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 500


15 Apr. 1754George Carpenter, Baron Carpenter 
 John Halliday 
24 Dec. 1754Robert Maxwell vice Halliday, deceased198
 Sir John Pole142
27 Mar. 1761Robert Maxwell, Visct. Farnham 
 George Carpenter, Earl of Tyrconnel 
24 Mar. 1762Laurence Sulivan vice Tyrconnel, deceased 
18 Mar. 1768Alexander Popham 
 Nathaniel Webb 
18 Oct. 1774Nathaniel Webb260
 Edward Stratford254
 John Halliday202
 Alexander Popham201
 HALLIDAY and POPHAM vice Webb and Stratford, on petition, 16 Mar. 1775 
12 Sept. 1780John Roberts 
 John Halliday 
20 Mar. 1782Benjamin Hammett [majority 49] vice Roberts, deceased 
 Sir James Langham 
5 Apr. 1784Alexander Popham 
 Benjamin Hammett 

Main Article

Taunton was an open borough, and contests were frequent and violent. Dissenters formed a large part of the population and had considerable influence. In 1754 Lord Egremont had the chief interest; and by alliance with the Dissenters, and having the support of Government, controlled one seat. The other was usually filled by a local man, and there was keen rivalry between the Dissenters in the town and the neighbouring country gentlemen.

At the general election of 1754 Lord Carpenter, Egremont’s brother-in-law, and John Halliday were returned unopposed. Two months later Halliday died, and there followed ‘one of the severest contests that ever disturbed a town’.1

It was first intended that Robert Webb, M.P. for Taunton 1747-54, should stand on the Dissenting interest, with the support of Egremont and Government. But when the country gentlemen brought forward Sir John Pole, Webb refused to face the prospect of an expensive contest. The Dissenters, ‘thrown into great confusion’, asked Egremont to find them a candidate ‘willing to support his cause at all events’. Robert Pearsall, a Dissenting minister of Taunton, wrote to Egremont on 12 July 1754:2

We want nothing but money to carry the cause, for our interest is much beyond the opposition. On the other hand if we are not supported, the cause and interest of his Majesty and the influence of your Lordship is irretrievably gone.

Manly, mayor of Taunton, who had a secret service pension of £70 p.a. for his electoral services, came to London to see Newcastle.

He is very unwilling that the election should be given up [wrote Newcastle to Egremont on 18 July] and the interest at Taunton flung into Tory hands. He seems now to think that £2,500 or £3,000 at most, with your Lordship’s protection and recommendation, would secure the election.

Obviously it was going to be an expensive contest, and Newcastle had difficulty in finding a candidate. Eventually Robert Maxwell agreed to stand, and was promised financial support.

The campaign lasted six months; and it was said that the trade of Taunton suffered for years from the dissipation of this contest.3 The poll was open thirteen days, and was conducted so strictly that more than 700 votes were rejected. Maxwell’s victory was unpopular with ‘the mob’, and in the course of the rioting which followed two were killed and several injured. Maxwell received £3,675 from secret service funds towards his expenses.4

On Egremont’s death in 1763 the alliance between the Wyndham family and the Dissenters began to break down. ‘Some sensible and public-spirited tradesmen’, most probably Dissenters, banded together to form the ‘Market House Society’5 Their intention was ‘to prevent the evils and drunkenness of a contested election’, and to ensure that the money ‘which had generally been lavished in largesses and feasts’ was spent on the improvement of the town. It was first planned to rebuild the old market area.

In 1768 Lord Thomond, uncle and guardian of the young Lord Egremont, stood on the Wyndham interest, with Lord Farnham (as Maxwell had become) as his partner. Thomond had secured control of the corporation. ‘I think the Taunton interest is much surer and better established’, he wrote to Grenville on 3 Oct. 1764, ‘than it ever was at any time to our family.’ And Grenville to Augustus Hervey, 8 Nov. 1767, before Thomond had made his preliminary canvass: ‘By the accounts he receives from Taunton ... there is not the least reason to doubt of his and Lord Farnham’s success.’6

The Market House Society put up two local men: Alexander Popham and Nathaniel Webb (brother of Robert Webb). ‘A very warm contest’ was expected, but Thomond and Farnham were forced to decline the poll ‘on the desertion of one of their principal friends’. Webb donated £2,000 towards the cost of the new Market House. A board of trustees was set up to administer it, which became a power in Taunton politics.7

In 1774 Lord North became recorder, and at the general election tried to bring in two ministerial candidates. Webb and Edward Stratford stood ‘on the interest of the corporation, countenanced by the Minister’; and Popham and John Halliday (son of the Member in 1754) on that of the Market House Society. Webb and Stratford were returned head of the poll, but unseated on petition; and John Roberts, who had been mayor and returning officer, was convicted of bribery.8

By the general election of 1780 Halliday had gone over to Government, and North confined his efforts to ousting Popham. Government contributed nearly £3,000 from secret service funds towards the cost of this election,9 and Popham withdrew before the poll. What part the Market House Society took is not clear.

In December 1781, when Roberts was dying, Halliday sent to John Robinson a scheme ‘to preserve the peace of the town’.10

It must be observed that all the principal manufacturers of Taunton are Dissenters, and much at enmity with the corporation, who will not admit any person of that description to become a magistrate of the town. An opposition to any candidate that the corporation approve is therefore mostly to be apprehended from them. It is proposed to prevent any effectual opposition by endeavouring to stop it at the fountain head in the manner here recommended.

Under this scheme the Government was to give £500 to the woollen manufacturers, £300 to the silk manufacturers, and 29s. each to 250 poor voters. North accepted the plan; and Benjamin Hammett, a prominent member of the Market House Society, was selected as candidate for the forthcoming by-election. But the scheme did not secure him an unopposed return. Sarah Farley’s Bristol Journal wrote on 30 Mar. 1782:

Sir James Langham was supported as an independent man by all the gentlemen in the neighbourhood ... but a certain interest being given to Mr. Hammett turned the scale in his favour.

In 1784 Hammett and Popham, the Market House Society candidates, were returned unopposed.

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. J. Toulmin, Hist. Taunton, 84.
  • 2. Add. 32736, ff. 23, 49.
  • 3. Kite & Palmer, Taunton, 22.
  • 4. Namier, Structure, 432, 433, 435, 438, 441.
  • 5. Toulmin, 179.
  • 6. Grenville mss (JM); Grenville letter bk., Grenville mss (HL).
  • 7. Sherborne Merc. 21 Mar. 1768; Toulmin, 85.
  • 8. Sherborne Merc. 3 Apr. 1775.
  • 9. Laprade, 57.
  • 10. Ibid. 38-39.