St. Albans

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 in householders paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 500


13 Apr. 1754James West 
 James Grimston 
28 Mar. 1761George Simon Harcourt, Visct. Nuneham337
 James West298
 Thomas Corbett260
16 Mar. 1768Richard Sutton 
 John Radcliffe 
7 Oct. 1774Sir Richard Sutton 
 John Radcliffe 
8 Sept. 1780John Radcliffe 
 William Charles Sloper 
29 Dec. 1783James Bucknall Grimston, Visct. Grimston, vice Radcliffe, deceased 
2 Apr. 1784William Grimston276
 William Charles Sloper254
 Arthur Hill, Visct. Fairford230

Main Article

The chief interest in the borough was in the Spencer family, who had inherited an estate near and in St. Albans from Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and in the Grimston family of Gorhambury, two miles from the borough. Lord Salisbury, at Hatfield only four miles from St. Albans, had some influence; and so had James West, who during the 27 years he represented the borough built up an interest of his own. A good many town notables carried weight; and there was also a fairly large venal vote.

At the dissolution in 1754 one of the sitting Members, Sir Peter Thompson, retired; West, the other Member, was Newcastle’s secretary to the Treasury and was supported by Government. John Spencer was still under age, and his guardian, the Duke of Marlborough, intended to propose Lord Bateman for St. Albans. When Marlborough learnt that James Grimston meant to stand, his first reaction was to push Bateman’s candidature, ‘let the expense be what it will’; and Bateman talked ‘in a very high strain of preserving Mr. Spencer’s interest for him till he came of age by weight of money against all opposers’.1 By Christmas 1753 Grimston had declared his candidature, and Marlborough wrote on 29 Dec.:

As I began this affair on Mr. Spencer’s account (for whom you say everybody declares when of age), that declaration induces me to give Mr. Grimston no farther trouble, provided he and his father will promise me in writing to be for Mr. Spencer, or if Mr. Spencer should happen to be chose elsewhere, for the person he shall recommend.

An agreement was reached, and West and Grimston were returned unopposed.2

There were compromises at St. Albans, but no fixed junctions: the Spencer and Grimston families, if firmly united, could probably have held the borough against any third party; but from time to time each showed an inclination, avowed or latent, to attempt both seats. Thus Thomas Rudd, a local grocer and West’s agent in the borough, reported to him discourse held in company by a friend of Spencer:3

That Mr. Spencer would have two Members for St. Albans the next election and that you was to turn Sir John [Rushout] out of Evesham. I told Mr. Poyntz he was doing great injury to Mr. Spencer’s interest at St. Albans. I know the place as well as any one, and assured him there were many gentlemen of quite independent fortunes, upon whom Mr. Spencer could have no sort of influence and were still to a man determined to support you ... and yet had no aversion to Mr. Spencer’s service upon honourable terms.

When the recordership of St. Albans fell vacant in 1758, both the Spencer family and Grimston had their own candidates but West was elected.4

Under the agreement of 1754 Grimston was to stand down for Spencer in 1761; and West wrote to Rudd, 17 Sept. 1760, that Spencer had sent his agent

to acquaint me of all the transactions at St. Albans, and to assure me that everything goes on in concert with me, and that our interest is joined and united ... I think if our friends are wise, there will be no opposition to a commoner of the greatest property in England joined to a tried and experienced servant.

But here local rivalries between their followers set in—there is hardly a letter from West’s supporters without innuendoes or accusations against those of Spencer, ‘our half-faced friends’; who presumably repaid them in the same coin. Moreover Grimston, while acknowledging his engagement to Spencer, did not think himself obliged to extend it to West, which left his people free to join in the hunt for ‘a third man’. By 21 Jan. 1761 West thought of trying ‘to find out a more secure seat in Parliament’. At one time rumour had it that a London merchant, Hill, would stand backed by Clive; or again a brother of Lady Grimston; finally, ‘the third man’ materialized on 13 Mar., in the person of Thomas Corbett, son-in-law of H. Edwin, a St. Albans notable; and Grimston came out openly against West.5

Spencer and West had for some time past jointly canvassed the borough; and when about the middle of February Spencer, assured of a peerage, chose Lord Nuneham for his substitute, the junction with West was continued. Still, with the Grimston opposition directed against West alone, Spencer, not to endanger his own candidate, had to tread softly, and in a letter of 17 Mar. to the Blue Club (which was patronized by Grimston), while expressing distress at there being ‘such an opposition to Mr. West’, assured them that those ‘who are so obliging as to serve Lord Nuneham from inclination with one vote’ shall in no way be ‘oppressed or hurt by disposing of their other vote as they think fit’.6 West once more thought of withdrawing; but wrote on the 22nd: ‘I have now the greatest hopes of success ... as Lord Spencer exerts himself vigorously for me.’ Nevertheless he concluded: ‘A secretary of the Treasury should not stand hereafter for a populous borough within twenty miles of London.’7

After West had been returned, there were attempts at victimizing his supporters. Dr. Handley reported to him in April:

The Blue Club ... are turning off tradesmen daily ... Captain Lacomby discharged his barber ... who has shaved him some years ... the Captain is the fourth of the Blues that have left him since the election ... and so of others in all trades ... I have lost many patients ... Lord Grimston did present the Blue Club with ten guineas agreeable to your information and has assured them of his countenance and protection, and they raised that night about fifty pounds.

And Spencer’s principal friends wrote to West on 28 Apr., after having mentioned the fund: ‘the friends of the Joint Interest are somewhat alarmed and are afraid of suffering in their several occupations. Your advice will comfort them.’8 They submitted to him for discussion with Spencer’s agent a plan ‘to establish a manufactory here in order to employ the poor and lessen the burthen on inhabitants in maintaining them’: this on top of the many services which West in his official position was called upon to render regularly to his electors—St. Albans was indeed an exacting constituency.9 In 1767 West decided not to seek re-election; whether Spencer contested both seats or compromised the borough with Grimston, it would be ‘a hazard’ which even West’s friend Handley did not advise him to take.10

For some time past Spencer was expected to contest both seats. On 2 July 1764 Handley wrote to West:11

The Blues go on as usual, rather increasing, and are all determined Lord Spencer shall not return two Members. You must not be surprised to hear I am chose their President. I shall certainly join them in that affair.

By September 1767 Spencer had picked his candidates, Richard Sutton and Lord Villiers, and Lord Grimston wrote on the 27th to the Duke of Newcastle:12

Your Grace must have been informed of Lord Spencer’s endeavours to extirpate the interest my property and situation in this country gives me, by proposing two candidates to represent the borough of St. Albans at the general election, without any previous consultation with me.

And having ‘the strongest reason to think’ that West was not going to stand, he asked for Newcastle’s ‘intimation’ to West ‘in favour of Mr. Radcliffe my candidate’. But Newcastle, ‘having nothing to do at St. Albans’, and being ‘nearly related’ to both Spencer and Villiers, declined to interfere in this election.

By December 1767 Spencer was ready for a compromise, and Radcliffe was told that if he made a proposal to the Spencer side it would be accepted. Radcliffe, however, was ‘very averse to making the first proposal’; but in the end that punctilio was overcome, and Sutton and Radcliffe were returned unopposed.13 The arrangement of Spencer and Grimston returning one Member each was continued in 1774 and 1780: at the latter election Spencer replaced Sutton by William Charles Sloper. Robinson wrote about St. Albans in a survey for Shelburne in August 1782: ‘Mr. Radcliffe comes in partly on his own interest, conjoined with Lord Spencer. Mr. Sloper entirely brought in by Lord Spencer.’14 He overlooked the Grimston interest which was more substantial than any Radcliffe could establish on his own.

On 22 Dec. 1783, the day after Radcliffe’s death, Lord Spencer wrote to his mother who lived at St. Albans:15 ‘Lord Grimston called upon me today, to mention his intention of standing for St. Albans in the room of Mr. Radcliffe. I told him I should certainly take no part in the business one way or the other.’ She replied the next day that when asked by their friends, she had told them that Spencer did not mean to interfere—‘but to Langford, who came and said that he supposed you would rather have Lord Grimston come in than have a third interest established, I answered, certainly.’ In short, there was co-existence rather than cordial co-operation.

In 1784 Sloper himself had doubts about standing again for St. Albans: he could contribute nothing to the expense of his election; he did not altogether see eye to eye with Spencer in politics; and, worst of all, he was not popular among Spencer’s adherents at St. Albans. Still, Spencer decided to put him up again; and while Spencer himself was busy at Northampton, his mother managed the St. Albans election, reporting to him each day’s business in long and lively letters.

On 25 Mar. Thomas Kinder, one of Spencer’s old supporters and chief managers, told her that

a third man is much talked of though nobody is named. He said Mr. Sloper would meet with a warm reception in some places, that he hoped all would end well, but he had some apprehensions ... what chiefly vexed him was his own family, for Will Kinder ... was so offended at Mr. Sloper’s conduct that he would not answer for him.

When Sloper arrived he was

much discomposed at the reception he met with [wrote Lady Spencer] ... We had much consultation what to do. Sloper was ... for sending an express for you to come immediately, try what you could do, and whether naming another person would not obviate all difficulties. However we agreed to wait the result of the meeting. It lasted near two hours, was well attended, Sloper behaved very judiciously, bore their attacks with temper and good humour ... in short it went off much better than we expected.

In the end a ‘third man’ turned up: Arthur Hill, Viscount Fairford, brother of Lady Salisbury. Her attack, wrote Lady Spencer,

is a formidable one and Lord Grimston’s behaviour ... equally unhandsome and absurd. He pretends to be neuter while all his friends and connexions give their votes, and canvass against us ... we stand remarkably well among the out-voters.

And on 1 Apr.:

Lady Salisbury has canvassed the town we were told with amazing success, and she threw a sort of spirits upon their party that depressed ours. So last night I sent for your two sisters [Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough] who set out an hour ago with Mr. Sloper and a very large body of friends to make a regular canvass. It is amazing what this has already done.

And the next day:

We are not in spirits, my dearest George. There never was anything like the violence of the other side, and they have got off so many of our town votes that if the out votes fail us we shall lose it.

At the last moment Lord Grimston substituted his brother’s candidature for his own. On 3 Apr. Sloper wrote to Spencer:

[Lady Spencer] is the most admirable woman I know in all respects ... and she is as superior in the conduct of an election as in the rest of her conduct. ... If Lord Grimston had stood himself, he might have been able to turn over more votes to Fairford, but many who had promised him were glad to be at liberty to give us plumpers, and then he was obliged to keep all he could to secure his brother.

Grimston was returned head of the poll; Sloper came out second, defeating Fairford by 254 to 230 votes.

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Marlborough to an unknown addressee, 22 Nov. 1753, Spencer mss; Add. 34734, f. 68.
  • 2. Ibid. f. 75; 34735, ff. 38-40; Spencer mss.
  • 3. Add. 34734, f. 109.
  • 4. Ibid. ff. 156, 163, 164.
  • 5. Add. 34735, ff. 36-142; Namier, Structure, 107-8.
  • 6. Add. 34735, ff. 238.
  • 7. Add. 32920, ff. 329, 468; 32921, f. 16.
  • 8. Add. 34735, ff. 271, 310.
  • 9. Namier, Structure, 118-21.
  • 10. Add. 32985, ff. 293-4; 34735, ff. 356, 360.
  • 11. West mss at Alscott.
  • 12. Add. 32985, ff. 172, 174.
  • 13. Rich. Sutton to Ld. Spencer, 11 Dec. 1767, Spencer mss.
  • 14. Laprade, 43.
  • 15. Spencer mss.