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 freemen and 40s. freeholders

Number of voters:

about 800 in 1812


(1821): 8,083


 Ezekiel Davys Wilson270
31 Mar. 1807 JAMES CRAIG vice CHICHESTER, vacated his seat359
 Edward May318
19 May 1807JAMES CRAIG363
 Edward May321
 Ezekiel Davys Wilson405
 James Craig25
 Thomas Verner25
1 July 1818GEORGE HAMILTON CHICHESTER, Earl of Belfast 
17 Mar. 1819 BELFAST re-elected after accepting a commission in the army 

Main Article

Commenting on the substitution of Carrickfergus, ‘the only county of a town which would have stood excluded’, for Strabane, in the list of Irish representative boroughs, 16 May 1800, Castlereagh explained:

This change is acceptable to the parties, gives representation to a town very ill suited from its numerous electors to pecuniary compensation, and it obviates the anomaly of a freehold within that district giving franchise nowhere, which would have been the result of its ceasing to send a representative, as it is a distinct county in itself, in no degree connected with Antrim.1

Before the Union, the Marquess of Donegall had the commanding individual interest, but the size of the almost entirely freeman electorate, which embraced most adult males, enabled other interests to stake their claim: Donegall’s mere consent to the return of two Members sponsored by the volunteer movement in 1783 illustrated this.2

After the Union the return was a more open question and in the government list before the election of 1802 Carrickfergus was the only borough to which it was unable to ascribe a patron or a prospective Member.3 The Irish administration therefore took an active interest in the election. John Reilly, the Downshire family agent, reported to the under-secretary that Lady Downshire, who possessed an interest in the borough, would support Donegall’s candidate Chichester, but the latter’s return not being ensured by this, he would also apply to the mayor Ezekiel Wilson (a former Member, who had opposed the Union) for his interest. Wilson decided to start on his own, assuring government of his support if returned. This turn of events embarrassed the Irish executive: by supporting Wilson they would offend Lady Downshire. Reilly promised to warn Wilson of this.4 In the event both Chichester and Wilson stood and Chichester won by a clear margin, but the negotiations had indicated that the Donegall interest was by no means totally secure. Wilson petitioned, though unsuccessfully, against the return.

As it happened, Chichester could not be relied on to support government and all that the Grenville ministry were certain of in 1806 was of his unopposed return.5 At the by-election of 1807, however, the Downshire interest was turned against Donegall and won a decisive victory by putting up Craig against Donegall’s brother-in-law May, who was approved by the chief secretary. The latter knew nothing of Craig and thought ‘a Mr Ellis of Belfast’ was also standing. Craig had a brother-in-law of that name. The same result occurred at the general election two months later, followed by a petition from May against Craig’s return. Although this was given up, it became increasingly clear that the borough was quite ‘open’, for even the 1st Earl O’Neill, who had a strong county interest, had contemplated putting up a candidate.6

Government faced a difficult decision in 1812. Craig was a steady opponent while Donegall, whose candidate was Arthur Chichester, had sulked into a temporary opposition. It is clear that the Castle intervened, but details are lacking. Possibly support was given to Wilson, who had been active in securing new freemen in his interest, though he declared himself to be relying upon the independent interests. The Earl of Yarmouth* was active on his behalf. The contest was a close one between Chichester and Wilson, while Craig and Verner (Lady Donegall’s brother-in-law) were declared ‘irregular candidates’.7 The dominance of the Donegall interest was now reasserted and members of the family were subsequently returned unopposed.

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. HO 100/93, Castlereagh to J. King, 16 May [1800].
  • 2. E. M. Johnston, Great Britain and Ireland, 1760-1800, p. 186.
  • 3. Add. 35735, ff. 76-82.
  • 4. Dublin SPO 520/131/9, Reilly to Marsden, 9, 13, 14, 24, 26 July 1802.
  • 5. Spencer mss, Irish list, May 1806.
  • 6. NLS mss 12911, Elliot to Fremantle, 11 Mar.; Wellington mss, Wellesley to Long, 28 Apr. 1807; CJ, lxii. 644, 818.
  • 7. Add. 40280, ff. 35-37; 60286, f. 4; Belfast News Letter, 23 Oct. 1812; S. McSkimin, Carrickfergus (1909), 279; PRO NI, Downshire mss C229, Wilson to Downshire, 8 Jan. 1813.