Double Member Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen and inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

about 1,000


15 Apr. 1754Francis Herne 
 Robert Ongley 
26 Mar. 1761Francis Herne93
 Richard Vernon92
 Walden Hanmer93
24 Apr. 1764Vernon re-elected after appointment to office 
17 Mar. 1768Richard Vernon 
 Samuel Whitbread 
 Sir Gillies Payne 
18 Oct. 1774Sir William Wake527
 Robert Sparrow417
 Samuel Whitbread409
 John Howard402
 Whitbread vice Sparrow, on petition, 23 Mar. 1775 
14 Sept. 1780Samuel Whitbread673
 Sir William Wake421
 John Kenrick304
5 Apr. 1784Samuel Whitbread 
 William MacDowall Colhoun 

Main Article

‘The Duke of Bedford and the corporation’, wrote Philip Yorke to his father, Lord Hardwicke, 5 Aug. 1753, ‘have settled their affairs for the next election. The Duke brings in Mr. Ongley, and the corporation Mr. Herne.’ But unrest among the Duke’s friends was reported from Bedford in March 1754. ‘Many here ... (and some of them too of the better sort)’, wrote one of the Duke’s supporters on 10 Mar., ‘are very clamorous and express great dissatisfaction at the non-appearance of our candidates.’ An opposition was intended, and ‘many amongst our own friends of the lower class’, wrote another supporter on the 11th, ‘ ... declare they will promise any persons who shall be proposed’. But on the 14th Herne and Ongley arrived, invited ‘the more substantial inhabitants’ to dinner, ‘ordered half-crown tickets to every other voter’, and ‘all apprehensions of an opposition vanished’. And on 25 Apr.:

The expense of the election to Mr. Ongley and Mr. Herne (inclusive of a hundred pounds they ordered to be given to the poorer electors and other poor) was about £460 apiece, which as times go will not be thought a dear purchase.1

In 1761 Richard Vernon was the candidate of the Duke, who offered Herne to join interest with his friends ‘at an equal expense, against all opposition whatsoever’. This apparently was done, and ‘ticketing’ of the voters started. On 6 Mar. Vernon met Lord St. John who gave him a message for the Duke,

which was in his own words, that neither himself nor twenty of the corporation looked upon the nomination of Mr. Herne and me as an accommodation, that they did not mean to oppose me but intended to nominate somebody in opposition to Mr. Herne.

And next: the man talked of was Walden Hanmer, who went to the poll but declined on the first day.2

In 1767 serious difficulties arose between the Duke and the corporation. He was prepared to accept their candidate, Sir Thomas Hatton of Cambridgeshire, who was also recommended by the Duke’s friend Sir John Hynde Cotton. But in July 1767 the Duke made through Ongley a new and surprising move: he inquired of Samuel Whitbread whether he would stand at Bedford. Whitbread asked Ongley to thank the Duke,

and acquaint him that I have had repeated kind, unsought-for invitations from a great number of the inhabitants of Bedford, declaring their friendship from many years knowing me, for my being of the county and a neighbour. But I cannot yet determine absolutely upon an affair of such importance.

Next, on 1 Nov. 1767 Bedford wrote to Cotton:

The precarious situation of my interest at Bedford, occasioned as well by the unreasonable disgust my old friends in that town have taken to Sir Thomas Hatton, as by the little assistance and cordiality of the corporation towards me, has obliged me by the advice of all my friends to put a test to the gentlemen of that body by which their sincerity might be proved, and a means thereby be given me to bring back such a number of those who have of late deserted me, as might ensure the election of Mr. Vernon and Sir Thomas Hatton.

Through his agent, Robert Palmer, the Duke demanded from the corporation that a number of his friends should be elected freemen. This they absolutely refused. What followed is by no means clear. Hatton withdrew from the contest and the Duke seems to have come to an agreement with Whitbread. Vernon and Whitbread were elected against an ineffective opposition from Sir Gillies Payne, a West Indian.3

The corporation thus overridden got their own back in September 1769. The outgoing mayor was prevailed upon to create a very large number of honorary freemen in the interest of Sir Robert Bernard, from among Bernard’s tenants and neighbours and members of the Bill of Rights Society—such as Sawbridge, James Townsend, and Horne Tooke; and on the 7th, in the presence of the Duke of Bedford who attended as recorder of the borough, the question was put to the corporation whether any new freemen should be admitted, and was carried against the Duke by 17 to 11. Whitbread stated in the House of Commons, on 1 May 1775, ‘that the corporation had made, in one day, in the year 1769, upwards of 500 honorary burgesses, and in the course of the said year, 611’. When the Duke of Bedford died in 1771, Bernard was elected recorder of the borough.4

At the general election of 1774 Sir William Wake stood together with Robert Sparrow, a brother-in-law of Sir Robert Bernard; while Lord Ossory, having declined an invitation to his brother to contest the borough, offered his own and the Woburn interest to Samuel Whitbread and anyone who would join him. ‘This’, wrote Whitbread to Sandwich, 5 Oct., ‘for want of time has fallen upon my friend Mr. Howard’ (the prison reformer). ‘I need not tell your Lordship who our enemies are.’5 He sent Sandwich a list of the honorary freemen created in 1769, and asked him to try and prevent them (presumably Huntingdonshire men) from coming to the election—‘we are much threatened with our new made freemen’. When defeated, Whitbread and Howard petitioned, questioning the votes of non-resident freemen and of recipients of certain charities. The House determined on 23 Mar. 1775 that the limitation ‘being householders of Bedford’ referred to inhabitants only, but disallowed some votes of recipients of charities which was sufficient to wipe out Sparrow’s slender majority over Whitbread.

As Wake invariably voted with Opposition, and Whitbread, in Robinson’s words, was ‘a very doubtful, uncertain man for either side’, John Kenrick, a placeman, received Government support at Bedford in 1780, but was badly defeated.6 In 1784 Wake declined standing again, and William MacDowall Colhoun, a West Indian planter and Norfolk squire, was put up by Sir Robert Bernard. J. Horne Tooke, who acted for Bernard at Bedford, reported, 27 Mar. 1784:7

The corporation are at last unanimous, and without a single dissenting voice had pledged themselves to support with the utmost of their industry, interest, and power Mr. Colhoun, whom you have recommended. ... The inhabitants of the town who have not hitherto been in our interest, I have reason to believe are unanimously with us. They sent a message to me desiring to wait upon me. I received them. They desired to know our political sentiments; finding them to agree with their own, i.e., against the Coalition etc., they declared the utmost satisfaction, and determined to preserve the peace of the town.  The corporation are bitter against any junction, coalition or connexion with Mr. Whitbread, which of course we shall carefully avoid. The corporation have likewise unanimously determined to give single votes to Mr. Colhoun, and not to give any countenance to any other candidate whatever, but to be contented to carry their own one member, Mr. Colhoun, separately and alone.

And on 29 Mar.:

A junction between the two present candidates ... would be hurtful to both, but most especially to Mr. Whitbread; the prejudices of whose friends are still stronger than the prejudices of our friends.

Next day Tooke reported difficulties caused by remarks of Colhoun’s favouring Fox but which, when questioned, Colhoun tried to explain away. When on Friday, 2 Apr., a meeting of Bedford freeholders resident in or near London was held at the Globe Tavern, opposition arose to Colhoun. Tooke, as he told Bernard, fought the battle of his life, and the meeting finished ‘with an unanimous resolution to support Mr. Colhoun as the candidate, provided he should sign a certain test, to which [no] honest man can possibly object’. Colhoun was returned, and promptly joined Fox. Whitbread, on the other hand, adhered to Pitt.

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Add. 35351, ff. 248-51, 265-6; Bedford mss, unbound.
  • 2. Bedford mss 42, f. 186; 43, ff. 76, 146.
  • 3. Bedford mss 53, ff. 128, 144, 152; 55, f. 240; 56, ff. 170, 178, 182.
  • 4. Wiffen, Mems. House of Russell, ii. 579; Ann. Reg. 1769, p. 128; Almon, i. 445.
  • 5. Sandwich mss.
  • 6. Fortescue, v. 115.
  • 7. Mss of the Duke of Manchester, Hunts. RO.