Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in burgage holders
Estimated number qualified to vote:
far fewer than 61
2,117 (1821); 2,495 (1831)
|10 Mar. 1820||JONATHAN ELFORD|
|29 Nov. 1820||SIR MANASSEH MASSEH LOPES, bt. vice Barton, vacated his seat|
|PHILIP JOHN MILES vice Elford, vacated his seat|
|9 June 1826||SIR MANASSEH MASSEH LOPES, bt.|
|SIR GEORGE WARRENDER, bt.|
|2 Mar. 1829||ROBERT PEEL vice Masseh Lopes, vacated his seat|
|30 July 1830||SIR ALEXANDER CRAY GRANT, bt.|
|MICHAEL GEORGE PRENDERGAST|
|2 May 1831||SIR RALPH FRANCO, bt.|
|15 July 1831||HENRY FREDERICK STEPHENSON vice Hanmer, vacated his seat|
Westbury, in the parish and hundred of the same name, was, according to William Cobbett†, a ‘miserable hole’, a ‘nasty odious rotten borough, a really rotten place’, whose cloth factories ‘seem to be ready to tumble down as well as many of the houses’.1 The decline of its cloth industry, with the exception of one large concern, made the town ‘altogether insignificant’, and led to economic distress, unemployment and emigration.2 Since 1810 the borough had been entirely in the hands of the infamous electoral adventurer Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes of Maristow House, near Plymouth, Devon, who had acquired the interest from the 5th earl of Abingdon for £75,000. He chose to sit elsewhere, and returned his nephew Ralph Franco and other supporters of the Liverpool ministry.3 The Commons had ruled in 1715 that the right of election lay ‘in every tenant of any burgage tenement in fee for life, or 99 years determinable on lives, or by copy of court roll, paying a burgage rent of 4d. or 2d. yearly, being resident, and not receiving alms’.4 However, Masseh Lopes, who owned nearly all the 61 burgage properties, continued his predecessors’ practice of restricting the leases to less than the stipulated three years’ duration and of allowing some of the houses to become uninhabitable, so that the size of the electorate was greatly reduced, probably even below the 24 cited by the reformer Thomas Oldfield.5
The burgage tenements were situated in three small groups, the covering area of which became identified as the borough, there being no other established boundaries. It was governed by a self-appointing corporation, which consisted of a mayor and up to 13 capital burgesses or aldermen, who were, as burgage holders, more or less the only qualified voters, and were under the direction of the recorder, Masseh Lopes.6 In practice, therefore, the franchise was effectively in the corporation. As Sir Richard Colt Hoare wrote in his volume on Westbury, published in 1830, the burgages ‘are occupied by tenants at yearly rents, so that the tenants are debarred from voting at the elections of Members of Parliament. The Members are now chosen by the corporation, or burgesses, being aldermen’.7 In 1835 the municipal corporations report stated that
such occupiers as held a lease for three lives or greater estate in a burgage tenement were entitled to vote for the representative of the borough in Parliament, but in consequence of the renewals being discontinued, the parties were deprived of their votes. They were called free voters. About four or five years ago there was only one free voter left, and his term was purchased by the proprietor of the other burgages. It appears, however, that the free voters had not usually attended the election of Members for a long time previous to their extinction.8
In the autumn of 1819 Masseh Lopes was convicted of electoral corruption at Grampound and sentenced to two years in Exeter prison. Nevertheless, it was no doubt at his direction that, at the general election of 1820, the sitting Members William Leader Maberly, who became Member for Northampton, and Lord Francis Nathaniel Conyngham, who later came in for county Donegal, were replaced by stopgaps. These were two of his local connections, Jonathan Elford, the son of the Plymouth banker Sir William Elford†, and Nathaniel Barton, a Warminster attorney. Masseh Lopes’s sentence was remitted in September 1820, but according to the radical John Wade
a curious story is related of Lopes’s liberation from imprisonment: it is said he threatened to put two radicals into the collective wisdom; upon which a Mr. Fortune was sent down to Exeter with a free pardon and remission of the remainder of the sentence, if he would give ministers the nomination of the two seats; but the cunning old Jew swore that he would not give up the nomination, which was worth £10,000. Fortune made a second trip, and it was agreed to split the difference, to give up one seat, and retain the other.9
Whatever the truth of this, after the sitting Members had vacated Masseh Lopes had himself returned unopposed at a by-election in late 1820, with the wealthy Bristol merchant Philip John Miles, another ministerialist and anti-Catholic.
There was an illumination in Westbury to celebrate Queen Caroline’s acquittal in November 1820.10 Petitions from local manufacturers against the duties on imported wool were presented to the Lords, 2 Apr., and the Commons, 3 Apr. 1821, by John Dugdale Astley, the county Member. His colleague John Benett presented Westbury petitions against slavery, 12 Mar., and for inquiry into the death of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 27 May 1824.11 Miles left the House at the general election of 1826, though he later represented Corfe Castle and Bristol. Masseh Lopes was returned with the Scottish Canningite Sir George Warrender, a refugee from his last seat of Sandwich, who supported the government in which his patron was foreign secretary, but like him favoured Catholic relief. Petitions from Westbury and its Protestant Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts were presented to the Commons, 13 June 1827, 26 Feb. 1828.12 The Devizes Gazette commented, 20 Nov. 1828, that the
manufactures of this town, which were formerly very numerous, are, like the rights of electors, merged in the hands of a very few individuals, by whom all the small manufactories have been swallowed up. The immense establishment of Messrs. [Matravers], Overbury and Company is in a prosperous state, and gives employment to upwards of a thousand hands, although the introduction of machinery in every department has of course greatly lessened the demand for manual labour.
Following a strike early the following year, it was said ‘that the distress of the people is truly appalling - it is a near approach to starvation’.13
Since Robert Peel, the home secretary, who was needed in the Commons to carry the Wellington ministry’s Catholic emancipation bill, was rightly thought to be in danger of losing his seat for Oxford University, where he had offered himself for re-election, a desperate search was made for an alternative. Lord Lowther* reported to Lord Lonsdale, 10 Feb. 1829, that ‘a gentleman is gone down into Devonshire to find the old Jew Sir Manasseh Lopes to tempt him with a large price to vacate’.14 This was evidently successful, for Peel noted, 13 Feb., that he had ‘taken the necessary steps for securing my re-election for another place’, though on the 15th he rejected a complicated plan of coming in for this new seat and then resigning it before the university contest, because, if nothing else, it would bring ‘very prominently forward the facility of procuring a seat in Parliament’.15 It had been reported locally that Warrender would be the one to resign, but it was Masseh Lopes himself who vacated his seat, 23 Feb., when the writ was moved. Peel was defeated at Oxford on the 28th, and the government whip William Holmes* went to Westbury to represent him at the by-election, 2 Mar.16 At the end of the violent proceedings, during which Masseh Lopes, who proposed Peel, had to escape from the back of an inn and run to the safety of his house in the Market Place, Holmes wrote that
Peel has just been returned for this place. Mr. Franco the mayor, his brother-in-law [the Rev.] Mr. [Walter] Radcliffe from [Warleigh], Devonshire and Sir M. Lopes signed the return, every other member of the corporation, and voters, declined taking any part in the proceedings. Early this morning Mr. [John] Halcomb†, the barrister (and honorary secretary of the Protestant Club in London), arrived here, accompanied by another person, and if he could have succeeded in getting himself put in nomination I have no doubt that something very unpleasant would have occurred, but his worship the mayor was punctual to his time (10 o’clock) and the election was over before Mr. Halcomb could force his way through the crowd. I am writing this at Sir M. Lopes’s house where the windows have been broken, and am very cold. I must wait for dinner, which is a cursed bore.17
According to Peel’s self-exculpatory account:
After my rejection by the university, there being a convenient vacancy at Westbury, I became a candidate (a very unpopular one I must admit) for that borough. The Protestant feeling was much excited, even among the quiet population of a small country town; and notwithstanding all the assistance which Sir Manasseh Lopes (the patron of the borough) could render me, my return was not effected without difficulty. Sir Manasseh himself suffered in his person from one of the many missiles with which the town hall was assailed during the ceremony of the election. It was fortunate for me that that ceremony was not unduly protracted. Very shortly after my return had been declared by the proper officer, the arrival of a Protestant candidate in a chaise and four from London was announced. If he had entered the town a few hours earlier, it is highly probable that I should have fared no better at Westbury than I had done at Oxford.18
In one cartoon about the election, dated 7 Mar., Masseh Lopes was depicted in a slough labelled ‘Westbury - close sink of iniquity’, while an Oxford don explained that ‘the Peel has suddenly turn’d sour and as sour things are not good for my constitution I discard it - the old gentleman in the dirt pool, being of a grosser habit is better able to stomach it - what might be the ruin of me can do him no harm’.19
On 3 Mar. 1829 Walter Long† of Chalcot House reported to Thomas Bucknall Estcourt* that even at Westbury, Peel’s
misfortunes seemed to follow him, for the man, whoever he was, that represented him, was so hooted and mobbed, that the Jew party hardly escaped even through the back door without getting a good licking. This borough is really too bad for the electors at present consist but of three individuals, the old Jew Sir M. Lopes, Franco and Albert his two nephews, and for putting Mr. Peel instead of himself £7,000 was paid. Need I say, ‘this is too bad’. So decided however is the opinion of this place that two petitions were immediately set on foot, one for the town, and another from the neighbourhood, against concession and will I have no doubt receive a great number of signatures.20
The petition from the town, whose inhabitants had nearly all signed the Wiltshire anti-Catholic declaration,21 was presented to the Commons by Lord Chandos, 18 Mar.22 Peel took seriously Masseh Lopes’s complaint that his election had ‘occasioned a prejudice among my friends here’, and informed the foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, that
I had very little communication with Sir Manasseh Lopes on the subject of my return, but ... I really think the old Jew rendered essential service by consenting to vacate at the time he did ... I understand that his own estimate of the damage done and service rendered was an English peerage. I think a foreign consulship much nearer the mark.
After Masseh Lopes’s repeated solicitations, his relative Henry Cowper was eventually appointed by Aberdeen as consul at Pernambuco, at which Peel commented that ‘I wish I could prevail on Sir Masseh Lopes to accompany him there’.23 No peerage was forthcoming, though one of his descendants was made Baron Roborough in 1938, a title which a local newspaper had thought appropriate for Masseh Lopes as ‘an abbreviation of Rottenborough’.24
The diplomat Lord Strangford reported to Lord Stanhope, 21 Dec. 1829, that ‘I have heard on very good authority, that Peel has written to Sir M. Lopes to inform him that Westbury will again be at his (Sir M.’s) disposal, in the course of a very few weeks. I suppose he is to be manufactured into a peer’ on his father’s expected death; but nothing came of this.25 Discussing the general question of electoral bribery in boroughs, 11 Feb. 1830, Peel raised an ironic laugh in the House by saying that ‘I cannot bring myself to consent to include in such an accusation the borough of Westbury, which I have the honour to represent, or to include its respectable electors in so sweeping a censure’. At the general election later that year, by which time he had succeeded to his father’s baronetcy, Peel left Westbury for the family borough of Tamworth. Warrender, who no longer supported ministers, retreated to Honiton, and his replacement was counted as a government gain in Charles Ross’s* summary of results.26 Lopes, now in his seventies, did not re-enter the House, and returned two ministerialists, Sir Alexander ‘Chin’ Grant, the chairman of ways and means, and Michael George Prendergast, an obscure Irishman. Thomas Gladstone*, who had been in search of a seat, reported to his father John Gladstone*, 28 June 1830, that ‘the close seats are snapped up by the treasury - Sir M. Lopes’s among them’; and Westbury was listed among the ‘government boroughs’ in the 2nd Lord Kenyon’s diary.27
Westbury anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Lords, 10 Dec. 1830, 20 Apr., and the Commons, 3 Feb., 25, 29 Mar. 1831. Reform petitions were brought up by Lord Morpeth, 26 Feb., and Benett, 18 Mar.28 With a population of between 2,000 and 4,000, the borough was scheduled to lose one seat in the Grey ministry’s original reform proposals, announced on 1 Mar., leading Daniel Whittle Harvey to complain, 9 Mar., that Westbury, ‘that pattern of pure and incorrupt boroughs’, would have only 14 £10 voters. However, after Benett had presented a petition from the inhabitants for the retention of both seats, 14 Apr., on the 18th Lord John Russell, arguing that it had a sufficient population to warrant continuing to return two Members, proposed that it should be withdrawn from schedule B. Franco, who in March succeeded his uncle to his baronetcy, estates and electoral influence at Westbury (where he became the recorder), declared himself willing to sacrifice his property to the good of the reform cause.29 At the dissolution caused by the bill’s defeat, he removed Grant because of his anti-reform votes (as he later stated in the House) and Prendergast, despite his support for reform. Franco subsequently returned himself and a supposed fellow reformer Henry Hanmer, an army officer, after Long, one of several local inhabitants who were reported to be intending to offer once the reform bill became law, had declined. The Devizes Gazette declared: ‘Thus has this property, as soon as it came into the hands of its present possessor, been generously sacrificed on the altar of his country, seeing the voice of the nation, its peace and welfare, required it’. According to a later elliptical paragraph, ‘a gentleman from the neighbourhood of Devizes has been lately canvassing the £10 householders of the borough of Westbury’, but nothing more was heard of this.30 It must soon have transpired that Hanmer was, in fact, an opponent of reform, as he immediately vacated his seat, and the following year he told the electors of Aylesbury, where he was returned as a Conservative, that he had resigned rather than abandon his principles.31 In his place Lopes, as Franco had now become, brought in the ardent reformer Henry Frederick Stephenson, a Whig barrister, who had played a minor part in drafting the reform bill.
Russell confirmed in the House, 24 June 1831, that Westbury, with 318 £10 voters, would not be disfranchised under the terms of the reintroduced reform bill. On 20 Sept. 1831 the arch anti-reformer John Wilson Croker complained that St. Germans, with a similar population to Westbury’s, was to be abolished:
Will it be denied that such circumstances have a suspicious appearance and what must be the feeling of the House when I acquaint them, that this strange transaction is accompanied by other circumstances still more suspicious? While Westbury stood in schedule B, it returned one Member [Grant] known to be opposed to the ministry, but just about the time when it was restored to its full franchise, that anti-reform Member vacated his seat,32 and Westbury, grateful, no doubt, for its prolonged existence, has sent back in his room not merely a reformer, but one of those gentlemen [Stephenson] who is supposed to have been practically employed in framing the bill ... Westbury, at the same moment [as St. Germans was annihilated] accommodates with a seat the very gentleman whose pen, probably, had erased its name from the fatal list of proscription.
He repeated this allegation, 20 Jan. 1832, when it was denied by both Stephenson, who declared that he had ‘not paid a farthing for my seat’, and Lopes, who explained
the real history of that transaction. Neither I, nor anyone connected with me, had anything to do with that alteration. The people of Westbury perceiving that, on the score of population, they had a full claim for two Members, presented a petition to this House through the county Member [18 Mar. 1831], and without any communication with me on the subject; and it was on the presentation of that petition alone, that the point was conceded by the government without a moment’s hesitation. The right honourable gentleman has said that Westbury is a Tory borough; all I can say on that subject is, that the voters have followed their own judgement; but if it, indeed, be a Tory borough, then the impartiality of the government was the greater, to give it two Members instead of one. At all events, the moment that this bill shall pass, the present proprietor will have no more influence in it than any one nobleman has in the city of Westminster.
However, by that time Westbury had been restored to schedule B in the revised bill, because, with 536 houses, of which 222 were worth £10 a year, and assessed taxes of £274, it came 60th in the final list of condemned boroughs, and therefore only narrowly escaped total disfranchisement. Its area was extended to include the whole of the parish of Westbury and the two tithings within it, so that it would have another 96 £10 houses, but even then there were only 185 qualified electors.33 Stephenson retired from the Commons at the general election of 1832, when Thomas Henry Hele Phipps junior of Butleigh Court, Somerset (son and namesake of Phipps of Leighton House) gave way to Lopes once the latter had offered.34 He retained a substantial interest in the single Member constituency, which he represented as a Liberal, 1832-7, and then as a Conservative, 1841-7, and his eldest son, Sir Lopes Massey Lopes, was its Conservative Member, 1857-68.35
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, ii. 400.
- 2. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 815, 816; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 14 May 1832; PP (1831), xvi. 104; (1831-2), xl. 117; (1835), xxiv. 719; VCH Wilts. viii. 169-74.
- 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 427, 428.
- 4. CJ, xviii. 154.
- 5. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), v. 144-6; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 12 Sept. 1825; J.A. Cannon, ‘Parl. Rep. of Six Wilts. Boroughs, 1754-90’ (Bristol Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1958), i. 295.
- 6. PP (1835), xxiv. 717.
- 7. Sir R.C. Hoare, Wilts. Westbury, 6.
- 8. PP (1835), xxiv. 718.
- 9. Black Bk. (1823), 177.
- 10. Devizes Gazette, 30 Nov. 1820.
- 11. LJ, liv. 156; CJ, lxxvi. 229; lxxix. 155, 422; The Times, 13 Mar., 4 Apr., 28 May 1824.
- 12. CJ, lxxxii. 555; lxxxiii. 105.
- 13. Salisbury Jnl. 27 Apr. 1829.
- 14. Lonsdale mss.
- 15. Add. 40398, ff. 237, 270.