Somerset

County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 9,000

Number of voters:

2,231 in 1826

Elections

DateCandidateVotes
14 Mar. 1820WILLIAM DICKINSON 
 SIR THOMAS BUCKLER LETHBRIDGE, bt. 
19 June 1826WILLIAM DICKINSON1812
 SIR THOMAS BUCKLER LETHBRIDGE, bt.1719
 Henry Hunt309
7 Aug. 1830WILLIAM DICKINSON 
 EDWARD AYSHFORD SANFORD 
11 May 1831EDWARD AYSHFORD SANFORD 
 WILLIAM GORE LANGTON 

Main Article

Somerset was a predominantly agricultural and pastoral county, with a maritime border on the Bristol Channel. In addition to corn growing and the fattening of livestock it was noted for cider production, which was concentrated mainly in the vale of Taunton Deane. There was a considerable number of small market towns, and the southern and eastern parts of the county contained several of the more important centres of textile manufacturing, including the unfranchised towns of Chard, Crewkerne, Frome, Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet and Wivesliscombe.1 However, they were facing structural economic decline and suffered intermittent distress. The cloth manufacturers regularly petitioned Parliament against the duties on imported wool,2 and towards the end of this period they opposed the East India Company’s trading monopoly,3 while their employees petitioned in the early 1820s against the introduction of new machinery.4 Yeovil, the chief centre of glove manufacturing, sent several petitions to both Houses for the prohibition of French imports.5

There were few resident peers: even the lord lieutenant, the 2nd marquess of Bath, lived outside the county at Longleat House. The 5th Earl Poulett of Hinton St. George and the 6th Earl Waldegrave of Chewton Priory were sometimes abroad, the former on military service and the latter because of financial difficulties. This left only the 9th earl of Cork and Orrery of Marston House, the 4th Earl Egmont of Enmore and the 1st Baron Glastonbury of Butleigh. In any case, the principle had been successfully asserted since 1784 that peers should not interfere in county elections and the representation was therefore entirely in the hands of the gentry. Leading figures on the Tory side included Sir John Acland of Fairfield, Sir John Coxe Hippisley† of Ston Easton, Henry Hobhouse of Hadspen and John Fownes Luttrell of Dunster Castle, Member for Minehead, while varying shades of Whig opinion were represented by the Rev. Sir Abraham Elton of Clevedon Court, Thomas Strangways Horner of Mells Park, John Phelips of Montacute and William Ayshford Sanford of Nynehead Court. National issues always figured prominently in Somerset politics, intertwined with local rivalries, and ‘no Popery’ sentiment remained a particularly potent force in an area where memories of Sedgemoor, the Bloody Assizes and the Glorious Revolution were still fresh.6 Only one general election in this period went to a poll, but on every other occasion an embattled sitting Member chose to retire rather than engage in an expensive contest. Since 1806, the competition to fill the seats had been between the moderate Whig William Dickinson of Kingweston, the advanced Whig William Gore Langton of Newton Park and the Tory Thomas Buckler Lethbridge, the heir of Sir John Lethbridge of Sandhill Park. At the 1818 general election Lethbridge, who had come into his inheritance, launched a vigorous campaign invoking the ‘church and king’ cry. His real target was Gore Langton, but the effect of his strategy was to drive the Whig sitting Members into a coalition and he retired after four days’ polling. However, Dickinson’s defence of his seat cost him £7,715 and another fierce struggle was anticipated at the next general election.7

In the spring of 1819 Lethbridge was busy mobilizing anti-Catholic opinion in the county. He promoted a requisition to the sheriff for a county meeting, without success, but arranged instead for several petitions to be sent to the Commons prior to the debate on Grattan’s motion. He was confident that the present Parliament was ‘much more Protestant than the last’ and hoped that Dickinson, who had agreed to present the petitions, was now prepared to vote against relief, although in the event he abstained.8 Within days of the death of George III in January 1820, before the dissolution was announced, Lethbridge reportedly engaged in ‘an active canvass’ and ‘a general activity ... prevailed amongst his numerous friends in different parts of the county ... particularly at Frome, Bristol and Bath’. He informed one of his supporters at the beginning of February that he had ‘taken the necessary measures for promoting my views of again representing this county’, including a visit to Dickinson to assure him that ‘my opposition was levelled at Mr. Langton’ and that ‘I should not employ agents, unless he did, and ... wished to give as little trouble as was consistent with the ... circumstances of the case’. He also reported the ‘general opinion’ that Gore Langton would ‘not trouble himself about the business’.9 In his address announcing his candidature, 15 Feb., he rejoiced to find himself ‘countenanced by the support of such numbers of my former opponents, that I consider my election placed beyond a doubt’. Privately, he thought it would be ‘an act of madness’ for Gore Langton to stand, and observed that ‘at present [he] has not written to a single soul and is himself in Paris’. The Whigs nationally seemed to believe that Gore Langton’s support for the Catholics had alienated ‘public opinion’ and cost him his seat.10 Dickinson’s address emphasized his ‘vigilant attention’ to county business and his ‘honest and independent discharge of my duties in Parliament’. A requisition signed by the leading gentry and several peers was sent to the sheriff, Gerard Napier of Pennard House, for a county meeting to agree an address of condolence and congratulation to the new king, and to avoid inconvenience this was held at Wells on the morning of the nomination. The address was moved by Elton, seconded by Acland and unanimously approved. At the nomination meeting Dickinson, who was absent owing to his son’s illness, was introduced by Horner and Archdeacon Trevelyan. Lethbridge, who was sponsored by Luttrell and Acland, declined to be drawn on the question of parliamentary reform, merely stating that ‘I will always vote for what I think right’. The proceedings passed off quietly, as rumours of a ‘third candidate’ proved to be groundless, and Dickinson and Lethbridge’s friends ‘dined together’ afterwards at the Swan. Gore Langton’s letter from Paris, publicly confirming his wish to avoid the responsibility of bringing about the ‘evil’ of a contested election, had been delayed and did not reach the local press until the following day. The election was held as usual at Ilchester, where Dickinson was proposed by Phelips and John Goodford of Yeovil, while Lethbridge was again nominated by Luttrell and Acland. Dickinson expressed to ‘his clerical friends’ his ‘warmest thanks for their active exertions in his favour’ and declared that ‘conjointly with his ... colleague ... there was no man more attached to the established reformed religion than himself’; he also acknowledged the Dissenters’ support. He advocated retrenchment and unspecified measures to relieve the agricultural interest. Lethbridge, who made conciliatory noises towards the Dissenters, complimented Dickinson on ‘the manly and decided way in which he opposed attempts made by the Catholics to obtain further accession of power’. After their unopposed return, Dickinson ‘gave a most sumptuous dinner to nearly 400 of the neighbouring gentry and yeomanry’ around Kingweston, and ‘the poor of the villages were entertained ... in the most liberal manner’.11

In November 1820 the towns and villages of Somerset, ‘with few exceptions’, celebrated the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline with illuminations, fireworks, the burning of green bags, and distributions of food and cider. At Timberscombe, where the church bells were in a state of disrepair, the villagers improvised by ‘heartily banging on them with large hammers’. A public meeting at Frome carried by 210-75 an amendment to a proposed loyal address to the king, welcoming the abandonment of proceedings against the queen, and at Wellington an address calling for the dismissal of ministers was ‘unanimously’ agreed.12 In January 1821 Hippisley tried to persuade the magistrates attending the quarter sessions at Wells to sign a loyal address to the king, but this proposal was dropped because of doubts about the advisability of such a collective act. Nevertheless, he maintained that there had been considerable support for the principle of the address, which sought to ‘unite ... all who range on the side of order, morals and religion’. Loyal addresses were reportedly sent from Bruton, Castle Cary and Wrington, and Lethbridge apparently refused to present a Frome address in support of the queen, as he was convinced of her guilt. Of the main unfranchised boroughs, Shepton Mallet petitioned the Commons to restore the queen’s name to the liturgy, 1 Feb. 1821.13

The occupiers of land presented a petition to the Commons for agricultural relief, 21 Feb., and two from the occupiers of nearly 100,000 acres were sent to the Lords, 1 Mar. 1821.14 On 9 Jan. 1822 a meeting to consider the ‘unparalleled distress’ afflicting the agricultural interest was held at Taunton Castle, on the initiative of local magistrates of ‘opposite politics’, and the attendance of both county Members gave it much of the appearance of a county meeting. Sanford moved a petition drawing attention to the ‘overwhelming burden of taxation’, which had ‘brought the greater proportion of the independent yeomen to the brink of ruin’, and calling for the ‘strictest economy and retrenchment’. Charles Anderdon seconded him, but Dr. Robert Kinglake argued that the only remedy was reform. The Members were sympathetic to the petition but had no solutions to offer, and they rejected the demand for radical reform, although Lethbridge seemed open-minded as to a moderate measure. Kinglake’s reform resolution, which was seconded by James Bunter, a local Dissenter, was withdrawn on the ground that this was not one of the purposes for which the meeting had been convened. The petition was agreed and presented to the Commons by Dickinson, 15 Feb. 1822; several more were sent from various parts of the county during the session.15 In December a requisition ‘signed by upwards of 30 magistrates’ was presented to the sheriff, Vincent Stuckey of Langport, for a county meeting to consider measures to alleviate the distress of the landed interest. The meeting was fixed for Wells on 21 Jan. 1823, and it became known that the radical agitator Henry Hunt*, a freeholder near Glastonbury, who had recently been released from Ilchester gaol after serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence, which had attracted much public notoriety owing to the harsh conditions of his confinement, intended to be present.16 Shortly before the meeting, a second requisition was sent to the sheriff calling for the reform question to be taken into consideration. The attendance on an ‘uncommonly cold’ day was variously reported as between 1,200 and 8,000, and the involvement of ‘eminent country gentlemen’ was said to be ‘unusually great’. William Hanning of Dillington House moved a petition for relief through retrenchment, reduction in the poor and county rates and tithe commutation, which was seconded by Sanford’s son Edward. Hunt countered with a reform amendment and urged the meeting to avoid the ‘humbug ... played off ... at Taunton’ the previous year. He also accused the Members of having voted for heavy government expenditure and alleged that Dickinson had profiteered from his office in the yeomanry cavalry and through his lease from the crown of a lighthouse in the Bristol Channel.17 On being told by the sheriff that his amendment would not be allowed he brought forward eight resolutions, including demands for drastic retrenchment, tax cuts, abolition of the game laws and Turnpike Acts, and immediate reform, and demanded that these be put to a vote against Hanning’s ‘milk and water’ motion; he was seconded by the Rev. Henry Cresswell, vicar of Creech St. Michael. Dickinson indignantly repudiated Hunt’s personal accusations and declared his support for the original motion, while Lethbridge praised the ‘truly British manner’ in which the meeting had been conducted and pledged himself to press for further tax reductions. When Stuckey confirmed that a separate meeting on reform would be held the following week, Hunt agreed to drop this component from his resolutions but insisted that the remainder be judged against Hanning’s motion by a show of hands, which he carried easily; ‘very few of the gentlemen on the hustings held up their hands at all’.18 At the second Wells meeting, 28 Jan., nearly 4,000 were said to have been present, and Hunt was accompanied by ‘a concourse of persons’, apparently not freeholders, who ‘swelled out the numbers’. William Sanford moved the six resolutions recently carried by the meeting at York for ‘speedy and effectual reform’ and hoped that unanimity could thereby be achieved. He believed that reform would end the ‘oligarchical influence which held both king and people in equal thraldom’. He was seconded by Dr. Malachi Blake of Taunton and backed by Kinglake, who argued that if ‘the people ... take their democratic station in the constitution ... the establishments would be considerably pruned’. Hunt, expressing contempt for the ‘suffering landowners’ and the ‘brace of doctors’ enlisted to support them, moved an amendment for ‘immediate and complete reform’, meaning universal suffrage and the ballot. Observing Lethbridge’s recent shift towards reform, he likened him to ‘a dog with a tin kettle tied to his tail’, but admitted that he was preferable to Dickinson, ‘the designing hypocrite who pretended to guard the peoples’ liberties, while in reality he was only pursing his own selfish views’. Cresswell again seconded him. Dickinson, who had some difficulty in obtaining a hearing, announced that he would oppose both the motion and the amendment and pleaded for ‘moderation of feeling and temperate measures’. Lethbridge, who was ‘opposed by the great part of the crowd in front of the hustings’, seemed to concede the case for moderate reform and ended his remarks ‘amidst mingled expressions of applause and disapprobation’. After lengthy discussion the sheriff put the question, when ‘all before the hustings were in favour of Hunt’s amendment, and all upon the hustings (except Hunt and three or four friends) were for Sanford’s original motion’. Stuckey declared the majority to be in Hunt’s favour, but ‘refused to authenticate, by his signature, the decision of the meeting’. The Taunton Courier, which deplored the way in which both meetings had been ‘rendered nugatory by Hunt’s pertinacity’, claimed that Sanford’s motion would have been unanimously adopted but for the ‘abusive and nonsensical clamour of the Orator and his Glastonbury troops’. Lethbridge presented the amended petition with 3,000 signatures, 16 Apr., but made clear his dissent from it; the reform petition was presented by John Cam Hobhouse, 16 July 1823.19 There was a strong petitioning movement from all parts of the county during the spring of 1824 for the abolition of slavery and inquiry into the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara.20 Many more anti-slavery petitions were presented to Parliament early in 1826.21 Several towns petitioned the Commons for repeal of the house and window taxes in 1825.22

In May 1826 it was reported that Hunt had commenced canvassing the freeholders, and he subsequently issued an address announcing his determination to challenge the sitting Members and urging the voters to return a representative ‘unconnected with the magistrates of the county’. This move was attributed by the local press to his ‘personal hostility to the present Members’ and desire to ‘subject them to the heavy expense of a contest’, rather than to any serious expectation of victory, although he was believed to have some following among the smaller freeholders. On a tour of several of the main towns, including Frome, Shepton Mallet, Taunton and Yeovil, he made vituperative attacks on the ‘total incompetency’ of the Members, who had supported every proposal for increased expenditure, and condemned the ‘grasping landlords’, magistrates, clergy and attorneys, singling out the county treasurer, Uriah Messiter of Wincanton, whom he accused of gross mismanagement of the county rate. Meanwhile, the ‘leading gentlemen of the county’ prepared counter-measures on Dickinson and Lethbridge’s behalf, and arrangements were made in various parts of the county to bring ‘a sufficient number of voters to the poll at proper periods’ to secure their return ‘with little or no expense to themselves’. Dickinson was reckoned to be safe, but Lethbridge was thought to have ‘lost his popularity’ among many of the freeholders owing to ‘the inconsistency of his public conduct’.23 The nomination meeting was held at Bridgwater, where Hunt arrived in a procession ‘accompanied by a band ... drawn in a van ... playing "Rule Britannia"’. Dickinson, who was as usual introduced by Horner and Phelips, promised a ‘conscientious and independent line of conduct’ and said he favoured such a revised corn law ‘as would not inflict severe injury on the agriculturists’, the eventual abolition of slavery and unspecified ‘measures ... to improve the system of representation’, but not a wholesale abolition of small boroughs. Lethbridge, who was sponsored by Sir John Hawkins of Kelston Lodge and John Lee Lee* (Hanning’s son), explained that he had not bothered to canvass ‘because he had no respect for Hunt’, and declared that the representative should be ‘a man of landed property in the county’ and ‘a firm friend to the Protestant faith’. Hunt, who wore his prison clothes throughout the contest, was proposed by Cresswell and Oliver Hayward, a tile maker of Mudford, and spoke ‘amidst an uproar of applause and hissing’ for two hours, indulging in his usual ‘abuse of all persons, places and things’ and affirming the paramount importance of reform. It was rumoured in the press that Hunt could ‘poll at least 800 votes and will hold out for the 15 days’. Prior to the election meeting at Ilchester an address was published, organized by Phelips and containing 131 signatures from among ‘the most respectable freeholders’, urging their fellow electors to ‘lay aside all personal and political differences’ and support both sitting Members. Dickinson, who was sponsored by Phelips and Sir Alexander Hood of St. Audries, repudiated Hunt’s allegations concerning his activities as a magistrate and a West Indian plantation owner. Lethbridge, who was nominated by Lee and Stuckey, violently attacked the ‘despicable’ Hunt, declaring that ‘like some noisome beast his track was distinguishable by offensive indications, which told the falsehoods he was practising’. Hunt, who was introduced by Hayward and Perrott of Middlezoy, repeated his accusations against Messiter, prompting the treasurer to make a reply. There was a ‘very decisive’ show of hands in favour of Dickinson and Lethbridge, but Hunt demanded a poll. It became obvious during the first two days that the sitting Members were well ahead, but the proceedings were enlivened by Hunt’s antics in mimicking his opponents and engaging in ‘constant ... low, verbose recrimination’. By the third day, the contest seemed to be ‘without spirit’, as ‘few of the voters for Hunt [had] made their appearance’ and ‘his bands were no longer heard in the town’. Hunt refused to concede defeat on the fourth, remarking that he still owed ‘a debt to the magistrates, for his forty days solitary confinement in Ilchester’. On the fifth, he complained that many voters who had pledged their support had been ‘compelled by their employers to vote on the opposite side’. At noon on the sixth day he left for Bristol, Bath and Frome, in an attempt to enlist support, but without much success. Some amusement was created towards the end of the contest by the circulation of a squib, ‘The Lethbridgeometer - A Scale’, which purported to show how his politics changed from ‘radical demagogue’ to ‘red-hot church and king and no-Popery man’ according to the price of wheat. The sheriff, William Helyar of Coker Court, finally closed the poll after ten days, despite protests from Cresswell, and declared Dickinson and Lethbridge elected. Hunt obtained 270 plumpers, Dickinson 206 and Lethbridge 146, while 1,570 votes were split between Dickinson and Lethbridge (86 and 91 per cent of their respective totals), 36 between Dickinson and Hunt and three between Lethbridge and Hunt. By far the greatest concentration of support for Hunt was in Frome, which accounted for 63 votes, followed by Shepton Mallet with 17. In returning thanks, Dickinson observed that ‘he had been called upon to offer ... without subjecting himself to expenses on account of voters, agents, etc., certainly to go to no expense on account of treating’, and he thanked his agents, who had worked gratuitously. Lethbridge almost came to blows with Hayward while making his speech, and Hunt, who was a blacking manufacturer, concluded by offering the Members a bottle of his ‘best matchless blacking’ to split between them, ‘as they had done ... their votes’. Lethbridge subsequently congratulated the county on having repelled the ‘insult’ of Hunt’s candidature, thanked his lawyers for their assistance, ‘unanimously and gratuitously rendered’, and was glad to have been returned ‘without having given a larger number of my friends the trouble of coming to the poll’.24

Numerous petitions from all over the county were forwarded to Parliament for repeal of the Test Acts in 1827 and 1828,25 when local concern about unlicensed cider sales resulted in several petitions to the Commons.26 In November 1828 Lethbridge advised the opponents of Catholic emancipation against calling a county meeting, but to organize petitions at the parish level. This prompted a major petitioning movement early in 1829, although a significant number of pro-Catholic petitions were also presented to both Houses. At Chard, ‘upwards of 900 names, including ... every master-manufacturer, every member of the corporation (with ... two exceptions) and almost every respectable tradesman’, were attached to a hostile petition, after a public meeting where ‘only 23’ voted for a pro-Catholic motion.27 Dickinson remained consistent in his opposition to emancipation, but Lethbridge made an extraordinary volte face by supporting the Wellington ministry’s bill. Somerset politics were convulsed by his behaviour, which he justified in a letter to the local press as a statesmanlike response to ‘the force of time and irresistible circumstances’, for the good of the whole nation. His conversion was said to have exasperated many of his friends who, having followed his advice about parish meetings, now ’whilst the signatures were receiving ... beheld him totally turned round at the nod of the minister’. His name was therefore ‘in everyone’s mouth as a rat’, and Phelips thought ‘he had better get into another House as fast as he can’.28 In June he received a freeholders’ requisition calling on him to vacate his seat, as ‘he who violates his promises and deserts the cause he ... was appointed to ... defend, cannot be further trusted’, and the following month it was reported that ‘a gentleman of extensive property’ in the east of the county meant to offer in opposition to him. This proved to be James Adam Gordon* of Wraxall, near Bristol, who declared his intention at the Bridgwater assizes and issued an address in August, describing himself as ‘perfectly independent of any political party’ and dedicated solely to maintaining ‘our glorious constitution in church and state’. He embarked on a lengthy canvass in September and reportedly retained the services of ‘150 solicitors’; Phelips heard that he had ‘great promise of support from the northern and dense population’.29 Lethbridge remained publicly defiant, but his refusal to attend a number of autumn public dinners was ‘construed as an indication that he will not again offer himself as a candidate’. Dickinson, by contrast, ‘made a point of being present’, and at the Bristol Mansion House dinner, 2 Sept. 1829, he expressed confidence in his return with ‘a triumphant majority’ at the next election. Another contender staked his claim in late September, when Edward Ayshford Sanford issued an address announcing his determination to offer at the dissolution. Anxious to be a truly independent Member, he thought it ‘right to abstain from making any promises’, but added that he was ‘firmly attached to our establishments in church and state’ while favouring ‘a wise economy and prudent retrenchment’. Phelips lamented the fact that ‘solely in consequence’ of Lethbridge’s ‘indiscretion’, ‘we shall be in hot water for a very indefinite period’.30

In the event, a contest was avoided in 1830. At the dissolution in June Lethbridge announced his retirement, citing ill health, and Gordon was precluded from offering by the fact that he was the serving sheriff of the county (he was returned for Tregony instead). There was a movement to persuade Phelips to come forward, and he was informed that ‘the populous districts near Wells will not be satisfied with Sanford’, a feeling that was attributed to the ‘violent declarations of his father’. Hanning organized a requisition inviting Phelips to stand, which asserted that his ‘qualifications and pretensions’ to be Lethbridge’s replacement were so ‘indisputable’ that his candidature offered the best hope of avoiding the ‘violence of a contested election’. Sanford nevertheless issued an address and wrote to Phelips, alluding to an ‘interview which took place between us in September last’ and expressing confidence that he would act honourably. He ended by observing that ‘I think you will ... be disposed to agree with me in doubting the prudence of an attempt to have Dickinson and yourself elected under an influence, however respectable and extensive it may be’, and that he regarded the requisition as a threat to ‘the peace of the county’. Phelips, who had consistently maintained that he would do nothing to jeopardize his friend Dickinson’s ‘quiet and easy return’, duly declined the invitation to stand, although he suspected that if Sanford persisted ‘another person will immediately on my sticking to my pledge to Dickinson be called forward’.31 No such challenge emerged and, with rumours that Hunt might stand again also proving groundless, the way was left clear for Dickinson and Sanford, enabling them to ‘preserve in their pockets many thousands of pounds which a contested election would have called forth’. The nomination meeting was held at Bridgwater, where Sanford made his entrance ‘preceded by [the local Whig Member] Colonel Tynte’s band, and attended by a great number of gentlemen ... wearing blue and white favours’. Dickinson, who was sponsored as usual by Horner and Phelips, referred to the ‘strict fidelity’ of his recent parliamentary conduct and emphasized his support for retrenchment. Sanford, who was introduced by Gore Langton and Richard Beadon of Fitzhead, explained that as a new candidate ‘he would not consent to be restricted to any particular line of policy’ and confined himself to general expressions of constitutional principle, notably the importance of religious liberty. Elton concluded the meeting by congratulating it on the course of proceedings and, noting some dissatisfaction at the prospect of ‘two Whig Members’ being returned, added that ‘he was glad that antiquated scruples had been done away with’. One newspaper believed this had been ‘as short an election process as we ever witnessed’. At Ilchester, Dickinson was again proposed by Horner and Phelips, while Sanford was nominated by John Evered, a Bridgwater barrister, and the Rev. William Thomas of Taunton. When their unopposed return was announced, Sanford thanked the freeholders for taking ‘his private life as a criterion for his public conduct’.32 It was only after the election, at a series of celebration dinners, that he explicitly declared his support for reform and welcomed the recent revolution in France.33

Although Somerset experienced general economic distress, it was on the periphery of the ‘Swing’ riots and only a few sporadic outbreaks of violence and machine breaking occurred in the later months of 1830.34 There was another extensive petitioning movement to both Houses in favour of abolishing slavery in November and December 1830, and further petitions were sent to the Commons in March 1831.35 The reform question attracted considerable interest, and the unfranchised towns of Chard, Frome, Glastonbury, Ilminster, Shepton Mallet, Wellington, Wiveliscombe and Yeovil petitioned the Commons in its favour in February and March; Frome, Glastonbury, Somerton and Yeovil also supported the secret ballot.36 In February over 700 signatures were gathered for a requisition to the sheriff, Thomas Bailward of Horsington, for a county meeting, which was arranged for Bridgwater then postponed on the ground that insufficient notice had been given.37 It finally took place on 28 March, after the second reading of the Grey ministry’s bill, which Sanford had supported and Dickinson opposed. The reformist Taunton Courier claimed that there was a ‘full and respectable attendance’, but the Tory Bristol Mirror alleged that no more than 1,000 were present, mostly reformers, ‘a very inconsiderable number for a county meeting’. Both Members sent letters of apology for their absence, Dickinson explaining that he was suffering from gout and Sanford stating that he remained in London to support Buxton’s anti-slavery motion. Dickinson defended his opposition to an ‘unjust’ bill which would deprive Englishmen of their privileges, and objected to the proposed division of counties, but he professed to hope that it might be suitably amended so that he could support the third reading. Sanford was unequivocal in his enthusiasm for the measure. The motion for a petition to both Houses, supporting the bill and imploring ministers to make no concessions was introduced by Sanford’s father, who declared that ‘the Magna Charta of King John would sink into insignificance when compared with the bill of rights of King William IV’, which would ‘rescue the people ... from the domineering influence of an odious oligarchy and restore ... their just weight in the election of their representatives’. He was seconded by the veteran reformer Kinglake. Amid much interruption, Gordon moved a ‘constitutional’ amendment against the bill, which was seconded by the London barrister Bickham Escott†, who warned of impending ‘anarchy and revolution’; this only received ‘about seven’ votes and the original motion was carried. Hunt, now Member for Preston, welcomed this decision as a vindication of his long struggle, and Cresswell, ‘in very coarse language’, successfully moved that he should be asked to present the petition. A motion approving Sanford’s conduct was passed unanimously, but after Bailward had left the chair Hunt carried a censure motion against Dickinson ‘with only a few dissentient voices’. The Bath Journal, a leading radical organ, concluded that Dickinson had ‘lost the favour of all, and the people are on the look out for another representative’.38

At the dissolution the following month Dickinson, who had voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the bill, announced his retirement, expressing regret that a serious difference of opinion had arisen with his constituents. Sanford, who was confined to a dark room in London owing to an eye inflammation, had already taken steps to promote the formation of ‘committees of yeomen’ all over the county, and he emphasized that he would not retain any ‘legal professional agents’. On 28 April a meeting of his friends at Taunton, including Blake, Hanning and Kinglake, formed a committee which resolved to return him free of expense. As Blake reported to Sanford, arrangements were being made to convey as many freeholders to Ilchester as possible, and ‘several professional men’ had ‘tendered their services gratuitously’. Canvassing undertaken on his behalf was said to have been ‘successful in nearly every instance’, and only among the clergy was ‘a neutral or adverse feeling ... evinced’. Similar committees were formed at Bath, Bristol, Castle Cary, Chard, Dulverton, Frome, Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Wellington, Wiveliscombe and Yeovil.39 From Shepton Mallet, Sanford was assured of the support of ‘the whole of the freeholders in this town’, and it was suggested that he should solicit the assistance of Messrs. Green’s brewery at Old Down, near Bristol, which had ‘heretofore ... sent 50 votes to the poll for Mr. Dickinson’. A parcel of leaflets was duly dispatched, and another was sent to Clark of Street, the shoe manufacturer, who replied that ‘we have about 35 votes’ of which 29 were already secure and ‘two or three more’ anticipated. The marquess of Cleveland, a non-resident landowner, was willing to forward Sanford’s interests, and endorsements were also forthcoming from organizations campaigning against capital punishment and slavery.40 Meantime, in Bath, one of Sanford’s leading supporters, Henry Godwin, promoted a requisition with over ‘100 ... influential signatures’ to the former Member, Gore Langton, inviting him to offer in the reform interest. Gore Langton’s favourable reply, which stressed that his return ‘must depend upon the spontaneous efforts of the independent freeholders’, was conveyed to a public meeting at the White Lion chaired by Thomas Kingsbury, 28 Apr., when a committee was formed to secure his election ‘free of expense’. A subscription was raised, voters were asked to enrol so that travelling arrangements could be made and 28 solicitors reportedly offered their services gratis. Initially, this committee was probably intended to be a joint body operating on behalf of Gore Langton and Sanford, but a separate Sanford committee was subsequently formed, although the membership of the two overlapped considerably. Sanford insisted that they must not operate in coalition, a view that met with the approval of the Rev. Thomas, who observed that ‘there are some reasonable Tories who will vote for you [but] will not do so for [Gore Langton] because they think him what is commonly called an out and out man’. Officially, therefore, the respective committees merely agreed to co-operate.41 The prevailing sentiment in the county for reform was reflected in the following poster supporting Sanford and Gore Langton:

In the year 871 Alfred the Great said, ‘I would that all my people were so free as their thoughts’. In the year 1831 ... William the Great, our patriot king says, ‘I will that you shall be free; I have set the door of liberty open to you’ ... Close for ever the hands of bribery; seal up the polluted lips of perjury; shut for ever the floodgates of corruption; unloose the heavy burdens; and set the captives free. The eyes of all Europe are on you with the most intense anxiety, eager for your success. The liberty of the whole world depends on your doing your duty. Men of Somerset, boldly stand forward!42

Of the three other candidates who entered the field, Charles John Kemeys Tynte, the son of the Bridgwater Member, withdrew after his unwillingness to make any pledges raised doubts about his sincerity as a reformer; his prospects had anyway been diminished by Gore Langton’s decision to stand. Gordon, now free of the shrievalty, was said to have ‘money at command and is crazy enough to spend it all’, and he came forward as an anti-reformer, while Thomas Northmore of Exeter, a friend of Hunt, offered as a wholehearted reformer identifying with ‘the voice of the people’.43 The nomination meeting was held at Wells, where an estimated 15,000 people were present, many having travelled in vast processions from Bath and Taunton. John Hugh Smyth Pigott of Brockley Hall reportedly arrived accompanied by 1,000 reformers, including his tenants and ‘a great number of yeomanry ... regaled at his expense’; they were ‘headed by banners and a [musical] band’. The Bath Journal sneeringly observed that ‘a more shabby set-out could scarcely be witnessed’ than Gordon’s party, for ‘it seemed ... he had hired all the fish and vegetable carts of ... Bristol’, and even the sympathetic Bristol Mirror admitted that his friends ‘did not exhibit any cards or colours, so that nearly the whole appeared for Sanford and Langton’. Sanford, looking ‘extremely delicate’, his eyes being ‘protected by green shades’, was introduced by Edward Strachey, brother of Sir Henry Strachey of Sutton Court, and Beadon. He avowed that ‘in a reformed Parliament they must and would have a reformation of abuses, for who would dare to resist the wishes of the king and the people’. Gore Langton, who was proposed by Smyth Pigott and William Jones Burdett, brother of the radical Member for Westminster, declared that he had ‘ever been the undaunted supporter of the rights of the people against any restriction on their liberties’. Gordon and his backers, Trevelyan and Elton, were confronted by an overwhelming noise and could scarcely be heard, but he managed to denounce the ‘accursed bill’, which would ‘give more power to Catholic agents to increase the transfer of their poor and their cattle to England’. Northmore, who was sponsored by Cresswell and Hunt, said he would not have come forward had he known of Gore Langton’s intention to stand and that he would be guided by the sense of the meeting. When Hunt tried to explain his own position on the bill, which he supported except for the restrictions which would disfranchise many of his constituents, ‘a discharge of hard, and not a few unsavoury missiles were directed against him, stale eggs, oranges, and even stones’, forcing him to retreat. The show of hands was almost unanimously for Sanford and Gore Langton, and Northmore immediately retired, but Gordon demanded a poll, apparently ‘in the hope of making Gore Langton retire’. This tactic failed, and after a meeting with his committee he too withdrew. Shortly before the proceedings commenced at Ilchester, Lord John Russell passed through the town on his way to London from his victory in Devon, and was ‘received with the greatest enthusiasm’; he ‘heartily congratulated the reform candidates’. Sanford was proposed by Sir Henry Strachey and Beadon, and Gore Langton by General James Bathurst of Wells and Thomas Clutterbuck of Bath. Kinglake congratulated the meeting on returning the reform candidates ‘free of all expense’, thereby preserving their ‘political independence exempt from aristocratic intrusion and control’. Gore Langton immediately returned to Bath, where his carriage was drawn into the city ‘amidst the ringing ... of bells, the discharge of hand grenades and firearms, and the huzzas of the multitude that rent the air’. Sanford’s address rejoiced at ‘the glorious and triumphant scene at Wells’ on nomination day, when ‘the largest body of freeholders I believe ever collected in one mass within this great ... county’ had been present, and he acknowledged his indebtedness to the freeholders for their ‘free and self-directed exertions’. Gore Langton likewise attributed his success to the ‘spontaneous efforts of the freeholders’. It was afterwards reported that Gore Langton’s committee at Bath had settled its debts and declared ‘a dividend (16s. in the pound) to be returned to the subscribers’.44

The reform petition agreed at the county meeting before the general election was presented to the Commons by Hunt, 23 June 1831.45 Strong support for the reintroduced reform bill continued to be manifested in all parts of the county, and early in October Castle Cary, Frome, Glastonbury, Ilminster, Shepton Mallet, Weston-super-Mare, Wiveliscome and Yeovil petitioned the Lords for its speedy passage.46 Following the bill’s rejection a requisition to the sheriff, with over 500 signatures, for a county meeting was rejected. Conversely, an attempt that winter to organize an address to the king for the maintenance of the Lords’ independence did not attract the desired support.47 During the constitutional crisis in May 1832 Frome, Ilminster, Shepton Mallet and Yeovil urged the Commons to withhold supplies until reform was secured.48 By the terms of the Reform Act Somerset was divided into East and West. Bath, Bridgwater, Taunton and Wells retained their representation and Frome was given one seat, but Ilchester, Milborne Port and Minehead were disfranchised. The county’s representation was therefore reduced from 16 to 13. Sanford was returned for West Somerset in 1832 and sat until his retirement in 1841, while Gore Langton was returned for the Eastern division, which he held until his death in 1847. West Somerset initially returned two Liberals but was a Conservative stronghold from 1841, and East Somerset, which divided its representation until 1852, became equally safe Conservative territory thereafter.

Author: Terry Jenkins

Notes

  • 1. Robson’s Som. Dir. (1839), 1, 2; VCH Som. ii. 245-433.
  • 2. CJ, lxxv. 213; lxxviii. 365; lxxix. 82; lxxxiii. 320; LJ, liv. 94.
  • 3. CJ, lxxxiv. 255.
  • 4. Ibid. lxxv. 151; lxxvi. 143.
  • 5. Ibid. lxxxi. 21, 32; lxxxiii. 494; lxxxvii. 60; LJ, lviii. 32,44; lx. 610.
  • 6. Lansdowne mss, Holland to Lansdowne, 7 Sept. 1826.
  • 7. The Late Elections (1818), 279-93; Som. RO, Dickinson mss DD/DN/282, Toller to Dickinson, 4 Oct. 1819.
  • 8. Som. RO, Drake mss DD/NE/12, Lethbridge to Drake, 12 Mar., 20 Apr. 1819.
  • 9. Ibid. 12, Lethbridge to Drake, 1 Feb.; Dorset RO, Anglesey mss D/ANG/B5/28, Lethbridge to Castleman, 1 Feb., reply, 4 Feb., showing the Anglesey interest being mobilized on Lethbridge’s behalf; Bristol Mirror, 5, 12 Feb. 1820.
  • 10. Bristol Mirror, 19 Feb.; Anglesey mss B5/28, Lethbridge to Castleman, 19 Feb.; Drake mss 12, Lethbridge to Drake, 20 Feb.; Wilts. RO, Benett mss 413/485, Poole to Benett, 20 Feb.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 22 Feb. 1820.
  • 11. Bristol Mirror, 26 Feb., 4, 11, 18 Mar.; Taunton Courier, 15 Mar. 1820.
  • 12. Taunton Courier, 15, 22 Nov., 6 Dec. 1820, 3 Jan. 1821; Bristol Mirror, 25 Nov. 1820.
  • 13. Bristol Mirror, 27 Jan., 3 Feb. 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 22.
  • 14. CJ, lxxvi. 95; LJ, liv. 74.
  • 15. Taunton Courier, 2, 16 Jan. 1822; CJ, lxxvii. 27, 179, 207.
  • 16. J. Belchem, ‘Orator’ Hunt, 134-43.
  • 17. Dickinson mss 282, Hunt to Dickinson, 18 Jan. 1823, giving notice of his intention of raising these matters.
  • 18. Bristol Mirror, 4, 11, 18, 25 Jan.; Taunton Courier, 22 Jan. 1823.
  • 19. Taunton Courier, 29 Jan., 5 Feb.; Bristol Mirror, 1 Feb. 1823; CJ, lxxviii. 211, 478.
  • 20. CJ, lxxix. 110, 167, 185, 194, 303, 422, 430, 446, 481; LJ, lvi. 77, 84, 94.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxi. 75, 81, 111, 114, 120, 130, 139, 165, 193, 217, 234; LJ, lviii. 34, 57, 70, 80, 85, 95, 170.
  • 22. CJ, lxxx. 23, 157, 309, 325, 343.
  • 23. Bristol Mirror, 6, 20 May, 3 June; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 29 May, 5 June; Taunton Courier, 31 May; The Times, 5 June 1826.
  • 24. Bristol Mirror, 17, 24 June, 1, 8 July; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 19, 26 June, 3 July; Taunton Courier, 21, 28 June 1826; Som. RO Q/REp, ms pollbook.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxii. 455, 504, 505, 510, 520, 521, 527, 541, 545, 555, 594; lxxxiii. 83, 87, 90, 95, 100, 105, 155, 328; LJ, lix. 390; lx. 66, 71, 72, 81, 99, 118, 125, 138.
  • 26. CJ, lxxxiii. 210, 279, 390, 456.
  • 27. Taunton Courier, 26 Nov. 1828, 28 Jan. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 8, 28, 34, 59, 72, 85, 109, 114, 115, 121, 128, 148, 160; LJ, lxi. 14, 15, 16, 39, 82, 93, 95, 96, 105, 108, 110, 116, 135, 157, 181, 182, 306, 320.
  • 28. Bristol Mirror, 21 Mar.; Dickinson mss 282, Phelips to Dickinson, 17 May; Dorset RO, Fox Strangways mss D/FSI, box 332, Phelips to Ilchester, 30 Sept. 1829.
  • 29. Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 29 June, 21 Sept.; Bristol Mirror, 18 July, 29 Aug., 5 Sept.; Taunton Courier, 2, 30 Sept.; Fox Strangways mss D/FSI, box 332, Phelips to Ilchester, 30 Sept. 1829.
  • 30. Bristol Mirror, 5, 12, 26 Sept., 3 Oct.; Fox Strangways mss box 332, Phelips to Ilchester, 26, 30 Sept. 1829.
  • 31. Bristol Mirror, 19 June, 3 July; Taunton Courier, 7 July; Fox Strangways mss box 332, Phelips to Ilchester, 19, 26, 30 June, 4 July, Hanning to same [June], with copy of requisition; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF/4557, Sanford to Phelips [June 1830].
  • 32. Bristol Mirror, 10 July, 7, 14 Aug.; Taunton Courier, 21 July, 4, 11 Aug.; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 26 July, 9 Aug. 1830.
  • 33. Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 25 Aug.; Bristol Mirror, 18 Sept. 1830.
  • 34. E. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 101, 102.
  • 35. CJ, lxxxvi. 38, 47, 56, 61, 126, 163, 175, 176, 216, 423, 435, 455; LJ, lxiii. 20, 31, 46, 55, 56, 59, 60, 61, 63, 64, 68, 71, 72, 78, 79, 84, 85, 92, 93, 127, 140, 148.
  • 36. CJ, lxxxvi. 310, 324, 333, 406, 419.
  • 37. Taunton Courier, 9, 23 Feb., 2 Mar. 1831.
  • 38. Ibid. 30 Mar.; Bristol Mirror, 2 Apr,; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 4 Apr. 1831.
  • 39. Sanford mss 4550, Sanford’s draft circular letter [Apr.], Blake to Sanford, 29 Apr.; 4547, Sanford’s draft letter of thanks to local committees [May]; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 2 May; Taunton Courier, 4 May 1831.
  • 40. Sanford mss 4550, letters to Sanford from Wason, 24 Apr., Green, Clark and Payne, 27 Apr., Cockburn, 28 Apr.; 4552, anti-slavery poster, 29 Apr. 1831.
  • 41. Ibid. 4550, Godwin to Sanford, 24 Apr., Sanford to Cruttwell, 30 Apr., Thomas to Sanford, 1 May, Cruttwell to Sanford, 2 May (Clutterbuck to Sanford, 26 Apr., indicates Sanford’s disapproval of his Bath committee’s employment of two local solicitors as agents); Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 2, 9 May 1831.
  • 42. Sanford mss 3517, election poster, 28 Apr. 1831.
  • 43. Hants RO, Carnarvon mss 75M91/E4/99; Taunton Courier, 27 Apr., 4 May 1831.
  • 44. Bristol Mirror, 7, 14 May; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 9, 16, 30 May; Taunton Courier, 11, 18 May 1831; Carnarvon mss B24/61.
  • 45. CJ, lxxxvi. 551.
  • 46. LJ, lxiii. 1022, 1035, 1039, 1044, 1045, 1047, 1050.
  • 47. Bristol Mirror, 1, 15 Oct., 10, 17 Dec. 1831, 14 Jan. 1832.
  • 48. CJ, lxxxvii. 321, 328, 347, 488.

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