs. Bristol Toryism had a genuinely populist dimension, as the robust assertion of Protestant principles proved extremely effective in a city where strong Dissenting traditions and its position as the gateway for Irish migrants to southern England provoked fierce antagonism towards Catholics. The Independent and Constitutional Club, though similarly controlled by individuals connected with banking and mercantile interests, such as Levi Ames, Richard Bright and John Lunell, was a less well-organized body. Its comparative weakness was compounded by serious internal divisions, which appeared in 1812, between a moderate group headed by the West India merchants and reformers who supported Catholic relief and the abolition of slavery. At the general election of that year the moderates put up the merchant Edward Protheroe against the eminent lawyer, Sir Samuel Romilly, and in 1818 the reformers opposed Protheroe by bringing forward Hugh Duncan Baillie*, the son of a former Member. On both occasions the Tories returned their own candidate, Richard Hart Davis, a prominent local banker and merchant, and through their split votes ensured Protheroe’s success. Thus, the West India interest achieved a commanding influence over Bristol’s representation.4

At the dissolution in February 1820 Protheroe confirmed his previously declared intention of retiring. In an attempt to unite the Whigs, Lunell chaired a meeting on the 19th at the Bush, which invited Baillie to stand again. Two days later, a second meeting was informed that Baillie had declined and it was therefore proposed that Henry Bright, a London barrister and son of a prominent local banker and merchant, should be approached. Thomas Stocking, ‘a barrister of radical notoriety’, whose agenda included household suffrage and repeal of the Six Acts, urged the meeting to bring forward a second candidate and ‘not ... fear a struggle with the ... Tory party’. This call was dismissed, but the solicitor Wintour Harris and others wanted to know Bright’s views on reform and a deputation was sent to him. Bright’s reply, read to a third meeting on the 23rd, stated that he was a ‘warm friend’ of civil and religious liberty, a supporter of moderate reform, including shorter parliaments, and of economy. On the basis of these ‘deliberate opinions, not pledges’, he was willing to stand and hoped to be ‘the means of uniting the Whig interest’. Despite Stocking’s complaint that the crucial issues had been avoided, it was resolved to nominate Bright and a deputation fetched him to address the meeting. An advertisement subsequently appeared in the press urging supporters of reform to withhold their promises while another candidate was sought. Stocking and the attorney Charles Walker apparently travelled to London in a vain attempt to persuade John Cam Hobhouse* to offer, after overtures to the brother of Sir Francis Burdett* had been rejected. James Evan Baillie, the brother of the former candidate, also declined a request to stand, but the day before polling the reformers made it known that they would nominate him regardless.5

If Whig divisions had resurfaced, Bristol Toryism was in an unaccustomed state of disarray. In 1819 Davis had lost his fortune in a disastrous speculation involving a government stock conversion scheme, and other local Tories had reputedly burned their fingers in the venture. It is possible that resulting anger with Davis accounts for the rumours of a ‘rival Blue candidate’ which circulated at the time of the dissolution. Davis issued an address explaining that he had ‘never presumed on former occasions to offer myself as a candidate, until previously invited by the Steadfast Society’, and as this invitation had been ‘withheld’ he felt obliged to retire. He admitted that it was ‘perhaps unreasonable’ to expect the ‘same liberal pecuniary assistance’ as he had received in the past, but added that ‘under the painful recollections of the past year an invitation from my fellow citizens would ... have poured balm into a wounded mind’. At a large gathering of parish representatives and other Tories, held at the White Lion on 25 Feb., ‘a strong feeling was manifested in favour of Davis’, but his supporters did not persist in their opposition to the resolution to invite Philip John Miles* of Leigh Court, a very wealthy banker and merchant, to stand. Miles was adopted unanimously, although he was known to be suffering from ‘acute rheumatism’ and could not canvass in person. However, Davis’s friends mobilized support for him among ‘a numerous party of his constituents’ and this induced Miles to withdraw, pleading ‘severe and increasing illness’. An embarrassed Steadfast Society announced that it was ‘aware of the difference of opinion ... among its members’ regarding ‘the propriety of inviting and supporting Davis’, and that being unwilling to ‘oppose ... the general voice of the electors in the Blue interest’, it would not propose another candidate unless Davis refused to stand. Following a meeting chaired by the tanner Robert Jenkins, pointedly held in the Assembly Rooms, 28 Feb., a deputation travelled to London to obtain Davis’s consent to be nominated. In accepting, Davis noted that ‘the liberality of my constituents has removed the obstacles which originally opposed my being brought forward’, and he subsequently wrote to a friend ‘in great spirits and sure of success’. The Steadfast Society never recovered from the blow to its prestige.6

Davis, who was introduced by the tanner Thomas Hassell and the merchant Robert Bush, warned that ‘treason, sedition and blasphemy walked fearlessly abroad’, opposed Catholic relief and asserted that ‘a great body of the Dissenters thought as he did’. Bright, who was sponsored by the corn merchant William Lunell and the banker Levi Ames junior, denied that he was allied with the Tories, argued that the ‘increasing’ power of the crown must be curbed and advocated a ‘practicable’ measure of reform. He was obliged to state that he did not favour Catholic emancipation. Amid protests, Stocking and the straw bonnet manufacturer John Cossens proposed the absent Baillie, who had written to Bright’s father expressing disapproval of the use of his name. The show of hands was called in Bright and Baillie’s favour, but Davis demanded a poll. As the Tory press acknowledged, the decision to force a contest exposed the divided and weakened state of the Blues. After the first day’s polling, Bright was slightly ahead of Davis, while Baillie trailed far behind; at the end of the second Bright had extended his lead and the reformers announced that they would proceed no further. Bright’s committee proposed that the poll should be closed, but the Tories would not agree unless an equal vote for the two leading candidates was contrived. Polling therefore continued for a third day, allowing Bright to strengthen his lead, before he and Davis were declared elected.7 Of the 3,690 who polled, 81 per cent cast a vote for Bright, 76 for Davis and three for Baillie. Bright received 767 plumpers (31 per cent of his total) and Davis 689 (41 per cent). Bright and Davis had 2,119 split votes (71 and 75 per cent of their respective totals), Bright and Baillie 111 and Davis and Baillie four. Only 246 out-voters polled, mostly from Gloucestershire and Somerset. Of the corporators, nine plumped for Bright and one for Davis, while one split his vote between them; all the leading Tories, including Daniel, Haythorne and Vaughan, abstained. Bright was chaired ‘in a car of true elegance’, at the head of a long procession displaying ‘various insignia of commerce and shipping’, but Davis declined to participate. Dinners were given at the White Lion for 205 friends of Davis and at the Assembly Rooms for 186 of Bright’s supporters; ‘friendly deputations’ passed between them. In letters to the press defending the unsanctioned use of Baillie’s name, Walker lamented the ‘commanding influence of a few moneyed men’ and claimed that whereas the reformers had spent £100 Bright and Davis had spent £12-15,000 each.8

In September 1820 more than 20,000 inhabitants signed an address to Queen Caroline, organized by the accountant William Dempsey, and a ‘women’s poetic address’, inspired by Elizabeth Cranidge, the daughter of a radical schoolmaster, attracted over 14,000 names. A Tory newspaper complained that in procuring signatures to the inhabitants’ address, ‘alms houses were ransacked, charity boys ... waylaid [and] apprentices and servants, male and female ... inveigled’. The news that the bill of pains and penalties had been abandoned was celebrated with a ‘partial illumination’, mainly in the poorer districts of the city. On 29 Nov. Bright’s father chaired a meeting at the guildhall to agree an address congratulating the queen, which brought together Whigs and reformers, including Walker; Bright presented it after Davis, in a public letter condemning the queen’s conduct, refused to act. It was only in late November that steps were taken to mobilize ‘constitutional’ opinion, a delay that was attributed by the dean of Bristol, Henry Beeke, to the ‘ill humour deeply felt and not well concealed by some persons whose local importance was shaken during the ... last general election’. Loyal addresses to the king were instigated at parochial level and followed up by a meeting at the guildhall, 30 Nov., organized and chaired by Davis’s brother-in-law, the banker John Harford, and attended by all the familiar names of Bristol Toryism; Davis presented the resulting address. Beeke claimed that these proceedings had

proved in a very decisive manner the political state of Bristol and its vicinity. The influence of the very great majority of the higher classes is showing itself in converting or neutralizing a large proportion of the tradesmen, and this is evidently beginning to spread downwards. It is I think admitted even by violent anti-ministerialists that the meeting ... was the most respectable and locally powerful that has ever been known here, which I must in part attribute to the effect of the previous parochial movement.

He was also confident that Davis’s refusal to present the address to the queen would ‘secure him another election’.9

Anti-Catholic petitions were presented to Parliament from several parishes in 1821, the Lords were petitioned against the Catholic peers bill, 31 May 1822, and extensive petitioning of both Houses against Catholic claims occurred in 1823 and 1825; an interdenominational petition for removal of all religious disabilities was forwarded to the Commons, 1 Mar. 1825.10 The inhabitants petitioned both Houses for revision of the criminal code, 4 May 1821, 31 May 1822, and protested to the Commons against the severity of Henry Hunt’s* confinement, 18 Mar. 1822.11 Local business interests sent petitions to the Commons for repeal of the leather tax, 30 Apr., reduction of the tobacco duty, 10, 14 May 1822 (and again in 1824, 1825 and 1826), and repeal of the duties on salt, 30 May, 17 June 1822, coastwise coal, 21 May 1823, and imported wool, 25 Mar. 1824.12 Several parishes petitioned for repeal of the house and window taxes or of all assessed taxes in February 1823; more followed in 1824, 1825 and 1826.13 An anti-slavery petition from the inhabitants, arising from a public meeting dominated by clergymen, was presented to the Commons, 14 May 1823, but countered by one from the West India Association claiming that the meeting had been unrepresentative. Petitions against equalizing the sugar duties were sent to the Commons from the corporation, merchant venturers, West India Association and other business interests, 22 May 1823. Certain inhabitants petitioned the Commons for inquiry into the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 27 May, and against slavery, 3 June 1824. Another anti-slavery petition was forwarded to the Lords, 10 Apr., while the mortgagees of West Indian property resident in Bristol petitioned both Houses for recognition of the principle of compensation if their legal rights were lost, 4, 5 May 1826.14

In 1823 a concerted campaign began against the port and town dues, which were widely blamed for the city’s stagnant trade. The chamber of commerce, a cross-party body representing merchants and manufacturers, was founded in January, with the immediate objective of pressuring the corporation to reduce its charges. One prominent member was John Gutch, the Tory editor and proprietor of the Bristol Journal, who had published a series of letters in his paper under the pseudonym ‘Cosmo’, accusing the corporation of crippling Bristol’s trade and questioning its legal right to levy dues. In August the chamber presented a memorial to the corporation stating its case for relief, which was backed by the merchant venturers. After initial resistance, the corporation sponsored a town dues bill in 1824 which, while offering no specific reduction, asserted the corporation’s legal right to collect dues and empowered it to alter them at will. The chamber rejected this as a mere stratagem for obtaining a parliamentary title to levy the dues, and a public subscription of £3,000 was raised to fight the measure. Further ammunition was supplied by the businessmen of Bath, Belfast, Cardiff and Yeovil, who petitioned the Commons in May for inquiry into the dues, and the bill was finally withdrawn. When Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, and Canning, the foreign secretary, were awarded the freedom of the city, 12 Jan. 1825, a deputation from the chamber presented an address welcoming the ‘liberal policy and enlightened principles which now happily distinguish our commercial code’ and hoping that Bristol would ‘soon more fully participate’ in the country’s prosperity. Later that year the corporation introduced another bill providing for a revised scale of dues and relinquishing those levied on Irish and coastal trade, but its preamble still contained the controversial claim to legal right. In the ensuing parliamentary struggle, the chamber forced the addition of a ‘saving clause’ reserving the rights of both parties, before the bill received royal assent, 8 July 1825. Davis strongly supported the chamber’s position, whereas Bright took a more conciliatory line towards the corporation. In fact, the new scale of dues, though approximately 40 per cent lower, still far exceeded those imposed in rival ports, and the hoped-for stimulus to trade did not occur. Gutch returned to the attack in a further series of ‘Cosmo’ letters that autumn, in which he purported to show from a study of the city’s charters that the powers of electing the common council and assenting to taxation lay with the freemen, whose privileges had been usurped by a clique. Quo warranto proceedings were filed against corporation officials in king’s bench, and though judgment was eventually given in the corporation’s favour in May 1826, costs were not awarded.15 Business confidence had meantime received another blow from the crisis in the banking system, which forced Brown, Cavenagh and Company to close its doors, 20 Dec. 1825. The situation was stabilized with the help of an address, signed by over 300 individuals and companies, expressing faith in the ‘ample means and resources of the commercial and banking establishments of this city’, and there followed a series of mergers which meant that ‘half the private banks in Bristol ... disappeared in less than a twelvemonth’.16

Shortly before the dissolution in 1826 Davis issued a valedictory address explaining that poor health prevented him from accepting an invitation to stand again. Although a meeting of the Steadfast Society passed a resolution of confidence in him, 20 May, he confirmed his decision. Various names for a successor were canvassed in the Tory press, including that of Protheroe, a man of ‘acknowledged commercial experience’. Davis’s partisans, some of them members of the Steadfast Society, were convinced that he might change his mind if assurances of financial support were given. However, when the Society met again on the 27th, a motion ‘pledging that body to support Davis’ was ‘negatived’. The publican William Holder led a deputation to London to secure Davis’s agreement to be nominated, and at a public meeting attended by some 500 people at the White Lion, 30 May, an election committee was formed and arrangements made for canvassing by the churchwardens and vestrymen. Davis was to be returned ‘free of all expense’, and secretarial assistance with his constituency correspondence, ‘similar to that which Liverpool gives to her Member’, was also offered. According to Davis’s account, written several years later, the ministry had offered him an excise auditorship, but he had been persuaded to accept the Bristol nomination on the understanding that his son received the post instead. Canvassing returns suggested that he had ‘almost unanimous’ support, and even the radical Mercury acknowledged that he enjoyed the ‘universal esteem and affection’ of his constituents, thanks to his ‘earnest attention’ to their ‘private and commercial interests’. Bright had meantime informed a meeting of his supporters at the Bush, chaired by the West India merchant Henry Pinney, 25 May, that having ‘shrunk from no expense’ at the previous election, if he stood again the cost ‘beyond a very limited amount, must not be borne by myself or my family’. A subscription was thereupon raised to support him. As Pinney observed at the next meeting, 30 May 1826, ‘recent distress in the commercial world ... called aloud for the avoidance of lavish expenditure’. Resolutions were carried expressing approval of Bright’s principles and vowing to ‘avoid and prevent all illegal and unnecessary expense’; a deputation conveyed to him an invitation to stand and accompanied him back to the meeting.17

Hopes for a quiet and inexpensive election were dashed when it became clear that a movement was afoot to bring forward Protheroe. A meeting at the Rummer chaired by the merchant James Lyon, 7 June, resolved that Protheroe’s return would ‘greatly promote the general commercial interests of the city’, and arrangements were made to form a central and parochial committees, undertake a canvass and raise a subscription to cover his expenses; Philip Protheroe promised that his brother would appear on the hustings. The barrister Arthur Palmer junior, who described himself as a ‘thorough Tory’, denounced Bright’s letter laying down his terms for re-election as ‘a compound of ignorance, insolence and meanness’, and argued that his family could easily ‘spend a few month’s income ... for the greatest honour that could ever be conferred upon [them]’. Another speaker was Walker, who admitted that he had supported Romilly against Protheroe in 1812 but declared that Bright had ‘kicked the beam’. His motives are unclear, for while he and other reformers were dissatisfied with Bright’s stance on reform and religious liberty, the even more moderate Protheroe was a curious alternative. The meeting dispersed and ‘a noisy evening ensued opposite the Bush,’ Bright’s headquarters, where ‘about 50 ... windows were broken’. Local newspapers across the political spectrum were convinced that Protheroe’s candidature was the work of a coalition between ‘a few influential individuals’ of the Steadfast Society, who were hostile to Davis and determined to punish his supporters for their ‘temerity’ by putting them to great expense, and ‘a few malcontents of the opposite side’. Apart from personal and political motives, there was also ‘a party in this city who, on every occasion ... seem determined to create a contest for the purpose of making the two rival parties ... spend their money’.18 Election posters indicate the potential danger from the coalition that was building up against Bright. One source of unpopularity was his conduct during the town dues controversy, which helped to create a wider perception that he inadequately represented local business interests. Several posters, including one by ‘John Bull’, urged voters for this reason to split for Davis and Protheroe, and a card was circulated supporting ‘Davis, Protheroe and the commercial interests’. Tory ‘No Popery’ advocates also favoured a coalition with Protheroe, declaring ‘let not socinian Bright the church dissever’ - a reference to the fact that he had become a Dissenter. Moreover, Bright was condemned for his parsimony: ‘A Journeymen Cooper’ protested that ‘we are to have no supper tickets! no ribbons! and even no chairing!’; the ‘Bush Tavern Tapster’ welcomed the prospect of Protheroe’s intervention ‘procuring us some drink’, while ‘A Poor Man’ observed that ‘empty stomachs make great noises. More than Bright ever made in the House of Commons’. Bright’s supporters responded with posters listing his Commons votes, particularly on tax reductions, to show he was the true friend of the people, and Protheroe’s voting record on the property tax, retrenchment and the Six Acts was recalled as proof that he was a Tory in disguise. The Protheroe family’s connections with the corporation were also adduced in support of the claim that they were hostile to the chamber of commerce.19

Hours before the nomination meeting a letter arrived from Protheroe announcing his retirement from public life, but some of his supporters were determined to press his candidature. Davis, who was absent owing to ill health, was proposed by Hassell and the merchant Henry Bush. Bright, who was introduced by the West India proprietor Charles Pinney and the attorney Arthur Palmer senior, professed his determination to ‘restore the rule and practice of the constitution ... purify the House from placemen and pensioners and ... exercise a vigilant guardianship over the public expenditure’. He also emphasized his opposition to Catholic emancipation. Protheroe was sponsored by the estate agent John Harris and the plumber John Bowgin, an avowed supporter of ‘true Blue’ principles. The show of hands was called in Davis and Bright’s favour, but Bowgin demanded a poll on Protheroe’s behalf; this was delayed until the next day for technical reasons. That evening, the Bush was attacked ‘in the most savage and barbarous manner’, ‘every window in the front of the house’ was smashed with large stones, leaving ‘several persons ... badly hurt’, and the coffee room and coach office were demolished and their contents ‘destroyed or carried off’. Davis established a comfortable lead, ending the first day with 2,303 votes, while Protheroe led Bright by 1,204 to 1,067. On the second the positions were unchanged, Bright’s cause having suffered from the effects of a poster claiming that he had said a family could live on 8s. per week, which raised ‘some clamour ... against him as an enemy of the poor’; a prompt rebuttal ‘mollified in some degree the angry spirit of the people’. Voting on the third day continued with ‘unabated ardour’, and the Orange party of Protheroe held its advantage over Bright. On the fourth it was ‘widely announced’ that Bright’s friends had resolved to ‘spare no expense in securing his return’, and ‘the new burgesses, whose freedoms had been taken up in great numbers the day before’, appeared on the hustings wearing his Pink and Blue colours. The tide had turned, Protheroe’s supporters admitted that their funds were exhausted and ‘the leading gentlemen of the committee’ were said to be ‘deserting their cause’. As a poster entitled ‘Protheroe and freedom of election’ alleged, the ‘tremendous rattle of Bright gold’ had done its work. At the end of the day, the announcement that Bright had narrowly overtaken Protheroe was received ‘with most deafening cheers ... the hitherto unpopular candidate [being] welcomed as the favourite of the people’. The sheriffs kept the poll open for two more days to avoid any possibility of a petition, but the Orange party was a spent force and on the sixth day Davis and Bright were declared elected. Gutch and the merchant James Perry gave thanks on Davis’s behalf and denied that the Blues had been involved in any coalition. Bright was chaired as in 1820. Davis was fit enough to attend a dinner for 220 of his friends at the White Lion, where he expressed the hope that his decision to stand had left ‘no ill feeling or dissatisfaction’. Bright, who gave a dinner to over 100 of his supporters at the Great Room, Wine Street, maintained that he had ‘studied the commercial laws of the country’ and ‘endeavoured to make himself master of the local requirements of ... his native city’, and promised to ‘assist ... in carrying the new [commercial] system into execution’, while standing ‘on his guard lest the old institutions of the country received a shock in too sudden a change’. Deputations between the two gatherings exchanged congratulations. It was confirmed that Davis had been returned at no personal expense, but a satirical poster purporting to depict Bright’s chairing procession alleged that his election had cost ‘£20,000’, of which ‘a very trifling amount’ had been ‘subscribed by the ... committee’. Exactly 1,000 freedoms were taken up in the year ending 29 September 1826.20

Petitions for revision of the corn laws were sent to the Commons by the chamber of commerce, 12 Dec. 1826, and by merchants and ship owners, 1 Mar. 1827.21 The shipping interest petitioned for greater protection, 19 Feb., 9, 12 Mar. 1827.22 The dispute between local merchants and the corporation over the town dues remained unresolved, and in 1828 the corporation successfully prosecuted several individuals, including Harman Visger and the Tory Henry Bush, for refusal to pay.23 In May 1828 a large group of merchants, ship owners and manufacturers, headed by Daniel, signed a memorial to the board of trade calling for measures to promote commerce with India.24 The West India Association petitioned the Commons for an ‘ample reduction’ in the sugar duties, 9 June 1828, and reduction of the sugar and rum duties, given the ‘unprecedented state of distress’ in the colonies, 1 Mar. 1830; the tobacco manufacturers pressed for a lower duty, 24 June 1828, 15 Mar. 1830.25 Following a public meeting chaired by the mayor, 18 Apr., nearly 2,000 signatures were attached to a Commons petition against renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 12 May 1829. The chamber of commerce and merchant venturers likewise petitioned both Houses in 1830.26 Several petitions from Dissenting groups for repeal of the Test Acts were sent to Parliament in 1827 and 1828.27 Whereas anti-Catholic petitions were forwarded to Parliament from the clergy and several parishes, 2, 5 Mar., 3 May, the Catholics of Bristol and Clifton petitioned for relief, 5, 6 Mar. 1827. Further anti-Catholic petitioning occurred the next year, but the Catholics and some inhabitants petitioned for relief, 8, 23 May 1828.28 In 1829 the Wellington ministry’s decision to grant emancipation aroused strong feelings in Bristol: Davis and Bright still opposed the measure, and the clergy and many parishes sent hostile petitions to both Houses. A massive public meeting in Queen Square chaired by Daniel, 12 Feb., overwhelmingly carried a motion against concession and the resulting petition, bearing 38,894 signatures after ‘all female names were erased’, was presented by the duke of Beaufort, 24 Feb., and Davis, 26 Feb. A counter-petition received 1,700 signatures and was presented by Brougham and the duke of Sussex, 19 Feb. On 11 Mar. the corporation resolved, with ‘only three dissenting voices’, to address the king for a dissolution, and, despite attempts by Davis to calm the situation, a meeting chaired by Daniel at the White Lion, 20 Mar., organized a similar address which was signed by ‘nearly 25,000 persons’. The pro-Catholic mayor, John Cave, meantime gathered ‘upwards of 2,300’ names for a loyal address. Ironically, in view of later events, the recorder, Sir Charles Wetherell*, who had been dismissed as attorney-general for maintaining his anti-Catholic opinions, was received with popular acclaim when he attended the Bristol assizes in April.29 A ‘singular’ petition signed by Catholics and Protestants for reduction of the national debt, retrenchment, tax cuts and manhood suffrage was presented to the Commons by Hume, 19 May 1828.30 The inhabitants petitioned the Commons for relief from distress, 8 Mar., and both Houses against the duty on coastwise coal, 21, 24 June 1830.31 Local businessmen, Dissenters and inhabitants sent petitions to Parliament that session for abolition of the death penalty for forgery.32

By the time of the dissolution in July 1830 Bristol’s Tories had largely overcome their divisions of the past decade. Davis’s dedicated representation of business interests and consistent defence of the Protestant constitution were applauded at a well-attended meeting on the 22nd at the White Lion, chaired by Henry Bush, which invited him to stand again and made the usual arrangements for securing his re-election. He readily agreed to the ‘considerate ... request ... that I should avoid the fatigue of appearing on the hustings ... on account of ... my health’. Canvassing returns suggested that the Blues were ‘overpoweringly strong’ and it was generally agreed that Davis was sitting on ‘velvet’.33 The Whigs, however, were plunged into fratricidal conflict following Bright’s decision to retire ‘for the present’. This was attributed to his ‘apprehension of the great pecuniary sacrifice’ involved in seeking re-election, but there were reports that his friends still hoped to nominate him and that he had indicated a willingness to ‘take his place if freely elected’. Edward Protheroe junior, Member for Evesham, issued an address from London on the 10th announcing that the ‘repeated applications ... made to my relatives ... and the direct invitation which I have just received’, had induced him to offer. That day a ‘declaration’ appeared in the Bristol papers, signed by 25 Whigs including the grocer Richard Ash, the lead shot manufacturer Christopher George and the floor cloth manufacturer John Hare junior, stating that they would only support a candidate pledged to work for the abolition of slavery. Coincidentally or otherwise, three days later Protheroe seconded Henry Brougham’s abolitionist motion in the Commons. He acknowledged, in a second address, that he had consequently ‘lost the support of many friends’ and lacked the resources to contend against ‘the immense wealth and powerful influence ... combined to oppose my success’. While adhering to his promise to stand, he would ‘expend nothing’ on the contest and rely on ‘moral strength alone’. The West India Whigs had meantime approached Hugh Baillie, who declined to come forward but indicated that his brother James, the involuntary candidate in 1820, might do so. On 16 July a disorganized and confused Whig meeting at the Great Room, Princes Street, chaired by the barrister William Taunton, carried first a resolution in favour of Protheroe, by ‘about 70 or 80’ votes to ’30 or 40’, and then another in favour of Baillie, which was supported by ‘about 150’, with ‘those of the contrary opinion [being] comparatively few’. Immediately afterwards, a deputation received confirmation from Bright’s relatives of his ‘explicit determination’ not to stand and proceeded to London to requisition Baillie. Baillie and Protheroe’s supporters met at the Rummer and Bush respectively, 20 July, to organize election committees. Protheroe wrote to Brougham that

the struggle will be considered as a trial of strength between the West India interest and the abolitionists ... Already I am threatened not only with the united wealth and forces of the former in Bristol, but with the active co-operation in their behalf of the same interest in London ... The best spirit has begun to manifest itself on our side and a subscription already large in amount has been commenced by men of great worth and respectability, though not among the heads of the city. This is rapidly increasing and I do not apprehend the slightest difficulty ... in raising this to any amount necessary to counterbalance the West Indian power.34

Protheroe’s public entry to the city, 22 July, when he was introduced to the crowd by the Baptist minister Thomas Roberts, was a low key affair. By contrast, Baillie arrived four days later to join a ‘very imposing’ procession ‘upwards of half a mile’ in length, which local businessmen including Bright’s brother Robert had organized. Later that evening, violence erupted when some ‘60 to a 100 sailors and ships’ carpenters, in a dreadful state of ... intoxication and armed with common bludgeons’, attacked the Bush, smashing its windows and occupying the lower rooms. They were driven out by a rival mob which launched a retaliatory attack on the Rummer: ‘for some time the whole heart of the town was in a state of ... violent disorder and agitation’, and 27 people were taken to the infirmary. A large body of constables prevented any further incidents. The ‘mighty war of words’ continued unchecked, and the Mirror could remember nothing like ‘the immense quantities of placards’ bearing ‘accusations, denials, recriminations [and] excitements to all the angry passions’. In Queen Square the statue of William III was ‘horse and all, covered with large posting bills’. Protheroe’s supporters openly blamed Christopher Claxton, the outspoken chairman of Baillie’s committee, for the ‘shameful outrages’ that had occurred. They argued that Baillie was a tool of the West India interest, whose aim was to ‘enslave’ the Bristol freemen, whereas Protheroe’s voting record on reform, retrenchment and the corn laws showed him to be ‘the poor man’s friend’. One poster headed ‘West India Whip for the Bristol Slaves’, claimed that powerful merchants had threatened tradesmen with loss of custom and workers with loss of their jobs, and another urged the freemen to ‘teach them a lesson! Convince them that however they may rule with despotic sway in the West Indies, they shall not lord it over you!’ As ‘A Brother Freeman’ put it, ‘vote for Protheroe and you promote your own freedom as well as that of the poor negro’. Bristol was exhorted to join with Yorkshire, where Brougham was standing, in sealing the death warrant of slavery, and the ‘Negro Mothers’ petition to the ladies of Bristol’ beseeched them to influence their menfolk’s votes:

          Massa Proderoe - he good man!
          Send him Missey, sure you can!
          Den you will poor Neger eye
          wid de tear brimful of joy!

Baillie’s supporters insisted that he too supported eventual abolition, ‘consistent with justice and the real advantage of the negroes themselves’, and they accused Protheroe (‘Negro Ned’) of ‘sham humanity’ in his ‘pretended abhorrence’ of slavery, which was just a ruse to pick the rich pockets of ‘Quakers and other ... enthusiasts’. In an embarrassing disclosure, ‘Anti-Humbug’ showed that the banker Samuel Waring, a prominent member of Protheroe’s committee, and other Quakers had invested in a Brazilian gold mine using slave labour. Bristolians were warned that sudden emancipation would lead to the ‘loss of our colonies and consequently all that part of our transatlantic trade’, which would be ‘ruinous to your nearest and dearest interests’. More bluntly still, it was pointed out that Baillie ‘employs hundreds of our citizens ... and purchases many ... thousand pounds worth of goods from your warehouses annually’. Davis’s committee claimed to be observing ‘strict neutrality’ between the Whig candidates, and a pictorial card describing him as ‘the friend of all’ reflected the cross-party nature of his campaign. However, some Blues called on the voters to split between Davis and Baillie because of Protheroe’s support for Catholic emancipation and to prevent his ‘Dissenting friends’ from ‘meddling with your church establishment’.35

Davis was sponsored by Henry Bush and Joseph Cookson, vice-president of the chamber of commerce. Protheroe, who was introduced by George and Ash, advocated retrenchment, civil and religious liberty, a ‘milder criminal code’ and reform of the game laws, pledged his support for ‘every humane and judicious measure to elevate the degraded race now sunk in slavery’ and looked forward to free trade with India and China as a new source of commercial prosperity for Bristol. Baillie, who was nominated by the Rev. Sir Abraham Elton of Clevedon Court and Charles Pinney, tried to defend himself against ‘some of the basest slanders and attacks which ever disgraced an electioneering contest’, but was shouted down. A fourth candidate, James Acland, editor of the Bristolian, who had been imprisoned for libelling the corporation, was sponsored by one Philpott and John Hodson, a shopkeeper’s son; he denounced the town dues, corn laws, standing army and Catholic legislators. The show of hands was called in Baillie and Protheroe’s favour, but a poll was demanded. That evening Protheroe was struck on the head by a wooden object while speaking from a window of the Bush, causing him to bleed ‘profusely’. Polling was conducted in Queen Square, where ten booths had been constructed, rather than the guildhall. On the first day Davis took a comfortable lead, with 1,556 votes to Baillie’s 1,029, Protheroe’s 920 and Acland’s one. There was a similar pattern on the second, when lines of carriages brought in the out-voters. At the close of polling on the third day, Protheroe, who was in third place 338 votes behind Baillie, read out a letter from his committee advising him to retire; he later explained that ‘a large number of London voters had been engaged by my opponents and were ... on their way down at an enormous cost’. That evening he met with supporters who dissented from the committee’s view, but ‘nothing effectual was accomplished’. Polling on the fourth day was slack, although the proceedings were enlivened by Davis’s first appearance on the hustings, and around three o’clock Protheroe senior announced his son’s retirement. The sheriffs kept the poll open until one on the fifth day, when Davis and Baillie were declared elected. Davis, who had again been returned free of personal expense, thanked his supporters, particularly the ‘volunteer band’ of lawyers, and Baillie stressed his support for the ‘ultimate extinction’ of slavery, repeal of the corn laws, reduction of the assessed taxes and abolition of the East India Company’s monopoly. No chairing took place, on legal advice that freemen who had voted could not be employed in a public procession.36

Of the 6,385 who polled, 80 per cent cast a vote for Davis, 53 for Baillie and 44 for Protheroe. Davis secured 183 plumpers (four per cent of his total), Baillie had 460 (14) and Protheroe 873 (31). Davis and Baillie received 2,900 split votes (56 and 80 per cent of their respective totals), Davis and Protheroe had 1,929 (31 and 61 per cent), Protheroe and Acland 23, Baillie and Protheroe 15, and Baillie and Acland two. Of those who polled, 5,171 (80 per cent) were residents; most of the 1,214 out-voters came from Gloucestershire and Somerset. Resident and non-resident votes were distributed fairly evenly between the candidates, but Protheroe and Baillie benefited disproportionately from non-resident plumpers, gaining 302 and 202 respectively, compared with 23 for Davis. Among the London and Middlesex voters, 59 plumped for Baillie and six for Protheroe, with nine splitting between Davis and Baillie, five between Davis and Protheroe and two between Protheroe and Acland. The Bath voters gave 42 plumpers to Protheroe and 15 to Baillie, while 36 split for Davis and Baillie, 15 for Davis and Protheroe and one for Baillie and Acland. Of the corporators, 15, including Daniel, split their votes between Davis and Baillie, one plumped for Baillie and none voted for Protheroe or Acland. Davis dined with ‘upwards of 200’ of his supporters at the White Lion and Baillie with ‘about 100’ of his at the Montague; deputations passed between the two gatherings. In a published address, Protheroe complained that his cause had been ‘borne down by the weight of wealth and commercial influence. Money has been poured forth like water in the purchase of votes’. His own supporters finally raised £7,000, of which £700 came from the banker George Wright and £500 from James Cropper of Liverpool, a national leader of the anti-slavery movement; their expenditure included £2,000 on enrolling freemen and £1,250 on bringing up out-voters. Baillie’s election reputedly cost him £18,000. In the year ending 29 September 1830, 1,917 freemen were admitted. Acland petitioned against Baillie’s return, alleging bribery and intimidation, but did not pursue the case.37

There was an extensive petitioning movement from the parishes for repeal of various assessed taxes between November 1830 and February 1831.38 The Commons received petitions from the inhabitants for repeal of the coastwise coal duty, 4 Feb., and from ship owners and merchants against altering the duties on colonial and foreign timber, 21 Feb., when the ship owners also requested a lower duty on West Indian sugar.39 On 9 Sept. 1830 a ‘very numerous and respectable’ meeting at the guildhall, chaired by the Baillieite Charles Pinney, carried a resolution expressing admiration for the ‘fortitude, moderation, love of order and respect for social rights’ shown by the French people during the July revolution. The Mercury welcomed the ‘union of sentiment’ and ‘desire for mutual co-operation’ among the Whigs, demonstrated by the presence of several leading Protheroe supporters, including Ash, George, Roberts, Visger and Waring.40 Whig reconciliation was further promoted by eventual compromise on slavery. A public meeting at the guildhall, 22 Oct., descended into chaotic violence amid accusations of bias against the chairman, the abolitionist Ash. However, a subsequent meeting also chaired by Ash, 9 Nov., agreed to petition the Commons for gradual abolition, with the proviso, secured by Claxton, that the planters should receive compensation; its presentation was delayed and apparently never took place. Dissenting chapels sent numerous abolitionist petitions to Parliament between November 1830 and April 1831, while the planters and merchants petitioned for protection of their rights, 21 Feb., 29 Mar. 1831.41 Early in January, Protheroe published a letter declaring his support for parliamentary reform as an essential precondition for abolition and other measures. Following a requisition signed by 90 individuals, ‘one of the most crowded meetings ever assembled in this city’ was chaired by Taunton at the guildhall, 21 Jan.; a letter from Protheroe, welcoming this display of Whig unity, was read out. Resolutions were carried condemning the ‘unequal distribution of the right of suffrage’ and favouring shorter parliaments and the ballot. However, Baillie, who was present, failed to give satisfaction when he declined to pledge support for the ballot, which he warned was ‘endangering the whole question’ of reform. Consequently, the petition, which attracted ‘upwards of 17,000 signatures’, was forwarded to the leader of the Commons, Lord Althorp, for presentation, 26 Feb. A petition in defence of the ‘laws of England’, resulting from a meeting at the White Lion chaired by Daniel, received ‘between 4,000 and 5,000 signatures’ and was presented by Davis, 26 Feb. On 7 Mar. a public meeting at the Assembly Rooms, chaired by Ash, unanimously agreed to petition the Commons in favour of the Grey ministry’s bill, which proposed to leave Bristol’s representation intact but disfranchise non-resident freemen; Baillie presented it, 10 Mar.42 Davis’s unpopularity with his constituents, arising from his opposition to the bill, was compounded by his determination to exempt Bristol from Hobhouse’s plan to reform the select vestries: he and Baillie presented petitions from various parish meetings on both sides of the issue, 7 Mar.43 In response to a requisition signed by 25 leading Whigs, the mayor summoned a public meeting for 21 Apr. 1831 to petition the Commons for Bristol to be given an extra seat, but this was abandoned when it became clear that ministers had no intention of making such concessions to the large boroughs.44

With a dissolution expected, a meeting of freemen and freeholders at the Bush, 22 Apr., chaired by the soap manufacturer and abolitionist Edward Fripp, unanimously resolved that the ‘friends of reform’ should ‘sink all differences on other subjects’ and unite to secure the return of two Members committed to the bill. Next day, a ‘provisional committee’ was formed and subscriptions invited to a ‘reform fund’. Protheroe announced his intention of offering ‘with unchanged principles’, and Baillie accepted an invitation to stand from a meeting of his supporters chaired by Charles Pinney, 25 Apr., when a committee was formed. The Mercury was alarmed by rumours that ‘the gentlemen in the West India interest’ also planned to bring forward Robert Bright, and warned that a candidate nominated ‘expressly to receive Baillie’s second votes, taking into account the great majority of plumpers ... for Protheroe at the last election’, would produce an ‘excessively expensive’ contest that might ‘rekindle ... feelings of animosity’. In the circumstances, it seemed justifiable to ‘blend together the interests’ of the two Whig sections. At a public meeting in Queen Square on the 26th, chaired by George, a statement was received from Bright that he did not intend to stand, and it was then agreed that Baillie and Protheroe were ‘fit and proper’ representatives. A permanent ‘reform committee’ was established, comprised of leading businessmen such as Ash, Fripp, George and Pinney, and the editors John Mills of the Gazette and Thomas Manchee of the Mercury. Daniel had meantime chaired a meeting at the White Lion, 23 Apr., which unanimously invited Davis to stand again, set the usual electioneering machinery in motion and hinted that if the Whigs repudiated the old understanding to share the representation a second Tory might come forward. In his address, Davis predicted that the reform bill would have ‘revolutionary results, by destroying the balanced powers of the constitution’, and defended Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment. It was reported that a ‘determined struggle’ seemed inevitable. Tory posters depicted Davis as the ‘ever vigilant protector’ of the freemen’s rights, and it was claimed that the ‘deform bill’ would have disfranchised 3,016 of them. Bristol Protestants were warned that the bill’s ‘real object’, in transferring seats from England to Ireland, was to ‘put you in the power of ... Catholics’, and in another vain attempt to pull on old strings the Blues advised voters to split for Davis and Baillie, because ‘you destroy yourselves’ by supporting the abolitionist Protheroe. Reformers retorted that the Tories had ‘turned their backs upon the best of England’s kings’ and were ‘disloyal men’, and a modified version of the national anthem was produced. In an echo of the abolitionist message, voters were reminded that ‘on former occasions you [went] to the hustings like slaves. Tell your masters that now you will be freemen!’ They were urged to resist the ‘corrupt promise’ of charity money, and it was explained that a reformed Parliament would abolish the select vestries. William Herapath, a maltster, also called on Bristolians to reform themselves, declaring that with ‘the king and his government on your side ... this is the last opportunity of getting quietly and constitutionally, at a trifling sacrifice, that reform which France, Poland and Italy have been obliged to bleed for’. In an important development, the various trades issued a stream of pro-reform declarations, followed by a general meeting of operatives in Queen Square, 29 Apr. 1831, when it was resolved to support only candidates pledged to carrying the bill. Davis’s committee met that day to consider the ‘exact state’ of canvassing returns, and advised him to withdraw and spare the city from the ‘mischiefs’ of a contested election.45

Palmer and Isaac Elton of Stapleton House sponsored Baillie, who was immediately pressed by Herapath for an explicit statement of his views on the reform bill. He promised his ‘most perfect support’, notwithstanding his dislike of the proposed increase in county representation. Referring to his opposition to ministers over the timber duties, he said he was willing to accept ‘liberal alterations which the growing spirit of the age may render necessary’ to commercial policy, but argued that the ‘most odious’ corn laws must be dealt with first. George and Ash introduced Protheroe, who responded to Herapath’s question by pledging support for ‘the whole bill’. He carefully refrained from discussing other issues, welcomed the union of forces behind reform and praised the ‘active energy and public display ... of the operative classes’. Baillie and Protheroe were declared elected, the first time since 1774 that Bristol had returned two Whigs; their combined expenses were said to be only £200. Arrangements were made for a chairing ceremony on 4 May, with the cabinet-makers offering their services gratuitously. This proved to be ‘the most magnificent pageant ever witnessed in this city’ and an estimated 10,000 persons joined the procession, including ‘almost all the trades’. An illumination that evening was ‘more general than splendid’ and was only ‘partially observed’ in the more exclusive districts, but there was a ‘total absence of drunkenness’ and the proceedings were judged ‘creditable to the reformers’. Baillie and Protheroe attended a dinner next day at the Royal Gloucester Hotel, where ‘most of the leading gentlemen in the Whig interest in the city and neighbourhood’ were present, including the Members for Gloucester, Berkeley and Webb, and the county Members, Guise and Moreton. Dinners were subsequently given to the freemen in various parishes. The reform committee issued an address congratulating the ‘independent electors’ on breaking the Tory ‘spell’ that had transfixed the city for so long. Davis’s committee noted the ‘prejudicial effects ... produced by a coalition amongst some of the influential friends’ of Baillie and Protheroe, but took comfort that true Blue principles had ‘suffered no injury amongst that large, intelligent and respectable portion of our fellow citizens’, who were ‘beyond the reach of that popular frenzy which has drawn such crowds of deluded individuals within its vortex’.46

In June 1831 a Bristol General Union was formed, on the Birmingham model, for the ‘mutual protection of those mechanics who might suffer from voting conscientiously’, to ‘keep a watchful eye’ on the Members and to gather information regarding the use of charitable funds. Its leading officials, Herapath, Wright, John Ham, John Powell and George Sanders, were business or professional men, but few other members were ‘above the grade of mechanics, the more influential of the liberal party having kept aloof’.47 The Union was responsible for the ‘very numerous assemblage ... almost exclusively of mechanics’ in Queen Square, 8 Aug., which unanimously passed resolutions regretting the ‘tardy’ progress of the reintroduced reform bill but expressing confidence in ministers. Next month, the Bristol trades turned out in force to bolster the official procession to celebrate William IV’s coronation.48 On 24 Sept. Taunton chaired a public meeting at the guildhall to petition the Lords for the bill’s speedy passage. Ash, Robert Bright and Herapath were among the speakers and the petition, which received 25,740 signatures, was presented by the duke of Sussex, 3 Oct.49 Petitions against Bristol’s exclusion from the vestries bill were sent to the Commons from eight parishes, 28 Sept.50 Following the Lords’ rejection of the reform bill a meeting was hurriedly convened in Queen Square by the Union, 10 Oct., when ‘several thousand’ were present and resolutions carried supporting ministers and calling for co-operation with other unions. The reform committee requisitioned the mayor for a public meeting, which was held on the 12th but adjourned from the guildhall to Queen Square to accommodate the crowd of some 4,000. John Addington took the chair and resolutions were carried supporting ministers; Protheroe affirmed his commitment to an undiluted measure.51 The notoriously anti-reformist Wetherell’s arrival on the 29th for the autumn assizes sparked three days of rioting in which much of the city centre, including the bishop’s palace, mansion house, excise office and customs house, was burned down, and prisoners liberated from three gaols. It was not until the 31st, when private residences came under attack, that nearly 3,000 citizens enrolled as special constables to help restore order. Twelve people were officially reported dead, but many more charred corpses were found in the ruins. The facts that Bristolians had relatively little to gain from the reform bill, that the riots occurred three weeks after the Lords’ vote, that civic buildings were the main targets, that overseas trade had been in a depressed state for some months and that ‘respectable’ citizens were conspicuously slow to assist the authorities, point to anti-corporation feeling as the underlying explanation for the trouble. For the first time, local antagonism towards the corporation was exclusively associated with the partisan conflict between Whigs and Tories. A special commission was appointed to deal with the rioters, of whom four were executed, 29 transported and 43 imprisoned; Colonel Brereton, the commanding officer of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, committed suicide during his court martial, while the mayor, Charles Pinney, was acquitted of charges of dereliction of duty. Friction between the corporation and the citizens continued for several months over the terms of the subsequent police and compensation bills: the former, which would have involved levying an extra rate, was abandoned, and the latter finally set a greatly reduced figure of £55,824.52 On 10 May 1832, following the resignation of Grey’s ministry, the Union organized what was ‘essentially a meeting of the working classes’ on Brandon Hill, variously estimated as numbering ‘about 3,000’ or ‘not less than 7,000’, at which Herapath read out a letter from Daniel O’Connell* advising the use of peaceful methods; a petition to the Commons to withhold supplies was agreed but not presented, and the king refused to receive an address for the speedy resolution of the crisis. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people, ‘comprising all classes of reformers’, attended a meeting at the Assembly Rooms, convened by the reform committee and chaired by Taunton, 14 May, when a petition to withhold supplies was approved; it was presented by Baillie, 25 May. A White Lion meeting on the 17th, chaired by Daniel, agreed a loyal address to the king, which received between 1,100 and 1,200 signatures.53 On Waterloo day, 18 June 1832, the passage of the Reform Act was celebrated by a procession involving the trades and the General Union.54

The boundary commissioners recommended that Bristol’s ancient limits should be extended to cover the out-parishes of St. Philip and Jacob and St. James and St. Paul, the whole of the parish of Clifton and parts of Bedminster and Westbury, which were all closely connected with the city’s ‘trade and occupations’.55 Despite the disfranchisement of non-resident freemen, the registered electorate in 1832 rose to 10,309. The general election of that year saw the old pattern of politics restored, with the Ultra Tory Sir Richard Vyvyan returned in tacit coalition with the moderate Liberal Baillie, against Protheroe and another anti-slavery Liberal. Evidence presented in support of an unsuccessful petition suggested that bribery remained endemic, and the activities of the newly formed Conservative Operatives’ Association, a supposedly charitable body, were a particular cause of complaint.56 In 1833 the municipal commissioners produced a damning report on the corporation, concluding that it was ‘a very unfavourable specimen’ of the closed system and that ‘the desire of power’ appeared to be its ‘ruling principle’, even when this was detrimental to the city’s interests. However, the Municipal Corporations Act failed to break the Conservatives’ grip on local affairs.57 In 1835 they carried both the parliamentary seats, defeating Baillie, who, with the slavery issue settled, had rebuilt bridges with the Liberals. Thereafter, the representation was shared until 1852, when Bristol became a Liberal stronghold.

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxix. 221.
  • 2. Ibid. (1831-2), xxxix. 219; (1835), xxiv. 1209; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 306-7; Robson’s Bristol Dir. (1839), 1-2; B. Little, Bristol, 150-76, 251-62; J. Caple, Bristol Riots and Social Reform, 41-68.
  • 3. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 505-6; xxxix. 221; (1835), viii. 379-88; xxiv. 1161-63; J. Nicholls and J. Taylor, Bristol Past and Present, iii. 234; J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol in 19th Cent. 50-53; G. Bush, Bristol Municipal Government, 17-21, 24-28; J.A. Phillips, Great Reform Bill in Boroughs, 75-85.
  • 4. Bush, 34-37; Caple, 69-79, 92-97; Phillips, 73-80, 83-88.
  • 5. Bristol Gazette, 17, 24 Feb.; Bristol Jnl. 26 Feb.; Bristol Mirror, 4 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. Bristol Jnl. 19, 26 Feb., 4 Mar.; Bristol Gazette, 24 Feb.; Bristol Mirror, 26 Feb., 4 Mar. 1820; Add. 38458, f. 303.
  • 7. Bristol Gazette, 9 Mar.; Bristol Jnl. 11 Mar.; Bristol Mercury, 13 Mar. 1820; J. Williams, ‘Bristol in the General Elections of 1818 and 1820’, Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. lxxxvii. (1968), 173-201.
  • 8. Bristol Central Lib. B4419, ms pollbook; A. B. Beavan, Bristol Lists, 177; Bristol Mercury, 13, 20 Mar.; Bristol Jnl. 18 Mar. 1820; M. Harrison, Crowds and History, 158, 203, for pictures of Bright’s chairing. Only 111 freemen were enrolled in the year ending 29 Sept. 1820: PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 506.
  • 9. Bristol Jnl. 16, 23, 30 Sept., 18, 25 Nov., 2, 9, 30 Dec.; Bristol Gazette, 16 Nov., 21 Dec. 1820; Add. 31232, ff. 254, 260-3, 266.
  • 10. CJ, lxxvi. 173, 196, 224; lxxviii. 217-18; lxxx. 18, 24, 69, 111, 133, 142, 284, 320, 325; LJ, liv. 120, 348, 349; lv. 210, 636, 649; lvii. 624, 627, 628, 629, 742, 807, 809, 811, 830.
  • 11. CJ, lxxvi. 304; lxxvii. 118; LJ, lv. 210.
  • 12. CJ, lxxvii. 218, 251, 262, 302, 351; lxxviii. 326; lxxix. 90, 162, 210; lxxx. 24, 95; lxxxi. 96.
  • 13. Ibid. lxxviii. 26, 49, 59, 69; lxxix. 144; lxxx. 13, 103, 110, 157, 204, 325; lxxxi. 101, 160.
  • 14. Ibid. lxxviii. 312-13, 331; lxxix. 422, 452; lxxxi. 320; LJ, lviii. 170, 298; Bristol Jnl. 17 May 1823.
  • 15. J. Gutch, Cosmo’s Letters (1823); PP (1835), xxiv. 1208-22; Latimer, 103-5; Bush, 22-23, 47-49; CJ, lxxix. 334, 354, 365, 387; Bristol Jnl. 15 Jan., 18 June, 9 July 1825.
  • 16. Bristol Jnl. 24 Dec. 1825; Latimer, 112-13.
  • 17. Bristol Gazette, 25 May, 1 June; Bristol Jnl. 27 May, 3, 10 June; Bristol Mirror, 27 May, 3 June; Bristol Mercury, 29 May, 5 June 1826; Add. 40415, ff. 226-31.
  • 18. Bristol Gazette, 8 June; Bristol Jnl. 10, 17 June; Bristol Mercury, 12 June 1826; Latimer, 116.
  • 19. Bristol Central Lib. 10100, election pprs.
  • 20. Bristol Jnl. 10, 17, 24 June; Bristol Mirror, 10, 17 June; Bristol Mercury, 12, 19, 26 June; Bristol Gazette, 15, 22 June 1826; Bristol Central Lib. 10010; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 506. No pollbook survives. There has been much confusion regarding this election: Caple, 98, in arguing for a linear growth in the reform movement throughout the 1820s, mistook Protheroe for his more radical son; Phillips, 81-82, 90-91, by misdating a subscription list from 1830, concluded that the contest in 1826 revolved around the slavery issue.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxii. 113, 245.
  • 22. Ibid. 192-3, 301, 305.
  • 23. Latimer, 193-5; Bush, 49-50.
  • 24. Bristol Mirror, 10 May 1828.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxiii. 415, 471; lxxxv. 112, 179.
  • 26. Bristol Mirror, 11, 18, 25 Apr. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 289; lxxxv. 173, 336; LJ, lxii. 115, 253.
  • 27. CJ, lxxxii. 504, 527, 585; lxxxiii. 101; LJ, lix. 455; lx. 55, 64, 68, 73.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxii. 274, 287; lxxxiii. 282, 313, 319, 332; LJ, lix. 120, 127, 128, 264; lx. 292, 307, 344, 480.
  • 29. CJ, lxxxiv. 8, 14, 28, 34, 59, 84, 89; LJ, lxi. 15, 16, 17, 30, 58, 74, 75, 81, 114, 299; Bristol Mirror, 7, 14, 21, 28 Feb, 14, 21, 28 Mar., 4, 11 Apr. 1829; Wellington mss WP1/1003/14; Latimer, 128-9.
  • 30. CJ, lxxxiii. 362; Bristol Mirror, 24 May 1828.
  • 31. CJ, lxxxv. 148, 571; LJ, lxii. 769.
  • 32. CJ, lxxxv. 261, 463; LJ, lxii. 758, 789.
  • 33. Bristol Jnl. 3, 17, 24 July; Bristol Mercury, 13 July; Bristol Mirror, 17, 24 July 1830.
  • 34. Bristol Gazette, 8, 15, 22 July; Bristol Mirror, 10, 17 July; Bristol Jnl. 10, 17 July; Bristol Mercury, 13, 20 July; Brougham mss, Protheroe to Brougham, 22 July 1830.
  • 35. Bristol Mirror, 24, 31 July; Bristol Mercury, 27 July, 3 Aug.; Bristol Gazette, 29 July; Bristol Jnl. 31 July 1830; Bristol Central Lib. 10107, 22760, election pprs.; Bristol RO 11944 (4), election pprs.; P. Marshall, ‘Bristol and abolition of slavery’, Bristol Hist. Assoc. Pamphlets, xxxvii. (1975).
  • 36. Bristol Jnl. 31 July, 7 Aug.; Bristol Mercury, 3, 10 Aug.; Bristol Gazette, 5 Aug.; Bristol Mirror, 7 Aug.; Brougham mss, Protheroe to Brougham, 3, 6 Aug. 1830.
  • 37. Bristol Pollbook (1830); J. Vincent, Pollbooks, 82; Beavan, 177; Bristol Jnl. 7, 14 Aug.; Bristol Mercury, 10 Aug. 1830; Bristol RO, Hare mss 8033/29, 30b-d, 32; Latimer, 138; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 506; CJ, lxxxvi. 96-97, 141.
  • 38. CJ, lxxxvi. 55, 106, 148, 168, 183-4, 192, 209.
  • 39. Ibid. 211, 281-2.
  • 40. Bristol Gazette, 9, 16 Sept.; Bristol Mercury, 14 Sept. 1830.
  • 41. Bristol Jnl. 9, 23 Oct., 6, 20 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 163, 192, 212, 278, 361, 454, 455; LJ, lxiii. 115, 254, 391, 490.
  • 42. Bristol Gazette, 13, 20, 27 Jan., 3, 10, 24 Feb., 10 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 310-11, 359.
  • 43. CJ, lxxxvi. 347-8.
  • 44. Bristol Mercury, 19 Apr.; Bristol Gazette, 21 Apr. 1831.
  • 45. Bristol Mercury, 26 Apr.; Bristol Gazette, 28 Apr., 5 May; Bristol Mirror, 30 Apr. 1831; Bristol RO 11944 (4), election pprs.; Bristol Central Lib. 10108, election pprs.
  • 46. Bristol Gazette, 5, 12, 19 May; Bristol Mirror, 7 May; Bristol Mercury, 10 May 1831.
  • 47. Bristol Gazette, 2 June; Bristol Mercury, 14 June 1831.
  • 48. Bristol Gazette, 11 Aug., 15 Sept.; Bristol Mercury, 13 Sept. 1831.
  • 49. Bristol Gazette, 22, 29 Sept., 6 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1039.
  • 50. CJ, lxxxvi. 873.
  • 51. Bristol Gazette, 13, 20 Oct.; Bristol Mirror, 15 Oct. 1831.
  • 52. Rev. T. Curme, Bristol Riots (1832), the fullest contemporary account; Latimer, 146-84; Caple, 241-56; Harrison, 289-314; S. Thomas, ‘Bristol Riots’, Bristol Hist. Assoc. Pamphlets, xxxiv. (1974).
  • 53. Bristol Mercury, 12, 19 May; Bristol Mirror, 12, 19 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvi. 341.
  • 54. Bristol Mercury, 23 June 1832.
  • 55. PP (1831-2), xxxix. 219-20.
  • 56. Caple, 76-79; Phillips, 79-81, 92-94.
  • 57. PP (1835), xxiv. 1222-23; Bush, 113-215.