Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in burgage holders
Estimated number qualified to vote:
1,329 (1821); 1,412 (1831)
|8 Mar. 1820||EDWARD HENRY A’COURT|
|CHARLES ASHE A’COURT|
|3 Aug. 1820||HENRY HANDLEY vice Charles Ashe A’Court, vacated his seat|
|9 June 1826||EDWARD HENRY A’COURT|
|HENRY STAFFORD NORTHCOTE|
|2 Aug. 1830||EDWARD HENRY A’COURT|
|SIR GEORGE THOMAS STAUNTON, bt.|
|2 May 1831||EDWARD HENRY A’COURT|
|SIR GEORGE THOMAS STAUNTON, bt.|
The pocket borough of Heytesbury, in the parish and hundred of the same name, was, as William Cobbett† wrote in 1826, ‘formerly a considerable town’, but had become ‘a very miserable affair’, especially in comparison with its prosperous and unfranchised neighbour, Warminster.1 The only remaining cloth manufacturers of note were John Everett, a member of the Salisbury and Warminster banking family, and his partner John Cogan Francis of Greenland Mill, whose concern went bankrupt in 1831.2 Except for their holdings, the entire borough, including the 26 burgage tenements which conferred the right of voting,3 belonged to the lord of the manor, Sir William A’Court of Heytesbury House. He, who was ministerialist Member for Dorchester, 1812-14, was appointed envoy to Naples in 1814 and succeeded to his father’s baronetcy in 1817. He thereafter exercised the undisputed control over both seats, which his family, after a century of electoral influence over one of them, had gained by the purchase of the 4th duke of Marlborough’s interest in 1812.4 He appointed the bailiff and returning officer, who during this period was usually William Mawen Everett of Heytesbury. A ‘state of the borough’, dated March 1827, which listed each of the electors, including seven for whom the patron paid the poor rates, suggests that its management was not onerous.5 The last contest had been in 1754.
In 1818 A’Court continued his father’s practice of returning paying guests, and the following year, when he failed to persuade the foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh* to allow him to retire, he hinted that ‘I have interests at home which, in these days of reform, require much personal attention’.6 At the general election of 1820, when the sitting Members found seats for the Cinque Ports, he had his two brothers returned unopposed. The elder, Edward Henry A’Court, a naval officer, who voted with the Liverpool ministry and against Catholic relief, was returned at the next three general elections. The younger, Charles Ashe A’Court, an army officer, sat only for the 1820 session, but he seems to have been responsible for managing the borough in the baronet’s absence, as he was one of the burgage holders and later wrote most of the replies to the home office circulars on reform.7 At a by-election in August 1820 he was replaced by Henry Handley, the only son of a Lincolnshire banker, who proved to be as inactive in the House as his colleague. Petitions from local manufacturers for repeal of the duties on foreign wool were presented to the Lords, 2 Apr., and the Commons by John Astley, the county Member, 3 Apr. 1821. A petition from the inhabitants for alleviating the severity of Henry Hunt’s* sentence was brought up by Sir Francis Burdett, 2 Apr. 1822, and one against colonial slavery was presented by John Benett, the other county Member, 9 Mar. 1824.8
Sir William A’Court, who had been appointed ambassador to Spain in 1824, was again absent during the general election of 1826, when Edward A’Court was returned with another silent ministerialist, Henry Stafford Northcote, the son of a Devon country gentleman. According to the lists of electors, almost all the burgages were occupied, and presumably most were present to register their votes.9 In late 1827 A’Court, who was described by Lord Dudley, Canning’s foreign secretary, to George IV as ‘zealous in his attachment to your Majesty’s person and government’, was named as ambassador to St. Petersburg.10 This was to the satisfaction of the Russian ambassador’s wife Princess Lieven, except, as she noted, for ‘his unlucky star, which up to the present has brought about a revolution wherever he has been sent - Naples, Madrid and Lisbon’. Having been created Baron Heytesbury in January 1828, he briefly visited his home that year, but was abroad for the rest of this period, despite again expressing a wish to retire.11 Heytesbury petitions for repeal of the Test Acts were brought up in the Commons, 18 Feb., and the Lords, 22 Feb. 1828.12
Northcote retired at the dissolution in 1830, and was replaced at the general election by the sinologist Sir George Thomas Staunton of Leigh Park, Hampshire, who was possibly introduced to the A’Courts by his friend Aylmer Bourke Lambert of nearby Boyton House.13 Despite the undoubted pecuniary transaction, the only known expense was the £82 14s. incurred for the election dinner.14 Staunton boasted that his return was on ‘terms of perfect independence’, and he does not seem to have adhered to his colleague’s political line any more strictly than had his predecessors.15 Charles A’Court faced down ‘a pretty considerable mob assembled in Heytesbury’, 20 Nov. 1830, but ‘Swing’ riots subsequently occurred in the vicinity.16 According to his ‘diary of events’, in early January 1831 the radical 3rd earl of Radnor, a distant relation by marriage, attempted to enlist Charles A’Court’s support for a county meeting on parliamentary reform, but he declined, replying that ‘it placed him in a very awkward predicament, not liking on account of the borough of Heytesbury to appear in such a business’.17 Whatever his brother’s views, Edward A’Court consistently opposed reform in the House, and once the scale of the Grey ministry’s reform proposals had become apparent Staunton, despite his desire for moderate changes, joined him in opposing most of the measures. A petition from the gentry, yeomanry, tradesmen and inhabitants for the reform bill, under which the borough, with a population of less than 2,000, was to be abolished, was presented by the earl of Carlisle’s eldest son Lord Morpeth, 11 Mar. 1831.18
The sitting Members were returned unopposed at the general election that spring. The disfranchisement of Heytesbury was agreed without a division, 22 July 1831, when Edward A’Court merely stated that he opposed the motion. As the town had 279 houses, of which only 57 (including the 26 burgage houses) were rated at more than £10 a year, and paid assessed taxes of £258, Heytesbury was again scheduled to lose both its seats under the revised bill, though Charles A’Court attempted to show that it was large enough to merit greater consideration.19 Placed 42nd on the final list of condemned boroughs, it was duly disfranchised by the Reform Act, the passage of which was celebrated at a local tradesmen’s dinner, 26 June 1832.20 Staunton, who had latterly shown a renewed preference for reform, was elected as a Liberal for Hampshire South at the general election of 1832, when Handley came in for Lincolnshire South as a Liberal, while Edward A’Court became Conservative Member for Tamworth in 1837. Lord Heytesbury, who was recalled from Russia in 1832 and later served as lord lieutenant of Ireland, died in 1860, leaving the family estate at Heytesbury to his eldest son William Henry Ashe A’Court Holmes (1809-91), Conservative Member for the Isle of Wight, 1837-47, who succeeded him as the 2nd Baron Heytesbury.21
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 381, 388, 389, 391, 396; Devizes Gazette, 26 July 1821; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 24 Oct. 1825; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 814.
- 2. VCH Wilts. iv. 171; Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 87, 88.
- 3. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 532. The number of electors was given as 50 by some contemporary writers, such as Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), v. 147.
- 4. VCH Wilts. v. 209; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 421; E.D. Ginever, Ancient Wilts. Village of Heytesbury, 25, 26, 29, 30.
- 5. Wilts. RO, Heytesbury mss 635/117, 124.
- 6. Castlereagh Corresp. xii. 156.
- 7. PP (1831), xvi. 258; (1831-2), xxxvi. 52, 53, 532; xxxvii. 329.
- 8. LJ, liv. 156; CJ, lxxvi. 229; lxxvii. 167; lxxix. 136; The Times, 4 Apr. 1821, 3 Apr. 1822, 10 Mar. 1824.
- 9. Heytesbury mss 635/120, 124.
- 10. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 322.
- 11. Lieven Letters, 111, 275; Devizes Gazette, 10, 17 Apr. 1828.
- 12. CJ, lxxxiii. 79; LJ, lx. 67.
- 13. D. Gladwyn, Leigh Park, 57.
- 14. Heytesbury mss 635/128.
- 15. Sir G.T. Staunton, Mems. 116.
- 16. Lansdowne mss, A’Court to Lansdowne, 21 Nov. 1830.
- 17. Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1376.
- 18. CJ, lxxxvi. 367.
- 19. PP (1830-1), x. 16, 27; (1831-2), xxxvi. 52-53; xxxvii. 327-9; Heytesbury mss 635/139.
- 20. Salisbury Jnl. 2 July 1832.
- 21. The Times, 1 June 1860.