Dublin University


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 provost, fellows and foundation scholars

Number of voters:

about 70


14 July 1802HON. GEORGE KNOX39
 William Conyngham Plunket29
28 Mar. 1805 KNOX re-elected after appointment to office39
 John Leslie Foster19
 Arthur Browne18
6 Nov. 1806GEORGE KNOX35
 John Leslie Foster32
 Thomas Thornton Macklin4
 John Wilson Croker30

Main Article

On the death of the provost John Hely Hutchinson in 1794 the Marquess of Abercorn’s plan, hatched three years before by his adherents the brothers Thomas and George Knox, to assume the patronage of Trinity College went into operation. It involved Abercorn’s replacing the Duke of Gloucester as chancellor and one of the brothers becoming provost: but Abercorn was forced by his clique of adherents to conciliate College opinion by urging government to choose one of their own number, Dr Murray, as the new provost.1 Meanwhile, George Knox (not an alumnus) had become Abercorn’s candidate, assisted by a ‘town club’, for the College representation, and at the election of 1797 he was chosen in second place to Dr Arthur Browne, the professor who had sat for the College since 1783: ‘There was great exertion of undue influence in favour of Knox’. On the Union ballot Browne withdrew, allegedly under Castle pressure, and Knox became sole Member.2

Knox was nevertheless sure of opposition at the next election. As early as 1795 he had seen William Conyngham Plunket as a potential opponent.3 In March 1799 Plunket, ‘a violent opposition man’ emerged as such, it being anticipated that Knox would support the Union: in fact he vacillated and at length opposed its passage, but waived any further opposition. This stance proved a favourable one when Plunket canvassed against him in the early summer of 1801. The provost ‘harangued much against Mr Plunket’; Knox made a virtue of declining office in August 1801 rather than sacrifice Abercorn’s influence to a ‘turbulent demagogue’ and secured the goodwill of the Castle in a crusade for ‘anti-jacobin principles’. He refused a ‘test’ devised by Dr Stokes ‘that the candidate shall declare he will at all future times obey the expressed wish of a majority of the electors, or else resign his seat’, as being ‘unconstitutional’, whereas Plunket agreed to it. Knox was successful and credited himself with defeating the ‘democratic’ party in the College. Plunket petitioned, claiming that Knox was ineligible, ‘not having been a member of either the College or University’. Knox was made an honorary doctor of laws, 16 Mar. 1803, and the committee of the House decided in his favour by eight votes to seven, that is by the chairman’s casting vote. This decision at once prompted the veteran Member Browne (now prime serjeant) to vow that, ‘if he lived’, he would oppose Knox at the next opportunity. Plunket, on the other hand, did not persevere.4

Knox’s acceptance of a government place vacated his seat in March 1805, and apart from the ailing Browne he encountered a more formidable opponent in John Leslie Foster*, nephew of the Irish chancellor of the exchequer, supported principally by Dr Magee and Dr Hodgkinson (Knox’s opponent in 1797). The Castle viewed with distaste a contest between two candidates in office and a third closely attached to it and Lord Hardwicke grumbled about Foster’s dividing the friends of government in the College. The provost, John Kearney, also resented the danger to the ‘peace’ and ‘discipline’ of the College. But the Foster party was undeterred and further annoyed their critics by persuading the sheriffs to delay the election until Browne was obliged to go out of Dublin to attend the Clare assizes.5 This manoeuvre was scarcely necessary to place Foster above Browne and it did not avail against Knox. Although Foster tried to persuade the electors that Knox’s place was inconsistent with a seat in Parliament, he was advised by the solicitor-general that any petition so grounded would fail. ‘The effective votes were: for Knox, 33; for Foster, 18; for Browne, 11. Beside these, one minor vote for Foster, seven for Browne and six for Knox.’ Seven electors were absent, and Dr Stokes abstained ‘as an honest Irishman’. Dr Thomas Prior, whose diary charted these elections, confided to it that he voted for Foster; not for Knox because he was ‘an alien, who was introduced here by an interested and unprincipled faction’ and because he was ‘a political trimmer on the momentous question of legislative union’, nor for Browne ‘as a trimmer on the same question, and ... as having abdicated the representation of this university when in 1800 he resigned it to Mr Knox’. He added that Browne, though he had eventually decided in favour of the Union, had yielded to government pressure and had refused to oppose Knox in 1802, ‘thus coalescing with the faction of which he had frequently complained ... as undermining his interest in favour of a stranger, etc.’. Prior also considered it impossible for Browne, ‘a fellow of this College and his Majesty’s prime serjeant in Ireland’, to attend at Westminster. To Foster, none of these objections applied: ‘a young man of very superior talents’, he had ‘passed through our academic course with the highest degree of credit’ and written ‘a political pamphlet of great merit’: besides, he was ‘nephew to the greatest political character we have in this country, and to a man who has conferred substantial benefits on this College’.6

At the election of 1806 the contest between Knox and Foster was repeated. This time they were both in opposition to the government, which had nothing to say: but Foster’s champion, Dr Magee, was now chaplain to the viceroy and Knox knew that he could not rely on the new provost George Hall. Foster was gaining on him, but he held out by three votes. Prior reported:

Foster had a gross majority, but several minors, etc. He also proposed the votes of some resident masters, who he says are legally qualified to be electors. Dr Stokes late in the day proposed the same test which Plunket took in 1802, and both candidates assented. He voted for Knox!!!

Knox informed Abercorn that the test was ‘a bitter pill, and had I considered myself alone, it should never have been swallowed. I think with you ... that practically it is of little moment.’ Nothing came of the petition threatened by Foster to test the ex-scholars’ right to vote, after the returning officer had rejected them.7

In 1807 Knox retired from public life. Foster’s moment had come, for Knox’s resignation was not made known until 30 Apr. and opportunist canvassers like Messrs Buxton, Dogherty and Thomas Gold (previously interested in 1794) could make no headway. Macklin, a young barrister, emerged as Foster’s opponent, hinting that Foster’s election might be vitiated: he readily agreed to a test of obedience to the majority. Foster would not, and went so far as to deny that he had agreed to it in 1806: he ‘considered it always as unconstitutional; a College porter would with a test be the best representative, etc.’ This cost him four votes, but he swamped Macklin, who alleged that Foster ‘had given entertainment to some electors since the issuing of writs’. His petition on the subject failed. The provost had remained neutral and Foster’s critics spoke of putting up counsellor Peter Burrowes against him at the next election.8

It was Plunket who emerged as Foster’s opponent when a premature canvass commenced in November 1810. There was some prejudice against him for having deserted the College after his bid of 1802, but he was now a more formidable figure and had won over Dr Magee, who repented of his support for Foster. Moreover, Thomas Elrington, Hall’s successor as provost in November 1811, was Plunket’s friend. At the election of 1812 Foster withdrew. Nothing came of a bid by John Henry North, ‘a young man of the greatest promise’, to stand on the dissident interest, though he had announced his availability in the canvass of 1810. Thomas Prior, who at that time wished to see ‘a member of our own corporation elected to represent us in Parliament’, reported that Dr Phipps was the only one who would do, and he could not be prevailed on. Incidentally, all three men—Plunket, Foster and North—were pro-Catholic; the last differed from Plunket in supporting the conduct of the war. John Wilson Croker* writing to the chief secretary, 22 Sept. 1812, urged him to espouse North, who ‘though not our friend may be made so’ and would be only four or five votes behind Plunket, even without Castle intervention; but he admitted that interference must be delicately handled, as North was supported by ‘the young ones’ and professed independence. Peel saw no chance of defeating Plunket. He was proposed by his former opponent Dr Graves and, relying on his principles being sufficiently known, ‘imposed on himself a perfect silence on politics’. The provost at this time planned to petition the crown to transfer the right of franchise ‘from scholars to scholars become masters, who shall be during life electors’.9

Plunket’s security was precarious in 1818. He could not easily obtain patronage for his College friends. The provost was no longer favourable to him and the candidature of John Wilson Croker, a junior minister, was canvassed by Dr Bartholomew Lloyd. It was embarrassing to the government because Plunket, a Grenvillite, was tipped for office in a potential junction of his party with administration, and when the provost informed Lord Liverpool of the wish to support Croker, the premier at first discouraged it. On a further plea from the provost he agreed to do so: in the event it did not prejudice his negotiations with the Grenvillites. Had the provost been refused, there was talk of starting John Henry North against Plunket. Chief Secretary Peel, a friend of Croker’s, therefore offered him what support he could. The change of tactics bemused the viceroy and put Croker at a disadvantage in his canvass, as he thought an earlier start would have ensured success.10

The domestic basis of the contest was reported by Thomas Prior as follows in May 1818:

An active but secret canvass having commenced in favour of Mr Croker, I wrote to W. C. Plunket, who is attending his duty in Parliament, advising of it. This canvass is carried on by some of the junior fellows, under one senior, Dr Lloyd, directed by the provost, at a time when the provost has been corresponding with Mr Plunket on matters connected with College interests. The provost, through Dr Lloyd, has persuaded some of the young fellows that Mr Croker will get the celibacy statute repealed, or at least procure dispensations for them; and this, although the provost has several times expressed his approbation of that statute, and his conviction that it has been the means of preservation of the College, as married fellows, excepting himself, have always been remarkable for want of academic discipline, etc.!!!11

Peel was informed by Leslie Foster, who felt sure that he would have been a better candidate than Croker, but had found that he could not muster as much support:

The topics of protestantism or the wishes of government—or the treatment of the Duke of Cumberland are forgotten. The statute of celibacy and the personal merits of the candidates are all that is insisted on.

This was the less surprising in that Croker was, like Plunket, pro-Catholic; so there could be no repetition of Peel’s ‘protestant’ triumph at Oxford University; and there was no basis for allegations that Plunket had opposed the duke’s marriage grant, though the duke was privately a well-wisher to Croker.12 But the fellows’ ‘domesticity’ was the crucial issue throughout the election: as Croker lamented, with the candidates running neck and neck, the key was in the hands of Dr Sadleir, with a ‘flying squadron’ of three votes at his command, who said he would cast them for the candidate most likely to promote it; and Plunket was his choice. Croker admitted that his case on the issue was prejudiced. Plunket first claimed the Duke of Cumberland’s profession of willingness to secure dispensations for the concupiscent fellows, in case the statute of celibacy could not be repealed—and Plunket promised to secure the repeal if he could. Croker could do no other, but he privately wished government to procrastinate on the issue until the election was over. When the Home secretary formally refused to support the repeal of the statute, Plunket fell back on his party connexions and induced Lord Grenville to write a cautious letter, supposed to hold out hopes to the incelibate.13

At the nomination Croker’s friend Dr Lloyd made a blundering reference to politics, which gave Plunket his cue for a two-hour harangue (which he concluded by calling for a free vote) while Croker, ‘good in manner, bad in matter’, was heard for an hour. A general debate followed, with much acrimony and personality. The provost, who insisted on voting, refused to allow 13 senior scholars’ votes, nine of them favourable to Plunket. According to Croker, 12 votes for him were rejected (he had already lost two through sudden deaths, made up for by two deserters from Plunket who were, however, under age) and seven for Plunket. The latter was escorted in triumph ‘by about 1500 gentlemen to his own house in Stephen’s Green’. According to Prior, the honour, character and independence of the College had been redeemed. At his celebration dinner on 27 June, Plunket pledged himself to secure the repeal of the celibacy statute (it was not obtained until 1840).14 The timing of the election had raised the unprecedented issue of whether the new or old junior scholars (a fifth of them were newly elected) should have the vote. Plunket found it ‘very shocking’ that the latest batch were politically catechized by their examiner, Croker’s friend Lloyd, before their election; and threatened after his return, to bring an action against the provost to determine the point. Croker hindered this with the threat of a petition against Plunket’s return, thereby enabling the provost to make it a College matter. Plunket’s rapprochement with government discouraged Croker from challenging him again, though he still feared the event in 1820.15

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. PRO NI, Abercorn mss IB1/2/8, 40; IB1/3/22, 26, 29; IB1/4/28; IB3/5/1; IK11/150; IK14/144.
  • 2. Trinity College Dublin mss 3363, ff. 1-7.
  • 3. Abercorn mss IK15/103; IK16/12.
  • 4. Ibid. IB3/7/7, 12; PRO 30/9/1 pt. 2/3, Abbot to Duigenan, 26 Oct.; pt. 3/3, Knox to Abbot, 5 Aug. 1801; Add. 35723, f. 63; 35746, ff. 27, 129; TCD mss 3363, ff. 8-13; CJ, lviii. 71, 367; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections (1804), i. 17.
  • 5. The Times, 4 Apr. 1805; Add. 35710, f. 36; Glos. RO. Redesdale mss X24, 25.
  • 6. TCD mss 3363, ff. 14-16.
  • 7. Ibid.; Abercorn mss IB3/12/1, 13, 24, 29, 33; IB3/13/1; HMC Fortescue, viii. 429.
  • 8. TCD mss 3364, ff. 1-3; CJ, lxii. 657.
  • 9. NLI, Grattan mss 2111, H. jun. to J. Grattan, 30 Nov.; Richmond mss 63/614; PRO NI, Foster mss 2257, J. L. to J. Foster, ?10 Nov. 1810; Add. 40183, f. 9; 40280, f. 36; TCD mss 3364, ff. 4-11.
  • 10. Add. 38272, f. 104; 40184, f. 198; 40186, f. 84; 40194, ff. 257, 261; 40295, ff. 71, 92; Lonsdale mss, Croker to Lowther, 13 June; Harewood mss, Liverpool to Canning, 6 July 1818.
  • 11. TCD mss 3364, f. 12.
  • 12. Add. 40206, f. 138; 40277, ff. 71, 223; NLI, Vesey Fitzgerald mss 7840, p. 182; 7854 pp. 103-4, 117-18.
  • 13. Add. 40184, ff. 145-227; 40295, f. 138; M. F. Brightside, J.W. Croker, 92.
  • 14. TCD mss 3364, ff. 12-16; Fortescue mss Plunket to Grenville, 27 June 1818.
  • 15. Add. 40184, f. 225; NLW, Coedymaen mss 5, ff. 331, 576; 17, ff. 1042, 1043.