Liskeard

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 freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

51 in 18311

Population:

2,423 (1821); 2,853 (1831)2

Elections

DateCandidate
7 Mar. 1820HON. WILLIAM ELIOT
 SIR WILLIAM HENRY PRINGLE
16 Jan. 1824EDWARD GRANVILLE ELIOT, Lord Eliot vice Eliot, called to the Upper House
12 June 1826EDWARD GRANVILLE ELIOT, Lord Eliot
 SIR WILLIAM HENRY PRINGLE
9 May 1827Eliot re-elected after appointment to office
2 Aug. 1830EDWARD GRANVILLE ELIOT, Lord Eliot
 SIR WILLIAM HENRY PRINGLE
29 Apr. 1831EDWARD GRANVILLE ELIOT, Lord Eliot
 SIR WILLIAM HENRY PRINGLE

Main Article

Liskeard, a stannary and market town irregularly situated on ‘two rocky hills’ and in the valley dividing them in the south-east of the county, ranked ‘among the first towns’ in Cornwall. Its ‘principal business’ was connected with the tin, lead and copper mines in the neighbourhood, but serges and blankets were still manufactured ‘to a small extent’, there were ‘several tanneries and rope walks’ and the wool trade was ‘an improving branch’. It was also the ‘market for an extensive agricultural district’, and provisions were purchased there for ‘retail in the markets of Plymouth Dock’; a new market house was opened in 1822. In 1825 an Act of Parliament was obtained to construct a canal connecting the town with the port of Looe, which was completed in 1828 at a cost of £14,000. Liskeard was said in 1831 to be ‘gradually, but slowly, improving’.3

The borough comprised the whole of the town, a ‘portion’ of the surrounding parish and a ‘very small portion’ of the adjoining parish of St. Cleer. Local power was exercised by the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, eight other aldermen and an indefinite number of freemen; all held their offices for life. Aldermanic vacancies were filled by the aldermen from among the resident freemen, but mayoral candidates were nominated separately by the aldermen and by freemen sworn on the court leet jury, which created the possibility of conflict between the two bodies. The franchise was vested in the freemen, who were created by the aldermen, to whom several were related; between a third and a half of the freemen were non-resident. The selection of freemen was ‘made from one party’ with a view to preserving the political interest of the Tory patron, John Eliot†, 1st earl of St. Germans of Port Eliot, the recorder, whose ancestors had filled that office since the early eighteenth century. An ‘engagement to maintain the exclusive system’ had long existed, by which it was agreed that no freeman could be admitted without the consent of a majority of the aldermen, on pain of a £100 forfeiture by the mayor. St. Germans covered the annual deficit in the corporation’s accounts, which was ‘occasionally considerable’, and obtained patronage for corporators and their relatives. In 1831 the aldermen included a distributor of stamps, a surveyor of taxes and a superannuated comptroller of customs in Jamaica. St. Germans nominated both Members and returned his relatives: his brother William had sat since 1806 and his nephew, General Sir William Pringle, since 1818. While party may have been a ‘redundant explanatory category’ among the electors, there was a robust ‘spirit of political independence’ in the town, which was partly related to its tradition of religious Dissent. Opposition to the corporation focused on the claim that under the borough’s original charter of Elizabeth, known locally as the ‘grey mare’, all inhabitant householders had been entitled to vote. The Commons was petitioned to this effect, unsuccessfully, in 1802 and 1806.4

It was reported that shortly before the dissolution in February 1820 a ‘borough agent from a neighbouring county’ had approached certain townsmen to ascertain whether they would support ‘two independent candidates’ offering ‘under an engagement again to bring the claims of the inhabitants before a committee of the ... Commons’. Appropriate assurances were given, but the candidates never appeared and the unopposed return of Eliot and Pringle was ‘conducted in a very peaceable and orderly manner’.5 In November the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline was greeted with bell ringing, and some days later 150 people, ‘principally tradesmen and their families’, paraded the town before enjoying tea and dancing at the Talbot. Similar celebrations were held at the Bell, where ‘the long room was tastefully chalked and decorated with evergreens’, and the Red Lion, where ‘about 200 persons’ attended. An illumination of the town passed off without disturbance, and arrangements were made to ‘entertain the infirm poor’ at the Union. The mayor, William Jope, summoned a public meeting by requisition, 19 Dec. 1820, to consider a loyal address to the king, but there are conflicting accounts of the proceedings. According to a Tory newspaper, Edward Hoblyn and the attorney Peter Glubb moved the address, which was ‘adopted by a large majority, there being only four dissentient voices, save an idle and noisy rabble’. However, its Whig counterpart claimed that an amendment moved by the Methodist tanner John Langford, ‘condemning the general conduct of ministers ... and praying for their dismissal’, was ‘carried by a majority of ten to one’, after which the corporation ‘retired to sign their loyal address in private’.6 The inhabitants sent anti-slavery petitions to the Commons, 15 May 1823, 31 Mar. 1824, 24 Feb. 1826.7 On 21 Oct. 1823 ‘a great number of the inhabitants’ attended the annual corporation meeting to witness John Anstis apply for admission as a freeman, on the grounds that he was the eldest son of a freeman and an inhabitant householder. When his claim was dismissed, Anstis delivered a protest against the mayor being elected by non-residents, which was ‘received in silence’. A Whig report nevertheless maintained that the resident freemen would ‘rejoice at the success of any attempt to free them from the oppression of non-residents, who now actually form a majority of the corporation and render the patron independent of the residents’, with the result that their applications for patronage were ‘received in a manner different from what they once were’.8 In January 1824, following Eliot’s succession as 2nd earl of St. Germans, his son Lord Eliot was returned unopposed. Later that year, it was reported that the inhabitants were ‘determined to make another effort’ to assert their claims at the next general election, ‘should any publicly spirited gentleman come forward to contest the point with the patron and his retainers’. At the mayoral election in October 1825 there were also signs of dissension within the corporation, and James Binnicke was only chosen by a majority of five votes; whereas the aldermen were ‘nearly unanimous’ in his favour, the jurors representing the freemen only endorsed him by ‘a majority of two’. This was regarded as proof that the freemen were ‘by no means so subservient to authority’ as was usually supposed, and that there was growing resentment at ‘the admission of non-residents amongst them’.9 In the event, Eliot and Pringle were returned unopposed at the general election of 1826. They subsequently joined a procession of ‘1,000 people’, accompanied by a band, to view the progress of the canal, and afterwards dined with St. Germans and ‘about 200’ friends at the King’s Arms.10

The owners and occupiers of land in Liskeard and its vicinity forwarded a petition to the Commons for the maintenance of agricultural protection, 21 Feb. 1827.11 That May, Eliot sought re-election on taking office in Canning’s coalition ministry, and after his unopposed return he dined with ‘the freemen and respectable inhabitants’.12 The independents petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 25 Feb., and the inhabitants sent anti-slavery petitions to both Houses, 16 May 1828.13 In response to a requisition bearing 182 names, the mayor, Thomas Robins, convened a meeting of the freeholders and inhabitants of the southern part of the hundred of East and the eastern part of the hundred of West, 29 Jan. 1829, to consider an anti-Catholic petition. It was rumoured that the requisition had been partly designed to ‘try the strength of the patron’s interest in the borough’, as St. Germans and the Members supported emancipation. William Marshall of Treworgey and Jope moved the petition, while an amendment to adjourn was proposed by the attorney Matthew Anstis and a son of the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawny. The Rev. John Jope, Glubb and the attorney Benjamin Lyne, an inveterate critic of the corporation known as ‘the yellow dwarf’, spoke for the motion, and the attorney Edward Geach for the amendment. The petition was ‘carried by an overwhelming majority with loud acclamation’ and presented to Parliament, 17, 24 Feb.; pro-Catholic petitions were also forwarded, 5, 12 Mar. 1829.14 At a gathering of owners and occupiers of land in the hundreds of East and West, chaired by Richard Kingdon at the Fountain, 27 Feb. 1830, 174 signatures were attached to a requisition for a public meeting on agricultural distress, and the attendance of local noblemen, gentlemen and clergy was requested. The mayor, Richard Sargent, made the guildhall available, and William Jope, who presided on 13 Mar., maintained that ‘very great’ distress was ‘nearly universal’. Kingdon moved a petition which described the plight of the agriculturists and called for retrenchment and tax reductions; he was seconded by a Mr. Taylor. Glubb, who was dismissive of ‘milk and water petitions’, moved an amendment for a counter-petition which attributed the ‘state of unprecedented difficulty and distress’ to the ‘immense pressure of taxation’, demanded ‘every practicable retrenchment’ and a ‘considerable reduction’ of taxes on articles of popular consumption (with resort to a property tax if necessary to supply any deficiency in the revenue), and urged the Commons to ‘take into consideration the present corrupted state of the representation’. He argued that ‘ministers would not grant adequate relief until compelled to do so by a honest House of Commons constitutionally elected by the voice of the people’. He was seconded by John Lyne and supported by his ‘friend and partner’, Benjamin Lyne, who would have liked to go further. The show of hands for the amendment was ‘nearly universal’, only the sponsors raised their hands for the original motion, and the counter-petition was declared ‘carried unanimously, amidst loud and continued cheering’; it was presented to the Commons, 14 May 1830.15 At the dissolution that summer Eliot and Pringle canvassed and were again returned unopposed. Eliot’s speech praised the ‘amiable and popular disposition’ of William IV and dwelt on the ‘advantages the town ... has derived from the canal’. Afterwards, he and Pringle dined with ‘about 200 of their friends’ at the King’s Arms.16

A public meeting at the guildhall, 21 Oct., chaired by the Rev. John Lakes, curate of Liskeard, and attended by representatives of the various religious denominations, many ladies, Glubb, Benjamin Lyne, Sargent and others, agreed an anti-slavery petition, which was forwarded to Parliament, 26 Nov., 13 Dec. 1830; a similar petition was sent by the Wesleyan Methodists, 18 Mar., 13 Apr. 1831.17 Benjamin Lyne chaired a public meeting on reform, 16 Dec. 1830, when Glubb, who moved a petition, declared that he wanted ‘an extension, or rather a restoration of the elective franchise, not a revolution’. He was seconded by Langford, who ‘reflected on the distressed state of the country, brought on solely by the measures of the borough faction’, but said he was heartened that the people now had a king and a government who would listen to their wishes and ‘emancipate the loyal inhabitants of Liskeard from their degradation’. The petition, which was supported by Geach and ‘unanimously adopted’, reiterated the inhabitants’ complaint about the ‘usurpation’ of their ancient rights by the aldermen. It was observed that the electorate consisted of 46 persons, including 38 freemen, of whom ‘20 do not at this time, and the major part of them never did, reside within or near the borough’, while many of the 18 resident freemen ‘enjoy considerable pensions and lucrative employments under the crown’. The petition called for a speedy measure of reform, particularly of the ‘borough system’, to give ‘just satisfaction ... to the hopes of the people’ and save the country from ‘the dark cloud which ... so tremendously threatens its destruction’; it was presented to Parliament, 7, 26 Feb. 1831. Another petition from the inhabitant householders, in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, which proposed to open the borough by enfranchising the £10 householders but to reduce its representation to one seat, was received by the Commons, 19 Mar. 1831.18 Eliot and Pringle voted against the bill, and after its rejection ‘40 respectable inhabitant householders’ signed a requisition to the mayor, Robins, for a public meeting to organize an address to the king thanking him for agreeing to dissolve Parliament. Robins declined to act but allowed the use of the guildhall, where ‘between 400 and 500’ people attended, 25 Apr., the surgeon Francis Daniell presided, and the address was ‘unanimously carried’ and sent to lord chancellor Brougham for presentation. At the ensuing general election, Eliot and Pringle were returned as usual. However, the triumph of the reformers Wynne Pendarves and Lemon in the contest for the county provided an opportunity for celebrations in Liskeard, 25 May. A ‘large party of gentlemen and yeomen’ dined at the Bell, where ‘loyal and patriotic toasts were drunk’, ‘upwards of 800 females, of different stations in life ... took tea in the open air’, the labourers were ‘plentifully regaled with beer and cider’ and the festivities concluded with a ‘numerously and respectably attended’ ball at the Red Lion. One setback for the reformers was the defection of Glubb, who published an address in which he justified his decision to support the Tory candidates for the county, Sir Richard Vyvyan* and Lord Valletort*. Glubb denied that he had been bought and maintained that he was still a reformer, but, like Vyvyan and Valletort, he wanted a measure to ‘strengthen and extend the representation of the United Kingdom’ rather than one ‘calculated to pull down and demolish, nay revolutionise and recast, the form of government’.19 In the Commons, 29 July, Eliot accepted that it was futile to press for Liskeard’s removal from schedule B, although the latest census showed that the population of the parish exceeded 4,000. He observed that Liskeard was a ‘place of great respectability and of considerable opulence’, but ‘the lowness of rents’ made the £10 voting qualification there ‘a very different standard from ... in the metropolitan and manufacturing districts’. He looked forward to receiving the same support from the £10 householders in the future as he had from the freemen. Following the Lords’ rejection of the bill, Benjamin Lyne, Jacob Grigg and ‘Mr. Anstis’ addressed a meeting of the inhabitants at the market house, 28 Oct., when it was ‘resolved to form a political union in order to further the progress of a constitutional reform’ and ‘maintain the public peace and the security of property, should they under any circumstances be threatened’. Charles Buller junior of Polvellan, formerly Member for West Looe, announced his intention of offering in a reformed Parliament and was ‘received with the most flattering testimonies of ... confidence’. Reports that St. Germans meant to ‘fortify his interest’ by creating additional freemen from among the inhabitants prompted a ‘great number’ to attend the corporation meeting on 1 Nov. Seven individuals, including John Lyne, were admitted, but it was claimed that several others had refused invitations to be included and the announcement of the names of the new corporators was greeted with ‘a storm of groans and hisses from the body of the hall’.20 By the new criteria adopted in the revised reform bill of December 1831, Liskeard remained in schedule B as it contained 474 houses and paid £600 in assessed taxes, placing it 66th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. During the constitutional crisis in May 1832, ‘the bells were rung muffled’ and a meeting of the ‘patriotic society’ resolved to ‘adopt a line of conduct in unison with the larger unions in the kingdom’. A procession of the corporators was confronted with ‘effigies of a bishop and a peer’, which were later ‘hanged and burned’ on Castle Hill. Next month, once the reform bill had passed, a committee of the inhabitants invited Buller to stand at the impending general election. The town delayed its reform celebrations until 12 July so that Buller could witness a large procession fill the streets, which were decorated with ‘triumphal arches’; a dinner was provided for 1,500 people.21

The boundary commissioners recommended that the borough limits be substantially enlarged to incorporate the whole parish, which seemed the best solution given the ‘rural character’ of the neighbouring district. In 1832 there were 218 registered electors, of whom 195 were £10 householders, seven were freemen and 16 qualified under both headings. At the general election in December Eliot retired after an unsuccessful canvass and Buller was returned unopposed; he held the seat until his death in 1848. In 1833 St. Germans resigned as recorder and the following year Eliot informed the Conservative agent, Glubb, that he would not contest the borough again. The severing of the connection with Port Eliot meant that Liskeard became one of the most open boroughs in Cornwall, despite its small electorate, and it remained a Liberal stronghold until its disfranchisement in 1885.22

Author: Terry Jenkins

Notes

  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 542.
  • 2. Ibid. xxxviii. 75. Figures for the town only. The borough population was said to be 3,034 in 1831 (ibid. xxxvi. 60-61).
  • 3. S. Drew, Hist. Cornw. (1824), ii. 424-9; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 148-9; J. Allen, Hist. Liskeard, 33-34, 363-5, 372-4, 396-9; Parochial Hist. Cornw. iii. 154-7; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 73.
  • 4. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 60-61; (1835), xxiii. 523-30; W.T. Lawrance, Parl. Rep. Cornw. 176-7; West Briton, 31 Dec. 1830, 29 Apr. 1831; E. Jaggard, Cornw. Politics in Age of Reform, 62-63; F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 343-4; Allen, 303-4.
  • 5. West Briton, 10 Mar.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. West Briton, 24 Nov., 22 Dec.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 23 Dec. 1820.
  • 7. CJ, lxxviii. 312; lxxix. 234; lxxxi. 101.
  • 8. West Briton, 24 Oct. 1823.
  • 9. Ibid. 22 Oct. 1824, 28 Oct. 1825.
  • 10. Ibid. 16 June; R. Cornw. Gazette, 17 June 1826.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxii. 206.
  • 12. West Briton, 11 May 1827.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxiii. 100, 356; LJ, lx. 447.
  • 14. West Briton, 16 Jan.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 24, 31 Jan., 7 Feb. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 81, 128; LJ, lxi. 47, 123.
  • 15. West Briton, 5, 19 Mar. 1830; CJ, lxxxv. 422.
  • 16. West Briton, 23 July, 6 Aug.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 17. West Briton, 29 Oct. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 169, 405; LJ, lxiii. 130, 415.
  • 18. West Briton, 31 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 310, 406; LJ, lxiii. 207.
  • 19