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:

rising from about 630 to 800


(1801): 5,645


19 June 1790GEORGE BEST367
 William Henry Cavendish Scott Bentinck, Mq. of Titchfield243
7 Mar. 1792 NATHANIEL SMITH vice Bickerton, deceased299
 Sir Richard King253
12 May 1794 SIR RICHARD KING, (Bt.) vice Smith, deceased 
27 May 1796SIR RICHARD KING, (Bt.)286
 George Best77
 John Longley30
 George Smith45
 James Roper Head10
8 Nov. 1806JOHN CALCRAFT575
 Sir William Sidney Smith382
 Sir Thomas Trigge306
27 June 1816 JAMES BARNETT vice Thompson, appointed to office408
 Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson, Bt.406
  Election declared void, 26 Feb. 1817 
6 Mar. 1817 JAMES BARNETT 
20 June 1818JAMES BARNETT401
 THOMAS HAMILTON, Lord Binning380
 Robert Torrens173

Main Article

The presence of the naval dockyard and the victualling office gave the Admiralty a permanent interest at Rochester, but in one seat only was it secure and contests were frequent. Sir Charles Middleton, the Admiralty Member in the Parliament of 1784, complained to ministers that the freemen had ‘reaped very little advantage from the being the side of government’,1 as his patronage requests were neglected in favour of Nathaniel Smith, his colleague, also a supporter of Pitt’s government, but favoured with the support of the independent residents and outvoters (just over two-thirds of the electors were resident). Middleton, unable to supply sufficient patronage himself, decided not to offer at Rochester again2 and was replaced by Sir Richard Bickerton on the Admiralty interest. Bickerton and Smith were opposed by George Best, of a local brewing family, whom Middleton had warned the government they should have cultivated for his local influence, and by the 3rd Duke of Portland’s heir, invited by the local Whigs, after Robert Gregory had declined. Smith, who was in poor health, withdrew before the poll, though it was thought that he would have been returned with Bickerton. Bickerton received 173 plumpers out of 322 votes and over £450 from the secret service fund, but was beaten by Best, who received 367 votes out of the 563 cast, with only 17 plumpers. Most of the shipwrights who did not plump for Bickerton gave him a vote and he and Titchfield were the favourites of the independent interest.3 Titchfield’s defeat indicated that the ‘family compact ... Messrs Spice, Nicholson, etc.’ which swayed the local independents was not inclined to political opposition.4

On Bickerton’s death in 1792 Nathaniel Smith returned to the fray on the same independent principles and defeated the Admiralty nominee Sir Richard King. Pitt was informed that Smith was supported by the ‘family compact’.5 On Smith’s death in 1794 King offered again, spending nearly £5,000 on these two elections, so he claimed. He was not opposed; had he not stood, Lord Darnley, a local magnate, was prepared to offer his brother as a ministerial candidate to keep out opposition. It would seem that party feeling ran high at Rochester at this time. The mayoral election of September 1795 was ‘contested as warmly as if it had been for a Member of Parliament’; after a meeting against the coercive bills of November 1795 the bishop of Rochester was burnt in effigy, and the radical John Gale Jones learnt in February 1796 that ‘the inhabitants in general were attached both to the Whig interest and to the London Corresponding Society’. The recorder, John Longley, who had alone resisted Sir Richard King’s election in 1794 because he was a government nominee, had lately written a pamphlet in favour of parliamentary reform. In the election of 1796 when George Smith, the radical barrister son of the late Member, was invited to stand, he refused because ‘the whole frame of Parliament’ was ‘so completely vitiated’. The Whigs put up a Kentish magnate Lord Thanet’s brother, Henry Tufton, and the radicals supported Longley. Tufton was well supported by the London outvote and soon got the edge on Best, who gave up the contest, complaining of ‘uncommon exertions’ against him.6

In 1802 several new candidates appeared and the sitting Members both retired. Sir Sidney Smith the naval hero of a family of ‘plain Kentish gentlemen’ did not claim to be the Admiralty candidate, but he was not discouraged by Addington’s ministry, to which he offered independent support, as did his brother at Dover. Smith was introduced at Rochester by a Whig friend, Denis O’Bryen, who procured him an invitation from nearly a third of the electors. The only threat to him came from the late intervention of a respectable local candidate, James Hulkes, the brewer and banker of a corporation family, who had at first refused to stand. Smith would not coalesce with Hulkes as he was urged to do lest it should cause an outcry, but did not oppose him either, and between them they swept the board. Of the other candidates Sir Richard King’s son-in-law’s brother, Adm. Bartholomew Samuel Rowley, supposed to be the Admiralty candidate, withdrew, as did Lord Darnley’s brother; and George Smith (Nathaniel’s son) and James Roper Head of Hermitage (whose inclinations were radical) were the abject losers. Smith and Hulkes shared 257 votes out of 594 cast, 162 of them from outdwellers.7

By 1806 the sitting Members were again at a disadvantage. Hulkes had opposed Pitt’s second ministry and in October 1805 the town clerk, John Nicholson, invited George Canning I* to step into the borough for the ministry, though Canning was dubious about it. Sir Sidney Smith was posted to Gibraltar and wished to resign his seat in favour of his agent O’Bryen. As the Whigs were now in office under Lord Grenville, O’Bryen expected Fox’s support for his pretensions, but he did not get it. John Calcraft of the Ordnance, whose father had represented Rochester, made himself the ministerial champion and not only induced Hulkes to make way for him, but prepared to carry a colleague. Neither George Keith Elphinstone, a naval officer, nor Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson, newly appointed comptroller of the navy, were able to command support and Calcraft smuggled in James Barnett, a London banker. This provoked a contest, though Calcraft had contrived to enlist official, ‘family compact’, and Whig support.8 The reason was that Denis O’Bryen, cheated of a seat he had expected to step into, took up the cause of the ‘poor and powerless, absent and unpopular’ Smith; while Lord Grenville, whose wife was Smith’s first cousin, felt obliged to support his claims, despite a last minute attempt by Nicholson the town clerk to get him to withdraw Smith. According to George Rose, four notes of £1,000 were sent to O’Bryen to support Smith and there were also reports of an anonymous gift of £5,000.9

The contest of 1806 was therefore a bitter one, between Barnett and Smith, as Calcraft was safe. Scurrilous pamphlet warfare broke out and Barnett’s narrow victory made matters worse. The mayor was accused of procuring the election of 49 new freemen to keep out Smith. O’Bryen, who had been accused of acting for Smith in order to step into his seat, claimed that he would have bowed to defeat, but for the fact that Barnett was ‘engaged in looking out for bills and debts of mine, to buy them up and crush me’, in short exercising ‘the power of the purse’. A freemen’s petition had alleged improper votes, treating and bribery against Barnett. According to O’Bryen, it turned on treating, but he was informed that, as treating could be proved against him too, Smith would be no more eligible to sit than Barnett if the latter were unseated. He thereupon urged Lord Howick to prepare to put up his brother or a relation of Lord Grenville’s or ‘any person that implies power and means of service’ to occupy the vacuum. But no vacuum was created. The committee of the House decided that the petition turned on the right of election and agreed with the petitioners that the franchise lay in freemen not receiving alms, but decided that the result was not affected thereby; the petition was not found ‘frivolous’ or ‘vexatious’.10 The poll had lasted ten days and only about 30 eligible electors did not vote. Of 780 who did so, 568 voted on the last day. Smith received 164 plumpers out of 382 votes and had the lead among the 267 outvoters, even over Calcraft, with whom he shared 196 votes in all; but Calcraft and Barnett shared 354 votes.

On the change of ministry in 1807 Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson was the Admiralty candidate and he was joined by his wife’s uncle, Sir Thomas Trigge of the Ordnance. To prevent the return of two official candidates, Barnett withdrew, leaving the field to Calcraft for the opposition. The poll was in its fourth day when Trigge gave up. Of 640 votes cast, Calcraft had 362, 213 of them plumpers, and had already shared 119 votes with Thompson.11

Calcraft discovered in 1812 that Barnett wished to make a come-back at Rochester. This posed a dilemma for him and for the Whigs; if they both stood, government might furnish Thompson with a colleague, such as John Wilson Croker* or George Smith, who offered his services, and carry both seats. Instead a compromise was arranged, Barnett withdrawing ‘upon Calcraft declaring himself an opposer of government, and signing it’, that is, Calcraft issued an address to that effect.12 There was no contest. Barnett was provided with an opening when Thompson was forced (by a division in the House on Calcraft’s motion, 12 June 1816) to seek re-election on appointment as treasurer of Greenwich Hospital. He defeated Thompson by two votes, but the latter protested at the foreclosure of the poll by a partial mayor and secured the voiding of the election by petition. Yet Barnett was unopposed at the fresh election and the Whigs crowed at their victory over ‘dockyard, ordnance and victualling office influence, dictation and corruption’.13 In 1818 Barnett forced Calcraft to give way to him, which he did with an ill grace. The ministerial nominee, Lord Binning, was opposed for three days by a free-wheeling Whig economist, Maj. Robert Torrens who, in a petition against the return, alleged that Binning had declined the oath as to his property qualification, as the eldest son of a Scots peer. He discovered that Binning was entitled to do so; and some of his hot-headed supporters at Rochester had to be disabused of their belief to the contrary. Barnett’s future prospects were soon afterwards marred by an address from Calcraft to his constituents claiming that Barnett had cheated him of his seat.14

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. PRO 30/8/173, ff. 166, 170.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/111, f. 141.
  • 3. Public Advertiser, 15, 23 June 1790; The Poll for Rochester (1790); PRO 30/8/229, ff. 249, 250, 273.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/150, Largent to Pitt, 2 Mar. 1792.
  • 5. Ibid.; Morning Chron. 3 Mar. 1792.
  • 6. PRO 30/8/128, f. 148; 149, f. 158; Oracle, 23 Sept. 1795; Add. 51732, Caroline Fox to Holland, 19 May [1794]; J. Gale Jones, Sketch of a Pol. Tour (1796), 8; Morning Chron. 18, 20, 25, 26 May 1796.
  • 7. The Times, 26 Apr., 17 May, 16 June; Sidmouth mss, Smith to Addington, 29 May, 9 July, Rivers to same, 8 Oct. 1802; The Poll for Rochester (1802).
  • 8. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 8 Oct. 1805; Add. 47566, ff. 267-8; Courier, 24 Oct.; Kentish Chron. 24 Oct., 14 Nov.; Blair Adam mss, Walsh to Adam, 24 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Wolstenholme to Grenville, 29 Oct. 1806.
  • 9. Fortescue mss, Grenville to C. D. Smith, 27 Oct., Darnley to Grenville, 27 Oct., Nicholson to same, 28 Oct. [1806]; O’Bryen to Howick, 16 Jan. 1807; Ipswich Jnl. 1 Nov.; E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of Lincoln, 18 Nov. 1806.
  • 10. Morning Chron. 29 Oct.; Morning Post, 7 Nov.; The Times, 12 Nov.; Pol. Reg. 15 Nov. 1806, 28 Mar. 1807; Truth Unmasked (Rochester 1806); Critical observations on Sir Sidney Smith (1807); Fortescue mss, O’Bryen to Howick, 16 Jan.; Grey mss, same to same, 21 Feb. 1807; CJ, lxii. 28, 192.
  • 11. Kentish Chron. 8 May 1807; The Poll for Rochester (1807).
  • 12. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, Sat. [3 Oct.]; Add. 51585, Tierney to Lady Holland, 3 Oct.; Morning Chron. 2, 5, 21 Oct. 1812.
  • 13. Morning Chron. 29 June 1816, 8 Mar. 1817; CJ, lxxi. 525; lxxii. 14, III.
  • 14. Morning Chron. 6, 12 June 1818; CJ, lxxiv. 60, 228; Calcraft, To the worthy and independent freemen of Rochester, 5 May 1819.