Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:

25 in 1660; 91 in 1671; about 200 in 1679; over 400 in 1689


4 Apr. 1660JOHN ROUS I 
25 Apr. 1661(SIR) JOHN ROUS I 
21 Mar. 1670SIR JOHN PETTUS vice Coke, deceased 
4 Jan. 1671WILLIAM WOOD vice Rous, deceased72
 Sir Thomas Allin, 1st Bt.19
12 Nov. 1678THOMAS ALLIN vice Wood, deceased 
12 Sept. 1679SIR ROBERT KEMP, Bt. 
23 Feb. 1681SIR ROBERT KEMP, Bt. 
28 Mar. 1685HON. ROGER NORTH 
 (SIR) THOMAS ALLIN, (2nd Bt.)26
  Double return. SKIPPON and RICH declared elected, 27 Feb. 1689 

Main Article

For several centuries Dunwich’s problems had been geographical rather than political. In a classic case of coastal erosion, it had lost its harbour and four of its six parish churches by the end of the 16th century. At the Restoration the annual feefarm rent was reduced from £12 8s.4d. to 5s., and in 1677 the sea invaded the market-place. The only property in the borough, held by the Rous family as lords of Temple manor, probably disappeared at the same time. The corporation, consisting of two bailiffs, who acted as returning officers, and 12 aldermen, included for much of the period one outstanding figure, John Benefice alias King John, who exploited the borough’s only asset by the systematic sale of the freedom. In so doing he quadrupled the electorate, though the exercise of the franchise by non-residents did not pass unquestioned, and tilted the borough politically towards the country party. It might have been expected that the seats would also be venal, but this does not appear to have been the case, and virtually all the Members had strong links with the neighbourhood.1

At the general election of 1660 two supporters of the Restoration were returned, John Rous and Henry Bedingfield. Both were strong Anglicans from local families, though Bedingfield, a younger son, retired at the dissolution of the Convention to devote himself to his legal practice in London. He was replaced by a local squire, Richard Coke, whose father had represented Dunwich in the Long Parliament until disabled for royalism. Shortly afterwards

the magistrates began to make profit by selling freedoms of the corporation and the benefit of their privileges, granting the same by deed under the seal of the corporation to divers coal traders and other persons living in Ipswich, Yarmouth, Norwich, and other remoter places.

But this development does not seem to have affected the next election, caused by Coke’s death in November 1669. A Cavalier, Sir John Pettus, was returned by the bailiffs with the whole assent and consent of the rest of the burgesses and freemen. But Rous’s death later in the year was followed by a contest, in which for the first time the ‘out-sitters’ voted. The Duke of York recommended Sir Thomas Allin of Somerleyton, ‘your friend and neighbour’, whose recent service as commander of the Mediterranean fleet had been ‘of great advantage to the interest of all the English trading in those parts’; but only three or four residents were so impressed by this encomium as to vote for the admiral, though his kinsman Benefice had recently taken over as junior bailiff. The other candidate, William Wood, a shipbuilder from the East London suburb of Wapping, had been a freeman of the borough since 1658, and claimed to have done ‘eminent service in managing some of the affairs of the said corporation. ... He was particularly invited by the [senior] bailiff and principal members of the corporation of Dunwich by several letters to stand ... before any writ issued forth for a new election.’ It was alleged that he undertook to build two ships gratis for the town, and at the election Sir Philip Skippon observed: ‘They were almost all seamen that stood for Mr Wood’, and calculated that he won ‘by several votes’. On the other side Allin asserted that he ‘had far the greater number of voices; but they (by reason of a great number of rude and mean persons, who were hired from Woodbridge, Ipswich and other places) might not make so great a noise as the other did’. Wood replied that his non-residents were ‘old freemen of Dunwich ... neither hired nor carried’, who voted for him ‘out of their faithful respects ... notwithstanding their being threatened if they should vote for Mr Wood’. He claimed 72 votes out of 91, which should have made the returning officer’s task simple. But he was unable to complete the return the same day, and, being a seaman unskilled in such matters, called in the assistance of an Ipswich lawyer, Christopher Milton, the Roman Catholic brother of the notorious republican propagandist, who happened to be present at the election, presumably as Wood’s agent. Benefice later managed to obtain possession of the borough seal, and produced a second indenture in Allin’s favour, which the sheriff of Suffolk accepted. Both candidates were ordered to forbear to sit, but the elections committee refused to accept Allin’s return, and on the recommendation of (Sir) Job Charlton the House resolved that Wood should sit on the merits of the return. No further proceedings are recorded.2

In the following years Benefice established a secure hold on the borough. He was later accused of keeping the borough’s common seal and selling the freedom of Dunwich for 40s. and 50s. to men in Yarmouth, Ipswich and other towns in Suffolk, and of having ‘a factor at Wapping, who made several free who never saw the town’. It was further alleged that he had ‘sealed various blank papers of admission to freedom, which he has left with others to dispose of in various places, and has exposed them for sale in fairs and markets’, and ‘made false entries of admissions in the register when the persons said to be admitted were not present’. When Wood died during the last session of the Cavalier Parliament, he returned Allin’s son as a court supporter ‘with the assent and consent of the major part of the burgesses and freemen’. Several of the freemen lodged a petition, but it was never reported. Pettus, hopelessly in debt, never stood again, and Skippon sat in all the Exclusion Parliaments. The two Members voted in opposite lobbies on the bill, and in September 1679 Allin was replaced by Sir Robert Kemp of the country party. Kemp and Skippon were returned unanimously by over 200 freemen, who bore their own charges, and before the 1681 election ‘the town... sent unto them desiring them to accept of the place’.3

The Tory reaction quickly made Benefice’s position impossible. He resigned office on 2 Dec. 1682, declaring for good measure ‘his resolution not to inhabit within this town’. A loyal address in September 1683 abhorring the Rye House Plot was presented by Kemp, the court lawyer Roger North, and Sir Richard Haddock; but in May 1684 a quo warranto was issued against the corporation. The initial reaction was to defend the charter, but other counsels prevailed, and it was surrendered. North presented another address on the death of Charles II, ‘of whom the world was no longer worthy’. The new charter named Bedingfield as recorder and several of the gentry as aldermen, including Kemp, Rous’s son, the second baronet, and Thomas Knyvett, whose grandfather had owned Temple manor before the Rouses. North and Knyvett were returned unopposed as Tories to James II’s Parliament, resigning all claims to parliamentary wages. North admitted:

It was the interest of the neighbouring gentlemen that chose me and not my own, who never was nor intend to be at that place. But I thought some small sums must be spent among a few poor people there. So I gave £10 at Christmas to the poor, for divers years.... And this I thought better than to present them with a week’s guzzling and drunkenness.

Benefice returned to the corporation a few weeks later when one of the new aldermen refused the sacramental test. By 1688 he had formed a close friendship with Benjamin Dennis, a Limehouse tobacconist who had doubtless bought his freedom at Wapping. Dennis had been taken up on suspicion of treasonable practices after Monmouth’s invasion, but was now serving as a royal electoral agent. In April the King was informed that at Dunwich:

the election is sometimes by the magistrates that are but 12, sometimes by the populace; either way your Majesty is sure, for Mr John Benefice alias King John, who governs this place entirely, hath given full assurance thereof. They will choose Sir Robert Rich and Sir Philip Skippon, or who else your Majesty or Mr Dennis shall recommend.

Rich, a dissenter and a Whig, was added to the corporation by order-in-council in June, at the same time that Kemp, Rous and Knyvett were removed, and four more aldermen were dismissed in the following month. In September Skippon was approved as court candidate for Suffolk, and the royal electoral agents reported that at Dunwich: ‘They will choose Sir Robert... and Mr Benjamin Dennis, except your Majesty shall think fit that the queen dowager recommend Mr North, her solicitor’. With the news of the Dutch invasion ‘King John’ abdicated even before King James, first obtaining from the corporation a certificate that he

did never wrong or hinder this town, but have always been very serviceable and beneficial to this corporation. If the said Mr John Benefice had not adventured to have made men free for the profit and maintenance of the town against the consent or without the knowledge of those gentlemen which were late aldermen of this corporation, then this town had been undone

for lack of means to keep up the defences against the sea. The old corporation was restored on 29 Nov., and Knyvett was elected bailiff in the following month. At the general election of 1689 he was successful for Eye, and Rous for the county. At Dunwich North was partnered by Allin, while Skippon and Rich stood as Whigs. The Tory candidates had the majority of the inhabitant freemen, their opponents the majority of the out-sitters,

who upon showing the common seal have had allowance made them accordingly, and in some late elections have been admitted to vote, being above 400 in number. Upon notice given of the election upon the prince’s letter, about 300 of these, being above thrice as many as the inhabitants, came to the election and claimed a poll, which was not denied them.

The result was a double return ‘in one and the same certificate’: but Allin had to admit to the elections committee that he had once been returned by the out-sitters himself. John Birch reported in favour of the non-resident freemen, and the House concurred by 173 votes to 156. Skippon and Rich were then declared elected without a division.4

Author: Paula Watson


  • 1. T. Gardner, Dunwich, 94; HMC Var. vii. 103; Suckling, Suff. ii. 280.
  • 2. Case of the Borough of Dunwich (1689), HMC Var. vii. 103; Adm. 2/1746, f. 77v; SP29/287/50; Norf. Arch. xxii. 172; CJ, ix. 188, 194; x. 577-8.
  • 3. HMC Var. vii. 103, 105; CJ, ix. 549; xi. 442-4; Jones, First Whigs, 98; Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Wilkin, i. 306-7.
  • 4. East Suff. RO, EE6/1144/13; Luttrell, i. 278; London Gazette, 10 Sept. 1683, 26 Feb. 1685; HMC Var. vii. 103-5; CSP Dom. 1685, pp. 15, 241; Duckett, Penal Laws (1883), 227, 246; PC2/72/689, 702, 797; Case of the Borough of Dunwich; CJ, x. 25-26.