Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Estimated number qualified to vote:
about 50, rising to 104 by 31 Dec. 18311
Number of voters:
35 in June 1832
2,864 (1821); 3,198 (1831)
|8 Mar. 1820||SIR JOHN DASHWOOD KING, bt.|
|SIR THOMAS BARING, bt.|
|12 June 1826||SIR JOHN DASHWOOD KING, bt.|
|SIR THOMAS BARING, bt.|
|2 Aug. 1830||SIR JOHN DASHWOOD KING, bt.|
|SIR THOMAS BARING, bt.|
|30 Mar. 1831||SIR THOMAS BARING, bt.|
|HON. ROBERT JOHN SMITH|
|26 June 1832||HON. CHARLES GREY vice Baring, vacated his seat||23|
Wycombe, the ‘handsomest’ town in Buckinghamshire, was situated in the south of the county, 29 miles from London on one of the main roads to the west. It had some cotton lace manufacturing, but was notably a centre of paper making, with several mills operating in and around it.2 Dissent was well established, and the Quaker families of Edmonds, Lucas, Wheeler and others were prominent.3 The self-electing and predominantly Whig corporation consisted of a mayor, 12 other aldermen and two bailiffs, and had the sole power of creating freemen (burgesses), who made up the rest of the electorate. By an electoral compromise of 1794, which had paved the way for the return in 1796 of the anti-Catholic independent Sir John Dashwood King of nearby West Wycombe, the number of freemen had been restricted to about 60 and no new non-residents were elected. The other seat was occupied from 1802 by members of the wealthy Whig Baring banking family, the inheritors of the old Lansdowne interest, who had consolidated their position through a close alliance with the corporation. Dashwood King’s colleague from 1806 was Sir Thomas Baring, a Hampshire landowner with no direct involvement in the family business. The purchaser of the neighbouring Lansdowne properties of Temple Wycombe and Loakes House, the London banker Robert Smith†, 1st Baron Carrington, a Grenvillite Whig who was effectively a supporter of Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry by 1820, seems not to have asserted himself at Wycombe, despite contemporary assumptions to the contrary.4 Resentment among the respectable but unfranchised residents of the corporation’s irresponsible power and their own exclusion from municipal and parliamentary affairs gave rise in late 1819 to a legal challenge to the corporation’s right to elect burgesses, which was led by the surgeon James Kingston. The corporation’s lawyers unearthed a circumstantial and probably fictitious by-law of 1675, which had supposedly delegated the right of creating freemen from the corporation and burgesses as a whole to the select body alone. King’s bench decided in the corporation’s favour in 1821, but successive appeals dragged the case on for nine years. Meanwhile the corporation’s opponents built up alternative power bases in the paving and lighting commission and the vestry.5
Dashwood King and Baring were quietly and cheaply returned at the general election of 1820: flags and favours, for example, cost them £78 each.6 In the jubilant celebrations of the abandonment of the prosecution of Queen Caroline in November 1820 a green bag was publicly burnt and a Tory butcher who rode his horse through the bonfire was manhandled, rolled in mud and soused under the town pump.7 The corporation and leading inhabitants petitioned the Commons for revision of the criminal code, 24 May 1822, and the abolition of slavery, 8 Apr. 1824, 16 Feb. 1826.8 At the mayoral feast, 30 Sept. 1824, Lord Chandos, the Tory county Member, and Dashwood King stated their continued hostility to Catholic claims; and the corporation and inhabitants petitioned the Lords against conceding them, 17 May 1825.9
There was no change at the 1826 general election when, during what was disparagingly called the ‘dumb show’ of the formalities, Dashwood King, who deplored the recent ministerial interference with the corn laws, was listened to with reasonable attention by the restless audience of non-voters. However, Baring was howled down on account of his falsely reported wish to reduce allowances for the poor. The chairing was abandoned, but Baring’s hat was hit by a stone and he was molested by an aggrieved man as he rode out of the town.10 He dined the corporation and burgesses on 25 Oct. 1827.11 Wycombe Dissenters petitioned Parliament for repeal of the Test Acts, which both Members supported, in 1828.12 Some inhabitants petitioned the Commons for amelioration of the conditions of West Indian slaves, 17 June 1828.13 In 1829 various inhabitants petitioned the Commons both for and against Catholic emancipation and the Lords for it, while the clergy of Wycombe deanery sent a hostile petition to the Lords.14 Dashwood King opposed emancipation, and Baring abstained. The corporation and inhabitants petitioned both Houses for mitigation of the criminal code in March 1830.15
On 21 July 1830 the Lords gave a final judgment on the burgess case by ruling in favour of the corporation’s sole right to create freemen.16 Dashwood King and Baring were quietly returned at the general election a fortnight later, when the corporation laid out £349 on entertainment, food and drink.17 At Michaelmas 1830 the corporation admitted 32 new freemen, half of whom were non-resident: they included seven sons of aldermen, Chandos, Baring’s son Francis Thornhill Baring, Member for Portsmouth, Dashwood King’s eldest son George Henry Dashwood† and Carrington’s son-in-law Colonel John Crewe. A further 19 were elected in 1831, which made the notional electorate 104.18 Baring helped to vote the Wellington ministry out of office, 15 Nov. 1830, when Dashwood King abstained. Next day Chandos’s uncle Lord Nugent, Whig Member for Aylesbury, presented a Wycombe inhabitant householders’ petition for parliamentary reform.19 In late November there were very serious and destructive ‘Swing’ riots in and around Wycombe, with the machinery in the paper mills the particular target of displaced workers, and on the 26th a mob invaded a meeting of the authorities in the town hall and wrecked the chamber. The military were required to restore order and over 40 men were arrested and sent for trial by special commission: 44 death sentences were passed, but none was carried out. The damage to property was put at £3,265.20 The home office was told in January 1831 that a political union had been formed at Wycombe.21 On 10 Feb. the recently established Friends of Rational and Efficient Reform dined at the Red Lion under the chairmanship of James Tatem, a retired London tradesman and old opponent of the corporation, who called for united support of the Grey ministry’s anticipated reform bill. Soon afterwards ‘most of the inhabitant householders’ and some burgesses signed petitions to both Houses for reform of the borough’s representation.22 In the first version of the reform bill, unveiled on 1 Mar., Wycombe was scheduled to lose one seat, on the ground that its population in 1821 had been just under 3,000. On the 16th members of the corporation and ‘other influential inhabitants’ met to address the king and petition both Houses in favour of the measure.23 Baring voted for and Dashwood against its second reading, 22 Mar. Wycombe was one of the boroughs about whose circumstances ministers made further inquiries; and on ascertaining that the population of the whole parish exceeded 6,000 they decided, as Lord John Russell explained in the House, 18 Apr., to allow the constituency to retain both seats.24 That day at Wycombe anti-reform pamphlets were ceremonially burned, along with an effigy of Chandos, the suspected distributor. Dashwood King was widely execrated for his opposition to the bill and, canvassing the mayor and aldermen at the dissolution following its defeat, when Carrington’s eldest son Robert John Smith, Whig county Member since 1820, started as a reformer, he received little encouragement and gave up. Tatem and his associates met to applaud the dissolution and memorialized the corporation to return two reformers. This the majority of them had already decided to do, thereby stealing their unfranchised critics’ thunder. Baring and Smith were nominated by aldermen and returned unopposed.25
Russell confirmed in the Commons, 24 June 1831, that investigation had revealed that Wycombe borough and parish contained over twice as many £10 houses (446) as stated in the original tax return (206). The boundary commissioner duly recommended extension of the constituency to the whole parish, which embraced the town, a poverty-ridden manufacturing district on the banks of the Rivers Wick and Rye and an extensive agricultural area: the borough was enlarged from 0.2 to 9.8 square miles.26 On the death of the town clerk Robert Nash in September 1831 his expected successor John Rumsey, the corporation’s poodle, was challenged and easily beaten by the Tory attorney John Nash, a veteran opponent of the corporation and the local agent of the duke of Buckingham, Chandos’s father.27 Most leading reformers, including aldermen, boycotted the annual buck dinner provided by Buckingham that month. On 29 Sept. they met to petition the Lords in support of the reform bill.28 News of its rejection was greeted with public mourning, and Carrington, who had voted against it, was burnt in effigy near Wycombe Abbey, despite his attempts to appease the mob with alcohol. Tatem, who was made a freeman in October, and Alderman Robert Wheeler were among the speakers at a town meeting which resolved to address the king in support of reform, 13 Oct. 1831.29
By the revised disfranchisement criteria adopted for the final reform bill, Wycombe qualified to retain both seats. In January 1832 the 27-year-old exotic Benjamin Disraeli†, recently returned from his Eastern tour and already celebrated as the author of Vivian Grey, began to canvass Wycombe, which lay four miles from his father Isaac’s new home at Bradenham, intending to stand at the first election under the Reform Act. He reported to a friend, 19 Jan.:
A hard day’s canvass. Whigs, Tories, and radicals, Quakers, Evangelicals, abolition of slavery, reform, conservation, corn laws, here is hard work for one, who is to please all parties. I make an excellent canvasser, and am told I shall carry it, if the borough be opened.
A false rumour that Baring was about to be made a peer put Disraeli on the alert for an earlier chance and prompted him to consider whether he could in that event persuade the corporation to back him ‘without compromising myself with the £10ers’. Smith refused his request for support.30 He was playing a devious game, representing himself to the inhabitants as a reforming Whig while writing the bulk of a legitimist attack on Ministerial Gallomania, which came out in April. His sister Sarah, whom with his younger brother James he unwisely left in charge of his campaign during his frequent absences in London, warned him in early May that his leading Wycombe supporter, Lieutenant Huffam, an alcoholic retired naval officer, who had earlier urged him to ‘be more attentive to your £10 constituents’, was ‘in a great fright, that you were going to betray him by proving yourself a Tory after he has for so many months sworn to all Wycombites that you were not one’. Disraeli, who in Contarini Fleming, published on 15 May, appeared to identify himself with the reformers, sought to reassure Huffam.31 Tatem, Rumsey and Huffam were prominent at a Wycombe meeting, chaired by the mayor, John Carter, which voted an address of confidence in the reinstated Grey ministry and votes of thanks to Baring and Smith, 24 May.32
On 2 June 1832, with the reform bill on the verge of becoming law, Disraeli started for Wycombe ‘on the high radical interest’: ‘Toryism is worn out, and I cannot condescend to be a Whig’, he told Sarah. In truth, he had failed to get official Whig backing, and of the testimonials from Joseph Hume* and Daniel O’Connelb (procured for him by his friend and fellow novelist Edward Bulwer, pro-reform Member for St. Ives) and Sir Francis Burdett* which he boasted of in advance to Tatem, only Hume’s was more than lukewarm, and even it was embarrassingly retracted when Hume discovered that Disraeli was threatening the security of two reformers and ‘in great agitation’ directed Bulwer to have his endorsement withdrawn, claiming to have confused Wycombe with Carrington’s borough of Wendover (which was in fact scheduled for disfranchisement). Hume explained himself in writing to Smith and Baring, as did Bulwer to the latter:
I understood that it was not against you that the contest was to be directed, that owing to your connection with the corporation ... the new electors were indisposed to your return, that you virtually might be considered out of the field and that the question was whether Mr. Disraeli or some other new candidate should appear in your stead ... perhaps either a Tory or a very moderate Whig.
James Disraeli’s foolish employment of John Nash as agent only increased suspicions of Benjamin’s covert Toryism.33 A few days later Baring vacated his seat to stand for a vacancy for Hampshire. Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer, asked Smith to ‘facilitate’ or ‘at least throw no obstruction in ... [the] way’ of the return of Tom Macaulay, just appointed to the India Board, there being ‘some objections’ to his seeking re-election for Calne. Nothing came of this. The opening was considered for Colonel Charles Grey, the prime minister’s untried second son, but his father initially vetoed the idea ‘on the fear of expense’. His eldest son Lord Howick* gleaned more information from Smith, Baring and Rumsey and, satisfied that ‘Charles cannot fail if he starts and that at all events the expense must be perfectly trifling’, he accepted the offer on his brother’s behalf. Explaining this to Lord Grey, he wrote:
At first Sir T. Baring was very unfavourable ... Smith was very eager about it and would not hear of a doubt of success, but ... Baring told me to receive what he said with great caution as he has a great interest in getting some popular person returned now, with a view of preventing a contest next time. But in the end even Baring was satisfied that Charles must be returned. He went twice over the list of voters with Mr. Rumsey in my presence and cross-examined him very strictly ... There were 27 or 28 who were quite certainly to be depended on, which with 6 or 7 voters who are ill or absent and some more who are more likely to be favourable than otherwise would give Charles a clear majority ... Now when there will be on the same side the influence of the Carrington property and of Sir Thomas Baring’s old [corporation] connection together with the popularity at this moment of Charles’s name the result cannot be doubtful ... Baring tells me that if Charles comes in now he may probably establish an interest which will secure his return again; under the reform bill there will be about 200 voters, mostly very respectable people and of Whig politics and they are as yet pledged to no one ... The only person who has been endeavouring to obtain their support is ... Disraeli ... who is I am told a mere adventurer.34
Disraeli untruthfully claimed to have ‘frightened ... off’ one of Baring’s sons, Pascoe Grenfell*, former Member for Great Marlow, and the ‘Saint’ Thomas Fowell Buxton*; but the last two, as Bulwer, seeking to prevent opposition to his friend, ascertained from Ellice, the patronage secretary, who told him that Disraeli had ‘not a chance at present ... and not much after the bill’, were ‘never once dreamt of’. Disraeli easily eclipsed the stammering Grey with his flashy oratory, which included one bravura performance from the top of the portico of the Red Lion, 9 June. Grey, who was chaperoned by William Vizard, the government’s London agent, sought to exploit his father’s name and now triumphant support of ‘the great cause of reform’ for 40 years. Disraeli stressed his local residence and ‘independence’. George Henry Dashwood made a belated intervention as ‘a reformer’ but gave way to Grey. Some of the unfranchised inhabitants, who would become eligible to vote under the Reform Act, took up Disraeli as the anti-corporation man, despite the ambiguity of his politics, which caused Bulwer ‘great uneasiness’, as his slogan of ‘Grey and reform, Disraeli and the people’ seemed to imply hostility to the Reform Act. (He was satisfied with Disraeli’s explanation of this.) Although the candidates were initially nominated behind closed doors, as usual, the populace had the novelty of open hustings, where Disraeli said that he ‘wore the badge of no party’, forecast that the Act would lead to ‘financial, ecclesiastical and legal changes’, called for ‘amelioration of the condition of the poor’, appealed to ‘the new electors’ and damned Grey as a treasury nominee. Grey, who was supported by Nugent, a lord of the treasury, denied this and spoke for economy, retrenchment and Irish tithe reform. He got 23 votes to Disraeli’s 12; the residents apparently favoured him by 11 to seven. After his defeat Disraeli made a long speech of vituperation against the corporation, Baring, Dashwood King, the press and Nugent, who took exception to his remarks and challenged him to a duel, which was averted by their friends.35 On 11 Oct. 1832 the corporation laid to rest the burgess question, which the Reform Act had made irrelevant, by formally repealing the dubious by-law.36 Disraeli continued to cultivate Wycombe and at the general election in December 1832, when there was a registered electorate of 298, he stood as a ‘no party’ man in favour of the ballot, triennial parliaments, repeal of the newspaper stamp duty, social reform, a commutation of tithes and revision of the corn laws. He finished 60 behind Smith and 21 below Grey. He failed again, by 19 votes, in 1835. Wycombe remained a Liberal stronghold, and George Henry Dashwood secured a seat in 1837.
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 601.
- 2. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 159-60; (1830), 95-96.
- 3. R.W. Davis, Political Change and Continuity, 149.
- 4. PP (1835), xxiii. 41-43; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 23-24; Oldfield, Key (1820), 155; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 449; Key to Both Houses (1832), 428; Grey mss, Howick to Grey [8 June 1832].
- 5. L.J. Ashford, Hist. Wycombe, 248-51; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 601.
- 6. Northampton Mercury, 11 Mar. 1820; Bodl. MS. DD. Dashwood F.1/16; F.4/4/12, 13.
- 7. The Times, 21 Nov. 1820.
- 8. CJ, lxxvii. 293; lxxix. 264; lxxxi. 60; Bucks. Chron. 10 Apr. 1824, 4 Feb., 1 Apr. 1826.
- 9. Bucks. Chron. 2 Oct. 1824; LJ, lvii. 830.
- 10. Davis, 92; Bucks. Chron. 17 June 1826.
- 11. Bucks. Chron. 3 Nov. 1827.
- 12. CJ, lxxxii. 485, 521; lxxxiii. 90; LJ, lx. 177.
- 13. CJ, lxxxiii. 443; Bucks. Chron. 31 May 1828.
- 14. CJ, lxxxiv. 84, 89, 177; LJ, lxi. 85, 283.
- 15. CJ, lxxxv. 220; LJ, lxii. 145.
- 16. Bucks Gazette, 20 Feb., 11 Dec. 1830; Ashford, 252; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 601.
- 17. Ashford, 195-6.
- 18. Ibid. 252; Bucks Gazette, 2 Oct. 1830, 29 Oct. 1831; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 601.
- 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 86.
- 20. Bucks Gazette, 4, 11 Dec. 1830; E. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 113-15, 189, 222; Ashford, 253-6.
- 21. Hobsbawm and Rude, 185.
- 22. Bucks Gazette, 19, 26 Feb. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 309; LJ, lxiii. 358; Ashford, 257.
- 23. Bucks Gazette, 19 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 456; LJ, lxiii. 346; Northumb. RO, Hope Wallace mss ZHW/2/18.
- 24. Ashford, 257.
- 25. Bucks Gazette, 23, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831; Ashford, 258; Davis, 42.
- 26. PP (1831), xvi. 84; (1831-2), xxxviii. 47-49; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 432.
- 27. Ashford, 259-60.
- 28. Bucks Gazette, 17 Sept., 1 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1046.
- 29. Bucks Gazette, 15, 29 Oct. 1831; Ashford, 259.
- 30. Disraeli Letters, i. 132-4, 141, 142, 144, 178; J. Ridley, Young Disraeli, 101, 104; Bodl. Dep. Hughenden 28/1, f. 5.
- 31. Disraeli Letters, i. 188, 190; Bodl. Dep. Hughenden 28/1, f. 7; Ridley, 111-15; Lord Blake, Disraeli, 84, 86.
- 32. Bucks Gazette, 26 May 1832.
- 33. Disraeli Letters, i. 198-200; Bodl. Dep. Hughenden 28/1, ff. 3, 9, 11, 13, 15, 19, 21; 104/1, f. 31; Bucks Gazette, 9 June 1832; Ridley, 116-17.
- 34. Bodl. MS. DD. Dashwood F.4/9/26; Add 76382, Althorp to Smith [June]; Grey mss, Howick to Grey [8 June 1832].
- 35. Disraeli Letters, i. 201-3; Bodl. Dep. Hughenden 28/1, ff. 29, 31; 104/1, f. 32; Bucks Gazette, 16, 23, 30 June, 7 July; Bucks Herald, 16, 23, 30 June 1832; Ridley, 118-19; Blake, 89; Ashford, 260-1.
- 36. Ashford, 264; The Times, 8 Oct. 1832.