Double Member Borough
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen and householders paying scot and lot
Number of voters:
|19 Apr. 1754||James Wigley||1295|
|27 Mar. 1761||James Wigley|
|23 Dec. 1765||Anthony James Keck vice Wigley, deceased|
|27 Jan. 1766||John Darker vice Wrighte, deceased|
|6 Apr. 1768||Booth Grey||1366|
|10 Oct. 1774||Booth Grey|
|9 Sept. 1780||Booth Grey|
|14 Feb. 1784||Shukburgh Ashby vice Darker, deceased|
|3 Apr. 1784||John Macnamara|
|Charles Loraine Smith|
The course of Leicester politics in the second half of the eighteenth century was largely determined by the conflict between the corporation and the independent party, and between the Anglicans and the Dissenters. These did not always coincide, but two parties tended to develop—one calling themselves Whigs, and the others called by their opponents Tories. Rioting was endemic at election time, but party conflict and the size of the electorate prevented the borough from becoming corrupt.
Leicester was the only borough in the county which sent Members to Parliament, and there was interaction between county and borough. About one-third of the electors lived outside the borough but within the county, and of the nine Members who sat for Leicester 1754-90, five were country gentlemen, of a type indistinguishable from those who sat for the county. The Leicestershire aristocrats, the Duke of Rutland and the Earl of Stamford, excluded from the county, interfered in the borough, generally aligning themselves against the corporation. Lastly, county and borough interests overlapped, and there was a conflict of jurisdictions between the justices which had its effect on parliamentary elections.
At one period in the seventeenth century the right of election was confined to the corporation, and even after it was extended to the freemen the corporation still had considerable influence. In 1754 the independent party, encouraged by discontent at the corporation’s enclosure schemes and supported by the Duke of Rutland, put up their own candidate, Robert Mitford. Mitford, although a stranger, won almost as many votes in the borough as the corporation candidates, who were successful largely because of their majority among the out-voters.
Wigley died in June 1765, and was replaced without opposition by Anthony James Keck, another country gentleman. But on Wrighte’s death in January 1766 a contest was threatened. The candidates were Robert Bakewell, the recorder, and John Darker, a London merchant, of a Leicester family and with estates in the county. Although Darker stood on a platform of ‘Church and King’ and denounced his opponents as ‘Presbyterians’, there was no clear-cut division along religious or political lines, and the corporation itself was split. Local antagonisms and jealousies seem to have counted for a lot. The election went to a poll, but after the first day Bakewell withdrew.
The situation at Leicester from 1766 to 1768 was described by John Heyrick, the town clerk:
Since the election of Mr. Darker two parties have appeared amongst us, the Darkerians and the Bakewellites, and each has held frequent meetings at public houses in support of their interest. The former have received with open arms such persons as have withdrawn themselves from Mr. Bakewell and his interest, and stigmatized all those who still professed themselves his friends as Whigs and Presbyterians.
With the corporation deeply divided there was a realignment of parties and an opportunity for forces outside the borough to sway the balance. In 1767 Sir William Meredith, who had no connexion with Leicester but had considerable experience in this type of borough, intervened on behalf of the Duke of Portland. He wrote to Portland on 22 June:1
I am sadly afraid that the Tories [the corporation party] will unite at Leicester. If so, nothing can be done. If they don’t, you may nominate one if you please, and I will settle it for you ... There are 500 persons entitled to their freedom. I told the party [the independents] that if they would take up those freedoms I would find a proper candidate. The other expenses may be brought within £1,500.
Portland suggested his brother-in-law, Booth Grey, son of the Earl of Stamford; and to the already complicated political situation at Leicester was added the element of aristocratic intervention. Meredith, being a Rockingham Whig, called the two parties Whigs and Tories, but recognized that it was not a straight party fight. He wrote to Portland on 28 July 1767:2
I have the pleasure to acquaint your Grace that I found everything at Leicester better than I expected. Lord Grey has written to Bunny [a prominent Leicester hosier] and Pares [steward of the duchy of Lancaster] to tell them Booth will serve them if there is an opening for him. But he desires to know how the mayor and corporation stand affected ...
The corporation stands thus; being 72 in number 33 are come over to the Whigs, 39 remain on their old side; but the property and popularity is on the side of the former so much that in election language each party has a right to call themselves the corporation. ...
Both sides agreed to support Booth Grey, but on condition that Darker should be opposed if a proper candidate offered.
It was agreed the first offer should be made to Keck ... But I am sure he won’t take it. They next will come to an explanation with Bakewell, and both sides agree in rejecting him unless he will spend penny for penny with their candidate, and solemnly pledge himself not to give up. They will oblige him to deposit a sum equal to what their man deposits. I made these conditions in order to get rid of him...
P.S. I should have told your Grace that the Whigs are content to take Booth Grey and Darker. The Tories are violent against Darker. But when Booth Grey has fixed himself he may damp any opposition.
It is not clear why the Tories objected to Darker, nor why they did not set up someone else in his place. The Whigs had been prepared for a compromise, but Grey’s canvass was so encouraging that they decided to try for both seats. Portland wrote to Newcastle on 20 Oct.:3
The only other place where I have in the least interfered is Leicester, from whence the Whigs came to desire me to recommend a man to them, and I mentioned a brother of Lord Grey’s, who, I believe, will be the first, even should he stand single, upon the poll. They now wish much for a second man from the encouragement they met with upon their canvass; but how far he would be likely to succeed I cannot take upon me to determine. I know Lord Grey is doubtful, and our friends at Leicester very sanguine. For my part, though I should be very happy entirely to demolish the Tories, I shall esteem it no inconsiderable victory to have got one Member from them.
The Tories seem now to have been driven to adopt Darker, and to him was joined a country gentleman, Edward Palmer. The second Whig candidate was Eyre Coote, a complete stranger, and a soldier who was likely to serve abroad—not, apparently, a suitable candidate for a large provincial town. (Nor was he a Whig in the sense Meredith and Portland used the word—he voted with the Government.) The out-voters split almost equally between the two sides, and the Whigs won because of their narrow majority of the town votes. At least 30 out of the 72 members of the corporation voted for the Whigs.
During the next few years the split in the corporation seems to have been healed, and they began to prepare for the next election by enrolling freemen. Between 1768 and 1770 almost 400 new freemen were made, ‘of known constitutional principles’, most of them from the county. Thus in 1774 the corporation was strong enough to prevent a contest and to force the Whigs to yield one seat. In the face of a threatened opposition from Robert Bakewell, Grey and Darker joined their interests, and thus ratified the compromise between the two parties.
This lasted ten years, and finally broke down over national politics. In 1784 the corporation of Leicester was strongly for Pitt and against Fox, and they were supported by the Duke of Rutland, who normally worked against them. The independent party, deprived of Rutland’s support and with popular opinion strongly against Booth Grey, who had supported the Coalition, could not force a poll; and the candidates returned were Charles Loraine Smith, a country gentleman, and John Macnamara, a client of the Duke of Rutland and a complete stranger to the town.
Author: John Brooke
R. W. Greaves, ‘Leicester Politics, 1660-1835’, VCH Leics.