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

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the corporation

Number of voters:



(1812): 37,277


12 July 1802EDWARD MAY
17 Nov. 1806EDWARD MAY
15 May 1807EDWARD MAY
23 Oct. 1812(SIR) EDWARD MAY, Bt.
16 Sept. 1814 STEPHEN EDWARD MAY vice May, deceased
3 May 1816 JOHN MICHEL vice May, appointed to office

Main Article

Belfast was the most important town in the north of Ireland and in the later 18th century and throughout this period enjoyed a rapid growth in commercial and industrial prosperity. Before the Union, it had been the natural focus of political activity, particularly of the radical and revolutionary type, and to a limited extent this tradition persisted, but neither prosperity nor political tradition affected elections. Most of Belfast was owned by the Marquess of Donegall, ‘every brick of it’, according to one observer. He thereby exercised complete control over the electors, the governing body of the corporation.1

In 1802 Donegall returned his father-in-law May, who became a supporter of administration. In 1806 the Grenville ministry could find little to discuss about Belfast and merely noted that Donegall’s politics were uncertain and that May was eager for his son to be rewarded in some way. In 1807 the chief secretary noted that it was again May’s intention to support government.2

Belfast did not become a matter of concern to the government until 1811, when Donegall threatened to go into opposition. His threats naturally influenced May, who in Peel’s memorandum on the election in 1812 was considered ‘rather against government’, and for the first time Belfast became, from the official point of view, a ‘doubtful’ seat. The Irish administration took some pains to retrieve Donegall’s support and soon after the election he was given the nomination to an office in Carrickfergus.3 This decision evidently reaped its reward, for May was soon classified as a government supporter.

Stephen May was returned in his father’s place in 1814 and it was not until a local collectorship fell vacant, in February 1816, that government had a further opportunity to influence events. Both Donegall and Lord Hertford applied for the place, but Peel felt that Donegall had the better claim, as neither of his Members had received any recent favours from government. As borough patron, Donegall claimed the place as of right. Peel angrily rejected Donegall’s ‘rights’, but May was appointed to the collectorship.4 Donegall’s claims, however, did not end there. He was anxious for a blue ribband and even an Irish dukedom for himself and a baronetcy for May; and, as the latter’s appointment to the collectorship vacated the seat, he used the opportunity to extract something. Peel related the story to the lord lieutenant:

There has been great intriguing about the Belfast return. Lord Westmorland [lord privy seal] has effected the return of General Mitchell [sic]. Sir George Hill, who seemed to be acting as a sort of agent to Lord Westmorland hinted Lord Donegall’s readiness to return a friend of the government for Belfast if a promise was given of the next ribbon to Lord Donegall and of a baronetage to Sir Stephen May. I laughed at such a monstrous proposition and said he might return whom he pleased, and that I had no objection to, or wish, for his returning General Mitchell whom I never saw and about whom I knew nothing. After Lord Westmorland had been treating with Lord Donegall, Torrens wished to come in for Belfast; the Duke of York seconded his wishes and an attempt was made to procure the return for Torrens, it appearing that no promise had been given to General M. After great indecision and an exhibition of all that folly which distinguishes his lordship, Lord D[onegall] has at length written to Torrens that in consequence of a letter he has received from Lord W[estmorland] he has determined to return General M.

The lord lieutenant concluded that Westmorland had duped Donegall, who thought he was meeting government’s wishes, in order to add to his own parliamentary strength, and stressed to Peel that government was therefore under no obligation to him, ‘as neither Lord Liverpool, you, or myself ever heard a syllable of the matter until it was decided’.5

Somewhat surprisingly, relations between Done-gall and government improved after this episode. His influence in Belfast was acknowledged by the bestowal of three nominations to office in 1817 and 1819,6 while the difficulty of looking outside the family for a representative was perhaps recognized in 1818, when the marquess returned Chichester, who was descended from a cadet branch of his family.

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. G. Benn, Hist. Belfast ; Wakefield, Account of Ireland, i. 247.
  • 2. Spencer mss, Irish list, May 1806; Add. 38359, f. 209.
  • 3. Add. 40185, f. 109; 40280, f. 35.
  • 4. Add. 40191, ff. 133, 135; 40290, ff. 118, 134.
  • 5. Add. 40192, ff. 12, 56, 76, 80, 83; 40290, ff. 224, 225.
  • 6. Add. 40297 (Donegall).