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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Number of voters:

about 250


(1801): 3,117


18 June 1790JAMES WATSON 
13 Mar. 1795 GEORGE BARCLAY vice Watson, appointed to office126
 Thomas Burges43
26 May 1796GEORGE BARCLAY136
 Thomas Burges100
6 July 1802GEORGE BARCLAY182
 Charles Sturt103
17 Feb. 1804 (SIR) EVAN NEPEAN, Bt., re-elected after appointment to office 
14 Aug. 1804 NEPEAN re-elected after appointment to office 
31 Oct. 1806GEORGE BARCLAY162
 Philip Francis128
6 May 1807(SIR) EVAN NEPEAN, Bt. 
 Claude Scott55
28 Mar. 1817 HENRY CHARLES STURT vice Best, appointed to office 

Main Article

Bridport defied management. Charles Sturt, whose family interest enabled him to return himself and a fellow Whig in 1784, had to cede one seat in 1790, although it was thought he might ‘by a little exertion recover the whole’. The new Member, Watson the recorder, was the champion of the dissenting majority on the corporation, at that time well disposed to Pitt’s ministry. Watson informed Pitt of ‘the extraordinary expense to which I was put relative to my own election in consequence of an opposition from a quarter where I could not have expected it’: whatever it was, there was no contest.1

When Watson vacated his seat to go to Calcutta in 1795, the corporation was thought to be divided between the claims of Lord Bridport as champion of the ‘loyal’ element and William Downe of Downe House, on the presbyterian interest. Downe refused to be drawn and Lord Bridport did not materialize. Instead, Watson attempted to secure the return of his brother-in-law Capt. Thomas Burges. Despite ‘a probability at least of success next to certainty’ and Burges’s pledge of regular attendance and steady support of Pitt’s measures, the scheme failed. Watson had not been an efficient patron and he had refused to vote for peace: in short he had ‘apostatized from the old presbyterian interest ... and was nearly hissed out of the town’. George Barclay, a wealthy Whig, was the successful candidate and ‘maintained his parliamentary interest at Bridport by professing to be a dissenter’. Thus ‘the Whig interest prevailed’, Sturt assuring the electors that he would offer again at the next election and was a friend of peace. Burges returned to the fray at the general election. He had been trying to secure patronage for his friends from the prime minister, to whom he wrote on 3 June 1796 that 63 of his 100 supporters had plumped for him and that the votes for him rejected by a partisan returning officer would have given him the lead over Sturt. He proposed petitioning, too, on the grounds of Sturt’s disqualification. His wish to gratify those who sought to free themselves ‘from the yoke of tyranny’ was frustrated by his sudden death.2

‘The Whig interest’ did not hold on to Bridport either. Owing to the venality of half the electors, contests cost candidates between £1,500 and £2,000, according to Oldfield. An annotated poll book of 1796 suggests that £15 or 15 guineas a vote was the current rate. In January 1802 Evan Nepean, secretary to the Admiralty, who had purchased a neighbouring estate, canvassed the borough successfully, although Barclay remained the favourite at the ensuing election. Sturt was defeated for second place by Nepean. A project to put up a second friend of government, apparently an ex-dissenting minister (like Watson) came to nothing.3

Nepean found it difficult to satisfy his constituents’ demands for patronage, but he managed to retain his seat in 1806, when he was challenged by a second Whig in the person of Philip Francis junior, whose father went to ‘a very considerable expense’ on his behalf. The fact was that Lord Grenville promised Nepean not to interfere against him, though he would not help him.4 In 1807 Barclay retired and William Smith* was invited to replace him; he set out for Bridport, but was induced to return to his former constituency of Norwich. Francis stepped into the vacuum, but did not go to the poll. Thus Nepean was able to bring in Sir Samuel Hood.5

Charles Sturt, who after his defeat in 1802 had been a détenu in France, escaped, and in February 1811 set about reviving his interest. He confided in a local attorney, Thomas Collins Colfox, acting for Barclay, that he anticipated a contest involving Nepean, himself and probably Barclay, in which Nepean would be supported largely by the ‘churchmen’ and a few of the corporation; himself by many churchmen, some of the corporation and ‘the hearty wishes of all the poor inhabitants’; and Barclay by the corporation and dissenting interest. Nepean being unpopular, he hoped the dissenters would support him after Barclay, as it was their apathy towards him that had caused his defeat in 1802, but he would join forces with Barclay only if sure of success, and as to politics he wished to remain ‘free and unshackled’.6

In March 1812 Sturt was thought to be sure of success, but shortly before the election he died.7 As Nepean had gone to India and Hood had no intention of standing again, the borough was thrown open. Barclay, who intended to stand, hoped that Sturt’s death would operate to his advantage, but found that the lukewarm reception he met with at Bridport in August 1811 was ‘some degrees colder’ when his son Frederick canvassed for him in May 1812. Sturt’s interest was taken up by Serjeant Best, a churchman. Barclay, though willing to spend if sure of success, did not like the idea of being a ‘third man’. On the eve of the election he found that the dissenters were rallying to the Sturt party, increasing the likelihood that ‘the Tories should endeavour to turn the tables on their old antagonists and introduce two Members staunch Church and King men’. So Barclay declined a poll: Serjeant Best was joined by another friend of the Prince Regent, St. Paul. He claimed to stand on ‘his own interest’, and they easily defeated Claude Scott*, the only one of several contenders to persist.8

When Best vacated in 1817, Charles Sturt’s son succeeded to his seat. Had Best sought re-election, he would have had an opponent, the radical Henry Hunt†, anxious ‘to remind him of the fate of Despard and his own apostasy’ and claiming to have the promises of two-thirds of the voters. Sturt irritated his Whig supporters by not voting more often against government, but was not opposed in 1818, despite expectations that Sir Charles Morice Pole*, defeated at Plymouth, would offer.9 Bridport was still an open borough.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Oldfield, Boroughs, i. 192; PRO 30/8/187, f. 208.
  • 2. Lansdowne mss, Jekyll to Lansdowne, 15 Mar. [1795]; PRO 30/8/118, ff. 70-76; 234, f. 267; Farington, ii. 142; iv. 99; Sun, 5, 6, 21 Mar. 1795; True Briton, 30 May 1796.
  • 3. Dorset RO, D43/X2, ms poll bk. 1796; The Times, 7 Jan., 29 June 1802.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/163, ff. 89, 93; Fortescue mss, Francis to Grenville, 15 Oct., reply 16 Oct., Wolstenholme to same, 29 Oct. 1806.
  • 5. Add. 51573, Smith to Lady Holland, Mon. [4 May]; Fortescue mss, Barclay to Grenville, 29 Apr. 1807.
  • 6. Dorset RO, D43/X1, Sturt to Colfox, 9 Feb. 1811.
  • 7. Ibid. D367, Jekyll to Bond, 3 Mar. 1812; Gent. Mag. (1812), i. 596; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iii. 386.
  • 8. Dorset RO, D43/X1, Barclay to Colfox, 27 May, 27 Sept. 1812; Northumb. RO, Butler (Ewart) mss, ZUB.C. 1/8/9.
  • 9. Hunt, Mems. iii. 508; Dorset RO, D43/X2, Colfox to Sturt, 17 June 1817; The Late Elections (1818), 24.