Wilton

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 corporation

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 30

Population:

2,058 (1821); 1,997 (1831)

Elections

DateCandidate
10 Mar. 1820JAMES EDWARD HARRIS, Visct. FitzHarris
 RALPH SHELDON
1 Feb. 1821JOHN HUNGERFORD PENRUDDOCKE vice FitzHarris, called to the Upper House
6 Jan. 1823EDWARD BAKER vice Sheldon, deceased
12 June 1826JOHN HUNGERFORD PENRUDDOCKE
 EDWARD BAKER
30 July 1830JOHN HUNGERFORD PENRUDDOCKE
 WILLIAM HENRY LYTTON EARLE BULWER
2 May 1831JOHN HUNGERFORD PENRUDDOCKE
 JAMES DAWKINS

Main Article

Wilton, ‘pleasantly situated in the widest part of the vale of the Wiley’, was only nominally the county town of Wiltshire, having become ‘a small, decayed place’.1 Its cloth production and even its famed carpet manufactures, whose ‘brilliancy of colour, variety of pattern and boldness of design are equalled by few and exceeded by none’, had substantially declined.2 The borough, which comprised a large part of the parish of Wilton,3 was similarly reduced, having been entirely under the control of the earls of Pembroke of Wilton House since the early eighteenth century, and there had been no contest since 1710. The Pittite former Member Lord Herbert, who succeeded his father as 11th earl of Pembroke and lord lieutenant of Wiltshire in 1794, continued the family practice of returning Tory friends and relations.4 The franchise was supposedly in the self-electing corporation, which consisted of a mayor, a recorder and an unlimited number of burgesses, including five aldermen whose powers were identical to those of the other members. But it was packed by Pembroke, and was highly aristocratic in character.5 At the general election of 1820, as well as Pembroke, the high steward, and his kinsman, the 2nd earl of Carnarvon, the recorder, the corporation included his only surviving son of his first marriage, Lord Herbert, his son-in-law, the 2nd earl of Normanton (an Irish peer), and the 1st earl of Malmesbury. It also contained the former Members Sir William A’Court, William Fitzhugh and Lord Charles Spencer; the retiring Members Lord Robert Spencer and Frederick St. John; James Dawkins, Member for Hastings, William Morton Pitt, Member for Dorset, and Wadham Wyndham, Member for Salisbury, and the Wilton Members, Lord FitzHarris, Malmesbury’s eldest son, and Ralph Sheldon, a Warwickshire country gentleman. In addition, the corporation boasted the historians Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead and the Rev. William Coxe, archdeacon of Wiltshire. The latter was one of seven clergymen on the corporation, of whom five held livings in Pembroke’s gift during this period, including Henry Hetley, rector of Wilton. Another, George Augustus Montgomery, the son of an illegitimate offspring of the 10th earl, who was appointed rector of Bishopstone in 1822, was told by Pembroke in late 1821 that

I think myself entitled to expect in return for all I have done for you and for what I am about to do for you, that you will befriend me as far as you can in keeping up that influence which I more or less possess in and about Wilton ... the more so as I feel myself daily more incapable of that attention and activity which have hitherto secured to me the goodwill of many if not most of my neighbours of all classes and descriptions.

Montgomery’s willing compliance (he was, for instance, listed as present at all the subsequent elections during this period) is indicative of the means Pembroke employed to manage his interest.6

Since most of the corporators were non-resident and rarely attended its meetings, the daily administration was left in the hands of a number of trusted local men, such as the carpet manufacturer Francis Seward, deputy recorder until 1824, his successor Henry Hetley junior of Bulbridge House, and the town clerk, John Swayne, an attorney. Of the 40 members of the corporation in 1820, four were peers and another four had not been sworn in, so that about 30 could legitimately have voted.7 In fact, only 11 were present to witness the unanimous return of the sitting Members, including Swayne, who was acting as returning officer in the absence of the mayor, Normanton. Indeed, according to one of the replies to the home office circulars on reform in 1831, ‘the greatest number of electors who have signed the minute in the corporation book, of any election for Members within that period [the previous 30 years], has been 20’.8 Although the exercise of the franchise was a purely notional affair, Pembroke, when again in his usual kind manner offering the seat to FitzHarris, had added his hope

that both the candidates will go to Wilton some days previous to the election that they may previously call upon their constituents, whose goodwill to me entitle them to attention from my friends most concerned, as well as from me.9

The elections also had a colourful side: on 10 Mar. 1820 Henry Ford, Pembroke’s agent, recorded that he had been ‘in the market place with Mr. [John] Seagrim [Pembroke’s steward] to distribute the beer to the poor in consequence of Mr. Sheldon’s and Lord FitzHarris’s election’.10

FitzHarris expressed much disquiet at the Liverpool administration’s handling of the Queen Caroline affair and suggested to his patron that he should resign his seat. Pembroke demurred, saying that the issue did not necessitate his vacating and that ‘I am not aware of having any remplacant for you, but had I scores I would not avail myself of one of them’. Another reason he gave was his fear that

it would be said that because we had differed in opinion on this one subject (which by-the-by finally we may or we may not) I had requested you to secede that I might exert my influence in furthering the election of another to condemn the queen.11

FitzHarris in any case succeeded his father as 2nd earl of Malmesbury in November 1820, and on 29 Dec. Pembroke advised him to apply urgently for his writ of summons to the Lords, in order ‘to preclude any awkward remarks or proceedings with respect to your quondam constituents’.12 He was replaced at Wilton by an opponent of Caroline’s cause, John Hungerford Penruddocke of Compton Chamberlayne, a local country gentleman and a member of the corporation. Twelve corporators signed the election minute.13 His expenses came to £153, which included £4 4s. for ‘silver to throw out of the town hall windows’, £20 to provide bread for the poor, £28 for strong beer for the poor and £59 for the election dinners.14 A deputation of Wilton carpet weavers presented an address to the queen, 26 Feb. 1821.15

Expecting Sheldon’s demise, Pembroke, apparently not for the first time, attempted to cajole Normanton into accepting the seat, 19 Oct. 1822:

You already know that all that is expected of you is a support of the crown, that no slavish nor constant attendance is required, that the expense of the election does not exceed £100, that the annual permanent and chance disbursements to the poor, etc., etc., do not ever exceed £30. I do not see why it should put you in the least out of your way, and at any rate you may relinquish the seat whenever you please.

He declined, 24 Nov., having only ‘ambition enough to wish for a seat in your honourable House’, but he never sat in either chamber.16 Sheldon, who had died on the 22nd, was succeeded by another corporator and friend of Pembroke, the militia officer Edward Baker of nearby Salisbury, who, by his marriage into the Phipps family, was a distant relation of Dawkins. His return was signed by 13 burgesses, including Penruddocke, Wyndham and one George Baker, presumably a relative.17 In Parliament, he and Penruddocke, like their patron, sided silently with ministers and voted against Catholic relief. An Enclosure Act was passed in 1825, but no award was granted until 1860.18 A petition for the abolition of colonial slavery was brought up, 18 Apr. 1826.19

The sitting Members were returned unopposed at the general election of 1826, when eight corporators signed the entry in the minute book.20 The only known expenses were the £11 13s. 6d. listed by Penruddocke, though it was reported that ‘a large supply of beer was given away in a manner which does credit to the judgement of those who had the management’.21 Pembroke died in October 1827, having, by the expenditure of over £200,000, trebled the annual rent-roll of £35,000 that he had inherited over 30 years before. By his will, dated 28 Apr. 1826, he bequeathed Irish property and a substantial fortune to his favourite child, Sidney Herbert†, the only son of his second marriage. As he had been estranged from Lord Herbert since 1814, when the latter had contracted an unfortunate marriage with the daughter of a Sicilian nobleman, Pembroke left him little more than the entailed estate at Wilton.22 Thereafter the new earl presumably exercised the electoral interest, though he continued to live abroad. He did visit Wilton in early 1828, when he was elected high steward, and again in late 1829, when he succeeded to another of his father’s old offices, the high stewardship of Salisbury.23 Petitions from the Protestant Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts were presented to the Lords, 3 Mar., and the Commons, 13 June 1828.24

At the general election of 1830, when ten corporators were present, Penruddocke, an anti-reformer, was again returned, but Baker made way for the writer and diplomat Henry Bulwer, who had unsuccessfully contested Hertford in 1826. Unusually, Bulwer was not a member of the corporation, nor, being absent, was he added to it prior to his election.25 Henry Brougham* counted the replacement of Baker as a gain for opposition, and Bulwer did indeed prove to be a reformer.26 Wilton anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Lords, 9, 11, 16 Nov., and to the Commons, 3 Nov., 15 Dec. 1830, 28 Mar. 1831.27 John Cam Hobhouse, Member for Westminster, presented and endorsed the reform petition of the gentry, yeomen, tradesmen and inhabitants of Wilton, 14 Feb., indicating that it was signed by people as respectable as Coxe, and ‘even by many of the burgesses themselves, who have been in the habit of prostituting and selling their votes’. Since the parish of Wilton had a population of just over 2,000 in 1821 (though it fell fractionally below this level in 1831), the borough was allowed to retain one seat under the Grey ministry’s reform proposals. At the general election that followed the reform bill’s defeat, Bulwer successfully contested Coventry, where he explained to the electors that

when the ministers brought forward their measure of reform, he informed the gentleman through whose influence he was returned [for Wilton], that he should support the measure. Before he received the decision, the second reading came on [22 Mar. 1831], and he was consequently unable to vote. He was afterwards informed that, if he supported the bill, he must vacate his seat.28

Penruddocke was therefore joined by the aged anti-reformer Dawkins, who had been out of the House since 1826. Twelve corporators added their names to the election entry in the minute book, including Wyndham, Alexander Powell, Member for Downton in the 1826 Parliament, and Lord FitzHarris, the eldest son of the 2nd earl of Malmesbury. The corporator Edward Hinxman of Little Durnford House, ‘a staunch anti-reformer’, was present at the election, but does not appear to have voted.29

The retention of Wilton in schedule B of the reintroduced reform bill was agreed in the House without debate or division, 30 July 1831. A numerously signed petition in the measure’s favour was presented to the Lords by the Lord Radnor, 3 Oct.30 With only 406 houses, of which 87 were valued at over £10 per annum, and assessed taxes of £492, the parish of Wilton on its own would not have provided a sufficiently large electorate for the purposes of the revised bill. The boundary commissioners therefore recommended its enlargement by the inclusion of 12 neighbouring parishes and parts of five others, including Stratford under the Castle, which included the condemned borough of Old Sarum, and part of Fisherton Anger, much of which was to be added to the enlarged borough of Salisbury. This increased Wilton’s geographical area, to the greatest extent of any enlarged borough, from 0.2 to 49.4 square miles, though with 298 £10 voters, it still fell just short of the intended minimum size and was fortunate to escape total disfranchisement.31 The passage of the bill was celebrated at a dinner at the Pembroke Arms, 27 June 1832. Although George Langstaff, a Wilton surgeon, told a Salisbury reform dinner that ‘there were but very few reformers in Wilton, that there was something in the air of the place unfavourable to the growth of liberal sentiments’, he later retracted, and stated that 130 of its inhabitants had signed a Wiltshire reform petition.32

By 1832 the corporation contained eight peers: Pembroke, Carnarvon, Malmesbury, Normanton, the 1st Baron Heytesbury (as A’Court had become), the 2nd Baron Bridport, the 6th earl of Shaftesbury and the 3rd earl of Clanwilliam, Pembroke’s brother-in-law. Other relations among the corporators were, for example, Carnarvon’s heir Lord Porchester*, Shaftesbury’s eldest son Lord Ashley* and Pembroke’s kinsman Robert Henry Clive*. Not surprisingly, given his domination of the corporation and his extensive ownership of property in the enlarged constituency, Pembroke retained a decisive influence, and he continued to return Conservatives for its one remaining seat.33 At the general election of 1832 Dawkins retired and Penruddocke remained Member, being succeeded by Baker in 1837, by FitzHarris in 1841 (until he became the 3rd earl of Malmesbury later that year), and then until 1852 by Lord Somerton, Normanton’s eldest son. Also in 1832, the then Conservative Sidney Herbert, who took up residence at Wilton House that year, was elected for Wiltshire South, which he represented until he was raised to the peerage as Lord Herbert of Lea in 1861, after serving under Lords Aberdeen and Palmerston*.34 He died the same year, a few months before his childless half-brother, but his two eldest sons, George Robert Charles (1850-95), and Sidney (1853-1913), Conservative Member for Wilton, 1877-85, and Croydon, 1886-95, succeeded in turn as the 13th and 14th earls of Pembroke.

Author: Stephen Farrell

Notes

  • 1. Sir R.C. Hoare, Wilts. Branch and Dole, 55; Spectator, 1 Jan. 1831.
  • 2. The Times, 16 May 1823; Wilts. RO, Pembroke mss 2057/F4/24, pp. 86, 89, 90, 93; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 816; PP (1831-2), xl. 119; (1835), xxiv. 742; P. Yates, ‘Wilton Carpet Industry’, Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxvii (1892), 242-57; VCH Wilts. iv. 172, 182; vi. 26, 27.
  • 3. PP (1830-1), x. 109.
  • 4. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816) v. 111; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 428, 429.
  • 5. The following analysis is based on the minute book at Wilts. RO, Wilton borough recs. G25/1/22.
  • 6. Pembroke mss F4/45, Pembroke to Montgomery, 19 Oct., reply, 25 Oct. 1821.
  • 7. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 598; (1835), xxiv. 740.
  • 8. Wilton borough recs. G25/1/22, f. 298; PP (1831-2), xl. 121.
  • 9. Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/G2538, Pembroke to FitzHarris, 5 Feb., 2 Mar.; G2459, Malmesbury to same, 8 Feb. 1820.
  • 10. Wilts. RO 867/11.
  • 11. Malmesbury mss 415, FitzHarris to Pembroke, 21 July, 7 Aug.; 404, replies, 5, 12 Aug. 1820.
  • 12. Pembroke mss F4/22, p. 221.
  • 13. Wilton borough recs. G25/1/22, f. 301.
  • 14. Wilts. RO, Penruddocke mss 332/270.
  • 15. Devizes Gazette, 1 Mar. 1821.
  • 16. Wilton House mss; Pembroke mss F4/44.
  • 17. Devizes Gazette, 26 Dec. 1822; Wilton borough recs. G25/1/22, f. 306.
  • 18. Abstract of Wilts. Inclosure Awards and Agreements (Wilts. Recs. Soc. xxv.), 195.
  • 19. CJ,