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 inhabitant householders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

215 in 18311


1,395 (1821); 1,666 (1831)2


12 Apr. 1822JOHN DOUGLAS vice Henry Fownes Luttrell, vacated his seat

Main Article

A small seaport and market town situated on the Bristol Channel, and surrounded inland by valleys ‘rich in pasture and agriculture’, Minehead consisted of ‘several irregular streets, ill-built’. In the eighteenth century it had been the centre of ‘an extensive foreign trade’ with America, the West Indies and the Mediterranean, but this had dwindled to insignificance and there remained only a dozen or so vessels chiefly engaged in coastal trade. There was also a small herring fishery. Woollen manufacturing, formerly the other major source of prosperity, had virtually disappeared. Minehead’s mild climate, and the ‘highly picturesque and romantic’ scenery along the coast, were already beginning to attract summer visitors and invalids, and the development of the town later in the nineteenth century would make it one of the principal seaside resorts in the West of England.3

The borough included the tithing of Minehead, which almost but not quite corresponded to the parish of that name, and extended to cover the tithings of Alcombe and Staunton in the adjoining parish of Dunster.4 Two constables served as the returning officers for parliamentary elections, being appointed at the annual court-leet of the lord of the manor. This was John Fownes Luttrell, the owner of Dunster Castle and an estate of some 15,000 acres, whose family had consolidated their hold over the borough through property purchases in 1803, with the result that there was no contested election after 1807. It was alleged in an anonymous pamphlet of 1832 that the family had deliberately engineered the economic decline of Minehead, by refusing to renew leases, preventing outsiders from moving in and leaving vacant premises to rot, as well as through a number of suspicious fires, in order to strengthen their political control.5 However, this ignored the structural economic problems affecting the region as a whole. In 1820 Fownes Luttrell, a Tory, was again returned with his brother Henry, after whose retirement in 1822 a succession of paying guests shared the representation with the patron. John Douglas and James Blair were both clients of the 3rd marquess of Hertford. At the dissolution in 1830 William Edward Tomline was ‘offered’ the vacant seat at Minehead by Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary. The terms arranged with Fownes Luttrell were for Tomline ‘to pay £500 down - to pay £1,000 this time twelvemonth: but a proportion to be returned if Parliament is dissolved so as to make the payment exceed the rate of £1,000 a year, which it is understood I am to pay. No election expenses except journey down’. He dined and slept at Dunster Castle the night before the election, and was on his way back to London by four o’clock the following afternoon. Fownes Luttrell had spent two days ‘canvassing’ the borough before Tomline’s arrival, and he gave a celebratory dinner after the election. It was later recalled how ‘the electors erected a triumphal arch in honour of their representatives’, but, as they did not know the name of their patron’s colleague, ‘they actually painted the placard ... "Luttrell and - Esq. for ever".’6 Petitions from the inhabitants for repeal of the coal duties were presented to the Commons, 12 May 1823, 16 Feb. 1824.7 They petitioned Parliament against Catholic emancipation, 10, 11 Mar. 1829.8 An anti-slavery petition was forwarded to the Commons by the Baptists, 8 Nov. 1830.9

The Grey ministry’s reform bill of March 1831 placed Minehead, with less than 2,000 inhabitants, among the schedule A boroughs destined for disfranchisement. One local newspaper claimed that the inhabitants were ‘exceedingly pleased’ with this prospect, for ‘at present the patron refuses to lease or sell any ground for building, lest it should increase the number of voters’. At the ensuing general election Luttrell and his latest nominee, Lord Villiers, were reportedly ‘received ... very coolly’ by the inhabitants, who ‘laughed heartily’ at their claim to be ‘fighting for your rights’.10 A petition from the electors was nevertheless presented to the Commons by Croker, 21 July, requesting that the borough be enlarged by combining the whole of the parishes of Minehead and Dunster, so that it might be transferred to schedule B and retain one Member.11 Next day, Fownes Luttrell spoke on behalf of his constituents, who considered it ‘a most unconstitutional and cruel exercise of power’ to deprive them of their ‘birthright’. He maintained that the existing suffrage secured ‘the independence of the place’, and the addition of the rest of Dunster would create ‘a most respectable, numerous and intelligent constituency’. One argument on which he and other Tory spokesmen placed great emphasis was that the parishioners of Dunster beyond the constituency boundary enjoyed a privileged status in that, by the terms of a Commons’ resolution of February 1717, the right of voting lay in parishioners of Minehead and Dunster being householders in the borough. This meant that parishioners of Dunster outside the borough who moved into it did not have to obtain a legal settlement before they qualified to vote. However, Lord John Russell saw no reason to make an exception in Minehead’s case, and no division was forced on the issue. The electors petitioned the Lords against the bill as framed, 5 Oct. 1831.12

The new criteria applied in the revised reform bill of December 1831 confirmed Minehead’s fate, as it contained 326 houses and paid £309 in assessed taxes, placing it 50th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. Minehead’s claim to be transferred to schedule B was raised again in committee, 20 Feb. 1832, by Goulburn (in Fownes Luttrell’s absence), but to no avail. Shortly afterwards William Leigh of Bardon, an attorney acting as agent for Fownes Luttrell, wrote to his employer that ‘I begin to suspect ... the low amount of assessed taxes is the cause of the lowness in the scale of poor Minehead’. Further investigation led him to conclude that the best strategy was to propose the extension of the borough to include Minehead and Dunster, plus the neighbouring parishes of Carhampton, Withycombe, Wootton Courtney and Timberscombe, and he embodied this idea in a ‘Case of the Borough of Minehead’, which was printed for circulation in March. This document purported to show that if the constituency was enlarged in the way suggested, it would contain 4,333 inhabitants and at least 168 houses valued at £10 per annum, which compared favourably with the boroughs of Petersfield and Wareham, whose boundaries had been extended when they were transferred from schedule A to B. It was argued that Minehead was more worthy of parliamentary representation than Wareham, because of the importance of its coastal trade, its superior harbour facilities and the fact that there was plentiful land available for building development. Whereas Petersfield was only a short distance from several other boroughs, the disfranchisement of Minehead would leave a 40-mile stretch of Somerset to the north-west of Taunton without borough representation. Having marshalled these arguments, Leigh reported to Fownes Luttrell that ‘I really begin to feel a confidence of your success, quite well-founded if anything like principle be followed’.13 The ‘Case’ provided the main text for Fownes Luttrell’s intervention at the report stage, 14 Mar. 1832, when he repeated his earlier argument that the parishioners of Dunster outside the borough had ‘an inchoate right’ within it, making the merger of Minehead and Dunster natural and logical. He also complained that the boundary commissioner sent to Minehead the previous December had arrived too late to conduct a proper inquiry before the meeting of Parliament. According to Fownes Luttrell, the poor rate assessment was calculated on about two-thirds of the real value of property in Minehead, and the official figure of 91 houses valued at £10 in the existing borough was therefore too low. This may have been how he arrived at the estimate of 311 properties of £10 annual value in the six parishes he wished to include in the constituency, a much higher figure than that given in the ‘Case’. He did not mention the fact that he possessed considerable territorial influence in the parishes not already part of the borough.14 He argued that the reform bill was unfair to Somerset, which stood to lose seven borough Members closely identified with the landed interest, and called on the friends of agriculture to ‘make a stand on this case’. They did not, ministers adhered to their view that the only issue was whether the existing borough included the parish of Dunster, which it did not, and Minehead remained in schedule A. In a final attempt to save the borough, a petition from the inhabitants to the Lords was organized and a modified version of the ‘Case’ prepared. Leigh busied himself in London establishing lines of communication with potentially sympathetic peers, mentioning the names of Lords Harrowby, Skelmersdale, King and Sherborne, and claiming to have ‘found a channel’ to the duke of Beaufort. The petition, reiterating Minehead’s wish to be enlarged and transferred to schedule B, was presented by Lord Carnarvon, 7 May 1832,15 but no action was taken and the borough was absorbed into the new Western division of Somerset.

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 31.
  • 2. Ibid. The lower figures of 1,239 and 1,494 respectively (ibid. (1831), xvi. 287) were for the parish of Minehead.
  • 3. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iv. 464; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 716; Robson’s Som. Dir. (1839), 112; Gen. Dir. for Som. (1840), 237; F. Hancock, Hist. Minehead, 324.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 53.
  • 5. Blessings of Boroughmongering [n.d.]; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 29 Oct. 1832.
  • 6. Suff. RO (Ipswich), Tomline mss HA 119/562/598, Tomline’s diary, 23, 24, 30, 31 July; Som. RO, Luttrell mss DD/L/2/49/28, John Fownes Luttrell’s diary, 27, 28 July, 31 Aug. 1830; Bristol Mirror, 30 July 1831.
  • 7. CJ, lxxviii. 303; lxxix. 38.
  • 8. CJ, lxxxiv. 124; LJ, lxi. 152.
  • 9. CJ, lxxxvi. 47.
  • 10. Bristol Mirror, 19 Mar.; The Times, 7 May 1831.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxvi. 683.
  • 12. LJ, lxiii. 1063.
  • 13. Luttrell mss 1/60/17, Leigh to Fownes Luttrell, 24 Feb., 10 Mar. 1832; ‘Case of the Borough of Minehead’; Hancock, 362-4.
  • 14. H. Maxwell Lyte, Hist. Dunster, i. 272.
  • 15. Luttrell mss 1/60/17, Leigh to Fownes Luttrell, ‘Sunday Evening’; LJ, lxiv. 187.