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 freeholders

Number of voters:

rising from about 2,000 to nearly 4,000


(1801): 28,862


18 June 1790ROBERT SMITH443
 William Johnston237
28 May 1796ROBERT SMITH1210
 Peter Crompton561
11 Nov. 1797 SIR JOHN BORLASE WARREN, Bt., vice Smith (Baron Carrington [I]), called to the Upper House 
 Daniel Parker Coke636
  Birch’s election declared void 16 Mar. 1803 
30 May 1803 DANIEL PARKER COKE1359
 Joseph Birch1164
31 Oct. 1806DANIEL PARKER COKE1773
 Joseph Birch1443
 Peter Crompton635
7 Oct. 1812JOHN SMITH II2013
 Richard Arkwright1239
 Peter Crompton8
 Joseph Birch5
17 June 1818JOSEPH BIRCH2228
 Thomas Assheton Smith1840

Main Article

The corporation of Nottingham formed a self-perpetuating Whig and dissenting oligarchy which resisted all government except its own, acknowledging no patron. At the same time it made little attempt, until 1803, to manipulate the freemen, who in the last resort were reassured by its resistance to the enclosure of the common lands in which they were entitled to a stake, a resistance which however, cooped up a steadily increasing population. The freeholders, predominantly ‘Church and King’, were swamped by the freemen; and among the latter the retailers, also generally conservative in outlook, had to be satisfied, in municipal elections, with the choice of six junior councilmen, who were the focus of such opposition as there was to the corporation. Parliamentary elections released all these tensions, so that treating and riotous behaviour had long been the order of the day.1 Contests were almost inevitable: the sitting Members, Daniel Parker Coke and Robert Smith, had avoided one in 1784, and as they were political opponents the appearance of a third man in 1790 lacked coherence. Capt. William Johnston*, then stationed at Nottingham, was apparently encouraged to challenge the compromise, and the animus of his supporters was against Smith, Pitt’s personal friend; but most voters supported the sitting Members, despite violent scenes.2

The rift between the Portland and Foxite Whigs, in which Coke at first sided with Portland, was reflected in the corporation. Their favourite divine, Rev. George Walker of High Pavement presbyterian chapel, had instigated a petition to Parliament for reform in February 1793. On the death of the 2nd Duke of Newcastle in 1794 some of them wished Fox, rather than Portland, to be his successor as recorder, but Fox avoided the confrontation.3 Trouble there was when local opponents of the war were set upon by hired thugs, in June 1794, an episode known as ‘the duckings’. In 1796, with both Members inclined to government, the corporation nevertheless did nothing to oppose them: Coke had at least voted for peace negotiations. John Wright, a local Whig, declined to intervene, but he set up Dr Peter Crompton of Derby, a known reformer, as a third man. Once more the animus was against Smith. Crompton polled 364 plumpers, compared with 282 for Smith and 82 for Coke, in a three-day poll; but he was not in the running, and when Smith was raised to the Lords a year later there was no opposition to a ministerialist naval officer, though the corporation, ‘nearly all democrats’ so Pitt was informed, did nothing to check a meeting organized by the Corresponding Society to petition for the ministry’s dismissal and snubbed a contribution to the war effort.4

At the election of 1802 the corporation abandoned Coke. He had promoted legislation to end limited jurisdiction and had ceased to oppose the war to their satisfaction during the last Parliament. The framework knitters (stockingers) who made up over half the freemen blamed the war for their economic depression and it was among them that sponsorship of a third man was instituted, principally by Crompton’s adherents at the last election. It was the mayor who clinched matters, by delaying the return until the third man was nominated. He was Joseph Birch, defeated at Liverpool, and he did not arrive at Nottingham until the fifth day of the poll. The intimidation (‘thumbing’) of Coke’s friends was such that many feared to vote; the military were called in, and on their withdrawal Coke beat a hasty retreat after eight days. Birch had received nearly 600 plumpers from 1,600 voters and shared over half as many votes with Warren as Coke did. In his address, 14 July, Coke claimed that the freedom of election had been destroyed.5 He and some electors in his interest petitioned the House, emphasizing the inability of the town magistrates to restrain outrages which parodied the French revolution. Pamphlet warfare broke out when John Bowles described the result as a Jacobin triumph and was replied to by Robert Davison and ‘Vindex’. Birch’s election was declared void and no new writ issued until the House had passed the ‘Daniel Parker Coke Act’, which gave the county magistrates concurrent jurisdiction with the borough magistrates to keep the peace.6 This was denounced by Fox in debate as a mere election manoeuvre, 10 May 1803, but it passed. At the new election the corporation openly supported Birch against Coke, whose supporters (formerly the White Lion Club) henceforward styled themselves the True Blues. Birch received more votes from the town freemen than Coke, but was defeated on the ‘country’ and freeholder vote, after a seven-day poll of 2,525 voters. ‘Almost the whole aristocracy of England ... united against the poor stocking-makers of Nottingham’.7

After the débâcle of 1803 the corporation was less confident and swallowed the resumption of hostilities with France. In 1806 Adm. Warren retired, but Birch’s revenge was thwarted. He found Coke allied to John Smith, brother of the former Member (now Carrington), who was supported by the premier Lord Grenville. Birch, a Foxite, was ‘frightened by the idea of the expense’, but finding his prospects at Liverpool even worse, was persuaded to make a stand. Coke was aided by a subscription. Of nearly 3,000 voters polling over nine days, Birch obtained more than Smith (but fewer than Coke) among the town freemen, and trailed among the ‘country’ voters. Smith’s only faux pas, his brother’s rather, was to offer his support to the enclosing of the town commons, an offer which he subsequently withdrew on discovering its unpopularity. A petition accusing Smith of corrupt practices was not followed up. The alliance of Coke and Smith was denounced by their opponents as unprecedented, not least because it flouted the corporation; and it led to threats of an all-out contest next time.8 They did not materialize. In 1807 the sitting Members were opposed only by Crompton, the unsuccessful candidate of 1796, who had been waiting in the wings the year before in case Birch declined. Crompton who, unlike Birch, would not open his purse on principle, fared badly and his petition against the return, alleging that the poll was closed prematurely although he was getting few votes, was pronounced ‘frivolous and vexatious’.9

James Abercromby* described the electoral situation as follows in September 1807:

The corporation [represent] the Whigs and several circumstances have contributed to increase their force; and with the assistance of Birch’s money they ran the Tories very hard. The Whigs, many of whom are dissenters, have more political principle and more political enterprise than the Tories [despite] some acts of Jacobinical violence, of which they now bitterly repent and for which they have atoned by the loss of some of their privileges. The Tories include the greater part of the aristocracy of the town, and are directed by a few powerful leaders, who bring in Parker Coke, who is not the representative of the town, but of the Tory junto to whom I have alluded. The strength of the Whig and Tory parties was most fairly tried at the election in November 1806, when it appeared that the latter had a majority of at least 150. Lord Carrington’s family interest in the town was very strong, and had long given them the possession of one of the seats; but from the year 1796 [sic] when he was created a British peer, the family interest had been very much, if not wholly, neglected. In 1806 when an effort was made to revive the family interest, it was necessary for Mr Smith, who had made no previous movements, to coalesce either with Coke or Birch. The Tories disliked to see an effort made to revive an interest which they had flattered themselves had been abandoned; but as they were alarmed at the prospect of a renewed contest with Birch, the expense of which they must personally have defrayed, they were not unwilling to exchange their votes for Mr Smith’s money. The election was no sooner ended than the hollowness of their support became apparent, which was heightened both by the increasing personal popularity and by the votes of Mr Smith. When Mr Smith and I went to Nottingham last spring, the conduct of the Tories was mysterious, and of course not cordial, but as it appeared that there was more danger of an opposition from a Whig than from a Tory candidate, and as Mr Smith was sure of having some of the Whig votes, Coke and not Smith was in danger. It was a question whether under these circumstances Coke and Smith ought to unite; but honour dictated that Smith should now repay the obligation by giving Coke that support which he had on the former election received, and besides if we had then quarrelled with the Tories and were not quite sure of the Whigs, we should have had but an indifferent case to state and without some Tory support we could not even with all the Whigs have secured the election. By delay an opportunity was afforded to Smith to secure personal friends among the Tories, and his votes in Parliament always contributed to connect him more closely with the Whigs. During the election, many things were said and done to conciliate the Whigs, and I believe not without success. The Tories must and do disapprove of Smith’s parliamentary conduct.

In these circumstances, Abercromby thought that Smith could in future stand on his own ground, but ‘ought not to bind himself to support a second Whig candidate, for he will have some Tory support which he could not transfer’. He admitted, however, that the Whigs need not ‘forego their claims to returning a Member on the count of their not coming to some satisfactory explanation with Mr Smith previous to another election’; it was merely a question of stealing a march on the Tories.10

A select meeting of corporators and Whigs adopted Maj. John Wheatley as their prospective candidate in January 1809, but he was regarded as a poor replacement for Birch. Symptomatically too Charles Sutton started the Whig Nottingham Review in 1808, and Lord Holland, Fox’s nephew, replaced the Duke of Portland as recorder late in 1809. In May 1810 the corporation supported a petition for reform, backed by John Smith in the House. Coke to some extent recovered his waning popularity by supporting parliamentary regulation of hosiery manufacture after outbreaks of Luddism early in 1812, and he intended to defend his seat at the ensuing election; but he retired when confronted with a contest offered by Crompton, making over his interest to Richard Arkwright*.

The Whigs had no obvious candidate; Lord Holland discouraged his cousin Henry Stephen Fox from standing on his name alone for fear of the expense.11 Smith, whose platform was peace, reform and religious liberty, was now the corporation favourite, and the eventual third man, Lord Rancliffe, standing on the same platform, did not receive their blessing because he was sponsored by Crompton’s friends. To ensure a poll they nominated Crompton and Birch (who had found a seat elsewhere) and it was only on the second day that Rancliffe emerged as their man. Arkwright opposed reform and peace at any price and had the prime minister’s good wishes, but Lord Liverpool added (in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle) ‘the influence of government in a place like Nottingham cannot be considerable’. Even so Arkwright was supported by the aristocracy, to the indignation of Rancliffe’s friends, who threatened to start an opposition to Viscount Newark in the county because he supported Arkwright. The latter’s best card was his father’s business wealth and experience, while Rancliffe’s asset was an attractive wife, who canvassed for him. Although they were not in formal alliance, Smith and Rancliffe shared 1,324 votes, while Arkwright received 576 plumpers.12

The Whig triumph of 1812 seemed unlikely to be repeated in 1818. Coke’s parting shot had been to start a campaign against the corporation. Luddism and radicalism inspired alarm. John Smith, weary of the expense and trouble of Nottingham elections, retreated to a quiet family borough; he, at least, was adequately replaced by Birch. But Rancliffe, too, could not open his purse again and had been a dilatory Member. Thomas Denman*, the deputy recorder on Lord Holland’s interest, was prepared to replace him and thought his prospects excellent, but he withdrew when Rancliffe confirmed his candidature. The Tory candidate was Thomas Assheton Smith junior, ‘of hunting notoriety’, who disclaimed Treasury support but had that of the local aristocracy. Polling over 1,400 plumpers, he ran Rancliffe close, keeping the poll open even when his defeat was certain, ‘to harass his lordship’s finances’. Two electors’ petitions alleging bribery and treating against Rancliffe were not pursued; and on the Whig side it was alleged that their opponents had circumvented the bribery laws by mock purchase of goods and by betting poor voters that they dare not vote for Assheton Smith. In ten days, 3,691 votes were cast (compared with 2,781 in 15 days in 1812). The Tories alleged massive creations of honorary freemen by the corporation, while the Whigs alleged wholesale manufacture of freehold votes by the Tories. The allegations, not entirely unfounded, preceded the facts: they might justifiably be applied to the election of 1820.13

Authors: P. A. Symonds / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Malcolm I. Thomis, Politics and Society in Nottingham 1785-1835 (1969), on which this article is based.
  • 2. Bailey, Annals Notts. iv. 136; London Chron. 29 June 1790; Diary of Abigail Gawthern (Thoroton Soc. rec. ser. xxxiii), 52.
  • 3. Grey mss, Hawksley to Grey, 27 Feb.; Portland mss PwJa47; Add. 50829, Portland to J. Adair, 16 Apr. 1794.
  • 4. Alphabetical list (1796); Harewood mss, Canning to Rev. Leigh, 26 May 1796; PRO 30/8/189, f. 14.
  • 5. Nottingham Borough Recs. vii. 342; Bailey, iv. 202-6; BL, Coll. Nottingham Addresses and Squibs; Creevey mss, Currie to Creevey, 11 July; Nottingham Jnl. 26 June, 10, 17 July; The Times, 16, 19 July 1802; Thomis, Old Nottingham (1968), ch. 6.
  • 6. CJ, lviii. 15, 22, 73, 263; ‘An Act for the more effectually preserving the peace and securing the freedom of election in the town of Nottingham and county of the said town’ (43 Geo. III c.45); J. Bowles, A Postscript to thoughts on the late general election as demonstrative of the progress of Jacobinism (1803); Vindex, Letter to the burgesses of Nottingham (1803); R. Davison, Letter to J. Bowles; Ten letters (1803); J. Cartwright, Letter to the burgesses of Nottingham (1803).
  • 7. Thomis, ‘The Nottingham Election of 1803’, Trans. Thoroton Soc. (1961); Alphabetical list (Sutton 1803), preface.
  • 8. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E209, 210, Heywood to Fitzwilliam, 2, 26 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Grenville to Carrington, 13 Oct., Derby to Grenville, 23 Oct. (enc. Birch to Derby, of even date); Nottingham Jnl. 25 Oct., 1, 8, 15 Nov. 1806; Alphabetical list (1806); CJ, lxii. 40, 70.
  • 9. Nottingham Jnl. 2, 9, 16, 23 May 1807; CJ, lxii. 105.
  • 10. Horner mss 3, f. 199; Add. 51574, Abercromby to Holland, 15 Oct. 1807.
  • 11. Add. 51613, Fox to Holland, 23 Sept. [1812]; Brougham mss 2029.
  • 12. Alphabetical list (1812), 1-33; Add. 38578, f. 64; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Newcastle mss NeC 6596; Nottingham Jnl. 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 Oct., 7 Nov. 1812.
  • 13. Alphabetical list (1818); Brougham mss A285; CJ, lxxiv. 31, 73, 234.