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 1,400


(1801): 12,107


21 Dec. 1790 ARTHUR ANNESLEY vice Bertie, deceased618
 George Ogilvie103
27 May 1796HENRY PETERS658
 Arthur Annesley461
 John Ingram Lockhart454
9 Dec. 1806FRANCIS BURTON909
 John Ingram Lockhart715
 Hon. George Eden794
 Henry Francis Roper Curson104
 John Ingram Lockhart448

Main Article

Oxford was one of the larger freeman boroughs: in 1796 890 voted in three days, in 1802 1,186 in three days, in 1806 1,353 in six days, in 1812 1,538 in nine days and in 1818 1,143 in 4 days. In 1790 it was claimed that ‘the non-resident voters ... comprise above a moiety of the electors, of which almost 300 reside in and about London, a very great number at Bristol, Witney, Abingdon, Birmingham etc. etc. who will support the person who will oppose the chamber and they will be very considerably aided in the city’.1 The claim was made by John Hale of Hertford, an electioneering attorney, for his own purposes, but it turned out to have substance in this period.

Since the 1770s the corporation had been under the uneasy joint patronage of two local magnates, the 4th Earl of Abingdon and the 4th Duke of Marlborough. These noblemen had in 1784 each returned his brother. In 1790 the duke replaced Lord Robert Spencer*, who voted with opposition, with his legal adviser Francis Burton, previously returned by him for Woodstock. Neither party liked the arrangement as Spencer was left without a seat and Burton was exposed to greater expense: Woodstock cost him about £300 an election, whereas in 1796 he spent over £2,100 at Oxford.2 At the eleventh hour, Spencer made some kind of bid to hold his seat on his own interest, but it failed.3 Abingdon again named his brother, despite political differences, but the latter died before Parliament met and he had no near relative to substitute for him and no wish to incur expense. The corporation then sponsored a local country gentleman connected with Abingdon’s family, Arthur Annesley.

The by-election was contested, Annesley causing irritation among the ‘commonalty’ by his public refusal to spend money. John Hale of Hertford, agent for some non-resident electors who wanted a candidate, suggested the Earl of Barrymore or the Marquess of Titchfield, but in the event Annesley was opposed by George Ogilvie. He was ‘a person totally unknown in this place and most probably equally a stranger to every individual of the electors’. Ogilvie was ready to give up after the first day of polling, but stuck it out another day to let his London supporters (more than half his adherents) vote.4

In 1796 the aristocratic coalition was upset by a more formidable third man, the London merchant Henry Peters. He was prepared to spend freely (£10,000 by one estimate)5 among the venal electors; and to gain the respectable ones, resident and non-resident by championing their independence. Peters led the poll all the way and after the second day Burton ceased to coalesce with Annesley, to ensure his own election.

There was some doubt whether Burton would stand another election. In 1797 the duke thought of his nephew William Robert Spencer as a replacement, but his choice fell upon Charles Abbot* who, in anticipation of succeeding Burton, became deputy recorder in May 1800 and recorder a year later.6 The arrangement was frustrated, 25 July 1801, by an address to the electors from John Ingram Lockhart, a barrister on the circuit who had been Peters’s agent in 1796. Alleged to have been encouraged by a disgruntled person (?Annesley), he offered independently of Peters, who announced that he meant to stand again (6 Aug.). Meanwhile Burton (now blind) had declared that he would not give up his pretensions (2 Aug.), though he would have preferred to cede to Abbot (then in Ireland). The duke accordingly declined Abbot’s offer to replace Burton, thinking the latter safer for his interest. On 12 Oct. 1801, John Atkyns Wright, heir of a leading corporation family and encouraged by Lord Abingdon’s friends, announced his candidature. Thus an aristocratic coalition was in some sense revived, but more discreetly. Had not Atkyns Wright come forward, the duke might have put up his nephew. It was admitted that Lockhart and Peters were ‘suitors to the same interest, namely the lower order of the freemen’: but Peters, who said he was too ill at Margate to canvass, would neither join with him nor give way to him. In the pamphlet warfare that ensued, accusations and counter-accusations of coalition were freely made and denied. ‘Vigilans’ pointed out that Atkyns Wright and Burton had the approval of the corporation, who regarded Peters and Lockhart as intruders. Peters’s friends insisted that Lockhart was the intruder, their man having been previously chosen ‘without cabal’ as champion of their independence. But when Peters limped to Oxford, 18 Oct. 1801, he disliked the prospect of further lavish expense. A parody of his intimation of this to the freemen ran:

No cash to spend, no beer to draw
You’ve had enough before.

Burton’s friend Ralph Sheldon* canvassed for him. On 30 Nov. 1801 Lockhart, at the Civis Club, justified his candidature, insisting on his ‘equal right’ with Peters to offer and his wish to oppose the unconstitutional interference of peers in Oxford elections. He called for triennial parliaments, responsible representation and revision of the Poor Laws. His quarrel with Peters worsened when scurrilous attacks were made on his character, but in the end it was Peters who withdrew in May 1802. Nothing came of a bid to get John Henry Loft* to replace him and a scramble ensued for his supporters’ votes. Lockhart accused him of betraying the independent freemen by making over his votes to the duke’s interest, 21 May. Burton had certainly asked his agents to canvass them, 18 May. He feared that the ‘great part’ of them were ‘enemies to the chamber’ and ‘disposed to favour the candidate who seems most that way inclined’ [i.e. Lockhart]: but Lockhart had in fact alienated many and Burton rightly supposed that, provided no bribery was discovered, Lockhart stood no chance.7 On the poll, Atkyns Wright led all the way, but the result showed his unavowed coalition with Burton, and Lockhart’s failure to secure at least a third of the freemen who had supported Peters in 1796. He secured more plumpers than had Peters, but shared significantly more votes with Atkyns Wright than with Burton.

In 1806, when the duke resisted hints that he should put up his brother Charles, the same candidates contended and Lockhart fared much better. He led the first day and ceded only after six days. This time Burton fared better than Atkyns Wright and Lockhart shared far more votes with Burton than with Atkyns Wright, as well as increasing his number of plumpers. He demanded a scrutiny, but in it 14 of his votes were rejected as against 13 of Atkyns Wright’s.8 In 1807, when Atkyns Wright withdrew in the face of another contest, Lockhart’s perseverance was rewarded. He reinsured himself by announcing that he was not in favour of Catholic relief. George Frederick Stratton of Great Tew, who was invited to stand as a replacement for Atkyns Wright, declined and there was no contest.9

In 1812 Burton retired, but Atkyns Wright returned to the fray. The duke had replaced Burton with George Eden, his nominee for Woodstock. Eden was a supporter of opposition in Parliament, but the duke engaged to pay his expenses above what he would have paid at Woodstock. As the duke had not as yet paid back £7,000 advanced to him for Burton’s election bills, Eden found himself at a double disadvantage—standing on an interest that was politically uncongenial and electorally vulnerable. The result was his defeat, but it was a near thing. The record poll was protracted for nine days. A fourth candidate, Henry Francis Roper Curson of Waterperry Park, a pro-Catholic Whig, was never in the running and withdrew on the second day. Lockhart led for four days, when he and Atkyns Wright coalesced and the latter took the lead; but only on the seventh day did Eden fall behind them. After the first day he had written ‘I think that each of my opponents though they dare not act upon it wish [sic] to have me for a colleague’. He got 241 plumpers, for which he had expressed a preference, and shared more votes with Atkyns Wright than with Lockhart, but Lockhart and Wright shared 435 votes and Lockhart obtained 142 plumpers. The corporation preferred Atkyns Wright to Eden, who had only a slight lead over Lockhart. The result was therefore seen by the latter as a triumph for the independence of the city over the Marlborough interest.10

The house of Blenheim was not so easily excluded from the scene. Lockhart had lost ground by 1818 through his support for the Corn Law, the property tax and the suspension of civil liberty, and, not least, through being in arrears with his election bills. Some of his corporation supporters were disillusioned with him. There was a new duke to rise to the bait. So

a few members of the corporation, the late mayor and returning officer at their head, waited on the duke and requested him to send them a candidate. This was eagerly listened to. His Grace raised the wind by cutting down a quantity of timber. Two citizens, one an alderman, were immediately sent to London by the duke for the purpose of bringing down General St. John [his kinsman] of whom not one freeman of Oxford had before heard. The general proceeded to Blenheim, thence to Oxford, where he announced himself, by handbill, as the relative of the noble peer and the Blenheim candidate. Previously to the call on his Grace for a nomination, he had made known his intention of regaining Oxford.

In the event St. John, who polled 219 plumpers and shared 414 votes with Atkyns Wright, was successful after four days. A petition was organized against the return, not on Lockhart’s behalf, but alleging improper interference by the duke in the election and that the freemen in his pay received £20 for plumpers and £10 for single votes, over £2,500 in all. The venality of the freemen was put down to their ‘perpetually increasing’ from the ranks of charity school apprentices whose ‘situation ... renders them accessible to all kinds of temptation’.11 The petition was presented by Thomas Denman in the House, 29 Jan. 1819, but the House resolved that it was a mere election petition, 1 Feb., and it was discharged on 16 Feb., the petitioners having given it up. On 7 Apr. three further petitions, one from the mayor and six magistrates, were presented, in Denman’s absence, by another Member, but all negatived by the House as election petitions and not pursued. According to Mary Russell Mitford, 3 Feb. 1819: ‘Should the Oxford petition against General St. John succeed, Mr H. Jay [recte Joy] an intimate friend of ours, will be brought in for the city, and the duke’s interest vanishes for ever’.

Joy had refused an invitation to stand on the interest of the friends of Blenheim at the general election.12 One thing was becoming clear; the 5th Duke of Marlborough had overreached himself, as was shown at the next election.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Portland mss Pw2F15; Add. 37880, f. 197; VCH Oxon. iv. 250.
  • 2. Colchester, i. 62.
  • 3. London Chron. 17-19 June; Public Advertiser, 21 June 1790; Horace Walpole Corresp. (Yale ed.), xi. 82.
  • 4. Portland mss Pw2F15; Jackson’s Oxf. Jnl. 2 Oct., 18 Dec.; Reading Mercury, 27 Dec. 1790.
  • 5. PRO 30/9/31, Abbot diary, 20 June 1796.
  • 6. Colchester, i. 62, 106; PRO 30/9/32, Abbot diary, 3 June 1797; 30/9/32/567, Abbot to Burton, 29 Apr. 1800; 569, same to same, 14 Feb.; 30/9/1, pt. 1/2, Burton to Abbot, 28 July, 15 Aug., 30 Sept., 13 Oct.; 30/9/1, pt. 1/1, Agar to Abbot, 19, 26 Oct. 1801.
  • 7. A Coll. of Handbills, Addresses, Songs ... relative to the Election (Oxford, 1802) (in Bodl. G. A. Oxon 80276, the copy in BL lacking the second part); The Times, 12 June 1802; Berks. RO, Stevens mss D/ESV (M) 8, 16.
  • 8. Add. 34461, f. 131; Oxf. Jnl. 1, 8, 15, 22 Nov., 6, 13 Dec. 1806.
  • 9. Add. 34457, f. 269; Oxf. Jnl. 25 Apr., 9 May; Reading Mercury, 11 May 1807.
  • 10. Add. 34458, ff. 360, 361, 390-407; Gent. Mag. (1835), ii. 432.
  • 11. The Late Elections (1818), 253; The Poll (1818), intro. by J. Munday; Grimsby Pub. Lib. Tennyson mss, Munday to Tennyson, 22 Feb. 1819.
  • 12. CJ, lxxiv. 45, 134, 320; Parl. Deb. xxxix. 146, 192, 1441; Letters of Mary Russell Mitford (ser. 2), i. 39.