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

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:



 Double return. HARBORD and GUYBON declared elected 3 May 1690
26 May 1690BAPTIST MAY vice Harbord, chose to sit for Launceston 
10 Jan. 1696JAMES SLOANE vice Williamson, chose to sit for Rochester 
 Edmund Soame
16 Jan. 1699CHARLES PASTON, Ld. Paston vice Williamson, chose to sit for Rochester20
 Richard Atkins8
 Sloane’s election declared void, 27 Jan. 1700 
8 Feb. 1700JAMES SOAME18
 Edmund Soame12
 Thomas Hanmer13
19 Mar. 1701THOMAS HANMER, vice Williamson, chose to sit for Rochester 
29 Nov. 1701SIR JOHN WODEHOUSE, Bt. 
20 July 1702ROBERT BENSON20
 James Sloane13
14 May 1705SIR THOMAS HANMER, Bt. 
 Sir Thomas Hanmer, Bt. 
 Dudley North 
7 Oct. 1710SIR THOMAS HANMER, Bt. 
12 Dec. 1710SIR EDMUND BACON, Bt. vice Hanmer, chose to sit for Suffolk 
31 Aug. 1713SIR WILLIAM BARKER, Bt. 

Main Article

Although susceptible to aristocratic influence, and with a tincture of party politics, the Thetford corporation in this period was characterized more by venality. Bribery was often a feature of elections, and no interest could for long be maintained there without some substantial gifts to the corporation or benefactions to the town.

In 1690 there were still two rival corporations, one claiming authority under Charles II’s charter, the other asserting that the 1681 surrender had been illegal and holding to the ‘ancient’ charter of Queen Elizabeth. As in the previous year, each made a return: the old corporation, under the influence of the Whig William Harbord, returned Harbord himself and Sir Francis Guybon; the new, more Tory corporation chose its patron, Sir Joseph Williamson, and (Sir) Adam Felton (3rd Bt.). Since it was the mayor of the new corporation who had ‘got the precept into his custody’, Harbord and Guybon petitioned on 28 Mar. The election turned upon the legality of the new charter and the House, deciding that the surrender of the old charter had indeed been invalid, upheld the claim of the old corporation. Harbord immediately gave up his seat for Launceston, and Baptist May was elected in his place, presumably by the old corporation and at Harbord’s recommendation. The old corporation was, however, under strength: there were only two surviving ‘capital burgesses’ out of a complement of ten. With the admission of new recruits, and especially after Harbord’s death in 1692, Williamson was able to rebuild his interest. When in January 1693 it was agreed to seek an order in Chancery to annul the surrender of the Elizabethan charter, the old corporation’s expenses were paid out of a gift of £100 from Williamson. In 1695 he was returned unopposed with Sir John Wodehouse, 4th Bt., a Tory gentleman with property in the town, and thereafter Williamson’s position was unassailable, even though in this and every subsequent Parliament, to Thetford’s disappointment, he preferred to sit for Rochester. The strength of Williamson’s influence was proved immediately, in January 1696, at the by-election caused by his resigning his seat. His protégé, James Sloane, who was himself a vehement Whig, was opposed by Edmund Soame, the nominee of the Duke of Norfolk, lord of the manors of Thetford and lord lieutenant of the county. Soame described the reception Norfolk received:

The Duke, contrary to his expectations, found the electors of Thetford resolved to make choice of Mr Sloane as their representative, nor could he persuade them to alter their resolution, for when they came in a body to wait on his grace, he told them, that he [Sloane] was the only man in England he desired should not be chosen, and was the sternest man against them when they lost their charter . . . their answer was, they should disoblige Sir Joseph Williamson, from whom they had received great gifts, and that he had promised to build them their bridge.

Soame was advised by his supporters that it would be ‘in vain’ for him to press his candidature and therefore withdrew. ‘Mr Atkins, son to Sir [Richard, 2nd Bt.*?] Atkins stayed behind to see what interest he could make, and . . . it cost him £100 after which he gave it off.’ At the last minute the anti-Williamson forces revived, when Sir Joseph was obliged to admit, in writing, that he had not nominated Sloane in defiance of the Duke. He thought it wiser to say, in answer to an inquiry from Soame’s friends in Thetford, that he would not have presumed to recommend a ‘stranger’ to the corporation, ‘not judging it at all fit for me, after so generous an obligation placed on me’, and that he had told Sloane he would not recommend him, ‘adding that he [Sloane] should not by any means whatever think of raising a pretension there, without first obtaining the favour and interest of the Duke of Norfolk in it’. This letter ‘startled the electors’ and Norfolk grasped the opportunity, as Soame reported it, ‘to write a letter to the town on my behalf, so full, that had not I had the doublest-dealing men to have dealt with in the world, I might have had success’. Soame alleged that Williamson:

Sent down servants with other letters to his friends . . . which made them go immediately to an election before I could get to the town, for they gave not timely notice to the electors of two days as formerly was accustomed, but went to the town house as soon as the precept came (or else kept it private), on which six or seven refused to go to the election.1

In 1698 Williamson was returned unanimously: the mayor, who was the returning officer, presumably did not vote. The contest was once more between Sloane and Soame, the former recommended by Williamson whose ‘letters to that corporation were in a more than ordinary strain in his favour, calling him in every line his dear Sloane’; the latter by Norfolk, whose action in opposing a Whig candidate was interpreted in London as the effect of resentment against the ministry – ‘he has a pension, but it is not paid’. Lord Paston, son of the former non-juror Lord Yarmouth (Hon. William Paston†) but himself an aspiring courtier, also made a preliminary canvass. Soame, who in Parliament was to show himself a Tory, had lost some potential support when High Tories were purged from the corporation for not subscribing the Association of 1696: at least two common councilmen are known to have been removed in September 1696 and one of them was among the ‘qualified voters’ whom, Soame was to allege, the mayor refused to poll in 1698. Soame laid this charge in his petition against Sloane’s return, presented first on 12 Dec. 1698 and again on 16 Nov. 1699 after the by-election had taken place for Williamson’s seat. It is not known whether he contested the by-election, in January 1699, but observers never doubted that a Whig candidate would carry it off. First in the field was Sir Henry Hobart, 4th Bt., former knight of the shire and a defeated candidate in the 1698 county election. Sloane told James Vernon I* in August 1698 that the Thetford voters ‘would choose one of their own countrymen, and that they showed a good inclination to Sir Harry Hobart’. Hobart’s death following a duel two weeks later left the way clear for Lord Paston, who was quick to ‘make an interest’ in the borough and seek Williamson’s backing. Yarmouth complained that Norfolk was working against his son and as lord lieutenant was using ‘the King’s authority . . . to the prejudice of his service’ but Paston had no difficulty in securing his election. Soame’s petition against Sloane was finally heard in January 1700. Originally referred to the committee of privileges, it was decided at the bar of the House after the committee had done no more than establish the right of election and lay bare the weakness of the arguments offered by one of Soame’s excluded voters to explain how he had been prevented by circumstances from signing the Association and thus had been wrongfully removed from the common council. The House debated but did not pronounce judgment on the petition, the Tories appreciating the inadequacy of Soame’s case. Instead it was agreed that Sloane, in treating the electors, had violated the Act against expenses at elections, and his election was declared void. At the ensuing by-election Sloane defeated Soame by a similar margin to that in the general election. It would appear that writs of mandamus ordering the restoration of four common councilmen, including the two known to have refused the Association, were received at the time of the election but ignored. Afterwards the corporation resolved to ‘resist’ the writs, and subsequently another common councilman was removed for ‘promoting division and turning informer, and causing . . . information to be brought against the corporation, endeavouring not only the disfranchising the corporation but also the total ruin of several members thereof’. On 21 Feb. Soame petitioned again, although this time he did not claim to have received more ‘qualified votes’ than his opponent, only that the first judgment had ‘incapacitated’ Sloane from sitting in that Parliament. On 2 Mar. the House considered this question and a motion that Sloane was capable of taking his seat was defeated. Sir William Cook, 2nd Bt.*, reported, ‘We have once more spewed out Sloane . . . and I hope the gentlemen of the assizes will show to the electors of Thetford their resentments for their reiterated rudeness to the gentlemen of Norfolk and Suffolk.’ Although Soame’s petition was referred to the committee of privileges it was not heard before the dissolution.2

By February 1701 a change had come over the corporation. Williamson’s re-election was never in doubt, and again he received the maximum number of votes, but Sloane dared not risk a contest. He told a friend:

When I was at Thetford last, I found the mayor right or wrong would make the return against me, so I then declined the election and chose rather to come in Sir Joseph Williamson’s place, who is likewise chosen for Rochester, than to be a petitioner.

The fight was between Soame and the young Tory Thomas Hanmer II, who enjoyed the valuable Arlington (now Grafton) interest, by virtue of his marriage to the dowager Duchess of Grafton. It was the first time since the Revolution that Euston Hall had figured in a Thetford election, and Hanmer was well beaten. But he persisted and was able at a by-election to push aside Sloane’s pretensions to Williamson’s seat, retaining it at the November election (having by this time succeeded his uncle as 4th Bt.). Williamson had died in the October, leaving Sloane in an exposed position. There was still a chance that he might come in, however, for three Tory candidates declared: Hanmer, Wodehouse (who had considered putting up in January and whose standing in the town had recently increased with his appointment as recorder for life), and a third, probably Soame. The third candidate agreed to stand down, as Robert Harley* was informed, in order to prevent Sloane’s election. If it was Soame, then he received his reward the following year: Hanmer was returned for Flintshire; Wodehouse thought of contesting the county but in the event did not stand anywhere; and Soame, who now enjoyed the patronage of both Harley and Lord Rochester (Laurence Hyde†), was chosen with a Yorkshire Tory, Robert Benson. Sloane was the defeated Whig candidate, and altogether some 12 votes were wasted, seven of them given for Hanmer. It was the last time Sloane was to stand. By 1705 the Tory interest appeared even stronger. In 1704 a prominent Whig member of the corporation, William Caudell, was removed from office for bribery at parliamentary and municipal elections, and at the following general election Hanmer and Wodehouse were returned unopposed.3

Unfortunately for the Tories, Hanmer could no longer rely upon the entire Grafton interest. Although his wife held the Euston estate for life, her son the Duke, who came of age in 1704, also had the power, and will, to make his influence felt in Thetford. He was a Whig, and within a few years the Whiggish faction in the borough had revived. The mayor chosen in 1706 was politically repugnant to Wodehouse, who as recorder refused to swear him, and in the summer of 1707 there seems to have been a Whig coup in the corporation: 12 members who had formerly been turned out, including William Caudell, were restored by order of the Queen’s bench, and five common councilmen were removed. Long before the 1708 general election Grafton suggested to Hanmer that they divide the representation between them but Hanmer, probably under a prior obligation to Wodehouse and anxious not to lose his own seat at Thetford in case it should be needed, refused. When his stepson subsequently put up two Whigs (Thomas de Grey, a neighbouring squire, and Robert Baylis, a London merchant), Hanmer grew frightened at the combination of Grafton’s influence and Baylis’ money, and through his friend Lord Hervey (John*) reopened negotiations. Wodehouse, whose interest at Thetford was on the wane, seems to have dropped out, and Hervey was able to write to Grafton in April 1708 to propose that ‘the interest at Thetford’ be settled by ‘sharing it equally’, which would avoid any ‘breach’ in the family and preserve ‘her grace’s ease’. But the Duke was not to be appealed to. Hervey told Hanmer that his answer was:

That it was always his idea that Thetford should be between yourself and him; but when that was asked (for the quiet of both sides) it was then rejected: however, he did not engage himself till he heard you was resolved to serve for our county [Suffolk]; that about two months since, despairing of you complying with the partition, he unluckily engaged the little interest he had; which I’m confident he would be glad of any expedient honourably to retract; but you knowing how difficult (not to say impossible) that is for him to do near the crisis of this affair, I hope (considering all the circumstances it hath been attended with) such mutual allowances will be made as may still preserve those decent correspondences so near a relation requires.

Grafton’s ‘little interest’ procured the return of the two Whigs, aided by some lavish expenditure on Baylis’ part. Even Dean Prideaux, no Tory, considered that at Thetford ‘all is sold’. Usually, he wrote, ‘50 guineas a vote is their price’ but to Baylis ‘they have sold themselves much dearer, for it hath cost him £3,000 to get a return’. However, the petition of the defeated Tories, Hanmer and his kinsman Dudley North, made no mention of bribery or treating, concentrating instead on the accusation that the mayor, Robert Caudell, had refused a number of ‘qualified’ voters on their side and had admitted others ‘unqualified’ to vote for the sitting Members.4

The tribulations and expense of this election proved too much for Grafton and his nominees. De Grey had made it clear by June 1710 that he would not stand again and it would appear that Grafton had indicated that he too would take no part, for a meeting of the leading Norfolk Whigs put forward the scheme that ‘Baylis and Sir Henry Furnese’s* son [Robert*] be joined for Thetford and retrieve that interest by ways irresistible’, presumably by spending money. Sir Henry would have to ‘set up his son’ himself, such would be the cost, but given the venality of the electors this was considered ‘no wild scheme’. When neither Baylis nor Furnese volunteered to shoulder the burden there was no Whig challenge. Hanmer and North were returned without opposition, Wodehouse having canvassed but withdrawn before the poll. A surviving receipt shows their shared expenses for entertainments and fees to local officials amounted to little over £50. Thereafter Hanmer seems to have controlled the representation: he brought in Sir Edmund Bacon, 6th Bt., for his own seat at a by-election in December 1710, and North and a Suffolk Tory, Sir William Barker, 5th Bt., in 1713.5

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. HMC Var. vii. 147; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Harley) mss Pw2 Hy 360, Soame to [?Robert Harley], 15 Jan. 1696 and enclosure, Williamson to Mr Cropley, 7 Jan. 1696.
  • 2. Prideaux Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. xv), 191–2; Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 146, 158–9, 164, 167–8; Add. 40722, ff. 23–4, 51; HMC Var. vii. 148; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 400–1; 1699–1700, pp. 7, 27; Cocks Diary, 188; Suffolk RO (Ipswich), Gurdon mss mic. M142(1), Cook to Thornhagh Gurdon, 7 Mar. 1699[–1700].
  • 3. Essex RO (Chelmsford), Barrett mss, Sloane to Dacre Barrett, 8 Feb. 1700[–1] (Horwitz trans.); Add. 27740, f. 154; HMC Portland, iv. 126–7; HMC Var. vii. 148–9.
  • 4. HMC Var. vii. 149; Hervey Letter Bks. i. 233–4; Norf. RO, Ketton-Cremer mss, Katherine to Ashe Windham*, 6 Feb. 1707[–8]; Prideaux Letters, 200.
  • 5. Norf. RO, Bradfer-Lawrence mss, Windham to [Ld. Townshend], 8 June 1710; Walpole mss at Wolterton Hall, Horatio II* to Robert Walpole II*, 18 Aug. 1710 N.S.; Camb. Univ. Lib. Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss, Horatio I* to Robert Walpole II, 27 July 1710; HMC Var. vii. 189–90.