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

Number of voters:

about 2,000


(1801): 27,609


21 June 1790AUBREY BEAUCLERK, Earl of Burford  
27 May 1796SIR CHARLES TURNER, Bt.886 
 Walter Spencer Stanhope715 
6 July 1802SAMUEL THORNTON1266 
 William Joseph Denison767 
 William Bell3 
31 Oct. 1806JOHN STANIFORTH1133 
 Samuel Thornton733 
5 May 1807PHILIP HENRY STANHOPE, Visct. Mahon  
6 Oct. 1812JOHN STANIFORTH1446 
 Philip Henry Stanhope, Visct. Mahon364 
14 July 1818JOHN MITCHELL1324111552
 John Staniforth1036927

Main Article

Samuel Thornton, who represented Hull for over 20 years, described it as ‘a populous place, extremely difficult of control by the influence of the gentlemen who reside in it’.3 The corporation, the Trinity House and the Dock Company (established in 1774) were the three formal agencies through which local merchant opinion could be expressed, but unless united, as they were in 1802, the influence of none of them was decisive. The hope of securing government patronage predisposed many of the electors to be supporters of administration: Joseph Sykes described the borough in 1790 as ‘amongst the most ministerial in the kingdom, and where 200 places are to be given away and perhaps 400 gaping for them, it’s not to be much wondered at if at an election the friends of government ... have a decided majority’.4 Earl Fitzwilliam inherited considerable personal prestige from Lord Rockingham and was ably served by Joseph Sykes of West Ella and his two sons, the Rev. Richard and Daniel. With their support a Whig candidate was successful on four occasions. But the large and venal electorate, about a third of whom were non-resident, was the decisive power in Hull and the ‘third man’, who provoked a contest and thus made necessary the payment of polling money, was the candidate most likely to be favoured, irrespective of his political opinions.

Two Pittite candidates, William Wilberforce and Samuel Thornton, had been successful in 1784, and when canvassing for the next election began in November 1788, Thornton’s interest was considered to be ‘in some degree established’; ‘his commercial concerns at this place, his connections with the dissenters and Methodists and other matters will fix him at the next election’, reported William Hammond. Walter Spencer Stanhope*, the other sitting Member, who had replaced Wilberforce when he transferred to the county seat, was known to be averse to the expense of a contest and was thought to have lost the support of the Trinity House: ‘a strange accident, an uncommon state of things introduced Mr Stanhope’, wrote Fitzwilliam. ‘He was then quite a stranger, without connection or interest in the place. Since, he has not been fortunate in winning the affections of his constituents, and at this time he is acceptable to no description of persons.’ Moreover Fitzwilliam considered:

The interest which Sir George [Savile] and my uncle [Lord Rockingham] kept up there is still alive; ... its defeat was owing to its unfortunate champion: of all men David Hartley was the worst for that purpose, and indeed he knew it himself, and fairly told me so, but had not resolution enough to give up what he knew he could not carry, though another person might have carried it.

Fitzwilliam therefore attempted to promote the candidature of his wife’s nephew Lord Burford, who had recently married a local heiress. His wife’s uncle and former guardian, Sir Henry Etherington, had a considerable interest of his own, but as a friend of Stanhope and a supporter of administration could not be persuaded to give his blessing to Burford, who declined Fitzwilliam’s invitation on 12 Dec. In January 1789 Fitzwilliam also failed to persuade Francis Ferrand Foljambe* to contest the seat.5 But by April Burford had reversed his decision, on the understanding that Etherington would remain neutral. Fitzwilliam’s agents recommended that Burford’s candidature should be kept secret to prevent a second government nominee from replacing Stanhope ‘and because the whole body of inferior burgesses are so obstinately attached to every administration, that one of our friends should start at the post, before they know he will ride in buff and blue’. Burford was therefore not presented to the electorate until 14 June 1790 when his appearance immediately caused Stanhope’s withdrawal. Attempts were made to find another government candidate and Thornton delayed producing the writ, but Rev. Richard Sykes was able to tell Fitzwilliam on 16 June: ‘Mr Thornton finding they could make no opposition has produced the writ today, which he says was left in his servant’s pocket who arrived on Saturday night [12 June], who took it for a piece of diachylon’. Despite the last-minute appearance of a Lincolnshire gentleman, Mr Cracroft, Burford and Thornton were returned unopposed. William Hammond summed up the political content of the contest: ‘we had not to encounter those animadversions which was the clamour at the last elections, no names or party abuse, all is seemingly forgot and it is to me a good sign that the country is again in a state of recovery’.6

By September 1795 Burford, disillusioned with the Whigs’ prospects, had determined to resign. Rev. Richard Sykes reported to Fitzwilliam on 25 Sept.:

Whenever your lordship can fix upon any person as a candidate my father will make every possible exertion in his favour; and he thinks the longer Sir H. Etherington is kept in the dark the better; for in all probability he will say that Lord Burford’s resignation has taken place at his request in order to oblige the minister. The King made this man a baronet, but it exceeded his power to make him a gentleman ... to the best of his judgement our political strength at Hull would not be injured by suffering it to sleep at the next general election. An unsuccessful attempt would tend to weaken us in future; and to carry our point at present against a ministerial candidate if it were possible to be done would require a most enormous expense. This does not apply to such a man as Colonel [George] Rawdon* or any neutral man whom the minister would neither support nor oppose.7

When Fitzwilliam made public Burford’s resignation in May 1796, he explained to his supporters that by their adherence to their opinions on the war ‘we have now the mortification of finding ourselves left almost single and without prospect of supporting those opinions with success. Thus circumstanced we feel that to make any great effort would be to give trouble to our friends in a hopeless case.’ Pitt was asked to suggest a candidate, but when informed by Wilberforce that Stanhope would stand, agreed to give him ‘the full support of the friends of government’.8 The way was thus opened for Sir Charles Turner, accompanied to Hull by Fitzwilliam’s York agent Robert Sinclair, to take advantage of the third man’s popularity. At the close of the poll Rev. Richard Sykes wrote to Fitzwilliam:

It appeared to me that Sir C. Turner was more likely in some future arrangement of things, to be of your lordship’s party, than Stanhope; on this account and to keep up our interest at Hull, I joined him. We brought him into security first; and then elected Thornton, who would have been 200 votes behind Stanhope but for our assistance; and of this, Thornton and his friends are well aware. There would have been no opposition at Hull to Lord Burford whose name was very popular with the mob.

Stanhope, whose own expenses amounted to more than £3,000, although certain that he could unseat Thornton by a scrutiny or petition, was not prepared to act against his political ally.9

Turner, whose expenditure of not less than £8,000 failed to establish an interest,10 proved to be neither a conscientious Member nor a Whig, and by April 1801 Michael Angelo Taylor* had persuaded William Joseph Denison to come forward on the Whig interest. Most reports spoke confidently of Whig prospects: in September 1801 Fitzwilliam visited the town to ‘coax up an interest and give Mr Denison a fair chance’, and shortly after strengthened his position by becoming high steward. By the time of the general election, however, Denison’s star had waned: he was severely criticized for not paying sufficient attention to a group of delegates who had visited London to secure a new Dock Act. A strong movement developed in favour of a third man, which allowed a local shipowner Philip Green, who for some time had ‘thought himself very ill used by Mr Thornton’, to bring forward his nephew John Staniforth, a London merchant. Fitzwilliam was told by an agent on 1 July:

our great interest in this place has had a severe shock. The new dock had coalesced all parties in favour of Thornton (this amongst the rich) ... and the lower order with Philip Green’s interest are universal for what they call a third man. This puts us betwixt two.

Denison, reporting his defeat to Fitzwilliam, commented: ‘Nothing could stand against the weight of administration joined to the three corporations in favour of Mr Thornton, and "the third man’s party" with Mr P. Green’s shipping interest in favour of Mr Staniforth’.11 Daniel Sykes had told Fitzwilliam before the election that he proposed to start a fourth candidate who could petition on the grounds of treating and bribery, and on the last afternoon of polling William Bell, a local auctioneer, did in fact receive three votes. On 12 Nov. Sykes reported to Fitzwilliam:

Bell has continued hearty in the cause and at the expense of much odium here and loss of business in consequence of it ... His object is a petition against Thornton only. He would at my instance, I dare say, have made it against both; but I did not press him as I wished to be able to say that he did not act under my directions, though at the same time I felt Mr Denison’s cause to be more directly opposed to Staniforth than Thornton ... ... the friends of the sitting Member are much alarmed. In consequence, from an idea that Bell acts under my influence, I have been repeatedly applied to to use that influence to stifle the petition. I have as yet disclaimed all authority over Bell, and have likewise refused to exercise it. And certainly I would not consent that the petition should be stopped gratuitously. However if an offer should be proposed to procure Mr Denison a seat in the present Parliament by means of Mr Thornton’s friends, I think I should find no difficulty in quieting Bell.

Sykes further reported that Bell had undertaken the work ‘upon my single promise that he should be indemnified’ and asked Fitzwilliam if he would consider adding to the £200 already promised by Denison. Although Denison had not been provided with another seat, Sykes later informed Fitzwilliam that the petition had been withdrawn ‘in conformity with our wishes and desires, meaning yours as well as mine’. Bell applied to Fitzwilliam in November 1808 for a situation for his son on the basis of a promise of service made on the withdrawal of the petition, and received a favourable reply.12

Fitzwilliam was told in October 1805 that the Trinity House would support his interest at the next election, but Denison declined to contest the seat again, explaining to Fitzwilliam:

We know Thornton’s interest to be strong and Mr S[taniforth] from his contracts, and always voting with the ministers, has obliged so many people, that it would require a good deal to beat him.

An untried man, with the charm of novelty, would have the best chance of success. From my politics, and various local reasons ... I have many enemies there, which a new candidate would not have.

No immediate steps appear to have been taken to find a new man. Both Thornton and Staniforth voted with the ministry and were promised government support by Lord Grenville, who also favoured their claims to recommend to local patronage against those of Fitzwilliam, although he was a member of the cabinet. On 20 Oct. 1806 Fitzwilliam told Grenville: ‘I have done what I can to secure a peaceable election for the two old Members, and hope I have succeeded’, and on 24 Oct.: ‘I have done my best to keep Hull quiet’. On 25 Oct. Grenville refused to respond to a suggestion from Daniel Sykes, transmitted through Michael Angelo Taylor, that Staniforth might be defeated by Taylor himself, or ‘any other person of respectability’.13 Yet on the hustings Sykes proposed Denison, who defeated Thornton after only two days’ polling, ‘without giving any liquor, any ribbons, or having made any canvass’. Fitzwilliam explained to Grenville: ‘it happened without my interference, or even knowledge, and I venture to say without Denison’s; but the populace would have a third man, and Denison as a favourite of theirs was put up’. Sykes himself assured Fitzwilliam on 13 Dec.:

Mr Thornton’s friends at Hull will attribute our success there to trick and management and are inclined to include your lordship in the conspiracy. The idea is however contradicted by a reference to the poll book, for all those whom your lordship might be supposed to influence ... voted either against Denison or not at all. And I do assure you we never made use of your name or influence in any degree. The election was gained by the unaccountable eagerness of the lower class of voters together with some dexterity in taking advantage of it.14

In 1807 Denison declined to stand on the grounds that his agents had been unguardedly paying polling money, and that in the event of a petition his seat would not be tenable. Fitzwilliam’s supporters, however, kept Denison’s withdrawal secret, continued to canvass and were able to bring forward Viscount Mahon as the third man when an attempt was made to put up Samuel Thornton’s son John. Daniel and Richard Sykes were eager to bring in Wilberforce in place of Staniforth (who was unpopular because he had not paid his polling money in 1806) if Wilberforce would retire from the county seat in favour of Lord Milton, but after Thornton’s withdrawal, Mahon and Staniforth were returned unopposed.15 Mahon’s election was reputed to have cost him ‘barely £4,000’, most of which was probably found by his uncle Lord Carrington, whose family banking business had a branch at Hull. Carrington told Lord Grenville in 1812 that he had hoped to found a permanent family interest at Hull, ‘but the principal agent falling into great indisposition, or, I rather believe, fatuity, this was found proper to be abandoned’. Mahon was abroad in 1812 and Fitzwilliam, having failed to interest Robert Vyner of Gautby in the seat, on 18 Sept. asked Grenville to suggest a candidate. Daniel Sykes, however, advised Fitzwilliam on 30 Sept.:

I beg you would give yourself no more trouble about Hull. Lord Mahon, notwithstanding his absence and his want of popularity, will be proposed on our interest, and will I have no doubt be re-elected, and at a very modest expense. I never knew the Whigs in greater force at Hull. Mr Staniforth the government Member is much afraid of an opposition and will do anything we please to forward Lord M’s election or that of any other person we may propose.

But Mahon was defeated by George William Denys, the most fortuitous of the third men to succeed at Hull, who was taken up by the electors whilst passing through the town on his way to contest Beverley.16

Denys did not come forward in 1818 and in March John Mitchell offered to fill the vacancy. On 14 May Rev. Richard Sykes reported to Fitzwilliam that as Mitchell’s party was ‘very weak indeed’ and his agent, Coulson, ‘a vain man of little weight or estimation’, a third man supported by Fitzwilliam could succeed at an expense of no more than £4,000. When Fitzwilliam provided no name, Sykes toyed with the idea of supporting a wealthy local merchant Joseph Egginton, but on 6 June, reporting that Egginton would probably decline, he added:

At a meeting of our friends this day it was determined in consequence of the large sum of money expended by Mr Mitchell and the certain strength of Mr Staniforth that we ought not to advise any stranger to become a candidate here. It is by no means our opinion that he would have no chance of success but that the probability is not sufficiently strong to justify us in requesting him to come.

The day before, however, Fitzwilliam had received confirmation from James Robert George Graham that he would contest the seat, and once he had arrived in Hull Sykes declared: ‘our committee is more numerous and respectable than we ever could raise till now’. Staniforth, who claimed to have ‘expended half a million in the trade and shipping interest’ of the town in 16 years and was facing bankruptcy, withdrew on 10 June rather than face a contest. By 15 June his supporters had subscribed £10,000 to finance his election and raised a further £10,000 to finance a scrutiny which, although unsuccessful, pushed Graham’s expenses up to £8,500, the greater part of which was borne by Fitzwilliam. A petition against Graham’s return, backed by Staniforth’s friends, was abandoned.17 There were 2,143 voters, compared with 1,300 in 1786.

Although Graham ran a political campaign stressing his Whig principles, and Thomas Jonathan Wooler, the radical journalist, who formed the first of his political protestant clubs at Hull in July, was thought of as a candidate, political considerations counted for little more in Hull in 1818 than they had in 1790. Graham was a successful third man rather than a successful Whig, and in July 1819 he reflected ruefully that his expensive contest would bring Fitzwilliam ‘no permanent advantage, since the venal character of the place baffles any hope, which adherence to principles might inspire, and I fear the largest purse and the nearest face will continue paramount recommendations to my worthy constituents’.18

Author: J. M. Collinge


  • 1. First vote: Pre Scrutiny
  • 2. Second Vote: Post Scrutiny
  • 3. Fortescue mss, Thornton to Grenville, 27 Aug. 1806.
  • 4. Fitzwilliam mss, Sykes to Fitzwilliam, 11 June 1790.
  • 5. Ibid. box 39, Hammond to Fitzwilliam, 16, 24 Nov., Fitzwilliam to Etherington (copy), 24 Nov., Burford to Fitzwilliam, 12 Dec. 1788; HMC Foljambe, 159-60.
  • 6. Fitzwilliam mss, box 40, Burford to Fitzwilliam, 7 Apr., Rev. Sykes to same, 18 May 1789; box 41, Hammond to same, 14, 21 June; X516/3, Rev. Sykes to same [16 June 1790].
  • 7. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F42/51.
  • 8. Ibid. F115/70; Life of Wilberforce (1838), ii. 149; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 126-7.
  • 9. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/204, 205; A. M. W. Stirling, Annals of a Yorks. House, 265-7.
  • 10. E. Riding RO, Sykes mss DDSY/101/67, Broadley to Sykes, 18 June 1796.
  • 11. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/1-27; G64, Fitzwilliam to Milton [Sept. 1801].
  • 12. Fitzwilliam mss, D. Sykes to Fitzwilliam, 12 Nov. 1802; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/17, 34, F42/60.
  • 13. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F41/3-5; HMC Fortescue, viii. 286, 288, 308, 392, 394; Fortescue mss, Thornton to Grenville, 27 Aug., reply 28 Aug., Staniforth to same, 29 Aug., Taylor to same, 23 Oct., reply 25 Oct. 1806.
  • 14. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E210, Rev. Sykes to Fitzwilliam [31 Oct. 1806]; HMC Fortescue, viii. 420-1; Fitzwilliam mss, box 70, D. Sykes to Fitzwilliam, 13 Dec. 1806.
  • 15. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/28-33; Rev. Sykes to Fitzwilliam [5 May 1807].
  • 16. Fortescue mss, Fitzwilliam to Grenville, 18 Sept., Carrington to same, 8 Oct. 1812; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F83/6, F42/17; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. v. 278.
  • 17. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/35-90; Kingston Wit, Humour and Satire (1818), passim; on the petition, see STANIFORTH, John.
  • 18. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/90.