Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

A single Member constituency

Right of Election:

in inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 260


(1801): 4,356


 George Knapp102
 George Knapp118
4 May 1807GEORGE KNAPP120
 (Sir) Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, Bt.113
12 Dec. 1809 HENRY BOWYER vice Knapp, deceased 
24 June 1811 SIR GEORGE BOWYER, Bt., vice Bowyer, vacated his seat 
6 Oct. 1812SIR GEORGE BOWYER, Bt.112
 Richard Marnell11
17 June 1818JOHN MABERLY 

Main Article

In 1796 Charles Abbot*, a native of Abingdon, described its electoral composition as follows:

The electors ... are about 240 scot and lot; about 70 of them take money. About half of the 240 go with the corporation. The dissenters, headed by the Tomkiss’s [Tomkinses] and Fletchers, are the next best interest. Child, the brewer, and his friends, have also considerable weight. If all three sets can agree, they carry the place in defiance of all opposition.

The borough remained open and unpredictable throughout the period. There was a significant, though by no means dominant, venal element. Oldfield attributed Abingdon’s immunity from ‘aristocratical influence or corruption’ partly to the ‘freedom of its elective constitution’, whereby the ‘inhabitants at large’ had secured the right to elect the ‘mayor and magistrates’. Yet the charter of 1774 was reckoned by many observers to have increased the influence of the corporation by empowering them to elect annually two aldermen who, with the incumbent and late mayors, acted as justices, with responsibility for revising the list of voters.1

By siding with the Whig opposition on the Regency question the sitting Member, Edward Loveden Loveden, who had been returned in 1783 as an avowed opponent of the Fox-North Coalition, exacerbated existing discontent over his disastrous canal project of 1785 and his alleged habit of spending his money elsewhere. On 11 Jan. 1789 William Curtis*, sheriff of London, arrived to canvass the borough, at the prompting of his sister’s connexions in the corporation. Loveden’s agent Samuel Sellwood, the town clerk, urged him to take immediate counter-measures, to open his purse and to practise ‘a little dissimulation’ in his political professions. Loveden, who suspected that Pitt had a hand in Curtis’s intervention, was unable to leave London but, determined to ‘abide all the consequences of opposition’, wrote to Child and the Tomkinses and assured Sellwood that money would not be wanting. When Curtis, having made no impression on the leading inhabitants, ‘took his flight the next day in disgust’, Sellwood was confident that time and money would quell the ‘spirit of Pittism’ and the more ‘senseless’ discontent on which political rancour fed. From Child, the Tomkinses and other principal townsmen Loveden received declarations of continued support in the interests of ‘peace and good neighbourhood’, despite political differences; and he complied with Sellwood’s advice by presenting a vote of thanks to Pitt which the agent, though secretly contemptuous of the business, judged it imprudent to resist. When fresh unrest was provoked by Pitt’s failure to return an answer Loveden disclaimed any personal responsibility for the minister’s characteristic ‘disrespect’. There were renewed threats of opposition from an unspecified ministerialist and in May 1789 Sellwood told Loveden that ‘our adversaries hold weekly clubs; and give out that a candidate is expected every day’. For all this, and the fact that Abingdon was one of the seats for which government had thoughts of trying to secure the return of a friend in 1790, there was no opposition to Loveden at the general election.2

Loveden, who supported government after 1792, had an eye on one of the county seats the following year, when the incumbent fell dangerously ill, and evidently secured Pitt’s approval of his plan for handing over Abingdon. His bid for the vacant Berkshire seat in 1794 failed, but he remained set on a renewed attempt at the next general election and in January 1795 confided to Sellwood that ‘you will have an offer to succeed me of a person most likely to reconcile contending interests’ in the borough. Later in the year, however, he complained that the county Members were involved in a scheme to thwart him:

a dust [was] to be kicked up at Abingdon in order to form a party there to bring me to a compromise, at the same time any idea of going forward for the county was to be checked by discouragement from those I was thought likely to consult.3

By April 1796 Thomas Metcalfe, a nabob who had purchased a neighbouring estate, was showing an interest in Abingdon. Oldfield subsequently described him as ‘the Treasury recommendation’, and his name, linked with Abingdon, appears on the ministerial list of candidates in search of seats. On 30 Apr. Sellwood approached Abbot, ostensibly on behalf of the corporation though possibly at the prompting of Loveden, who was reluctant to abandon the borough to Metcalfe, whom he believed to have been introduced by a hostile party led by Child in collusion with his rivals for the county. Abbot declined to stand and Loveden eventually decided to go ahead with his candidature for the county, ridiculing a suggestion that if he dropped it Metcalfe would withdraw from Abingdon. Although Loveden had been unable to suggest an alternative candidate from among the local landowners and evidently failed to persuade his son to come forward, Metcalfe was challenged at the eleventh hour by John Prinsep*, a fellow nabob, who claimed to have been approached by ‘a delegation from the very respectable, and as I conceive, natural interest’ of the borough, but who withdrew three days before the election.4

Metcalfe built up a strong coalition of interests, but Loveden, who had been defeated for the county and resented the desertions which had undermined his position at Abingdon, maintained through Sellwood an active interest in the borough, which was reported early in 1800 to have become ‘more independent’, in that landlords were losing their political grip on their tenants. Sellwood was initially pessimistic as to the possibility of challenging Metcalfe’s position, but late in 1801 Loveden, having concluded arrangements to contest Shaftesbury at the next general election, wrote confidently of the prospects:

As to your plan, we must contrive an opposition and [are] I think more ready than you are aware of. I have no idea of M. or his party venturing £3,000 or £4,000, half the sum would knock the whole up. When I next come to A. I will privately put the question home to all doubtful and soon produce a candidate.

Loveden almost certainly instigated the candidature of George Knapp, a local grocer and banker, and exerted his influence in the town on his behalf. Although Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on 26 June 1802 that ‘the cause of freedom and independence gains ground every hour’ and that the coalition party were seriously disturbed by Knapp’s attack, Metcalfe just held on to the seat.5

Knapp and the ‘independent’ party continued their attack on Metcalfe by securing the election of a sympathetic mayor in 1802, and again, after a severe contest, in September 1806; but at the election of 1806, when Knapp proclaimed his desire to assert the independence of Abingdon in defiance of the scheme to subject it ‘to the domineering influence of a few individuals’, Metcalfe won by seven votes. Knapp blamed bribery and treachery for his defeat.6 At the dissolution of 1807, when Loveden described the town as being split into two parties, the ‘Purples’ (Knapp), and the ‘Blues’ (Metcalfe), Ebenezer Maitland* of Shinfield, a ministerialist, made a tentative bid for Sellwood’s support and feelers were put out to Sir George Bowyer of Radley, who declined to stand against Metcalfe. As it was, Knapp and Metcalfe renewed their struggle, the former proclaiming his desire for economy, retrenchment and religious toleration and his opponent allegedly trying to exploit a ‘No Popery’ cry. After a dispute over the rejection by the mayor of nine votes tendered for Metcalfe, Knapp captured the seat by seven votes. Metcalfe’s threats of a petition, on the ground of the mayor’s partiality, came to nothing.7

On Knapp’s death in November 1809 the leaders of both parties appear to have shared a desire for peace and the return of a compromise candidate. Sellwood approached Bowyer, who had been returned for Malmesbury in 1807. Bowyer, feeling able to surmount his scruples since Metcalfe, as sheriff, was ineligible, agreed to stand, provided that it was understood that he did so ‘by the general consent of all parties’. After receiving satisfactory assurances on this head, Bowyer took steps to vacate Malmesbury and was well received on his canvass, which culminated in a dinner for the electors on 30 Nov. Dissatisfaction became evident, however, and it was rumoured that Bowyer and Metcalfe had conceived a scheme whereby Metcalfe was to come in for Malmesbury and later to be foisted again on his old constituency. The truth of the matter is not clear, but Richard Bateman Robson*, a friend and political associate of Knapp, who tried unsuccessfully to negotiate his own return for Malmesbury through Sellwood, wrote of Metcalfe’s ‘intrigues’ in the business. Joseph Sills, a local banker, who alleged that the borough would become ‘a snug appendage’ to Bowyer’s estate and criticized Bowyer’s political views, was prevailed upon to stand. When Bowyer discovered that Sills intended to exploit the fact of his having infringed the Treating Act, he substituted his younger brother Henry, who was destined for the church. Sills, who was reported to have received 100 promises and considerable sympathy, withdrew, claiming to have achieved his object, and Henry Bowyer was returned.8 In June 1811 he handed over to his brother, who easily defeated Richard Marnell, an outsider, in 1812. Bowyer’s parliamentary career was ended by serious financial problems. At the general election of 1818 John Maberly, a wealthy government contractor, who had been cultivating Abingdon since the beginning of the year and who left his former seat at Rye under something of a cloud, was returned unopposed.9

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Colchester, i. 55; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iii. 31-32; Gent. Mag. (1774), 387; PP (1835), xxiii. 141-2; J. Townsend, News of a Country Town, 7-9.
  • 2. Berks. RO, Pryse mss, Abingdon election bdle. 9 Jan.-13 May 1789 passim; Berks. RO, Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood [11 Jan.], handbill, 20 Apr. 1789; Add. 28666, f. 379.
  • 3. Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 13 June 1793, [22 Jan.] 7 Aug. 1795; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 728/1, Addington to Pitt, 2 July 1793.
  • 4. Oldfield, Hist. (1797), 66; Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood [29 Apr.], 2, 9, 10, [17] May, Abbot to same, 30 Apr.; Colchester, i. 55; Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 21 May; True Briton, 28 May 1796.
  • 5. Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 5 Feb. 1800, 10, 29 Oct., 1 Nov., 27 Dec. 1801, 29 Apr., 16, 23 May 1802.
  • 6. Townsend, 114, 119, 120; Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 18, 26 Oct., 1 Nov. 1806.
  • 7. Preston mss, Loveden to Sellwood, 22 Apr., 11 May, Blandy to same, 28 Apr. 1807, Bowyer to same, 12 Nov, 1809; Townsend, 120-1.
  • 8. Preston mss, Bowyer to Sellwood, 12 Nov., Robson to same [16], 19, 22 Nov., Loveden to same, 17 Dec., handbill [Nov. 1809], election case [Mar. 1810]; Townsend, 124.
  • 9. Townsend, 146.