Wootton Bassett

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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 250


15 Apr. 1754John Probyn122
 Thomas Estcourt Cresswell122
 Henry Douglas, Earl of Drumlanrig97
 Robert Neale96
27 Mar. 1761Thomas Estcourt Cresswell 
 Henry St. John 
16 Mar. 1768Thomas Estcourt Cresswell 
 Henry St. John 
11 May 1771St. John re-elected after appointment to office 
6 Oct. 1774Henry St. John 
 Robert Scott 
9 Sept. 1780Henry St. John 
 William Strahan 
3 Apr. 1784George Augustus North 
 Robert Seymour Conway 
 George Tierney 
 Abraham Robarts 

Main Article

At the beginning of the 18th century the chief interest was in the St. John family, seated three miles from the borough at Lydiard Tregoze. But following Bolingbroke’s flight to France in 1715 this interest declined, and on his return was not wholly restored.

Robert Neale of Corsham, who sat for Wootton Bassett 1741-54, was a clothier who also owned considerable landed property in the county. In politics he was connected with the Pelhams; had built up his own interest in the borough; and was intent on extending and strengthening it. In 1754 he took as his fellow-candidate Lord Drumlanrig, son of Charles, 4th Duke of Queensberry, by Lady Catherine Hyde (the famous ‘Duchess Kitty’), daughter and coheir of Henry, 4th Earl of Clarendon. Through Drumlanrig Neale obtained the support of the Hyde interest, which had been dormant since the late 17th century.

Neale’s campaign began in 1751 with his attempt to secure control of the corporation. Of its 15 members the St. John interest could rely on six and Neale on four; one was out of the country, and there were four vacancies. Each side now tried to fill these vacancies with its own supporters. Neale induced the town clerk to make him his deputy; the St. John party denied that the town clerk had any right to make such an appointment, and produced its own deputy. Each side met separately, elected its own supporters to fill the vacancies, and then proceeded to choose its own mayor—there were now two mayors, two town clerks, and two corporations. The case was taken to the King’s bench, which gave judgment in favour of the St. John party.

Shortly before the election Neale tried to win over the leader of the St. John party, the mayor and returning officer, with a bribe of £500. Newcastle noted in his ‘Present state of elections for England and Wales’, 15 Mar. 1754: ‘The Hyde interest joins with Neale. It is supposed the two former [Neale and Drumlanrig] will have a majority of legal votes, but the returning officer is for the two latter [Cresswell and Probyn] and will probably make a return in their favour.’ Nevertheless the St. John candidates paid 30 guineas a head, and their tavern expenses came to over £1,000. Neale by his own account spent £1,800, and Drumlanrig could hardly have spent much less.

Neale still hoped for ultimate success in the House of Commons, and counted on Government support. He claimed that he had stood with Henry Pelham’s approval, and that Pelham had promised ‘a short day at the Bar’ when the petition came to be heard.1 Newcastle denied all knowledge of this arrangement, and refused to support Neale’s petition. As compensation for his losses two payments, each of £500, were made to him from secret service funds,2 but he abandoned his interest at Wootton Bassett.

There was no further contest until 1784. The Hyde interest was fitfully maintained, but was too weak to venture a contest without Government help. In 1760 Lord Hyde tried to enlist Newcastle’s support:3

It is an interest that will require money and perhaps parliamentary influence to secure two Members or one ... It is not weaker than it was, and it is possible there may be a division among our adversaries.

Newcastle’s reply was lukewarm, and the offer was not accepted. The St. Johns usually supported Government, and in 1774 and 1780 accepted a Government candidate. They strengthened their interest with Government patronage, and could expect Government support in the event of a contest. But they were financially embarrassed: one contest would seriously inconvenience them, a series would ruin them.

In 1783 the St. Johns went with the Coalition; and at the general election of 1784 faced an opposition, sponsored by Lord Clarendon and backed by the Treasury. ‘The people here are venal to a degree ...’, wrote George Tierney, one of the Government candidates, to Thomas Steele, secretary of the Treasury,4 ‘£5,000 I have little doubt must carry the borough.’5 It did not; but the contest forced the St. John family into an agreement by which they yielded one seat to Clarendon.

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Add. 32852, f. 481.
  • 2. Namier, Structure, 431, 437.
  • 3. Add. 32910, f. 70.
  • 4. Chatham mss.
  • 5. For the dispute about these expenses, see TIERNEY, George.