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 corporation and freemen

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

at least 325 in 1698


11 Mar. 1690Sir John Maynard 
 Hon. John Granville 
4 Nov. 1690John Trelawny  vice Maynard, deceased 
25 Nov. 1695Hon. John Granville 
 George Parker 
30 July 1698Charles Trelawny190
 John Rogers190
 George Parker135
 Josias Calmady135
9 Jan. 1701Charles Trelawny 
 Henry Trelawny 
29 Nov. 1701Charles Trelawny 
 Henry Trelawny 
4 Feb. 1702John Woolcombe  vice Henry Trelawny, deceased 
27 July 1702Charles Trelawny 
 John Woolcombe 
19 May 1705Charles Trelawny 
 Sir George Byng 
 John Woolcombe 
19 May 1708Charles Trelawny 
 Sir George Byng 
2 Dec. 1709Byng  re-elected after appointment to  office 
14 Oct. 1710Charles Trelawny 
 Sir George Byng 
4 Sept. 1713Sir John Rogers, Bt. 
 Sir George Byng 

Main Article

Plymouth was described by Defoe as ‘a town of consideration and of great importance to the public’, and its dual importance, both as a naval and military base and a trading port, were closely reflected in its electoral politics. The corporation was only able to exert partial control over the allocation of its parliamentary seats while at the same time, certainly in the 1690s, their difficulties were complicated by party struggles. One key influence to which the corporation was forced to bow was that of the 1st Earl of Bath, governor of the citadel, who continued to play a crucial role in the town for the Tories until his dismissal in 1696. The Whigs, effectively supported by the Quaker and Anabaptist congregations, turned increasingly during the 1690s for encouragement and support to Sir Francis Drake, 3rd. Bt.*, whose principal electoral stronghold lay a short distance away at Tavistock, and who was very much the pillar or ‘regulator’, as his detractors saw him, of Whig politics in Plymouth during most of the period.1

In 1690 the sitting Members, Sir John Maynard, the town’s elderly Presbyterian recorder, and Lord Bath’s son, Hon. John Granville, were returned unopposed. On Maynard’s death later in the year, John Trelawny, a Plymouth merchant and former member of the corporation, was elected in his place. Although Trelawny was a distant kinsman of the leading west-country borough-monger Bishop Trelawny of Exeter, the bishop does not appear to have intervened on his behalf. At the 1695 election Granville, who was now chief commissioner of the reconstruction of Plymouth dockyard, was returned with another Tory, George Parker, a local squire. A large body of some 80 constituents, anxious that the war be vigorously prosecuted, took the precaution of attending him soon after his election at Burrington, his nearby residence, to urge him ‘to vote readily sufficient supplies for his Majesty to carry on the war with vigour against France and to raise the same in the most effectual and expedious manner as the case requires, so as it may not be a burden to the meaner sort’. The state of party politics in the town at this juncture was remarked upon by an anonymous, though obviously Tory, member of the corporation in his observation that the return of two Tories in 1695 ‘so mortified the men and broke the spirit of their [the Whigs’] party that even the regulator, Sir Francis Drake, became quite confounded. In the years immediately after the 1695 election there ensued a smart struggle in the town between Whigs and Tories, centring upon the corporation’s efforts to obtain a new charter occasioned by the fact that James ii’s declaration in October 1688 restoring the corporations had specifically excluded Plymouth. In 1696 the then mayor, leading the Tory–Granville faction among the town’s governors, went up to London with a view to securing a new charter that would have enabled him to ‘fill the benches with his creatures’. However, the mayor’s plans were almost immediately scuppered by Bath’s disgrace and his removal from the governorship. The sudden weakening of the Granville interest allowed Drake to seize the initiative on behalf of the ‘fanatic interest’, and before the year was out he had obtained a charter that restored to Plymouth its ancient liberties, ‘modelled the government and put in men [i.e. Whigs] that had neither right nor skill to be in it’. As a reward for his services Drake was nominated recorder for life, and he saw to it that the first creation of freemen under the new charter included many of his friends and connexions among the county’s Whig gentry such as Sir George Treby*, (Sir) John Elwill* and Sir Walter Yonge, 3rd Bt.* Drake brought the new charter to Plymouth in triumph accompanied by ‘200 horse and the trained bands’.2

Almost immediately, however, a fresh clash of party interests arose between Drake and the new governor of the citadel, Major-General Charles Trelawny, brother of Bishop Trelawny. Bath’s Whig successor as lord lieutenant of the county was the Earl of Stamford, but much to Drake’s consternation Trelawny pressed to have himself confirmed as commander of the Plymouth militia by virtue of his position as governor of the town’s military establishment. Drake lost no time in briefing his old friend, Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*) of the dire repercussions to be expected if Trelawny’s wishes were granted, and in May his views were reflected in a letter from Somers to Secretary of State Shrewsbury, wherein he advised that the matter ‘puts such a damp upon them, and his being in that employment, will be so fatal to them that what your Grace has helped to do in getting their charter, and all which has been built upon it in that part of England (which is considerable) will be utterly lost’. It was already apparent, as Somers urged, that Tory spirits were lifting and that ‘notwithstanding the diligence and violent temper of the bishop, if a new Parliament be chosen, it will appear to have a great effect’. The Whig aldermen were even prepared to resign and leave the town, and Drake to resign as recorder, if Trelawny were given the lieutenancy of Plymouth’s militia. James Vernon I* represented to Shrewsbury the opinion put to him by west-country Whigs such as Yonge and Hugh Boscawen I* that the damage to the Whig interest might not be limited to the inability to secure two Whig MPs for Plymouth in any future election, but indeed might ‘spread itself into the whole county’. The lords justices ruled that the issue of a separate militia commission to Trelawny would necessitate the renewal of Stamford’s commission, which in turn would require the renewal of the commissions to all the deputy lieutenants in the county; and since so many had declared an unwillingness to resume them in such circumstances, the lords justices, worried that this ‘would breed so great a disturbance in discomposing what had been settled with great care and industry’, chose to leave the matter until the King’s return from campaign. Trelawny appears not to have pursued his claims after the King’s return and Stamford retained control of the militia.3

At the general election of 1698, however, Parker was defeated, in the company of Josias Calmady (father of Shilston Calmady† and presumably a Tory). Trelawny was elected alongside the wealthy Whig merchant John Rogers, thus opening the way for greater direct influence by the bishop of Exeter. The following year saw many Tories admitted as freemen which, as one local observer recorded, ‘displeased Sir Francis Drake so that he abdicated the town and came not near it in several years, doing us all the spite he could, without regard to his oath or the interest of his friends here, who suffered as much from his oppressions as did his enemies’. In the preparations for the election in January 1701, Bishop Trelawny wrote confidently that ‘my two brothers will be chosen at Plymouth’. The subsequent election of General Trelawny and his brother Henry, also a senior army officer, in spite of ‘all the power and tricks of the Dissenters, Whigs and enemies of the Church . . . quite broke the neck of the Whig interest’. Henry Trelawny’s death early in January 1702 necessitated a by-election. As Drake remarked, the general’s ‘great funeral’ had ‘a noble influence’ on the imminent election, enabling the Trelawny party to rally their forces while ‘the members of the corporation were left without any notice taken of them’. John Woolcombe, a local Tory landowner, was returned shortly afterwards on the Trelawny interest and was chosen again with Charles Trelawny at the general election of 1702.4

In 1704 Bishop Trelawny received a warning from Francis Atterbury that Drake, Stamford and his friends were actively seeking to ‘turn the election at Plymouth’ to their own party advantage by gaining control of the Hele charity there. Drake managed to strengthen his interest by securing the appointment of Francis Pengelly* as town clerk and by gaining the mayor to his side who, as the local Tory diarist, James Yonge, recorded, ‘by tricks and overbearing returned Sir George Byng. I don’t say elected him, for had the good voices of the one they refused been admitted and their ill ones refused, we had carried it.’ Another contemporary commenting on this election wrote: ‘the country gentlemen are angry with Admiral Byng for appearing at so many places, and they are afraid next session they shall have two flags at Plymouth.’ Despite Tory allegations of Whig trickery, Woolcombe did not petition. Drake’s recovery at Plymouth was by no means secure or complete. In December 1706 he was anxious at the appearance of ‘a parcel of hotheads . . . who have prepared to undermine Sir G[eorge] Byng’, while at the same time the prize office did ‘mischief’. By the election of 1708, however, such difficulties had been surmounted and Byng was chosen with Trelawny ‘unanimously’. Upon their return, again unopposed, in 1710 they each presented the corporation with 100 guineas. When Trelawny stood down in 1713 neither the local Tories nor the government seem to have been in a strong enough position to offer a viable replacement. The unpopularity of the ministry’s commercial treaty with France on account of the harmful effect envisaged on the town’s woollen trade with Portugal appears to have been the overriding factor in the adoption of a Whig, Sir John Rogers, 2nd Bt., son of the previous Member, who was returned with Byng without challenge.5

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 228, 231.
  • 2. Post Boy, 9–12 Nov. 1695; Add. 17677 PP, ff.423–4; Jnl. James Yonge ed. F. N. L. Poynter, 206; C. E. Welch, Plymouth City Charters, 26–27; CSP Dom. 1696, pp. 371, 378; L. F. W. Jewitt, Plymouth, 302, 306–7, 311, 313; E. F. Eliott-Drake, Fam. and Heirs of Drake, ii. 113, 157.
  • 3. Shrewsbury Corresp. 481; Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, i. 104; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/104, 107, 112, 127, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 20, 27 May, 3, 17 June 1697; Surr. RO (Kingston), Somers mss 371/14/E8, Lady Drake to [Somers], 27 Sept. 1697, E10–E11, Drake to same, 4, 22 Oct. 1697.
  • 4. Jewitt, 306–7, 311; Exeter dioc. archs., Bp. Trelawny to Adn. Cook, 21 Dec. [1700]; Devon RO, King mss 346M/F 23, Drake to Peter King*, 10 Feb. 1701–2.
  • 5. Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. iii. 235–6, 241; Eliott-Drake, 157, 163; CJ, xv. 466; xvii. 420; Bodl. Ballard 21, f. 222; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F54, ff. 69, 71, Drake to [Wm. Cowper*], 13, 30 Dec. 1706; C. Gill, Plymouth, ii. 73.