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 inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

about 1,000


15 Apr. 1754George Compton 
 Charles Montagu 
9 Dec. 1754Charles Compton vice George Compton, called to the Upper House 
9 Dec. 1755Richard Backwell vice Compton, deceased 
6 June 1759Frederick Montagu vice Charles Montagu, deceased 
26 Mar. 1761Spencer Compton 
 Frederick Montagu 
21 Nov. 1763Lucy Knightley vice Compton, called to the Upper House 
1 Apr. 1768Sir George Brydges Rodney611
 Sir George Osborn611
 Thomas Howe538
 Howe vice Osborn, on petition, 14 Feb. 1769 
13 Dec. 1771Wilbraham Tollemache vice Howe, deceased 
10 Oct. 1774Wilbraham Tollemache786
 Sir George Robinson692
 Sir James Langham266
9 Sept. 1780George John Spencer, Visct. Althorp 
 George Rodney 
3 Apr. 1782Althorp re-elected after appointment to office 
26 Apr. 1782Charles Bingham, Baron Lucan, vice Althorp, vacated his seat 
7 Apr. 1784Charles Compton, Lord Compton823
 Fiennes Trotman500
 Charles Bingham, Baron Lucan 

Main Article

Northampton had a very wide franchise, comprising about two-thirds of all resident adult males. The labouring class, except those in receipt of poor relief, were entitled to vote; and there was a large Dissenting element in the population. Yet its politics were mainly personal in character and subject to aristocratic influence. ‘I have always understood’, wrote the Duke of Newcastle in 1768, ‘that when my Lord Halifax and my Lord Northampton agreed ... their interest was secure’;1 and until 1768 these two peers controlled the representation of the borough without serious opposition.

The election of 1768, the famous ‘contest of the three earls’, was described by Oldfield as ‘the most violent contest for aristocratic pre-eminence that has taken place for the last century’.2 It was an attempt by Lord Spencer to break the Northampton-Halifax control over the borough, and was fought almost wholly on that issue. Osborn stood on Lord Halifax’s interest, Rodney on that of Lord Northampton, while Spencer backed Thomas Howe after his first choice, Sir James Langham, had withdrawn. Canvassing started well before the dissolution; and an agreement, signed on 23 Oct. 1767 by the candidates, the peers, and representatives of the corporation, gives some idea of the effects of the contest on the town:3

1. That mobbing of all kinds shall be discontinued and discouraged by the above Lords and gentlemen and all their friends from this time until the election shall be over.

2. That no house be opened at any time or any ticket given for drink or liquor either by the above mentioned principals, their friends or agents from this time till the day of election, except on seven days notice to the gentlemen who sign this paper.

3. That if on any occasion houses should be opened after seven days notice, it shall be done by tickets for drink given to the men inhabitants, half a crown to drink to those who have promised one vote and a crown to drink to those who have promised two.

4. That it shall be recommended by the principals and agents on both sides to prevent any noise and riots in the clubs or public meetings from this time till after the day of election, that no torches on either side shall be delivered and that the master shoemakers and woolcombers be persuaded as much as possible to treat their own men on St. Crispin’s night and on the 3rd February.

5. That the candidates agree not to walk the town in canvass or make a personal application in it for a vote from this time till the election, unless at the committee (except on 7 days notice).

6. That the expense be limited to 2 guineas in the house where the committee shall meet.

7. That the damage done to the windows of the George Inn be repaired at a joint expense.

8. That the committee shall not meet oftener than once a week.

The poll lasted fourteen days, and almost until the end the candidates ran neck and neck. After twelve days’ polling Rodney had received 513 votes, Osborn 505, and Howe 504. The partiality of the returning officer, hostile to the Spencer interest, was shown by the number of votes rejected: 110 for Howe as against 39 for Rodney and 38 for Osborn. During the last two days’ polling the returning officer rejected a further 57 votes offered for Howe and 22 for Rodney and Osborn. When the poll closed Rodney and Osborn had 611 each, a majority of 73 over Howe. Had all the votes been accepted, Howe would have had a majority of 32 over Osborn and 33 over Rodney.

Here were good grounds for a petition, and hardly had the poll closed before all parties began trying to whip up support in the House of Commons. During the hearing of Howe’s petition, it became clear that the House was sympathetic to his cause; and Osborn and Rodney agreed to draw lots to decide who should yield his seat to Howe. Rodney won; Osborn informed the House that he would no longer oppose Howe’s petition, and Administration arranged for him to be brought in at Bossiney.

Various estimates have been made of the amount of money spent on this contest, none of them reliable. But it must have been inordinately expensive: Lord Halifax was ruined by it and abandoned his interest at Northampton; Lord Northampton, already in debt before the election, retired to the continent and left his electoral affairs in the hands of his agent; and even Lord Spencer, one of the richest men in England, is said to have been seriously embarrassed financially. But it seemed that Northampton and Spencer had secured the borough beyond challenge, and at the general election of 1774 each named a candidate to stand on a joint interest.

Northampton’s candidate was his uncle by marriage, Henry Drummond, a wealthy banker, who went to Northampton to meet the principal supporters of the Compton interest. Lord Northampton’s agent thus reported Drummond’s reception:4

Tom Kerby began by saying everything would be agreeable provided Mr. Drummond would promise the payment of the bills [from the last election], and that without such a promise nothing would be done by any of them ... To this Mr. Drummond replied that as a candidate such a proposal could not be attended to by him, but such words were dropped as would have convinced them of his intentions had they been reasonable men. The meeting broke up with the resolution of calling a hall on the Monday morning to take the sense of the town.

At this town meeting Tollemache was accepted as the Spencer candidate, but when Drummond was proposed there were ‘violent marks of disapprobation’ from Lord Northampton’s friends. A rather different account of this election was given by Drummond himself:5

I offered to have paid Lord Northampton’s debts amounting to about £3,000, and would have given the town as far as £1,000 more towards paving their town and some public work, but would not give a guinea to individuals. ... I ... told them I never should think a family interest worth preserving that was to be bought by money ... found it would not do without money, therefore gave it up immediately.

After this, wrote Northampton’s agent, ‘the borough went a-begging’, and eventually Sir George Robinson, a Northamptonshire country gentleman, agreed to stand. At the last moment Sir James Langham, ‘to the astonishment of all reasonable beings, declared himself after most people had engaged themselves’. It seemed that he had no chance, but ‘a tedious poll ensued’ which Langham ‘stood out to the last’. Northampton’s agent concluded his account of the election:

Thus ended this disagreeable affair. The returned Members gave not any treat or liquors after their chairing, for which their own mob broke their windows for them at the George. Sir James gave his friends an elegant entertainment, and has since repeated it at Cottesbrooke. Lord Spencer is come to Althorp to spend his Christmas and is going to do great things at Northampton, they say as far as £2,000. What Sir George is to do I have not yet heard.

At the general election of 1780 Lord Compton and Lord Althorp canvassed the town together. A ‘state of the canvass’ in the Northampton mss credits them with 555 double votes, 13 plumpers for Althorp and 8 for Compton, while 381 electors are described as ‘absentees’. The dissolution had come earlier than was expected and Lord Compton was still under age. At the last moment it was decided to replace him as the Northampton candidate by George Rodney. Lord Althorp wrote to his father on 9 Sept. 1780:6

Mr. Rodney and I are just come in at the balcony from our chairs. Everything went on very quietly, though some rumours in the town yesterday made it quite necessary for Lord Compton to give up offering himself, and nobody had anything to say against Mr. Rodney.

The election of 1784 was fought in an atmosphere of political excitement following the dismissal of the Coalition and its replacement by Pitt’s Administration.7 Lord Spencer, who succeeded to the title in October 1783, was closely connected with Charles James Fox, and was dismayed to learn that the corporation of Northampton proposed to thank the King for dismissing the Coalition. One of Spencer’s friends at Northampton told him ‘there was not six people in or out of the corporation that were not for it’, and ‘that all that could be done would be to moderate the terms of the address’. When the corporation learnt how much Spencer was against the address, only seven signed it who would be ‘warm friends on any other occasion’. But on 1 Apr. Spencer wrote to his mother: ‘We labour under several disadvantages, the first great one the present state of public affairs and the general infatuation that is spread abroad, especially among the lower sort, in favour of the present ministry.’8

Spencer’s candidate was his father-in-law Lord Lucan, who had been returned for Northampton in 1782 when Spencer (then Lord Althorp) had vacated his seat for the borough to stand for Surrey. This had not made for Spencer’s popularity in Northampton, nor had the choice of Lucan pleased his friends. On 30 Mar. a deputation waited on Spencer to ask him to name another candidate on the family interest, but Lucan, to Spencer’s embarrassment, refused to stand down.9 A group in the corporation hostile to Spencer, led by Alderman William Gibson, who had been returning officer in 1768, tried to persuade Edward Bouverie to become a candidate; and on his refusal applied to Fiennes Trotman, a wealthy local resident. Trotman’s opposition was directed particularly against Lucan, and Lord Compton’s election was not in doubt. The poll lasted four days and Trotman led Lucan from the beginning.

It is difficult to say to what extent political issues influenced the result. Neither in the addresses of the candidates nor in their speeches at the nomination meeting were they referred to. After the election Trotman assured his constituents that he would ‘zealously maintain the honour and prerogatives of the Crown and the rights and liberties of the people’, while Lucan talked of ‘the ancient, undoubted, and necessary powers of the House of Commons against the united attempts of the other two branches of the legislature’. But the issue of Pitt v. Fox and the King’s conduct towards the East India bill were never squarely presented to the electorate. Another point against the argument that Trotman’s victory was due to political feeling against the Coalition is provided by the conduct of the Dissenters. In most parts of the country they supported Pitt, but at Northampton, where Spencer was their patron, they voted solidly for Lucan.

What then were the reasons for Lucan’s defeat, apart from his unpopularity? They seem to have been two: mismanagement, and shortage of money. The dowager Lady Spencer thought there had been ‘terrible mismanagement at Northampton’.10 She herself was a formidable electioneer, but in 1784 she was fully occupied in conducting Spencer’s campaign at St. Albans. Her son had no taste for the work, and his chief agent, Jeremiah Rudsell, had been appointed to the office of distributor of stamps for Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, which debarred him from taking any part in elections. Moreover, after the expensive contest of 1768 Spencer was resolved to retrench his expenditure on elections. It may not be a coincidence that the innkeepers, who stood to gain most from an expensive contest, voted overwhelmingly for Compton and Trotman. Anyone who attempted to contest Northampton on principles of economy was heading for disaster.

On 30 Mar., the day before the poll began, Spencer had written to his mother about Trotman: ‘If it could be possible that this man should beat us, I have declared in the strongest manner that I never will on any account have anything to do with Northampton again as long as I live.’ He kept his word. On 7 Aug. a group of Northampton citizens informed him that they intended to start a club to support his interest. Spencer replied:11

I have in consequence of the event of the last general election very maturely considered and made up my mind on the subject of attempting to re-establish an election interest in the town of Northampton, and it would be perfectly inconsistent with the determination I have resolved to abide by to consent to my name’s appearing in the manner proposed to me in your letter ... I must absolutely decline the honour intended of appearing at the head of any body of men however respectable in the town.

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Add. 32989, f. 313.
  • 2. Rep. Hist. iv. 280.
  • 3. Northants. RO.
  • 4. J. Rowell to Ld. Northampton, 24 Dec. 1774, mss of the Mq. of Northampton.
  • 5. Add. 35508, f. 69.
  • 6. Spencer mss.
  • 7. This account of the general election of 1784 is based on research by V. A. Hatley.
  • 8. Corresp. between Spencer and his mother, Spencer mss.
  • 9. Northampton Merc. 5 Apr. 1784; Spencer to Mrs. Howe, 7 Apr. 1784, Spencer mss.
  • 10. Lady Spencer to Mrs. Howe, 7 Apr. 1784, Spencer mss.
  • 11. Spencer mss.