Co. Down


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 13,000 in 1811 rising to 15,000 in 1815


1801ROBERT STEWART, Visct. Castlereagh 
24 July 1802ROBERT STEWART, Visct. Castlereagh 
27 July 1805 HON. JOHN MEADE vice Castlereagh, appointed to office1973
 Robert Stewart, Visct. Castlereagh1481
17 Nov. 1806HON. JOHN MEADE 
16 May 1807HON. JOHN MEADE 
30 May 1812 HON. ROBERT WARD vice Savage, vacated his seat 
21 Oct. 1812ROBERT STEWART, Visct. Castlereagh55
 Eldred Curwen Pottinger13
26 Feb. 1817 LORD ARTHUR MOYSES WILLIAM HILL vice Meade, appointed to office 
2 July 1818ROBERT STEWART, Visct. Castlereagh 

Main Article

County Down was one of Ireland’s most heavily populated constituencies and, thanks to successful farming from productive soil and a substantial linen industry, one of the wealthiest. In terms of property and religion the social structure was relatively broad and diverse. Down possessed a numerous gentry and a significant number of ‘middling’ farmers, and while perhaps half the population were presbyterians, the remainder were divided between Catholics and members of the Established Church. As far as can be ascertained, the relatively large electorate reflected these features.

Elections had been dominated for some 20 years before the Union by the most substantial landowner in the county, the Marquess of Downshire (Hill) and one of a number of lesser powers, the Earl of Londonderry (Stewart). Each family possessed a substantial personal interest (amounting at one time in this period to a quarter of the electorate in the case of the Hills and an eighth in the case of the Stewarts) and made up additional strength from among the hundred or so landlords with qualified tenantry. Yet elections were far from being in the pocket of the two families. The Hills and Stewarts were political opponents and their competition, combined with traditions of independence and even radicalism among the gentry and freeholders, had created contests in the later 18th century in which electoral organization, ideology and personal and national interests had all played their part.1

At the Union the two families shared the representation—Castlereagh being Londonderry’s son and heir and Savage being the Downshire Member. The question of the Union had divided the county and the two families. The Hills had opposed the measure as vehemently as Castlereagh had promoted it, and when the second Marquess of Downshire died in September 1801, having been stripped of his local dignities for his views and having seen friends dismissed from government posts for theirs, the prospects of a heated election were strong. By degrees, however, these prospects faded away. The marquess’s death and the emergence of Lady Downshire as head of the family until their son came of age no doubt temporarily stemmed the flow of family passions. Of perhaps more significance were the soothing noises made by Castlereagh and the direct efforts of the prime minister, who eventually secured for Lady Downshire an English peerage, with reversion to her younger son, a month before the election of 1802. The result was that she agreed not to oppose Castlereagh. The sitting Members were therefore returned unopposed after Eldred Pottinger, a wealthy Belfast merchant and radical Whig, had declared that he had no alternative but to abandon his hopes of polling the independent interests.2

By July 1805, when a by-election was imminent as a result of Castlereagh’s appointment to office, Lady Downshire had changed her mind. She accused Castlereagh of attempting to rob her family of ‘its just interest and patronage, and to raise himself and his connections upon them’ and therefore decided to support the candidature of Col. John Meade, one of Lord Clanwilliam’s brothers, who had come forward as an opponent to Castlereagh and the slavish unionist and Pittite sentiments he was alleged to represent. Castlereagh was initially taken aback, but quickly accumulated the support of lesser interests such as those of Lord Annesley, Lady Clanwilliam and Lord Bangor’s sons, Robert and Edward, and put it about that he might spend £40,000 to retain the seat. Against this background, it is not surprising that both the canvassing and the election proved to be lively and very expensive. The squib writers and poets had a field day at Castlereagh’s expense, portraying him as the arch-hypocrite who, having won his seat in the 1790s on the independent interest, had then abandoned it for lucrative office and the bribery and corruption which was alleged to have secured the Union. It was with noises of this kind ringing in his ears that Castlereagh eventually resigned, claiming for his part that he did so because his interest was not adequately registered. His opponents, on the other hand, saw his defeat as a triumph for the anti-Unionists and an ‘illumination’ was accordingly arranged in Dublin. Perhaps the real victor, however, was Lady Downshire, who may have spent £30,000 in scoring off Castlereagh and, in effect, commanded both seats.3 She certainly represented Meade and Savage’s unopposed returns in 1806 and 1807 as personal triumphs, especially that of 1807, when both the Castle and some independent pro-Castle sympathisers in the constituency had attempted unsuccessfully to put up a rival candidate.4

After 1807 Lady Downshire’s electoral fortunes declined. The family’s personal interest among the tenantry was probably weakened by the policy of letting very small holdings to increase the rent roll, and in 1811 it was reported that they were in an unco-operative and sulky mood. Furthermore her son, who had by then come of age and assumed control of the Down estates, took the view that the family could not afford what he called ‘the violent evils of a contested election’ especially when the certain opponent was a Castlereagh still smarting from his defeat in 1805 and determined to use the advantages of his position in the government to enhance his interest in the constituency. The upshot was that in March 1812 Downshire circulated a letter proclaiming that ‘he would not oppose those in the county of Down, formerly opposed to his family’; in other words that the Hills and Stewarts would be satisfied with a seat apiece with the likelihood that Castlereagh would have one seat himself and Downshire’s brother, Lord Arthur Hill, would take the other when of age.5

Such a compact between ambitious families, even when, as in this case, they sat in different political camps, was not unusual; but in Down it provoked frequent, vociferous, and in the end ineffectual opposition. In fact it immediately led to Savage vacating his seat, thus placing an ill-prepared Castlereagh in a difficult position. He was not ready to come in at that precise moment, and after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Savage to reconsider his decision, he arranged for an old friend, Col. Ward, to stand as a ‘stopgap’ until the general election. This manoeuvre enraged a number of squires as well as the old campaigner, Eldred Pottinger, who opposed the ‘junction’ at the by-election (when he was refused a poll by the sheriff) on the grounds that it reduced the gentry to cyphers and extinguished the independence of the freeholders. Finally, at the general election, Downshire played no formal part, Ward stood down in favour of Castlereagh, and Meade stood on the general understanding that he would retire when Lord Arthur Hill became available for election. Pottinger again tried his luck but declined after the first day’s poll. Lady Downshire was horrified at the result. She informed Lord Grenville that

on my arrival here lately to officiate as godmother to Downshire’s little boy, I found all Downshire’s friends deeply lamenting (and in consequence their attachment shook by) the neutrality in which Downshire had placed himself as to Lord Castlereagh’s election ... It was too late [she continued], it was impossible to have opposed Lord Castlereagh on this occasion without running the hazard of undoing Lord Downshire’s honour. Opposition on this occasion was then out of any question—I advised Downshire to call a general meeting of his friends and to state to them his sincere regret at having had any correspondence with Lord Londonderry upon the subject of county politics, to declare to them his motive for entering into that correspondence, that there was no tendency to a compromise of public principles on his part with the Stewarts, that there was no political sympathy between them, and that he was resolved to support and maintain the independence of the county to the last. He did so ... it cemented the predominant strength of his friends ... and I have the satisfaction to tell you, that I firmly believe this to be the last time of Lord Castlereagh being where he now is.6

In fact, despite Lady Downshire’s last flourish, the agreement between the two families persisted until the Reform bill. Lord Arthur Hill came of age in 1813, but spent the following two years on active service on the Continent. When he returned home after the war, Meade stood down for him. In 1818 Castlereagh and Hill were returned unopposed at an election which Castlereagh said ‘was disposed of in an hour’s time, with more good humour amongst all ranks, than I have witnessed upon any former occasion’.7

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. Irish Hist. Studies, xviii. no. 70, pp. 177-206.
  • 2. PRO 30/9/1/1/2, Castlereagh to Abbot, 8 Sept. 1801; Dublin SPO 520/131/9, Reilly to Marsden, 9, 24 July 1802; Add. 35713, f. 26; 35734, ff. 23, 97; 35771, f. 203; Sidmouth mss, Lady Downshire to Addington, 4 July 1802.
  • 3. [Hon. John Meade], Co. of Down Election 1805, pp. 13, 31; Add. 35713, f. 26; 35755, f. 184; 35761, ff. 5, 9, 26, 66; 51826, Stair to Holland, 17 Nov. [1812]; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 6/108; Chatsworth mss, Devonshire to Hartington, 22 July 1805.
  • 4. Spencer mss, Irish list, May 1806; Fortescue mss, Lady Downshire to Grenville, 16 Oct. 1806, 30 May; Belfast News Letter, 19 May; Wellington mss, Needham to Wellesley, 30 May 1807.
  • 5. Wakefield, Account of Ireland, ii. 304; Hants RO, Normanton mss, Musgrave to Normanton, 6 Mar. 1809; PRO NI, Castleward mss 1/10/98, R. to Lady A. Ward; Cassidy mss 9, squib; Ballow mss 36, Pottinger to Nicholson; Downshire mss C32, Matthews to Downshire, 23 July 1811; Belfast News Letter, 30 May, 2 June 1812; NLI, Richmond mss 67/1044.
  • 6. Fortescue mss, Lady Downshire to Grenville, 1 Nov.; Downshire mss C246, Lady Downshire to Lyme, 7 Oct. 1812.
  • 7. Downshire mss C215, Todd Jones to Downshire, 20 Sept. 1817; C18, Castlereagh to Hill, 11 June 1818; Add. 40181, f. 321.