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:

at least 196 in 1695; at least 236 in 1713


20 Feb. 1690Sir Matthew Andrews 
 Edward Nicholas 
30 Oct. 1695Edward Nicholas110
 Sir Matthew Andrews102
 Sir John Morton, Bt.97
 Henry Cornish82
2 Aug. 1698Edward Nicholas 
 Henry Cornish 
23 Feb. 1699Thomas Chafin vice Cornish, expelled the House 
10 Jan. 1701Edward Nicholas 
 Thomas Chafin 
 Sir Edmund Harrison 
27 Nov. 1701Edward Nicholas 
 Sir John Cropley, Bt. 
20 July 1702Sir John Cropley, Bt. 
 Edward Nicholas 
15 May 1705Edward Nicholas 
 Sir John Cropley, Bt. 
11 May 1708Sir John Cropley, Bt. 
 Edward Nicholas 
9 Oct. 1710Edward Nicholas 
 Edward Seymour 
 Sir John Cropley, Bt. 
26 Mar. 1711Henry Whitaker vice Seymour, deceased 
31 Dec. 1711Edward Nicholas re-elected after appointment to office 
31 Aug. 1713Edward Nicholas174
 Henry Whitaker137
 John Still112
 William Benson49

Main Article

Edward Nicholas, a local Tory landowner who was first returned in 1689, possessed sufficient interest at Shaftesbury to retain one seat throughout the period. The other principal interest in the town belonged to the earls of Shaftesbury, though the 2nd Earl (Anthony Ashley†) was far less active than his son, Lord Ashley (Anthony*), a Country Whig. In 1690 Nicholas had been returned with Sir Matthew Andrews, a Whig standing on his own interest, which was based on possession of a nearby estate, an alliance with the recorder and justified popularity through his frequent ‘charitable acts’. Both candidates stood for re-election in 1695, notwithstanding opposition from Sir John Morton, 2nd Bt.*, a Dorset landowner and Country Whig, and Henry Cornish, a Whig merchant from London. Morton, who had been a friend of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper†), was probably supported by the Shaftesbury interest, whereas Cornish, although the son of a prominent victim of James II, had no particular connexion with the borough, and appears to have attempted simply to buy his way into the seat. On 30 Oct. a correspondent of John Ellis* wrote that ‘after a great deal of noise, confusion and tumult for a whole day yesterday and two hours this morning in polling at this place, Sir M. Andrews and Mr Nicholas were declared burgesses, not without a great deal of grief to the mob, who appeared very violently against our friend Nic[holas]’. Indeed, the first petition to be presented after the election, on 26 Nov., came from a number of inhabitants, complaining of the partiality of the mayor and proposing that Cornish should have been returned instead of Nicholas. Cornish himself petitioned against Nicholas on 4 Dec., and Morton petitioned against Andrews on the 6th. The committee of elections considered Morton’s petition first because it touched on the right of election. His counsel claimed that the franchise lay in the mayor and 12 members of the corporation only. When this was rejected, the plea shifted to limiting the right to vote to the inhabitants paying scot and lot. Counsel for Andrews insisted that all the inhabitants should vote. This was rejected, by the committee, which eventually decided in favour of the scot-and-lot men, but they still declared Andrews duly elected. The petitions from Cornish and his supporters were quickly dismissed and Nicholas’ return confirmed. The report, presented on 29 Feb. 1696, was accepted by the House.1

In 1698 there were rumours of opposition to Nicholas, but nothing materialized and he was returned, apparently without opposition, together with Cornish. The latter was expelled in February 1699, on the grounds that his office as commissioner of stamps rendered him ineligible to sit. Thomas Chafin II, a Dorset landowner and a Tory, took the seat at the ensuing by-election. In the remainder of this Parliament there appeared the first signs of a revival of the Shaftesbury interest. There were, for example, proposals to construct a waterworks ‘against Mr Nicholas’ interest’ and charitable acts such as the distribution of corn to the poor in December 1700. The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury did not, however, put up a candidate at the first election of 1701. Cornish thought of standing himself, but instead supported a fellow outsider and mercantile ally, Sir Edmund Harrison, a director of the New East India Company. Cornish and his brother-in-law, Sir Theodore Janssen†, were two of the largest stockholders in the New East India Company, which was trying to get as many of its members as possible into the House at this election. No details of the poll are known, but Nicholas described his own and Chafin’s re-election as by ‘a great majority’ which had demonstrated to Harrison ‘that the in[terest] he stood on will not do, though he had . . . the joint stock to assist him’. Nicholas had in fact taken great care to cultivate the electors, reacting to a report which suggested that he was only to be seen when he required votes by visiting each of his supporters to thank them personally. Such exertions left Nicholas, ‘not a bit wasted in flesh but considerably in pocket’.2

In the second 1701 election Lord Shaftesbury put up his close friend, Sir John Cropley, 2nd Bt. After Cropley’s return, Shaftesbury wrote with pardonable exaggeration that the town had been completely in Tory hands ‘since my grandfather’s death, but which I have now entirely recovered, and made zealous’. The revival of the Whig interest was reflected in the constituents sending instructions to the new Members, which were printed in the London press. Lord Shaftesbury proudly boasted in January 1702 that he had been responsible for the inclusion of a particular instruction to support the Abjuration. It should be noted, however, that this election also marked the commencement of a tacit agreement between the Whig and Tory interests in Shaftesbury to share the representation. At the 1702 election this arrangement was nearly upset by Chafin, who proposed to stand against Cropley. Chafin’s support, in the event, proved insufficient and he is not known to have stood a poll. Shortly before the 1705 election Cropley wrote to Shaftesbury about the steps to be taken to ensure his own re-election. After dismissing proposals from the more affluent voters for the erection of a new workhouse or a gallery in one of the churches as quite useless (because such projects were of no interest to the mob, who cared for nothing but money), he suggested that he should,

find some way of letting Mr [William] Bennett [recorder] and Mr Butler [one of his supporters on the corporation] know that when the 14 days of petitioning are expired, £100 they shall distribute as from themselves to such acts as binding poor children to trades and amongst real charities as they please and also . . . a present to the mayor . . . This may be whispered or not whispered as thought safe but whatever becomes of the election I will enjoin Mr Bennett to no one alive to make a promise for fear of a petition I can never go through and must sink under.

Cropley also decided that he would not make a personal appearance at Shaftesbury, as this was the safest way to protect his patron’s reputation should he be defeated. Although Cropley was victorious, apparently without a contest, Lord Shaftesbury subsequently commented that this election had been ‘indeed a trial, and such a one as I cannot be expected to undergo again’. He continued to cultivate his interest, however, endowing the town’s school with £30 p.a. in 1707. He suffered a reverse in November of that year, when Bennett, one of his most influential supporters, died. A contest developed between Shaftesbury and Nicholas to recommend a successor to the recordership, which was eventually resolved in Shaftesbury’s favour.3

Nicholas lost office in 1707, and consequently felt some unease about his position at Shaftesbury in 1708. However, matters were complicated by the manoeuvres at Westminister of Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) in an attempt to create a new Court party of ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whigs’. Cropley was a notable recruit to Godolphin’s scheme and thus was somewhat averse to the attacks of the Junto Whigs (and High Tories) upon the lord treasurer. Thus, it was with some alarm that Cropley reported to Lord Shaftesbury at the end of December 1707 that Lord James Russell*, a Whig, had indicated a desire to stand with him at the next election. Cropley strongly advised against giving any countenance to this proposal because it would not only lead to a breach with Nicholas (a very moderate Tory), but also damage the new relationship with Godolphin. He wrote to Lord Shaftesbury on 30 Dec.

Lord James Russell . . . has a mind you should set him up with me at Shaftesbury, but I can’t but think it too hazardous and though it did not lose both to be sure my Lord James would be preferable to me. He was mighty full how low Mr Nicholas’ interest was; how if you set up another that he would be routed . . . I can’t at any rate think it a safe venture . . . Mr Nicholas is so supple a Tory . . . that the Court will never heartily help against such a sure tool. Should ever an open rupture be made with Mr Nicholas to be sure it would create and entail a mighty war.

In February 1708 the Tories made it known that they wanted a more formal pact. Cropley informed Lord Shaftesbury on 19 Feb. 1708 that

I had a message today from F[rancis] Gwyn* desiring to give me by word of mouth the Tories’ firm determination to do to the utmost in their power to oblige and honour you. He hopes that if they support all they can your interest or at least no way disturb it, you will give them quiet in Wilts[hire]. I sent word I believed you intended to occasion no ferment there. I beg you to write whatever you would have me say . . . Pray remember . . . to write respectfully on this disposition of the Tories. Never was a better time for this, for Somers [Sir John*] and Rochester [Laurence Hyde†] have so much joined against the Court . . . that this is very justifiable, though I will on my part take care it shall be the utmost secret.

Gwyn had suggested that Nicholas and Cropley should join openly, but this Cropley strongly opposed. Shortly afterwards Cropley was able to report that at a meeting with the Tories’ negotiators a firm agreement had been reached. He wrote that Nicholas

in an agony told me before the gentleman that he there engaged his honour to the utmost of his power to be your faithful friend and obedient servant, that he protested he had not one friend or vote in Shaftesbury but he would faithfully endeavour should be devoted to you . . . He only begged you not to judge him by a few hot fellows . . . but to judge him on the whole of his future conduct. Here I replied that he had a full proof of your faith and . . . that in all the elections you had pretended friendship, there had been full proof of it, that on the other ha[n]d, though you have ever received a personal respect from Mr Nicholas yet not a vote or the least strength, you were still disposed to be a friend but in case it was not returned in another manner than it had been there would be no more contests singly for me . . . Here he [Nicholas] vowed trembling his sincerity, that if but a mad whisper was against me in the town he would by express let me or you know it and never be wanting to his utmost immediately to quench and destroy the attempt. He desired me to consider if he had not reason to desire a quiet election . . . We concluded to be friends, which all joined.

No sooner had the agreement been made than one of Lord Shaftesbury’s supporters wrote warningly that ‘the Presbyterian interest are thinking of setting up Cornish’. Under such circumstances Nicholas, to secure his own majority, might now direct his followers to give their second vote to Cornish. The situation was potentially embarrassing for Lord Shaftesbury, who was reluctant to appear in open support of a Tory against a Whig. Cropley, who was still in London, also found himself in an awkward predicament. Cornish had informed him that he intended to stand, providing he could find someone to hold his commissionership of stamps in trust, and, moreover, ‘by being a Member may hope soon to get another two [offices]’. On 15 Apr. Cropley told Lord Shaftesbury that ‘I have had one great dread on me, that my lord treasurer’s answer would have been that Cornish designed standing with me and his place was at my service’. In fact Cornish played a ‘sly trick’ on Cropley by selling his office and leaving London secretly, all the while creating the impression that he had come to no firm decision by sending disingenuous messages. In some alarm Shaftesbury wrote to Cropley on 26 Apr.

I have nothing to say but come away instantly and sorry I am that I have been so lulled asleep, Mr Cornish coming down at last. No visit or advance . . . from gentry or a soul of Mr Nic[holas]’s party, and besides this, one Mr Tench [possibly Edward*], an East India merchant . . . having spent money last Saturday and walked the town which is in an uproar. Nor know I the bottom of this intrigue or whom he secretly joins with: only those of Mr Nicholas’ party, the meanest, I must confess, but our constant enemies and his friends, have introduced him.

Cropley immediately sought interviews with Nicholas and Godolphin. The former reassured him that his leading supporters had now waited on Shaftesbury, whereas the latter made it clear that Cropley’s success was ‘much desired’. As for Cornish it was clear that he stood as a Junto Whig. ‘He sets out on the oak [i.e. Whig] bottom’, wrote Cropley, and ‘expects but an oak ministry’. To this end Cornish gave out that he was standing with the approval of Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*). After these frantic preliminaries the election itself was something of an anticlimax. Cornish withdrew, finding his support inadequate, and there is no evidence that Tench stood a poll. It had been a ‘hard struggle’ nevertheless, as Shaftesbury made clear in a letter to Somers on 13 May. He complained bitterly about the behaviour of the Junto and their henchman, the 2nd Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*), lord lieutenant of Dorset, in allowing Cornish to come down at all. This protest was in itself not entirely honest, however. Lord Shaftesbury pretended that ‘a common civility’ from Cornish would have brought about a joint ticket and ‘saved me the officious civilities of a contrary party’. Somers replied that Sunderland claimed he had only encouraged Cornish on condition that he first obtained Lord Shaftesbury’s consent for his standing.4

The Whig–Tory agreement, which had survived for four elections, collapsed in the changed political circumstances of 1710. A second candidate was brought forward, Edward Seymour II, a member of one of the leading Tory families of the West Country. The Whig interest, moreover, had been weakened by the illness of Lord Shaftesbury, which had forced him to retire from public life. On 16 Sept. 1710 Robert Walpole II* wrote to General Thomas Erle*: ‘I understand that Sir John Cropley is like to have an opposition at Shaftesbury, where your interest is so very considerable that I must desire you will give Sir John all the assistance you possibly . . . can.’ Cropley was defeated, however, and did not stand again. On Seymour’s death his seat was taken by another Tory, Henry Whitaker, a local landowner whose family had had a long association with the borough. In 1713 Nicholas and Whitaker defeated two Whigs, William Benson† and John Still, whose joint petition on 5 Mar. 1714 achieved nothing.5

Authors: Paula Watson / David Wilkinson


  • 1. Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 26, f. 341; Add. 28878, f. 244; 28879, f. 254.
  • 2. PRO 30/24/20/87; 30/24/19/1/53–54; Add. 28883, f. 82; 28886, ff. 184, 203, 213, 228; D. R. Hainsworth, Stewards, Lords and People, 154–7.
  • 3. PRO 30/24/20/101–2, 129–30, 152–3, 225–6, 358; 30/24/22/1/13, 48; 30/24/22/2/302–3; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 30, 149; Flying Post, 11–13 Dec. 1701; Post Man, 11–13 Dec. 1701.
  • 4. PRO 30/30/24/20/356–7; 30/24/21/1–5, 9, 21–30, 45, 51–55, 349, 356, 360; 30/24/22/4/317–9.
  • 5. Dorset RO, Fox-Strangways mss D24/238/11, W. Hillman to Charles Fox*, 30 Sept. 1710; Churchill Coll. Camb. Erle mss 2/65, Walpole to Erle, 16 Sept. 1710.