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

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 2,000


28 June 1790JOHN FITZPATRICK, Earl of Upper Ossory [I] 
15 Sept. 1794 JOHN OSBORN vice Upper Ossory, called to the Upper House 
31 May 1796HON. ST. ANDREW ST. JOHN 
10 July 1802HON. ST. ANDREW ST. JOHN 
5 July 1806 FRANCIS PYM vice St. John, called to the Upper House 
4 Nov. 1806JOHN OSBORN 
11 May 1807FRANCIS PYM1138
 John Osborn1069
14 Oct. 1812FRANCIS PYM 
 FRANCIS RUSSELL, Mq. of Tavistock 
23 June 1818FRANCIS RUSSELL, Mq. of Tavistock 

Main Article

At the dissolution of 1790 the influence of the 5th Duke of Bedford was paramount in Bedfordshire. His cousin, Lord Upper Ossory, occupied the seat which was customarily filled by a Woburn nominee. The other Member, St. Andrew St. John, sat nominally on the interest of his brother, Baron St. John, with the support of the county’s lesser Whig elements, later described as being ‘not amongst the gentry, but amongst the middle classes and more particularly the dissenters’,1 but his ostensibly precarious position rested largely on the reinforcement which Bedford’s interest had supplied in 1784.

A challenge to St. John was predictable, but it came from an unexpected source. The younger Samuel Whitbread*, Lord St. John’s brother-in-law, who coveted the county seat, tried to make capital of allegedly dubious financial transactions between the St. John brothers, but the ensuing family squabble seems to have subsided before the 1790 general election, when Whitbread was returned for Bedford. John Payne, the illegitimate son of Sir Gillies Payne of Tempsford and defeated candidate for the borough, threatened to stand for the county, but in the event St. John and Ossory were elected unopposed.2

By the summer of 1794 it was known that Ossory, who had gone over to government with the Portland Whigs, was to be rewarded with an English peerage. Whitbread was told by his brother-in-law and fellow Foxite Charles Grey that Bedford would like him to stand ‘if the town could be secured’, but he was apparently not tempted. Sir George Osborn of Chicksands, a staunch ministerialist and old antagonist of the Woburn interest, had long been working to promote the candidature of his son John, who at the time of the vacancy was in St. Petersburg. Osborn secured the support of traditional adherents of government, principally Marchioness Grey of Wrest and Lords Carteret and Ongley; the benevolent neutrality of Ossory himself; the backing of the 1st Marquess of Bute and Lord Hampden, other recent defectors to government, and the minor good offices of the Duke of Portland and Earl Fitzwilliam. Whitbread’s father, the wealthy brewer, a ministerialist currently sitting for Steyning, seems to have shown an interest in standing, but got nowhere, and Bedford was unable to mount an effective challenge. Payne again made faint threats, but Sir George boasted that his efforts, ‘unsupported by the Duke of Bedford, were little more than the fly upon my chariot wheel’, and that Bedford was ‘too wise to show his weakness in the present moment’. Others were less ebullient: Sir Jonathan Lovett, leader of the independent interest in Buckinghamshire, wrote that Sir George ‘is so bad a canvasser and has managed so ill that he owes his success at present to not being opposed, but upon a future occasion I am sure (unless his son when he comes home does wonders) he will be thrown out’. Ossory’s steward, too, felt that the baronet was liable to overreach himself:

But I should after all this encouragement dread the duke’s power with the probable coalition of Lord St. John’s interest in behalf of his brother and Mr Whitbread’s in behalf of his son together with the independent dissenters with the assistance of Mr Payne (who is a disappointed man) ... and others who have always held with the duke; I am well convinced that Sir George thinks too little of the duke’s interest, and I hope such a notion may never lead him into a serious error.3

Although Osborn portrayed his son’s success as a blow for electoral independence, his manoeuvres were inspired by political ideology as well as by hostility to the local influence of the Russells. He was ‘happy to be able to report the general principles of loyalty in the freeholders’ to George Rose and assured him that ‘though the dissenters aim certainly at the alteration of the Test Act, and a reform in Parliament, I think I can answer (let what may happen) to keep them quiet during the war’. Anticipating an attempt on the county by the younger Whitbread in the event of his father’s death, he carefully maintained his organization to discourage ‘the Woburn, St. John, Whitbread and dissenting interest which I shall have to combat’. Political divisions in Bedfordshire were accentuated by the response of the leading figures to the attack on the King and the consequent repressive legislation in 1795, when Bedford, St. John and Whitbread were ranged against Osborn and Ossory. Sir George believed that in consequence of Bedford’s conduct at the county meeting on 8 Dec. his son’s ‘friends would be increased’, and his adherent Joseph Pawsey, the Marchioness Grey’s steward, who reported that Bedford’s supporters were largely dissenters, ‘together with a very great number of the lower orders of the mechanics, and some labourers’, thought Bedford and Whitbread’s behaviour ‘must do them harm at the next election, with all the respectable freeholders’. Their optimism was justified, for there was no attempt to dislodge Osborn in 1796, a generally unpropitious time for the Whig opposition, nor in 1802, when the election came soon after the tragic early death of the 5th Duke of Bedford. In December 1805, when St. John succeeded to the peerage, Francis Pym of Hasells Hall came forward, obtained the 6th Duke’s ‘interest and firm support’ and was returned unopposed. He and Osborn were undisturbed in 1806 but Bedford, in Dublin as lord lieutenant, told both Members that his ambitions in the county turned solely on securing one seat for his eldest son, the Marquess of Tavistock, who ‘on the first vacancy which may occur’ after he came of age, would ‘certainly offer himself’.4

John Osborn’s partisan hostility to the ‘Talents’ alienated many of his former supporters in Bedfordshire, notably Ossory and Bute, both of whom were now realigned with the Whigs. Bedford disputed Bute’s claim, made three years later, that ‘he took an active part in the Bedfordshire election to oblige Lord Grenville’ and recalled that Bute ‘was one of the most eager (through his agent Mr Brown) to excite an opposition to Osborn’; but Whitbread, who was probably the main instigator of the move to join a Whig candidate with Pym to run against Osborn, certainly thought it necessary to ask Lord Grenville to write to Bute to request his support, and Grenville did so. A final decision was suspended until Bedford, who was still in Ireland, had been consulted, but initially the duke’s brother, Lord William Russell*, was expected to be the ‘gentleman of true Whig principles’ whose candidature was announced on 27 Apr. The following day, however, Gen. Richard Fitzpatrick, Ossory’s brother and Fox’s old crony, sitting Member for Bedford’s borough of Tavistock, reluctantly accepted the commission, despite ill-health and aversion to political exertion, only to be withdrawn almost immediately when Pym, fearing an expensive struggle, ‘positively refused to stand if anyone should be proposed in opposition to Mr Osborn’. Pym was somehow persuaded to stand firm and, after Sir George Osborn had issued an arrogant statement endorsing his son’s pretensions, he and Fitzpatrick were put in nomination.5

National political issues clearly played an important part in the contest, which was fought to the last ditch on both sides. Bedford claimed that ‘we had opposed to us Treasury influence and Treasury money, the active exertions of powerful public bodies, the anxious hopes and wishes of ministers’ and ‘above all the mischievous cry of "No Popery", which proved a powerful engine against us’. Fitzpatrick, who told Lord Holland that ‘Bedfordshire is become a field of battle for Whig and Tory politics’, held up Osborn’s defeat as ‘the most unequivocal testimony’ of the electors’ ‘utter reprobation both of the principles and conduct’ of the Portland government, although his victory was in fact a desperately narrow one and Whig leaders had their fears of mismanagement and failure throughout the contest. The strength of Osborn’s support in the county is indicated by the fact that he polled 877 single votes, as against the 43 and 59 respectively for Pym and Fitzpatrick, who shared 964 split votes. He had a further 97 plumpers rejected, enough to have given him second place. Each candidate fared comparatively well in his local sphere of influence and, among the leading county figures, the support of Lady Lucas (the Marchioness Grey’s daughter and heiress), Lords Carteret, Ongley and Hampden, and the families of Monoux, Page-Turner, Thornton, Wade-Gery and Williamson for Osborn, set against that of the Duke of Bedford, Lords Ossory, St. John and Spencer and, among the gentry, Whitbread, Payne, Crawley, Beckford and Orlebar, for Pym and Fitzpatrick, was predictable enough. As Whitbread acknowledged, the scales were tipped by the transfer of Bute’s interest from Osborn to his opponents, for in the areas of Luton and Limberry where Bute’s influence centred, Osborn secured only nine votes to Pym’s 101 and Fitzpatrick’s 99. The cost of the Whig success was £10,000; a tenth was supplied from party funds and Bedford contributed the rest. Bedford thought that ‘the victory is complete and secures, I trust, the county during the remainder of my life’; but Sir George Osborn was equally convinced that the result demonstrated that ‘my son may rest asssured to represent the county as long as he may wish in future to do so’.6

Whitbread made unremitting attempts to consolidate the Whig advantage. Writing to Bute in May 1810 to request the co-operation of his agents in a systematic canvass and organization of the county, he explained

Ever since the last election, I have by the means of agents in different parts of the county, ascertained the alterations in freehold property, by death, descent, or otherwise. Such information when collected I have digested; and at length I had so matured the plan of collecting it abroad, and arranging it at home, that it may be kept up for many years to come, and will give an immediate reference to every freeholder in the county.

His assiduity contrasted sharply with Fitzpatrick’s disregard for the forms and social obligations required of a county Member, which offended Bute in particular, the ‘proverbial’ inattention of Ossory, as lord lieutenant, to ‘everything that bears the least affinity to duty’, and general complacency on the part of the Woburn interest. When Whitbread reproached Bedford he drew the admission that ‘you have a fair right to "grumble"’, and a promise to ‘repair my errors’. Bute continued to sulk, and Whitbread, apologizing for the incivilities of others, renewed his attempts at mollification. Bedford, who considered Bute ‘a very strange character’, was confident that he would ‘listen to reason’, and in August 1811 Whitbread gave a ‘favourable’ report of ‘Lord Bute’s county politics’; but it appears that he merely ‘expressed his determination never to interfere’ and Bedford was anxious enough in 1812 to ask Grenville to solicit Bute’s support for his son. Osborn was seeking to recover his position by the autumn of 1811, when Whitbread heard that he had ‘pledged to come forward with a certain sum, and that a great many others have subscribed towards the deficiency, but if Lord Tavistock and his friends will coalesce and leave Mr Pym to fight his own battle they will not disturb either town or county’. In March 1812 Osborn wondered if ‘four or five thousand pounds, well managed, would be likely to be successful at the next election’; but shortly afterwards, forced to admit that ‘we are not over strong’, was reduced to contemplating a long-term compromise, whereby ‘we would consent to leave them in quiet possession at the ensuing general election if they would consent to let in a Member on the independent interest at the subsequent election’. The idea found little favour with his leading supporters and was dropped. Tavistock replaced Fitzpatrick in 1812 and was returned unopposed with Pym.7

On the death of Ossory, 1 Feb. 1818, Sir George Osborn offered Lord Liverpool his own services as lord lieutenant, for unashamedly political purposes, after casually dismissing the claims of candidates among the Bedfordshire nobility. Though embarrassed by his father’s presumption, John Osborn agreed that ‘in the present nicely balanced state of parties in Bedfordshire, the weight of the influence of the lord lieutenant ex officio would turn the scale as to one Member for the county’, and mentioned Lord Grantham, nephew of the Countess de Grey (formerly Lady Lucas), as a suitable choice. Liverpool rejected Sir George’s pretensions, but ruled out the Duke of Bedford on the pretext that his recent subscription to the relief fund for William Hone, the writer charged with blasphemous libel, put his appointment ‘wholly out of the question’, and duly appointed Grantham. Bedford, who was indignant at the slight, and Tierney, feared that Pym might wilt before the anticipated challenge of Grantham’s brother, Frederick John Robinson*, president of the Board of Trade, but in the event it was John Osborn who came forward at the general election, regardless of his substantial election debts. According to the 2nd Marquess of Bute, he canvassed on the explicit understanding that if returned he would resign the lordship of the Admiralty which he had held since 1812. Pym and Tavistock both started, but the latter stressed to Lord Holland, whose succession to Ossory’s property had given him an interest in the county, the importance of his canvass being conducted ‘totally unconnected with Pym’. Pym took fright at the prospect of ruinous expense and withdrew at the eleventh hour, leaving Osborn, who did not resign his office, to be returned unopposed with Tavistock. Whitbread’s son-in-law William Waldegrave* had earlier accused Tavistock of being prepared to compromise with Osborn, but according to one of Fitzwilliam’s agents, Tavistock offered ‘to retire and let Mr Pym come in free of expense, if his friends thought it would be more advantageous to the general cause’. Waldegrave expressed the Whigs’ bitter disappointment when he wrote that ‘most of us feel mystified that when all other towns and counties are showing themselves so strenuous in the cause of freedom ... we should have returned so objectionable a Member’. Bedford feared that the damage done by Pym’s failure of nerve to the ‘Whig interest’ in Bedfordshire was ‘irreparable’; but Sir John Buchanan Riddell*, writing to the Duke of Buccleuch on 19 June 1818, argued that the Russells were far from blameless:

The unpopularity of Osborn was the sole cause of the Bedford interest ever gaining two seats. Now the duke, still more the duchess and even Lord Tavistock had given umbrage to all ranks by supercilious neglect, and their politics are disliked. But Osborn has done nothing to gain friends.8

Immediately after the election the Bedfordshire Whigs, ‘extremely restless and discontented’, as Bedford described them, were casting round for a suitable candidate to challenge Osborn next time. While the duke felt that he could not, ‘consistently with the principles on which I have uniformly acted in Bedfordshire, take any part in their proceedings’, he was prepared if ‘specifically called upon by the county at a county meeting to join Tavistock with another Whig candidate’ to do so ‘con amore and I hope con spirito’. He encouraged Holland, 11 Aug. 1818, to put himself at their head, for ‘if they can be brought to act together as a compact body the tory party would never be able to resist their force’. By 27 Sept. 1818, however, he had concluded that

it would be prudent to calm the effervescent spirit of the Whigs and let things remain as they are for the present without attempting to make any stir till towards another general election if circumstances should then warrant an attempt to regain a Whig Member.9

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Add. 51662, Bedford to Holland, 11 Aug. [1818].
  • 2. Waldegrave mss, Whitbread to his father, 22 June 1787; Whitbread mss W1/1818-22; Beds. RO, Rugeley mss X202/79.
  • 3. Whitbread mss W1/859; Add. 35642, f. 61; 38458, f. 167; Portland mss PwF2060, 3769, 6469, 7303, 8532; PRO 30/8/164, ff. 187, 189; Beds. RO, Lyall mss LL9/10.
  • 4. Herts. RO, Verulam mss F27, Osborn to Grimston, 15 Sept. 1794; PRO 30/8/164, f. 187; Beds. RO, Williamson mss M10/5/588, 592, 593; Lucas mss L30/9/73/16-18, 30/11/215/168; Spencer mss, Bedford to Spencer, 30 Dec. 1805; Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 7 Oct. 1806.
  • 5. Whitbread mss W1/1840; Blair Adam mss, Whitbread to Adam, 27 Apr., 10 June; Fortescue mss, Whitbread to Grenville, Grenville to Bute, 28 Apr.; The Times, 28, 29 Apr., 5, 8, 9 May 1807; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 175-7; HMC Fortescue, ix. 136; Spencer mss, Bedford to Spencer, 1 May; Morning Post, 12 May 1807.
  • 6. Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 10, 20, 29 May, 14 June; Add. 51799, Fitzpatrick to Holland [30 May]; The Times, 26 May 1807; Beds. RO, Bute mss G/DDA 146/8; Lucas mss L30/11/204/4a.
  • 7. Bute mss G/DDA 148/3, 4; Whitbread mss W1/75, 1830, 1836, 1840, 1846, 1848, 1930, 1931; Add. 51795, Ossory to Holland, 13 Sept., 27 Oct. [1808]; Fortescue mss, Bedford to Grenville, 21 Sept. 1812; Williamson mss M10/5/600-1.
  • 8. Add. 38270, ff. 146, 150, 151; Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 258-9; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 3 Feb.; Add. 38454, f. 283; 51662, Bedford to Holland, 1 Mar., 4 Aug.; 51675, Tavistock to same, 2 June; 51829, Waldegrave to same, 5 July 1818; The Late Elections, 9; Waldegrave mss, Waldegrave to his wife [June]; Fitzwilliam mss, box 92, Maltby to Milton, 19 June 1818; SRO GD224/580.
  • 9. Add. 51662.