Lewes

Borough

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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Estimated number qualified to vote:

784 in 18311

Number of voters:

619 in 1830

Population:

4,588 (1821); 5,938 (1831)2

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
6 Mar. 1820SIR GEORGE SHIFFNER, bt. 
 SIR JOHN SHELLEY, bt. 
10 June 1826THOMAS READ KEMP569
 SIR JOHN SHELLEY, bt.306
 Alexander Donovan279
30 July 1830THOMAS READ KEMP474
 SIR JOHN SHELLEY, bt.364
 Alexander Donovan273
29 Apr. 1831THOMAS READ KEMP 
 SIR CHARLES RICHARD BLUNT, bt. 

Main Article

Lewes, a market town situated on the banks of the River Ouse, on the edge of the South Downs in the east of the county, several miles north-east of Brighton, ‘increased considerably in size and importance’ during the early-nineteenth century and laid claim to be the county town. It was described in 1823 as being ‘well built’, with ‘handsome streets and two fair suburbs’. Trade in agricultural products continued to be the mainstay of the local economy and there was little manufacturing, apart from several breweries and one paper mill.3 The town extended beyond the borough boundary, which encompassed the whole of the parishes of All Saints and St. Michael and parts of St. John-sub-Castro, St. Peter and St. Anne. Two constables, appointed at the court leet held alternately by the joint-lords of the manor, the dukes of Dorset and Norfolk and the earl of Albemarle, were the returning officers for parliamentary elections. The franchise was in the resident ratepayers, who had been independent of aristocratic control since 1806. Contested elections, exhibiting marked levels of partisan voting, were a frequent occurrence and political clubs flourished, notably the Tory ‘True Blues’ (sometimes known as the ‘Porter Club’) and the Whig ‘Bundle of Sticks’. Approximately ten per cent of the electors can be identified as Dissenters, who had a strong propensity towards Whig voting. Three local landowning families supplied the borough’s representatives: Sir George Shiffner of Coombe Place, a Tory, had sat since January 1812, and, after the retirement in 1816 of the Whig Thomas Read Kemp of Lewes Castle, the other seat had been filled by a less reliable Whig, Sir John Shelley of Maresfield Park.4 In 1820 Shiffner and Shelley declared that their joint canvass had been ‘so completely successful as to preclude all doubt with regard to our being again returned’. Undeterred, the ‘Bundle of Sticks’ brought forward Michael Bruce*, the radical Whig adventurer, but a three-day canvass convinced them not to proceed to a poll. Bruce, who was put to only a trifling expense, nevertheless boasted that ‘if I could have afforded to [spend] two thousand pounds I have no doubt ... I should have driven Shelley out of the field’. Shiffner, who was nominated by the miller Samuel Durrant and Thomas Whitfield, and Shelley, who was sponsored by the attorney John Hoper and William Hick, were declared elected. One newspaper assessed the election as ‘the most economic ... sober and ... quiet ... ever witnessed in this borough’, but the Members showed no complacency and spent two days ‘thanking electors’.5

The owners and occupiers of land around Lewes sent petitions to Parliament for relief from agricultural distress, in 1820, 1821 and 1822, and against revision of the corn laws, 28 Apr. 1825.6 In July 1820 Shelley and Shiffner declined a request to accompany a delegation presenting an address of support to Queen Caroline, as they did not wish to prejudice the legal proceedings against her. An address to the king calling for the queen’s name to be restored to the liturgy was forwarded in January 1821.7 The inhabitants petitioned Parliament for revision of the criminal law, 4, 5 June 1822.8 Anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Commons, 23 Mar. 1824, 17 Feb. 1826, the latter following a public meeting.9 Anglican clergymen and other Protestant groups sent anti-Catholic petitions to both Houses in April 1825.10 In December 1824 Kemp signalled his intention of contesting his old seat. This had the effect of galvanizing the local Whigs, and a ‘numerously attended’ gathering of the ‘Bundle of Sticks’ the following month drank his health and declared themselves ‘very sanguine of success’. Wearied of the ‘great and constant expense and trouble’, and annoyed about the uncertainty that prevailed over the date of the dissolution, Shiffner announced in September 1825 that he would not stand again. Commenting on this development, John Smith* claimed to have ‘good reason for knowing that [Shiffner’s] interest is superior to Shelley’s’, and he believed that Kemp was now ‘quite certain of success’. Shortly afterwards, the electors were addressed by Alexander Donovan, a lawyer of Irish descent, who had lately settled at nearby Fromfield. Although he presented his candidature as being ‘complementary’ to Kemp’s, and was apparently welcomed by the ‘Bundle of Sticks’, not all of the Whigs supported him.11 Informal canvassing was carried on throughout the winter, and ‘Pink and Strong’ clubs were formed to campaign for Donovan; by March 1826 ‘politics’ were reportedly ‘running very high’ in the town. Electioneering began in earnest shortly before the dissolution in May. Donovan, who avowed himself ‘a reformer to the greatest extent’ and a supporter of free trade, attacked Shelley’s contrary positions on these issues and drew unfavourable comparisons between his attendance records at Westminster and at Newmarket races. Kemp, whose position was thought to be secure, claimed credit for having ‘emancipated the borough to its current state of freedom’. He distanced himself from Donovan, but dismissed rumours of a coalition with Shelley, assuring the ‘Bundle of Sticks’ that he would ‘stand on my own bottom and have nothing whatever to do with any other candidate’. The question of Catholic emancipation was not raised during the election, as all the candidates opposed it; the borough’s fiercely Protestant reputation seems to have made such a stance essential. While Shelley was again nominated by Hoper and Hick, Kemp was introduced by Sir Henry Blackman, a merchant, and Thomas Johnston, and Donovan by Benjamin Ridge and Thomas Horsfield. At the end of the first day, Kemp was already well ahead with 82 votes to Donovan’s 47 and Shelley’s 37. The positions remained unchanged on the second day, but on the third Shelley overtook Donovan by a majority of ten votes. On the fourth day Donovan retired from the contest, as the few unpolled votes he had left were insufficient to overhaul Shelley’s lead; his ‘feelings nearly overcame him’, but he pledged to stand again. Shelley openly acknowledged that Donovan had given him ‘an infinite deal of trouble’, and his former colleague Shiffner privately concluded that ‘Shelley’s canvass was too slack, the promises not well secured and the election very near lost’.12

It appears that 617 votes were tendered, but 25 of these were rejected; it was also ‘understood that not more than 23 or 24 electors remained unpolled’. Of the 592 who were allowed to poll, 96 per cent cast a vote for Kemp, 52 for Shelley and 47 for Donovan. Very few plumpers were given: Shelley had 17, Kemp seven and Donovan six. Kemp and Shelley received 289 split votes (51 and 94 per cent of their respective totals), and Kemp and Donovan shared 273 (48 and 98); no one split their vote between Shelley and Donovan. At Kemp’s celebration dinner at the Crown, there was bitter recrimination among the ‘Bundle of Sticks’ over Donovan’s defeat, with allegations that Shelley had been ready to retire on the second day, only to be rescued by a compromise arranged by members of Kemp’s committee. Comparison with the 1818 pollbook provides no clear evidence of Whig switching to support this charge, but it is by no means impossible that it occurred. Such was the intensity of feeling that when Shelley and his friends paid a courtesy visit, violent scenes erupted and he only escaped ‘minus ... a hat and plus ... sundry kicks’.13

Anti-Catholic petitions were presented to Parliament by several Protestant Dissenting groups in 1827 and 1828, and they and the archdeacon and clergy petitioned again in 1829, when Kemp and Shelley opposed the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill.14 The Protestant Dissenters forwarded a petition to the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 21 Feb. 1828.15 A petition from owners and occupiers of neighbouring land against any reduction of agricultural protection was sent to the Commons, 22 Apr. 1828.16 The inhabitants petitioned the Lords for the abolition of slavery, 22 Feb., and both Houses for mitigation of the severity of the criminal law, 28 Mar., 2 Apr. 1830.17 Memories of Kempite ‘treachery’ cast a shadow over the general election that summer, when Donovan fulfilled his pledge to offer again. This time he made no friendly overtures towards Kemp, and he claimed to have secured the exclusive support of the ‘Bundle of Sticks’. The Blue Club had meantime been dissolved by its leaders, Hoper and one Harrison, as they were fearful (according to a radical newspaper) of power falling into the hands of opulent tradesmen, ‘to the annihilation of all magisterial and aristocratic influence’. It was reported that Lady Shelley, who ‘looks to the baronet’s borough interest’, was busy appeasing former club members. Kemp remained aloof throughout the campaign, issuing lofty proclamations of ‘independence’, and despite press speculation that his support of the beer bill might be damaging, his position was generally considered to be safe. Donovan and Shelley (who reputedly spent £2,000 a year in Lewes) had both begun canvassing before the death of the king, paying particular attention to new electors. Shelley, whose fondness for horse racing and alleged neglect of his parliamentary duties was again the main theme of Donovan’s speeches, defended his record at a meeting at the Star, where he maintained that he belonged to no party but did ‘look up to the duke of Wellington’; Shiffner was present to lend support. The Shelleyites characterized Donovan as a rabble rouser, who had ‘attempted to disunite man from master and wife from husband’, a reference to a speech in which he had deplored the ‘stern salic law’ which deprived women of the franchise, but urged them to use their influence with men. Rumours of a coalition between Kemp and Shelley persisted, and it was claimed that 60 of the latter’s supporters had pledged to give him plumpers, ‘in the event ... of Mr. Kemp’s displaying any trickery’ Kemp and Shelley successfully applied for two polling booths to be used, but their request for the appointment of an assessor to rule on doubtful votes was turned down by the constables, who recorded their ‘disapprobation of the language of intimidation contained in ... Shelley’s letter reflecting on the integrity of our motives’. The constables also determined not to reject voters rated to the poor under the wrong names, as had been done in 1826. Shelley was nominated as usual by Hoper and Hick, Kemp by Blackman and George Adams, and Donovan by Frederick Lee and Henry Brown; both sitting Members struggled to gain a hearing. The show of hands was ‘greatly in favour’ of Kemp and Donovan, but Shelley’s friends demanded a poll. At the end of the first day Kemp was ahead with 199 votes, but Donovan again made an impressive start, leading Shelley by 169 to 153. However, a heavy poll on the second day rapidly turned the election round, and Donovan resigned the contest.18

Of the 619 who polled (48 ‘legal votes’ were unpolled), 77 per cent cast a vote for Kemp, 60 for Shelley and 44 for Donovan. Kemp secured only 11 plumpers, but Shelley had 42 (11 per cent of his total) and Donovan 74 (27). Kemp and Shelley shared 293 split votes (61 and 80 per cent of their respective totals), Kemp and Donovan received 170 (36 and 62), and Shelley and Donovan 29 (eight and 11). New voters, who formed more than a third of the electorate, accounted for a disproportionately large number of the plumpers for Shelley and Donovan. There had also been a significant degree of switching: of 380 who voted in 1826 and 1830, a quarter altered their votes, from which Shelley derived a net gain of 23 and Donovan a net loss of ten; Kemp experienced a net loss of 51, which perhaps reflects the measure of distrust felt towards him on both sides. It would appear that Shelley had learned from the previous election and applied a more rigorous canvass, whereas a lengthier acquaintance with Donovan had failed to endear him to Lewes voters. The antiquarian Gideon Mantell (a non-voter in 1826) may have voiced the opinion of many when he wrote at the close of the poll:

Donovan had no chance from the outset: he is a complete Irishman - thorough blunderer - all blarney and botheration. I would have supported a man on the popular side if he had been at all worthy of it; as it was I most reluctantly voted for the old Members.

Donovan himself alleged that ‘a coalition of leading electors’, unsanctioned by either of his opponents, had conspired to ensure his defeat, and the historian of the Sussex boroughs states that in 1830, as in 1826, many of the Whig ‘old independents’ declined to vote for him.19

On the visit of William IV and Queen Adelaide to Lewes, 22 Oct. 1830, Shelley expressed satisfaction with the ‘perfect unanimity’ that prevailed in the town.20 However, the following month attacks on threshing machines took place in the surrounding villages and the agricultural labourers demanded increased wages; in Lewes itself the journeymen tailors were reported to be ‘a class of artisans who ... are very active in promoting discontent and tumult’.21 Several anti-slavery petitions were forwarded to Parliament from Protestant Dissenting chapels and the inhabitants between November 1830 and April 1831.22 At a meeting on reform at the county hall, 26 Jan., a petition in favour of an extended franchise, the ballot and shorter parliaments was signed by 263 householders and sent to both Houses, 3, 4 Feb. 1831. The inhabitants met again, 11 Mar., to organize a petition in favour of the Grey ministry’s bill, which proposed to enfranchise the £10 householders while leaving the borough’s representation intact. Whereas Kemp spoke in its favour, Shelley wished to see a less sweeping measure; Kemp presented the resulting petition, 15 Mar.23 Kemp duly voted for the bill while Shelley opposed it, in the expectation that this would cost him his seat. His opponents in Lewes lost no time in inviting Sir Charles Blunt of Heathfield Park to oppose him. Blunt’s address, 30 Mar., professed ‘admiration’ for Kemp and support for reform, economy and retrenchment, and the abolition of slavery. Shelley, however, soon regained his stomach for a fight and even claimed to have ‘400 sure plumpers’. He posed as the champion of ‘the little electors’, who faced disfranchisement, and turned the charge of ‘coalition’ on the reformers, threatening to introduce a running mate to oppose them. Kemp and Shelley won endorsement from Donovan’s old supporters in the ‘Bundle of Sticks’, an organization now overshadowed by the newly constituted, pro-reform Lewes Union Society. Donovan, however, remained in the field despite appeals for him to retire, and he informed the duke of Richmond, a cabinet minister, 24 Apr., that

I have learned that Mr. Irish, Sir John Shelley’s agent, talks with the greatest confidence of the election ... not only of Sir John, but of his anti-reform friend ... I am satisfied that if I claim the ... plumpers which voted for me last year, I shall inevitably so divide the force of the reformers as to let in Sir John, and if I get the same splits with Mr. Kemp which I got last year, divided nearly equally between Mr. Kemp and Sir Chas Blunt, the probability is we shall all be beat.

He offered to withdraw, if the government asked him to do so, ‘without making any terms’, and to try his luck instead at Rye (he was subsequently rewarded with an appointment as gentleman of the privy chamber). Traditional political loyalties wilted in the heat of the reform agitation, many of Shelley’s old supporters became converts to the cause and he retired from the contest, 25 Apr., sending a message to his putative colleague in London that ‘it would not do’. Kemp, who was introduced by Blackburn and Nehemiah Wimble, and Blunt, whose sponsors were Johnston and Thomas Wood, a brewer, therefore enjoyed an unopposed return. A radical newspaper maintained that Lewes ‘now ranks as one of the most independent boroughs in the United Kingdom’.24

A meeting of the ‘Bundle of Sticks’, 22 Sept. 1831, agreed to petition the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill, but it was not presented until 8 May 1832.25 On 14 May a public meeting expressed thanks to the Members for their ‘unremitting attention to the welfare of their constituents’, and 84 people signed a petition to the Commons for the withholding of supplies until the Grey ministry was reinstated; it was presented, 18 May 1832.26 The boundary commissioners recommended that the borough be extended to incorporate more of the parishes of St. Anne and St. John-sub-Castro, and parts of the suburban parishes of Cliffe, Southover and South Malling; room was also allowed for future expansion. There were 877 registered electors in 1833, of whom 690 were scot and lot voters and 187 were £10 householders.27 Kemp and Blunt were returned unopposed at the general election of 1832 and sat until their respective retirement in 1837 and death in 1840; after 1837 the representation was usually shared until 1859, when the Liberals reasserted their dominance.

Authors: Howard Spencer / Terry Jenkins

Notes

  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 541.
  • 2. Ibid. xl. 101.
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 515-18; (1832-4), 1037, 1038; PP (1831-2), xl. 99; VCH Suss. vii. 7-43.
  • 4. PP (1831-2), xl. 98-101; Key to Parl. (1832), 348; J.A. Phillips, Great Reform Bill in Boroughs, 177-96, 253, 262-7, 286, 287; M. Zimmeck, ‘Chartered Rights and Vested Interests’ (Suss. Univ. M.A. thesis, 1972), 62.
  • 5. I. Bruce, Lavalette Bruce, 317; Suss. Advertiser, 21 Feb., 6 Mar. 1820; Town Bk. of Lewes, 1702-1837 ed. V. Smith (Suss. Rec. Soc. lxix. 1972-3), 227; E. Suss. RO SHR 827.
  • 6. CJ, lxxv. 242; lxxvi. 143; lxxvii. 23; lxxx. 350; LJ, liv. 187; lv. 270.
  • 7. Town Bk. of Lewes, 230, 234.
  • 8. CJ, lxxvii. 316; LJ, lv. 221.