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 80


(1801): 2,503


30 May 1796CHARLES GEORGE PERCEVAL, Baron Arden [I]50
 George William Richard Harcourt15
27 Feb. 1801 ARDEN re-elected after appointment to office 
6 July 1801 WILLIAM ADAMS vice Seymour, vacated his seat 
14 Dec. 1804 VICARY GIBBS vice Burland, deceased 
8 Feb. 1805 GIBBS re-elected after appointment to office 
23 Oct. 1811 THOMAS PEREGRINE COURTENAY vice Adams, deceased 
 John Proctor Anderdon29
 George Francis Seymour22

Main Article

Electoral influence was exercised at Totnes through the corporation, which had the power of creating freemen. A large municipal debt, which became increasingly unmanageable during the 18th century, was an important factor in ensuring the corporation’s subservience to beneficent patrons, either men of their own number or neighbouring landowners.1 The electorate declined in size during this period: 63 voted in 1812 and the same number were listed as voters in 1826, when less than half of them were residents.2 Totnes was theoretically open. Government listed it as such in 1788, 1790 and 1795; a local observer commented in 1817 that ‘no person has any commanding interest, and money will not carry it’; and in the House, 9 Mar. 1831, one of the sitting Members, protesting about the proposal to deprive it of one seat under the reform bill, claimed with due exaggeration that it was ‘as open as Westminster’.3 In practice, at least one seat was under stable control from 1768 to 1832; and of the two contested elections between 1790 and 1820 only that of 1812 represented a serious conflict between competing interests. There was no obvious sign of the blatant financial corruption for which Totnes became notorious later in the 19th century.

The strongest single interest in 1790 belonged to Harry Powlett, 6th Duke of Bolton, who had property in the parish and had returned at least one Member at each election since 1768. In 1784 he divided the representation with Judge Francis Buller, whose influence derived from the Yarde estates at Churston Ferrers, about five miles from Totnes, which had come to him by his marriage. The same arrangement held in 1790, when Bolton nominated his second cousin’s son, William Powlett Powlett, a Hampshire landowner, and Buller his only surviving son, who had come of age in 1788. There was no opposition, though one of the corporators, Francis Epworth, a retired naval officer, who claimed to be ‘connected with another alderman and a considerable body of freemen’, approached government with an offer to support a ministerialist against the Whig Powlett. One Wombwell (possibly John Wombwell, a Spanish merchant) was mentioned as a prospective candidate, but he did not appear.4

Buller Yarde announced his intention of retiring at the dissolution as early as November 1793, while Powlett’s opposition politics were evidently unpopular with a number of his constituents. In 1794 John Petrie*, a wealthy Scottish nabob, showed an interest in standing for Totnes at the next election, but failed to secure a decisive answer from Pitt to his requests for ministerial backing.5 On Bolton’s death without male issue later in the year his dukedom became extinct, but his widow Katherine (his second wife) continued to exercise the family interest at Totnes. In September 1795 the wife of James Hawkins Whitshed, son of the Bishop of Raphoe and a serving naval captain, sought the Home secretary’s intervention with the Duchess of Bolton on behalf of her husband:

from the peculiar circumstances under which ... Totnes is at this moment respecting its Members, one having declined, and the other being positively refused by the corporation and freemen, Captain Hawkins Whitshed, knowing some of the people of the greatest interest there, made application to them and he finds that he should not have the smallest difficulty could the Duchess of Bolton he persuaded to name him, as the people to whom ... [he] applied had it seems promised to support her Grace’s nomination of any other person except Mr Powlett. At present her choice is not made and I understand she has not any relation with whom it could interfere.

Portland’s reply was summarized thus: ‘No pretence to apply to the Dss of B., represent the exception to be taken by her to Mr W.’s conduct, and suppose she may have a particular person in view for it’.6

At the general election of 1796 she duly discarded Powlett and put up Lord Arden, a lord of the Admiralty, presumably at the recommendation of government. The Buller interest evidently lapsed with the retirement of Judge Buller’s feeble son, and in his place stood Lord George Seymour, youngest brother of Francis Seymour Conway*, 2nd Marquess of Hertford, whose interest at Totnes probably derived from the nearby property at Berry Pomeroy of his second cousin (of the half-blood) once removed, Edward Adolphus Seymour, 11th Duke of Somerset. The Seymour interest had fallen into neglect since the early 18th century and Somerset, something of a recluse, did not interfere in Totnes politics until after 1832.7 It must be assumed that Hertford was acting in some manner as proxy for him. An unforeseen contest occurred when Col. George William Richard Harcourt*, the King’s godson, stood as ‘an independent individual, called forth by a great majority of the most respectable part of the electors’. Writing to Pitt, 22 May, his mother claimed that he had been

upwards of a twelvemonth since strongly invited to offer himself ... which he accepted of—to oppose anti-ministerial interest. He was enjoined to the most absolute secrecy ... From this mistaken circumstance, it now appears that three persons in the interest of government are opposing each other.

Their pleas for government either to accommodate one of the other candidates at Honiton or to allow Harcourt to stand in harness with Arden were unavailing, and matters went to a poll in which Harcourt came a poor third.8

In 1798 the Duchess of Bolton and Hertford donated £600 each towards the municipal debt, which was substantially increased by the cost of repairs to the parish church after it was struck by lightning the following year. When Seymour vacated his seat in 1801 William Adams, a native of Totnes and three times mayor, who had bought the nearby Bowden property with money acquired in trade and had been active on behalf of Harcourt in the 1796 general election, stood and was returned unopposed. With the support of his kinsmen the Bentalls, local bankers, and the Marshalls, another family prominent in Totnes affairs, he built up an interest which secured his own unopposed return at the next three general elections and endured for 21 years after his death. In 1807, when he became recorder of Totnes, he gave £500 to the town (the Duchess of Bolton gave £1,000) and his relatives and friends were well rewarded with patronage.9

The man returned with Adams in 1802, John Berkeley Burland, was an Addingtonian, whose property lay in Somerset and Dorset. He seems to have come in nominally on the Bolton interest, but probably owed his introduction at Totnes to Hertford, his second cousin. (He also stood in the same relationship to Somerset as did Hertford.) On his sudden death in 1804 the duchess asked her kinsman William Lowther, who had succeeded her brother James as Viscount Lowther in 1802, to recommend a candidate. Lowther in turn wrote to Pitt suggesting his niece’s husband George, Viscount Villiers, son of the 4th Earl of Jersey, provided the premier had no one else in view. Pitt had, and took the opportunity of recommending Vicary Gibbs, a prospective solicitor-general. There was a threat of opposition from ‘a candidate on a new interest’, but it came to nothing.10 The Bolton nominee in 1806, when Gibbs was in opposition to the government of the day, and again in 1807, was Benjamin Hall, a Welsh industrialist, who was recommended by Grenvillite understrappers and provided with £4,200 of his father-in-law’s money to spend on his election.11

On the death of the Duchess of Bolton in 1809 the Powlett property at Totnes went to her maternal grandson William John Frederick Vane*, second son of William Henry Vane*, 3rd Earl of Darlington, who had sat for Totnes on the Bolton interest from 1788 to 1790. As Vane was not due to come of age until 1813, uncertainty surrounded the future of the Totnes interest. In July 1809 his father claimed to be able to offer ‘much helpful information’ if his friend the Prince of Wales wished to nominate a candidate at the next election,12 but the Darlington interest as such was not effectively asserted until the 1820s. For the rest of this period it seems to have been in the hands of the Bolton steward and agent George Farwell, who continued to manage the property. Farwell was also town clerk of Totnes and members of his family were in partnership with the Bentalls in the local bank. By August 1811 Adams had decided to retire at the dissolution and to recommend as his successor Thomas Peregrine Courtenay, brother-in-law of his elder son William Dacres Adams. On 26 Aug. the latter, who had been private secretary to Pitt and Portland during their recent ministries and was now a commissioner of woods and forests, wrote to Courtenay:

There have been meetings at Totnes of the aldermen, where the coalition seems to go on very smoothly, and it has been notified that my father is prepared to name a gentleman whom he would wish to see elected ... Lords B. and H. are ready with their friend ... The freemen are working hard to promote their own views but I think they will only make our success the more palatable by adding a little to its difficulty.

‘Lords B. and H.’ cannot be identified with absolute certainty, but it seems most likely that they were the eldest sons of the 6th Duke of Bolton’s two married daughters and coheirs, namely Henry Vane, Viscount Barnard*, Darlington’s first son (who was to sit for Totnes 1826-30), and his first cousin (of the half-blood) George John Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke*, son and heir of the 5th Earl of Sandwich by Lady Mary Powlett, Bolton’s daughter by his first marriage. Adams referred to Hinchingbrooke by name later in this letter, and in one of 28 Aug. told Courtenay that he was to ‘meet Lord Hinchingbrooke at dinner today at George Farwell’s’ and had been ‘receiving my instructions as to what I am to say to him’.13 As it happened, Adams senior died the following month and Courtenay, who was to sit for Totnes for the next 21 years, quietly replaced him.

The projected coalition between the Adams and Darlington interests evidently came to nothing, perhaps because Darlington remained faithful to the Whigs when the Regent finally abandoned them in 1812. At the general election Courtenay stood again on the Adams-Bentall-Marshall interest in harness with Ayshford Wise, a distant relative of William Dacres Adams and a partner of the Bentalls and Farwells in the Totnes Bank, founded by his father, who had been recorder of Totnes 1779-1807. They were opposed by John Proctor Anderdon, a West India merchant and business partner of William Manning*, and George Francis Seymour, Hertford’s nephew, a late substitute for his uncle Lord Robert Seymour*, who had the previous year announced his intention of giving up his seat for Carmarthenshire and contesting Totnes, but changed his mind when his electoral difficulties in Wales were overcome. Courtenay’s second votes gave Wise a narrow victory over Anderdon, who was supported by the Farwells and their allies the Taylors and Mitchells, though he shared two votes with Courtenay. Seymour received 21 second votes from Anderdon’s supporters and one from Adams’s kinsman Capt. Richard Dacres, who also voted for Courtenay.14

On 20 Oct. 1817 Edward Lee, an Irishman who had bought property in Devon after leaving the House in 1806, told his friend Lord Sidmouth that he intended to stand for Totnes, by invitation, at the next general election. He claimed that Wise, who had come in ‘by chance’ last time, had no hope of success and requested a ministerial approach to William Dacres Adams to secure him Courtenay’s second votes on a reciprocal basis.15 Nothing came of this and in 1818 Courtenay was returned unopposed with William Holmes, government dogsbody and treasurer of the Ordnance. Holmes may have been introduced by Hertford, as a friend of his eldest son Lord Yarmouth, but he almost certainly owed his election to the Farwells. At the same election he arranged the return for Sligo of John Bent, who replaced him at Totnes on the Farwell interest in 1820. Thomas H. Bent, possibly John’s brother, was a non-resident freeman of Totnes who had voted for Anderdon and Seymour in 1812 and was to become an alderman in 1825; and Elizabeth Bent, perhaps a sister, was married to George Farwell’s brother Christopher, a leading member of the corporation.16

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PP (1835), xxiii. 641-5; P. Russell, Totnes, 76.
  • 2. Totnes Poll (1812); Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 304; Add. 43507, f. 51.
  • 3. Sidmouth mss, Lee to Sidmouth, 20 Oct. 1817; Parl. Deb. (ser. 3), iii. 298.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/133, f. 55.
  • 5. PRO 30/8/114, f. 311; SRO GD51/1/200/1, 2.
  • 6. Portland mss PwF9321.
  • 7. Farington, v. 275.
  • 8. SRO GD51/1/200/17; PRO 30/8/177, f. 239.
  • 9. Harcourt Pprs. vi. 52; Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxvi (1904), 504-5; xxxvii (1905), 398; Russell, 83; PP (1835), xxiii. 643.
  • 10. Lonsdale mss, Rose to Lowther, 15, 26 Nov., Duchess of Bolton to same, 15 Nov. 1804; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 5/108, 113; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2005.
  • 11. NLW mss 2873, Crawshay to Hall, 18 Oct. 1806; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 190.
  • 12. Prince of Wales Corresp. vi. 2582.
  • 13. Dacres Adams mss 11/38-39.
  • 14. Add. 34458, f. 291; Dacres Adams mss 11/40; Totnes Poll (1812).
  • 15. Sidmouth mss.
  • 16. Add. 40210, f. 334; PP (1835), xxiii. 641; (1867), xxix. 53-54.