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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

164 in 1692


28 Feb. 1690SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt. 
24 Feb. 1692ROBERT BALCH vice Bull, deceased84
 John Gardiner80
25 July 1698ROGER HOAR1191
 Nathaniel Palmer72
29 Nov. 1699SIR FRANCIS WARRE, Bt. vice Hoar, deceased 
8 Jan. 1701JOHN GILBERT 
28 Nov. 1701SIR THOMAS WROTH, Bt. 
20 July 1702SIR THOMAS WROTH, Bt. 
16 May 1705SIR THOMAS WROTH, Bt. 
2 Dec. 1709DODINGTON re-elected after appointment to office 
 George Balch 

Main Article

The strong Dissenting interest in Bridgwater naturally produced intermittent bouts of political infighting between Whigs and High Churchmen, but parliamentary elections had largely ceased to be occasions for bringing these tensions into the open. The corporation of 24, which had the strongest hand in controlling a modestly sized scot-and-lot electorate, carefully cultivated links with members of the local gentry, but nevertheless maintained a jealous eye over the borough’s parliamentary seats, and during these years promoted the election of several of its senior members.

The Tory ascendancy which had been achieved prior to the Revolution, was preserved in the first two elections of William III’s reign. In 1690 the sitting Tory Members, Sir Francis Warre, 1st Bt., and Henry Bull, were returned unopposed. Both were local landowners. Warre, first elected for the borough in 1685, had been made recorder under the remodelled charter of 1683 and, although he had been removed from that office in October 1688, he retained his importance as a Tory figurehead. The same was true of Bull, an experienced parliamentarian who had represented two other Somerset towns before becoming MP for Bridgwater in 1689. The by-election in February 1692 necessitated by Bull’s death was contested by two local merchants, Robert Balch, a Presbyterian and leading member of the corporation, and John Gardiner, who also traded in London. Gardiner’s political leanings are unknown and it is therefore unclear if this was a party contest or an instance of personal rivalry. Balch’s return by a majority of four votes prompted Gardiner to petition and the matter was heard before the elections committee on 2 Dec. Balch’s printed ‘case’ claimed that the election was properly and impartially conducted at the town’s high cross with each voter’s eligibility checked against the poor books. Gardiner, meanwhile, had kept his own tally of votes, and finding ‘the equality’ tipping towards Balch had ‘procured some persons who were not charged in the poor book to poll for him, but were refused’. In his own ‘case’ Gardiner sought to justify his conduct and validate his supplementary votes by contending that anyone who paid ‘the King’s taxes’ must be accounted ‘scot-and-lot men’, and that the rate book, being only infrequently updated, did not provide a definitive list of voters. The hearing dwelt mainly upon the mayor’s alleged partiality in accepting five invalid votes for Balch and his refusal of six rightful ones for Gardiner, but, perhaps because of evidence of bribery on Gardiner’s part, the committee upheld Balch’s return and the House concurred.2

In 1695 it had been known for some time that neither Balch nor Warre would be seeking re-election and Francis Gwyn* conjectured early in July that if Gardiner could be encouraged to stand, it might ‘divide’ the corporation’s interest. Gardiner could not be persuaded, however, and instead Roger Hoar, a wealthy Whig merchant, alderman and leading light among the local Dissenters, was put forward with the corporation’s blessing and given carte blanche to nominate a partner. He first offered the seat to Robert Henley*, and following his refusal turned to Nathaniel Palmer, a local Tory landowner and kinsman of Robert Harley*, whose father had represented the town in the Cavalier Parliament and had lately served as one of the county’s knights of the shire. Palmer’s Tory politics were evidently not a prime consideration to Hoar, who, despite his strong Whiggishness, seems to have been anxious to share the election with a local gentleman rather than another from the town’s aldermanic elite, and the two were returned, as Hoar wrote, ‘without any contradiction’. The corporation was alarmed in November 1696 by the bill then pending for regulating elections and sent up a petition complaining about the draft bill’s ‘tendency to restrain the ancient liberty of elections of many able men in Parliament’, but it was thrown out on a motion to refer it to the bill’s committee.3

By 1698 the political temperature in Bridgwater had risen and there was a concerted effort among the town’s leading Whigs to rid themselves of Palmer at the approaching election. Hoar notified one correspondent a fortnight before the poll that his own position seemed secure and that he had found ‘a kind reception’ on his return ‘and a firm resolution to send me again in their service with another gentleman that never was in Parliament, who will be for this government and is an old friend of mine’. This was George Crane, a fellow alderman and merchant. A week before the election Palmer’s chances looked grim and a week later expectations that he would lose were duly fulfilled. Hoar died suddenly, however, in May 1699, a week after the close of the session. Surprisingly, in view of the recent bid to oust the Tory Palmer, another Tory, the former MP for the borough Sir Francis Warre, was chosen unopposed in November within a week of the Speaker’s writ. In the first 1701 election the corporation showed preference for having two townsmen as MPs, returning George Balch, son of the 1692 Member, and John Gilbert. Both were members of the corporation, Gilbert being an alderman, and both were Whigs. Gilbert stood down at the November election, and the corporation acquiesced in his replacement by Sir Thomas Wroth, 3rd Bt., a Tory, whose seat at Petherton Park was two miles from Bridgwater.4

Wroth and Balch, representing a balance of party interests, were returned again in 1702 and 1705. Wroth’s continuing credibility with the Whiggish corporation doubtless rested in the 1705 election on his having opposed the Tack the previous November. But it was not long before moves were afoot to displace him. Already beginning to take a close interest in the town’s affairs was George Dodington, a Junto Whig placeman whose family estates were eight miles from the borough. In 1706 his standing with the corporation was demonstrated by the fact that he, rather than either of the sitting Members, presented their address on the Ramillies victory. At the 1708 election Dodington’s connexion with the now triumphant Junto no doubt made him doubly acceptable, and having secured his return at both Winchelsea and Bridgwater, he transferred to the latter borough. Balch retained his seat, but in 1710 Palmer’s decision to stand, reaping the benefit of the rise in Tory fortunes, placed him in jeopardy. The joint candidacy of Dodington and Balch proved unable to resist the force of Palmer’s attack and of the two Whigs only Dodington was returned. Over the next few years Palmer grew increasingly oppressed by the process of maintaining his interest in the borough and by the expense of his attendance in London, so much so that by September 1712 he was seriously contemplating standing down. When the next election came, however, he found himself better placed. Under the threat of a stronger Tory challenge, Dodington resumed his Winchelsea seat, leaving Palmer to be returned with another local Tory, John Rolle II.5

Authors: Paula Watson / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Add. 28883, f. 88.
  • 2. L. Inn Lib. MP100/131, 132.
  • 3. Add. 70294, Gwyn to Harley, 1 July [1695]; 70018, ff. 94–95; 28879, f. 227.
  • 4. Add. 28883, ff. 36, 70, 88.
  • 5. London Gazette, 24–27 June 1706; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 58(6), p.214; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Harley) mss Pw2 Hy 992, Nathaniel to Thomas Palmer, 9 Sept. 1712.