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 freeholders

Number of Qualified Electors:

104 in 16901

Number of voters:

67 in 1690


 Thomas Brotherton20
 Sir James Forbes192
18 Dec. 1691JOHN BENNET vice Chicheley, deceased 
31 Oct. 1695LEGH BANKS 
5 Aug. 1698THOMAS LEGH I 
13 Jan. 1701THOMAS LEGH I 
1 Dec. 1701THOMAS LEGH I 
31 Dec. 1702THOMAS LEGH I vice Howe, chose to sit for Gloucestershire 
7 Dec. 1703JOHN WARD  vice Legh I, deceased 
12 May 1705THOMAS LEGH II 
13 May 1708THOMAS LEGH II 
19 Oct. 1710THOMAS LEGH II 
3 July 1711JOHN WARD, re-elected after appointment to office 
8 Sept. 1713JOHN WARD 

Main Article

Newton was a small township in the south of Lancashire ‘consisting of about 150 houses’. The lordship of the manor of Newton had been held by the Leghs of Lyme, in this period headed by the non-juror Peter Legh†, since 1661, and the lord of the manor dominated the borough. The borough’s sole administrative body was the court leet which was held by the authority of the lord of the manor, and the court’s presiding officer, the steward, was directly appointed by him and held the post at his discretion, a fact of some importance as the steward also acted as the borough’s returning officer. The Leghs’ dominance of Newton was also based upon extensive landholdings in the area, which had been given physical expression in the 1680s with the construction of a new court house and chapel in the township at the family’s expense. By the middle of the 17th century the franchise had come to be exercised by the township’s 40s. freeholders holding land in fee simple by right of medieval indentures, known locally as charterers, or by leases for lives, or leases for years dependent upon lives. The large landholdings of the Leghs in Newton and the surrounding area meant that this development did not, however, rob the lord of the manor of his immense influence in the borough. The Leghs’ power at Newton was always, as one contemporary put it, ‘sufficient to influence an election according to their own minds’, but in the early 1690s their hold was less secure than a modern historian’s description of Newton as ‘the pocket borough par excellence’ would indicate.3

The 1690 election saw the lawyer Thomas Brotherton revive his claim to a seat at Newton. Brotherton stood with the support of the county’s most prominent Whigs, most notably Lord Brandon (Charles Gerard*), and attempted to break the Legh stranglehold upon the borough by claiming that the franchise included under-tenants and those with leases for years, known locally as rackers, which Brotherton thought would increase the borough’s electorate from the 104 estimated by Legh’s agents to 167. Brotherton treated generously, and stood on a joint interest with Sir James Forbes in an effort to prevent the second votes of supporters going to either of Legh’s candidates, his uncle Sir John Chicheley and his cousin George Cholmondeley. Despite a brief wobble the confidence of the Legh interest was reaffirmed by a personal visit to the borough by Peter Legh, after which his kinsmen succeeded in comfortably defeating Brotherton and Forbes.4

Brotherton and Forbes were not, however, prepared to accept this defeat and immediately began preparations for a petition presented to the Commons on 25 Mar. Their case rested upon the claim that rackers were entitled to vote at Newton, citing the return of 1621 as evidence for this claim. In response Legh had set the Tory MP for Clitheroe, Roger Kenyon, to investigate this issue before the petition had been lodged. Kenyon’s researches proved that the return of 1621 did not support the petitioners’ contentions, but raised the spectre of another danger to the Legh interest. Kenyon reported that the return of 1621 was made by the majority of charterers, and pointed out the polling of other freeholders was ‘an innovation upon the privileges of the borough set up in the late wars, in Oliver’s time’. Peter Legh’s uncle Thomas† pointed out that if this narrower franchise were to be restored the Legh interest at Newton could be placed in jeopardy. As charterers tended to be more substantial individuals than the other Newton freeholders, he feared that if Kenyon’s discoveries became public knowledge it could lead to the charterers feeling that they ‘can choose one or both burgesses at any time the writs come out’ without reference to the lord of the manor. Thomas Legh also warned that even if the charterers were not interested in usurping the Legh interest in the borough other dangers remained, such as the prospect that men with money to spare and a desire for influence could more easily ‘court’ the select band of charterers than the larger body of freeholders in order to draw them away from the Legh interest. Given these possibilities, it comes as no surprise that the defence against the petition made no mention of this narrow definition of Newton’s franchise, claiming instead that the franchise lay with the charterers and freeholders with leases for lives, or years determinable upon lives. Brotherton alone renewed the petition on 6 Oct., and he continued treating in the borough, keeping the spirits of his supporters up with reports of imminent success, and a brief flurry of excitement accompanied September’s false rumours that Cholmondeley had died while serving with the army in Ireland. In May 1691 the situation was complicated by the death of Chicheley and consequent canvassing for the prospective by-election. John Bennet, the brother of the rector of Winwick, the parish of which Newton was part, began to lobby for Legh’s support at the by-election, proclaiming that ‘one of my greatest designs is to oppose Mr. Brotherton’. Peter Legh’s uncle Thomas wrote to him regarding Bennet’s candidacy, stating that ‘your best friends in these parts mightily desire it, among which I am one’, and when the 9th Earl of Derby wrote to assure Legh that Bennet ‘has friends in the House of Commons and money too perhaps sufficient to cope with Brotherton’, Legh yielded to Bennet’s applications. Brotherton soon gave notice of his intention to contest the by-election, and Legh feared that ‘the matter may go but ill; for not one stone does he leave unturned’. Brotherton was thus proceeding upon two fronts, having renewed his petition again on 22 Oct. 1691, until on 2 Dec. he withdrew his petition to allow the writ for the by-election to be issued. The withdrawal of the petition appears to have been the product of Brotherton’s realization that his attempts to gain a seat at Newton were doomed to failure, for despite treating at Newton he was unable or unwilling to pursue the contest to a poll, and Bennet was returned unchallenged.5

The election of 1695 was dominated by the long shadow of Peter Legh’s alleged involvement in the Lancashire Plot in 1693–4. Legh had been accused of receiving a Jacobite commission from the Earl of Middleton (Charles†), and consequently imprisoned, first in London and then in Chester, until the collapse of the crown’s case at the Manchester trials of October 1694 led to his acquittal at Chester the same month. During his trial he had, however, incurred obligations which limited his actions in choosing candidates for Newton. The prominent roles taken by Legh’s cousin Legh Banks, whose evidence played a key role in discrediting the allegations against the supposed Jacobite plotters, and Brotherton, whose rehabilitation in Lancashire’s Tory circles was completed by his representing the accused at Manchester, left Legh feeling obliged to support them at Newton in this election. Legh dropped Bennet, who appears to have gone quietly, and Cholmondeley, a far less willing sacrifice, and felt obliged to reject applications from several other individuals. Having been forced out of contention at Clitheroe, Kenyon applied to Legh for a seat, asking for support for both himself and Legh’s uncle Sir John Ardern of Harden, only to be told that Legh had ‘fixed upon two for Newton without any room for either of us’, which Legh blamed upon his ‘unfortunate circumstances’. Legh was also forced to turn down the appeal of Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Bt.*, who was facing a bitter struggle to retain his seat at Chester, pleading that ‘I am engaged to some friends to honour them with my interest at Newton’, and the requests of his maternal great-uncle for a seat for the Irish MP Sir James Shaen. Legh’s candidates were returned unchallenged, as were all those he supported at the remaining elections in this period.6

The 1698 election passed with less controversy, despite fears that Brandon (now Earl of Macclesfield), would attempt to disrupt Legh’s hold upon the borough. The only disturbance to the return of Brotherton and Legh’s cousin Thomas Legh I came with the unsuccessful request for a seat on behalf of Thomas Done, a Tory squeezed out of his former seat in Newtown, Isle of Wight. Despite a request in late 1699 for Legh’s support at Newton in any forthcoming election on behalf of Edward Brereton, the Member for Denbigh Boroughs, and a similar request in November 1700 from Richard Bold*, Brotherton and Legh were again returned without undue trouble in January 1701.7

The following month the newspapers mistakenly announced Brotherton’s death after a bout of fever. Lord Stanhope wrote to Thomas Coke* suggesting he might succeed Brotherton at Newton: ‘Mr Legh of Lyme has it in his power to put in who he will in his room. If you care to condescend so far as to accept of it, I know I can get it done for you, without your coming down or giving yourself the least trouble in the matter.’ Legh, however, thought that Coke should attend the election ‘to prevent some sort of censure that formerly had been made that Newton Members seldom were known to the voters . . . so that I would not give them the least reason, at this time, to frame a story or to make the least division amongst us’. Fortunately, given Brotherton’s recovery from illness, Coke showed ‘no great inclinations of standing’. The second election of 1701 saw Legh’s brother Thomas II replace Brotherton as one of Newton’s representatives, though Brotherton appears to have been given some indication that he would be returned again in an ensuing election.8

Upon Anne’s accession Newton despatched a humble address reflecting the Toryism of both its patron and MPs, declaring the borough’s ‘utter detestation and abhorrence of that spirit of blasphemy and profaneness, schism and sedition, which has of late so insolently showed itself’, and assuring Anne that ‘from the bottom of our hearts we must cheerfully recognise your Majesty our hereditary and lawful sovereign’, pledging that ‘we will to the utmost of our power support and assist your Majesty against all attempts which may endanger your royal person or government, our most excellent Church or the protestant succession’. The 1702 election saw Newton being used as an electoral haven for the Tory John Grobham Howe. Having been defeated at Gloucestershire in November 1701, Howe chose to approach Peter Legh, through the Earl of Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), for his support at Newton lest he fail in his campaign to regain his county seat. Legh concurred in this proposal, provided ‘it may not be known till the time of the election lest the faction may endeavour to make divisions in his town which may occasion him trouble hereafter’. He accepted that, should Howe gain a seat at Gloucestershire, he would sit for his county rather than for Newton, and expressed the hope that a double return could be avoided by Howe securing election for knight of the shire before the Newton writ was issued. News of Howe’s success in Gloucestershire came too late, however, to avoid his return for Newton, along with Thomas Legh II. After defeating a petition against his return Howe opted to sit for the county, though he had written to Peter Legh on hearing of his election at Newton to express ‘my due acknowledgements for so great an honour’. A writ for a new election was issued on 20 Nov., and forecasts that Thomas Legh I would ‘spring from the root again’ proved to be accurate, though a fatal accident in March 1703 meant that his return to parliamentary service was short-lived. Legh decided to support the Tory lawyer John Ward III at the by-election in December, and his return was unopposed. An address from Newton registering approval of Ward’s and Legh’s parliamentary behaviour was prepared, though not sent, in 1705, expressing appreciation for their support of ‘that excellent bill brought in to prevent that scandalous practice of occasional conformity . . . for their courageous maintaining the liberties and the privileges of the Commons of England in the case of the Ailesbury [sic] men . . . [and] what they have done in order to prevent the mischiefs which may arise to this nation from several pernicious Acts lately passed in Scotland’. Needless to say, and despite the idea being mooted that Thomas Legh II should stand down in order to pursue a place to ease his almost constant money worries, the two sitting Members were again returned without opposition in 1705.9

The borough remained undisturbed in the three years to the next election, when Peter Legh again nominated his brother and Ward. Neither candidate attended the court of election, and the borough steward was forced to deliver the following speech in an attempt to quell any mutterings among the populace about such neglect:

we are to proceed to the election of two burgesses to represent this borough in the ensuing Parliament. I can say without flattery you have been more unanimous and discreet in your elections for many years than any borough or corporation in the country. And the reason of this is plain, you are all members of the Church of England, there are no schisms nor factions amongst you, nor do any base or mean principles prevail amongst you . . . as to the gentlemen who served you in the last Parliament and who offer themselves again to serve you in this, all I shall say is that they served you faithfully and ingeniously. They are well affected to the Queen and government. They are neither soldiers nor pensioners and therefore fitter to be trusted with our Church and estates. In one word they are then after our own hearts and therefore (if you please) let us now proceed to elect and return them.

The recipients of this stirring address proceeded to do just as they were asked, a return that was repeated in 1710.10

When Ward was appointed to the Welsh judiciary in 1711 he was returned unopposed at the ensuing by-election, but the passage of the Qualification Act the same year meant that the financially embarrassed Thomas Legh II decided, with his brother’s support, to approach the Earl of Oxford (Robert Harley*) for a place to relieve his money worries, in return for allowing Oxford to nominate Legh’s successor at Newton. Negotiations were under way from summer 1711, and in August 1713 Ward was returned for Newton in partnership with Oxford’s nominee, Abraham Blackmore. Legh noted that Blackmore’s return had caused ‘some unexpected grumbles amongst us’, and though he was confident that ‘it signifies nothing’ Blackmore himself noted a certain ‘uneasiness’ in the borough at his return, an uneasiness which was to manifest itself in unfounded rumours of a challenge at the next election. Following the difficulties Peter Legh had faced in the early 1690s he had established a level of control at Newton which, while needing tending and attention to the feelings of the Newton’s inhabitants, ensured that his family maintained their control of the borough’s parliamentary representation.11

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison


  • 1. John Rylands Univ. Lib. Legh of Lyme mss muniments box Y bdle. B, call bk., c.1690.
  • 2. Legh of Lyme mss muniments box Z bdle. B, pollbk., c.11 Mar. 1690.
  • 3. Bodl. Willis 46, ff. 361, 420; 31, ff. 69, 76; VCH Lancs. iii. 375; Cheshire RO, Leicester-Warren mss DLT/C35/85, Peter Legh to Sir Francis Leicester, 3rd Bt.†, 11 Jan. 1732; Legh of Lyme muniments box Z bdle. B, acct. of Newton election, 1685, call bk., c.1690, counter-petition of George Cholmondeley and Sir John Chicheley, c.1690, [Roger Kenyon] to [Legh], 16 Mar. 1689–90; Legh of Lyme mss corresp., Thomas Legh† to same, c.1690; HMC Cowper, ii. 421; W. A. Speck, Whig and Tory, 57.
  • 4. Lancs. RO, Kenyon mss DDKe 9/63/7, Thomas Legh to Kenyon, 2 Mar. 1690; Legh of Lyme mss muniments box Z bdle. B, ‘A copy of those Brotherton calls voters in Newton’, c.1690, pollbk. 11 Mar. 1690; box Y bdle. B, call bk., c.1690; Legh of Lyme mss corresp. George Cholmondeley to Visct. Cholmondeley, c.1690.
  • 5. Legh of Lyme mss muniments box Z bdle. B, counter-petition of Chicheley and Cholmondeley, c.1690, [Kenyon] to [Peter Legh], 16 Mar. 1689–90; Legh of Lyme mss corresp., Thomas to Peter Legh, c.1690, 6 Sept. 1690, 24 May 1691, Legh Bowden to same, 28 Sept. 1690, Richard Edge to Bowden, 21 May 1691, Peter Legh to [?], 2 June 1691, Derby to Peter Legh, 2 June 1691; NLW, Chirk Castle mss E1073, Bennet to Sir Richard Myddelton, 3rd Bt.*, 21 May 1691.
  • 6. HMC Kenyon, 363–7, 384–5, 387–94; Eg. 720, ff. 79–80; Legh of Lyme mss corresp., Francis Cholmondeley† to Peter Legh, 29 Sept., 12 Oct. 1695, Brotherton to same, 10 Oct. [1695], 12 Oct. 1695, Thomas Bankes to same, c.1695, 8 June 1695, Legh to Visct. Cholmondeley, c.1695, Kenyon to Legh, 19 Oct. 1695, Grosvenor to same, 15 Oct. 1695, Sir James Shaen to Sir William Russell, 24 Sept. 1695, Russell to Elizabeth Legh, 8 Oct. 1695, same to Peter Legh, 22 Oct. 1695; Lyme Letters ed. Lady Newton, 323; Add. 36913 ff. 232, 235.
  • 7. Legh of Lyme mss corresp., Bowden to Peter Legh, 22 July 1698, Francis Cholmondeley to same, 23 Aug. 1699, Bold to same, 27 Nov. 1700; Greater Manchester RO, Legh of Lyme mss E17/89/40/10, [?] to [Legh], 7 July 1698.
  • 8. BL, Lothian mss, Stanhope to Coke, c.1701; HMC Cowper, ii. 421–2.
  • 9. Legh of Lyme mss muniments, box Z bdle. B, Newton address, c.1702, Howe to [Peter Legh], 22 Aug. 1702; box Y bdle. C, Newton address, c.1705; Legh of Lyme mss corresp., Francis Cholmondeley to same, 11 Dec. 1703, Thomas Legh II to same, 22 Aug. 1704, 24 Apr. 1705; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 319; Add. 29588, ff. 68–69, 74–78, 109–10, 140–1; 70020, f. 120; Cheshire RO, Arderne mss DAR/F/33, Samuel Daniell to [?], 31 July 1702.
  • 10. Legh of Lyme mss corresp. Edward Allanson to Ward, 13 May 1708.
  • 11. Add. 70201, Thomas Legh II to Oxford, 28 June 1711, 7 July 1712; Add. 70237, Edward Harley* to same, 26 Sept. 1713; Legh of Lyme mss corresp., Peter Legh to Ward, c.21 Aug. 1713; Legh of Lyme mss muniments box Z bdle. B, Ward to [Edward Allanson], 28 Aug. 1713, Blackmore to same, 4 Mar. 1713[–14]; box Y bdle. B, same to Thomas Legh, 11 Mar. 1713[–14]; Greater Manchester RO, E17/89/1/7, Leicester to Peter Legh, 3 Feb. 1714[–15].