Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:

88 in 17131

Number of voters:

at least 62 in 1690; 52 in 1713


 Sir Edward Turnor292
 Michael Hyde 
 William Shepherd 
 John Bence183

Main Article

Aldeburgh was virtually a pocket borough of Sir Henry Johnson, the Tory shipbuilder of Blackwall. He owned the manor of Aldeburgh with other estates nearby and was able to return himself and his younger brother William (who himself enjoyed an estate at nearby Sternfield) at every election in this period. The most serious challenge came in 1690, from Sir Edward Turnor*, another Tory, who had put up the previous year but had then withdrawn before the poll. Turnor’s interest derived mainly from his holding the patent for lighthouses at Orford Ness, which provided a bait for him to dangle in front of the townsmen: prior to the 1689 election his agent had offered ‘the lights for the benefit of the corporation’. His campaign in 1690, like that of the Johnsons, consisted largely in sending barrels of beer to treat his supporters in the town, but on this occasion he did also make some efforts to win over the ‘out-freemen’, a vitally important element in the electorate, comprising over a third of the voters, and almost entirely in the Johnsons’ interest, only to find that ‘the countrymen have still that infusion in their heads about Sir Edward’s being a [prisoner?] at large’. At the election ‘the country gentlemen came in as formerly they did’ against him, all but three of the 28 ‘out-freemen’ voting for both the Johnsons, ‘and got also many of our men, compelling them and purchase’, as Turnor was told by one of his lieutenants. Furthermore, although each faction could claim the allegiance of one of the bailiffs, who were the returning officers, Turnor’s man, Thomas Coggeshall, lay on his death-bed, leaving the pro-Johnson bailiff, John Bence*, with a comparatively free hand. It was alleged that Bence concealed the precept so that he might declare the election suddenly, to the advantage of his own side, and that various other ‘doings’ had been witnessed by Turnor’s agents ‘which if suffered we know not how to make a due election’. The real reason for Turnor’s defeat, however, was the opposition of ‘the country gentlemen’. Indeed, he was assured that among the townsmen he had actually secured a majority over William Johnson, and he accordingly petitioned against Johnson’s return, claiming that the franchise was confined to resident freemen. His agents had also organized a petition to the same effect from ‘the freemen and inhabitants’, which was presented to the House on the same day. Turnor had various other possible objections against Johnson: that the opposing bailiff was a minor; that the precept had for a time been hidden; that only one bailiff had signed the return, and so on; but a Yarmouth attorney Turnor had engaged as an expert on electoral matters to manage his case advised him to concentrate on the question of the franchise,

because it’s better to insist on one material point than to flee diverse refuges, especially such as must fail, for if you cannot exclude the votes of the outsitters, if you were to elect again you could hope for no better success, especially after a contest which will make them, whom you would set aside, more averse to your interest.

But in claiming a residence qualification Turnor was on shaky ground, his sole argument being that ‘outsitters’ had been admitted as freemen only since the Restoration, when they had been brought in ‘purposely to assist in’ elections. One of his foremost supporters in the town, Thomas Wall, who had been elected as bailiff in place of the deceased Coggeshall, advised him against proceeding along these lines and to rely instead on ‘the irregularity of the proceedings’, since it could not be denied that ‘in his time they [the ‘outsitters’] have given their votes on all occasions’. The petitions were not heard in the first session of the 1690 Parliament, so had to be reintroduced in the second session, and although Turnor did renew his own he was advised to let drop the supporting petition from the resident freemen. Subsequently this was recognized as having been a mistake, but when Turnor tried to retrieve the situation in November 1691 the petition of ‘divers inhabitants of Aldeburgh’ which accompanied his own petition was rejected by the Commons, ‘there being no petition of the said persons the last session’. Meanwhile the Johnsons had been consolidating their position. In June 1691 Turnor was informed that ‘three of your friends are taken off, by [parts?] in shipping which Sir Henry hath bought along with them’. When the case came to be heard, Turnor could find neither documentary evidence nor witnesses to support his contention about the franchise, and one of his prospective witnesses, Thomas Wall, in fact testified on behalf of Johnson that as far as he could remember out-freemen had always voted. The Commons confirmed that the franchise was in the freemen at large, and the petition was thrown out. With this result Turnor abandoned Aldeburgh and turned his attention to the neighbouring borough of Orford: ‘having been uncivilly used by some of Aldeburgh’, he wrote, ‘I was willing to fix the keeping of my lighthouses upon the corporation of Orford, and to that end proposed it to them’.4

By 1698 even Turnor could refer to Aldeburgh without qualification as the Johnsons’ borough. The apparent split in the corporation between 1693 and 1700 seems to have had no effect on Sir Henry’s interest. But even such a secure patron was obliged to cultivate his constituents’ regard, and he was to be found at various times making public benefactions there, lending money to the corporation and to various individuals, and, at the outbreak of war in 1702, interceding with the government to ensure that enough ordnance was supplied to the port to safeguard it and its shipping from enemy privateers. In 1708 an attempt was made to resurrect the argument about the franchise by two candidates whom the Johnsons had defeated, Michael Hyde and William Shepherd. Encouraged by the fact that there was now a Whig majority in the Commons, they petitioned. The case was ordered to be heard at the bar of the House, but the appointed day went by without any hearing. When the petition was renewed on 16 Nov. 1709, it was referred to the committee of elections. Hyde and Shepherd offered no evidence for their claims, while the Johnsons paraded the 1691 decision and a different witness to prove that out-freemen had never before been excluded from voting, and duly obtained a reaffirmation of this principle. In 1713 John Bence, their erstwhile ally, stood unsuccessfully against William Johnson. Of the 52 freemen who voted, all polled for Sir Henry Johnson except Sir Henry himself.5

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Add. 22248, f. 15.
  • 2. W. Suss. RO, Shillinglee mss, Edward Pratt to Sir Edward Turnor, 29 Oct. 1691.
  • 3. Add. 22248, ff. 13–14.
  • 4. Shillinglee mss, Thomas Godfrey to Turnor, 3 Dec. 1688, Thomas Wall to Richard Smith, 10, 12, 14 Feb. 1690, Wall to Turner, 17, 21 Feb. 1690, Turnor to Godfrey, 4, 7 Mar., 19 July, 11 Oct. 1690, Pratt to Turnor, 18 Mar., 1 Apr. 1690, 18 June, 29 Oct., 12, 17 Nov. 1691, Turnor to John Hooke, n.d.
  • 5. Shillinglee mss, Turnor to Viscount Hereford, 21 July 1698; HMC Var. vii. 105–6; Add. 22186, ff. 62–63, 86, 101; 22248, ff. 13–14; 22249, ff. 7, 40; CSP Dom. 1702–3, p. 419.