Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 5,000


10 Jan. 1795 HENRY PENRUDDOCKE WYNDHAM vice Tylney Long, deceased 
24 June 1818PAUL METHUEN2822
 John Benett1572
19 July 1819 JOHN BENETT vice Methuen, vacated his seat2436
 John Dugdale Astley2270

Main Article

Apart from a by-election contest in 1772, the peace of Wiltshire was not disturbed between 1715 and 1818. On a vacancy, the leading gentry families chose one of their number to represent them at a meeting of the Deptford and Beckhampton Clubs and he was duly adopted at the county meeting. The county aristocracy, confined to borough influence, were reduced to the role of Greek gods. By 1806 there were signs that the freeholders were not happy with this state of affairs, and according to the future radical stalwart Henry Hunt of Chisenbury he had publicly quizzed the Members on their conduct:

Poor old Goddard mumbled out that he had represented the county for forty years and had never before had any question put to him. A profound silence now pervaded the hall, and I proceeded as follows—Mr Goddard, I wish to ascertain how you gave your vote in the House of Commons when the bill was brought in imposing a duty of two shillings per bushel on malt? Wiltshire is a very considerable barley county and many of your constituents are large barley growers, whose interests are seriously affected by this measure, which will take a very great sum of money annually out of their pockets. How did you give your vote on that occasion? Mr Goddard hesitated, and stammered out, in a very feeble voice, ‘I have been incapacitated by old age and ill-health from attending my duty in Parliament for the last two years, I have never been in the House during that time, and I fear I shall never be able to attend again’. I next turned round and addressed Mr Wyndham, the other candidate, as follows. Well, Mr Wyndham, as your colleague was incapacitated by old age from attending at all in the House, how did you vote upon this important measure, which so materially affects the interests of your constituents? Mr Wyndham, placing his finger upon his right temple, as if to recollect himself, pertly and affectedly replied, ‘Pon my honour, Mr Hunt, I cannot charge my memory whether I was in the House or not on that occasion’. I urged that all the Members for all the other barley counties in the kingdom—Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Hampshire, etc. had opposed the measure with all their power and influence. I received the thanks of many of the freeholders privately; but the poor sycophants did not dare to show their approbation publicly.1

Goddard retired and Richard Long, though not a favourite of the club junto, who could not agree, was chosen to succeed him, ‘without any qualification to be a Member of Parliament than that of belonging to an ancient family of the county’. Henry Hunt again led the opposition: his Address to the independent freeholders of the county of Wiltshire (30 Oct. 1806) refused by the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, was published in the Bath Journal and in Cobbett’s Political Register: in it Hunt advised the freeholders not to be influenced by ‘the fear of Mr Long and Mr Short’. But this came to nothing. On 17 May 1809 a county meeting requisitioned by Hunt at Salisbury resolved that the Members had ‘proved themselves undeserving the confidence of their constituents and of the future support of the county’.2

Wyndham was expected to retire at the next dissolution and there were several contenders for his seat. In 1807 his nephew John Hungerford Penruddocke of Compton Chamberlayne and his friend Thomas Grimston Estcourt* had admitted to each other that they were ambitious of the honour, but the former was inhibited from publicizing it while his uncle held the seat, and the latter by the supposition that the next vacancy would be filled by a representative of the populous northern part of the county, a notion his father decried.3 While Penruddocke was expected to come forward in place of his uncle, and Lord Radnor was thought to be sponsoring another candidate, possibly even one of his sons, the initiative passed to Paul Methuen of Corsham, whose father had been mentioned by Ambrose Goddard in 1796 as his possible successor and who was ambitious for him to succeed. Late in 1811 he canvassed privately, and by January 1812 his aim was known and approved by many of the leading interests. In his address, 28 Feb., he insisted that he was unconnected with party, espoused moderate views and openly scouted club rule. This went down well, and Methuen had come to terms with the other sitting Member Long, so Penruddocke, the club favourite, declined in March and no other contender appeared, though William Wyndham (of Dinton) and Estcourt had been mentioned. Ridiculing the opposition, Methuen’s kinsman Sir John Methuen Poore had written to him, 20 Jan. 1812:

I understand it is said that one of the Members should be a North, the other a South Wiltshire gentleman, and to bring a certain gentleman into the limit of North Wiltshire his party has made the Bath Road from Hungerford through Devizes the boundary; by this division you certainly will meet their wishes.4

On 20 Feb. 1818 Richard Long announced his retirement for health reasons; and on 23 Feb. John Benett of Pythouse, a leader of the agricultural interest, offered. Lord Malmesbury wrote to his son:

he is in every light a very unfit [person] for the situation—a democrat, a suppressor of tithes, and a supporter of the Catholic question—I wish Penruddocke or Wadham Wyndham would come forward, or Estcourt, who bears a very respectable character.5

But of these men, Wadham Wyndham was involved at Salisbury, while Penruddocke was no longer interested. At any rate, the third candidate who offered in 1818, William Long Wellesley, stated that he had written to Penruddocke, though not to Estcourt, and offered to withdraw in his favour, but the offer had not been taken up. Nothing came of another proposed candidature, that of the Whig, Robert Gordon* of Kemble.6

Long Wellesley had married the heiress of Sir James Tylney Long, the former county Member, and in his address, 25 Feb. 1818, stated, ‘I am governed not so much by any political motives, as by the ambition of restoring to the house of Draycot an honour which has been so frequently conferred upon various branches of that ancient Wiltshire family’. The contest was between Long Wellesley and Benett, since Methuen, despite criticism of him for unsteadiness and partiality to opposition in Parliament, was considered safe and refused coalition with either of the others, who vied for his second votes. In the course of a scurrilous campaign in the local press, Long Wellesley was labelled a stranger, an adventurer, extravagant and dissipated in private and unsuitable for public life due to his diplomatic conduct at Constantinople and his having sat hitherto for a Cornish borough as a ministerial tool: he was the son of a cabinet minister and heir to an Irish peerage and, as such, unfit to represent Wiltshire. In reply to these charges, Long Wellesley insisted that he was an Englishman born and bred, proud of his family’s services to the state, who intended to reside in the county: he blatantly denied the other charges and insisted that he was independent and had no countenance from government. Benett’s friends boosted him as a Wiltshire man born and bred and of stolid virtues; an active magistrate and yeomanry officer, an agricultural improver and an independent man, who had encouraged Paul Methuen in 1812 to flout the club rule. His opponents had it that Benett was a local nobody, whose views were self-interested, whose record as a landlord could be impugned and whose religious beliefs were open to question; they felt that he lacked the means—since he was helped by subscription—to be an independent Member of Parliament and that he was supported by a ‘notorious quorum’ of magistrates who were just another manifestation of club rule. The ‘Old Moon Raker’, one of the pamphleteers for Benett, on the other hand, compared Benett’s contest with that of Ambrose Goddard in 1772, for the independence of the county against a dynastic and aristocratic system. An attempt to avert a contest by getting Richard Long to resign his seat in April failed, through the fear that it would provoke two contests instead of one.7 An attempt by Fulwar Craven of Chilton House, who had refused to offer himself for the county at the invitation of William Hallett the radical politician, to bring Benett and Methuen together on a radical platform was rebuffed by both candidates in May. ‘A Friend to Peace and Goodwill’ regretted that the candidates could not save themselves the expense of at least £20,000 each by submitting themselves to a county meeting: on the eve of nomination, Long Wellesley offered to negotiate with Benett, but nothing came of this.

There were unruly scenes at Devizes, where moral support was provided for Benett by the ‘Hindon cavalry’ and for Long Wellesley by the ‘ministerial mob’; the latter hissed Benett down then, and subsequently at the hustings, where he made a bad impression, until he conceded victory after eight days, complaining of desertion. The votes of 3,736 freeholders included 1,547 for Methuen and Wellesley, 1,074 for Methuen and Benett and 46 for Wellesley and Benett. Benett received 452 plumpers, Wellesley 416 and Methuen 201. Lord Lansdowne informed Lord Holland, 6 July 1818:

The election here has terminated contrary to my expectation. Wellesley Pole (fool as he passes for) has shown himself as great a canvasser as his uncle is a general, and without ever having given what Stanhope would have called a vote for the people, contrived to persuade the people of Wiltshire who are not wiser than the people anywhere else that he was quite their man, and that his opponent who has I believe ruined himself by generosity and hospitality, was a bloodsucker. As to politics it was very indifferent which succeeded and Methuen’s triumph has been all that he could desire.

Arthur Meyrick of Ramsbury reported:

Benett had got all the promises at Ramsbury and then came Wellesley Pole and gave 130 gallons of punch and got all but one or two I believe. They objected to Benett writing for the corn bill and chose to think nothing of Pole voting for it. A great many thought they might vote for all three members. One old fellow at Ramsbury thought they wanted to make him a parliament man and declined. The ignorance here is extraordinary.8

Methuen reported that Long Wellesley had borrowed £32,000 at 16 per cent to cover his expenses, and as for Benett, ‘there is nothing he will not say or do’; but he expected that Benett would be opposed at the next vacancy by John Dugdale Astley of Everley, whose family had acquired their Wiltshire property as recently as 1764. While Methuen at this time denied rumours of his retirement, he announced it, on grounds of ill health, in July 1819 and the contest he had predicted came about: according to Benett’s friends’ election song, ‘The sale of the county’, Methuen, being hard up, accepted £20,000 from Astley for the county seat. What Benett actually alleged was that Astley had seen Methuen before the latter retired, and the inference was obvious: in his second address of 7 July, Astley having advertised on the 5th, Benett reproached his erstwhile supporter for deserting him. Astley in reply, 10 July, denied that he was engaged to support Benett this time and pointed out that the county seat had been his ambition for some years, but that he had previously lacked the independent means he thought advisable. On the same day, Methuen and Astley issued a joint statement that there was no preconcerted arrangement between them. Astley had later to concede that he knew of Methuen’s impending retirement, but claimed that he took no advantage of it. He nevertheless received most of his support from voters for Methuen and Long Wellesley in 1818 and was accused of treating the county like a borough, of desertion and of being hostile to dissenters, which he denied. An observer remarked, 8 July 1819:

There has been much manoeuvring it is said on the part of Mr Astley and much complaint against it on the side of Benett’s friends. And the notion that Benett has not been well used has turned the popular opinion here in his favour. A year ago no partisan of his could appear in the streets without being pelted, and this very morning we were received with the cry of Benett for ever. What a precious thing popularity is!9

Despite this, the show of hands favoured Astley at the nomination meeting at Devizes, and he was further blessed with the support of ‘Orator’ Hunt, which he repudiated. After a 15-day contest, in which the lead fluctuated, Benett narrowly defeated Astley, winning what he termed ‘a struggle against the combined influence of peers, and other powerful families of the county’. Riotous scenes ensued on Wilton Down.10 Lady Holland, whose husband, like Lord Lansdowne, favoured Benett as ‘a friend to religious liberty’ reported ‘the people are angry with Ld. Folkestone for supporting Astley’. She also alleged that Astley relied on support from the clothiers, which was true as three of the eight polling booths in which he was superior covered Bradford, Melksham, Chippenham, Malmesbury and Marlborough.

Neither of the candidates are popular ... The expense of the contest will ruin both parties as they are merely country gentlemen of very moderate fortunes, and the whole of Benett’s income is not sufficient to pay the interest of the debt he incurred in the last election.

She subsequently amended this to ‘Astley has £100,000 in ready money and a good landed estate, Benett is a pauper’. In the event Astley came in with Benett in 1820, as Long Wellesley could ill afford another contest.11 Methuen alleged that Astley had spent £43,000, Benett £18,000 in 1818 and £35,000 in 1819 (£8,000 being subscribed for him). From the radical point of view, Wiltshire was ‘incorrigible—no understanding of politics whatever—mere county politics absorb the little soul they have’.12

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Hunt, Mems. ii. 218.
  • 2. Ibid. ii. 174, 222, 364; Kaleidoscopiana Wiltoniensia (1818), 64; Methuen mss, Sir J. Methuen Poore to Methuen, 7 Jan. 1812; Pol. Reg. 15 Nov. 1806.
  • 3. Glos. RO, Sotheron Estcourt mss D1571, Estcourt to Penruddocke, 20 Feb., reply 22 Feb., T. to T. G. Estcourt, 28 Feb. 1807.
  • 4. Ailesbury mss, Ailesbury diary, 19 Apr. 1796; Berks. RO, Pleydell Bouverie mss 028/169; Methuen mss, Methuen Poore to Methuen, 3, 7, 20 Jan., 29 Feb., Radnor to same, 27 Feb., Goddard to same, 13 Mar., Joshua Smith to same, 30 Mar.; Morning Chron. 4 Mar. 1812.
  • 5. Kaleidoscopiana; VCH Wilts. v. 204-10; Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 26 Feb. 1818.
  • 6. Kaleidoscopiana, 139; Add. 47235, ff. 4, 5.
  • 7. Methuen mss, Mrs Benett to Methuen, 27 Mar.; Everett to same, n.d.; Ludlow to same, 4 Apr., Long to same, 13 Apr. 1818.
  • 8. Add. 47235, f. 37; 51686, Lansdowne to Holland, 6 July 1818.
  • 9. Pleydell Bouverie mss 028/169; Wilts. RO, Benett mss 413/484; Salisbury Jnl. 5, 12, 19, 26 July, 2 Aug.; Carlisle mss, M. Marsh to Morpeth, 8 July 1819.
  • 10. Salisbury Jnl. 9 Aug.; Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 19 July 1819.
  • 11. Add. 52172, Lady Holland to Allen, Wed. [14 July], Tues. [20 July], Wed. [21 July], [23, 25 July 1819]; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, ii. 345; Long Wellesley’s address, 6 Mar. 1820.
  • 12. Add. 56540, ff. 108, 113.